Drawing Basics: Henry Casselli Draws from the Inside Out

7 Mar 2008

Throughout his long career, Henry Casselli has looked to drawings to clarify his impressions and better understand his subject.

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by Lynne Moss Perricelli

Study for Sparring Partner, 2005, graphite drawing by Henry Casselli
Study for Sparring Partner
2005, graphite, 18 x 24.
Private collection.
Graphite drawing by Henry Casselli, Study for Blue
Study for Blue
1987, graphite, 18 x 24.
Private collection.

Henry Casselli is almost never without paper and pencil, and this has been the case for most of his life. When parents today ask him how to nurture an interest in art in their children, Casselli advises them to make sure sketching materials are always available. “That child will go to art school soon enough and then spend the rest of his or her life undoing all of that education, trying to get back to the feeling and honesty behind those first marks,” he says. “If the honesty of effort and desire are truly there, the artist within reveals itself.” The same principle applies in Casselli’s own approach, as he often relies on drawing as an end unto itself and also as the primary resource and tool in his process of expressing a subject “from the gut,” as he describes it.

Casselli’s oeuvre consists mostly of figurative subjects, portraits done on commission and others of his own devising. No matter how a subject comes to him, however, he creates the art only from his own experience and emotional response and tells portrait clients from the beginning that he can only paint what is there, that he is not in the business of vanity portraiture. Whether the subject is the president of the United States, a young black child, a bucket, or a ballerina, Casselli follows the same approach and is equally inspired by what he tries to uncover and convey about his subject, emphasizing that there are no rules or magic formulas. “There is, however, even now and today, that moment of fright when I face a blank page, and I feel strongly that all would be lost if that moment is ever replaced by overconfidence,” he says. So in approaching a new drawing he calls upon both what he sees and what he feels, adding, “Every moment, every experience in life with all the people I encounter, affects what I do. Every sketch, painting, or portrait informs the process of the current drawing.”

Graphite drawing by Henry Casselli, Study for Sashay
Study for Sashay
2003, graphite, 18 x 24.
The Ernie and Lieselotte Tansey Collection
at the New Orleans Museum
of Art, New Orleans, Louisiana.

With such an openness to life’s experiences, and all that can be gained through the process of drawing, it should come as no surprise that Casselli finds subjects everywhere he looks, and he spends a great deal of time making drawings. “My favorite thing to do is to draw,” he says. “I draw every day, scribbling away at something that stimulates me. When I’m working on a painting or a commission, I invariably find that I will go back and do more drawings of the subject. I can thus better familiarize myself with the subject and find other ideas and approaches. I can also explore emotion in a drawing, and get more feeling down on paper, and that affects what will happen in the painting.”

In recalling how he arrived at such a facility with pencil and paper, Casselli points to a series of fortuitous events. Probably the most significant of which was a scholarship he won to the John McCrady Art School, in his hometown of New Orleans, where he developed a close personal and working relationship with the school’s founder, the Social Realist John McCrady. Casselli became a kind of son to McCrady, who shared his techniques and his extensive art library, and after a year at the school, McCrady made Casselli an assistant, a position in which he flourished as both teacher and student. Two-and-a-half years after starting school, however, Casselli left to join the Marine Corps as a combat artist. On the move for 14 months in Vietnam, he documented “life and death, horror and tragedy,” he says. “Oftentimes I had to toss my pencil away and survive, and obviously such experiences change one’s work. In hindsight, I can see a huge jump in the quality of the line, in learning to simplify and to say more with less.”

Graphite drawing by Henry Casselli, Anne and Rachel
Anne and Rachel
1995, graphite, 24 x 18.
The Ernie and Lieselotte Tansey
Collection at the New Orleans
Museum of Art, New Orleans,
Louisiana.
Graphite drawing by Henry Casselli, Flamenco (Vickie)
Flamenco (Vickie)
2006, graphite, 24 x 18.
The Ernie and Lieselotte Tansey
Collection at the New
Orleans Museum of Art,
New Orleans, Louisiana.

The experience of working spontaneously in such demanding circumstances no doubt advanced Casselli’s skills considerably, and the drawings that resulted—which are in the collection of the Marine Corps—caught the attention decades later of the director of the NASA art program, who was looking for an artist to document the astronauts as they prepared for the first launch of the Space Shuttle Columbia in April 1981. “I told them I don’t do rockets,” recalls the artist. “But they said they wanted me to concentrate my efforts on the astronauts, get to know them during their training.” Casselli followed the astronauts for a year, and on launch day he was among the few people who had access to them. He drew them from the minute they awoke until they walked into the craft, and “it was exhilarating,” he says. By then he had begun to see the astronauts—John W. Young and Robert Crippen—more as friends than as subjects, and this is reflected in the emotional content of the drawings.

