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The Importance of Form in Sketching

by Matthew Kirby

A substitute instructor once likened our campus to the painting of Vermeer. It is composed of calm blocks of substance. There is a lot of gradation, a lot of heft, but not much design. There is a field of corn across the street; roads that are neither crumbling nor new; train tracks but no trains. Everywhere one looks, someone is doing something normal and obvious and intentional, like sharpening a pencil or watering an azalea or going to the printer to have something printed. Everywhere one looks (here I mean looking in the sense of looking inside) there are loves—not love affairs, but longings, simple and direct. These longings are normal and they are understood and the people here neither enter into them flippantly nor take them too seriously in hindsight. They require great patience, religious patience, but if one doesn’t have patience, a naïve concept of time will do.

The students and instructors at our little school enter into these longings knowing that some will flake away like rust from an old bicycle rim and others will knock the wind out of a person like a professional boxer slowed to the speed of inevitability. They take their chances punctually, not lingering back out of fear or rushing into them out of another kind of fear. It is the same quality that makes them better-than-average drawers. For instance, Marie Frizzelle has made a drawing of Marie LaPont that captures the elusive LaPont nose, thin but swollen at the same time, and the restless LaPont upper lip, delicate and darting like an oarsman beetle on the surface of a slow river. Marie LaPont, in turn, has illustrated Marie Frizzelle in her ponderous LaPont hand, pressing too hard but coming up with a pretty good interpretation of the swelling Frizelle cheeks and chin that, as her sketching instructor, I cannot possibly condone because it exhibits poor form.

As much as I enjoy these girls and the obvious way they hash out one another’s bodies in desperate charcoal marks that tell all about the drawers—their shyness or confidence, sleepiness or rigidity or fanaticism, pluck or wilting adolescent desperation—I cannot condone bad form. I cannot teach tenderness. I cannot teach creativity or how to see. I am not like Jesus spitting in the dirt and making mud. All I can teach is form. That is what I am paid to do, so I cannot condone bad form even in a drawing of Marie Frizelle so brimming with LaPont tenderness and a nearly adult knowledge of the tragic nature of life.

I can hear the sounds of charcoal pencils grinding against paper or in sharpeners and of sweaty palms, their soft lines caked with graphite, wiping against cut-off jeans or decommissioned military slacks and of paper crinkling up under the butts of little wrists and of the layered breathing of girls. And when I have trained my ear on these last, these jagged breaths like the panting of brittle human dogs, I can smell the peculiar smell of their collective lungs. It is a sugar, butter, vegetable smell like sweet corn on the cob.

It is this smell that, even though the windows are open and the spring air is coming in, interjecting its cut grass and diesel, causes me to become faint as I rock back on my heels; so faint that I must open my eyes before my joints buckle. The eyes of the girls are open, too, peering into the eyes of their partners, mining for secrets that can be transferred to paper and charcoal because, at this age, they are obsessed with the eyes, having been told by irresponsible poets that they are the windows to the soul. They do not yet know that it is the mouth that is the window, and that the breath that drifts out of it, like hearth steam pouring from the window of a country kitchen, is the soul. I do know, and I am happy to walk among these pairs with their eyes foraging and their tender fingers damp with perspiration, charcoal blackened, diligently moving, and their mouths agape with concentration—mouths pouring forth so many ageless female souls from young vessels toward the rafters of the classroom. I can almost make out the edges of these souls in the dust, illumined by the dangling, afternoon light. I can nearly hear them slipping past one another, cupping hands, brushing one another’s hair, whispering immortal secrets into the translucent shells of one another’s ears. What a privilege it is to be the guardian of souls, I who am only qualified to teach good form! What other explanation is there for my presence among them as they seep out through damp, concentrating mouths to commingle above haphazard wooden desks and easels and uncertain pencil scrapings?

Occasionally one of the girls catches me in my longing as Marie Roth does now, her wise (though unfortunately beady) eyes contemplating my face when they are supposed to be contemplating her sketching partner. I smile and walk quietly over to a spot behind her freckled shoulder from which to contemplate her drawing of Marie Chisolm, which is courageous in spirit and scope and skilled in its capture of the apple-like luster of the Chisolm chin but, it cannot be denied, has deplorable form.

I lift her pad from its easel and make four quick, straight lines indicating the ratio of the space from the eyes to the tip of the nose to the space between the mouth and the bottom of the chin.

Marie Roth receives the sketchbook from my hands, perfunctorily considers it, and flops it closed on the table. From my vantage point above and a little to the right of her I can see the side of her face curling into the expression of doom that signifies a young sketcher’s inevitable horror at having her sketchbook defiled with foreign marks. They are all born masters these days, young Franz Halses and James Ensors possessed of intense personal visions and having only to throw back the reins of convention momentarily to realize them. Hah.

