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Archive for April, 2012

The National Geographic article (May 2012) called “The Common Hand,” starts like this:  “The hand is where the mind meets the world.  We humans use our hands to build fires and sew quilts, to steer airplanes, to write, dig, remove tumors, pull a rabbit out of a hat.  The human brain, with its open-ended creativity, may be the thing that makes our species unique.  But without hands, all the grand ideas we concoct would come to nothing but a very long to-do list.”

Hey, what about drawing!!!

I attended a lecture at the Fermi Lab in Batavia last Friday, called “Sleights of Mind.”  The researchers, Stephen Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde,  talked about how and why we are taken in by magic.  The brain, it turns out, cannot multi-task.  It can only focus on one thing at a time, which is why misdirection, the fundamental trick in sleight of hand, works.  Visual information is so complex for the brain to process that it takes 18% of the cerebral cortex to do the work, in the lump at the back called the Occipital Lobe.  Your eyes can only focus on one thing at a time, which is why we keep shifting our gaze if we want to take in a larger scene.  If we didn’t have to shift, i.e. if we could put our peripheral vision also into focus, the brain would have to be 500 times bigger than it is.

Seeing is a big deal:  hasn’t that been the thread through what I’m saying here!?

Just think, almost one fifth of your brain is about seeing.  And you’re telling me you don’t have time to refine your seeing…to practice drawing!!???

Master magician, Apollo Robbins, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wjPVx4MNXoQ&feature=related

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1LBbmvXM0WY&feature=related

Stephen Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde,  “Sleights of Mind,”  2010

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When the movie came out last year, I thought it would enjoy a long run.  It didn’t and I missed it.  But it does well on Netflix, too.

The Chauvet Cave in southern France was discovered in 1994.  It contains the oldest paintings ever found anywhere, more than twice as old as any other. The paintings were originally (32,000 years ago) put on rock face that was recessed in a cave.  The cave at the time was readily accessible because it was not sealed. (20,000 years ago an enormous rock slide sealed the space.)  The artist and his audience could easily walk into the dark “galleries” but to see the drawings they had to bring torches.  The artist could have painted the rocks closer to daylight but he chose not to.  He painted by torch light, farther towards the back.  This tells us two things.  It tells us a) that these lively drawings of animals were all made from memory and b) that art was removed from everyday life.  These two points are related.

The persistent question for ethnologists and archeologists is, how did these people understand the world and themselves.  We can infer from their artifacts and from indigenous peoples in our own time, like the Australian Aboriginals, that their worldview blurred the line between reality and dream, between thought and action, between wish and deed, between the subjective and the objective, and between the image and the concrete thing.

Who made these drawings?  Could everybody draw like that?  Could anybody pick up a charred stick and draw a running horse from memory?  Was there a competition about who could get the anatomy most accurately?  No.  This was something only a few individuals were able to do.  Or were even inclined to do.  In the case of Chauvet Cave, we have one individual artist who left his fingerprint with a distinctive little finger, recognizable throughout.  He was six feet tall.  This information gives me goose bumps.   An individual.  He picked up his charred stick and his torch and walked to the back of the cave and drew these animals in motion—from memory.  There was no need for this.  Drawing did not fill his belly or build his muscles for combat, the better to survive.  Drawing was a removal from the necessities of everyday life.  It was not about survival, but about a new form of consciousness.

You can be sure that when he took his family back there, the folks were mystified and amazed that anybody could do this.  They thought the horses and bison were real.  What the artist himself saw was different:  he saw the lines he himself had made and at the same time he saw the evocation of the animals in these lines.  He was at the threshold of modern consciousness, which is a self-consciousness.

Herzog asks one of the archeologists why the cave artist made these drawings, was he perhaps like us moderns, and the archeologist answered with the cliché about the desire to communicate with the future.  The answer to Herzog’s question, I think, is yes, the cave artist was like us in his confrontation with his own consciousness.  His worldview, like everybody else’s at the time, blurred the line between reality and dream, between thought and action, between wish and deed, between the subjective and the objective, and between the image and the concrete thing.   We still do this.  The guy with the crooked little finger was probably terrified by his ability to conjure such images of reality with his charcoal stick.  We are not so terrified any more.  We have developed techniques that allow us to squarely look at the workings of our imagination, our ability to create symbols and images that manipulate the behavior of our fellow humans, who still can’t tell the difference between thought and reality, between the subjective and the objective, etc.  We are now looking at how our minds invent “reality.”  The guy with the little finger got us started on that path.

