The Glamorous Life

“Drawing what you know” is nothing new to John Sabraw. Having moved to a new city to start a teaching job, bought a house, built a studio and made art for a solo show all in the same eight months, he was past the point of exhaustion and knew it. Thus, Slippin? (below) was born.


Slippin’ was a finalist in The Artist?s Magazine?s 2002 art competition.

“The moment of the drawing is that moment when you?ve taken a break from painting and are sitting against the wall,” says the University City, Missouri, artist. “You know you can?t leave the studio because the show must be finished, but you also know you can no longer support your own body weight. So you just sit in your state of semiconsciousness waiting for either uncontrollable sleep to cause you to pass out on the floor, or that weird 100th burst of art energy that will somehow make you get back up and start working again.”

But not all his art is so autobiographical. Rather, the St. Louis-area artist paints still lifes, portraits and landscapes in graphite pastel or oils. And throughout the various academic programs he?s been through (Pratt, Kansas University and Northwestern) and the various jobs he?s held (illustrator, handbag designer, explosives maker, forklift driver, career counselor and art supply store clerk), he?s honed his style and his working process.

When painting he does lots of preliminary sketches, often rearranging the setup and lighting multiple times even as he’s working on the final piece. Sabraw always works from life when painting his still lifes, but for some figures and landscapes he’ll shoot photo references and use parts of several different slides or transparencies. In such cases he?ll scan them into the computer and make a Photoshop collage to develop his composition, which he then uses as a guide.

To prepare his surface, he sands the gesso and applies two to three coats of titanium white mixed with a little mineral spirits and Liquin. Then he sands each layer with wet sandpaper for a smooth surface. From there, he blocks in his large shapes and gets progressively more detailed with each paint layer. When he?s finished he?ll use either a coat of pure Liquin or Gamvar as a varnish.

His approach to drawing is similar. He?ll lay in a very light sketch or gesture of the subject on his drawing surface, followed by some light tonal values. “From there I work the drawing all over in repeated layers until I begin to need some harder edges and important definitions between areas,” says Sabraw, “I usually finish with my darkest darks, sharpest lines and areas that need a little erasing.”

As he was gearing up for Slippin?, Sabraw noticed that there was a different feel to the paper he typically uses, but rather than just finding more paper, he accepted the challenge to see what that random-turned-mechanized texture could do. He discovered that individual marks, rather than large, toned areas, were the way to go.

“This shift in methodology caused me to adjust my ideas of how to convey the overall mood I was trying for,” he says. “Instead of working large simple areas first and then moving to details, I was forced into making detailed, very controlled marks from the start. The result was a more ghostly, more mentally exhausted, appearance than originally intended. I like this drawing far better than my original vision, which, in retrospect, was probably too obvious an approach.”

Though striving to not drive himself to exhaustion, Sabraw does keep busy. Right now he?s working on a portrait commission, as well as six paintings for a show at the Elmhurst Museum in Illinois. He?s also an assistant professor of art at Washington University, where he teaches such fundamentals as drawing and painting, alongside more conceptual courses like Issues in Pictorial Space and Activist Art.

“I teach because I love to and the students are my fountain of youth,” he says. “And art is always a roller coaster, but every day I wake up to do what I enjoy and was meant to do.”

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