DATE: 10/4/2010 | BY ANTONIO LóPEZ GARCíA
"I was about to finish my accounting studies in order to find a job in an office or a store in town, but I was becoming increasingly interested in drawing. In June of 1949, though I hadn’t even thought of saying anything to him, my uncle Antonio decided it was time to take me under his wing. He told me that the copies I had been making, that I liked so much, were not what I should be doing, and that I should start drawing from life. At my grandparents’ house, where he lived, in a little kitchen that opened onto a large courtyard, he set against the wall the subject of his latest painting: a small, unvarnished wooden table with scissor legs. The table was partly covered with a white cloth that had a narrow, reddish stripe on the edge, and on top of this was a terracotta cooking pot, a halved onion, and a big, round loaf of bread, marked with a cross and with a portion missing. He gave me a piece of paper from a pad and told me to draw. I sat on a low chair, very close to the subject, and started doing so. With some rough outlines, I easily fit the subject onto the paper. I was surprised by what I was capable of doing.
I eagerly went back every day, using my pencil to carefully describe the table in perspective, the proportions of objects in relation to each other, the material character of each thing. Using chiaroscuro, I drew lines on the paper with my pencil, trying to achieve the volume of the shapes, the roughness of the whitewashed wall, the shadow of the objects on the tabletop, and the grain of the table’s wood. I was surprised to see how the image slowly emerged on the paper, but I was also slightly disappointed in the result; it seemed feeble to me, compared to the copies of the 19th-century paintings that I had been drawing not long before. Every once in a while, my uncle would approach me to make a comment, but he mostly left me alone. When I expressed my doubts, he told me that, despite the modest results of my effort, this was the real way to draw. I worked on the drawing tirelessly for about twenty days and when I felt it was finished,
I took it home and showed it to my parents, feeling that I had achieved little, but that maybe, as my uncle Antonio had said, that little was exactly what it was supposed to be.
About a year before that, I posed as a model for my uncle—during three or four sessions—for a painting of a boy filling a sack of straw on the threshing floor. I had to keep very still in the hot sun. At night, he would take me to an open-air movie theater. Sometimes I would watch him paint or draw. I was curious. I enjoyed watching him draw most of all. He always drew from life, with a pencil, on sheets of paper that were not particularly big. His skill at transferring shapes onto paper was astonishing. I still remember a drawing of an olive tree. The lines moved gracefully across the paper, expressive and harmonious. As the olive tree emerged, those lines moving over the paper hypnotized me. Now I know why: The mystery of the language of drawing had instilled itself in me and I intuitively perceived that energy, that magic spell.
On one occasion, I saw him making charcoal sticks from very slender vine twigs over the kitchen fire. He used one of them to draw a portrait of a smiling young woman, with wavy hair and bright eyes; it was all transferred to the paper with an accuracy and certainty that amazed me. He took neither a long time nor a short time. I could tell he was very focused—but not suffering or unhappy—and even though he left out many details, somehow everything was there. When he finished, he signed it and gave it to his cousin. I think he just enjoyed looking at such a pretty girl and drawing her. When the five- or six-year-old daughter of one of our relatives died, they asked my uncle Antonio to make a drawing of her as a keepsake. For a whole day, he drew her in the casket, concisely and from up close—what a wonderful drawing that was. The drawing disappeared a few years later; apparently someone put it inside the casket of her grandmother and buried it with her. I’ll never forget the expression on the girl’s face. Back then, I used to draw by tracing the outline of shapes using sensitive, energetic lines with the help of sparing and concise chiaroscuro—it seemed the natural way to draw. Much later, when I saw Velázquez’s commanding drawing of Cardinal Borgia, I felt that same sense of the language of drawing that my uncle had felt. He used to say that, when he was working, he forgot about everyone, and it was certainly true—that way of interpreting drawing just sprang from him. In the large family house of my paternal grandparents, my uncle had three rooms. One was his bedroom. I made a drawing of him walking across that room. He kept his works in an interior room painted in light blue, with a light bulb hanging in the center of the ceiling. His paintings were not hung on the walls of the house but were instead stacked in little piles against the wall. In the right back corner, he stored rolled-up paintings and drawings from his days as a student at Madrid’s Escuela de Bellas Artes.
