Under Cover

During the late eighties I took a figure painting class with an artist whose work I found interesting, Ken Marlow.  I already possessed then my own ways of painting, but I wanted to learn how Ken painted.  Granted the public character of a class would reveal only certain aspects of his approach.  Still, his class was there to take, and so I signed up.  He was a wonderful teacher, and had I been looking for instruction I couldn’t have recommended anyone better.  But as it happens, I had arrived merely to satisfy curiosity.

In the course of things, we did a nude figure.  Mine was painted on the small canvas above.  I cannot remember what it looked like or even whether it was a man or a woman.  At some stage Ken came round and offered suggestions, and he also offered to make some corrections himself to which I acceded.  Afterwards, though, the picture bothered me.  I can’t remember exactly why, but it had something to do with his having changed it.  It had stopped being my picture at that juncture. 

Had I been more mature … hmm… perhaps I would have kept it as a souvenir — after all Ken’s paintings command hefty prices now.  But I wasn’t interested in a souvenir.  I had gone there with curiosity only and persisted in curiosity only.  So at some later date, I decided to reuse the canvas, and I painted this bird’s nest over it. 

Now, maturer still … er … I’m glad I painted over the Me/Marlow life study.  I love this bird’s nest.  It is a testament to my other “teacher” of the time, Vincent Van Gogh.  As you’re probably aware, Van Gogh painted a series of bird’s nests early in his career during that period when his pictures were dark and overtly “Dutch.” 

When I painted this still life, I felt so much as though I was apeing Van Gogh that I was a little uneasy about it.  However, seeing it now I realize how thoroughly it was and is mine.  The round white stool was a regular bit of my life’s furniture, evocative of such personal memories.  The way that the bird’s nest sits on it, laying on a cloth (actually a piece of artist’s linen) is so much a gesture of presenting the nest — and animals and wildlife were a big deal in my formative childhood experience.  

That it covers over a different picture, one with interesting credentials, also fits in with the painting’s gesture.  I asserted my own life’s very different trajectory.  This painting was raw and unstudied — more a rough and rude Van Gogh idea than a smooth salon-inspired idea of art out of which Marlow’s visual sensibilities evolved.

Different strokes for different folks.  I realize the wisdom of that saying now more than ever.  The whole point of making pictures is to create something individual.  How else can one accomplish this except through the individuality of the self?
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[Top of the post:  A Bird’s Nest, by Aletha Kuschan, oil on canvas, c. 1988]

Blank Canvas

Lately I’ve been reading books about writing, among them Ralph Keyes’s The Courage to Write.  I was wondering when I saw it why writing would require courage.  If you are writing a powerful exposé on a dictator and you have the misfortune to be a citizen living under the dictator’s rule, I can understand why writing would take courage.  But why would the writing of ordinary books evoke authorial fear?

The blank page has something to do with it.  Mr. Keyes has a nice quote by James Baldwin: “You go in with a certain fear and trembling.  You know one thing.  You know you will not be the same person when this voyage is over.  But you don’t know what’s going to happen to you between getting on the boat and stepping off.”  Seeing writing described in that way makes me want to get on the boat.  It provokes such longing.  Doesn’t Baldwin make writing seem like an breathtaking adventure?

Certainly various kinds of self exposure can evoke fear.  And embarking upon a project which has no predictable end to it could definitely seem daunting.  But in other respects I like the idea of the blankness of beginnings.  I am never afraid of starting a picture.  I am sometimes afraid of “wasting”materials.  I worry that the canvas I’m using is too expensive and maybe the painting will be a flub.  But the pursuit of a new idea always makes me feel like a kid — it’s better than childhood because I have ever so many fewer qualms than I had when I was a child.

The first lay-in of an idea seems like the most open and vibrating moment.  In those early steps, anything is possible.  A painting closes down as choices follow upon each other.  It comes to be more definitely “this” or “that.”  But even the narrowing of the path doesn’t faze me because by the time I arrive there I find that different kinds of new possibilities arise.  The surface lends itself to a million interpretations.

It’s not that I’ve never felt this artistic fear.  I used to approach a new project with fear and trembling.  But these days my worries run more toward concern whether I will succeed in finishing the many things I have started.  The starting of things is so delightful that it’s hard to discipline oneself to stay the course with any particular one.  I have, however, one painting that is taking me years to finish.  It is full of details, and I can imagine a circumstance in which the details keep yeilding to others more minute.  Yet I have no reluctance to work on the picture.  Indeed, it’s one of my favorite pictures.  With it I experience the opposite of my financial qualm:  had I known it would become so complex I would have used a better canvas!

