Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Second best use of a dollar

How to build a dog a la Lorence Bjorklund.
Looks easy. 'Tain't.
Lorence Bjorklund and I go way back, more than 40 years. Pity I hadn't bothered to learn his name until last week.

Doubtful he'd have minded. I've been far more interested in his illustrations, which fill the book "The Art of Drawing Animals" my mom bought me for a dollar when I was seven or eight.

Copyright 1965 from The Grumbacher Library, one of a myriad how-to books you'd find in a Woolworth's or Sprouse-Reitz or Rexall, in towns lacking art supply stores.

"Drawing Animals" is the faithful companion to all my artistic endeavors. It's always in reach, somehow easily rediscovered despite the tectonic shifts of my workspace.

Though well-loved and used, it's in good shape, a keepsake for my children to fight over. Weird, what we'd pass down the generations.

Within its pages are dozens of Bjorklund's drawings — of horses in every possible pose and mood, and cats (tabbies and tigers and mountain lions) and dogs and elephants and zebras and monkeys and bears and cows and a warthog.

All pencil or brush-and-ink or fountain pen or charcoal. All lively and made with a knowing hand.

And all wrong, wrong, wrong, WRONG!

Or so I thought.

The way to draw — and I knew, because I was eight, the Age of Perfection! — was to start your pencil in one place, then draw around the outside of all the curves and squiggles of whatever you were looking at, until your pencil came 'round again to the start.

Then, like a primitive cartographer, you'd fill in the details by triangulating the odd knobs and jags of your outline, until you'd put an eye or stripe or button — or whatever — in approximately the right place. Sometimes — OK, rarely — the result matched your wishes.

But all these circles and ovals and lines draw within the shape, the way Bjorklund drew?! Just nonsense! And eight-year-olds are nothing if not drawing perfectionists. Circles and lines and squares would just make your perfect drawing a perfect mess. And messes lead to discouragement, which leads to "I quit!"

This is the attitude and approach I carried into adulthood, having skipped art classes because I was focused on college prep and art was foolish.

Of course, adulthood made me realize the simple wisdom of Bjorklund's — and really, all illustrators' — approach, and this is how I draw now.

No more cattywhampus guessing! No mere copying! With the sketchy skeleton of circles and squares and strategically placed lines, an illustrator can build just about anything, and modify on the fly.

This is also how I try to teach kids to draw; of course, they politely comply until I leave their class, when they return to the safety and clean perfection of primitive outlining.

To think of all the time lost, the ground I could have gained, if I had taken heed of Bjorklund's advice from the start. Art school may not have seemed such folly.
What? A kite? And now … a coffin?! And somehow you get a horse outta that? Neighhhhh …
Born in Minnesota in 1913, "Larry" Bjorklund — the Internet archives his legacy — attended the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, on a commercial art scholarship and made his career as a pulps artist — a denigrating description for a career of creating copious beautiful illustrations that graced the cornucopia of American magazines in the golden age of print.
I love that Bjorklund's  technique still applied
to the cartoon styles I loved.

Bjorklund made tools in a defense plant during World War II, then settled in upstate New York to resume his career in illustration, in a time when many could, and comfortably.

Mr. Arnold, my high school physics teacher, often said I was born too late. Kindly impish Mr. Arnold didn't mean I didn't fit into the time being — not entirely, anyway — but that I loved and was lost in eras gone by. Drowning as I do now in this sea of social media underpins Mr. Arnold's observation.

What a world that would have been, to draw and draw and draw for magazines — if not this one, then that one, or that one over there, all of them hiring — and raise a family on that.

Yeah, I'm probably romanticizing. Not to mention dismissing the dedication, and hard work toward illustration mastery, and self-promotion. Plentiful as I imagined them to be, these jobs just didn't fall into ink-smudged laps.

Bjorklund's drawings take me to that time that maybe never was. They're magic tricks, executed in slow, deliberate sweeps, and I'd be in his Western memorabilia-strewn studio, big drawing pad in my lap — maybe I could call him Larry — practicing the magic sparking from his pencil.

All that, for a dollar.

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