Jim's Blog

To Sketch, or Not To Sketch

Something happens to me sometimes when I am drawing or painting; I have a realization about acting.

They are related activities, of course, just very different kinds of art. Painting and drawing are more or less static. The actual art of it resides on a piece of paper or a canvas, not in one’s own body (unless you are a tattooist, I guess) or in one’s voice or physical expression, such as in dance. The final product is something outside of one.

And in painting and drawing, and sculpture too, there is a process known as “sketching”, where one lays out a kind of a plan for the final piece in a rough way. Problems of composition, tone etc. can all be worked out to a large degree in preliminary sketches, and then the final painting can occur, with the artist now concentrating on other things, like color, detail, and nuance.

In theatre and film acting, not to mention voice acting, there is an analogous process, known as “rehearsal”. It’s a sketching out or a plan for the acting that will happen as the cameras roll, or the audience is in attendance, when all other elements will come together and present a final performance.

In rehearsals, as in visual arts, the “sketch” is often more lively and interesting than the finished painting or performance. That’s a frustrating thing, since it gives one the sensation that they aren’t making any progress, or are even going backwards.

But, of course, sketches aren’t always what are desired. Most of us want to see a polished piece of work when we go to a movie or a gallery show.

The trick is to somehow maintain the liveliness of a more direct, “sketchy” approach, while also producing a complete and professional product, in whatever art form we are working in.

That’s why improvisational technique is so effective, when done well, and why today’s modern digital technology, which doesn’t punish filmmakers financially for their experimentation, is such a positive thing.

When I worked on Parks & Recreation, for example, after we shot a scene being faithful to the script, we would often be asked to do the scene entirely off the cuff, honoring the intention without necessary the same words. This, especially since the cast were mainly quite experienced in improv, often as good or better than the original, scripted lines. And the “aliveness” factor was, as in a quick and spontaneous sketch, there in abundance.

The trick is to use techniques that best move a piece forward to being a realization of the goal, what effect one is trying to create. If that can be done quickly, sketchily, without a lot of labor, then so much the better. If it can best be accomplished by working and reworking, carefully polishing and developing by degrees, then that, too is justified.

These days, a mixture of the two seems to be the order of the day. I try to present a polished, very nuanced and fine performance, but time restraints and other pressures usually necessitate a rapid sketch, rather than a developed rendition. But I’ve made my peace with that. After all, the entire society seems to be engaged in a rapid sketch of one kind or another… Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that today’s polished product is the sketchy underpainting for a more polished work tomorrow.

But, above all, to say something, to create something, is still far better than waiting until conditions are perfect for something sublime. The quick sketches on the cave walls at Lascaux, though none could call them carefully done, are as compelling and lively as anything we see on iMax screens today. Even in 3D.

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    David Walmsley

    An excellent essay, Jim. A+

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