Archive for the ‘Illustration’ Category


Oh, trees!

If you’re a Mondrian-lover you stand in front of one of his paintings, like the one above, and exclaim, “I just love the way he painted trees!”  Right?

You have a friend who doesn’t understand Mondrian, so you volunteer to give her a tour of the moderns at the Art Institute of Chicago or the MoMa.  You position yourselves in front of the Mondrians, and you learnedly explain that here we have the essence of tree-ness.  Right?

Mondrian was painting simplified trees.  Right?

Mondrian drew diagrams of trees. Right?

Abstract trees. Right?

Oh, please!

No one has ever looked at a Mondrian and seen trees. Right?


Then why do we constantly get the evolution of his paintings—The Mondrians—from trees.



[The] process of simplification and reduction would continue until he wasn’t even painting from nature at all.

The rise of Cubism also gave Mondrian a means to segment and reduce objects to their most basic forms.


Dutch painter Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) lived in Paris when he was in his early 40’s.  There he met Braque and other Cubists.

To interpret Cubism as “reducing objects to their most basic forms”  is as blatantly ridiculous as the other cliché about cubism, namely that a cubist painting shows us an object from all four sides.  I’ll post just one example here, Picasso’s “Portrait of D.H. Kahnweiler,” 1910. Have a good look. You are seeing Mr. Kahnweiler’s “basic forms” and you’re seeing him from all “four sides.” Correct?




Cubism is so scary to think about that people, even otherwise intelligent people, repeat these absurdities about “basic forms” and “four sides.”  You’ll find this sort of thing not only on internet pages but, with more academic circumlocutions, in serious publications. The Cubists—Picasso and Braque–are scary to think about because they made a clean break with the past.  Naughty, naughty. Thou shalt honor thy father and mother…  The only father the Cubists honored was Cézanne and he, in Robert Hughes’ words, painted DOUBT.

Let’s see now, we don’t have any commandments honoring doubt.

In 1910, art that threw out all previous assumptions was difficult to take.  Still is.  But doubt is so much more invigorating than having answers without first having questions.  Medieval certainties and Renaissance illustrations of mythological characters are not invigorating, are they?!

The Cubists—and they didn’t call themselves that—came up with something new.  The painting is now not an illustration but a work in its own right.

You must be kidding?  In its own right?  The audacity!

That’s right.  Audacity.

So, are Mondrian’s paintings abstractions or essences or diagrams of trees?  No.  They are something completely new.  They stand in their own right as objects.  Something to contemplate.

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





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One of the painters in my “What Would Mondrian Do?” group often brings photos of flowers and trees to class to kick off a painting session.

Keven Wilder is an accomplished painter.  The collectors of her work eagerly follow her latest output. The reception of this painting has been enthusiastic.

I’m glad.  I find the enthusiastic response of non-representational art very encouraging.  It’s a measure of progress in human consciousness, I think, not to be tied to the literal.

Nobody looks at this painting and says, “Oh, yes, trees. I see the blue sky and the vertical tree trunks and the horizontal branches.”

People who love this painting love it even after they find out that the artist started with a photo of trees against a clear sky.  They don’t get hung up on trees.  Sorry there.

People who love this painting love its color, shapes, texture, process, surprises.  It’s not an illustration, abstraction or diagram of anything.  It’s an object in itself.

An object of contemplation.

Keven Wilder showed this painting at the Ethical Humanist Society earlier this year.

Thank you, Keven!



