Lilli Rethi

Lilli Rethi is one of my construction-artist heros. According to the MTA,

During the construction of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in the early 1960s, a petite woman could be found weaving her way among the burly bridge builders with her drawing board and art supplies in hand. Artist and illustrator Lili Rethi became so familiar to workers building the bridge that they built her a little shed on site to shelter her from the wind and cold.

She particularly loved depicting heavy construction projects. As a young woman, she disguised herself as a boy and sneaked inside a Belgian mine to do some sketching.  She also drew shipyards, canals and bridges under construction in Europe.

Rethi, born in Vienna in 1894, came to the United States in 1939 to cover the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair for the Illustrated London News and remained here. In addition to sketching, she also illustrated more than 50 books over the course of her career.

As a child, one of my favorite books was Manic 5 – The building of the Daniel Johnson Dam. Lilli did the illustrations for this book. Here is the text from the jacket flap:

It is 703 feet high at its center arch, 4,310 feet long, and weighs approximately 6,000,000 tons. Building it required the services of over 3,500 workers, and consumed 15,000,000 bags of cement, 1,700,000 tons of sand, 2,500,000 tons of rock, and 72,000,000 gallons of water. The world’s biggest multiple arch dam, it is a dramatic part of Canada’s Manicouagan-Outardes Rivers hyrdroelectric project. Originally called Manic 5, it was officially renamed that Daniel Johnson Dam in honor of Quebec’s late Prime Minister.

This is the story of the building of that dam. The drama, the beauty, and the awesome magnitude of the undertaking are captured in these pages in sixty-four drawings by Lilli Rethi, an artist whose work, said the Christian Science Monitor, “pleases the technically trained man but at the same time holds the full romance of engineering in its grasp.”

Lilli’s drawings inspired my lifelong fascination with heavy construction. Back in the day, I would build my own Manic 5s in creek bed behind the house using Tonka trucks and sticks and mud. Now I paint massive earth movers on large canvas frames.


Here’s another work in progress of Randy. I started this drawing with a number of gestures and then a block in, all in graphite. Once I had a good block in, I transferred it to a clean piece of Strathmore 500 charcoal paper and continued in vine charcoal. I actually like the block in better than the charcoal drawing – the block in has more energy and more interesting line quality.

Working on a Bargue Plate

Now that I’m able to render smooth tones in charcoal, I’ve started on a new Bargue plate copy. The plate I am copying is from the Charles Bargue Drawing Course which is a set of plates used to train classical artists in the late nineteenth century. The course begins with simple drawings from casts, initially focusing on individual body parts. It progresses to portraits, torsos, and finally full figures. Vincent van Gogh copied the complete set of plates in 1880 and 1881 and then again in 1890.

I’m using my magnetic drawing board to hold a copy of the Bargue plate while I draw. My goal here is to precisely locate all of the edges and shadow edges and then build up a uniform base level of shading in all of the shadow regions. At this point, I am not using intermediate tones to convey three dimensional form. This will come later once I am sure of the shapes and their locations.

In this closeup of the toes, I have just begun to flat shade the shadows.

Here I am going back to clarify the locations of the core shadows before turning form. All of the shadow regions are still flat.

Here’s an overview of the plate shortly after starting to turn form. When the plate is finished, most of the transitions will be softer and very little will be pure white.

By this point, I have started to use shading to show the fullness and roundness of the toes. I have also clarified the sharp edges caused by cast shadows.

I’ve just started to lightly shade in the turning forms of the ankle. Once I have located all of the major structures, I will go back and increase the intensity of the middle tones.

Another liferoom figure

We just completed a three-week session in the life room. Again, I felt I didn’t have nearly enough time because of my part-time status. Still, I was happy with the drawing and feel I am getting better at creating a likeness in the face. One area where I struggled was in deciding which parts of the back were in shadow and which were in light.

The initial block in. Note the list of work items on the right side.

I reduced the block in and transferred it to a fresh sheet of paper.

By the end of the three week pose I had the figure mostly rendered.


Just finished a drawing of Yma. I didn’t really have enough time to do the face or a careful rendering, but I think the drawing shows potential.

I’ve drawn and sculpted Yma many times over the past four years. This drawing was a four week pose. I got about seven 3-hour sessions due to my part-time status.