The notoriety he gained from the NASA drawings—which are shared by the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, both in Washington, DC—led to other important commissions, including a portrait of President Ronald Reagan. When he began this project he was told he might have only about 15 minutes with the president in the Oval Office and that he could consult the White House photo archives for whatever additional images he might need. “I told them I don’t work that way, much less from other people’s photos,” he says, adding that he almost walked away from the commission. On the day of his appointment, however, Casselli brought his sketchbook and pencil along with a camera, and fortunately the visit lasted more than four days, during which Casselli made 32 drawings of “everything from good scribbles that are incomplete to more finished drawings and sketches,” he describes. He also made what he calls “word sketches” in a journal, a private collection of descriptive observations used to cement impressions. “The president was very open, and we had a wonderful visit,” Casselli says. “The drawings reflect that. You can see it happening, and that is as much to his credit as mine.”

Graphite drawing by Henry Casselli, Katrina's Left Behind, No. 1
Katrina’s Left Behind, No. 1
2005, graphite, 17 x 14.
The Ernie and Lieselotte Tansey
Collection at the New
Orleans Museum of Art,
New Orleans, Louisiana.
Graphite drawing by Henry Casselli, Young Men Growing Old
Young Men
Growing Old

1968, graphite, 14 x 17.
Collection the artist.

As in the portrait commission of former President Reagan, Casselli begins any new portrait or painting with drawings of the subject in his or her environment. “I have to get to know the person, to get inside, to find whatever it is that makes the individual who he or she is. I have no explanation for how that happens, but it takes a lot of drawings and a lot of visiting.” Of course some subjects are more accessible than others. A recent commission for a portrait for the home of a prominent businessman presented some serious challenges. “He kept throwing up a veneer,” Casselli recalls. “I kept telling him he didn’t have to be on that side of the desk, that this was a portrait for home.” The artist persisted in his sketches and his visits to the subject, hoping for a breakthrough. “It took two years,” he adds, “but I finally saw him and had a glimpse of who he really is, and the subject said he felt the shift himself.”

Once back in the studio, Casselli makes more drawings as he works on the painting. “I might want to explore a different pose or different aspect of the subject,” he explains, “and I can sit and think with pencil and paper—have a conversation with myself.” The drawing process stimulates new drawings, which continue to inform the painting. “The drawings assist me, help me to understand my subject, and push me along,” the artist describes. All the energy and emotion within the imagery, however, originates from the artist’s initial response to the subject and what he has absorbed in subsequent visits, and to this end the artist puts away all the preliminary drawings, notes, and photographs at this point. “I don’t impose any scenario or environment on the subject,” he explains. “I get to know the subject and see what develops. It’s a process of discovery that can last for years.

Graphite drawing by Henry Casselli, I Wish I Could Fly
I Wish I Could Fly
2005, graphite,
24 x 18.
Collection the artist.
Graphite drawing by Henry Casselli, Operation Napoleon--Saline, Cua Viet River, Vietnam
Operation Napoleon—Saline,
Cua Viet River, Vietnam

1968, graphite and watercolor,
14 x 17. Collection the artist.

Although some of his drawings can be grouped together, Casselli tends not to work in series. One exception centered on Hurricane Katrina, an experience that compelled him to create a series of drawings in the midst of the aftermath, but it was unintentional. “I watched my old neighborhood disappear, and I swore I would not make Katrina artwork,” he recalls. “I bought some supplies while I was away from the city for two months, and my first sketch was a Katrina image. The second was also Katrina, so I stopped working.” After returning home, Casselli was consumed for the first year with the needs of others. “I was born and raised in the Ninth Ward, and although there were only bumps and bruises to my current home in the Garden District, my old stomping grounds—that piece of mud from which I came—was wiped away. The people there were a lot worse off than I was, and I found it difficult to sit in my studio and paint while those people were suffering. All my physical and emotional energies were directed toward them.”

