by Greg Ruth
When you make art for a living, the act of making art can and does become at times, drudgery. I found myself waking up Monday mornings groaning as anyone would going to work, (ridiculous as that sounds). One of the most diabolical side effects of achieving the rare feat of working as a professional artist, will inevitably have to contend with wrestling with the encroaching ground of work and money and other compromises that will encroach into your once verdant and isolated landscape. It's just going to happen and I have found instead of trying to fight off the hurricane, it's better and more effective to learn to surf it. One of my favorite means by which I do this surfing is The 52 Weeks Project- which is basically publicly committing to making a new drawing each and every monday. Sort of the art equivalent of eating dessert before the meal.
As is per usual of the very broad scope that is the cornucopia of The 52 Weeks Project, this is anti-assignment, anti-work. It's the one protected sandbox of pure play, and as I have become more and more familiar with my new graphite drawings, I thought it a perfect time to really push them to see what they can do, and what they cannot. Typically these weekly drawings have been executed in sumi ink- which makes perfect sense. It's quick free and gestural. Getting the graphite to not gobble the whole day up (there's a point when one does actually have to get back to work), has been tricky to try and discover. this series is an attempt to do so.
As always I am a HUGE fan of portraiture. There's something about the task reduced to a human face that is forever compelling and captivating to me as a drafstman. It's a drawing that looks back at you, and so much of where the character lies, is in not just the usual areas of eyes and mouth, but everywhere throughout the face, the garb, the way the subject holds his or herself... I've had an ongoing fascination with old coal miner photos, and especially the through line they all share. That same sooty face, that same determined focus in their eyes. Throughout the whole of photo-documented miners, they all seem, no matter what country they're from, to possess a common gaze, look and feel. They are of a people together and represent the frontline of our relationship with this heating/energy/fuel source of ours since the ancient Greeks first began to record its effect and its potential. Coal has shaped our world, driven our societies, and stood invisibly behind nearly every major epoch in human history from the advent of the iron age, through the locomotive and today's sophisticated electrical grid. it as a rock made from decomposition, and its exploitation has given rise to empires and now threatens to alter the very environmental structure of our planet. From Asia to Europe, to our Americas and over to India, Africa and the Middle East, Coal has dominated and permeated itself into nearly every human society on earth. Rich and fertile ground for exploring it in an apolitical anthropological way, and I can think of now better locus point around which to learn more than through the faces and hands of those who burrow deep and pluck it from the heart of the earth.
So here's the tools of the trade. I tend to begin with the lightest underdrawing using the Staedtler all-graphiter HB, and then progress towards the final Blackwing Palomino for the darkest and most detailed bits. Basically erasing and smudging maniacally with my thumb along the way.
Here's the very first portrait, which when it was done grabbed me by the top of my head and utterly against my will dragged me into this project. I had intended instead to spend a few weeks exploring the images of Weeping Maidens, but instead this fellow came in and overturned the tables. It took around an hour to execute- more than twice as long as a typical 52 Weeks style image- but there was simply something undeniable about him, and about the potential of this series.
For the second piece, I decided to go back a bit and focus on the 1800's area and England specifically. In a given coal family it was entirely typical to find every male generation working the mines alongside each other. The process of going in and coming out after a day inside the sleeve seemed to beg trying to do something a little different this time. Instead of going in with a full on attended coal-face I wanted to draw the piece clean at first and apply the soot as part of the finishing of the drawing. The technical aspects aside the thing that struck me the most was how it ages this fellow.
And finally to the end. I felt like I had taken it a bit over far with the soot and dialed back a bit here. One of the really wonderful aspects of working with these graphite pencils is their ability to erase and reapply. a bit like paint in this way as you can see below.
As an artist, it's a chance to explore the idea of a face, the smudges and smears that both hide and mask it but also define and carve it into what it is. It is the leftover of interacting with it. Dark and filthy and sooty as a moonless night. A perfect arena to take the graphite pencils out for a good and long term spin.
First rough underdrawing.
So. First up is the basic underdrawing. I tend to take the Staedtler allXwrite HB out for a spin for this one. A very light and dense all graphite pencil that let's me block out all the basic forms and shapes and areas of shadow I have in mind. The rough nature of its application, and the texture of the paper are perfect for this subject as you can see, like smears of charcoal, rough and filthy.
Next up is the furthering of the basic light and dark work. My thoughts for these drawings are to keep the darkest and most intensely drafted areas around where the coal is, the face and the eyes and to let the rest fade into a foggy light around the subject.
Finally, this Bolivian fellow is complete. One of the aspects that has come from these unique to portraiture and essential to these is how they look back at you. We are afforded a special permission to stare when it comes to portraiture we don't get to exercise with real live everyday folk. The relationship is therefor deeply intimate and I have found the more sharp and real and reflective a portrait is the longer and more worthwhile it is to stare at one. There's a world and a day in the face of a man or woman and so much in the faces of these people who dig deep into the bowels of the earth and pull out the pressurized decay that has fueled and continue to fuels the path of our entire civilization.
While it takes far longer by centuries to generate coal, our use of it outstrips its production by a longshot. Even so, according to recent estimates, there is enough coal in the earth presently to attend to our needs for 300 more years before it runs out. Regardless of what it does to us, to our environment and all the rest, its highs and lows, coal is not going anywhere. not anytime soon, and that means more and more generations of miner to pull it from the earth. And perhaps a few more portraits of them to keep the company.