Well, some of us.  It’s hard to think about this.  Mr. Little Finger knew that.  That’s why he walked back to the dark part of the cave to do the work.  He drew from memory (a), an interior activity, that’s not concerned with mere survival (b), which is what consumes the energy of most members of the species.  Confronting consciousness is not for everybody.  It is the job of artists.

You want more goose bumps?  He was right handed.  That’s my opinion, because he preferred to draw the animals facing left and that’s the natural way for a right-handed person to draw.  The hand he showed us in his hand print (above) is the hand that made the drawings.

(The best book I know on this subject is “The Mind in the Cave,”  by David Lewis-Williams. He addresses this question of consciousness and avoids the clichés about spirituality and hunting.)

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The still life with the doll was set up again the next class.  This time I suggested an entirely different use of the visual complexity they were presented.  Instead of really drawing what was there, just pick up a line here and there and quickly put that down on paper.  Use a marker, specifically the marker made by Utrecht, which has a wonderful brush nib.

To work in this manner (let’s call it noodling)  you’ll want to work fast and fill one sheet after another.  “Fill” turns out not to be the right word at all, because this kind of mark making, I think, is most effective if there are few lines.  As the students were doing their own drawings,  I sat down and did fourteen drawings, one after the other, 8½ x 11 each, in just a few minutes.   The first few pages were not good because they had too many lines.  Restraint turns out to be difficult:  you get into the play of the lines and you’re tempted to just pile them on.  The trick is to draw impulsively and immediately respond to the kind of negative space the line creates.  After eight drawings, I finally produced four that were “right.”   When they were all spread out in sequence everybody could see why the last four worked and the earlier eight didn’t.  No explanation was necessary.  This is strong stuff.

The next step was to tear a snippet of color paper from a pile of collage material (magazine pages) I had spread out.  A scrap of red, say, the size of your thumbnail, can then be moved around on the page. Some placements are obviously “bad” and some are immediately and intuitively perceived as “right.”  What makes a spot right, has to do with the expectations that the line drawing has set up, the tensions and the shape of the negative space.  But what’s amazing is the unanimous agreement of where that bit of red should go.  Really, strong stuff.

Only one student took my suggestion and worked in this manner. This noodling with lines is considered to be hard.  How can this be hard, you may ask, if you can do any old squiggle that doesn’t have to represent anything.  I don’t have a post-length answer.  But I’d like you to try this:  just pick up a marker and squiggle a line on a piece of paper.  Maybe a dozen more pieces of paper.  See what happens.  Then see if you can relate a tiny bit of color to that line. See what happens.  This is not hard like lifting cinder blocks is hard.  It’s hard in the way dancing is hard if you’re nervous about looking foolish.  We’ll get back to this topic again in a future post.

(Now, here are the rejects.  Click for larger image.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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When I set up a still life, I always remind the students that they can pick and choose.  You can decide to draw the whole pile of stuff or you can zoom in on a passage and work that out.  You can also aim for representation with all its complexities of shadows and high lights or you can take inspiration from the shapes in general and do whatever.

One student opted for the whole pile of stuff, but without the doll.  Only one student faced the challenge of the doll.  The other two (small class this term) settled for drapery, the supposedly bugaboo of still lifes.   Interesting, about the drapery.  If I had presented just drapery, the view might have been perceived as boring.  But drapery as one element in a very diverse pile of shapes, emerged as the choice cut.  Students always balk against drawing drapery—it’s complicated—but after so many months of balking, they have learned how to approach it and, lo and behold, drapery now is a welcome subject.  Probably because after so much practice, they can handle it.  Progress.  Let’s hear it for practice!!

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A doll’s curly hair can inspire propeller shapes and sometimes a doll lying down can, when turned vertical, suggest a funny face.  We do have fun in this class. Hard work and a lot of fun!

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Monet is popular because of his use of color.  In l967 the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, under its new director Thomas Hoving,  acquired Monet’s La Terrace à Sainte-Addresse for  1.4  million. Monet had painted it in 1867, at the age of twenty-seven and had sold it for pittance because as a new father he needed the money.  But I digress.

Hoving fought to get the painting for the museum.  When he saw it in the dingy quarters of its eccentric owner, the Swedenborgian pastor Theodore Pitcairn, in a suburb of Philadelphia, he was so overcome by the painting’s beauty that he ”sat down on the bed and stared at it for what must have been an hour.” In his book, “Making the Mummies Dance,”  Hoving talks only about the exquisite colors in this painting.

Well, now, as is our custom in this blog, let’s have another look.  Colors, yes, but what about all this geometry.

I immediately notice two things in the geometry:  1) the two flag poles, making me suspect a Golden Section and 2) a dominant line at the lower right.

The Golden Section (1) is right there, defined by the flag poles and the center of the umbrella and the eye of the man in the hat, the beholder of the scene, and therefore one of us the viewers. (The bright green lines).

