Magazine
March 24, 2020

The draw of drawing the Masters

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Editor’s Note: Our Masters Preview Issue was printed before the postponement of the 2020 Masters. Read more here >>

When I draw landscape, my strategy usually consists of observing, filtering what I see through my mind, using a very subjective process to create order from chaos, and then re-creating this new reality in two dimensions with ink strokes on paper.

I’ve never seen a landscape as carefully designed as the golf course in Augusta. Every angle, every detail seems considered. The fairways, bunkers and greens collaborate as perfect abstract compositions. I hate to admit it, but my first impression was, I’m walking into one of my drawings. I spent the next couple of days at the Masters observing a little harder than I generally have to, searching for the unexpected connections in the perfectly planned environment.

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I’m far from an expert on golf, but the core challenge of the sport has many elements that I can relate to.

When I start a drawing, I have a pretty tight idea of what I want to visualize. The objects are trees and hills and people, but what triggers me are abstract systems—an unusual composition of large and small. Objects that obscure each other in a surprising way or an unexpected connection of utterly unrelated elements.

I need to start with bravado: The composition, the rendering, the colors need to be daring to ruffle the expectation of the viewer. But if I go too far, I end up with a confusing mess. No matter what the plan is, the moment the brush touches the paper, everything changes. The idea in my mind is different from what materializes on the page.

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When my imagination hits the reality of the rendering, things get interesting. Now the drawing invents its own laws, and the challenge is to find out where it wants to go. I have to be brave and quick-witted enough to abandon the original plan if that’s what the drawing demands.

I draw with colored inks. I love the density and versatility of the pigment. I can create delicate lines when I use a pointy quill or a mad cloud of color when I pick an inch-wide brush. I’ve developed a decent skill with the technique, but it remains unpredictable. Especially when I start adding water, the ink starts behaving erratically, derailing my composition or jump-starting unexpected beauty. The competition of control and chance works best when the drawings remain fairly abstract. Ideally the beauty of abstraction is what you don’t show—readers have to add their experience and expectations into the art.

I often work with negative space. Instead of drawing an object, I fill in only the surrounding parts. The viewer essentially looks at a blank piece of paper but ends up projecting a vivid image that can feel more convincing than the most detailed rendering.

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The most challenging aspect of drawing with ink: There is no Command-Z. Every stroke is final. This is nerve-wracking, but the inherent tension of the process creates an artistic urgency that I don’t experience when I work digitally. Often I start with a number of confident shapes and feel good about myself. But then a fear sets in—I don’t want to mess up what I’ve done. The impulse is to carefully carry the drawing home by focusing on avoiding mistakes. And that, of course, is wrong. I need to go full risk until the end. This is terribly hard. But—just as in sports—the easy thing about the hard things is that they can be tackled with practice. I regularly take time in my studio to ruin drawings.

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I work with ambition, but the purpose of this exercise is to confidently drive the drawing into a concrete wall at full speed. This actually works. It has decreased my fear of making mistakes. Often it’s exactly one of those mistakes that creates an interesting twist. And in some rare cases, I can add another mad move that ties everything together as if it were all part of a deliberate master plan from the get-go. This is actually all pretty stressful, but if I’m lucky, the results are fun to watch.

Kind of like the Masters.

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Christoph Niemann is an artist, author and animator. In addition to Golf Digest, his work appears regularly in The New Yorker, National Geographic and The New York Times Magazine. In 2010, he was inducted into the Art Directors Club Hall Of Fame.


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