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Archive for January, 2011

We have three-hour class periods.  That’s standard for art schools.  In a painting class, students count on a painting taking several class periods, maybe a total of fifteen or more hours.  But in a drawing class, the general assumption seems to be that you can finish a drawing in one three-hour session.  Well, sometimes you can and sometimes not.  The drawing may take you in a direction you had not planned on.  And then what?  After three hours you have marks on paper that are strong, but at the same time somehow incomplete.  They demand more attention, not in the sense of refinement or fussiness, but in the sense that the idea that has emerged calls for further development.  In other words, the drawing you have just made is finished, but the idea and the potential it evokes need to be taken up in a new form.  You don’t know what form, you have to experiment.  You have to try something new.  You’re out on a limb.  It’s an adventure, full of risks.

The still life I set up for the drawing class consisted of three green peppers and a black lace-up boot.

No one chose to draw them all together.   Some students drew the peppers and some the boot, with the boot being the run-away favorite.  Two students produced drawings –one of peppers, one of boot—that prompted me to bring in materials for a demo the next class.  Ah, the teachable moment!  I brought in pen and ink.

Let’s look at these drawings, of the peppers by Karen G; of the boot by Linné D.   Neither artist was interested in rendering contours and shadows to simulate a photograph.  In both drawings, the artist simplified the form. The object is recognizable.  But at the same time, there is a play on form, that evokes different experiences in the viewer:  in the peppers, the repetition of the round triangular shapes and the allusion to muscles in the body, perhaps the thigh or the glutimus maximus;  in the boot, the experience of rhythm in the repetition of the eyelets and the ladder-like  laces, and the strong yin-yang curve in the overall composition.

The forms were so clear that they invited a medium that was fraught with risk and limited controllability.

When I did my demos in the following class period, I looked at neither the peppers not the boot. The boot was back on the shelf along with other still-life props and the green peppers had long been eaten.   Instead, I looked at the drawings, propped up in front of me.  I was not interested in duplicating these drawings, not at all.  I was interested in picking up these rhythmic forms and producing quick, energetic lines that would heighten the excitement I saw in the original pencil drawings.

The original student drawings are fairly large,  about 10 x 12 for the peppers; 16 x 14 for the boot. My pen and ink drawings are small, about 5 x 7.

The materials are simple and inexpensive:  pen holder, nib, non-waterproof ink,  water, any old brush.  (See above.)

In short, the need to develop the drawing comes out of the drawing itself.   W.S. Merwin, after he was designated poet laureate a few months ago, was asked if he makes a poem for others or for himself.  He said, neither.  He makes the poem because of the poem.  The poem itself directs him, needs to be worked out.    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fTig4NeK1fc

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The drawing I discussed at length in the last post was done in China Marker on gloss paper, where erasing is possible only by scraping with a razor blade.  The same materials were used for this drawing, from that same drawing session, 1.17.11.   In this drawing I did no scraping, but only added the dark background later and then also deepened some of the work on the figure itself with bolder strokes of the China Marker—not in outlines, but in patches.

In the next drawing I started to experiment with the addition of perspective lines, carefully measured out on the drawing board.  The drawings, generated from a ten to fifteen minute pose, can certainly left as is, but I’m finding it more and more interesting to fiddle with composition later when I’m back in my own studio.  Unfortunately, I don’t have a before-and-after for these drawing.  I’ll be more pedagogically minded in the future and remind myself to scan in the drawing before it gets subjected to “atmospherics” and compositional calculations.

This last drawing is in pencil (6B) on a scrap of museum grade mat board, about 10 x 10.   Acid free mat board is a luxurious support for drawing because it’s very soft, spongy almost, and allows the soft pencil to dig in to produce a rich, juicy line.  It’s not intended to be drawn on, being rather like compressed lint and lacking fiber.  But it offers the added perk of not allowing for erasing.  Hmmm, that limitation focuses the mind.