I don’t quite understand the whole “fear” thing.  I have no wish to denigrate it, though.  Perhaps I should write a book.  Maybe then I’ll know what they’re talking about, they who say that writing takes courage.  But of those who say that painting takes courage — and we have our fair share as well — I cannot understand them, I have to admit.   I only used to feel that way when I was younger, and I had so many things that I didn’t know how to do.  I was afraid of getting everything “wrong.”  I feared making mistakes.

I have none of that fear now.  It is not that I know how to do everything!  My ego is not that big.  It’s just that I’ve learned how to learn.  When I don’t know how to do something, I find that some path toward it appears, and I just start going down that path.  Anyway, I’m much less hung up about “mistakes.”  A mistake is such a subjective thing.  Sometimes “mistakes” have such lovely ideas hidden inside them.  They are still mistakes, mind you.  They are those parts of the picture that look out of place.  But I find that a willingness to live with them can open all kinds of doors of thought.

After all “reality” in that sense of what an optician means when he says you have 20/20 vision is all around us, and we can look at it all day long.  But thoughts are so personal.  I like a picture that is full of thoughts.  And we so often find them in our mistakes if we will but look, for what is a mistake except something one aimed for and missed?  Or did you even miss?  Do you know what the idea even is?

Contemplate your mistake a little, and you learn what it was you aimed for and what you desire.

[Top of the post:  Early stage of a painting posted earlier in this blog, Woman in White, by Aletha Kuschan]


Someone was searching on “how to achieve light

Degas pastel water
Edgar Degas

in pastel” and through some combination of key words found me.  This I learned from my stats.  Don’t know what post came up under this combination, or if the visitor found anything that resembled what he or she was looking for, but I am intrigued by the question.  It’s the kind of question one often hears addressed in artists’ manuals and in those few magazine publications devoted to technical aspects of art.


Jean-Francois Millet


I raise the topic now because I try to be helpful, but also because it is so opposite the way that I think about art.  I don’t know if I have ever wondered how one would achieve a quality of light in any medium, and so it prompts me to wonder how I would answer the person’s question were I asked — as well as to wonder what kinds of things I do try to achieve in my pictures.

Jennifer Bartlett pastel
Jennifer Bartlett


What I’ve sought since the beginning of my artist’s life was a way of understanding those works of art that I loved.  My desires began with individual pictures that I found compelling, and afterwards I found myself asking “how did the artist do that?”  Art always led the way for me, it led me into life, I think, rather than the other way around.  Or perhaps it disciplined life for me.

early Picasso pastel
Pablo Picasso


I had always found things in life that were beautiful and moving.  But in art, I found life represented a certain way, and afterwards I wondered “what living circumstance would recreate the painting?”  So different artists — and they were quite varied — affected me and made me visually curious and provoked me into looking for the life situation that they had depicted.  So in effect they taught me to see life.  Different artists teach you to see different corners of existence.  And afterwards the things themselves almost resemble styles.  A sunset might be Turner, Delacroix or Corot.  Rural scenes might be Winslow Homer or Andrew Wyeth (quite a stretch there).  A suburban scene with its sidewalks and green lawns might contain all the linear sinuousity of Diebenkorn.

Degas pastel
Edgar Degas


In none of these things would I be looking for one facet separated out — something like “light” — but rather one finds a holistic sensibility, a way of organizing the world that resembles the ideas of one artist or period.  Naming artists George Bellows, Joan Mitchell, Durer, Titian, Rembrandt, Ingres, Giotto, Edward Hopper, and so on, is to evoke not techniques but personalities.

Eugene Delacroix


Thus any technical question could be answered so many different ways.  I don’t ask “how does one deal with light,” but “what features does Delacroix notice in a landscape and what means does he use to achieve them?”  Even to ask the question of one artist nets slightly different answers depending upon the medium.  Delacroix was very sensitive to the exigencies of pencil or watercolor or pastel or oil and employs each in quite precise ways to take advantage of the medium’s strengths.

delacroix pastel
Eugene Delacroix


The landscapes above provide examples.  The landscape above is filled with wonderful light effects, and the ways of analyzing it are multifold.  But one thing that leaps out at me, looking at it now, is the way he places alternating horizontal bands of light and dark throughout the entire picture, that extend through tonal and chromatic changes in the sky and which continue into the land below.  It’s a device that one finds in 17th century Dutch landscape, something that well-versed Delacroix was quite aware of — yet he does not follow this idea in any programmatic way.  Indeed, one feels quite sure that the effects we see in the picture mirror something that he saw in an actual landscape.

