Drawing Lessons from Thomas Hart Benton

7 Nov 2013

Hollywood Note: Thursday Night at the ***-and-Bull, It's the Maid's Night Out by Thomas Hart Benton, drawing 1937.
Hollywood Note: Thursday Night at the ***-and-Bull,
It's the Maid's Night Out
by Thomas Hart Benton, drawing 1937.
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, and realized there was a lot I hadn’t learned about the artist. I’d always thought of Benton as a muralist, but a docent informed me that most of the Regionalist artist’s work is rooted in drawings and pencil sketching.

In the late 1920s, Benton went on a six-month sketching tour across the country, where 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. What intrigues me is that 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, and 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.

Study for Farming, 1935, drawing.
Study for Farming, 1935,
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 to create 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, and 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.

TK's book Sketching Your World is a resource that teaches you to approach sketching the same way Benton did, as both a means of understanding his surroundings and as the basis for finished paintings. 

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. Sketching Your World 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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Paula-RayM wrote
on 19 Feb 2011 9:47 AM

Benton's "Hollywood Note..." may be dated 1937 but it could be a lot of places today in NYC, Boston & San Fran (or any city).

carptrash wrote
on 19 Feb 2011 7:25 PM

Thanks for reminding me of how good THB was.  eek

davidraison wrote
on 14 Nov 2013 9:01 AM

Shame about the censorship in the drawing's title (...*** and bull). Let's get real about language please.