More on fiddling with composition, atmospherics and developing a drawing…soon.

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All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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The model in our figure work shop last Monday held this pose for ten minutes.  That limited time suffices to get the figure down but does not allow for any “atmospherics” like the enveloping black frame.  That was added later in my own studio, without the model, because the drawing needed it, I felt, for compositional reasons.  A few days later, today, I was still not happy with the way the eye moved through the composition and I decided to use this drawing in this blog to illustrate how ameliorating certain lines can greatly help the eye move through the page.  I happen to like that in a drawing; I don’t want the eye to get stuck on a passage or be blocked by some very insistent line.  To illustrate what I mean, I’m showing the same drawing here, with certain contour lines lightened, not much, but just enough so that as you follow the line it will at times become lighter or even disappear.

The drawing here at the left reflects those changes.  This final version should be more interesting to look at than the earlier version, at top right.  Is that your feeling also? (Click the  image to get a much larger view.)

To be specific about where the line was picked up, here’s a copy of the final drawing with numbers where I did the work.  Notice that the anatomy remains clearly stated, we lose nothing of the contour, when it is indicated by the black of the background pushing against the figure (#2 and #4)  or when the line is so pale as to be almost lost, as in #3.  The line at #1 had to go because it was too severe and demanding of attention.  It’s continuation at the upper right corner behind the head, however is another matter, a topic for a future post, which will involve Cézanne.

These changes still did not resolve the problems I saw with the drawing.  It kept reminding me of Ingre’s Grand Odalisque, one of his more ridiculous exaggerations of the female anatomy.  He sacrificed anatomy and credibility on the altar of composition, we can see that: what he was after here was a smooth upward curve like a cup.  The reclining figure thus becomes a vessel, a popular metaphor for a woman’s body in the 19th century.   She is in effect, a reclining version of his La Source, another kitschy male fantasy of the female body. (We must get to a discussion of kitsch one of these days!) Here, then, is the final-final version of this figure study.  If you’ve followed the above with any interest, you’ll see how the earlier problems are resolved by the final subtle changes.

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All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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Jean Arp (1886-1966) was a French-German artist.  Art historians classify him under surrealism.  “Sur real”  in French means above- the-real, or hyper- real.

When you’re seeing things as more deeply, more profoundly connected than is conventionally allowed, you can say that your perception is hyper-real, or surreal.   For example, if I say that branch is connected to the trunk of the tree, I’m making a conventional observation, yawn. Even saying that SAT scores are connected to college policies is a conventional observation.   But if I go to a rummage sale and see an umbrella and a sewing machine next to one another on a table, which happens to be ( I notice) an operating table, and I feel  that these things are intimately connected, then I’m having a surreal moment.    The umbrella and the sewing machine, presumably were placed on that table without deliberate planning by any apron wearing rummage sale organizer.  The placement occurred simply by chance.  Ah, the surreal sensibility says, did you say chance?  How wonderful!  Chance is a powerful, profound, inspiring force that operates in our lives every minute, every day.

The next time you hear somebody say, “ohmygod that’s like totally weird,”  you can remind yourself that the word “weird” originally meant “fate.”  When the weird sisters in Shakespeare’s Macbeth are stirring their steaming cauldron, they are cooking up fate.  They are the fate sisters, literally.  But what is fate, other than another word for chance.  Therefore, that tattooed art student’s  “like totally weird” is  really a comment about how something just happen because of chance.

So……back to Jean Arp.   He embraced the element of chance in his working process.  For example, he would stand at his work table in his studio, place a sheet of white paper on the table and drop snippets of (perhaps color) paper onto that white sheet.  Where they fell, he would glue them down.  Sometimes he added the step of carving the paper shapes out of  wood.   And he declared the result a work of art.  And it was, and is.   He created it in harmony with this force called chance.  This acceptance of chance occurrence in the art process is a major part of the modern sensibility.

