Drawing Basics: Just Imagine–Drawings by Lisa Dinhofer

Into the Light: Yellow by Lisa Dinhofer, drawing in colored pencil and collageThis New York artist draws convincing objects in imaginary spaces, finding meaning in both the items and their presentation.

by Lynne Moss Perricelli

Into the Light: Yellow by Lisa Dinhofer, drawing in colored pencil and collage
Into the Light: Yellow
2004, colored pencil and collage,
19 x 22. Collection the artist.

New York artist Lisa Dinhofer is one of the lucky ones. Despite the cultural mandates to grow up and abandon the joys of childhood, she has never lost her sense of play. In many ways, in fact, Dinhofer makes her work her play by creating drawings and paintings that entice the viewer into a magical space where the objects are real but the space clearly is not.

“I want to create a new world in my work,” she says. “One that the viewer wants to be a part of.” One way she accomplishes this is by using objects with universal appeal, such as her ubiquitous marbles. “Everyone has a story about marbles,” she explains. “They represent a first collection, a first experience with group play, and with games and even gambling.” Other toys that fascinate her include dolls, clowns, and model trains. “We are socialized through toys,” Dinhofer says. “Through creative play we mimic adult life, and toys stay with us forever.”

Besides their symbolic function, these objects make ideal subjects for art. The marbles, for example, “are like abstract paintings,” the artist explains. “I can play with space and color but still remain grounded in the object.” Furthermore, the dolls and clowns suggest the paradox of seemingly innocent toys that look sinister out of context. Dinhofer’s disembodied dolls’ heads and isolated clown faces are unsettling images—playful, even lovely objects that have an edge. “I like for the viewers to see beyond what they might expect,” the artist says.

Strawberries, 2000, graphite drawing

2000, graphite, 18 x 13.
All artwork this article
courtesy Denise Bibro Fine Art,
New York, New York.

Dinhofer’s primary concern is to create an illusion, and she makes a clear distinction between this pursuit and that of being a realist. “It’s part of an evolution I went through,” she says. “I’m interested in spatial relationships. I want to create an image that is believable but fantastic. The viewer can accept the premise, but the objects could not be photographed in the way they appear in the drawing or painting.”

With a body of work that includes—besides works on paper in a variety of media—paintings, prints, and even a glass-tile mosaic commissioned by New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), Dinhofer understands the role of drawings as an essential part of the creative process. She draws daily, believing the practice keeps her skills sharp and provides the opportunity to explore new ideas. “In drawings I get to play, to experiment,” she explains. “Many of the drawings may never become paintings, but I draw because I love it. If the paintings are novels, the drawings are essays, poems—sometimes they’re just thoughts.” Indeed, she never starts a painting without first making drawings. Some of her ideas for paintings have come from small, cursory sketches, while others originated from one interesting idea in a detailed, complex drawing. When she comes to a difficult passage in a painting, she often makes a drawing to work out a resolution. Her series of cherries, pears, and insects served as life studies for later paintings. “I’ve made entire paintings of subjects that may die, working from life and studies,” she adds.

The artist maintains several custom-made sketchbooks of Fabriano paper in various weights and colors. Some she uses for figure drawing sessions, a practice she thinks of as a warm-up, likening it to a pianist doing scales.

Entering the Web 2004, graphite drawing
Entering the Web
2004, graphite, 22 x 30.

“I have to feel confident in drawing the figure because I teach the figure,” she says, “but I also believe that if I can draw the figure well, I can draw anything.” Other sketchbooks—with mostly white and off-white Somerset paper—are for the other subjects she fancies at a given moment, including birds, flowers, insects, mice, and skulls. The paper’s substantial weight allows her to work on both sides and in both wet and dry media, primarily graphite, colored pencil, and watercolor. Drawing five or six hours a day, Dinhofer typically works on one or two drawings in one of the sketchbooks, while on other days she concentrates on a more developed drawing that may take several weeks to complete.

Some of Dinhofer’s drawings feature a shallow picture plane and a lone object, with no horizon line, while others are decidedly more complex, with multiple objects and a sense of deep space. Because the artist always works from life, for these more complicated pieces she constructs an elaborate still-life setup consisting of a couple of tiers made of Plexiglas, which allows her to view each level at the same time. For Entering the Web, for instance, she laid a watercolor painting of a sunburst on a tabletop, then placed four small Plexiglas blocks and a piece of thin Plexiglas on top, onto which she put a cobweb drawn on acetate, several marbles, a skull, and a few dried insects. On top of that plane she placed another set of four small Plexiglas blocks and a sheet of Plexiglas, onto which she arranged more marbles and insects. The arrangement yielded three distinct planes that she could fuse into a two-dimensional image. As Dinhofer puts it, “The objects observed through the Plexiglas have weight but seem suspended in space. Therefore I can draw the reflected light and shadows as if my subjects were flying in one instance and grounded in another.”

