More Koi

Before the painting can live in someone else’s house and life, it first must live at the artist’s house.   The largest of my koi paintings lives — the fish swim, I should say — in my apartment above a bookshelf.  (One little wave of water, pictured at left, a painting by my daughter has wafted out of the pool!)



Koi seem to have captured the modern imagination, and they captured mine too.  I started painting koi years ago, innocently imagining that I was the only person interested in doing so.  Well, I was wrong.  Koi are so intensely popular that even in my present needle-in-a-haystack status on the internet, my koi pictures still tend to be the ones people find most often by accident.  And once having found them, the koi paintings tend to be the ones with which they most instantly connect.

I drew these koi — these koi who have become very abstract.  These koi are color patterns in a large field of blue and black.  This is an enormous drawing.  Made on two sheets of Canson paper, it measures 60 x 88 inches.

Where does painting live?

One of the challenges facing artists today is figuring out where a painting belongs.   If we are unsure who the audience is, we are equally unsure where the painting is to find this audience.  Paintings are sold as ordinary commodities, and yet we know deep inside that the business of art is about more than just decoration.  Real art tells us things about life that we need to know.  Literature is like that.  A novel displays a world of imagination into which we enter vicariously and painting does something similar once an image is widely known.  Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World captured the longings of a generation.  Anyone can see the painting now in books and feel something of its pull even without ever having seen the actual painting — though of course the actual painting adds intensity to this experience that cannot be duplicated by a reproduction.

And there’s the rub.  It’s the great peculiarity of paintings that they are one of a kind.  The commercial print and computer image era has blinded us somewhat to the uniqueness of an object.  Real painters, old fashioned painters, working as the old masters have for centuries, make things whose raison d’etre relies on being the only one of its kind.

I just paint.  I cannot say for certain why I make the specific images I do.  And I paint these things with blind faith.  I know they exist for a reason just as a novelist writes the story long before having made friends with a publisher.

Of late I find my career turning in a new direction as I stumble to find the places where my paintings are “destined” to live.  I try to imagine my paintings in specific interiors because it helps me understand the unknown audience that my pictures address.  I’m looking for rooms in a house — in a house of imagination first — a real house after — where my paintings will first begin to make their mark on the world I live in. 

I know the places are there.  I just have to find them.  And this, my friends, is a far different thing than just selling pictures.  Above is a simulation:  my painting as it would look in a room I found lately that I really like.

[The original, unedited photograph by Morgan Howarth comes from Washington Spaces magazine and  features a room designed by renowned DC designer Frank Babb Randolph.] 

Myriad aspects of Drawing

     Drawing can take many forms. Drawings can record appearances using line. Or they can be largely tonal in their effects, creating patterns of light and shade. A drawing can be very evocative or sketchy. It can impress us with detailed and very descriptive qualities that persuade us that we are looking at something “real.” But drawings are always a bit artificial in certain wonderful senses: their monochromatic qualities take the image already one remove from ordinary vision — since of course we see actual things in color. Somehow the removal of color (as in moody black and white photos) from the very outset introduces an element of mystery. And sometimes, also, the sketchiness of images can make them somehow visually poetic.

I like drawing because of its simplicity. It is a most portable art form. An artist needs at a minimum a little notebook, a pencil and a pocket to store these tools. Alternately, a drawing can be very detailed, very vivid. It can include so much visual information that it sometimes competes with painting in its complexity.

Because of its directness and economy of means, drawing can be a flexible tool for wondering to oneself about visual questions. You might find yourself looking at something and pondering some quality — light, dark, a contour, a structure. And you just put down ideas about the thing in careless lines: you have a drawing.

Kind of Green

 Sometimes people inadvertently impose all sorts of rules upon themselves in making art. Art is supposed in the popular imagination to be “free,” yet artists succumb to the usual doubts and frictions of life that lead to rules — “never do this, always do that.”