Once I started painting, he began showing them to me: paintings of still-lifes, female nudes, and some male nudes, as well as drawings of statues and nudes. Some of those works are at the Museo de Tomelloso, but the nude drawings—a man in profile leaning on a staff, a nude woman seated with a dark cloth over her legs—were lost at some point. He told me that he had done the drawing of the woman in one of Julio Romero de Torres’ classes. I never got tired of looking at them. They were very different from those that I had watched him draw—these drawings were bigger, but most of all different in technique. The forms were built from shadows and light. There were no dividing lines, no outlines. Miraculously, out of nowhere, appeared shapes and light, a light that creates the same kind of sharp shadows formed by electric spotlights during night classes. I have never seen anything so beautiful. The models seemed to be people from another age with their curls and their garcon haircuts. One of these exercises was a drawing, about three feet high, of the Venus de Milo on a piece of paper that was bright white, and thicker than the paper we used when I was a student, with a rougher, more noticeable grain. The drawing was not completely faithful; the figure was slimmer, with a lighter volume, and she smiled more than the original Venus. But what a marvelous drawing that was! It was a different Venus de Milo, his Venus. All the youth and joy that he must have felt in those days was present in that drawing. His technique was typical of the time: First he would fit the figure on the paper with charcoal, shaking off the excess dust before beginning to build the figure with the full scale of chiaroscuro values. He used a pencil that was greasier and more matte than graphite—what we used to call a composite pencil—which provided more intense darks when needed. It was the drawing technique that was taught at the Escuela de Bellas Artes and passed on to us. This task can be such a mystery.
After a few months practicing drawing statues for my entrance exam to the Escuela de Bellas Artes, I asked my uncle if he could bring the Venus drawing with him on one of his visits to Madrid. I pinned it to the wall in my boarding house room, next to my own drawings. How different it seemed! I would look at my drawings, trying to understand why, but I just couldn’t figure it out. However, the impression that my uncle’s drawing was something of another kind was so strong that I can still remember it. For days, I looked at his drawing and mine, and although mine were good—correct and finely crafted—they seemed inexplicably dull. They just looked empty, while my uncle’s seemed to reach immense heights. The shape’s every edge seemed full of grace, and the light bathing the figure had an inexplicable sonority and beauty. I tried to get to the heart of the enigma, but I never could, although it lay there, in front of me, as an undeniable physical reality. I was fourteen years old, relaxed and happy, but for the first time, I sensed that representing subjects correctly wasn’t enough. So what else was there? And how could I reach it? I didn’t know it at the time, but I had suddenly hit upon the only thing that matters: the ability to express an emotion that you first must feel, which is separate from the skill and the accuracy that allows you to copy the real world. For many years, those early works by my uncle were a source of fascination for me, but they also tormented and unsettled me. I came to feel that their attraction was blocking me, hindering my progress. Little by little, my love for this work and my increasingly stronger links with the real world eased that feeling. For many years now, the works that I’ve admired have only given me pleasure—I need them to live. Now I can see how much my uncle’s work meant to me, how it led me to my own. That unassuming interior room in Tomelloso held the secret, the answer to my doubts. I’ll always remember it as a firm, bright place, and I often return there in my thoughts. In those works, truth and beauty joined a form of originality that only occurs on rare occasions: clean, natural, born out of the deepest sensitivity, and expressed with surprising skill.
While writing these notes, I have been surrounded by reproductions of drawings that
I admire and in which I find inspiration; together they seem to cover much of what the art of drawing can express. I enjoy looking at them, and doing so heartens me. I had intended to comment on them, but in the end I have not been able to do so. I can, however, name them: Leonardo da Vinci’s Portrait of Isabella d’Este; Leonardo da Vinci’s Self-Portrait; Velázquez’s Portrait of Cardinal Gaspar de Borgia; Francisco López Hernández’s Window at Night; Jacques Callot’s Solomon, a Tragedy; Hermenegildo Bustos’ Julia Castillo; Ingres’ The Forestier Family; Giacometti’s The Artist’s Mother; Giacometti’s Georges Braque Dead; Antonio López Torres’ Venus de Milo; Manuel Franquelo’s Interior, and a drawing by a child at age two."
Antonio López García: Drawings
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