Drawings Basics: Art for Writing

Drawings Basics: Art for Writing

Mark Leithauser collaborated with his brother, the poet Brad Leithauser, on a series of books that expanded his imaginative powers, leading him to consider a multitude of new subjects.

2002–2003, graphite drawing. All artwork this article courtesy Hollis Taggart Galleries, New York, New York.
From the book Lettered Creatures (David R. Godine, Boston, Massachusetts).

by Lynne Bahr

Drawing may be a solitary pursuit, but for Mark Leithauser, collaborating with a writer has been among his most rewarding projects. Leithauser, who in addition to being an accomplished artist is a senior curator and chief of design at the National Gallery of Art, is the brother of the poet Brad Leithauser, and together the two are producing a series of books featuring their poems and drawings. Meeting for a few weeks each year at a writer’s colony off the coast of Seattle, the brothers accomplish as much as they can in that time, enjoying each other’s company as much as the work. “We bring all our thoughts and copious notes and sketches and sit down and lay out our ideas,” Mark says. “It’s a great pleasure.”

The books—Lettered Creatures, Toad to a Nightingale, and the forthcoming Good and Gone: Laments for Lost Things—are beautifully produced by David R. Godine, of Boston, with great attention to detail. The poems, some of which were written before the drawings and some after, are nearly all accompanied by one of Mark’s illustrations, and the drawings and writings play off each other, creating a kind of lively, familial conversation. One senses immediately the brothers’ similar artistic sensibilities, emphasizing the complexity and wonder of the natural world in a style both precise and whimsical.

The first book in the series, Lettered Creatures, was Mark’s idea, growing out of his memory of an alphabet book his mother, who was a children’s book author, had written but not published. “I wanted to do a bestiary alphabet book,” he says, “but I didn’t mention it to anyone. I thought it would be an exceedingly challenging effort, with a minimum of 26 images, and there had to be a theme. Each illustration had to relate to the others. Some would be easy and others very difficult. I never thought I would finish it.” After completing nine drawings, including the ones for A, B, and C, he began to think of friends who could each write a poem to accompany the drawings. One Thanksgiving weekend he mentioned the project to Brad and asked whether he would like to contribute a poem or two. “He was very busy at the time,” the artist recalls, “but clearly the idea started to cook in his brain. By the end of the weekend, he had finished A for anteater and most of B. He became obsessed with it. Soon he was writing faster than I could draw.”

2002–2003, graphite drawing.
From the book Lettered Creatures (David R. Godine, Boston, Massachusetts).

For the most part the brothers could easily agree about which animal should correspond to each letter. The letter G, however, was an exception. “Brad wanted to write a poem about a gnu,” Mark recalls, “but that was about the most boring thing I could think of for a drawing. I drew a gorilla instead.” In their next project, Toad to a Nightingale, Brad wrote a poem about a gnu and Mark had to make a drawing of it, so ultimately “he got what he wanted,” Mark laughs.

For Lettered Creatures, Brad wrote to about half of the drawings that Mark had already completed, and the brothers decided together which animals to use for the remaining letters. For Toad to a Nightingale, on the other hand, Brad had written almost all the poems in advance. “So the difficulty became, how do I draw these subjects?” Mark says. “Take hydrogen, for instance. It’s the simplest material in the universe. It’s thinner than air.” Another difficult image to devise was the one for the poem Brad wrote about a smoke detector. “There’s not much that is more boring and round,” Mark says. Nevertheless, Mark managed an imaginative piece featuring the round detector with its usual button, with a burning, smoking house appearing as a kind of apparition on top.

Most of the work for all three books got under way at the Whiteley Center, a writer’s colony in the San Juan Islands, off the coast of Seattle. While Mark listened to his iPod and drew for at least a few hours a day without interruption, Brad wrote for a while, then walked around, then wrote again, working in fits and starts. In eight days, Mark can generally complete about three drawings and develop ideas for about three more. The most recent trip last March focused on the third book in the series, for which Brad had already written most of the poems. On that retreat Mark completed about five drawings.

2002–2003, graphite drawing.
From the book Lettered Creatures (David R. Godine, Boston, Massachusetts).

In creating imagery, Mark relies on both references and his imagination. Usually he has an idea in mind, but he refers to the object or a photo for necessary details. Especially at the Whiteley Center, the internet is a helpful resource in this regard. In drawing an elevator door for Lost Things, he recalls, “I could see it in my mind, and in my studio I might look through books in about an hour or two, but on Google Image Search, I typed in ‘elevator door,’ and in 10 minutes I found what I was looking for.” In relying on both his imagination and multiple references, Mark likens his drawings to collage, adding “they are a little of this and a little of that.”

Mark’s drawings begin as small, quick pencil sketches on scrap pieces of paper. He might make several of these sketches, very loosely, and often changes the perspective or experiments with different ways of presenting the subject that might be more engaging, or humorous. “Later in the day, or even hours or days later, if it still holds my interest, I know that the drawing will work,” he says. “It has to hold my interest for two seconds or so. It’s a very humble thing, but if it has that allure, that nibble on a fishing line—and I’m sensitive to that—I know I’ve got a drawing that will work.” One sketch then becomes the basis of the final drawing. “It could be only the bottom third of the sketch,” he adds, “or a detail of it.”

