Archive for October, 2010

The invention of photography in the 1830’s freed up the imagination. You want a portrait?  You got it.  Takes only a few minutes. No need to pose in front of a painter for hours.  How about a picture of your wonderful garden in bloom.  Ditto.  A few minutes.  The ships in the harbor, the mountains, the cathedral, the cows in the field, we know all that and take it for granted now.  What this means for the painter is that the portrait he paints of you or the landscape she paints of your garden is as much a reflection of the artist as of the object being depicted.  The imagination has, of course, always been at play throughout our history, but since the invention of photography (which can document reality with far greater accuracy) the pictorial imagination has truly come into its own.  I would even say, the imagination is IT.  Our artmaking is about the imagination itself. You can let it run free.  You can turn trees into shrubs, a meadow into a river or a frozen pond, you can turn the blue sky pewter gray—if you think all this will make a better picture.  Who decides what will make it a  better picture?  YOU.

All these developments took place in the imagination of my student Spike S. as he faced a radiantly illuminated October park scene  with a blazing, rotund maple tree. Because the sky is muted in his painting (pastel), the foliage is all the brighter.  The ground, now a mysterious surface of water or ice, recedes visually and in doing so allows the foliage to glow.

Another student, Beatrice K, faced the lake through a tangle of shrubs and trees, only one of them in bright fall colors.  She edited out the confusion.  The painting (oil on canvas) became a serene meditation: sky, lake, beach, rocks, a dead tree trunk and a small tree at the right that appears to be raging at the dying of the October light.

The painting, then, is not a documentation of the arrangements of molecules masquerading as trees, rocks and ground, so much as an independent object that came out of your mood that day.  The word “mood” makes it all sound so facile, doesn’t it.  You  can’t imagine how hard the work of the imagination really is.

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People who still believe that art is supposed to imitate nature need to see these dancers.  If this is an imitation of nature, it surely is of the interstellar kind.  The anatomy is familiar; they are not a different species.  The movements, however, take us into the realm of the impossible, not just athletic impossibility (that would be mere entertainment) but an experience that evokes the word “transcendence.”  The fact that the piece titled “Physikal Linguistiks” brought the dancers, through speech and proximity, to the edge of the mundane, heightened my awareness of the gap between nature and art.  There’s really nothing to do after such an experience but to go home quietly and somehow inject more energy into ones life and to find new possibilities.

I went home to my drawing board and quietly  filled a page with drawings. No gallery will show such work in our time.  I drew, not for recognition, but out of the need to draw.


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You’ll find a two minute video on YouTube in which I demonstrate how to swing your hand in the air in an elliptical path.  When you do, the ellipse on paper will just follow.  I invite everyone to watch this short video, because it simulates a class room demo where you watch over the shoulder of the instructor. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kLD9aCjoNWc

Here are the steps:

1. Place your forearm at about a 45 degree angle to your body and adjust the angle of your paper so that its vertical edge is parallel to your forearm.

2. Hold the pencil with fingers not curled in a writing grip, but slightly extended.  Let the pencil rest on your middle finger with your forefinger about an inch-and-a-half from the tip of the pencil.

3. Your hand is high over the paper. Only your pinky is resting lightly on the paper.

4. Gently swing your wrist in the air in an elliptical path.  Feel the pinky brushing over the paper and allow your forearm to move slightly. Find a speed and rhythm that’s comfortable and even.  Draw some ellipses in the air in a continuous movement.

5. Without interrupting the rhythm, lower the pencil to the paper. Then resume the ellipses in the air. Move the paper. After 3 or 4 ellipses in the air, lower the pencil to mark the paper without breaking the rhythm.

6. As you continue practicing, move the paper over and up.   Keep the position of the arm the same.

I love the paradox of this process.  The ellipse on paper–which is real and visible—is the residue of the ellipse in the air, which is an illusion.

I talked about the ellipse in an earlier blog, dated April 19.  I’m returning to the ellipse now because the New York Times has started a 12-week series on the art of drawing by James McMullan.  His second article, September 24, was on the ellipse.  Unfortunately, it is, at best, confusing.  Mr. McMullan offers no real guidance on how to approach the drawing process.  The comments left by readers show that they learned nothing from the article, though there was an abundant outpouring of enthusiasm over the fact that the Times is running a series on—what?—drawing !  I, too,  am delighted that the art of drawing has found space in a newspaper.  Here’s my own comment,  # 83, quoted in the Times:

“It’s wonderful to see that the Times is running a column on drawing. I agree with commentator #32 who laments the fact that most of us are visually illiterate. We should all be drawing! But Mr. McMullan is a poor choice as a teacher. After you’ve imagined the tops of glasses and bowls as so many floating Frisbees, you’re still no closer to learning how to actually move your hand to make an ellipse. I start every one of my new drawing classes with a demonstration of how the hand moves when drawing an ellipse. It’s a smooth, graceful gesture and it needs repeated practice over weeks and months. After students have watched over my shoulder to see the demo, I sit next to them and correct their movements. In my own blog about the art of drawing, https://artamaze.wordpress.com, I gave a lesson about drawing the ellipse (April 19, 2010), in which I used the analogy to the Frisbee– not as a shape because that’s useless–but as a reminder of how the wrist moves when you throw the Frisbee. That’s the real connection!
Mr. McMullan mentions that the hand needs to be loose in drawing the ellipse, but then he shows us ellipses drawn by a very stiff hand. His ellipses are not drawn with any swing at all, but with a scratchy, hesitant line. Mr. McMullan, you are most welcome to attend my drawing class. With empathetic, insightful instruction, you, too, can learn to swing your wrist to draw a lively ellipse.”

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