Today at the end of my landscape painting class I washed my hands in the classroom/studio sink.  This is a sink where everybody rinses brushes and pallets and generally dumps stuff.  It consists of two squares one of which is hopelessly black.  But it so happens that the other half got scrubbed to its original white a couple of weeks ago and had newer paint splatters.  As I washed my hands I looked down into that square bottom.  This is what I saw.

I dare say, I had a surreal moment. And so did one of the students, Danielle G., who  documented this sight with her excellent camera.

One more insight into Jean Arp’s mind.  In 1915 he was summoned to sign up for the draft for what became the slaughter called World War I.  He took the paperwork he had been given and, in the first blank, wrote the date. He then wrote the date in every other space as well, then drew a line beneath them and carefully added them up. He then took off all his clothes and went to hand in his paperwork. He was told to go home.

Peace.

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All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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Fluxus

Fluxus art flourished, or should we say “flowed,” abundantly in the 1960’s.  The word Fluxus comes from Latin “to flow.”  Like its grand-daddy  Dada, Fluxus celebrates chance occurrences and simple everyday objects and events.   It reminds us to pay attention—to see and to listen.  Not just to look and label, but to, errrm,( what other word is there) to see.  Ditto in the auditory department.  Listen!  Wherever you are, you can go into a state of seeing and listening.  Waiting for a bus, waiting for the light to change, waiting for the recitation of the menu to be over, waiting for the water to run hot…take a moment to notice what’s happening in your senses.  Needless to say, this involves a sense of humor.

A great Fluxus moment is presented to us by a snow fall. When you’re done with the shoveling, treat yourself to a walk around the block or just a look around the yard.  Take the camera, it helps you see.  Ten minutes and your optic nerve will tingle and your brain will hummmmm.  Dried grasses and plants take on the look of brush strokes, like calligraphy.

I particularly love what an overnight snow fall does to my back yard sculptures, my lessons of earlier years, cast in stone.  It’s as if they were melting.

Some well-known artists who have worked in the Fluxus mode are John Cage, Joseph Beuys, Nam June Paik, and Yoko Ono.

For a useful article on Fluxus turn to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fluxus

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For the Dadaists and the Surrealists in the early part of the 20th century, collaging was at the core of their working process.  Collage is quintessentially modern.  It claims that this piece of junk and that scrap of paper are actually connected and that if you put them together and play with their juxtaposition on your work surface, your mind will go into a kind of overdrive and you will attain a level of awareness that is not accessible to you if you stick to the culturally established rules of logic and acceptability.  As educated, competent people we tend to resist collage.  It seems silly, anarchist, threatening.  When I spread a pile of magazine clippings on a long work table, however, my students faced the challenge with the seriousness of, errrm, educated, competent people.  I’ve talked about the collaging process before (see Nov 15 post) and have previously mentioned that some students found the work difficult at first.  But the Surrealists may have been on to something in their hope of opening up different levels of awareness, because in the last hour of our collaging class the work just flowed.  Snippets, blobs, strips and swatches of paper found their “selective affinities” without having to be rubber stamped by the logical categorizing of narrow rationality.  (See earlier posts on collage and From Collage to Painting)

In that intense state of awareness (Keats called it “negative attention”) the mind creates patterns that it does not rationalize as patterns—because it has no time to do that—but that nevertheless are perceived as absolutely right. Only later, in a reflective mood, can we ask, well, why is this so good.  When that happens, the work has achieved an autonomy that challenges you—even though YOU are the one who made it.  The work, in other words, has something to teach you, the maker.  The work is bigger than you.

