April Coppini, artist and mother of three, shares the fascination that keeps her motivated and her process for creating charcoal drawings that are sometimes chaotic, and sometimes calm.
BY APRIL COPPINI
Life is messy. It is full of unexpected twists and turns and never-ending responsibilities and distractions. As I write there are bikes left in the rain, several loads of laundry in two towering piles (dirty and clean) threatening to topple, and a long list of things I can’t quite call to mind that I’m sure I’m forgetting as a parent. (And I definitely should’ve left a chore list for my thirteen-year-old because that would have helped me with all of this.)
But if I’m ever going to get to work, at some point (and virtually any point in time will be just like this one—full of crazy loose ends), I just have to walk away. And if I were the romanticized version of the artist I’ve always wanted to be I would walk down the stairs into my basement studio, take a few deep breaths, stretch, clear my mind (maybe meditate for ten minutes) and then, with focus and drive and intent all aligned, I would work. Like a whirlwind. Channeling genius. I would draw the perfect line.
But I’m not. And I don’t work that way. I carry the mess of life with me. I follow no logical order or ritual except to make a cup of tea and bring it down with me. I am the dog that goes to lie down and circles and circles and circles on the bed before settling. If I’m not careful, this means I tidy the studio, answer emails, clean the litter box, anything and everything but draw. I do usually sit for a few minutes, and maybe measure and tear paper or sort through my photo references . . . but my time to work is quite spare, so I try to come at it wherever I am.
Despite all efforts to clear and focus, all the things in the life of a single mother of three remain in my head. How this looks on the paper in charcoal is some days chaotic, some days more calm. If I tried to draw the perfect line, if I tried for perfect focus, I just wouldn’t ever be able to draw. I cannot do that, so what I do is hit the drawing board with mark after mark after mark—I look, I think, I record, over and over with all the everything still there, interrupting me, occasionally stopping to answer an email I’ve suddenly remembered I should have responded to already.
I look for form, I try to find the way a thing moves in space, I chase the perfect line, and I draw ten thousand wrong ones. I draw and I draw and I draw until my arm aches and the thing I’m drawing is a nearly unrecognizable black blob (“Is that supposed to be a bee?” asks my thirteen-year-old).
This is life, and this next part is the bit that I’ve fallen for. It IS a mess, it is unpredictable and sometimes dark and often challenging. But it is also magical. And there are moments of brilliance. As a parent, especially, you must pull the light from the darkness. In the worst moments you find the hope, or the humor, or the sparrow nesting in the tree outside the kitchen window that you only noticed because you were stuck forever at the sink doing dishes.
And so here I shift gears. With sliced pieces of hard white eraser I go back into my drawing—this field of black—and I pull out the form, I look for the bright spots. And so in reverse, with eraser mark after eraser mark, again I draw. Sometimes I go back and forth, between charcoal and eraser. Things clean up. I start to see what I’m drawing. The paper (Rives BFK—tough as nails) forgives me my mess. I don’t think I’m fully responsible for what happens here; it feels like a miracle that any of my drawings turn out at all.
I am so in love with line, and in all its abilities not just to describe a thing, but to describe space and connection and mood and motion—and emotion. This fascination keeps me motivated and engaged. But I can’t start there—I only get there by first making a mess. Being able to start with a mess keeps me working, and out of all of it, somehow, I find something—a vital spark of life, the unnamable energy between things (Higgs boson particles?), the quietness of breath, the curve of a muscle, light bounced off a fragile translucent wing.
What is your art process like? Share it with us in the comments below.
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Thank you April – I plan to share your article with my High School art classes. I think my advanced students will question, yet understand your ‘chaotic’ approach. While my beginners will need more experience before they can truly appreciate your ‘style’. Understanding the Basics of Drawing IS THE FUNDAMENTAL that I focus on as an instructor. Love your work (I completely understand your daily studio routine).
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