Archive for August, 2010

“I want something to look at,” she said, “and I want to spend time painting it.”    She wanted something close to Joseph Raffael’s watercolors, (>) though certainly not as huge.   She came to my plein air landscape class with the expectation of  spending  a couple of hours working on one watercolor, layering and slowly developing a dense surface.  Then she suddenly did this. (<)  I had suggested that she look at Cézanne (below),  a master of luminous, transparent color, whose watercolors print very nicely and are available in books.  The Cézannes were lovely, she though, but there was “not much to look at” and it’s not what she wanted to do.  All that white.  She wanted the surface more worked, denser, darker, more complex.  And she wanted to spend more time on one painting.  Instead, suddenly, she started producing four or five paintings in a three-hour class.  She didn’t like these paintings at first; they came too easily to her.  She had expected to WORK.  But I think otherwise.  I think producing such watercolors takes tremendous concentration and a rapport with this unforgiving medium that may have suited her sensibility but which she only now allowed to play out.

At the end of our ten-week course Janet told me that she had previously studied with a teacher who advised her students to cover up the white of the paper:  just put a uniform wash over the whole paper before you start painting.   How perverse, I thought, don’t do that!  It’s the white of the paper that makes the color luminous.  Why would you want to start with a murky surface and condemn your lovely watercolors to muddiness right off the brush.  On the last day of our class, Janet confessed,  working with the white paper as a key element in the whole process made more sense.

The white of the paper becomes an element in itself, not just background that needs to be filled.  Using the white as an element takes skill, sensitivity  and a concentration that constantly reads the whole surface and how everything on that surface relates to everything else.  This is not easy.  This rapport comes to most people only after countless hours spent in patient experiments involving little blotches of color into which other blotches of color are bled.  Hours, months, years.  That someone would have such a natural feeling for this medium strikes me as very rare.  I, for one, find myself absorbed in these watercolors.  The white in them has a presence and projects a power that I find quite moving.

The words “Beginner’s Mind” are part of a Shunrui Suzuki’s little book Zen Mind, Beginners Mind. Though we did not talk about this book at all, I feel it’s appropriate to comment on it since the student used the expression.  The “Beginner’s Mind”  is not at all stupid or crude.   The ability to be in a state of “beginning” comes after much work of staring down the mind’s constant commentator.

In that state the mind is able to see clearly.  To see clearly is to see the “whole picture” including all the white bits that appear to be blank but are anything but.

Many viewers, looking at all that white space in the watercolors, are asking, “but how do you know it’s finished?”  This question deserves a post of its own.  Later.

(The paper really is white, it’s my camera that doesn’t get it.  I’m working on it.)

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Stripped of their make-up, the Romans come at us with in-your-face character.  Colorless, and therefore, all the more colorful!  And best of all, no eye-lashes!

In the best of worlds, I would be able to whisk my class off to New York at a whim so that we could draw the Met’s marvelous collection of Roman portrait heads.  While the Greeks inclined toward youthful and athletic idealization, the Romans were interested in depth of character, individuality and the wisdom of age. That’s one reason they make great subjects for drawing.  Another is that the heads are all white, uniform in color, and therefore we see pure shapes without being distracted by topical color.  These ancient sculptures, as well as ancient Greek and Roman buildings, were originally painted in bright colors (a subject for a future post) but after  a couple of millennia of weather and neglect, the color has worn off, leaving us with pure form.  Perfect for drawing!

Because we can’t seem to come up with the funds (millions) to purchase original Roman busts, we make do with photos.  It’s not ideal, but the photo has a number of advantages:  the light never changes and the instructor and the student look at exactly the same form.  The forms that make up the face are always round and rendering a three-dimensional round form in a two-dimensional medium calls for careful observation and a subtle drawing technique.  This is not an easy assignment. These heads are essentially a variation on the old pottery-and-drapery still life, but here we have the added dimension of emotional mystery.  Emotional content acts as fuel in a drawing assignment. It keeps you going as you navigate over the ridges and spheres of the face.  Students find these faces inspiring, it seems, because the work they produce is impressive.

The Met:  http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/12.23

Drawings by Laura F., Spike S.,  Vera C., and  Sarah R. (working from Michelangelo’s Medici portrait).

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You know a lot of words. And you’re eager to learn new words.  Always have been.  When you were four, you could say “camouflaged” and by the time you were six you could name two dozen dinosaurs.  This is what your brain likes to do.  It likes to be smart, likes to know what’s what, likes to differentiate one thing from another, likes to categorize, likes to sort things out.  You’ve gotten very good as this.  That’s why you get along and are able to drive a pretty nice car.   Your diplomas are all nicely framed and you say to yourself, “I think I’d like to do some art.”  You walk into a drawing class, there’s a mess of burlap and some pottery on a table and you say, “Whoa, how do I do this?”  You mean the burlap.  You can approach the pots, they don’t scare you.  Why?  Because you can name them and their parts: handle, lip, rim, bulge, opening, base, top, bottom.    You can even be clear about where the light comes from and where the shadows fall.  But the cloth is scary.  It’s chaotic.  Its convolutions defy your categorizing capacity.  Your brain balks.  You’re disoriented and you would just as soon not be.  But this is good.  Disoriented is good. It means that instead of already knowing what’s what, you have to actually look.  Look.  Look again.  Keep looking.  Turns out, this is not so easy.  Because your brain really doesn’t want to keep looking, it wants to be done with it, put a label on it and move on.  My job as your drawing teacher is to trick you into looking.  I don’t know what else to call it.  My tricks take the form of weird exercises.  Yesterday, for example, I asked students to look at a design like this for several minutes, memorize it, turn it over, and then replicate the lines from memory without a second peek at the original.  The purpose of the exercise is to train your visual memory.   To do this you have to “go visual,”   because the shapes don’t represent anything you can name.   You can create exercises like this for yourself, right there in your kitchen.  Except that it’s harder than you think to come up with nonsense images.  Try it.  Treat yourself to a few minutes of disorientation.