Mark primarily uses 2B, 2H, and 4H graphite pencils, usually Eagle brand. After working on many different rag papers over the years, he now favors Utrecht Bristol board, 2-ply, acid-free, plate-finish, as his surface. A soft white eraser works well for the softer leads in making corrections or lightening areas.

Although he always has an initial idea for a drawing, the imagery evolves as the drawing develops. “I can’t see the whole thing at the beginning,” he describes. “I have a vision of it, but if I were asked to draw it, there would be a lot of missing areas. I know what I want to do, but I don’t quite have it at the beginning. It’s an ideal vision, but it’s fuzzy around the edges.” In the process of developing the image, he encounters both good and bad “accidents” that lead him in unanticipated directions. “Sometimes an inadvertent mark, or brushing something off, leaves a pattern, and I don’t know what will happen, and that’s what makes the process and the drawing more interesting.”

2002–2003, graphite drawing.
From the book Lettered Creatures (David R. Godine, Boston, Massachusetts).

The artist likens his creative process to a hike, in which he progresses slowly. “Ideally,” he says, “I start working at 9 in the morning, and I don’t take a break until about 11:30. I see progress in that time, a forward motion. It takes about two days to finish a drawing.” Although he is allowing the image to evolve, the work is precise, not spontaneous, a predilection that he shares with Brad, who has said that from the time he began writing he “was keen … on writing poems of prosodic ornateness—poems that had syllable counts and somewhat strict rhyme schemes.” Mark—in the same interview, for an exhibition catalogue—added, “I am certainly not a writer, but my work has that same attention to detail, and the long stretches of time it takes to make something. It’s like writing, in that there is draft after draft—and then the joy of the completed puzzle, and often a visual pun.”

Puns abound in the books, as in the poem on cantaloupes in Toad to a Nightingale. The poem refers to the cantaloupes as moons—“fissured, cratered, and a little gray”—and the drawing links them visually, emphasizing their physical likenesses as well leading the viewer’s eye from a moon to a melon with a vine. This kind of playfulness is another shared quality of the brothers. For his part, Mark says simply, “I’m attracted to the whimsical juxtaposition of natural forms.” Brad has said that much of his work in writing a poem focuses on finding the right form, and that once he has the form, “then the play or playfulness in the task is the pleasure in fulfilling the form’s demands.”

Fascinated by the “whole world,” as he puts it, inside a flower or vegetable, Mark no doubt enjoyed making the drawing for “A Dropped Watermelon” in Toad to a Nightingale. Describing a splattered watermelon, the poem presented the perfect opportunity for Mark to explore the lumps of flesh, scattered seeds, and water droplets. What would in other circumstances be at best mundane and at worst just a mess, is engaging for all its intricacy. Another drawing in the same book, for “Rhinoceros Beetle,” presents a tiny, often unnoticed creature on a large scale, emerging from a forest of tall grasses and weeds and conveying a magnificent and terrifying presence. It’s the perfect accompaniment for Brad’s description: “Not dead, but dwindled,/The dinosaurs: he rears his/ Snout and almost roars.”

2002–2003, graphite drawing.
From the book Lettered Creatures (David R. Godine, Boston, Massachusetts).

As in these two subjects, and especially for the smoke detector, working with Brad led Mark to consider subjects he wouldn’t have otherwise. This is true in all his work with Brad. In fact, a painting for the cover of one of Brad’s books, Mail From Anywhere, required Mark to experiment with a composition featuring old letters, which led him to create several more paintings incorporating torn letters and envelopes, invented stamps, and the kind of illusionistic detail he admires. In creating the drawings for the most recent three books Mark has had the opportunity to work faster than he can in his other media of silverpoint and oil painting, and he can continually challenge himself with new compositions.

“The beauty of working with a writer is that it doubles your imaginative powers,” Mark says. “I hadn’t thought much about smashed watermelons, elevator doors, or smoke detectors before these books,” he says, “but it’s been great to think of these things, to study them. You never look at an ant the same way after you’ve spent six or eight hours drawing one and inventing the way you want it to look.” For this reason Mark is thrilled with the term “illustrator.” “I love the challenge of drawing what is needed,” he says. “It’s fun to work out something in a drawing that I never would have thought of myself.”

About the Artist
Mark Leithauser earned two master’s degrees in fine arts from Wayne State University, in Detroit. He has worked extensively in silverpoint, in addition to making drawings and paintings. Leithauser has exhibited at Coe Kerr Gallery, in New York City, the Hom Gallery, in Washington, DC, the Brooklyn Museum, in New York, and the National Museum of American Art, in Washington, DC, among other venues. He is the chief of design and senior curator at the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, DC, and is represented by Hollis Taggart Galleries, in New York City.

Rhinoceros Beetle
2005, graphite drawing on rag paper, 171/2 x 151/2.
From the book Toad to a Nightingale, (David R. Godine, Boston, Massachusetts).
2001, graphite drawing.
From the book Darlington’s Fall: A Novel in Verse (David R. Godine, Boston, Massachusetts).
2005, graphite drawing on rag paper, 171/2 x 151/2.
From the book Toad to a Nightingale (David R. Godine, Boston, Massachusetts).

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