“La vérité est dans une nuance,” he said. (“Truth is in a nuance.”)  To quote it, one has to reemploy the French word.  The very notion of fine distinctions, it would appear, comes to us on the wings of a French idea.  Certainly it was pivotal to Delacroix’s way of looking at things.  And one sees it exemplified in the pictures above.  The landscape he drew has a thousand connections to works by other artists, to ideas about drawing, evocation, arrangement, tonality, space, that one finds in innumerable places from the aforementioned Dutch landscape painters to Claude Lorraine or even Turner.  Yet the scene has a distinctly Delacroix flavor.  And that impress of his personality is undoubtedly the “nuance.”

JMW Turner (watercolor)


Still I have not answered, have I, the question asked by my unknown visitor.  The answer to the question of how to achieve light in pastel is to take a motif in which the fall of light is a principal element and to use pastel to try to depict it.  Observe the subject, translate it through one’s tools at hand.  Pastel itself poses an interesting problem since, of course, pastel colors do not blend as readily as paints.  They are at least a tone lighter from the outset because of the missing layer of oil medium, and thus much chromatic exaggeration and tonal suggestion is necessary to create an appearance of a full spectrum.  But you work with the pastel rather than against it, literally translating your subject into the “language of pastel,” which might mean into lines or hatchings or rubbed tones and approximate color relationships.



And afterwards over coffee, you look at your pastel and compare it with something done by a master in that medium.  And who might that be?  The comparison with Degas will yeild very different results than the comparison with Chardin, Millet, Twatchman — or with Edvard Munch or Picasso or with contemporary artist Jennifer Bartlett.  All such different answers to the “how” question arise from different aims and different personalities.

Primroses Millet pastel


So, there’s not an easy answer.  I think the one who asks the question has to ask further:  what am I trying to achieve?  What light do I seek?  And why?

John Henry Twachtman-The Ledges


And meanwhile the answer is not an answer in the ordinary sense.  It will not be simply one thing — one hopes.  It will be many things, various discoveries that one makes in the acts of looking.

Making Difficult Pictures

One problem that artists have at the beginning arises from a misapprehension.  When seeing a painting in a museum, people often think that that’s it.  They see a complete, whole and finished thing and mistakenly suppose that the artist just painted it.  Such a task, anyone would acknowledge to be difficult, but to create ex nihilo — which is often what people mistakenly suppose artists do — would be really, very hard — perhaps impossible.  In fact most complex pictures have lots of studies that lie behind them.  Studies can take many forms, but usually they exist.  Typically they are not on display.  They reside in the background.  They lie stored in a drawer in the artist’s studio.

What defines a study?  One might say that it’s any work of art that takes a separate aspect of an idea and pursues it in isolation.  When you study old masters’ techniques, you find many such drawings that rehearse ideas that are later used in completed paintings. 

So, it’s “okay” to take an idea apart and pursue it in bits.  The drawing at the top of the post is that kind of drawing.  I was interested in the drapery and drew it in isolation.  To create this drapery I had first made a photograph — but even the photograph is part of the pursuit of an idea.  I’m still not certain where it’s going.  Or if it’s going anywhere.

The figure has no head or face and hardly any arms.  These details don’t matter at this juncture, and I left them out.  The details here are to drawing what scales are to music.  This is a drawing of riffs and phrases.  Such things have their own charms.

[Top of the post:  Drapery Study, by Aletha Kuschan, colored pencil on Nideggen paper]

One Weird Lizard

There are many paths to invention.  My daughter made this lizard by one of them.  Let me see if I can recall the details because it was a complex process. 

I made a line drawing based on a photograph in a book that sort of resembled this guy to click.  Then I xeroxed the drawing I’d made and cut the xexored copy into several same-sized squares.  I reassembled the squares in random order as individual blocks and taped them down onto some pages.

