Steve Aimone is a nationally recognized arts educator, accomplished artist, and author of a beautiful new book, Expressive Drawing. If you’ve ever dreamed of being an artist, or simply want to try a new form of creative expression, you’ll want to get your hands on a copy. Based on one of Steve’s most popular workshops, Expressive Drawing will guide you–through skill-building exercises and playful exploration–to tap into your creativity and make works of art. The results are always surprising, and the journey, and discovery process, is a true delight. Watch the video and see for yourself!
Deborah Morgenthal is the editor of this photo-rich title, and she worked closely with Steve in the development of the book. In addition to Steve’s workshop approach, signature exercises, and uplifting profiles, Expressive Drawing also includes insights into art theory, and features works by legendary artists such as Paul Klee, Elaine DeKooning, and Brice Marden. I recently had the pleasure of talking to Steve about Expressive Drawing and here’s what he had to say.
Who is Expressive Drawing for? Can anyone do it?
The wonderful thing is that everyone can do this kind of drawing. In fact, we all do some forms of it in our everyday lives, whether we know it or not. When we sign our name, we give birth to a linear rhythm uniquely our own. When we draw a map for instance, we creatively employ line to indicate movement and direction. When we doodle, we give form to our internal stream of consciousness.
We all did this kind of drawing when we were small children. We drew freely, expressively, and joyously. We did not worry about rendering an accurate likeness of the external world–we were too busy creating a new world all its own!
One of the goals of the book is to encourage readers to engage in this kind of creative spirit once again, remembering that there is no good or bad drawing, right or wrong drawing, only more or less satisfying drawing. The three exercises shown in the video, and others offered in the book, are designed to give ANYONE access to this kind of drawing.
The video really captures the spirit of Expressive Drawing. How did you, as an artist, arrive at this form of artistic expression?
I arrived at it gradually over many years. As a student and emerging artist, I accepted the conventional belief that drawing was synonymous with rendering. According to this view, drawing elements (line, mark, shape, and so on) and relationships (repetition, rhythm, balance, and so on) were viewed simply as tools to be used in the service of rendering appearances in the external world.
But something in me could always sense that these elements and relationships could be expressive in and of themselves (I remember being mesmerized looking at shapes, movements, patterns of light and shadow on the ceiling of my bedroom as a child). Shapes, for example, have character and personality, just like we do. They’re alive. They gesture, have weight, exert pressure; they’re voluptuous, buoyant, complex. Taken together, a community of shapes relate to one another expressively as well. They join with one another or stand in isolation, they act as protective vessels or ominous neighbors; they create rhythmic patterns (they breathe).
Over time, I become more and more passionate about the expressive potential of this non-objective language and less and less interested in description. I realized that, for me, these two drawing purposes were getting in the way of one another. Eventually, the descriptive purpose vanished from my work altogether. Ever since, I’ve dedicated myself to a continuing exploration of this language f and to inspiring others to explore it as well.
What artists are you most influenced by?
Naturally, my influences include those who initially explored and served as advocates for nonobjective painting and drawing, most notably Wassily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian. I am equally influenced by the branch of surrealism know as psychic automatism who developed the practice of automatic drawing (or serious doodling); this branch included the likes of Jean Arp, Andre Masson, and Jean Miro. Works by futurists such as Umberto Boccioni and Giacomo Balla helped me realize that motion, change, and flux could be the subject of a drawing. This essential idea of flux in painting and drawing was also demonstrated in cubist works by Pablo Picasso and others. These works showed that a subject could be portrayed from more than one point of view simultaneously in the same painting.
Of course, abstract expressionists such as Robert Motherwell, Franz Kline, Willem DeKooning developed the modernist visual language to new heights and have been very inspirational to me. The same holds true for artists who have continued in this tradition, most notably Joan Mitchell, Cy Twombly, Richard Pousette-Dart, and Brice Marden.
Ironically, though, it was my experience of paintings by 20th century Italian realist painter Giorgio Morandi that may have been the most powerful influence. Morandi spent decades painting and re-painting the same set of simple bottles, jugs, and boxes. Some thirty year ago, I saw an exhibition of his paintings at the Guggenheim in New York. His paintings were incredibly moving to me and raised the question: How could paintings with such apparently mundane subject matter have such a powerfully expressive effect? It was as if a light bulb went off: I realized that their meaning came not from the literal subject, but from the dynamics of the arrangement and the presence of the artist’s hand.
What do you enjoy the most in teaching these expressive techniques, both in your highly-praised workshops, and now through Expressive Drawing?
I feel a tremendous affinity for anyone who has a sincere passion to learn to paint and draw this way; I root for each aspiring artist and do everything I can to encourage and inspire each. I love it whenever the light bulb goes off for a workshop participant, when they realize they can do it, and that this visual language has meaning for them. I also love it when students say that they “lose themselves” in the work, when the worrier, analyzer, and controller in them take a back seat to intelligence of the body and the creativity that ensues.
