Elizabeth Briel, Travel Artist


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Dirty hands make great art

You wouldn't think of an outdoor market as a good place to buy art supplies, but for contemporary artists, anything is game – from elephant poo to diamonds.

In China, even a trip to the market can be an inspiration.  Recently I visited an outdoor market, looking for tofu skin. Not for food – but for experimental Cyanotype blueprints. There was no tofu skin for sale that day, but I didn't leave empty-handed.

After a narrow miss with two e-bikes, a pushcart, and several bicycles, I left carrying a bag filled with a new drawing material: big chunks of wood charcoal. I had no idea how well it would work, but the texture of the charcoal was irresistible. I wanted to grab a piece of it and start drawing straight away. 

Wood Charcoal for Drawing, China

As I sketched, the charcoal made expressive lines. Some thick, others thin. Darkest grey or light, depending on the wood grain. It led my hands on paths charcoal never has before. I thought of Egon Schiele's self-portrait with purple hair and bony fingers, where he looks as arrogant and insecure as a Cure fan. Schiele's drawing style was one of a kind, particularly his hands: the charcoal of his drawings was controlled and wild, precise yet free.

So when I was invited to come up with a short workshop for middle-school kids, I knew just what to do.

First, I showed the students Schiele's self-portrait, then other paintings he’d done of hands: clasped, twisted, clutching. Hands that express intense emotions even when faces are frozen. 

Then, I brought out the bag of charcoal, and picked out the biggest piece. It was as big as an oversized potato. 

They gasped.

- You're going to draw with this today, I said.

 Cries and smiles of disbelief. 

- Roll up your sleeves, this is going to get messy! 

They did, grinning.

- One side of the paper is for experimenting. Go wild, scribble on it, figure out how your piece of charcoal works. Then on the other side, draw your own hands, wiggle your fingers around. Marvel at how they work together. Look at the wrinkles, the joints, where your fingernails are uneven.

And as always, they blew my mind. Here's a sample of what they came up with:

Hands with extra-long fingers,

Drawing with wood charcoal, Yew Chung International School of Beijing 7

Gnarly hands,

Drawing with wood charcoal, Yew Chung International School of Beijing 4

 

Hands that asked questions,

Drawing with wood charcoal, Yew Chung International School of Beijing 6

elegant hands,

Drawing with wood charcoal, Yew Chung International School of Beijing 15

Hands that look like trees,

Drawing with wood charcoal, Yew Chung International School of Beijing 1

Hands that look like chicken claws,

Drawing with wood charcoal, Yew Chung International School of Beijing 8

Others that look like bear claws…

Drawing with wood charcoal, Yew Chung International School of Beijing 9

Or human claws.

Drawing with wood charcoal, Yew Chung International School of Beijing 10

And even a city of hands. A skyline of fingers, topped with square fingernails, like the architectural flourishes that pop up all over Beijing. 

Drawing with wood charcoal, Yew Chung International School of Beijing 16

This is why my job doesn't feel like a job. There are new surprises waiting every day. You light a spark, and wait to see what happens next.

Every time, it’s a surprise.

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