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Subway Drawing: Guno Park, Animation, and the Line

People let their guard down on subways the way they do in the back seat of cars or on long flights. The constant motion soothes them to sleep, open mouthed, body heavy, slumped into a posture perfect for an artist like Guno Park, who after 10 years in New York, has developed a talent for spotting subway slumberers. While subway drawing is nothing new—there are meetup groups and collectives for every subway line—Park taps into the somatic experience of the subway rider, relating to the way their head is propped up by their hands, how their whole upper body balances on the two points of their elbows, with the kind of empathy one finds only in a seated conversation or maybe a few drinks. His process more closely resembles animation than figure drawing; his drawings lean forward into life.

Park is a line-maker whose medium is the ballpoint pen, something most people consider an instrument of practice reserved for doodling during meetings at work. We tend to treat them like loose change—forgotten at the bottom of drawers and bags. But such pens have an ability to blur the line between practice and finished product, between sketch and work of art. In this sense, they also blur the line between studio and outside world, breaking down the divide between artist and subject, which is why Park favors them. He wants his art to be relatable - for people to see their friends in the faces of his subway sketches. 

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Guno Park, Winter Sketchbook, 2016. Courtesy the artist.

This morning, the woman seated across from Park is wearing a plum colored, puffy winter coat with deep, horizontal stitching across her chest and stomach. Her right fist is planted firmly on her cheekbone, holding her head upright, forming complex creases around her closed eye. Her coat is long, shaped like a sleeping bag, and flows down to her knees, which are splayed slightly away from each other. Her posture is built on a series of anchors: her head to her hand, her hand to her elbow, her elbow to her abdomen, her waist to the seat. The first line Park draws captures the weight of these anchors. It has to. It will serve as the core gesture of the drawing, in other words, the plot summary, guiding each and every subsequent line. Without it, Park would have no foundation. He’d be left trying to trace the model with his eyes. And every draftsman knows, you can never trust your eyes.

Park’s process is built upon the core gesture, a term coined by his life drawing professor, Gerald Zeldin, in the classical animation program at Sheridan College in Canada. Zeldin, who championed the dynamics of animation over the principles of still life drawing, was famous for his ability to animate any object, any geometric shape, and give it a destination. He challenged his students to see stillness as just one frame in a larger sequence of movement, like a subway car suspended in a state of potential. In this narrative approach to drawing, every line has a purpose, and the role of the first, the “core gesture,” is to provide that purpose and direct the overall story. One must enter the model’s pose and feel its energy, the pressures and weights that animate the body. Even in stillness, the body suggests a potential for motion.

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The woman across from Park is still fast asleep, her body sways gently as if it was underwater. Knowing she could get up at any moment, Park works quickly.  After just a few stops, the story is set and the main characters have arrived: the head, the right fist and arm, the left arm wrapped around the waist, tucked under the right elbow. He doesn’t have time to reproduce every line on her body, nor does he care to. Instead he focuses only on the essential parts, the parts that will help tell the story he wants to tell. He adds layers to her right cheek, tucking it below the right fist, which he leaves bright so the eye glosses over it and falls into the creases of her face.

Then he moves on to the coat, which will require the most attention. Beneath the shiny nylon shell and under the puffy insulation trapped neatly within pockets of deep stitching is the human body: bones and muscles that fight for attention on the coat’s surface. Looking at her wrists, he can tell her forearms are slim so he shapes the coat’s arms accordingly. He can gauge the tilt of her shoulders from the position of her neck; the expanse of her waist from the way the coat caves in and bunches up before releasing its weight down her thighs. Every bone and muscle and joint is a character; they’re all there, asserting their form and potential for movement. He knows the major landmarks, how they all connect, and the routes he can take to get from one line to another.

Park was born in South Korea on June 25th, 1979, the 29th anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War. Following a wave of emigration from Asia to North America, he moved with his family to Canada when he was nine. He was quiet as a boy in Korea, but in Canada his introspection became considered. Instead of reading comic books, he studied them. By the time he enrolled in the animation program at Sheridan College, he was instinctively breaking objects down into their components, drawing from inside out the way sculptors are taught to sculpt. He became obsessed with technique, finished a BFA at Ontario College of Art, and moved to New York to attend the MFA program at the New York Academy of Art.

Guno Park, Large subway sketch in black ballpoint, 2017. Courtesy the artist.

On the way to the Academy one day, he began drawing a sleeping man. The man was slumped down deep in the seat with a towel draped over his shoulder, his head seemingly unhinged, bobbing through cycles of sleep. Park recognized him from somewhere. He had drawn this man before. When he got home later that night, he flipped through his sketchbooks and there he was. Same slumped posture. Same towel. It started happening more often. Park would recognize people on the subway and return home to discover he’d sketched them before. He was becoming part of the commute, as much a fixture as the people he sketched.

Today, the man sitting next to Park is visibly fighting the urge to watch him draw. Not that Park notices, after six subway stops he’s focused on the final stage of his drawing, inculcated during his animation days: rendering. There are two core concepts in rendering: Atmospheric Perspective and Story. Atmospheric Perspective says that objects are more than geometric shapes—they exist in space relative to a viewer. Some parts of an object appear closer, others farther away. But not all parts carry equal weight. Story says that even though the feet may be closest to the viewer, the hands and eyes may mean more to the story and deserve more focus. To bring objects in and out of focus, Park adds weight to his lines. If he presses down hard with his pen, he gets black: no light. If he eases up a bit, he gets grey: some light. The darker the line, the more it sits back on the page, creating the illusion of depth. Light areas jump out. The pen gives him complete control over the amount of light on the page, which is all a picture really is: a complex pattern of light that our eye interprets. But the control comes at a price. Every line is final. There is no painting over, no erasing. Park has come to respect and even depend on this finality. It pushes him forward. Without interruption, he’s able to fall into a trance.

The bright light from the train creates shadows on the underside of the woman’s arm, the area below her neck, her collarbones. Park captures them with patches of cross-hatching. He darkens the area below her coat, accentuating the bright bulge of her knees, grounding her entire figure in a dead weight, the kind of weight responsible for permanent depressions in couches and cushiony chairs.

Guno Park, Large subway sketch in red ballpoint, 2017. Courtesy the artist.

As she begins to wake up between DeKalb and Canal, she takes off her glasses and rubs her eyes while the subway labors its way across the Manhattan Bridge, slowing to a clacking crawl at the crest. It doesn’t matter how long each of them has been in the City - everyone on the subway turns to the window while crossing the bridge as the buildings flash by between the trusses like a flipbook. Everyone except for Park. All his attention is directed down at his sketchbook, where the woman, suspended in a state of potential, is still fast asleep

Contributor

Adam Beal

ADAM BEAL is a contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.

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