About a year later, Casselli realized that it was time to turn his attention back to his own family and work, but every time he picked up a pencil “out came Katrina,” he says. “I tossed them into a filing cabinet. My plan was that no one would see them, but the drawings kept coming.” At the time the artist was in discussions with the New Orleans Museum of Art about a retrospective exhibition of a collection of Casselli’s drawings owned by a German couple. Katrina seriously damaged the museum, however, and the show and the catalogue were set aside while the museum recovered. Meanwhile, the German collector learned of the artist’s Katrina drawings and asked to see them. Casselli resisted, insisting they were private works, “and they were drawn in tears.” Eventually he acquiesced, however, and when the collector said she wanted to purchase them and add them to the group she and her husband donated to the New Orleans Museum of Art, Casselli agreed to the sale only with the understanding that the drawings would be kept together as a group and that they should be set before the public as a witness, as a reminder of what happened. In this way the Katrina drawings parallel the combat drawings, which also serve as a record of the experience for the people involved. “From time to time there is another feeling for a Katrina painting from the drawings, but I won’t allow it,” he adds. “Katrina has become commercialized and it’s become a negative in a whole other sense, and I don’t want to be a part of that.”

Graphite drawing by Henry Casselli, Mr. Owen
Mr. Owen
2006, graphite, 18 x 24.
Private collection.
Graphite drawing by Henry Casselli, When Thoughts Turn Inward
When Thoughts
Turn Inward

1981, graphite, 18 x 24.
Private collection.

As with his direct approach to drawing, Casselli uses only the simplest of drawing materials. He favors everyday No. 2 graphite pencils or Ebony pencils. Occasionally he uses graphite blocks, which he turns on the side to use the edge, and he also prefers Strathmore 400 series or Canson drawing pads. When he begins a new sketch he frequently scribbles down the left side of the paper, gradually making the line lighter in value. “I’m readying the pencil and my brain,” he says, “and I go from bearing down to only lightly touching the paper. I only recently became aware that I have been doing that for years when getting ready to do a drawing.” He likes the tooth of Strathmore and Canson papers, which suits his looser, less detailed style. He tends to use a pencil down to a stub and then extend its life with a pencil holder. Casselli also uses a kneaded eraser to lift out and soften lines but never for erasing, insisting that it is a drawing instrument and “not a crutch.”

The artist tends to favor larger-format papers, often employing an 18"-x-24" pad. “I instinctively go right to where the drawing has to be placed within that format,” he says. “I compose on the whole sheet. Through many years of doing it, instinct is guiding where the drawing should be placed, and I’m comfortable with that size.”

Graphite drawing by Henry Casselli, President Ronald Reagan (Oval Office)
President Ronald Reagan (Oval Office)
1988, graphite, 20 x 16.
Private collection.

In the same way that Casselli favors only the simplest materials, he seeks to state something of the essential nature of his subject—the emotional and physical reality. In adhering closely to his own response, he must know the subject and himself intimately, and trust that this is the process by which the personal becomes universal. As he has shown at every stage of his career, desire and honesty—as he advises parents wanting to nurture a child’s artistic bent—are at the core of what he or any artist will create.

About the Artist

Henry Casselli, of New Orleans, has received numerous honors and awards, including the Gold Medal of Honor from the American Watercolor Society. His work is widely collected and hangs in such prominent museum collections as the National Portrait Gallery, in Washington, DC, and the New Orleans Museum of Art. A member of the National Academy of Design and a Dolphin Fellow of the American Watercolor Society, Casselli has completed portrait commissions of such notable individuals as President Ronald Reagan and Muhammad Ali. 


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Comments

Sergio wrote
on 24 Jan 2008 10:38 AM
these are a great studies, for a great artist, thanks for the article!
Anthony Sean Penn wrote
on 25 Jan 2008 2:05 AM
I never thought pencil drawings can end up as final artworks that can stand by themselves. I'm very inspired by this article.
Bill wrote
on 1 Feb 2008 12:20 PM
I'll bet he studied Ingres...
Will Lannes wrote
on 29 Feb 2008 1:14 PM
Great article. I am 70 years old and only recently gotten back into art. I am taking a art course from Brandi Downs in a church program. I was supprised I had not heard of the artist since I live in New Orleans and served in the Marines (59-70) includng a tour in Viet Nam. Really enjoyed the art and the information on a remarkable New Orleanian.
Elise Lewis wrote
on 22 Mar 2008 10:42 PM
Henry, the article is great and so are the drawings. I definitely want to see more. And I am tickled silly at your success.