In the Studio: Sherrie McGraw
Sherrie McGraw has a natural eloquence when speaking the language of drawing and painting. Her lyrical lines, dramatic chiaroscuro, and confident brushstrokes — all informed by decades of intelligent discovery — combine to create artworks of seemingly effortless elegance. An admirer of McGraw’s work for many years, I have been especially taken by the classical beauty of her drawings, particularly her ability to “turn life into line,” as she describes it, while capturing both the strength and grace of the human gesture.
Also a talented writer, McGraw has been able to translate her lifelong learnings into insightful instruction for the numerous students and professional artists who follow her work through her book The Language of Drawing: From An Artist’s Viewpoint. As a teacher, McGraw is revered for her generous educational approach and gentle demeanor, and she admits that teaching and giving back is one of her greatest joys. She has traveled nationally and internationally teaching workshops and also leads the online school The Artists Guild with David A Leffel and Jacqueline Kamin.
With a more than forty-year painting and teaching career behind her and miles of canvas still in front of her, McGraw is poised to leave an important artistic and instructional legacy to the next generation of realists. For these reasons and more, I was honored to have the opportunity to pose some questions to McGraw in this month’s In the Studios and learn about her beginnings as a young art student in New York City; the life of serenity she’s been living since relocating to Taos, New Mexico; her definitions of "abstract realism" and "sculptural painting"; and her secret to staying balanced through the highs and lows of the artist’s life.
AM: I’d like to start by talking about your experiences as an art student in New York in the late 1970s and early 1980s. There were several quality instructors at The Art Students League at that time, many of whom helped changed the realist-art training trajectory. Could you name your two or three top teachers from that time, and the most important lessons they taught you?
SM: After settling into the League, I took an anatomy lecture series from the great anatomist Robert Beverly Hale. He was an elegant man who drew over-sized illustrations of anatomy with a piece of charcoal strapped to a long piece of bamboo. What I remember most about Hale was his generous, open spirit. Each lecture ended with a poem that he recited by heart. His manner emanated a life well lived, and he was a testament to the value of a life spent in art.
Jon Zahourek, a fabulous draftsman whom I had admired from out West, offered a long series of classes at the New York Academy on anatomy, a subject he had mastered. Using his invention of a human skeletal structure called a Maniken, he pioneered the method of fashioning muscles from clay and attaching them to the skeleton to teach students about muscles’ origins and insertions. His enthusiasm for anatomy and neural pathways were persuasive, but it eventually led him to leave the art world and create a business around his discoveries. Although I wanted a working understanding of anatomy, I never wanted it to take over. These anatomy classes helped me understand form more clearly — but, logically, if Sargent could draw alligators and Rembrandt could sketch a lioness or elephant without consulting anatomy books first, there must be a different skill necessary. And, frustratingly, I noticed that anatomy often became a game of one-upmanship.
But of course my greatest influence was David A Leffel. His mantra was, “Learn to draw first; then learn anatomy.” This was the best advice, and what helped me keep anatomy in perspective. Not only did he teach me to paint and draw with the knowledge understood by all great artists but he also taught me what it means to be a complete human being. Art has always been fused with his life, not just something he does. This wisdom and depth had a profound effect on me because he changed how I saw the world. David possesses the understanding that the great artistic minds in history have all had.
AM: You had left your home in Oklahoma City as a young women to travel to New York to get the training you needed. I’m sure that took a lot of guts and bravery. What was it like to come to a big city to pursue your dream of being an artist?
SM: I was only twenty-two when my younger brother Michael put me on a train headed for Manhattan’s Penn Station. In a way, I didn’t know how scary it was to move to New York City — I just knew that if I wanted to be an artist, I had to be there. On my first trip to New York three months prior to the big move — having sampled classes from Frank Mason, Daniel E. Greene, and David A Leffel — I realized David was teaching what I wanted to learn. Luck brought me together with a wonderful model who generously offered me a pallet on her apartment floor until I got established. This gift made a move to the city possible. In the first month, by some miracle, I managed to find a rent-controlled apartment in the East Village, and six months later I landed a position at The Metropolitan Museum of Art as a night guard. It was an art student’s dream job.