 I recall hearing someone or other tell me that you need a certain amount of light or certain kind of light to be able to paint. Certainly you should not paint in light so dim that you cannot see the colors. Yet that is exactly what I did with this duck. I painted it (from a photo — another no-no) in light dim enough that I only knew my colors from the lables on the tubes.

I did know
I was making the water green. But other relationships were not so obvious. And consequently the colors (though not the tones) of this little painting are exaggerated. And that’s what I like about it.
Matisse painted very exaggerated colors in optimal light. But you can paint in poor light as well — especially when you are being curious — when you are just making an image to see where it leads.

Advice from the Pros

The precise quality that renders the sketch the highest expression of the idea is not the suppression of details, but their subordination to the great sweeping lines that come before everything else in making the impression. The greatest difficulty therefore, when it comes to tackling the picture, is this subordination of details which, nevertheless, make up the composition and are the very warp and weft of the picture itself. 23 April 1854 [trans. Lucy Norton]

Ce qui fait precisement de ce croquis l’expression par excellence de l’idee , c’est, non pas la suppression des details, mais leur complete subordination aux grand traits qui doivent saisir avant tout. La plus grande difficulte consiste donc a retrouner dans le tableau a cet effacement des details, lesquels pourtant sont la composition , la trame meme du tableau…..

Paris 23 avril, 1854

Now, I won’t make you guess who said this!  It was Eugène Delacroix, the great 19th century French painter.


In the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Richard Dreyfuss playing the role of Everyman had a life changing rendezvous with space aliens, and afterwards found himself haunted by the memory.  His obsession led him to do the most bizarre things — such as trying to sculpt Devil’s Tower with his mashed potatoes.  In the photo above, he has moved beyond the dinner media and onward into more monumental materials.

That theme, with or without the aliens, is what art is about.  You have an idea stuck in your head and you unstick it.  What was interior gets projected outwards.  What was personal becomes public.  Sometimes it happens also that it was, in some sense, public all along — since the same obsessions haunt all mankind.

Or delight.  Sometimes our obsessions are about delight.  One can be haunted by beauty.  Indeed, one should be.  This is the genuine art of interior design to which we’ll return again and again:  the imprint that has been pressed into the mind that is made to echo in the world.

Design your interior! Let’s all start with the one between our ears …

A Face Perceived

     No ovals.  No usual proportions.  Just lines put into the places where it seems that they belong.  No recipe.  Just my drawing.

Try it.  It’s fun.

Okay, I’ve been doing this a while.  But I’ve made tons of mistakes.

Still do.

Learning to Draw

Most books that teach drawing have demonstrations that look something like the sketch above (taken from this source).  They begin with an oval-ish shape, horizontal and vertical axes, short smudge lines placed in strategic positions to represent nose, eyes and mouth, and so on.

They begin with the idea of a whole face, a regular or typical face, a norm.  They specify very simple directions that promise to be easy enough for anybody to learn. 

They are okay, as far as they go.  I wonder when I see them: are people really this afraid of making mistakes?  It’s just a drawing. 

If you want to draw, but are afraid to draw, try rules like these to get past your qualms and your reluctance.  But that said, the recipe for faces is a very inadequate approach to drawing.  Really, to be truthful, it’s an awful approach.  It is completely reliant upon very limited, conventional ideas of what a face should look like.  It holds no hope for anyone who wants to explore his or her own sensations of seeing.

If you want to draw, your first challenge is just picking up a pencil and beginning.  But if you are brave from the beginning, you will reap benefits later on.  Forget ovals and proportions.  Imagine instead that the object of your attention has lines wrapped around it.  Imagine placing your pencil upon one of those lines and copying it upon a sheet of paper.  Do not even care (in the beginning) overly much whether your lines match these lines in nature.  Just try (very hard) for the nearest match you can get.

If your lines cannot match at first the spectacle of what you see, at least have them be your lines.  What you saw, what you felt, not the recipe for conventionally considered faces.