I made the drawing at the top after a Renaissance sculpture at the National Gallery.  The drawing below it is one of Ingres’s studies for Mme Moitessier.  I’d like to think there’s a little bit of family resemblance.  (Ingres is my hero.)


Children are not fashionable

When I was a kid, I remember there was a season during which this was my favorite painting.  Memory is fickle, of course.  I don’t know whether the season of my enthusiasm lasted a week or an afternoon.  I also don’t recall whether or not I had ever seen the actual painting.  It belongs to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, where we were visitors from time to time.  But my mother also owned a book on the museum’s “highlights,” and I liked to pour over the book during island moments of my childhood.

Certainly my choice of a favorite wasn’t fashionable.  Tiepolo hasn’t really been on anybody’s Top Forties List since the 1750s when this picture was painted.  But children don’t care about things like that.  Children love or hate with great abandon and with no respect for ceremony.  Pondering this now, I must say the subject matter looks rather politically incorrect.  And I can only surmise now what it was that attracted my childish attention then.  My guess is that I was reeled in on a draughtsman’s line

Drawing in Tiepolo’s works is so crisp.  The shapely arms and hands of the seated woman and the forceful, aggressive gesture of her would-be attacker (we might call him her alleged assailant) arrive on the canvas by means of the most thorough-going and keen sense of contour.  The artist’s love for dynamic, sinuous line is equally evident in a subordinate feature such as the rolling folds of the woman’s bright skirt.

If it happened that I had seen the actual canvas in childhood, I was no doubt impressed by scale, too.  Size matters.  This painting is 55 x 43 inches.  A large enough oval to command one’s respect — one that puts these persons quite resolutely into the dramatic space of the room. 

It’s not a family-themed picture.  From this distance in time, the museum seems unsure what to make of its narrative, calling the painting simply: “Scene from Ancient History,” though historian John Walker in the National Gallery’s 1975 catalog was venturesome enough to call it “Timocleia and the Thracian Commander.”  Enterprising readers can google that to see what pops up.  Suffice it to say, judging by visual clues alone, male violence is a central theme.  The soldier’s shoulder is the pivot point of the whole composition.  What befell poor Timocleia, I cannot say.

But I doubt I contemplated the question of its story very deeply.  I had as much narrative as my mother’s book provided — that catalog dated from 1941 when art historians were more garrulous.  The book now resides in another state, so I’ll have to get back to you regarding this cliff-hanger (in perhaps some future post).  Meanwhile, I suspect that my chief delight was visual.  In even Tiepolo’s violent image the bright, vivid colors abound — held tightly and tensely inside Tiepolo’s razor sharp lines.

Kids aren’t fashionable, and thus they provide a model for every artist to emulate.  A child likes what she likes, and artists do well to reserve the same whimsical and fervent emotions as their privilege.  The heart doesn’t really enjoy being asked to obey rules.  If you find yourself loving all the gauche things, care not.  You cannot fool your true self.  In finding what binds you to the world, you have to indulge some self-acceptance.

My first love for incisive line began somewhere rather near Venice of the 18th century.  On the map of my early enthusiasm I place a big “X” to mark Gallery 32 where Tiepolo’s painting hangs.

You have to know these things about yourself.  You have to discover what really matters, for from out of those things your own imagination’s designs grow.

[Top of the Post:  Scene from Ancient History, by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, c. 1750, Samuel H. Kress Collection, National Gallery of Art in Washington]

Time as Discipline

A few posts ago I explained how to begin a painting, using Monet’s Sunflowers as an example of something we could copy in imagination.  I wrote a rather longish account, and still I could only draw my theme in the most sketchy way.  To really paint, you must look deeply into the image — peering into its details discovering relationships between the parts and the whole.