All together they composed a “drawing test.”  The objective was to redraw each, now very abstract looking individual square, using a set of blank squares (the test paper) the same size as the originals. 

My daughter took my “test” and afterwards we reassembled her lizard “copy,” putting all the boxes into their proper order.  Then she made a new drawing that copied the newly assembled lizard made of little squares.  (Are you still following me?)  The lizard above was the result.  We rexeroxed him to have bragging copies, one of which I put into a collage that became a detail a large painting.  That lizard in the collage is the one pictured above.

I think he’s a perky looking little guy!

You know, funny thing, but I don’t get a lot of people asking me for driving directions.  I wonder why ….

[Top of the post:  Very complicated reconstruction of a Veiled Chameleon, by Aletha Kuschan and daughter]

Alice at Beijing: Fishing

Alice is doing well in the first rounds of Cat Fishing Competitions at Beijing.  As you probably know, the cats have to climb down the ropes, catch a fish at the rope’s end, and successfully carry the fish back up the rope to the end.  So far Alice has only dropped one fish and hasn’t fallen into the water even once.   (Cats hate that, you know.)

She’s been doing fabulously well at this Olympics!  I’ll keep you posted on her progress.

[Top of the post:  Summer Olympic: Fishing Competition, by the young artist of the household]

Riosriosrios drew Durer’s Owl!

I asked Riosriosrios to draw Durer’s Owl and here it is!  Isn’t this fantastic!  You ask Riosriosrios to draw something, and you get a drawing!  Drawing on demand.  I like that idea!

You may recall that last month I had asked Riosriosrios to draw Durer’s Rhinoceros.  (I’m kind of a Durer fan.)  The rhino was fabulous too!

[Top of the post:  Durer’s Owl, drawn by Riosriosrios of wordpress]

Alice wins at Mouse Tennis

Mouse tennis is not an Olympic sport with which most people are familar.  The name may mislead you.  It’s not a game for mice.  It is a game cats play with mice.  (Poor mouse!)  It is very much like regular tennis, only some unfortunate mouse has to be the ball.  Alice has made a very strong showing from the beginning, but had to earn her triumph. 

Alice the Cat beat Miss Callico and won the match in an 8-6 nail-scratcher. The match started slowly, with Miss Callico going up three games to none, but Alice the Cat came back to tie it 4-4.  Afterwards they traded games until Alice finally won two in a row to take the match.  As you can see, the crowd went wild.  Congratuations Alice!

For mouse lovers in the audience, you’ll be glad to know the tennis mouse escaped before the traditional, triumphant mouse “snack” could take place.   Consequently Alice celebrated her win after the game with a bowl of dim sum over at Sagwa’s house.

[Top of the post:  Alice’s Mouse Tennis match at the Beijing Olympics, by the young artist on the premises]

Our Adventure and His

We rescued a rabbit yesterday.  It had gotten caught in the chain link fence.  He was trapped at the hips and lay upon the ground suffering from worry with his eyes bugging out, as rabbits in stress will do.  Fortunately, my daughter heard the rabbit’s struggle and alerted us.  Necessary tools were located, and the fence was cut above and around his position so that his bands could be unravelled, and he could be released. 

Evidently he was uninjured, because feeling the pressure gone, he bounded swiftly and surely away — white tail in the air, and in seconds he was gone.

Would have loved to have painted the little guy, but he was ever so much less calm than the rabbit above painted by Albrecht Durer in 1502.

Great News! Alice is in Beijing!

Did you even know there was a Cat Olympics?  I didn’t.  We were aware that Alice is much traveled, and even that she speaks Chinese.  In fact she was in China when the PBS television show  Sagwa was being made.  Actually she and Sagwa are pals!  Imagine, Alice nobnobbing with celebrities!  But we were not aware of her interest in athletic competitions or that she had qualified for the Cat Olympics.

Well, in the first competition, Alice is a winner!  For those who don’t know, the Cat Olympics preceeds the Human ones.  And Alice’s first competition was Marathon Tree Climbing, where each cat must climb 26 trees!  As you can see above, Alice was in an early lead.

I’ll try to keep you posted how Alice is doing.  We’re all so excited here with our amazing toy — oops — sorry, it’s just slipped.  Officially speaking, Alice is not a toy.  (She’s very sensitive on that issue.)

[Top of the post:  Alice’s First Event, Marathon Tree Climbing, by the younger artist]