Drawing Lessons from Thomas Hart Benton

Drawing Lessons from Thomas Hart Benton: Thomas Hart Benton Thursday Night at the Cock-and-Bull. It’s the Maid’s Night Out, 1937 Ink, watercolor, gouache, and graphite on paper 12 5⁄8 × 16 3⁄4 in.
Thursday Night at the Cock-and-Bull. It’s the Maid’s Night Out by Thomas Hart Benton, 1937, ink, watercolor, gouache, and graphite on paper, 12 5⁄8 × 16 3⁄4 in.

An American Master & Drawing Was His Thing

A few years ago, I left Manhattan and went to Manhattan—Kansas, that is. I was a bit wary as I landed in the midst of a harsh storm, but looked forward to seeing all the Midwest had to offer. During my trip I visited the Nelson-Atkins Museum, in Kansas City, Missouri, and rediscovered the work of Thomas Hart Benton. I realized there was a lot I hadn’t learned about the artist. I’d always thought of Benton as a muralist. A docent informed me that most of the Regionalist artist’s work is rooted in drawings and pencil sketching.

Sketching Tour

In the late 1920s, Benton went on a six-month sketching tour across the country. He found much of the subject matter that would provide the inspiration for the rest of his artistic career. He sketched the Ozark Mountains of Missouri, steel mills in Pittsburgh, lumber camps in the Appalachian Mountains, the New Orleans nightlife, riverboats along the Mississippi, Texas ranches and oil fields, and much more. Benton wasn’t sketching as a remote observer, simply passing through and ogling the locals. He connected with the people and places he met along the way. Drawing was a means of interacting just like sharing a meal.

I like Benton’s pencil sketches mostly because they are neither photorealistic nor pristinely finished. They are raw, done in the moment, and reflect Benton’s time with his subjects.

Drawing lessons from THB: Study for Farming by Thomas Hart Benton, drawing, 1937.
Study for Farming by Thomas Hart Benton, drawing, 1937.

Learning from His Drawings

Here’s what looking at Benton’s sketches has taught me:

-Benton knew how to sketch all the vibrancy and life he saw by freely moving objects around. This creates a dynamic composition, conflating figures and their gestures and movements.

-He moved around a scene. First sketching an overall view, and then drawing several close-ups—of figures, an interesting gesture, or the composition from a different angle.

-Benton’s career was steeped in the art of the political cartoon. Many of his drawings emphasize motions, a person’s features, and lines of perspective. He controlled his message with the exaggerations he chose to include.

Loading Cotton Onto the Tennessee Belle, 1928, drawing; graphite, pen-and-ink, and wash on paper, 10 x 14.
Loading Cotton Onto the Tennessee Belle, 1928, drawing; graphite, pen-and-ink, and wash on paper, 10 x 14.

-There were different types of drawings for Benton. Some were life drawings, showing figures and landscapes. Compositional drawings were used to analyze the design of a work or how elements in a scene related to one another. Drawings were created before, during, and after a painting was created, and served to enrich even his large-scale murals.

It’s All in the Figure

For me, the final insight about Benton’s work is that the body, the land, the face–it is all given the same treatment. In a very modern way, Benton used the same approach to all of his subjects. His style of working was that inherent. If you want to start sketching figures, and by extension everything else you could possibly want, start with Brent Eviston’s Figure Drawing Essentials. In this video lesson, you will get started with gesture and shape–much the way Benton would advocate!

For Benton, drawing and sketching weren’t art forms that belonged behind glass in a frame. They were in his hands all the time; the workhorse and creative engine of his art. Learning how to sketch and how to utilize your sketches is really what sustains an artist. Figure Drawing Essentials: Getting Started with Gesture & Shape can help you on this path. It is filled with detailed tips and techniques and effective sketching demonstrations that allow you to explore your world through drawing, just like Benton did. Enjoy!

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Courtney Jordan

About Courtney Jordan

  Courtney is the editor of Artist Daily. For her, art is one of life’s essentials and a career mainstay. She’s pursued academic studies of the Old Masters of Spain and Italy as well as museum curatorial experience, writing and reporting on arts and culture as a magazine staffer, and acquiring and editing architecture and cultural history books. She hopes to recommit herself to more studio time, too, working in mixed media.   

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