A certain way of painting nature belongs to the French.  And whenever an artist adopts that way, be it Jennifer Bartlett or Richard Diebenkorn or Winslow Homer, it is the same as speaking French.  Call it “visual French.”  I have myself been studying different dialects of it.  In this picture Bonnard was my teacher.  He has a certain distinctive accent that I think I caught in nuance, even though he never would have drawn in the medium I used, or drawn something this large or in quite this way.

Translation is a valuable metaphor for the exchange of ideas that take place among artists living in different eras.  I can talk Bonnard’s talk, but I still sound “simply and frankly American” (as Mary Cassatt once famously said).  And while I might adopt a second language to express my visual ideas, just like Polish Joseph Conrad became an English novelist, I am nonetheless giving my own opinions. 

People trouble themselves over much with the question of originality.  Yet one would be hard pressed to be anyone other than oneself.  I may speak a visual French, but the pictorial ideas are mine.  Thus the language is not quite French even, or English, or American.  In a final sense one speaks the language of the self.  Spoken earnestly, it’s a language that others can understand without a translator for it speaks to all the other selves in the clear tones of feeling and life.

[Top of the post:  Speaking French to the Trees and the Sky, by Aletha Kuschan, crayon on Canson paper, 60 x 47 inches]

6 thoughts on “Learning a Language

  1. What a wonderful video. Drawing seems to be an important adaptive skill for lots of people with cognitive disabilities. Stephen Wiltshire is another artist who communicates through his drawings. He has his own website: http://www.stephenwiltshire.co.uk/

    I first learned about him in one of Oliver Sack’s books. A Youtube video of Wiltshire drawing (below) is uncanny. I just found it moments ago via Google. Seeing him in action is more amazing than the pictures alone. Evidently Wiltshire was able to remember vivid details of an entire city landscape after flying over it in a helicopter. Afterwards he draws the whole thing from memory without any visual aids to assist him.

    Wiltshire was diagnosed with autism in childhood.

  2. Ah, I recall that artist – I saw a documentary about him on TV some time ago. He has a really great memory, an eye as a camera so to speak, but he is drawing almost the exact copy of the world, almost like a photograph. Here is another artist with a fascinating painting method that is the opposite:

  3. I just looked at the video. Would be fascinating to know how he draws, whether he draws entirely from memory or uses some mediary process similar to braille. I am astonished at his being able to remember which areas he has already painted and which portions are remaining. I guess he goes over each area once and leaves it without revisions. And questions of scale, too, intrigue me. It’s like the drawing exercise of the “blind contour.” But with, evidently, much more control and accuracy ….
    There’s lots of uncharted territory in art, that’s for sure.

  4. Yes, I was also interested in his technique. I rewatched the video several times when I first saw it, and I believe he sketches the blueprint with small indentations on the canvas first before applying paint. Look at 2:30 of this video.

  5. I noticed the elevated line, his drawing, but I wonder at how he knows where to place them. His sense of scale and proportion is realized in a tactile way, yet manage to correspond to visually logical images. It’s like blind contour in part.

    Benedicte has a beautiful blind contour drawing of a dog on her post:

    Blind contour is used often as a confidence building step, permitting one to make mistakes by deliberate decision not to look at the paper to better facilitate more intense observation of the subject. And clearly one discovers that a tactile sense is strong in drawing, that the gesture plays a big role, because blind contours are often surprisingly accurate representations.

    Perhaps something like that is happening for blind artist too??

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