To see is to forget the name of the thing one sees.   –Paul Valery

Above: Clifford Still, Untitled. 1958, Oil on Canvas, 114¼ x 160 in

Still life in drawing class, 2009

Unnamed shapes, taken from Adami

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The Kiss

In 1950 a young actress named Françoise Bornet and her boyfriend kissed in front of the Hôtel de Ville in Paris so that Robert Doisneau could photograph the kiss.  The photo became famous and brought Doisneau lots of royalty money.  Decades later, Bornet sued him for a share of the royalties, because she in effect had worked with him to get this shot and she won.  This was a posed photo, in other words.  But its fame was built on the assumption that it was a snap shot.

The spontaneity of the kiss in Times Square on VJ Day in 1945 is debatable.  Is the nurse really surprised?  Yes, notice how she’s pulling down her dress.  No, notice how she’s closing her eyes.  The sailor was tracked down later.  His name was Glenn McDuffie.  He said, it was spontaneous, he just saw her and grabbed her.  Others recall that he had been walking through the festive crowd and whenever he saw an attractive young women he kissed her.  In this scenario, it’s easy to imagine the photographer, Alfred Eisenstadt, walking ahead of him, ready to document  his next kissing impulse.  The photo would not exactly be posed, but it would be anticipated.  In any case, Eisenstadt did not ask his two subjects for permission to take the picture.

Anticipating the next move is what Henri Cartier-Bresson (1909-2004) was great at.  He must have been watching this couple out of the corner of his eye –and his camera—in the certainty that they would kiss sooner or later.  We can be sure that he did not ask them to act out a kiss for his him.  We can also be sure that there was no paperwork involved.

I’m not a flaneur ( flaneuse?) like Cartier-Bresson and our café life in Chicago may not be as picturesque as that of Paris in the 60’s, but when I take the CTA and the Metra my tiny camera is always at hand because while I’m pretending to read the New Yorker I’m actually indulging my passion for people-watching.  In response to my post of July 19, a thoughtful reader suggested that I be sensitive to the privacy of the people I photograph and ask permission before I click that shutter. Let me attempt a defense of photography, possibly as an art, but certainly as a way of making images that has been with us for about a hundred and eighty years.   I photograph in public because the ordinary strikes me as beautiful.  A fleeting moment, unconscious,  unposed, not intellectualized, just breathtakingly beautiful.  The moment often involves people attending to their unconscious, unposed chores and diversions. My camera is not accusing you, it is not judging you, it is merely recording you as you present yourself.  Nor do I show the photos in a context that would denigrate the anonymous person in the photo.   I can only say, if you are exposing this much skin—in public–it must be because you want to be seen this way.  As for the belief that the camera sucks out your soul, surely we can’t cling to that superstition any more, even if we could define those words.  I photograph in public because, well, because it’s all there.

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It looks like a big deal, but it’s really very simple.  Whatever you’re looking at has to be seen as if it were trapped in a cube. One point perspective applies when one side of the cube you’re drawing is parallel to the bottom edge of your drawing paper.  The first step is to determine the horizon line.  It’s your eye level.  Pick a point on that line and that’s your vanishing point.

During the Renaissance, perspective functioned as an extension of church dogma.  It became a visual representation of unchanging order in a society where the lines of authority were clearly defined, someone at the top had all the answers and the earth was said to stand still with the sun circling around it.  As Marshall McLuhan put it, “A piazza for everything and everything in its piazza.”   In 1905 Einstein said, space is curved, parallel lines intersect and time and space are relative. Artists in the 20th century expressed their discomfort with any kind of dogmatic piazza by, among other things, throwing out perspective.  Already in the 19th century Cézanne had painted his mountain without regard to perspective. He just pushed it up in the picture plane, made it big, when according to the laws of perspective it would have had to be a tiny triangle in the distance.  Picasso went even further.  He drew table tops in any odd shape he wanted and often his perspective lines converged not in the distance but in front of the painting, on the forehead of the viewer.   This was an explicit rejection of the Renaissance and the social and religious order it stood for.  De Chirico, in the 1930’s, constructed urban spaces with multiple vanishing points, as if to say, there’s no one way to perceive the world, folks; consciousness is a messy thing.  These artists were widely regarded as insane.  C.G. Jung, for example, judged Picasso’s art to be the work of a deranged mind.  Ah, it’s easy to long for the gleaming marble tiles of that orderly piazza in a world that stood still.

Last week, in my drawing class, we covered the mechanics of one-point perspective and students immediately were able to use this new tool in their still life drawings.  No one pretended that we were back in some  piazza of the geocentric Renaissance.  But working with this tool—perspective—proved to be delightful,  because it literally draws the viewer into the space and because the precision of the perspective lines functions as a counterpoint to the chaotic shapes of the drapery.  Drawing by Sarah R.

Two-point perspective adds another dynamic:  the triangle standing on a vertex.  This angle creates a feeling of instability, uncertainty, questioning, something Raphael would never have dreamed of.  One student, Cheryl B., remembered the two-point perspective tool from a previous class, some months ago.  The protruding table corner becomes part of a composition that plays on the repeating motif of the triangle.  The drapery at left forms one of several triangles in this drawing  and the composition as a whole defines a triangle. Because the table legs are not developed further but are left as pale lines, the whole mass appears to be suspended in space–a long way from the certainties of the Renaissance.

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