Date
Volume 18, Number 1
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John Ruggeri and John Paul Leon
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John Paul Leon, DMZ cover, 2009, graphite, ink, Photoshop.

John Ruggeri has been teaching drawing at SVA for more than a quarter century, and in that time he has been an influential figure for many of the students who have taken his classes. Ruggeri teaches in nearly every undergraduate department, and is perhaps best known for his popular Drawing on Location course in the BFA Illustration and Cartooning Department.

In the early 1990s, illustration student John Paul Leon (BFA 1994 Illustration) met Ruggeri as part of a desire to expand his drawing vocabulary. “I had always heard about John’s on-location drawing classes,” Leon says. “I saw an exhibition at the College, and the drawings were really exciting. You got to draw what was in front of you, and keep drawing and drawing.” Leon was eager to have that kind of focused experience, and asked one of his instructors, illustrator and longtime faculty member Jack Potter, to introduce him to Ruggeri.

The two hit it off immediately. “In 28 years, I’ve never met anyone where we so immediately united,” says Ruggeri of Leon. “We were on the same path in every way.” The two arranged an independent study to supplement Leon’s other courses; they began meeting weekly at the Citicorp Building in Manhattan, a high-traffic area that allowed them to draw a constantly shifting combination of people, places and objects. Leon recognized that Ruggeri was bringing something new to his drawing, beyond even what he’d learned in Potter’s classes: “Jack’s approach is very shape-conscious and very much about the artist interpreting what he sees and making a pleasing composition. John had a similar sort of approach in terms of focusing on line with charcoal pencil, but it was much more naturalistic, more about recording exactly what you see,” says Leon. “It was very exciting. When you draw on the spot, things are always moving, so you get a real human quality—a sense of imperfection in the drawings that can be unexpected and more ‘true’ than if the drawings were completely accurate.”

This mentorship had an immediate impact on Leon, helping him focus on the fundamental act of his craft. “He would draw every single day,” he says of Ruggeri, “so I went through a period of drawing every day, and that experience has an improving effect on your concentration.” Since its beginnings, the College has always had a fundamental core of drawing classes and teachers, and Ruggeri is an important part of maintaining that tradition.

When teaching at SVA, Ruggeri strives to break his students’ habits of relating what they see to personal associations and memories. “I tell them to look at something as if it doesn’t have a name or word attached to it,” he says. Once an object can be viewed as a physical abstraction, the artist can stop worrying about making the drawing look the way they’ve come to think of as right. “It becomes almost philosophical. When they stop thinking, when the eye is relaxed, they can look at an object in relationship with lots of other things.”

Leon is now a successful comic book illustrator, drawing sequences for major DC Comics characters like Batman and Black Widow as well as cover art for the gritty DMZ series from Vertigo. While his assignments alternate between the realistic and the fantastic, he still finds that the skills and focus developed under Ruggeri’s tutelage inform his work today, especially when working from reference materials and photographs. Specifically, Ruggeri taught Leon that, “When you’re drawing from life, it’s important to feel a connection to what you’re drawing,” he says. “That connection can be so strong that you don’t even have to look at the paper because you’re so connected to where you are in the drawing. Making that connection to what I’m trying to draw is something I still strive for.”

Having an influence on the hundreds of artists like Leon that he’s taught over the years is no small thing to Ruggeri. “I can’t bear the thought of not having a purpose,” he says. “It’s not enough for me to just draw or make a book—teaching here gives me that real sense of purpose.”

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