Behind the cloud of conte crayon dust orbiting his easel, artist Sam Bookatz dashes off the first outlines of a portrait head. Planted on a patch of drop cloth taped to the marble floor of the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s second-floor landing, Bookatz demonstrates his drawing skills before a group of 40-odd friends, relatives, fellow artists, and members of the press. This morning’s impromptu drawing class coincides with the opening of a small show of the 89-year-old Washington artist’s drawings and oils, including portraits of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt created during Bookatz’s stint as a Navy lieutenant assigned to the White House in the ’40s.

Dressed in gray slacks and a light blue shirt, Bookatz turns occasionally to the hushed audience to explain his technique. As he moves his crayon over the paper, a sinewy, curved cheek and a rectangular smudge of a mouth appear from the dark patches of conte. These first outlines have a cubist geometry. “I’ll worry about the features later,” Bookatz explains. “Now I’m interested in molding the shape of the head.”

Considering the model seated on a nearby wooden stool, Bookatz says, “She’s got a long face, the kind I like. It looks like a Gothic cathedral.” He takes a gum eraser to the tip of her nose, where a highlight falls. The armchair artists in the audience murmur among themselves. One middle-aged man, considering the work in progress, whispers to a friend, “It still hasn’t quite escaped being generic.” Glancing from the model to the paper and back again, his companion agrees: “There’s something he’s got to do to age her.”

“In painting, you’re always balancing the forms on the page,” Bookatz reminds the gathering. A redhead near the back nods. The artist modulates a cloud of black just above the chin, dusting it off with a cotton cloth. The faultfinder is pleased and softens his criticism: “That one highlight really opened it up.”

Finally, the image of the curly-haired model emerges from Bookatz’s paper. “You must know the way anatomy works,” the artist stresses, gesturing as he speaks with grasping hands, as if kneading the fleshy contours of an invisible body. “Always think of bone structure.” Standing back to wipe his crayon-blackened hands, Bookatz offers a final piece of Yodalike wisdom: “If the structure is right, the lightness will come.” —Jessica Dawson

“Sam Bookatz” is on view to Feb. 13, 2000.