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Archive for December, 2012

It’s even worse in French, “nature morte.”  But there’s nothing dead about it!  In English we call it “still life,” not much better.  There’s nothing still about it, either!  Only the life part is true.

12BowBottlelDrapeSetupImagine a studio/classroom: white walls, dirty sink, paint-splattered chairs and tables, a shelf in the corner full of bottles, bowls and plastic flowers and such.  The teacher pulls out a small table and piles some drapery on it along with bottles, an old shoe, a round ball of twine and for a touch of color, a plastic peony.  Well, yes, it’s not going anywhere.   But it isn’t still.  Just look at this drawing.

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The artist saw these every-day objects as vibrant and lively. This is how an artist sees. It’s not just one thing and then another.  There are recognizable, distinct objects, yes,  but the artist perceives transition and movement. What speaks to the artist is not so much 12BowBottlelDrapeAle1Contourthe shape of things,  but the lively interflow of light and dark.

Drawing focuses the mind.  When the mind sees this way, everything pulsates.  Still life, bhaaah!

To continue your study of contour and its adventures through the definition by line, omission and negative space, zoom in and follow the left contour of the white bottle in Alejandra’s drawing. The eye is engaged , surprised and refreshed.   An impressionist delight—true to life.

 

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12BowBottlelDrapeGaby1flipIt’s predictable, isn’t it.  You knew this was coming.  When there’s a composition with a strong diagonal, the flip can’t be far behind. Here it is.

Same information.  Different feeling.

 

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12BowBottlelDrapeGaby1

When we work from a still life, I always remind the class that there’s a lot of stuff there and you can choose to draw the whole pile or you can zoom in and draw a select,  small passage.  In this case, a student just went for the tilted dark bottle and a bit of adjacent drapery.  How on earth do you make an interesting drawing out of such a clunky object?  Ah, but it’s not about the object it’s about how you draw it.  We had been talking about the problem of the contour, the topic in the last post on Leonardo and sfumato.  It’s not a problem, really, it’s just that you can set yourself the goal of drawing that old bottle without outlining it in a consistent line.  You can practice interrupting the line.  That simple.  At first, you may think this is awkward or arbitrary, but then you discover that since light 12BowBottlelDrapeSetupcomes from above, the upper part of the bottle will be lighter and if you lighten the contour there or leave the line out altogether, the bottle will look quite lively. Notice also, that part of the bottle is defined by the shadow in the drapery behind it, i.e something that is not-bottle and is not a contour of anything.

Once the bottle and its attendant drapery swatch were drawn, Gaby faced all that white “negative” space. What the still life set-up offered wasn’t all that dynamic, so she invented.  Are you allowed to do that?  Oh, yessss!   She invented bricks, curved ones.  The rectilinearity of the brickwork anchors the tilted bottle in a credible universe. The fact that the bricks are curved adds texture and an echo of the roundness of the bottle.

The result is a painterly drawing.  We’ve used the word “painterly” before in these posts (12.22.10 and 3.12.11), but it will get more coverage, soon, and this time in connection with drawing.

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LeonaradoSfumatoDrawing

Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code reminded us of all the classes we slept through:  Latin, French, the Merovingians,  St. Paul’s Letters to the Ephesians, the Crusades, comparative religion, infinite series, et al.  Oh, and art history.  At one point Prof. Langdon explains that sfumato is the technique invented by Leonardo by which he softens the contour of a form to make the form look more three-dimensinional, rather than like a cut out delineated by a consistent LeoardoSfumatoMonaLisaline. (Fumo in Italian means smoke.) Sfumato eliminates the line as a way of distinguishing one thing from another. It means that everything is related to everything around it and the eye flows through the image and sees interrelatedness on the canvas as it does in real life. This is huge. It makes the image life-like and I would go so far as to call it a consciousness-raising technique.

Leonardo da Vinci (1453-1519) in his treatise on painting techniques repeatedly warns artists not to trace out the form with outlines.  This is an admonition that he himself only sometimes managed to heed.  Sfumato was more a goal than an achievement for him. He almost certainly directed the criticism at his younger contemporary, Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510), who was fond of outlining his delicate figures with a BotticelliVenuscontinuous black line. High school students love Botticelli but when we mature a bit, we embrace Leonardo’s idea more and more.  Sfumato.  It’s not that smoke gets in your eyes, it’s that the adult perception of reality grapples with interrelatedness—conceptually much richer and technically much more difficult.

Sfumato is applicable to both painting and drawing.  It’s easier to see how it would work with paint since you can blend and push the paint around to create soft effects.  But in drawing, also, the form can be liberated from the enclosing (strangling!?) line through the use of shadows and negative space.  More on that next time, with examples from students’ work.

