Edward Hopper’s Creative Process: The Drawing & Careful Preparation Behind Nighthawks & Other Iconic Paintings

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 AutomatChop 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.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Edward Hop­per “Sto­ry­board­ed” His Icon­ic Paint­ing Nighthawks

Sev­en Videos Explain How Edward Hopper’s Paint­ings Expressed Amer­i­can Lone­li­ness and Alien­ation

10 Paint­ings by Edward Hop­per, the Most Cin­e­mat­ic Amer­i­can Painter of All, Turned into Ani­mat­ed GIFs

Dis­cov­er the Artist Who Men­tored Edward Hop­per & Inspired Nighthawks

9‑Year-Old Edward Hop­per Draws a Pic­ture on the Back of His 3rd Grade Report Card

How to Paint Like Kandin­sky, Picas­so, Warhol & More: A Video Series from the Tate

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.

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