Venice artist Allison Kunath trusts her hands to speak for her eyes
By Christina Campodonico
“Drawing without looking” might sound like an oxymoron. But for Allison Kunath it feeds her creative practice, which ranges from inky silhouettes of couples cuddling to whimsical watercolors of floating hands to geometrically precise portraits of icons like Frida Kahlo, Marie Curie and Georgia O’Keefe, to name a few.
At the base of this rendering repertoire — earning her over 22,000 followers on Instagram, as well as commissions from Lululemon Athletica and Playa Vista-based VR and 360-degree video company RYOT News — are the Venice-based artist’s blind contour drawings: outlines of friends and faces she encounters that she draws without looking down at the page or lifting her pen up from the paper.
It’s her way of connecting with the world around her, but also retreating from it.
“It ends up being like an invisibility cloak at parties,” says Kunath, 30, of her blind contour drawings. “It’s a great tool to hide behind so I can be in a social situation where I want to be, but still be an introvert and just sort of sit back and observe people.”
For this special arts issue of The Argonaut, Kunath drew Christopher Abel Alameda, better known as “Nicely,” the head barista at Menotti’s on Windward Avenue.
Like a postcard, it arrived in my inbox from afar. Kunath was traveling through Northern California at the time; in September she’ll conclude a month-long trip through the Pacific Northwest, with more destinations on the horizon.
Like her travels, the lines have no end in sight.
The Argonaut: How did you start doing these blind contour drawings?
Kunath: I learned the technique in probably junior high school. It was just a warm-up activity to sort of get your brain connected to your hands more fluidly. And I’d totally forgotten about it. Ten years ago, a girlfriend of mine brought it up on a road trip — she says, “Do you remember blind contours?” and I say, “Let’s do one!” We’re sitting in the back seat together. She says, “Should we draw each other at the same time?” And I say, “Oh my God. Thank you so much for bringing this back to me!” It reignited [blind contour drawing] for me, and I started drawing friends at restaurants when we waited for food or coffee.
How do you pick your subjects?
If I catch eyes with somebody across the room, or notice someone has an interesting look, or they’re just in the line of sight, and I happen to have five minutes to kill, [I’ll draw them]. But I would say 75% of the people that I’ve drawn are people that I know. It’s like when you carry a Polaroid camera and snap a picture of everybody who comes into your living room. It’s become a reflex. …
I draw in the same little notebook. I use the little moleskin notebooks with recycled kraft paper covers; they’re tiny and thin. There’s never a time when I don’t have one with me, so I’m ready at any moment.
Are you ever surprised by the results of your drawings?
Like anything that you do a lot, I’ve developed a certain muscle memory around it. I work really hard to try to draw whatever it is that I’m actually looking at, so it can stay honest to the person and how they’re unique.
Then there’s inevitably a point in every drawing where I’m like, “Oh, man. I actually have no idea where I am.” I totally forget if I’ve already drawn someone’s eyes, or if there’s one missing, or where did I put the ear? There’s some that turn out so solid, and everything’s in the right place. Then sometimes it’s like, “Holy moly! Where did that come from?” … and those are so much more fun.
Do you have a favorite portrait?
The ones that I like the most are the ones that surprise me, the ones that I’m like, “Alright, cool, this feels fresh.” It feels unexpected, which is really the point behind drawing without looking.
Follow Allison Kunath’s artwork and travels on Instagram @allisonkunath or visit allisonkunath.com.