However, my acclimation to the Big Apple was surprisingly easy. My normal speed was too fast for Oklahoma, but in New York, I was just part of the teeming masses. That’s when I knew I had found my tribe. Having grown up sheltered in a parochial school, the multi-cultural diversity in New York City was appealing and exciting. The city was alive, and it kept my heart racing. Once I made friends with noted artist and League instructor Gregg Kreutz, laughter became our “religion,” and he made living in the city even more appealing. I carved out a safe place in the city with David, Gregg, and The Art Students League of New York.
AM: At the young age of thirty, you were asked to take over the classes of Thomas Fogarty and Gustav Rehberger at The Arts Students League, as well as teach your own classes. Today, teaching continues to be one of your great accomplishments. How does teaching keep you energized and excited about your own work?
SM: Fogarty’s class was small and the students received me happily, but taking over Rehberger’s class proved to be a baptism of fire. Almost immediately, I had a vociferous mutiny on my hands! According to one student, Steven Haas, who is now a friend, the students treated me brutally. My gentle way of teaching differed greatly from Rehberger’s histrionics, and a small group was decidedly unhappy. In time those people left and the remaining students seemed to blossom under my guidance, especially Steven. With diligence, in three years he went from not knowing how to draw at all to winning an Honorable Mention in the class concourse show at the League. It was quite a transformation!
It is one thing to make discoveries about painting and drawing in your own work, but it is quite another to explain those things to others; that requires a deeper understanding of the subject matter. Although everyone shares the same struggles, there are nuances with each person that require a tailored approach. Not only do I learn more about art when I teach, but I also learn more about human nature as well.
AM: I think you are one of the top draftsmen in the art community. To what do you attribute your dexterity and ability in drawing?
SM: I was quiet and shy growing up. Mostly, I watched the world, removed. Without exaggeration, drawing became my lifeline. I would hide away in a back bedroom and draw different plaster sculptures Mom had bought — one was a Rodin male nude, another was a Tang horse, and yet another, a Michelangelo self-portrait. Drawing these objects was a secret indulgence. While babysitting, I’d sneak in some art supplies and after putting the children to sleep as early as possible, I’d spend the remainder of the evening copying masterpieces from a book of Old Master drawings. Time spent drawing was sacred.
Although David didn’t officially teach drawing at the League, I would bring some work into painting class every couple of months for a critique. Usually he would draw for me. This helped me see him translate life into line. He would also lend me his sketchbooks and I’d study those for hours while working as a night guard.
Starting young and drawing consistently helped improve my drawing skills, but it was invaluable to spend so much time studying good drawings at the Met. Perhaps that is why gesture is so important to me. I’ve always admired the ease of an athlete, the natural grace of a dancer, and everything in between. And when you capture the gesture of the subject, a drawing instantly feels alive.
AM: Your drawings are mostly done in red Conté and charcoal on toned paper, correct? This classic approach serves your style of drawing beautifully. Where did this drawing aesthetic originate?
DL: David was my drawing teacher and he combined these mediums. However there is a strong example in history. The artist that most notably used Conté and charcoal together was Jean-Antoine Watteau. His drawings utilize sanguine Conté to add a feeling of ‘blood’ or the specific coloration of the subject, and the addition of white Contè gives a feeling of light. Watteau would let the qualities of the model dictate the medium; Van Dyck did this too but also used the color and value of the paper to express the subject. I combine both of these in an attempt to convey the beauty of the model with the simplest of mediums. The magic in drawing comes when line transforms effortlessly into flesh and bone and yet is still calligraphic.
AM: Your book The Language of Drawing: From An Artist’s Viewpoint was published in 2006. In it, you share many of your own personal discoveries and concepts that you learned throughout your career as an artist. What inspired you to write a book about drawing? Do you feel that your style of drawing is unlike other methods and schools that are currently taught?
SM: I do. When I started writing a book on drawing, it was prompted by the fact that most drawing classes had devolved into anatomy classes. Knowledge of the elements present in great drawing seemed to be disappearing. Another disturbing trend in drawing equated great draftsmanship with how well one could mimic a photograph. The drudgery of copying was becoming the norm and I wanted to bring the excitement and joy back into drawing.
