Monday, April 11, 2016

Learn To Draw

 Jon Gnagy Introduction 

As a very young kid I was mesmerized by the magic that I knew was all around me. One beloved part of this was a TV show called Learn to Draw, featuring a handsome, bearded guy by the name of Jon Gnagy. This was back in the early 1950's when TV was crude and black and white. But in contrast to any other dimension of the world I was just beginning to learn about, that show seemed absolutely miraculous.

Gnagy functioned as something of a shaman, a man who traveled back and forth between the real, work-a-day world my parents and I lived in and another, magical dimension where people made something called "Art." And like Prometheus bringing the gift of Fire to mankind, Jon Gnagy brought the secrets of  the art of Drawing to me and other kids who were awake, full of energy, and sitting staring at flickering, primitive television sets at 7am on Saturday morning, bowls of Frosted Flakes in our laps, and our imaginations trained on that window to the world that flickered in the corner of the family room.

Importantly, Gnagy was not only from that other world, but he was ready to guide us there, too, if we could just follow his simple instructions. Or so it seemed to me at age 7. In his hands, pencils and bits of charcoal danced a dance of line and form which seemed so clearly to me to be magic. He was an Artist, a sorcerer in a plaid shirt who materialized wonderful things from nothing in front of our startled and appreciative eyes.

Television, itself, the medium that brought Learn to Draw to us was magic; a glowing box of sound and movement and endearing personalities and above all, deeds that stirred the imagination. All at the turn of a dial. What was so entrancing about the Learn to Draw show wasn't just the magic that Jon Gnagy demonstrated each episode, but that in his calm, clear voice he convinced us that it was something we could do, too. He was there to show us, to reveal the secrets, and to make us his co-travelers. WOW!

And this is one of the things I love most about YouTube. Because I'm a Baby Boomer, the first generation to grow up burning its frontal lobe ecstatically with the radiation emitted by that cathode ray tube the we just couldn't get enough of, couldn't tear ourselves away from, many of my important memories are of things I saw on TV. That's a special kind of memory because its something that YouTube, web-carried video on demand can retrieve for you and present exactly as you saw it when the memory was formed.

Watching 'Learn to Draw' again - now, roughly 6 decades after the last time I saw it requires some reflection. I should mention that in my own life, although I've been pulled in many directions since, my first career commitment was to being and artist.  After some fleeting, minor successes in the world of art galleries, I settled into teaching Art and specialized at teaching Drawing, myself, in NYC public schools. I became rather accomplished at the craft of Drawing and continued to study it over the years at that venerable institution, The Art Students League in Manhattan.

What do I see now when I watch Jon Gnagy and his Learn to Draw show? Well, my nostalgia muscle twitches as its first, introductory 7 seconds or so come on and the camera shows us a drawing of heavily shaded shapes that Jon's right hand and extended index finger point to in turn as they are announced by a rich, confident,  male voice that states quickly  "If you can draw these simple forms, the ball, cone, cube and cylinder... you can draw a real picture the very first time you try! And then, in heavy white cursive writing the title of the show "Learn to Draw" appears over that drawing and we hear Johann Strauss' Artist's Life Waltz  playing and the hand comes into view again, this time against a blank, charcoal gray sheet of paper and its Jon with his back turned to us writing his name in beautiful, aggressively formed block letters which, with a flourish, he circles with a doodle that turns out to be a stylized artist's palette. And then he turns to us with that million dollar smile saying "Hello friends, this is Jon Gnagy to prove to you that you can learn to draw by following these simple step by step drawing lessons!"  And he had me, had me totally, still has me today over 60 years later...

And then I'd run and get some stub of #2 pencil that was laying around the house and rip off a couple of sheets of that super cheap paper from the purchased-at-Woolworth's-for 10cents pad that my mother kept in the kitchen to jot down the canned vegetables we'd need to buy at the A&P. All of this in a frenzy to get back in front of the TV screen before the commercials were over and Jon Gnagy would be back with those step by step directions; the 'how to' secrets he'd share about how magic was made... important stuff! Never mind that crap my teacher was showing in class... how to add and subtract 2 digits, with the subtleties of borrowing and carrying... never mind that, THIS was important!

OK, back down to earth now.  After a couple of years of following Mr. Gnagy's show, which only appeared in what I recall was something of a 'catch as catch can' manner: I guess when the Saturday morning TV station programmer needed some cheap content to fill the very early morning slot with, it disappeared from the air... the shaman had simply vanished.  And because there were no computers in those days, no YouTube, Learn to Draw was truly, irretrievably, permanently... GONE!

At age 7 I was driven by excitement and inspiration and not by any practical knowledge of how to manage learning and life, I had no notes or anything to refer to, nothing to refresh my memory with about the magic that Gnagy had shared. And so, while the spark in me that he had lit burned bright, it was an uninformed spark and because I was very long on inspiration and very short on the sort of talent that might make the craft of Drawing come naturally to me, I simply struggled on year after year discovering things on my own,  and generally falling into what I would come to see later on when  I was teaching all of this, those very predictable traps that most people tumble into when they are trying to draw. Drawing, by the way, no matter how easy a Jon Gnagy makes it look, can be a complex set of concepts and skills to learn.

But here I am now looking, both in awe and critically, at Learn to Draw and let me make a few observations. (by the way,  the video I highlight above is just the show's intro, there are many examples of the full show to be found on YouTube):
1) His demonstrations are good in that they illustrate the process of a competent and intelligent artist in the act of drawing... modeling is important in teaching. On the other hand, these are no doubt 'rehearsed drawings' that he demonstrates and what one sees is execution, not exploration and experimentation, the more exciting and challenging parts of what an artist does; and aspects that no true artist can avoid. And so, it is a skewed understanding the learner is given here by the teacher.
2) Watching the show, one gets the impression that using a bold, committed, definite line is a good way to draw. As I learned later on from a wonderful teacher I had at the Art Students League, Anthony Palumbo (alas, deceased, but "Thank you, Antony!"), until one's shapes are well formed and in the right place and the right size, etc. etc. etc. - a tentative, non-committed, 'searching' line works infinitely better. You can see that Gnagy knows this, he sort of lightly grazes the paper feeling for the right shape to define with his line, but he doesn't overtly make the point and beginners, no doubt, walk away from the show uninformed about what I've come to understand is one of the very biggest mistakes in drawing.
3) On the other hand, his approach is to 'construct' the forms in his drawings out of basic shapes (as was alluded to in the introduction) and this understanding, above all others, is guaranteed to bring the newbie more success than anything.
4) And he gives some good little nuggets as he's drawing. In the video of his lesson titled Harbor Scene, he explains that it's OK to use a ruler or straight edge of some sort to help you draw straight lines but adding, that pretty soon his viewer/students will be able to freehand them and that you get more charm in your picture that way, anyhow. Good advice, I think!

And of course, there's more, much more to be said about this ongoing series of lessons televised in Black and White when Dwight Eisenhower was President of the United States.

And now that I've had a  look at these shows after 60 years, I have to admit that they hold up pretty damn well. This guy knew what he was doing and he shared it reasonably effectively. That's clear, especially when you understand that this was really intended as LOW BUDGET entertainment that was squeezed into less than 10 minutes. In fact, I really wish that I had the ability to show these YouTube videos to my students a couple of decades back. These little demos would have made things better for me and my students in many ways. But above all, I know those kids would have gotten a kick out of glimpsing just what it was that had lit that fire under my artistic ass long before they had been born. I know I would have loved to have shown it to them.

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