How do you see the benefits of Expressive Drawing spilling out into other aspects of your students and readers lives?
We can learn a lot about ourselves from our drawings and from the drawing process. Since expressive drawing is not about describing things external, if there is any meaning at all it is internal. We start a drawing with a blank surface, and anything and everything is possible; we’re faced with total, unabashed freedom. So whatever comes out comes out because of you; in fact, it IS you, or at least the you of that moment. In this way, every drawing you do is a kind of non-objective self portrait!
I also encourage artists to observe how they handle and respond to the joys and frustrations of the creative process, and to understand how revealing this can be. Are you impatient with yourself in drawing? Likely you are in other areas of your life as well. And if you can develop more patience in your art, you’ll likely become a more patient person overall.
Do you have any favorite memories of students you’ve taught and their experiences with expressive drawing? Perhaps a certain breakthrough or “ah-ha” moment that sticks with you?
I have so many of them; we don’t have the space here to even begin. So I’ll mention just one. I had a student for many years named Jim Thomas (he’s profiled in the drawing book, pp. 34-35). He had been a highly respected physician until he developed Parkinson’s disease in his early 50s. A self-described type-A personality, Jim was forced to give up his practice and re-examine his assumptions about life. At the urging of his artist-wife Charlene Thomas, Jim decided to try is hand at drawing and painting, and he approached this new endeavor with passion and joy. What he lacked in training and experience, he decided he would make up for with inquisitiveness and authenticity. What he lacked in physical steadiness, he would make up for with fearlessness and determination.
In spite of his “handicaps,” Jim produced amazingly expressive drawings and paintings that served as inspiration for other artists, both beginners and old pros. How good is that?
Can you share what it was like to work with your wife, the lovely Katherine Duncan Aimone, writer, and former Lark editor, on Expressive Drawing?
Katherine has been absolutely fundamental in any successes I’ve achieved. A brilliant writer and painter in her own right, Katherine consistently took time from her own projects to encourage and support my work on the enormous project that we came to refer to simply as “the book.” Officially, she served as photo acquisitions editor (you wouldn’t believe how arduous a process this is) and served as author of the “Artist Profile” features. Unofficially, she helped me keep the faith in moments of frustration and self-doubt.
Monhegan is my spiritual home, and has been since I first visited in 1974. Its singularly beautiful, unspoiled landscape is the perfect vehicle through which to experience and become one with nature’s rhythms, cycles, and movements. At the same time, the island community is diverse and rich, offering all sorts of fascinating and illuminating people to interact with (painters, poets, lobster-people and carpenters, tourists from around the world).
Asheville is a city that is much bigger culturally than would be indicated by the size of its population. Exceedingly progressive and embracing of all sorts of alternative lifestyles and art forms (including a lot of great graffiti in the old industrial river district), recent growth has brought with it great restaurants and new residents from all over the country. And, of course, it is set in the beautiful mountains of western North Carolina to boot.
Katherine and I agree that we are very blessed to split our time between these two homes.
Your voice—as an author, artist, and teacher–really comes across in Expressive Drawing, and I must say, it’s great to hear you talk in the video. You have a wonderful speaking voice. Forgive me for asking, but have you ever thought of giving it all up and becoming a TV/radio spokesperson?
Thanks for the kudos about the voice! I especially like this because as a child I had a pronounced stutter. Thankfully, time has seen the malady fade away…
When I was a kid I wanted to be a radio talk show host, interviewing interesting people and taking live phone calls from listeners. Our high school has an FM radio station of its own and I actually got to do a bit of it on a very small scale.
Now, I think I would like to do documentary videos where I’d interview and converse with artists about their work. And the recent experience doing the expressive drawing video gives me the urge to do more of that sort of thing. Hmmm…
Finally, what does a typical day look like for you? Walk us through it.
We’re on Monhegan now, our summer residence. This year I’ve taken a short sabbatical from workshop teaching this summer, so this year is not typical. But here it is:
We sleep in till 8 or so (or whenever one of the cats decides it’s time to get up), then share tea, coffee, yogurt, and morning conversation in the studio, looking out over the village and ocean (we sometimes listen to an episode of NPR’s “Speaking of Faith,” a great way to start the day). Then we embrace morning projects, usually business and household related stuff. Next, lunch. Then, afternoon studio hours (yes we both paint in the studio at the same time) followed by (weather permitting) a hike on the backside of the island or a row in our skiff around the harbor. Often we have a second bit of studio time in the early evening, followed by dinner at home (fresh fish and salad), ending with some time on the deck taking in the stars.
It’s that simple… and that wonderful.