Drawing Basics: Judith Carducci's Workshop and the Benefits of Drawing and Working From Life

During a recent plein air workshop in Southern France, Judith Carducci helped students who worked with pen-and-ink, pastel, watercolor, and oil colors. The unifying themes of the 10-day class were that drawing basics are a foundation of all media and working from life would benefit every participant.

by M. Stephen Doherty

Judith Carducci offered a pastel-painting demonstration of the market in Sarlat, France.

Judith Carducci offered a pastel-painting
demonstration of the market in Sarlat, France.

John Singer Sargent may have said he could paint anywhere he found a distinct pattern of sunlight and shadow, but even he would have to admit that a stunningly beautiful location, sumptuous meals, a knowledgeable instructor, and a relaxed environment can provide an increased amount of inspiration.

All of those conditions existed during Judith Carducci’s recent workshop at a private estate in the Lot River Valley in Southwest France organized by Great American Art Works—a manufacturer of quality pastels—as part of their Box Top Tours Workshops. This was one of a series of workshops led by nationally known artists who developed sets of pastels for Great American and allow their paintings to be reproduced on the top of the boxes.

Carducci is best known for her pastel paintings, especially those commissioned by portrait clients, and she is in great demand as a demonstrator and workshop leader of classes in pastel painting. But the Ohio artist spent many years working in oil, and she has always emphasized the importance of drawing with ink, charcoal, graphite, Conté, and pastel.

“I conduct several kinds of workshops,” Carducci explains. “The one I offer on pastel is for artists who want to learn to use the medium, and I discuss the history of pastels, the different materials and strokes, the use of pastel as a drawing and painting medium, the care and framing of finished paintings, and the potential to combine media.

Market at Salat by Judith Carducci, 2008, pastel drawing

Market at Salat by Judith Carducci,
2008, pastel drawing, 18 x 12.
Collection the artist.

“My other workshops are devoted to portraiture and plein air painting,” the artist continues. “This particular workshop in France was about working en plein air, not about pastel, and the participants had a mix of experiences to build on. For example, Ann Manry Kenyon, an experienced professional portrait painter who had never worked en plein air, started the week working in pastel and then felt confident enough to switch to watercolor. Her daughter, Dawn, was more comfortable creating drawings in graphite and ink. Several other participants started in one medium and shifted to another toward the end of the week. Each participant was given a box of Great American pastels, so it was convenient to experiment with them.

“During the workshop, I covered all the issues of concern to outdoor painters, regardless of the medium students were using,” Carducci says. “I focused on the peculiar demands of working directly from nature under constantly changing light, and it made sense for the participants to use the medium they were most familiar with while tackling those demands. We dealt with the following issues that are relevant to plein air:

  1. Light changes significantly every few minutes.
  2. Working on small surfaces reduces the amount of time spent covering the surface and therefore helps in quickly capturing the light and shadows.
  3. There isn’t time to waste or agonize over decisions.
  4. If the center of interest is a particular light effect, it is important to memorize it, as it will be gone in a moment.
  5. ‘Sky holes’ in trees are darker than the sky below them.
  6. The tops of trees are affected by ‘sky shine.’
  7. Atmospheric perspective makes objects appear lighter, cooler, and less detailed with distance.
  8. Objects in fog will still have edges.
  9. Trees, like people, are identifiable by silhouette and structural anatomy.
  10. Green comes in great variety, and the sky is not always blue.
  11. The direction of light needs to be consistent in a painting.
  12. Shadows and reflections on water are not the same thing.
  13. Dark objects will appear lighter in reflections and light objects will appear darker in reflections.
  14. Waves have structure, and their light/colors are different depending on the weather.
  15. Relative value is the structure of a painting.
  16. Relative color temperature and chroma are secondary to the composition of a picture.

Carducci’s drawing of a lavender field and the set of Great American Artworks pastels she used.

Carducci’s drawing of a lavender field
and the set of Great American
Artworks pastels she used.

“When I teach a workshop in portraiture, the instruction applies to any medium the students might want to use,” Carducci adds. “In fact, portraiture is so demanding that the only course I offer in that genre that is limited to pastel is a master class open to people who are proficient in drawing or pastel painting. I don’t want beginners to become completely discouraged because they are learning too many things all at once. It’s unrealistic to think a novice can learn to draw and understand pastels during a short-term workshop.”

