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Artists' sketchbooks

SKETCHBOOKS provide no end of fascination for anyone who wonders what goes on in an artist's mind. For the artist himself, sketching is a way of thinking. Like the writer who may say, ``How do I know what I'm going to write until I've done it?'' - meaning that his piece unfolds or develops or finds its theme as he works on it, having started from some stimulus to action - the artist may discover what he is doing or how he is going to do something by drawing.

Maybe he doodles to start with. Maybe he sees something that virtually says to him, ``Draw me!'' and that he could later use as an item on file or that suggests further development into a painting or sculpture or whatever. Maybe he is just trying out various ways of rendering something to see which works best.

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American sculptor David Smith called drawing ``a history of knowing.'' He said, ``I draw a lot to increase my mind or my vision, but when I work I try to let the work make its own vision while I keep a history of knowing behind it.'' He went on to say, ``Drawing is the most direct, closest to the true self, the most natural liberation of man - and if I may guess back to the action of the very early man, it may have been the first celebration of man with his secret self - even before song ... drawings remain the life force of the artist.''

From the paleolithic skywatcher, who incised the phases of the moon in a sinuous pattern on a handy bone, to Picasso, who explored his own mentality in his cahiers, we have a history of knowing.

We find it on flakes of limestone Egyptian tomb painters used to work out their designs before painting on the walls. Or on fragments of pottery used by Greek vase-painters for preliminary figure sketching. Archaeologists have uncovered plaster-drawing floors in English cathedrals on which medieval masons drew their construction plans, making corrections on plaster ``floated'' over the original surface. Travelers' notebooks for centuries have recorded the world away from home.

To later generations these drawings reveal as much about the artists as about what they encountered or did and what they selected to record. How they portrayed something may indicate their cultural biases, their blind spots, their preconceived notions, and the acuteness of their perception, as well as their ability to render a scene, person, or object, or to work out a concept.

Perhaps the most famous sketchbooks in the Western world are Leonardo da Vinci's. Visual thinker and analyzer par excellence, he recorded as an artist the mental activity of a scientist and engineer. In the Orient, Hokusai recorded his world so delightfully that his sketchbooks, or ``Manga,'' were best sellers in Japan.

But often drawing is just a matter of keeping one's hand in while other activities command most of one's attention. In his sketchbook, the American painter David Park blocked out figures in light and dark areas with a brush while he taught life drawing classes. John Graham, a Russian painter who became an American, doodled in his appointment book while he acted as agent for art collectors.

Others have time only to put down a split-second few lines. That means working without even stopping to think, responding directly to the fleeting vision before the landscape changes or the object of interest disappears.

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Hokusai says it for all in the postlude to a book of sketches he wrote when he was 75: ``From the age of six I had a mania for drawing the form of things. By the time I was 50 I had published an infinity of designs; but all I had produced before the age of 70 is not worth taking into account. At 73 I learned a little about the real structure of nature, of animals, plants, trees, birds, fishes, and insects. In consequence, when I am 80 I shall have made still more progress; at 90 I shall penetrate the mystery of things; at 100 I shall certainly have reached a marvelous stage; and when I am 110 everything I do, be it dot or line, will be alive. I beg those who live as long as I to see if I do not keep my word.''

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