Archive for June, 2010

The popular misconception about watercolor is that it’s easy. How hard can this be?  You only use water, no complicated smelly toxic solvents.  All you need is some paper, some paint that comes neatly in small tubes, some brushes and the old pickle jar to wash your brushes in.  Phhfffffrrrhhh.

Think again.  Watercolor wins hands down as the hardest painting medium.  Totally unforgiving.  If you’re planning on trying watercolor, add a large wastepaper basket to your supply list and learn to work right next to it.  Painting in watercolor demands a sense of adventure, a sense of risk taking. In this medium you really do have to go with the flow. And flow it does, very often, probably most often, not in the direction you hoped it would.  Wastepaper basket time.  Allow yourself years of practice before you get the hang of it.  Not a typo there, years.  Why would you put yourself through this?  Because it’s exhilarating.  It wakes up your complacent I’ll-just-go-over-that-later-and-fix-it mind.  Uh-uh.  Not later, girlfriend.  Every stroke-splash-wash you make behaves like a living organism that demands your total attention or else it’ll die on you right then and there.  If you overwork it, the thing will get gummy. To count as a watercolor, your painting has to be transparent and luminous.  So, sure, go out and buy the simple supplies. Then set yourself down and turn your mind to the “transparent and luminous” setting.  When you need inspiration—and you will, often– I suggest you look at the work of my friend Christine Hanlon, who dashed off this little gem while sitting on some rocks just north of San Francisco.  She likes to walk over to the ocean in the morning to do a watercolor…”to get the creative juices flowing.”  Yes, indeed.  Thank you, Christine.  http://christinehanlon.homestead.com/index.html

Zen teachers like to talk about how when you do something, whatever it is, you should burn yourself up completely, leaving no residue.  It’s like that with watercolor.  You burn yourself up, except, errhh, with water.

If what I’m saying here isn’t perfectly clear, I hope at least it’s transparent.

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There’s a lot of heavy sighing in my drawing class when it’s time to face the hand.  Everyone agrees that drawing the hand is hard.  I don’t think it’s hard, so much as complex.  But so wonderful! I once spent a week drawing nothing but my left hand, six hours a day.  Now I love drawing hands.  And I love teaching it.  This can be done, boys and girls.  Stick with it.  For starters, the hand has three parts, the palm, the block of fingers, and the thumb.  Just THREE parts!  The palm is fairly rigid.  The fingers—unless you’re drawing a Balinese dancer—function pretty much in unison.  The thumb is limited in its movement.  Well, ok, it’s still hard to draw.  But you can organize your seeing of this beast.  Here’s how my class room demo looks. Notice hat the length of the fingers is approximately the same as the length of the palm.  The thumb’s movement defines an arc.  The fingers come out of the palm in a one sided V-form, with the knuckle of the middle finger at the peak of the V.

Unless you’re doing an anatomical study (which I would recommend once in a while, especially at the beginning), try not to overdraw the hand.  Keep your lines graceful and focus on the general structure, thinking of the hand as a “mitten” form where the fingers are not individually articulated.  And allow for some ambiguity.  A page of studies of the hand is worthy of being framed.    In a future post I want to talk about why that might be, about the emotional significance of the hand to us.  Here’s a student drawing by Cheryl B.

While my paintings are abstract, I feel the need to draw representationally all the time.  I work in series both in painting and in drawing.  One of my drawing series has to do with 17th century Dutch art.  Here is a page of pencil studies derived from figures found in the paintings of Christian van Couwenbergh, Cornelis de Man, Joos van Craesbeck, Johannes Verkolje and Johannes Vermeer.  In doing these pages I almost inevitably also draw my own left hand. On this page it appears three times.  I tell you, there’s something about the human hand…irresistible.

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We use the word, but there’s really no such thing. If your drawing or painting has a figure/object then that’s the positive space and everything else is called negative space.  This is a rather antiquated way of seeing, in the sense that before modernism art works were expected to illustrate a given subject matter, such as a narrative from mythology, whereas the modern eye wants to see every square inch of the canvas as “it,” as lively and engaging.  But the positive/negative (also called figure/ground) concept is useful in discussing how certain passages in a painting or drawing affect our seeing. (Above, drawing by Linne D.)  Amazing things happen when you consciously set out to make the “negative” space vibrant and as important as the objects you are drawing.

As I set up a still life for my drawing class today, my instruction concerned “negative” space. The textural markmaking in the “negative” space should push against the contours of the pottery and therefore, in effect, define those contours—indirectly.  The pottery shapes would still have shading, but the values in those tones would be lighter than the background (“negative” space.)  One of the interesting discoveries that followed was that if the foreground was developed too much, the whole thing fell apart.  The pots, in effect, wanted to be suspended from the dark, very assertive, “negative” space.  For some students, this exercise was revelatory.  One student, Eileen K, said she had never drawn this loose before. (Above, two drawings)  Hey, that’s powerful. For another student, Maggy S., the instruction to scribble in the “negative” space became an invitation to let loose as never before and her texture became truly  animated.  When that happens, as here, there is no positive or negative space–there’s only an engaging drawing no matter where your eye wanders.  And wander it does, a most desirable effect.