As I am about to walk away, I notice that Marie Roth is shaking—slightly but quickly, like a bicycle riding across cobblestones. This is not the usual way of things in our small school where longing and frustration alike are typically expressed by gazing out the window to the southwest, across the ripe cornfields to the river, where boats transporting gravel and grain are piloted by sullen and sooty-faced men who are the ideal recipients of our idealized forms of longing and frustration alike. These men are blank slates, taut souls consumed with work and with railing against the wind. We can count on them to ferry our complex longings and frustrations safely to the sea.

It is understandable, therefore, that I am scarcely able to conceal my disbelief as I make my way around her desk and see that she is crying, pressing her hands into her eyes so that her tears become charcoal-blackened as they stream uncontrollably down her wan Roth cheeks. I breathe deeply and situate myself calmly atop an empty desk.

“Now Marie . . .”

“No.” Marie Roth mumbles the word out of her tear-blackened mouth. “NO! I hate! Aaaagh! This place! Leave me alone with this awfulness! You’re always coming around with your silence and your depression and trying to make me feel bad! You hate me! You want me to be just like everyone else! You messed up my drawing! I feel like this place is sucking out my soul! You vampire! Sicko! You soul molester! I just want to be free!” She lets out a sorrowful sob and a hiccup and looks away from my smartly designed shoes, the visual locus of her excoriation.

The cornfields are at their heaviest and most golden. The harvest can only be days away. Beyond them the river courses, gray and slow, potent but restrained. Ah, the river. Its inevitability, its utility, its indifference to the concerns of ranting little girls: I can see these qualities penetrating her mind, brushing away the superficial concerns of the present and appealing to the ancient soul that shimmers beneath.

“I hate this corn and this stupid condescending river! I hate everything! I want to love! I hate this stupid, weird idea of maturity! I hate Vermeer! I hate Franz Hals! I hate Jan van Eyck and his dumb brother!” It pains me to watch her—and I suppose this is the intent—it pains me to watch her forcing charcoal pencil after charcoal pencil onto the surface of her desk until the points snap off, sometimes skittering onto the floor and sometimes crumbling to dust or adhering to the splintered wood. “I am a human being! I am a girl! I have needs! I have rights!” With fumbling hands she takes a fresh pack of drawing pencils from her book bag, peels back the wrapper, and begins snapping them in half against the edge of her desk, hurling the pieces against the windowpanes. “I hate diffused light! Why can’t it ever be sunny? I’m going to Bermuda!” She stands, zips up her book bag, and slides it over her shoulders. Her enraged, charcoal-blackened face and paranoid eyes make her look downright medieval, and she begins to let out a series of primordial shrieks so piercing I have to cover my ears. “Fuck silence!” she shrieks. “Aaaargh!”

With that, Marie Roth storms out of the classroom and out of the school. Through the windows we take note of her awkward, horsey gait as she flees across the less-than-picturesque part of our campus, across the gravel lot, past the physical plant, and on toward the road, her cadmium-red book bag slapping against her diminishing back until she disappears entirely, leaving us momentarily gazing out at this less-than-picturesque part of our campus, populated, it pains me to relate, by parked automobiles of various uncomplementary hues.

“Well,” I say, and am confident that the word just about sums up the unexpected departure and accompanying hysterics of Marie Roth. The girls, for their part, focus silently and carefully on the lustrously waxed floorboards in a great show of nonchalant boredom. Their eyes roll like waves upon the sea.

Then, slowly, boldly, stubbornly, with great dignity and humility and purpose, Marie Chisolm holds her sketchbook aloft. On it is a drawing of the charcoal-stained and anguished countenance of Marie Roth so uncompromising, so empathic, so wise both in the risks it takes and the pitfalls it avoids, that it reveals the human dignity in rage, illuminates the orthodoxy hidden in protest, unveils the profound silence at the core of Marie Roth’s deafening shrieks. The beady Roth eyes lance out of the page with a kind of bleak, almost prophetic intelligence. The amoebic Roth mouth has coalesced into oratory fervor so purposeful that it evokes Tully practicing with a mouthful of rocks. The furrowed Roth brow moves toward the viewer with a kind of creeping inevitability, like an icebreaker plowing its lonely way across the Bering Sea. All eyes sullenly follow my smartly designed shoes as I cross the room and stand, nearly trembling, beside the desk of Marie Chisolm. It is all I can do to keep from shedding a tear as I take the sketchbook in my hand and make three identical marks, thus indicating the oft-forgotten maxim that the space between the eyes should be equal to the length of the eye itself.


Matthew Kirby’s fiction has appeared in 3rd Bed, Diagram, and Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet. (9/2005)

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