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




www.khilden.comEthical Humanist Society


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This drawing is a dramatic departure from the literal. The artist happily gives up illustration and instead moves into a play on form. Such a venture calls for omissions: you don’t have to draw everything that’s in that pile of stuff, you pick and choose as you go with the call of the composition emerging on your page. Notice how this page teases you out of your prosaic, fact-loving mind and leads you into the pleasure of pure form.
16JanNumbersIf there had been more stripes, they would have nailed you down in the simple association to hey-that’s- a-tablecloth. Instead, the artist skips the literalness of the tablecloth and picks just three stripes (1) which lead you to the little pot (2) that plays second fiddle to the grand pitcher (4). The pitcher, however is also underplayed, it’s incomplete, but you know everything you need to know about it: look at that superb curved handle. Then, to balance the composition on the right we have nothing but a line. But what a line. So elegant, it hold its own against all that drama at (1) and (2).
16Jan Crop2The class debated whether the drawing should be cropped and considered this version. The question was left open.
Drawing by Linné Dosé. Graphite, 14”x16”
All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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You’re not inclined to interpret this painting. You’re probably not asking “what is the significance of the number four, what does it symbolize or refer to, what is the sum of all the fours here and what would be the meaning of that large number, ditto for multiplication,” etc. This kind of interpreting is what we used to do. For example, when you look at this painting by Nicolaes Maes, you can’t help but try to figure out what the NicolaesMaesIdleServantartist is illustrating. Why did the artist put in the cat, the sleeping maid, the guests in the background? What is the hostess saying to us by gesturing that way? What was the social status of servants in mid-17th-century Holland?
We stopped digging for meaning about a hundred years ago. I recently found this 1923 Picasso quote in an announcement of the current MoMA show: “Everyone wants to understand art. Why not try to understand the songs of a bird?”
If this sounds perverse, it’s because prior to about 1900 images were used for didactic purposes and that’s what we got used to. They illustrated a story, a myth, a compositional ideal, an ideal ratio, an ideal body, an ideal color relation, etc. Ideals are culturally defined and over time get enshrined as absolute and immovable. By the early 20th century, these ossified standards were crumbling in Western culture: in the place of capital-t Truth we got evolution, relativity, psychoanalysis and the leveling of social classes. This is not to say that Cézanne, Manet, VanGogh, Matisse and Picasso were now illustrating these new theories. Not at all. They painted in a new way because to be alive at that time felt new.
The major societal shift involved the relationship between artist and client. Whereas before, the artist was a servant, he is now of the same middle class as his client. Whereas before, the client (pope, emperor, czar, king, archbishop, et al) was interested in the finished product and how it promoted his power status, now the client becomes more and more interested in how the work is put together and what philosophical dynamics those artistic processes embody. Whereas before, the work of art “appeared” in a mythical sense, like Athena from the head of Zeus, now the painting or sculpture shows the traces –the brush strokes, the chisel marks, the scratches, the nuts and bolts—of how it was made.
This is why the reviewers of art exhibits and the critics in art magazines like Art in America and Artforum will write at great length about the process that went into the making of the work of art. Most of the writing does not attempt interpretation of the pre-19th century kind at all. It’s assumed that you, as a contemporary, love process. You love to stand in front of a painting or sculpture and try to figure out how the artist made this thing. Reconstructing the process will trigger empathy with the artist, will vicariously pump you up with energy and, generally, make your day. Later you’ll meet a friend for lunch and, gesturing energetically,try to convey your aesthetic experience.
Well then, what was the process behind “What Four?” You can see that the painting, 30” x 40”, started as a color study: blue/purple and greens. What followed was only one layer of paint, but a layer produced through complex procedure. The artist, Jane Donaldson, decided to mix media. The first layer is painting. This second layer is printmaking. She carved the letter four on a linoleum plate. She painted it white and pressed it onto the canvas, one four after the other, until the white paint was worn from the plate. She now inked the plate again and started another set of “four,” and so on.
I find this very exciting. It has something child-like about it, but at the same time it hearkens back to that incision in Western civilization when in 1439 Johannes Gutenberg invented printing in Mainz, Germany, and literature was able to take off. Without printing, no Renaissance, without the Renaissance, well, you know, on and on.
That’s one of the chain reactions set off in the mind. There are others, because the process of decline/degeneration/fading and rejuvenation/fresh start is so true to the experience of life. The process tempts you to interpret metaphorically, but remains unspecific. It reverberates deeply in the imagination because it is visually rich. That richness comes from its process.
All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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You might think that this is a sketch, to be elaborated on later. You might think this is a hasty scribble on the back of an envelope, a reminder of the rough composition so that the artist would later work out details and make a “presentable, salable work of art.”
So wrong.
To be able to see like this!
This is a very advanced form of seeing.
FourPotsPhotoAIt’s not about documenting the shape of the pots. The photo does that. It’s not about proving that you’re diligent, that you put in the time and now you’ll price the drawing according to the time you slaved over the drawing. There are people who think like that. So master-servant 16th century. And if you think your five-year-old can do this, well, you need to come to class.
What makes the drawing so great is the form. Not the shape of the pots. The form of the drawing! Seeing form is like reading between the lines in a story, reading deeper than the narrative. It’s seeing through the shapes, seeing deeper than what’s illustrated. The artist here is not illustrating pots. She is creating a page that stands on its own.
She creates a tug between positive and negative space. We expect the pots, being graspable things, to hold our attention. The ground they stand on is supposed to just passively support objects. But notice that the shape of the ground is more emphatically articulated than the objects. It’s dark and has a stepped shape of its own. The shape of the pots is predictable and our expectation projects more information into them that is actually given. Even though they are presented in casual curves and ellipses, we read them clearly. We as viewers are engaged in completing the presentation. A good thing. We also notice that the whole page is a dialogue between the severe,angular, rational edge of the black ground and the curved, flamboyant, irrational lines of the identifiable objects. So good.
Back to the sketch idea. The drawing, above, was preceded by a more elaborate working out of this FourPots2motif. The artist put in some folds of the cloth that covered the table. In other words, details. This is also an interesting drawing, but not as exciting as the one featured here. The artist had to wrestle with details, with the impulse to represent more literally what she actually saw,  to attain the view of form that marks the stark drama of the final drawing.
Drawings by Maggy Shell, charcoal on paper, ~14”x18”
All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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GossaertMadonnaThe Flemish painter Jan Gossaert (c. 1478–1532) was much sought after, as a portraitist of Hapsburg royals and as a creator of altar pieces for Catholic churches. When I saw this Madonna and Child at the Met last December I just about burst out laughing. No, I didn’t actually laugh out loud, though that’s permissible in museums, but I did stand there for a long time, gaping at this extravagant and, yes, funny image of what was at the time a sacred subject.
He was a very busy man and it’s hard to imagine that he had time to paint for his own entertainment. But it’s also hard to imagine this undogmatic Madonna and Child hanging in a Catholic church in the early 16th century, during the Counter Reformation.
Let’s consider one bit of the historical context. In the Late Gothic, the S-curve of the Madonna becomes very pronounced and the baby Jesus becomes playful and fidgety, pure baby.
But Gossaert’s Madonna is over the top. He shows her playing with the baby, but it doesn’t look like a lot of fun, does it. The baby looks terrified and frantic and mom–sitting on the floor with her knees pulled up–is more interested in posing than in bonding with her child.
The heap of blue cloth that we are supposed to accept as her gown is so overdone—even for the convention of the time—that I find it comically bizarre. It seems to be the work of an obsessive-compulsive. Or somebody who had an ax to grind.
Maybe Gossaert painted this not so much for his own amusement but as a satire. Satire wafted in the northern air. It was a time of political/theological upheaval and Gossaert may have had clients who were eager to see satirical views of the establishment’s icons. Who else would have bought a painting like this around 1500?!
Two contemporary northern satirists were Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536), who had the nerve to poke at the papacy, and Hieronymus Bosch (1450’s-1516), who made no bones about his disgust with the corruption of the Catholic Church and the general insanity of the time. Sebastian Brant (1457-1521) published his satire Ship of Fools in 1494. Here’s part of Bosch’s illustration of that theme:

