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Archive for March, 2012

When you Google something today, you’ll see a line drawing of Crown Hall.  Bravo, Google!

Crown Hall is the Architecture building at the Illinois Institute of Technology, designed in the mid 1950’s by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who was born on this day in 1886.  The building often houses architecture exhibits and art events.  It’s well worth the trip to just be in this building.

Gandhi, when asked what he thought of Western civilization, replied “I think it would be a great idea.”  He died a few years before Crown Hall went up.  Too bad.  He might have had an aha-moment in this exhilarating, optimistic space.  He would have noticed the clarity of its thought.

The Main Building of what was then the Armory Institute of Technology was built by Patton & Fisher in 1893, the year of the Columbian Exposition.  You see it every time you drive down the Dan Ryan.  It’s Romanesque Revival and was cut from the same fearful cloth as all the gloppy grandeur down at the Midway Plaisance that year.  The powers-that-were apparently trembled at the changes– social, political, cultural, technological, spiritual, the works– that were in the air and exploded in the early decades of the 20th century.  Louis Sullivan was part of that change and his Transportation Building at the Fair was the only progressive structure there.  Poor Louis, came to a tragic end.

The 20th century turned a corner, any way you think of corner, metaphorically or technologically.  No wonder, “how to turn a corner”  became a major topic of discussion among architects.

Mies turned a profound corner.

Gandhi might have been drawn to sit in meditation in Mies’s chapel, which looks inconspicuous, without grandeur, affectation or cowardly historical revivalism.  The chapel at IIT looks more like a factory, a little workshop, a cubicle even, a place where you go to work on your stuff.

(Above, my caricature of Mies, 1986, when I was a docent with the Chicago Architecture Foundation and gave the Loop tours and the Boat Tour with great passion and the occasional quip about the powers-that-be, but you already guessed that.  )

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When talking about art and art making we tend to use charged words.  We like dynamic compositions, vibrant colors, compelling narratives, gripping scenarios…well, here, let me pick up Art in America on my desk and open it at random,  here it is, the current March issue, page 139: “ …what ties together the exhibition’s diverse array of works is a shared sense of fascination and mission.”  We like that, fascination and mission. The rest of the paragraph has us grappling, probing, investigating our assumptions, authority and power, and of course radically transforming our views.  Artspeak always cranks up the vocabulary as if to apologize for the absence of a screeching car chase or a percussive sound track.

Making art is exiting, but not in an extroverted, docudrama sort of way.  The excitement is in the intensity of the concentration and the tension inherent in the work process.  This is not surprising and everybody knows this, more or less.  What will come as a surprise to many is the other phase in the life of the imagination:  boredom.  I don’t mean boredom, as in unwashed insomnia.  I mean voluntary boredom, as in meditation—doing nothing but in a highly structured way.  Einstein, who knew a bit about the life of the imagination, said something like, boredom is essential to creativity.

If you can’t get yourself to sit for a spell and count your breaths, then take public transportation once in a while.  As you wait for the train and wait for the bus, you’ll notice the tightening of ennui around your cranium.  Excellent opportunity!  If you invent your own way to structure this nothing-time, you’ll notice how interesting it really is.

Will this make you brilliant the next time you face your canvas?  Maybe.

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How did this painting come about?  How did the artist start?  What was the inspiration?  What was the goal?

Ivan Tshilds started with a small photo of a mountain ridge and a red sunset. This was actually a fragment he had isolated from a larger photo.  His canvas was about 24” x 20.”

He rendered the photo literally, but without any detailing or fine brush strokes.  This first stage went very fast and the result was boring:   we read a photo differently than a painting or drawing, with different expectations and different associations.

To take it out of the literal, he clarified the horizontality of the composition.  In this second stage, the painting consisted of horizontal stripes; from top to bottom:  purple, blue, orange and green.  This was the decisive step, because once he freed himself of the intention to produce a sunset painting, he was able to work with the painting itself, reacting to colors and shapes as such.  In this mode, the search for meaning continues, but is not tied to pre-ordained, outside references.  The task turns into an adventure.

He tuned the colors in relation to one another and their widths.  In the next class I brought in a large reproduction of Matisse’s   “Port-Fenêtre à Collioure,” 1914, a large painting, which consists of vertical stripes plus a drab charcoal colored horizontal element at the bottom.  Ivan’s painting seemed to need a counter-stripe to pull everything together.  At first he experimented with such an element, but the effort failed—only in the direct sense. Instead, seeing his painting with this possibility, he experimented with and found other, more subtle ways to link the stripes. Notice how, in his painting,  the small “intrusions” relate to one another and cause the eye to move through the whole surface.  This way of thinking also lead to faint lines, a kind of “marbling,” that ignores the color boundaries and also serves to unify the composition.  Doesn’t that sound like an adventure!? The painting took over and came alive.

