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Richard Johnson: Postings from Afghanistan

Richard Johnson sketchSmall Dead Animals — but do please check out the National Post of Canada blog Postings from Afghanistan.

Of course, you have to admire a guy doing it old school and flying his own ass out to Kandahar to sketch his country’s troops. That’s a given. But I have to tell you, this man is seriously good.

Yes, I know you’ve seen drawings in this general style, but they’re often not quite the quick, spontaneous sketches they seem. There’s a whole ‘nother art to laboring over a drawing and making it look like you didn’t. This guy, on the other hand, is the real deal; he’s doing these drawings on the spot, in one take, with very little underdrawing (preliminary sketching) or overdrawing (correction after the fact).

another Richard Johnson sketch

How do I know? I’m a professional artard, dammit. I can draw, but I’ve never been good at quick and fluid life drawing like this. I’m deeply envious of people who are, and I’ve made a study of them.

Like, check out the boots on the kneeling guy in the sketch above. Boots and shoes are tough (I had to draw a pair as part of my entrance exam to art school; it’s harder than drawing Binky, I can tell you). Not only does he do them well, he shows them at slight angles, natural to the pose. Novices need to draw things from clean angles: directly in front, directly from above, directly from the side. The ability to render objects slightly tilted is a sure sign the artist has grokked a shape so completely that he can rotate it in his head, three dimensionally. In other words: damn.

I traded email with him Saturday; I was lucky that his connect was good that day and he was sitting by a computer in Kandahar. He confirmed that he draws, as much as possible, quickly and from life. He takes photos as well, but refers to them sparingly. I believe it. As a technical illustrator, of necessity I’ve done a lot of drawing from photographs. It always gives itself away. Even experienced draftsmen can’t avoid a certain a stiff, flat, mechanical look when relying heavily on photos. You look at a photo and tend to think there is a dark shape next to the eye instead of there’s an indentation next to the eye. The difference shows.

His words are good, too, but I haven’t finished reading them. I hate reading a blog from the beginning; the format is so damned uncongenial. New entries are on top. You have to go to the bottom, look up until you find the top of the unread entry, read down to the end of it, then go up above that until you find the unread entry above the one you just read…well, you know what I’m talking about. It’s a pain. It’s fun to see his drawings get better over time, though. That’s natural — you gotta draw every day to get good at it, and the more the merrier.

Anyway, I think he’s over there for two months this time (he went in 2003, as well) and he looks to be about halfway through. There’s a link from the top of the Post, but I don’t think he’s getting the attention he deserves. Wander over and check it out.


Comment from Paul Sunstone
Time: July 23, 2007, 11:56 am

Hey Weasel, thanks for the heads up on this one! I’m a huge fan of drawing too. My father was an artist, but all I inherited of that was a thirst for art, not the talent for it. That’s why on advice of counsel I sued his estate claiming I’d been denied my rightful share of his DNA.

Comment from Dawn
Time: July 23, 2007, 12:02 pm

Thank you so much for bringing us here. This blog is fascinating. He is not only a talented artist but also a darn good writer.

A huge dictionary lay on one of the desks near the door. As each officer arrived, the dictionary was opened randomly and each officer was then given a word. Obviously the BUB could be a little dry at times so a word game had been created. Each officer had to insert the particular word they had been given into their oral presentation. Captain Martel Thompson, the PAFO covering public affairs at the brief and also keeping an eye on me, was given “throw-rug.”


Then it was the turn of public affairs. Capt. Thompson briefed everyone on the various embedded Canadian media, and then pointed me out. He explained that I was an artist hoping to sketch the BUB scene. He said he knew many of the men present had serious concerns about what I was doing there, but not to worry because if I inadvertently saw something top secret I could draw a “throw-rug” over it. A few heads shook at this clumsy insertion. Including mine.

Comment from Enas Yorl
Time: July 23, 2007, 1:04 pm

That is nice drawing. I like the balanced use of shaded detail on the people with the open form on everything else. Instant interesting composition while preserving detail, but not overwhelmingly so. Neat, crisp lines done accurately and quick. I’ve always wanted to be able to do that too.

Comment from S. Weasel
Time: July 23, 2007, 1:19 pm

Paul, my mother was a much better draftsman than I am. She could do likenesses, too — which, sadly, is something I can’t. I’d love to do portraiture, but the response was always, “well, that’s a very nice picture of somebody.”

Comment from porkthebean
Time: July 23, 2007, 8:58 pm

Yes, you must do it everyday to get good. I got into a special art class with the art teacher in the 8th grade. There were only about 8 of us. One of the things she did was to give us timed drawings. Sixty seconds at a time. I got pretty good at body positioning and angles, but the class came to an end before we could concentrate on the details of facial likenesses.

I went on to an Honors Art program in highschool, but failed to continue any further art education at college due to the affordability and practicality factor.

I have since put art on the back burner, but whenever I see such wonderful work as above, I get the itch for it again. I look at my 8th grade (it was good) thru 1st year of college work and think ‘damn, I should have kept up’.

And when I go into a craft store, I walk through the art pad/crayon/pencil aisle, inhale deeply, and get the urge to roll in it.

I think it is time to pull out my pencils once again.

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