I also thought that sharing my own artistic struggles and ultimate discoveries could be comforting to those who want to live an artist’s life too, even if they aren’t wunderkinds.
AM: In your instruction for both drawing and painting, you talk a lot about the concept of "Abstract Realism." Someone coming from the contemporary art world might have a different expectation, at least stylistically, of “abstract” and “realism” combining. What is your definition of Abstract Realism?
SM: "Abstract Realism" is a term David Leffel and I came up with to describe what the artists we admire are really doing. We also coined the term "sculptural painting" to further differentiate how we think about paint from what is prevalent — matching reality. There are so many types of realism with different objectives that it is unfair to assume that the goal for realists is always to replicate reality in a photographic manner. But that is how most realism is labeled today.
Abstract Realism applies to painting in oil, first and foremost. The painting is “real” because you can recognize an object, but it is “abstract” because the color, paint quality, value, edges, and composition are used in very abstract ways to affect the viewer visually and carry the eye through the painting. The concept comes first and is the result of conscious editing by the artist. Plain and simple, nothing goes in unless it furthers that idea. And a detail never goes in just because it is there.
AM: What prompted you to move to Taos, New Mexico, and how did your life and art practice change as a result of moving to more natural surroundings?
SM: New York was getting increasingly dangerous and expensive. Union Square was becoming the next new trendy area, and our studio rents were edging upward. We could see the future and we wanted out. On a whim, David and I bought a house in Taos, where we had been teaching for the Fechin Workshops in San Cristobal. With the reassuring thought that the move didn’t have to be permanent, we took the plunge. That was twenty-six years ago and we have had no regrets, except, notably, missing teaching at The Art Students League and visiting the museums regularly. But we have gone back periodically to teach short workshops, so there has been some consolation.
The natural surroundings of Taos have spawned some landscapes, and it certainly has allowed us to build larger, ideal studios — and that has been wonderful. Other than comfort, my work has progressed and deepened with the solitude of being in the country and having a much more peaceful lifestyle. Both David and I love that aspect of living here.
AM: As someone who was a student at a time when traditional or skill-based training was relatively scarce, what is your opinion about the young generation of artists today who have much more education available to them, including online?
SM: Students are no longer limited by where they live. Copious instruction is available online from anywhere on the globe. David and I, along with our friend and colleague, Jacqueline Kamin, have joined this trend and are enjoying the reach we’ve had with our online instructional library, The Artists Guild. We reach more students, more intimately than we were ever able to before. It has changed our way of teaching. We can focus on specific areas of difficulty in painting and drawing rather than always trying to cover everything, which is a daunting task in a week workshop. This way we can break down the information and make it easier to understand. It allows us to teach like we did at the League, with an eye on the long game. Students love it!
AM: Please describe the last moment you had in your studio of great breakthrough or satisfaction. What painting or drawing were you working on? Please also describe the last time you felt a great sense of frustration. How do you stay balanced during both the highs and lows?
SM: The most recent epiphany was while painting my feature piece for last year’s American Masters exhibition, The Playthings of Time. Even as a student, I had visual ideas, but I wasn’t always able to execute them from beginning to end. Sure, there were times when the subject inspired me and the painting flowed from beginning to end, but those times were the exception and repeating the experience was always problematic. But in this particular instance I saw the difference between having an idea and actually painting that idea. I began to notice when my attention digressed and became just matching what I saw. When my awareness shifted toward painting the idea with each brushstroke, painting became a completely different experience that was so satisfying; it didn’t matter who else knew or appreciated it. The experience became enough and complete.
Staying balanced through the ups and downs of painting and drawing required another realization years ago. I would become depressed when a painting or drawing nose-dived and elated when it worked. My whole identity rose and fell with the success or failure of each work. It was an awful roller-coaster existence. When I realized that I was more than an artist, it was a freeing experience. Painting became what it is: a problem-solving discipline. I could calmly figure each problem out without its success or failure defining me. Painting problems shifted from a torturous feeling to a wonderfully joyful problem. This realization changed my life.