But wait, there’s more. Remember, he’s been working on this painting with the stripes horizontal. When he thought he had it finished, he felt he needed yet another fresh look at the thing and so he turned it sideways.  Seeing a painting in a different orientation helps you catch patterns and biases that you had gotten used to and therefore stopped noticing.  Now comes the surprise:  his painting works better with the stripes vertical.  Agree?

Why is that?

(The book I brought in for the Matisse is “The Shock of the New,” 1980, by  Robert Hughes.  Superb writing, highly recommended.)

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I’ll have to ask my students, if I’ve ever actually shouted, “stop!”  I don’t think so.  But, as I make my rounds in the studio-classroom, I do occasionally say something like, “Do you think this drawing is close to being finished?”  or  “This might be close to being finished, don’t you think?”  or “This looks close to finished, what do you think?”  I can tell you, though, that this business of deciding when it’s finished has become a running joke in my drawing class.  When I lean close to a student and voice one of these questions about, you know, is it finished, there’s likely to be a chuckle in the room and maybe somebody’s mock- gagged voice will say, “stop!”  It’s funny and it’s also taken seriously by now because everybody at some time or another has overworked a drawing.  Whether to add one more crinkle in the drapery or to put in the decorative stuff on the crockery we’ve got in the still life set up—it’s tempting, but it may bring the power of the drawing down a notch or two.

Sometimes it’s a matter of time.  The artist/student expects to slave away at a drawing, because, well, because we think if we work hard and long, the result will deserve applause.  (People who sign up for a drawing class are always overachievers.  That’s my theory, anyway, certainly in MY drawing class.)

Karen G., working from a still life set up with lots of drapery and some pots and apples, the usual stuff, looked at her drawing and thought it might be finished.  She hesitated, because she had only been working at this for about forty-five-minutes.  When in doubt, we prop the drawing up on one of the easels and look at it from a distance.  There it is.  Another stroke of the pencil would obviously destroy it.  Serene, self-assured and reticent, it’s complete.

(For the photo of the still life set up and two other student drawings done from it, see the two previous posts.)

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The student said, “I had fun with it.”

It’s not that he was grinning throughout the class period or that he just dashed this off.  On the contrary, he worked very hard and had to make decisions that required intense concentration.

What, then, does having-fun-with-it mean?  It means that he felt unconstrained in the process from beginning to end.

He did not feel constrained by the need to

–be literal

–illustrate what he saw

–be neat

–be consistent or logical

–please anybody else.

To start with, Linné felt free enough to pick a passage from the still life that would not be readable as drapery although it clearly was that.  Bravo!  He did not see literal drapery, but form.  It’s hard to fake this kind of seeing.  If you fake it, the work will look just that, fake and forced.  It will be lacking wit and you will not enjoy the process.  To see form can take a long time.  Linné has been studying with me for three-and-a-half years and his work has come to reflect an individual sensibility.   When the class saw this drawing there was a gasp of admiration.

And one more lack of constraint needs to be noted.  He did not worry about whether it was finished or not.

The drawing is finished when the artist’s curiosity that set the process in motion has run its course.

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My direction at the beginning of the class was to work with charcoal pencil and stompe and to aim for a dense drawing with deep black.

Charcoal comes in different forms. Thin twigs and thick cigar shapes are good for working large and messy.  In pencil form it can be sharpened but, in my experience, the charcoal core is often already broken into sections.  There’s another pencil form where the charcoal core is wound in paper strips and here the charcoal core will be intact.  The pencil form for charcoal leaves your hands fairly clean, which may be regarded as an advantage.  Use either medium or soft.    A stompe is a stick of tightly wound paper and the thicker the stick the better, I think.  It can be sharpened with a utility knife or a single-edge razor blade.

The still life we worked from this class was exceptionally ho-hum and the work my students produced from it turned out to be– exceptional.  One of the things I stress in my still life classes is that you can pick whatever passage of the set up you like.  It’s gratifying to me to observe how students will take the time to look at the drapery, crockery and plastic apples before they start to draw.  This little initial meditation is a sign of maturity.  Beginning students don’t do that, they just start drawing what they think they are “supposed to draw,” usually some vase or bowl because these things are most clearly identifiable.

In the next three posts I will feature three drawings inspired—yes, inspired—by this ho-hum set-up.

The first, by Gabby E., has the ingenious invention of a low horizon.  Because there was very little space for the horizon line (at left), just drawing a line would have made it hard to read.  So she darkened the area below the horizon line, creating the illusion, as it turned out, of an ocean and a seashore.  The drapery and box on the table now become cliffs.  The drawing becomes surreal and tickles the imagination. The tomato is still a tomato—but what a tomato!

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