To learn to see your aim should be to set up a motif that challenges you to notice as much as possible.  Eugene Delacroix described the goal as “to prolong the sensation.”  Obviously choosing a subject that can engage your thoughts and feelings in the fullest way has the greatest potential for inducing you to look deeply.  Choose something you love.  Choose something you find enchanting.  Not every painting has to be of this challenging sort, of course.  Different paintings aim at different things. But an artist who wishes to see as much as possible in nature has to seek the challenge that stretches his or her powers of observation.

One aide to the goal is time.  Setting a time limit means that you don’t pound your visual cortex against nature’s photons indefinitely.  You know that if you strive as rigorously as you can that, after a session, the gong will chime, and you’re done.  Closure offers this psychological boost that cannot be underestimated.  In tandem with setting a limit, it’s also helpful to make a rule of not being too fussy.  Moving a picture along, even working as quickly as your skills allow, helps too.  You force yourself to “aim and shoot,” again and again.  Working a little bit fast means that rationalizations have little time to interfere.  You try to make the connection between eye and hand as seemless as possible.  You allow a few “mistakes” to creep in, if they must, for the sake of the larger goal of seeing intensely and recording directly.

Certain subjects in art will prod you along mercilessly if you let them.  I used to paint bunches of flowers from the yard or from the florist.  I found that the most time I could ever spend upon them was four hours, maximum.  After that, all the blooms had drooped a little — or they had shifted so much from their initial positions, even the hardiest, as to comprise an entirely different ensemble of relationships by session’s end.  Shadows, of course, change too.  Nature has its own clocks that make an artist nimble.  You should use these clocks to help you.  They are great forms of discipline.

[Top of the post:  Lilacs in a Vase, by Aletha Kuschan, oil on canvas]

My early still after Manet

When I was a youth, I made this still life of things around the house.  (The pink sloping surface on the right represents a typewriter covered with cloth.)  I was trying to do something Manet-like.  The particular painting I had in mind is Manet’s Still life with Melons and Peaches at the National Gallery.

As you can see, I didn’t quite finish my painting.  Lost my nerve, I suppose.  Or ran out of ideas.  Probably a little of both.  Still, I find that I like the painting as is.  It has all sorts of visible pentimenti — even in that respect it’s Manet-like.

[Top of the post:  Author’s early attempt at still life in a style of Manet, by Aletha Kuschan, 28 x 28 inches, oil on canvas]

Copying Monet

With further research, I find that the Monet Sunflowers lives at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.  It is cropped in the image I used in the earlier post.  Click on the word “Sunflowers” in the previous sentence to see what the Met has to say about the painting, as well as to see a full image of it.  Meanwhile, I found this sketch after the painting by Karen Wall Garrison at her website.  She made the drawing after visiting the Met.

Ms. Garrison says of copying (in regard to a different picture, but the principle holds): “As I often like to do at museums, I stood in front of the painting … and sketched it. Not so much to make an accurate rendering, but to anchor into my memory the details.” [My emphasis.] 

All the drawing one does might be so described.  We “anchor” the images of things into our minds.  What an eloquent expression.  It goes to the very heart of why one paints at all.  We are grasping directly at aspects of life when painting, anchoring ourselves into the life we are living.

[Top of the post:  Drawing after Monet’s Sunflowers, by Karen Wall Garrison.]

Attention’s Gaze


I thought I’d give some advice.  This is free advice.  In a world where so many things are advertised as free, and so few things actually are free, I figure I offer people a genuine bargain.  Anyway, I am going to tell you how to begin a painting — for whoever is interested.  However, we shall not so much as lift a brush right now.  This will be mental painting during which time we look at a photo of a Monet still life and imagine various ways that we might paint something similar.  Are you game?

First, let me say, I took this image from the internet and am not familiar with the actual painting.  Looking at it here, it looks cropped on at least three sides.  Still, it’s quite lovely so let’s take it as it is.

Claude Monet, Vase of Flowers, 1881-2, Oil on canvas. Courtesy the Courtauld Gallery

Not many people realise Monet’s Vase of Flowers is unfinished. But in his correspondence, he writes about how he just cannot express the light falling on the flowers and the leaves to his satisfaction. In some places he has scraped paint off while, in others, he has painted over dried paint. Every so often he must have returned to this painting and added a few brushstrokes in an attempt to improve it.

