In late February, 2015 I began a journey to study Russian Academic drawing. I chose 2 of the most well known masters of the art, Ilya Repin and Nicolai Fechin. Repin was a 19th century painter who helped to establish a tradition of realist, academic art in Russia and brought Russian art into the mainstream of European and western culture. Fechin was a painter and sculptor who moved to America where he became an admired and celebrated artist.
My reason or purpose for studying these Russian masters was to satisfy a curiosity and of course, for the mileage. What I wanted to know was how these men thought and worked. ‘How did they approach head drawing?’ and ‘how did they execute their drawings?’ were the questions I wanted answers to.
In the next 5 weeks, I studied their head drawings almost every day. During that time, I was able to record 2 of the studies (see video below):
To watch Part 2, the study of the reclining female, sign up for my free newsletter below. Simply enter your email below and click the blue button to get access:
For a detailed breakdown of the month long (36 days!) journey, read below.
Feb 22, 2015 – Day 1
I begin this journey by looking at Repin. I have been a fan of Repin for a long, long time. The West Coast / Reilly tradition that I inherited is heavily influenced by Russian academic drawing. So in a way, I was paying homage to the source of everything I had learned and come to love about realist drawing.
At first my goal was simply to observe and understand Repin’s technique and look. I love the way Russian artists draw heads and figures and how they approach form, edges and rendering. They’re use of straights and clearly defined planes is a hallmark of Russian academic drawing and that’s exactly the look I wanted to perfect in my own work.
As you can see in the image above, the first drawing on the left turned out o.k. The drawing on the right was not as successful in my opinion. The lesson I learned here was that it will be extremely difficult to reproduce the effects Repin achieved in his charcoal drawing by using ball point pen which is my current favorite medium.
To stay true to the master, it’s best to use the original medium. But I made a judgement call in the moment and on this day I paid the price for that decision.
Feb 24th – Getting Comfortable
As a look study, I feel these were successful. The drawings feel close to the chiseled and hatched look I wanted. Although the drawings are emotionally flat and lifeless compared to the originals, I was starting to feel comfortable using the pen to match Repin’s charcoal effects.
Feb 28th – Having Fun and Recoding the Demo Video
I was having a lot of fun with these studies at this point so I decided to record a video of the process. Looking back at the first study on the left, it feels very flat and stiff and mechanical. Yes, the drawing is o.k. The technique and execution is good, but I missed so many nuances. For example, I missed the subtle turn in the head and squint in the brow that would have captured his expression and the emotion in his eyes. I missed the subtle bend in the bridge of the nose that would have made the likeness much more personal.
The drawing in the right I feel was more successful as a study. I was probably much more relaxed that day and was able to pay more attention to the nuances of the original.
Also the challenges of recording a video myself is very distracting and effects my concentration. It’s hard to describe the awkward feeling of being recorded unless one has experienced it. Pretty good excuse right? 🙂
March 1st, 2015 – Applying New Skills
I went to the Masters of the West exhibit at the Autry museum in Los Angeles. Although the show is a group show full of outstanding, contemporary (living) artists, one of the painters in my mind stood out from the rest. He is Mian Situ. Mian is one my favorite painters alive today and this was the first time I got to see his work in person. Truly remarkable. Mian and many great Chinese realists were trained in a Chinese academy which is a direct offspring of the Russian Academic model. Because of this, Mian is a very appropriate and suitable artist to study at this point in my life.
After studying Mian’s composition (surprise, surprise, Chris Legaspi studies composition :)) I studied 2 of his heads. These studies were more of look and technique study. As a drew, I saw over and over again, the same techniques and application derived from Russian drawing.
March 3rd – Getting In A Groove
At this point, I felt very confident doing theses studies. My eye was sharp and my penmanship was fluid. Drawing everyday will do that :).
Comparing these two studies, I felt confident that I had the Repin “look” down. I felt like I knew his approach and method well. But, I was also starting to get comfortable, and I knew that eventually I would have to switch things up. Comfort is not for the ambitious.
March 9th – Enter Nicolai Fechin
Nicolai Fechin is another celebrated and well respected Russian master. Born in 1881, Fechin was trained at the Imperial Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg, Russia. In his later years he immigrated to America and became much more recognized then Repin outside of their native Russia.
Fechin is known for his expressive drawing and painting style. It is very eye-catching and has a tremendous emotional quality. What Iadmire about Fechin is that underneath that brilliant technique is legendary draftsmanship and skill.
In these first set of studies, I was just trying to ‘get in the groove’ and get my eyes and my mind accustomed to his work. The biggest thing I noticed after these 2 drawings is how much Fechin seemingly emphasized and even exaggerated anatomy.
March 14th – Emphasizing Form and Caricature
After a few days I was convinced that Fechin exaggerated the features in an almost caricature like manner. He used the features to get his point across. The drawing on the left had some absolutely gorgeous form. The beveled eyes, chiseled nose bridge and cheeks stood out to me. I was feeling drunk on his incredible skill.
