Edward Hopper painted, but more importantly, he drew. His body of work includes about 140 canvases, which doesn’t make him especially prolific given his long life and career — but then, one of those canvases is Nighthawks. Here on Open Culture, we’ve previously featured Hopper’s “storyboards” for that time- and culture-transcending painting of a late-night New York diner. But those count as only a few of the voluminous preparatory drawings without which neither Nighthawks nor his other major works like Automat, Chop Suey, or Morning Sun Sea would have seen the light of day — or rather, the emotional dusk that infuses all his images, no matter their setting.
“It’s a long process of gestation in the mind and arising emotion,” says Hopper himself in the 1961 interview clip above. “I make various small sketches, sketches of the thing that I wish to do, also sketches of details in the picture.” This process entailed no little pavement-pounding: “Again and again, he would pick up his sketchbook and head for a cluster of New York City movie theaters,” writes the Los Angeles Times‘ Barbara Isenberg, covering Hopper Drawing, a 2013 exhibition at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art. “Sometimes it was the Republic or the Palace, other times the Strand or the Globe, places where he could study the lobby, the auditorium, the curtained area off to the side. Back at home, he’d pose his wife, Josephine, as an usherette and draw her portrait.” After 54 such drawings, the result was Hopper’s “monumental painting New York Movie.”
The following year, the Dallas Museum of Art opened Hopper Drawing: A Painter’s Process, a show covered at the blog of Signet Art. “Hopper worked from real life for the first step of his process, a step he called ‘from the fact,’ often drawing and sketching on site before returning to his studio to complete a piece,” says the blog. “He was meticulous in his preparation, drawing and creating extensive studies for a new work before approaching the canvas.” Only then did he bring his imagination into it, though he still “referred to his drawings as a reminder of how light and shadow played off an architectural space and the figures within it.” Is this how he managed to render so eloquently themes of loneliness, isolation, modern man and his environment? “Those are the words of critics,” the plainspoken Hopper said. “It may be true, and it may not be true.”
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.