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Archive for May, 2011

New York City.  A driver in his car shouts to a pedestrian on the sidewalk: “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?”  The guy says, “Practice.”

It’s a well-known joke.  But it’s not a joke.  That really is IT.  Practice!

Funny thing, though, everybody knows this about music, but when it comes to moving a pencil around, fuhgedaboudid.  Would you sign up for piano lessons and then not practice all week and just come in for your lesson?  Of course not!  But there’s something about the ordinariness of a pencil and a piece of paper, not to mention the ordinariness of a pile of pots or the ordinariness of your left hand or the ordinariness, even, of your face in a mirror, that makes you think this has got to be easy.  So when I say, “practice during the week!”  my students look at me as if my voice came out of the moldy 12th century or any other alien worldview you can name.

Imagine my delight when I get to see the homework my drawing student Karen G. brings to class every week to show me.  Not homework, really, I don’t assign it.  She just carves out time every week to draw.  She draws the throw over a chair.  She draws the skirting around a little table.  She draws drapery. And lo and behold…drapery drawing can be learned and her progress in that skill is evident.  Seeing the intricacy of shadow-light-reflected-light becomes easier and faster with practice.  (See post about reflected light, April 24, 2011.)

This practice business actually puts you in good company.  How did Leonardo da Vinci spend his time? Errmmm….he practiced.  In art history, these drawings are called “studies.”   If the word “practice” sounds too severe or uncomfortable to you, you can use more elevated language.  You can silence your ring tone and tell yourself that for the next hour you’re engaged in making a work called, “Study of Drapery.”  Hey, play word games to make it easier, tell yourself jokes, whatever gets you to “Carnegie Hall.”

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Models for life drawing do whatever they want.

A model will alternate standing poses with crouching poses and then she may feel like folding herself up and after that she’s likely to invert herself, feet up against the wall.  Since I like to create a dense drawing surface, with overlapping figures, I tend to have several sheets of paper in the works.  Let’s see, now her head is down and her arm is draping off the model stand…where should that go…there’s not much time to decide.  The pose may last only three minutes. Then the paper has to be taped down…the timer ticks away.  But this urgency is all for the good.  It concentrates the mind.

The paper here was prepared in the manner discussed  May 6, 2011.

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Flowers evolved to make insects happy, but humans claim them for their own edification and poetic purposes. In the 16th century in Holland, painters zoomed in on flowers as if they represented a microcosm of everything worthwhile.  By the 19th century, flowers have become  puzzling apparitions, as in Odilon Redon’s paintings.

For a project in my landscape painting class, Ivan T. brought in a photo of a vase of flowers on a tiled floor being hit by very strong afternoon light.  The shadows played into triangular and trapezoidal forms on the floor, so much so that these forms competed with the flowers, which were, by tradition, the point of the picture.  But our modern sensibility tends towards off-centeredness and towards seeing objects in counterpoint with other forms.   It felt quite “natural” to crop the photo so that the vase of flowers was not only off center but abruptly cut off.

Ivan then invented the view through a sliding door, when in fact the photo only showed shadow patterns on the floor.  This invention allowed him to create greater spacial depth and to introduce the complementary color with a green wedge of grass.

The painting (about 16 x 14) then became a dynamic play of forms where negative space takes a leading role.  In fact, the shadow of the vase—a kind of negative space or “nothingness”—is at the center of the painting.  By not being requested to look at a definite, clearly identifiable object, i.e. the flowers themselves, our attention wanders through ephemeral forms of shadows.  The painting, therefore, while jarring in its composition, has a tranquil, reflective presence in the mind.  I love art that comes at me with that one-two punch.

Above thumbnail:  flower paintings by Ambrosius Bosschaert  (1573-1621) and Odilon Redon (1840-1916)

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Japanese artist Hokusai Katsushika (1760–1849):   “Since the age of six I have had the habit of sketching forms of objects. Although from about fifty I have often published my pictorial works, before the seventieth year none is worthy.”

He started his famous 46 woodblock prints of views of Mount Fuji in1826 when he was sixty-six years old and worked on them for seven years. (Originally there were 36, but due to popularity, he added another 10.)

He learned about and reflected on his art all his long, energetic  life:   “At seventy-three I learned a little about the real structure of animals, plants, birds, fishes and insects. Consequently when I am eighty I’ll have made more progress. At ninety I’ll have penetrated the mystery of things. At a hundred I shall have reached something marvelous, but when I am a hundred and ten everything I do, the smallest dot, will be alive.”

Hukusai rocks!

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Top: Self portrait at eighty-three           Bottom:  Kajikazawa in Kai Province

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Elaine C. painted this small painting (about 12×16)  from a collage, which itself measured no more than 2”.  It’s small, but is intensely painted and packs a punch.