This work leant against a wall in his studio for over 40 years. It was only in the 1920s that he finally decided to add his signature. But, we wonder, after struggling with it for so long, how did he finally decide it was finished? Was he truly satisfied with it? We tend to assume the Impressionists recorded everything they saw quickly, easily and fluidly. Monet knew the impression of light and likeness he wanted to give. But it was sometimes very difficult to translate what they saw into paint.

Let’s begin by noticing the obvious: that by the time the painting got a signature those flowers were long gone.  But how did he begin?  We have to imagine it. Start with the largest elements.  The first marks on a canvas are about the large features of the motif. If you place them first, the reason is fairly obvious: that way, as you make changes you are less likely to have to move around those same large things because they’ll already be firmly situated where you want them. That’s much better than their being where you don’t want them.   More significantly, the raison d’etre of the whole picture (in a great painting) is locked into the large elements from the outset.  But this is still the beginning. What’s the use of being timid at the outset? So you firmly decide to put those marks where you think they belong even though everything hinges on this early decision, oh my! Thank God it’s not brain surgery!

Even allowing for the cropping I spoke of, which was perhaps there from the outset (?) this painting’s structure is solid and fixed as though it etched for eternity.  Certainly within this core, you can really sense the factor that gravity plays.  All the flowers are balanced with respect to the vase so that we know the vase will not topple, though notably the arrangement is very natural and asymmetrical.

The clump of flowers sits just above the vase like the bough of a tree.  The vase itself has been realized very simply as a smallish cylinder, its rim partly hidden by the lower most leaves of the bouquet.  One could indicate the edges of the cylinder with just a couple strokes in the beginning.  One side of the cylinder is lit and is lighter than the background.  The other side is in shadow and the edge of the background just adjacent to it is slightly lighter than the background overall.

Above this cylinder, I would — if it were me — scrub in a little green in droopy passages to represent (in the most amorphous way) the lovely green leaves that crown the vase — from which the flowers emerge.  I would, if I were beginning, keep things simple.  I would make the green very generic and the blue of the vase just a little warmed by a little yellow.  The background is mostly greyish created through a combination of yellow ochre and ultramarine blue that have been diluted with lots of white.

Some of the leaves are dark, some are light.  For the dark, I would thinly scrub in some veridian or phthalo green from the tube.  And the lighter leaves can be made lighter with an addition of pale yellow and white.  At the outset, the point is to mark the contrast — leaving the nuances for later.  Similarly, I would put the flowers in early, trying to position them with precision — though not a precision that is obtained by hesitation and worry.  I would approach it like target shooting.  Aim, fire.  If you think the flower is “this big,” make it “this big.”  If you think it goes “here,” put it “here.”  Don’t take all day.  Stick ’em in there like you were arranging flowers in a real vase.  If they don’t look right, move them before the painting gets complex.  Use a thin amount of paint at first, draw lines, be spare and free about it.  Get them as close to their relative positions as you can discern and then move on.  (It is just a painting, after all.  First of many.)

The curve of the round table is very gentle, and it takes up very little of the composition as we see it here.  You could draw this contour in with a red line — or a grey line.  This contour intersects the vase at just below the half way mark so that’s a helpful landmark.  I would “measure” these things optically, however, in our target-shooting spirit.  The point of drawing things directly is that you teach yourself to sense proportion and shape in a natural way — you begin to internalize a gesture that matches what your eyes see.  Whenever you let hesitation and fear of mistakes scare you into grabbing tools or using all kinds of hand gestures and whatnot to get the proportion, you might as well be sending yourself an engraved invitation to be timid.  Put the things where they seem to belong.  The worst you do is get relationships “wrong,” though later this “wrongness” may turn out to be interesting.  It will at least reveal to you what you thought you saw, which admittedly has some meaning of its own.

