January 12, 2009 — University of Virginia studio art professor Megan Marlatt led a group of 24 students in what she referred to as a "monumental drawing marathon" in the new January Term class she led last week. The students spent 10 days learning to draw in a series of exercises, culminating in the creation of mural-sized works that measure 9 feet wide by 18 feet long.
In early sessions of the class, students investigated the basic elements of drawing — line, value, form and composition. They also learned to expand their ideas from thumbnail-sized sketches to monumental size using a grid to reproduce the images.
The students considered the approaches of various artists who worked on a large scale, including Henri Matisse and his paper cutouts, the realist approach of Edward Hopper as well as the Pop artists Jim Dine, James Rosenquist and Claes Oldenberg. They also learned to work with various tools to accomplish the desired effects as they prepared to tackle the final mural projects.
An important part of drawing on a grand scale is that one uses different parts of the body, said Marlatt, whose frescos and murals can be found in Charlottesville, Atlanta and New York. "Murals require a lot of physical activity. You use the wrist for small drawings. For large works, you move the whole arm and draw vertically, not horizontally. And, you move physically back and forth."
There's also the issue of not being able to see what you are drawing. "You have to constantly step back to see what you are accomplishing," she said.
Some themes lend themselves better to murals. "The simple themes are the ones that become interesting visually — simple intellectually, but rich visually," Marlatt said.
For the final mural project, which the students worked in teams to execute, Marlatt encouraged them to "think visually and not verbally."
The intensity of the schedule and the fact that no other classes were in session in Ruffin Hall allowed Marlatt to conduct the drawing exercise on such a large scale. Students rolled out their large paper canvasses in the studios and Ruffin's wide hallways as they explored thinking visually and collaboratively.
"I designed the class with a sense of play — for everyone, including me," Marlatt said.
The demand for drawing classes from students in all areas of the University outpaces the capacity of the studio art department to meet the need. Also, the curriculum demands of many students do not allow them to take a drawing class during the regular semester sessions. Marlatt accepted 24 students into the class and turned away another 15. Usually classes like this have about 15 to 20 students, she said.