I got into rendering buildings because one night I drew a candleholder. A ceramic candleholder with a reddish-brown glaze and a braided handle, not the sort of thing you’d think would launch a career drawing Manhattan real estate. But I happened to be married at the time, and my husband’s cousin bought and sold buildings, and he was over at our apartment that night. While the two of them were watching the sports in the living room, I was at my desk in the dining room practicing pen and ink by drawing a candleholder. When the cousin was leaving they had to pass through the dining room, and they stopped to see what I was working on. The drawing was almost finished by then and it wasn’t bad. That was when the cousin said, “Can you draw buildings too?”
As it happened, he’d bought a rundown three-story building on First Avenue, and all the defects—the peeling paint and chipped moldings—were glaringly obvious in the photographs. He said he would pay me twenty-five dollars if I could draw it for him in pen and ink. I jumped at the chance. I had only recently taken up art again, and no one had offered me money before. Twenty-five dollars doesn’t sound like much today, but this was 1978, when it was worth fifty subway tokens—more like a hundred dollars in today’s money.
What luck, I thought. My first commission! He said the building was on the southeast corner, so the following afternoon when it would get the sun, I took pad and pencils, plus ruler and eraser, and sat on a little stool across the street from the building, away from all the people passing by. The building was painted white, and though it hadn’t seen much love in a long time, it retained the grace and charm of an earlier age. I shut out the noise of traffic and tried not to be distracted by all the movement on a busy corner in New York City. I was so absorbed in my work I didn’t notice the bus stop on the corner, or the sudden appearance of a mass of children coming off the bus, or the little boy coming towards me until he was standing next to me, asking innocently, “What are you drawing?”
I didn’t look up. I didn’t sense any danger. I thought he was just a curious schoolboy. So, I kept my head down and went on with my work as I answered, “I’m drawing that building across the street.”
I should have looked at him. Because before I knew what was happening, he was grabbing my hand, saying, “Can I help?” Pressing down hard on my hand, he forced my pencil to make an indelible black zigzag all over the paper. Then he let go, and laughed, and ran off down the street.
The lines were dark and heavy. Even if I could have erased them, the pressure of his hand had dented the smooth vellum. The picture was ruined. Such mindless destruction astonished me. I was more upset by such wanton damage than I was by the thought of having to throw away hours of work.
The following day I returned with my husband’s Polaroid camera and never attempted to sketch outside again. It was too risky. Working indoors with no distractions went faster anyway. As I steadily improved I raised my price, and over the years I found enough clients to enable me to quit doing office temp work and earn my living as a freelance artist. This was possible in the 1980s. Commissions dried up by the end of the decade when scanners came out, followed by digital photography and Photoshop. But I had it good for a while. For examples of my work at that time, please visit my pages HERE and HERE.
Still, drawing buildings was work, and however much I came to appreciate architecture and take pleasure in it, many years passed before I thought of drawing architecture for the sheer joy of it, adding my own interpretation, such as for the Philip Johnson building on 56th Street and Madison Avenue, headquarters of the AT&T building at the time.
Fast forward to the present in Park Slope, Brooklyn, where I have lived now for a quarter of a century. I’ve had the occasional commission, but more often I’ve chosen subjects from my own neighborhood. Many are posted HERE. Then, a couple of years ago I had fresh inspiration to commemorate this landmark district when I joined The Sketchbook Project, an international yearly event where every sketchbook submitted finds permanent shelf-space at the Brooklyn Art Library located in Williamsburg. I will be teaching a drawing class there later this month, and another one in January and February. Information HERE.
Meanwhile, I think back on that ceramic candleholder with the braided handle that started it all. A candleholder with a base to catch the dripping wax as you carried it through dark rooms, lighting the way as it were. I no longer have the candleholder or the drawing I made of it forty years ago. But when I think of it now, I think of the lighted candle that was missing. The candle that even though it wasn’t there, the thought that it could be was. For what is a candleholder without a candle. And what is a candle without a light. So, even if it wasn’t there, it was lighting a new path. Setting the stage for a new possible. And I jumped at the chance.
These are a few drawings done in October 2017. For more, please visit my FaceBook page, Painting Park Slope.
*The title of this blog, The Nancy Who Drew Buildings, is a riff on the title of my memoir, “The Nancy Who Drew,” the memoir that solved a mystery.
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