The dominant line (2) is the strong line dividing the pavement from the garden. (The pink line)  This line, in the Western tradition, is read as going down.  Hm, down.  Here’s this cheerful scene, which Hoving describes as pure joy, and what we get is this dominant line directing our eye down, down, down.    If you don’t immediately see the down-effect of this line, just flip the

image over.  Now, the line goes up.  When that line goes up, the joy loses all gravitas and turns the image into a tourist bureau advertisement.  Doesn’t the optimism in the flipped version become facile and trivial?

The picture within the picture that frames the man, the woman and the black sails through the use of the flag poles (3) is clearly intentional especially since the man in the hat is looking at that scene.  A few days after the birth of his son, the penniless Monet wrote to his friend Bazille: “Everything is fine here, work and family;  were it not for the birth I should be the happiest man alive.”

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My painting class is called “Impressions of Landscape.”   The recurring question is:  what is a landscape?  To make a landscape do you need a tree, a house, a mountain, clouds, a path leading somewhere? What?

You need a horizon line.  That’s not an aesthetic decision.  It’s not a matter of taste or personal preference.  It’s what your brain demands.  The horizon line is how it orients itself and it’s how it knows that the body it’s in charge of is standing up.

Once you accept that bare essential, you are free to play and goof off and be whimsical and testy.   I mentioned the work of John Baldessari in class and how his work subverts assumptions about language and frames of reference.

Sometimes goofing off, being whimsical and testy involves a lot of work.  One of my students, an architect, took up the dual challenge of paring down a landscape to the horizon line and subverting assumptions about frames.  His piece, measuring over one hundred horizontal inches, consists of three canvases of equal size, precisely spaced, and arranged in a descending arc.

The viewer is likely to question whether this is a landscape and feel, vaguely at first, that something is moving and then feel that he is moving.  He will go back and forth between the disorienting, sinking feeling and the assurance of the horizon line.  Creating this effect is a major accomplishment.  The photo at the top of this text does not do justice to the work because of the studio clutter around it.  This highly original triptych by Peter Brinckerhoff deserves to be shown on a white gallery wall all by itself.  It requires space and time for contemplation.  John Baldessari and fans of conceptual art would like this, I think.

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

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On August 1, 1979 the Chicago Tribune printed a drawing by Picasso.  It filled more than half the page.  Picasso fans immediately identified it as representing Stravinsky, but they would have been in the minority and that’s not what matters.  What matters is that the drawing was upside down.

The caption read:  “Can’t draw? Try copying this upside-down drawing.  It’s one trick art teacher Betty Edwards uses to get students into the right-side brain mode.  Because the left hemisphere cannot process inverted information, the student is forced to draw what he sees, not what he thinks should be there.”

As she was doing a demo in her drawing class one day, Betty Edward, a fifty-one year old art teacher in California, had to admit that she couldn’t talk and draw at the same time.  Her dilemma had a physiological explanation:  the left hemisphere of the brain controls verbal skills and the right side of the brain does the visual work.  Since one has to dominate at any time, the two get into a conflict if you try to draw and verbalize what you’re doing at the same time.  In order to subdue the verbal side, she made her students practice upside-down drawing.  Within three months they could draw with astonishing skill and complexity.  The before and after examples she prints in her books are breathtaking.

Three months!! !  Upside-down drawing is the most valuable exercise you can do if you want to learn to draw.  Practice!   Practice daily.

See previous post for how to set up your drawing exercise.  Save your early work in a folder somewhere.  Three months later, pull it out, place it next to your accomplished drawing and remind yourself that learning to draw was easy.  Granted, it takes a rescheduling of your time, but an hour a day and two hours on Saturday or Sunday will do it.  Congratulations!  As Edwards says, if you can write your name and ride a bicycle (not at the same time) you have the necessary motor skills and hand-eye coordination it takes to draw.

In 1986, Edwards published “Drawing on the Artist Within.”  Both books are recommended for their insights and instructions.  But it’s not about quoting artists, dropping names and technical term, or knowing theory.  It don’t mean a thing unless you set time aside to practice.  Astonish yourself!  Get into the buzz of drawing.

To quote Edwards from the Tribune article:  “It can be a life-changing process in the sense that it’s not just learning to draw but learning to look at things differently, to see more.  Many of my students say that life seems richer, that they look at people differently, not  in the verbal way of naming—old, young, ugly, pretty—and dismissing, but that they stop and look at people’s faces and trees and plants.”

(I could not find the Tribune article by Connie Lauerman online.  More on Betty Edwares at    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Betty_Edwards)

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