Notice that in all of these drawings the “negative” space has a definite shape of it’s own.  Not just fill-in, not just background.  It has  character.  It’s not negative at all, it asserts itself and is as lively and as important as the figure in the “foreground. ”

But notice, also, that it’s invented, it’s pure drawing.  The set up of the still life had nothing behind it to inspire these animated scribblings, not even drapery. The actual drapery, on the table, became uninteresting in the context of the “negative” space in the “background.”  Invention and imagination triumphed over literalism and so called realism.  Ah, the myth of realism.  For another time.

(The lighting in the above photos  of student work will be better in about a week.  Hang in there, please.)

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We referred to it back on April 19 when we talked about the ellipse.  Contrapposto. Big word, simple concept.  It means that when drawing the figure, make the shoulder line and the pelvis line go in opposite directions; one up, one down.  It’s an invention of the ancient Greeks, was de rigueur from the Renaissance to the 19th century and is still with us to the max. You can’t pass a shop window, skim a fashion magazine or glance at your junk mail without getting an eyeful of contrapposto.   So, thank the Greeks.  Around 480 BCE this happened in Greek culture, the Kritios Boy.  Notice how his pelvis is higher on the right than the left.  The shoulders are straight, that’s true. Later the shoulders would also slope, in the opposite direction.  It seems so natural, so graceful, so at ease, that we’re tempted to take the contrapposto stance for granted.  But before the Kritios  Boy, the Greeks imitated Egyptian sculpture, which was stiff and square, even when making an attempt at expressing conviviality, like this Egyptian couple, ~2500 BCE.   Even though one foot is in front of the other, the legs are stiff and there’s no shift of the weight to one leg, which would cause the pelvis to tilt up on the side of the load bearing leg.

Here are some Renaissance icons…

The use of the contrapposto design became so dogmatic that even a reclining figure like Michelangelo’s Dawn at the Medici tomb has that at-ease-soldier twist.  What are we to make of a dying body on a cross  gracefully complying with this aesthetic fashion?  Is Michelangelo perhaps sacrificing expressiveness on the altar of aesthetic dogma?  By the 19th century contrapposto was used in an obviously formulaic, even insip, manner.  I give you Ingres, right.

Still, it’s a useful tool.  And, clearly, we’re still standing around with one shoulder up and the hip on the other side pushed up by the load bearing leg.  When drawing the figure, look for the contrapposto lines, put them in with a bold stroke of your pencil and leave them there.  There’s no doubt that contrapposto animates the figure.  At left, a drawing by L.D., a student in my Thursday drawing class, working from the ad shown at the top of this page. He eventually took the contrapposto lines out, but without their guidance this drawing would miss its grace. Despite the drapery, you can see that the model’s right hip is higher the the left. Btw, you will not find the contrapposto stance in any ballet positions or in any martial arts.  More on that another time.

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When you look at an image you don’t necessarily know what’s going on right away.  That’s  a good thing.  It draws you in and engages your mind.  Look at this drawing.

We tend to read an image from left to right.  So you look at this object on the left.  What is it?  You don’t know. You’re frustrated. You give up.  Your eye drifts to the object on the right in the hope of finding something you can identify.  Well, this thing is confusing, too. Looks a little like a Helmut Jahn skyscraper, gift-wrapped.  Oh, no, could it be, yes it could…a shoe?  Hey, it’s a crazy shoe, maybe a purple alligator pump-me pump.  Never mind the ribbon, that would make walking difficult, but forget walking, it’s an object in the form of a shoe.  Check, got that right, identified one of the two objects on the page. Your eye now moves back to the first object on the left, that oval, and now you see that it has curved surfaces, indentations and strips.  Could it be, yes it could.  It could be the top view of a shoe. Pretty bad shape.  Looks like a soldier in Alexander’s army walked in it to conquer Babylonia, or whatever.  But now your brain has been exercised and that feels good.  You conclude that this page is not just an illustration but it’s an image.  An illustration would be a clear statement.  An image invites a deeper look.  It engages your mind in relational thinking where everything exists in context and you are left with more questions than answers.

When you’re drawing and you can produce an enigmatic image  like this, with wonderful markmaking, scribbling, and texture–you’ve had a good day.

The student, Maggy S., used these two National Geographic photos.  Our topic for the class was the human form. We had a table full of clippings that showed people standing, walking, sitting.  In the pile there happened to be these two zany photos and, voila, that’s what she chose to draw! An inspired choice, as it turned out.

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