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12WilmLibrShowFoxCatNightshade

They hung it in the dark corner behind the piano.

There were three jurors and it’s easy to guess that one of them liked it and the other two saw it as an embarrassing nick-knack,  cringed and then finally conceded.  A purple brocade cat in a rococo-meets- goth frame!

I must be the only art lover on this Rothko and O’Keefe loving North Shore who’s taking this cat seriously.  In an ironic way, of course.

It’s not a cat. It’s the mythology of The Cat and the cobwebs of superstition that cling to the feline.

MoreauSphinx500I’m reminded of Gustav Moreau (1826-1898), who, good death- obsessed Victorian male that he was, illustrated mythological scenes.  The sphinx bit, for example.  Can you come up with a more ridiculous image than this one showing Oedipus gazing into the eyes of a winged cat woman? She has jumped on him and, gravity-defying, clings to his naked torso, while leaving him calm, classically poised and unscratched.  The cat-sphinx has to be a woman, of course, because the ancients enslaved and objectified women as property and then dealt with the accompanying neurosis by mythologizing them.

The sphinx, as everyone knows, is an invention of the Egyptians, another death-obsessed culture.  The Egyptians projected Sphinx-knows-what into their pussy-cats, but it must have been some major repression, because they embalmed their dead house cats by the thousands.  Archeologists keep finding these crypts full of embalmed cats.

The cat as the feminine and the cat as the chthonic come together here:  fear of the female/other and fear of death/change, all rolled up into one musty-moldy cat mummy.

I’m sorry the artist of “Nightshade,” Beth Clark-McDonal, was not awarded a one-month show of her own.  I would love to see fifty of her cat paintings in one exhibit, all in purples and pinks, paisley and sinewy, and in overwrought, antiqued frames. Let’s face it.  Let’s!  Whatever cat-superstition lingers in your psyche and in our Hollywooded, scapegoating culture, let’s just have a good look at it.  Let’s not call it kitsch, cringe in embarrassment  and hang it in the dark corner there.  Bring it out into the open.  Oh, my, so this is part of our dark side.

Would a kitsch-cat exhibit be funny?  Sure.  There would be nervous giggles from us Rothko lovers who feel we have moved beyond art-fair paintings of kitty cats.  But a third, let’s say half, let’s say more than half of the folks seeing the show  would lap it up, like warm milk in a porcelain bowl.

I can’t prove this, I haven’t interviewed the artist, but here’s my take:  “Nightshade” is painted—and framed–with deliberate irony.  I actually think it’s a sophisticated, post-modern piece.  It made me think and therefore it’s not kitsch.

(After an exhibit of cat paintings, we could do unicorns, Manga, big-eyed children, and Matrix tubing.)

Gustav Moreau may look like a timid illustrator of useless myths from an ancient culture that his own tired time clung to.  He may also have been a satirist. I prefer that interpretation.  It cheers me up.

In either case, he was Matisse’s teacher.  So, you see, there’s hope.

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121108StillLifeHeadGabyOf all the things you can draw, the face will grab you the most.  We must have special wiring in the brain to make us respond so powerfully to faces. A baby, three to six weeks old, will respond with excitement when looking up at a mobile that shows faces.

12Faces2incompleteLinneOne of the reasons we like drawing faces is that they’re emotionally engaging.  The emotion is the fuel that keeps us working at it, but it also gums up our perception of the larger picture.  The tendency—tell me I’m wrong here!—is to overdraw the face, to add too much detail, to want to make it appealing and “perfect.”

So, yes, draw the face.  But, try to see it as  one of the elements in your composition. The whole is greater than…

Here are some examples of how my students have been drawing the Almighty Face, but with a twist—or a line through it, or in shadow.  This is hard to do, emotionally.

12GabyChildManAqua1Look at the little girl sitting on dad’s shoulders. The artist found it hard to pull the hat over that endearing face and then to scribble a shadow over it.  There’s a natural resistance to do that.  But without the shadow, the face would not be tucked in and the hat would not have a convincing brim.

In a still life that included the customary drapery, a silk flower,  a garden hose and a plaster cast of an academic head. Linné restrained himself from overdrawing the head, which  is always a temptation.  This is probably not a 121108StillLifeHeadLinnecompleted drawing, but the battle against the dominance of the head is already evident and it’s admirable.

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Gaby, “Head in Planes.”  Plaster cast of academic head in a still life set up.

Linné, “Liz.”  Two studies of Elizabeth Taylor.

Gaby, “Girl on Dad’s Shoulders.”   Drawn from magazine cover.  Aquarellable Pencil

121108StillLifeHead Linné, “Still Life with Head.”

Click images for enlargements.

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

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