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In her essay on German realism, George Eliot says: “The greatest benefit we owe to the artist, whether painter, poet, or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies…Art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot.”

Quote found in James Wood’s  How Fiction Works, p 171.

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15StripesRibbon
What the artist saw was a ball and a ribbon. A ball and a ribbon can make an interesting drawing, but the challenge with a still life like that is inevitably the “background.” There’s no such thing as “background.” That’s a modernist credo and I uphold it. In the modernist sensibility, every square inch of the painting or drawing has to hold the viewer’s interest. What to do? You invent. Maggy Shell invented the stripes.
She could have invented a wall paper of polka dots or hibiscus with hummingbirds. Why are stripes a good, possibly the best, choice? Because the stripes present a variation on the ribbon motif which is the largest part of the still life. What we get, therefore, is a theme-and-variation–always engaging, in whatever art form we find it: music, poetry, storytelling, painting, drawing, sculpture. This invention takes the drawing out of the category  “illustration” and makes it art.
Drawing by Maggy Shell, charcoal, ~14 x 18.
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RedAtHomeWhen you forget the yarn about angles in a triangle and exponential progressions (see previous post), the hyperbolic plane looks like a sculpture. I positioned mine in my dining room, in relation to a plant on one side and a painting on the other.  The red curly hyperbolic plane relates to both.  Perhaps it functions as a mediator, like a thermostat, hmmm.  A discussion of when we think of an object as art and when we don’t can get heated because of strong opinions on either side.  The question, “what’s the difference between art and artifact,”  is really what the workshop was about.  But you already suspected that.

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13AnatomyYesterday was the ninth of twelve classes in this fall term.  We had been working on all sorts of topics:  drapery, still life, shading, three-dimensionality, hands, faces, contrapposto, composition, upside-down drawing, the works.  All difficult issues.  Why not add more difficulty, I thought, and give them the difficulty of choosing what to work from.  I set up a still life and brought in images of faces & hands to struggle with.  And then one more thing:  pages from Barcsay’s anatomy book.  To my surprise, most of the class went for the challenges of anatomy.  It’s the driest of topics, but there they were, eagerly gathering around the table where the xerox copies of the muscles and bones were spread out.

You get a work out when you try to draw all these muscles in their right place. It’s an accomplishment in itself and a valuable exercise that helps you draw more loosely and with more confidence when you face the live mode.

When the anatomical studies are placed on the same page, crammed together and made to partially overlap, the result is greater than the sum of its parts.  The page (above, by Gaby Edgerton) is clearly about studying anatomy, but the rhythm created by these dense forms nudges the composition out of mere academia and into the category “art.”

13BarcsayMusclesJenö Barcsay’s (1900-1988) anatomy book has been around for about forty years.  I like to use it in class, because the illustrations lack flair and heroism.  It’s actually a little boring (just the facts, ma’m)   and that spurs a more advanced student on to invent a way of drawing and a way of putting the body parts on the page that perks us up because it feels a lot like art.  Killing two birds with one femur.

(There’s some glare on the photo of Gaby’s drawing because I use a little instant camera in a room with rows of ceiling lights.)

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The difference between an image and a snapshot documentation of an object is that the image triggers questions in your mind that go beyond the factual.  When you look at this drawing you don’t just say, I know the name of that plant.  Yes, it’s a variegated philodendron.  If documentation and naming were the point of this exercise, you would move on.  But you don’t.  You keep looking at this thing.  You don’t really know why.  It’s just that the image—that’s what it is—puzzles you, raises questions that you can’t even articulate.  So here you are, you keep looking.

  • You’ll never be able to answer the question of why that leaf at the lover left is sticking up out of nowhere.  But it’s perfect there.
  • Why is the horizon line that defines the black background on the top pointed instead of straight?  It was probably inspired by the corner of the room, though that was cluttered with easels.  It’s an invention of the artist/student and it’s just right.
  • Why did Linné draw the plant full of leaves on the left and bare-stemmed on the right?  He certainly didn’t see that.  Another invention.

All three inventions create tension and counterpoint.  The viewer is suspended (like a gymnast) by the ropes of these dynamics.  Questions will form in the mind, but their grammar will disintegrate.  That’s how art works.

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Take a box  or a pile of books. Throw some cloth over it, or a t-shirt.  Put an old lace-up boot on top of this.  Look at this pile, say to yourself “this is really beautiful, I’ve got to draw this.”  Turn off your phone, grab a soft pencil and a piece of paper, sit down for a couple of hours and make a work of art.

I didn’t take a shot of the still life, but the above describes its simplicity.  How ordinary.  How intriguing!

It’s not about documenting the silly boot.  It’s about, how can I see this in a new way, surprising myself in the process.  As you look at Gaby’s drawing, remind yourself that the boot and the laces were black.  She invented the inversion.  She chose the placement of the boot way on top and its radical incompletion.  The laces set up a paradox: we are reminded of the arbitrariness of their real-life softness and at the same time they appear to support the thing at the top, which we identify as a shoe with the help of the crisscrossing at upper right.

The drawing plays with your perception.  Shoe-notshoe.  Laces-notlaces.  Form-content.  As an exercise in seeing, notice repetition of forms, rhythm, positive-negative space.  When you’ve said everything about the drawing that you notice, you will still be fascinated by it.  You can’t talk this thing to death.  It’s art.

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Once again, I talked about the so-called negative space.  I had set up a still life consisting of a white plastic chair, tilted on a little prop, against a red back ground. The assignment was to draw the chair (the so-called positive space) by not drawing it at all, but instead by drawing the non-chair spaces that make it possible for us to see the chair (the so-called negative space).  This works best when the object depicted is symmetrical,  readily identifiable and seen from a weird angle.  One student faced the chair from a symmetrical view and that drawing didn’t work.  But one new student, Alejandra, was positioned so that her view of the chair was askew.  Perfect.  She worked on 18 x 24 paper with pencil.  The page is riveting.  You just want to look at this apparition.  You see the chair by seeing everything that is non-chair.  The brain tingles.  Such a simple exercise, so easy to conceptualize, and yet so hard to “get.”  This is how art works.

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