During the workshop in France, Carducci offered step-by-step demonstrations but she didn’t insist that all the students watch the presentations. “They had the choice of watching me paint and talk about the process, they could work alongside me on their own paintings and ask questions, or they could paint completely on their own and ask for a critique in the evening. The point was to encourage participants to set their own agendas depending on their skill levels and personal interests.”

This was the second travel program Carducci taught in France that was part of the Box Top Workshops. The first one, in 2006, was organized after she finished assembling a box of 78 pastels appropriate for painting figures and portraits. “Bob Strohsahl, the owner of Great American Art Works, asked several pastel painters to select colors for sets appropriate for the specific subjects for which they are best known; and then he suggested that each of us teach students how to work with those palettes of pastel,” Carducci explains. “He suggested that we offer the courses at the magnificent Domaine du Haut Baran, in Le Quercy, France, owned by William and Rosalie Haas of Cincinnati, Ohio. Le Quercy is located in the triangle between Bordeaux, Limoges, and Toulouse, France. William grew up in France and speaks the language fluently, and Rosalie is a fabulous gourmet chef. It was just the perfect combination of circumstances for an inspiring workshop. I called my 2006 workshop ‘Faces of Europe’ because the plan was to concentrate on painting portraits and figure studies. The landscape, with its walled towns, rivers, and markets was so inspiring that we alternated between portraits/figures and landscapes, and we placed the model in outdoor settings.”

At the end of the day students met in the town pavilion for drawing critiques.

At the end of the day students met in the
town pavilion for drawing critiques.

In 2007 Carducci conducted a workshop in Italy for Box Top Tours Workshop, and she returned to France in June of 2008. “This time the lavender was in bloom and the light and colors were quite different from those of 2006 when the workshop took place in late fall,” she says. “On days when the weather wasn’t promising, we worked in town where we could find lots of sheltered locations from which to paint one picture in the morning and another in the afternoon. Normally I would attempt a third painting in the later afternoon, but Rosalie prepared such lavish dinners that provoked great satisfaction and enjoyable conversation that none of us wanted to miss them. I’m already looking forward to the workshop I will teach at the same location in 2010.”

In all of Carducci’s workshops, including this one, she gives a “sermon” to students about the importance of drawing and the limitations of working from photographs. “Photographic references are useful tools, but it is important to know how and when to use them,” she explained. “It is not possible to learn to draw by copying photographs. One becomes an artist and trains the eye and hand by working from life. After mastering the skills of seeing values and colors and creating expressive marks and strokes, the artist knows how to deal with the distortions of photographs and how to create a work of art—a different genre altogether from photography. Premature reliance on photographs is the kiss of death to artistic training. There are no shortcuts.”

Roman Bridge, Le Quercy by Judith Carducci, 2006, pastel drawing

Roman Bridge, Le Quercy
by Judith Carducci, 2006, pastel drawing, 12 x 9. Private collection.

After workshop participants returned to their studios, they kept hearing Carducci’s voice in their heads as if she were continuing to offer advice about both drawing and painting materials as well as the techniques she demonstrated. “Judy is an exceptional teacher in that she is very knowledgeable, she explains things well, and she motivates students with her enthusiasm,” says one workshop participant. “Moreover, the location was so beautiful and the camaraderie among the participants was so valuable that we couldn’t have had a better experience.”    

About the Artist
Judith Carducci retired as a social worker and then resumed her interest in drawing and painting that she has had since childhood. She studied watercolor with Mel Chevers and oil painting with C.A. Brodeur until she was in her mid-20s, and later studied with Daniel E. Greene and other nationally known artists. She quickly established herself as a one of today’s best portrait painters, and her work has since been exhibited at The National Arts Club and The Salmagundi Art Club, both in New York City, as well as The Cahoon Museum of American Art, in Massachusetts, and The Butler Institute of American Art, in Youngstown, Ohio; and it has been reproduced in a number of art magazines and books. She is a member of the Portrait Society of America, the Pastel Society of America, the Cincinnati Art Club, and the Degas Pastel Society. She is represented by Portrait Brokers of America and Portraits South, and she recently appeared as a courtroom artist in a television commercial for VitaminWater that starred LeBron James.

For more information on Carducci, visit her website at www.judithcarducci.com.

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