Confessions of a Ballerunner

Essays on Sports, Arts, Culture, and Life

Like a kid in an arts & crafts candy shop…

So it’s winter and that means going downtown for general interest art classes at the Ottawa School of Art is on hiatus for another season (sigh) until the temperatures start to rise and the canal paths shed their heavy coat of ice and snow enabling the resumption of (safe) cycling. It is one such wintry Saturday afternoon that I find myself at Wallack’s curious to experiment with some new art media while also repleting some old supplies. I decide to pick up some colored conté and watercolor crayons. My natural artistic inclination (since I was a pre-schooler) is to draw, so it was of no surprise that I would gravitate towards the drawing implements! (Perhaps I also subscribe to the business aphorism for success of focusing on one’s strengths as opposed to one’s weaknesses…) I had also just completed a lifedrawing class – my first – in the fall, where we had experimented with charcoal, conté, india ink, and washes, and to my amazement, I absolutely loved the course. I have to admit, that I was a little hesitant about the idea of engaging in what I believed to be a form of voyeurism in drawing nudes, but this initial discomfort quickly disappeared when it became very apparent how comfortable everyone – model, teacher, fellow students – was. In fact, as we would gather around on our stools to watch the teacher sketch the human form on the chalk board underneath the industrial-inspired warehouse-like lighting in the clinically-white studio space, I actually imagined myself as a first year Medical student (a bit of an unrequited dream – but that’s another story…) taking her first Gross Anatomy class, albeit with a very much living and breathing specimen amidst a decidedly unconventional cohort of “Medical” students… For me, the lifedrawing class was where I could get lost – in the best sense of the word – every week. I’m referring to the kind of immersion, where you can get so into a given project that you nearly lose all track of time. Our teacher and noted visual artist, Blair Sharpe, was particularly good at balancing the teaching of concepts and fundamentals with adequate time for hands-on practice and experimentation. He was also great at reaching uber-serious types like me, adding a much needed dose of humor when the situation called for it. I would always have to suppress a smile when he would entreat the class to be free and unstructured! (Heresy!) This was Ottawa afterall, where if you weren’t a student, employed in the technology or engineering sectors, you were almost certainly a government worker, where rules and process reign supreme!.. So, in short, this class was a much needed breath of fresh air, along with getting me to step a bit outside my comfort zone. I would highly recommend the class to anyone thinking they’d like to try lifedrawing. (I should say, in the interest of full-disclosure – pun intended – I had previously taken a creative painting class with Blair, which I had really enjoyed, so I knew it was a pretty safe bet I would enjoy taking a drawing class with him. He also has a very loyal following of students, who continue to take his classes, year after year.) Aside from the pleasure of taking an art class downtown at a venerable institution like the OSA, I have to admit it was a pretty cool esthetic cycling back and forth from my apartment to the downtown along the canal, art supplies slung over my back. Often, I would be cycling under moonlight on the way back. I imagined myself as this hip, Parisian art student played by Audrey Tautou pedaling along the Seine, with that charming, whimsical music from Amelie accompanying me on my ride home…

So back to the conté and watercolor crayons… I did some experimenting and really liked the effect of the crayons! (See bowl of fruit at left – kind of Cézanne-ish, non?) They were fun and easy to use. A little easier than the conté, in fact, but I guess that doesn’t surprise me. Conté has always intimidated me a bit, for some unknown reason. I can remember being astonished at the work of a classmate back in grade 7 or 8 when we were working on individual art projects. There were several of us in the class who were recognized as having some natural artistic talent. However, one girl from our little Group of Four or Five had done this amazing rendering of Sigmund Freud in black and white conté. By contrast, I had done this colorful pastel reproduction of a windsurfer out on the ocean – quite pedestrian, by comparison. So I, introverted by temperament, but ever the one for engaging in social comparison (and its close cousin, ‘competition’) – even off the field/court, felt like I had just been served!.. So that’s why I probably stayed clear of conté for years – staying focused on perceived strengths – or maybe that’s just a euphemism for being ‘avoidant’…

So, onto the colored conté experiment now… (See left.) I decided to select a photo from a spread in a National Ballet of Canada mailing, which featured no shortage of expressive figure poses from this talented company of dancers. I settled on Noah Long and Heather Ogden in an emotionally-charged scene from Carmen. I did the original sketchwork using a black Sharpie marker, which was a bad decision, on retrospect, as this did not deliver the desired level of precision and left the figures looking a bit wooden, in my opinion. The effect from the colorizing and shading with the conté, however, was not too bad. I also applied a wash using a watercolor paintbrush. All in all, a positive experience with this previously-dreaded conté!?..

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