Indeed, the advantage of copying something is that the source remains stable.  If art conservators do their job well, Monet’s painting is not going to change.  Thus the differences in how you perceive the painting can always be measured against the stable image.  For that reason, it’s good to recopy a painting that you copied “incorrectly” in the past.  You begin to learn the painting, just as a musician learns a piece of music.  It’s a good exercise and through a succession of variant copies, you can watch yourself making progress.  Later at some calm junction of your life, when you have gained experience and are ready to forgive yourself for making mistakes, you can also look quietly and objectively at the distortions or errors that you introduced into the image, and sometimes it happens that you discover a distortion that you actually rather like.  At that moment, congratulations!  you have found a new source of invention!  Matisse built a whole career on expressive distortion, raising it to a high level of enterprise.

From first gestures like these, you build up more and more information about the image you are copying.  You begin by putting in the first biggest “things” and the biggest relationships between things.  Please note that the empty spaces of a picture are as much a part of the image as the stuff is.  Yes, there are flowers.  And there are spaces between the flowers.  One paints the whole thing.  A wise artist will realize that the spaces are not insignificant.  Quite the contrary, as in real life, the spaces determine that the “things” will be where they are and will be what they are.  Where would we be without all our lovely molecules, I ask you?  Where would the flowers be without the air that surrounds them, without the shapes that press upon their locations?  The painting is “everything,” and you must be aware of this “everything,” even if only subliminally.

You deal with the big things first:  the big shapes, the main colors (let your green be green and your yellow, yellow, and add in the nuances after).  Later you look at each of the many parts, and you treat each of the parts as though they were the whole (for in a sense of course, they are).

Now, you might ask (I hope you’re asking), which parts are parts in an image where everything matters?  When the spaces between the things are as much factors as the things themselves, how does one demark the difference between part and whole?  Oh, this is where painting becomes very philosophical and personal.  What is a part, you ask?  A part is anything that you perceive as being a part.  Even in making a copy, you are doing something very personal.  For you will notice different things, in a different order than Monet noticed even in copying his painting.

This order of attention, this order of operations, this “I notice this” and “now I notice that” is your individual mind at work.  It’s a lovely process.  Don’t mess with it, just indulge it.  Try yourself, test yourself to see how much you can notice.  Try to notice more and more.  Record what you notice, as you notice it.  This journey into perception is “the beginning of knowledge,” for the painter.  Take it.  It’s a fabulous trip.  Believe me!

Once you start paying attention to the visual world in this manner, you will see things differently around you.  What you first see in a copy of a Monet still life, will reap observational benefits of intensified awareness all around you.  The world is a beautiful, subtle, technicolor place.  We just have to learn to see.


Beloved Chicory

Sometime or other around the time I was in high school (dates for which are kept in the secret vault), I was flipping through the pages of a magazine — most likely Ladies’ Home Journal or Women’s Day or McCall’s — and found a sentimental painting of a rural fence post with a stand of chicory growing next to it.  I fell in love with that picture and decided to copy it.  Though I had already been a frequent visitor to the National Gallery of Art and was already a young enthusiast for French Impressionism, it was the not-famous picture of chicory that I copied rather than a work by a master (even among master paintings there are ones that wouldn’t be so difficult to copy). 

Cannot say what it was about that image that caught hold of me, but it’s overt sentiment didn’t bother me.  I was reading McCall’s after all.  It was like a Hallmark card.  And I loved it.  (You don’t explain love.)

Feeling very nostalgic now, I was looking round the internet for similar kinds of imagery and stumbled upon this picture by artist John Alexander.  All it lacks is the fence post.  These things have perennial appeal, and I’m happy to report that another artist does something similar Richard Tiberius.  He’s got chicory!  I think these flowers in the Alexander are actually violets.  But close enough for jazz ….

It’s good to let yourself fall in love, and you really cannot argue with love either.  I don’t make copies of sentimental pictures anymore but, oh boy, what a debt of gratitude I feel to — somebody — whoever it was who painted those flowers by the sentimental roadside of  imagination — because that’s what got me started in the year 19**!