We don’t have personal details about Gossaert’s life that would provide insights into his playful, very human and possibly satirical Madonnas.
For more Madonnas by Jan Gossaert,
Jan_Gossaert_-_the_virgin_and_child_with_white_lily_and_cherriesAll contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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These are six one-minute poses. I work on gloss paper with a water-soluble pencil. Later (hours or days later), I like to take out the drawing and spend some time clarifying certain anatomical features, especially hands, and then giving the space between the figures some depth, very often blurring contours with a shred of damp paper towel. I’ve done this many times before with these pages of one-minute poses. I like the way the figures appear to emerge from and disappear into a mysterious atmosphere, as sort of mist. But today, on a whim, I flipped the drawing horizontally (in Photoshop)and this allowed me to see something new. Yes, they were appearing and disappearing in


this mist, but now for the first time I saw how stressed these bodies are. They seem to be struggling. Their environment, this “mist,” seems to be grating against them. I didn’t see this in my original drawing.  Now that I’ve seen it in the left-right flip, I can also see it in the original.
I’m reminded of Giacometti’s drawings, whose figures are as brittle as their unaccommodating environment. In the sculptures, the environment has worn them down to a mere determined, persevering existence.

In my drawing, the poses themselves may be exceptionally torqued and therefore they’ve inspired this existentialist interpretation. I’ll try to be on the lookout in future drawings. In any case, the Giacometti3left-right flip has once again demonstrated its usefulness.
Alberto Giacometti, 1901-1966.
All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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