When Noami dashed off this collage in a few minutes towards the end of class, she was not aware of the repetition of a form that makes the whole thing come together.  She was not deliberating; she was acting intuitively out of her by now intense visual awareness.  She did not deliberately set out to create a composition that would consist entirely of the Y shape. The Y shape kept finding itself.  When she put down the black Y (here with a photoshopped  #1 next to it)  she undoubtedly associated it to a tree, since a prominent tree  shape has been a motif in all her landscape paintings.  The diagonally placed Y in the middle (#2) probably associates to some kind of hilly landscape in the distance.  The horizontal Y at the bottom (#3) is just a couple of strips, but notice at the right the strips converge in a Y. In #4 at the top we get an intimation of the Y, a scattering of parts.  If the fragments in #4 were connected, the game might easily become too obvious and therefore no game at all. #4 is proof of the intuitive pudding:  it tells us that the artist was not working according to a formula.

What we get, then, is one vertical Y and three horizontal Y’s.  Notice that the horizontal Y’s are all chopped—vertically.  The eye, therefore, is never blocked.  We are always moving THROUGH the painting. When in painting the central passage of the #2 Y, one of the black vertical lines got too heavy, it attracted attention to itself and therefore blocked the eye’s movement.  When thinned, the line kept its chopping function without stealing the show.

The collage just fell into place, the painting just happened.  It all seemed so easy.  But I would like to point out here that none of this was actually easy in a trivial sense.  The collage and the painting came about because of the work that was done to attain this intense state of awareness.

(Please note:  I apologize for the glare in the photo of the painting. Size of painting, about 20 x 16.  Oil on canvas. “Selective affinities” comes from Goethe)

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Facefame

Blame it on Lincoln’s beard.

Just five weeks ago, on November 24 to be exact, I was reading the NYtimes online in my usual sloppy, skimming, let’s-get-this-over-with way.    I’ve never liked reading the paper, this or any other.  I’ve always known that you’re supposed to keep up with the news, but there was always something more interesting to read, or rather more thoughtful, or more personal, or…I don’t know what…maybe less upsetting.  I would prefer reading Huizinga on the waning of the middle ages to reading about the shenanigans of the lobbyists on K Street.   But that Wednesday before Thanksgiving, as I was looking at the front page of the Times, something new happened to me.

There, in the Times, is something about Lincoln growing his beard in a style that was his own.  I read it in my usual skimming way and I look at the picture and think, so, what’s so new about that beard, we’ve seen it a hundred times. I decide to investigate this phenomenon visually.  I pull out a piece of paper and draw Lincoln from that photo on my 20” computer screen.  I’ve drawn Lincoln before, more than once, most recently from the famous Gardner photo for my work at the Chicago History Museum. In that drawing he came out distant and gloomy.  But now, from this new-beard photo, I’m bringing out the skeptic in Lincoln, the oh-really-you-don’t-say wise guy who put up with so much foolishness in his life.  After I’ve drawn Lincoln, I look at some other articles in the Times and I draw eight more people who are involved in the news that day.  Eight.  One after the other.

The next day I drew five.

Reading the news immediately became a new experience.  I would read an article, find the newsmaker on You Tube and draw the face. Every day.  Eureka! I’ve found a way to get me interested in current events.  After three weeks I looked at my pile of drawings and realized that I had acquired a new habit.  My enthusiasm wasn’t letting up.  What to do with all these drawings?  I did what any of us would do.  I started a blog. http://facefame.wordpress.com

With the exception of Lincoln, all faces in the Facefame blog will be drawn from moving images, from video clips or from movies.  It’s important for me to see the face in motion to get a feeling for the character behind it.  I draw fast.  I work in a waxy pencil (China marker) on glossy paper and rarely do more than one study.  The drawings, therefore, have a rough, even coarse, look.  In some cases I’ve made more refined drawings in clean, brush-like lines, such as for Ayaan Hirsi Ali (http://facefame.wordpress.com, 12.19.10) and Tadao Ando (drawn 11.24.10, yet to be posted).  I may again be moved to take a drawing out of the rough into a more lyrical state, but we’ll see.  No promises.  It’s uncharted territory.  Up for grabs. Just like the daily news.

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