Some notes: the “background” color is a true black;   the dark mass at #1 is a deep plum color.  At 2 & 3, it was crucial to create a subtle, transparent transition between the colors. The reds in 4 & 5 could not be the same, one being dark, the other emerging into a bright red at the top and they had to appear like a duo without being parallel.  The angles of 4 & 5 had to be carefully tuned, as well as the angles of the two short reds at upper right.  The wedge at 6 is more yellow that the photo captures here and the texture is tapestry-like.

This feeling of “emerging” or “vanishing” comes through in all the contours. The color fields are all defined by not being defined,  with the edges being fuzzy to some degree.  The power in this painting derives from its duality:  The shapes are definite and bold, and the colors are complementary (red-green, yellow-purple), but the contours are transparent and nuanced as if the shapes were in a state of flux, either emerging into clarity or disappearing in a mist.  To achieve this refined painterliness is no easy task.

Oh, and what does it represent?  Clearly, it’s abstract, it’s a play on form and color, freely invented.  But is it possible to not be drawn into this landscape and be absorbed by its mysteries?

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Representation in painting became superfluous and problematic shortly after the invention of photography in the 1830s.  By the end of that century artists, though trained in the discipline of representation, turned to abstraction and highly subjective experimentations with form and media.  Being a dyed-in-the-wool modernist, I share their sensibility. When I do representational studies I have no intention of exhibiting them.   I do them for myself, for the sheer pleasure of drawing.   In my life drawing group I sometimes experiment with materials that are difficult to control and sometimes, like earlier this week, I go with the intention of working representationally, of studying the anatomy and getting it right.

Well, not quite.  I gave myself an extra challenge–can’t seem to get away from the modernist involvement with the mess of the materials.   I had prepared the gloss paper (that I like to work on, 11 x 17)  with a thin wash of acrylic in sepia.  Then I drew on that with black China Marker, which I’ve talked about here before.  China Marker is waxy and cannot be erased.  The only way to remove a line is to scrape it off with a razor blade.  Now, when this is done on prepared paper, the thin acrylic layer also comes off, exposing the original white of the paper.  The effect of that is that the scraping, while functioning as the removal of the undesired line, is at the same time attracting attention to itself.  The scraping becomes part of the working process itself, in fact a kind of celebration of erasure.

You can be sure, that nobody in the 16th century was allowed to think of erasure in this complementary light.  But we moderns (and postmoderns) see  process itself as occupying center stage.  The work is not so much about the result, as about the work-and-thought process itself.

It’s an idea that still meets with a lot of resistance, a hundred and fifty years later.  What developed in my life drawing session was disconcerting at first, but then it was exciting because I saw the philosophical implications of negation there.  It reminded me of Mark Tansey.  My exposing the surface of the paper and embracing the scraping process as integral to my work, is peanuts—literally just scratching the surface—compared to the work of Mark Tansey, who makes his monochrome paintings by scraping away the paint he applied to the canvas in the morning of his working day when he started making the painting.  He paints by removing paint, he actually unpaints.  Since oil paint dries in about six hours, that’s all the time he has to finish his unpainting.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mark_Tansey

http://www.orbit.zkm.de/?q=node/275

For readings on negation as a philosophical topic, see Mark C. Taylor’s books.

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There’s no doubt that this painting represents a landscape.  We can’t quite place it on the map or the globe, but the clues are strong enough. We relate to the line at #1 as a horizon.  #s 2 and 3 echo #1 and suggest a receding horizontal terrain.  These three lines form a reassuring reference in an otherwise rather heaving topography.  There are two reddish hills, partly seen in cross section (5), like geological strata made visible by, let’s say,  a road being cut by dynamite. But the comforting references to horizon and hills end there. At #7 we lose the sense of a horizon.

In the upper regions of this landscape we’re on another planet altogether.  There seems to be a light source behind the cross-sectioned hill (4), but its diffusion is abruptly cut off by diagonal boundaries.  In the upper left, at #6, a conical shape of the same color as the two large hills pushes down out of what we want to believe is the sky.  At right, an orange leaf shape floats.  We are disoriented and the earlier reference to a horizon has become weak and arbitrary.  The painting persists in the viewer’s mind as a landscape, but not literally, more imagined than real.  The looping line (follow the pink dots) flaunts this notion of abstraction.  It is pure surface play.  It says, look, this is a painting, a play of the imagination.

This is a large painting, about  18 x 45 inches.  It engages the viewer with its double take: landscape with hills vs. invention with looping line.

Now comes the catch.  The artist/student, Ivan T., did not paint it in this horizontal orientation.  He painted it vertically.  It evolved as a landscape illusion, geological, but something more like a crevice in rocky terrain.  That’s catch number one.

Catch number two is the fact that he was actually working from a collage, not a landscape at all.  The collage was completely abstract.  In the act of painting, the collaged shapes became more and more layered and the play of forms and edges took over.

What makes this work so rich is not only that it departs from the literalness of a landscape but that it is engaging in both orientations, horizontally and vertically.

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