I saw a large patch of chicory this past week in front of a frat house of the local university and was thinking today that I should photograph it and do something with it.  Alas!  The lawn mower!  So, once again one learns that you have to seize the day!  But I’m on chicory alert mode now.  The world has more chicory in it, and I won’t be mowed a second time, by golly.

[Top of the post:  Moonlight Garden 2004, by John Alexander, b. 1945]

Alice, Olympic Yarn Ball

The stands are crowded to capacity!  Yarn Ball is the big event for Cat Olympics!  Indeed, not only are the stands filled to overflowing; security is very tight too.  You have no idea how hard it is to keep the fans out of the game.  When you’ve got yarn rolling in front of  150,000+ cats, you know the tails and whiskers are twitching!

Alice has gained an early lead, but there’s still a lot of yarn on the ball.  This is anybody’s game, and this year’s contenders are fast cats.  We’re rooting for Alice, of course, and it looks like she’s got a great shot at the title.

[Top of the post:  Alice and other Olympic athletes in the Yarn Ball Chase at 2008 Cat Olympics in Beijing, China as drawn by the younger artist of the household]

Shoes that make the man

Around the same period when I was painting a bird’s nest over a reclining figure, I painted these shoes over something that was pale green.  The earlier color shows beneath the salmon colored cloth.

I was studying Van Gogh, and I painted not only bird’s nests after his example, but also shoes.  Again, I felt qualms about emulating another artist so closely.  Yet these shoes are also so plainly products of my imagination and not Van Gogh’s.  So sometimes, you see, you must simply trust yourself.

I read this Hemingway quote today about emulation: 

“Y.C.: Listen.  There is no use writing anything that has been written before unless you can beat it.  What a writer in our time has to do is write what hasn’t been written before or beat dead men at what they have done.  The only way he can tell how he is going is to compete with dead men ….

Mice:  But reading all the good writers might discourage you.

Y.C.: Then you ought to be discouraged.”

[Originally from By Line: Ernest Hemingway, pp. 217-218.  Taken here from Ernest Heimingway on Writing, Larry W. Phillips, ed., Scribner’s; NY, 1984: p. 93]

When I painted these shoes, I remember I understood them as being a portrait of the shoe’s owner as well as a kind of self-portrait.  I was also very interested in painting the space between one edge of the shoe’s opening and the other.  The empty air seemed to me as much a subject as anything else in this picture, and I was fascinated by it.  I wanted to make it seem very much that the air was inside the picture, and that this should not just be a question of appearances.  And the ways that the shoe laces fell, the beauty of the lines they described — something that is charged with meaning by gravity and chance — these were also qualities I studied in it.

It turned out to be a very pensive moment.  Van Gogh was a hero to me, someone whose works gave me reason to believe that art was worth striving after, even against odds.  Hemingway’s idea of “beating” the old dead guys is a peculiarly male approach to an idea, but essentially I agree with him.  If knowing the great works that preceed you discourages you, then you should be discouraged — for those things are your teachers. 

This might seem odd commentary coming from me, to those who’ve read this blog before.  I try to encourage, but these are not contradictory gestures.  Even Hemingway doesn’t tell the “discouraged” writer to give up.  Such discouragement in one who wants the prize has to be overcome.  What Hemingway is really counseling is courage. 

I had all sorts of qualms when I painted this, but I painted it anyway.  And that was my courage.

[Top of the post:  A pair of shoes, by Aletha Kuschan, oil on canvas, c. 1988]

From that Nest Hatched These

I guess the nest pictured in the previous post hatched these.  (Making imaginative allowances for time.)  After I became a mom, actually some many years after I painted the bird’s nest, my daughter drew these baby birds.  I assembled them as a trio and put them into the nest she’d made.  A xerox version of them now appears in a collage I’m using for a picture I’m painting.  It’s the same collage of the “weird lizard.”