Losing My Marbles No. 1, mixed media drawing
Losing My Marbles No. 1
2002, mixed media,
15 x 20.

Dinhofer’s interest in creating an illusion and conveying a sense of play culminated in Losing My Marbles, a project commissioned by the MTA Arts for Transit program. Consisting of five walls, the mural was installed at the Times Square subway station in 2003 and measures approximately 9' x 90'. “I had been making chine collé prints, with a shadow that stretched across the bevel from the plate onto the paper,” she describes. “I liked the idea of the subject leaving the borders of the print, and I thought that with a wall as the surface, I could break out of the rectangle. I had been working with marbles since 1985, and they are part of my signature, so I thought this was a chance to let the marbles escape.” Using a ballpoint pen or graphite pencil, the artist made a series of thumbnail drawings that explored different approaches to this concept, with the marbles coming off the wall, the floor tilting. “I wanted to create a piece that was site-specific,” she says, “and I wanted to open up the area, make it joyous.” As always for Dinhofer, drawings were central to refining the concept. “There’s never a big bang. It’s always the sixth, seventh, or eighth idea that starts to gel,” she adds.

Dinhofer was chosen as a finalist for the subway commission based on slides she sent the MTA. Then, working with an 11"-x-17" architectural rendering, the artist made about four drawings—in graphite and colored pencil—on top of the rendering, using color copies of the marbles from her paintings so that she could more easily play with their scale and positioning. After she had finalized the imagery, she made two scale drawings, one that was 1/2" per square foot, which the mosaic fabricator used to bid on the project, and another that was 1" per square foot, which served as the final maquette. She used graphite, gouache, watercolor, and collage to make the scale drawings. In addition, to show the MTA committee a representative marble, she made a 12" square marble in oil-on-paper. Dinhofer won the commission based on the maquette.

In terms of subject matter, Losing My Marbles exemplifies Dinhofer’s sense of play—her pleasure in expertly rendering shiny, colorful things in a skewed space. The marbles seem to come at the viewer, to float, and all in a lively and engaging presentation of color and light, which greatly improves the antiseptic environment of the subway station. Travelers, who become inadvertent viewers, seem to love the piece. “Kids especially love the marbles,” the artist says. “People tell me they see tourists taking pictures of their kids in front of the mural.”

31 Marbles and a Mouse, oil painting
31 Marbles and a Mouse
1997, oil on panel, 18 x 22.

Like Dinhofer’s other marble pieces, Losing My Marbles does not suggest a narrative per se, although some of her other works could be described as such. The artist explains that for her drawings with multiple objects she simply puts the items together and adjusts them to see if a story emerges, even if she’s not sure what the story is. 31 Marbles and a Mouse, for instance, combines inanimate and animate objects on the same scale. “The mouse is looking at the toy hopper filled with marbles,” the artist explains, “and maybe the mouse represents the viewer. It’s hard to tell what’s going on.” More recently, The Precipice combines the mouse with a web, marbles, and insects.  The branch and leaves in the foreground stabilize the pictorial space while the web, drawn in one-point perspective, moves the viewer uneasily into the unknown. These pieces point to Dinhofer’s willingness to take risks and to play with her subjects, and to her openness to whatever story might emerge.

“I’ve always loved beautiful things,” Dinhofer says, “but you have to be careful about making just pretty pictures. There has to be something more.” Fortunately for Dinhofer, she has been able to find the content she wants in the objects she loves. By moving real objects into imaginary realms, she can not only thrill viewers with her consummate drawing skills but leave them guessing. Her work silences, for a moment, that mandate to grow up. It seems to say, “For now, just imagine.” 

The Precipice 2004, graphite drawing
The Precipice
2004, graphite,
25 x 15. Courtesy Denise Bibro
Fine Art, New York, New York.

About the Artist
Lisa Dinhofer earned her B.A. from Brandeis University, in Waltham, Massachusetts, and her M.F.A. from the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia. She has had many solo exhibitions, most recently in November 2005 at Denise Bibro Fine Art, in New York City. Her glass-tile mosaic mural, Losing My Marbles, a project commissioned by the New York City Metropolitan Transportation Authority for its Arts for Transit program, is installed at the Times Square subway station at Eighth Avenue. Her paintings and drawings have appeared in many group shows, and the artist is a recipient of such awards as the Gladys Emerson Cook Prize, from the National Academy of Design, in New York City, and artist’s fellowships from The MacDowell Colony and Yaddo. She teaches figure drawing at the National Academy School of Fine Arts, in New York City, and is represented by Denise Bibro Fine Art, also in New York City.

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