The drawing on the right almost feels ‘cartoony’. I consciously tried to exaggerate as I felt Fechin would have as he drew. Looking back, my study is much more of a caricature then the original.
March 22nd – Rhythms, Rhythms and More Rhythms.
The moment I saw this drawing and began to draw I knew Fechin was incredibly aware of rhythms. This drawing has oval rhythms all over it, from start to finish. Ovals are in the head shade, the major masses and even the small features like the bags under the eyes and chins. This rhythmic drawing is so much fun to do and adds so much life to a head drawing.
March 26th – Fechin Was A Sculptor
I knew Fechin was a master of form, but when I showed these studies to Kevin Chen, who is a trusted mentor, he reminded of Fechin’s love of sculpture. Kevin’s reminder caused a huge lightbulb to go off in my mind and I went back to Fechin with the mindset of a sculptor.
These 2 studies above show the rhythmic quality I had learned earlier, but they also have an emphasis on sculpting form. The girl on the left has an incredible 3D quality. The cheek bones feel like sculpted and rounded bone and jumps off the page. The lips feel like soft, 3D flesh coming off the page.
The drawing on the right has a beautiful egg-like rhythm and sculptural look. The egg like eyes jump off the page. The sculpted ball of the mouth feels like she will begin to speak at any moment. Looking through the lens of a sculptor gave me a much greater appreciation for Fechin’s work.
March 28th – A Major Breakthrough!
At this point I had spent over 1 month of staring at and copying masterful drawings. My technique was down. My eyes and hands were sharpened, but there was still something missing. That missing thing was going to be a major breakthrough.
I went back to the interwebs to dig for more Repin drawing gold. Fortunately I discovered a handful of high-res reproductions of Repin’s ‘unfinished’ drawings. Finally I could see his block-in and under-drawing. Finally!
I stared at and contemplated the Repin drawing above for what seemed like a timeless eternity when a flash of inspiration struck. I finally realized what I was missing in these studies. I was missing story and emotion.
After carefully observing this male head drawing I felt an emotional connection. I felt a feeling of “care”. I don’t know who this model was or his relationship to Repin, but I felt they were connected in some way. I imagined that Repin knew this man and either cared for or maybe admired him? At least that was my initial gut feeling.
I also saw for the first time, Repin’s storytelling ability. Every line and mark was carefully placed and designed to tell a story. The forehead and hair line told a story of a man aging and going through time, becoming more knowledgable about himself and the world around him. The chiseled eyes and eye brows told a story of conviction and years of experience in a harsh and changing world. The line work in the arms, fingers and wrist told a story of character and confidence gained from a lifetime of labor.
Personally this was a big, breakthrough moment for me. I had been searching so long for meaning in my work and how to add an emotional quality. After doing these studies and especially after this drawing I feel that my mind had been trained to see and tell stories with my lines, marks and strokes.
April 2nd, 2015 – Putting It All Together
The whole point of study and exercise to gain something you didn’t have before, and ultimately apply it to your work. Knowledge is nothing without application.
When I sat down to do a drawing of Murray Rothbard I was determined to tell a story with the drawing. I sat and stared and contemplated the reference image. It felt like an eternity as a stared at the photograph. I soon began to conjure up emotions that I felt about Murray and I also mixed these emotions with what I was feeling in the moment.
When I began to draw, I made careful choices with my lines and with the design. Rothbard passed away in 1995 but I wanted to communicate to him how much I cared for and admired him. I wanted him to feel my gratitude which was the emotion that was overwhelming me in the moment.
As a drawing I feel good about the execution but the process is what I will always remember. After a month of studying technique I realized that it was second to much more important qualities. Emotion and storytelling was now a part of my picture making. Moving forward I hope I can keep this story first mindset in my drawings and paintings.
As I’m writing this, looking back at 33 days of Repin and Fechin studies, I feel trememdously grateful. I’m grateful to these 2 men and what they have given us and the legacy they left behind.
I’m also grateful for the opportunity to be able to spend the time to draw and study and learn simply because I wanted to. Over the 33 days a lot happened in my personal life, but the need to draw and the desire to improve kept me pushing through. It was often the only relief and comfort I had on many dark days.
Looking back to day 1, I realize I had matured so much in such little time. Even after 2 decades of drawing and practice, I proved to myself that breakthroughs can come if I just commit to drawing daily and use my mind and heart as much as I use my hand.
I’m also grateful to have the tools to be able to tell my story. I’m grateful to you and the audience of this blog. I hope you can see that I absolutely love what I do and am obsessed with drawing and obsessed with constant improvement.
If you like this article and if it was helpful, please share with friends or on social media. I believe any artist or student who hasn’t been exposed to Russian Academic drawing and Russian masters like Repin and Fechin can benefit tremendously from looking at their work. If my thoughts and insights can help, then I feel this article was worth while.
If you like my work, videos, writing and teaching style, then you will definitely enjoy my newsletter. In my newsletter I send out exclusive content and videos that I only release privately to subscribers. Subscription is free. Just enter your email below to get started: