Harold Spencer was a little boy when the USS Shenandoah flew over his grandparents’ farm.
It was nighttime, so Spencer could only see something dark and cigar-shaped. Still, he wanted to commemorate the momentous event — the day a 680-foot Navy blimp floated in the sky near Corning, N.Y.
"With my mother’s nail file, I scratched a dirigible in her piano stool," Spencer recalled.
Although the Shenandoah tragically crashed in 1925, Spencer’s art lived on — not only in that piano stool, which his mother never refinished, but in a lifetime of drawings.
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Touching the ancients
The act of drawing is perhaps the most basic form of visual arts, requiring no more than a pencil and paper (though charcoal, pastels and even watercolors are considered drawing materials). A sketch is often created as a blueprint for a work to be created in another medium, like oil painting, but many of history’s greatest art pieces are stand-alone drawings.
Drawing dates to prehistoric times, when Cro-Magnons sketched pictures of the animals they hunted on cave walls. In Europe, drawing became especially popular in the 1400s, when paper became widely available. Artists like Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci would create some of the most famous drawings of the era. (Da Vinci’s study of human proportions, the Vitruvian Man, is perhaps the most recognizable drawing of all time.)
History’s most famous art pieces tend to be oil paintings or sculptures, but drawing remains an integral part of the artist’s craft.
"I think drawing has, at least from the Renaissance forward, been an important factor in training artists," said Spencer, of Paso Robles, who taught art history for two decades at the University of Connecticut.
Spencer’s artistic training weighed heavily on drawing. After high school, he studied at The Art Students League in New York at night while working at a department store during the day.
"Then came Dec. 7, 1941, and it changed my life," he said.
Knowing his time stateside was limited, he upped the number of art classes he took. By the summer of 1942, he was an officer in the merchant marines and on a ship headed for Africa.
He brought his art supplies with him, though, and continued to create whenever possible.
"There were places where it was pretty sensitive," he said. "If you were out there sketching, you were liable to get shot."
During the war, Spencer drew landscapes and figure subjects. Shipmates often asked him to do their portraits, and he obliged.
Today, some of his 1940s drawings hang on the walls of his home. On one wall a watercolor depicts a dock scene in Shanghai. On another is a pencil drawing of Lake Champlain, from 1941. But it’s his art from the war that captures an era.
Like Spencer, Atascadero’s Dennis Curry’s art was impacted by war.
After high school, Curry packed his Volkswagen van and traveled the country, working on ranches and selling drawings. In 1966, after two years of wandering, he was drafted.
"When they signed me up, they asked what your occupation is, and I put ‘fine artist,’ which put me in the infantry," he said. "I had friends who put down ‘commercial artist,’ and they got gigs doing posters for USO shows."
In Vietnam, he did some drawings while trying to join the Combat Artist Program, which used artists to chronicle the war. But the military needed him as a mechanic.
When the war was over, Curry used the GI Bill to pay for schooling at Santa Monica College. Eventually, he discovered the art of original printmaking, which helped fuel his passion for finely detailed drawings.
Mylar lithography, the process he uses to make prints, requires six to 10 drawings of the same subject — one for each color — per print. Each drawing brings more detail.
While Curry spent his early years depicting landscapes and still lifes, a trip to Africa in the early ’80s steered him toward exotic wildlife. His collections include intricate drawings of elephants, zebra and exotic cats.
"What took me to Africa the first time was the big cats," he said. "There’s no place in the world that you can see big cats in the wild like Africa."
Like Spencer and Curry,
Ardella Swanberg’s trips around the world have inspired her art. So, too, does the hilly environment outside her ranch home in rural Cayucos, where deer and cattle roam regularly.
Swanberg studied art education at the University of Minnesota. While there, she met her husband, a civil engineer, whose career would take them to Michigan, North Carolina, Florida, Spain and Malaysia.
While Spencer and Curry create drawings featuring fine detail (every blade of grass or patch of fur in Curry’s works seems to have been methodically placed), Swanberg is less particular.
"I’m impatient with detail," said Swanberg, who has taught art classes in the U.S. and abroad.
"I like the little shapes, but not every hair."
Some of her pen-and-ink drawings of buildings in Spain, for example, only feature key details and relatively little shading. Her pencil works feature more shading and texture but still less detail.
"I love contrast — dark against light — and making the shapes interlock," she said.
Like many artists who draw, Swanberg also delves into painting. Yet most paintings begin with sketches.
"I think that in order to do great paintings, you have to be able to draw well," she said.
Some of her best works are buried in sketchbooks she keeps in a plastic tub.
Sketchbooks are normally viewed as a place to practice the craft or a place to lay out a bigger work. Yet a sketchbook can be just as interesting — in some cases more interesting — than a framed painting.
Both Spencer and Swanberg have exhibited their sketchbooks.
Spencer’s sketchbooks, filled with drawings and journal entries, stylishly chronicle his experiences in the war and the six decades since. His drawings range from a tower on the Great Wall of China to the Turkish coast to trees in San Simeon.
"They’re just a way, I suppose, of making contact with the world out there — with your environment at that moment," he said. "By doing this, you’re getting closer to the feeling of the place."
Swanberg always carries a sketchbook in her purse so that if she sees something she likes, she can stop and draw.
Her sketches often include notes about the place she draws. (One entry observes: "The flies are being pests.") Other written entries include notes about what’s happening in her life or bits of conversations she has overheard.
"I try not to write anything derogatory," Swanberg said. "I like for people to look at them."
Artists who draw often photograph their subject, but many prefer to sketch on site. When Spencer was touring overseas, he didn’t even have a camera.
"I don’t work very well with photographs," he said. "I suppose it’s because it’s already translated into the two-dimensional language, and I’m thinking in terms of three dimensions."
Sometimes an artist has to take a photo. Swanberg couldn’t work in the heat of Malaysia. And Curry never dared to stand in front of a lion for too long. So they took photographs that were later re-created in a studio.
Still, getting out there and observing scenes firsthand is priceless.
"Great things would happen every time I went to Africa,"
Curry said. "It seemed like my work would get better every time I went back."
This is the latest in an occasional series on artists of the Central Coast.