The following book review of “Richard Diebenkorn: The Sketchbooks Revealed” appears in the summer 2016 issue of Drawing magazine. For lots more drawing instruction and reviews of other drawing books, subscribe to Drawing.
Browsing the sketchbooks of a great artist can be a thrilling experience. As we turn the pages, we’re bowled over by the mastery of line and value exhibited even in casually dashed-off sketches. We get to see the abandoned exercises and occasional failures—proof that even the best have their difficulties and false-starts. And sketchbooks bring us closer than perhaps anything else to the essence of the artist’s vision, revealing as much as an artwork can what fired this person’s visual imagination and how he or she went about translating that inspiration into images.
Unfortunately this experience can be hard to come by. Most sketchbooks are too precious and fragile to withstand being handled by streams of museumgoers, and many artists and their estates are reluctant to share something so personal and vulnerable with the unforgiving eyes of the world. Even with the gradual digitization of some sketchbooks by museums, getting to see the entire sketchbook of a major artist is a rare treat.
Such a pleasure is afforded by Richard Diebenkorn: The Sketchbooks Revealed, a book published in conjunction with an exhibition on view earlier this year at the Cantor Arts Center, at Stanford University, in California. The book is of interest to admirers of Diebenkorn’s (1922–1993) work and more generally to anyone interested in sketchbooks as an art form.
The project emerged out of a collection of 29 sketchbooks given several years ago by the artist’s widow, Phyllis Diebenkorn (1921–2015), to the Cantor. Together they contained more than 1,000 drawings, and most of The Sketchbooks Revealed is devoted to reproducing a generous selection of them. One sketchbook is reproduced in its entirety, blank pages and all, giving readers the full effect of flipping through one of the artist’s private journals. Many more of the sketchbooks can be browsed in their entirety on the Cantor’s website, museum.stanford.edu.
The sketchbooks are varied in size and format. They have been assigned numbers from 1 to 29, but the sequence is not entirely chronological, as Diebenkorn was sometimes inclined to leave a half-finished sketchbook aside, then resume work in it years later. After the artist’s death his family found that many of his sketchbooks were stuffed with loose drawings, newspaper clippings and other miscellany, which have been preserved as part of the collection.
The Sketchbooks Revealed includes succinct essays by the scholars Enrique Chagoya, Steven A. Nash, Alexander Nemerov and Peggy Phelan, plus a short bit written by Diebenkorn himself, a list titled “Notes to Myself on Beginning a Painting.” Among his simultaneously illuminating and eccentric reminders: “Use and respond to the initial, fresh qualities but consider them absolutely expendable” and “Keep thinking about Pollyanna.”
A Superb Draftsman
Richard Diebenkorn was born in Oregon, grew up in San Francisco, attended Stanford and served in the Marines during World War II. After the war he spent time in New Mexico, Illinois and New York before settling in Berkeley, California. He became a preeminent artist in the Bay Area Figurative school of the 1950s and 1960s, whose other practitioners included David Park, Elmer Bischoff and Nathan Oliveira.
Diebenkorn created both abstract and figurative work, with many images falling somewhere in between these poles. (It’s no surprise to learn that Cézanne was a major influence.) Perhaps his best-known work is his “Ocean Park” series of roughly 140 large canvases, begun in 1967. Dominated by straight lines and brightly colored polygons, the paintings read as abstraction while also conveying a sense of warm coastal sunshine.
Unsurprisingly, the drawings in Diebenkorn’s sketchbooks mirror the wide variety of styles and subjects found in his paintings, with the nude female figure as the most frequent subject. Phyllis Diebenkorn served as the model for hundreds of portraits, including the drawing from Sketchbook No. 22 seen above, and Phelan notes in her essay that “even in the drawings of women for which [Phyllis] was not the actual model, the figures resemble her.” There are also male figures, landscapes, interiors and still lifes to go along with a great variety of abstractions and compositions that don’t neatly fit any such categories.
Diebenkorn was a superb draftsman. Nash writes that “although he is best remembered for the chromatic richness of his paintings, his accomplishments as a draftsman are in many ways just as remarkable.” One of the reader’s first takeaways from his sketchbooks is the speed and efficiency of his line. “In the sketchbooks we see Diebenkorn drawing really, really fast—as fast as he could possibly draw,” writes Chagoya. “He had an incredible eye for catching proportions, and he captured them quickly, in the rough volume of the figures, their rapid contours and zigzagging lines.”
Never one to shy away from a technical challenge, Diebenkorn seems to have delighted in taking on dramatically foreshortened figures and complex tangles of limbs. He could capture a likeness with apparent ease, although this was not necessarily his ultimate goal. “The sketchbooks record the artist’s quest to get out from under his own mastery of the line to expose something that survives the specificity of the object depicted,” Phelan writes.
The bulk of the drawings are done in graphite, pen-and-ink or ballpoint pen, sometimes with thick ink washes applied to create dramatic darks. But Diebenkorn also sketched in color, using bold swathes of watercolor and gouache. In these sketchbook paintings we find “an Expressionist’s freedom of form and coloration, and the creation of an inner light that is achievable only with watercolors,” writes Nash.
Diebenkorn did not often use his sketchbooks to create preparatory drawings for specific paintings, but his sketching informed his other work in a more general way, and he would rehearse in his sketchbook visual elements that would appear in subsequent paintings. “Even though sketchbooks are generally a means to an end, these sketchbooks represent an end in themselves,” writes Chagoya, “because they have fully accomplished what they were intended to do.”
In a foreword to the book the artist’s daughter, Gretchen Diebenkorn Grant, speaks to the personal nature of sketchbooks and the protective attitude many artists assume toward them. She writes that after her father’s death, “most of the sketchbooks were in a cardboard vodka box, in which they stayed for almost 20 years. Somehow they seemed very private; we felt like they needed to be protected and shielded from the eyes of people who might guess that they could be special.” We can be grateful for the careful custodianship the sketchbooks have received and thankful that they’ve now found their way to the public, allowing us to appreciate them for how very special they are indeed.