Swimming in Slow Mo

koi drawing at studio Oct 28

It was just a day or so ago I announced the beginning of the “last” koi painting (with “last” being understood as a relative term).  I am in finishing mode, I said.  The picture above, stored at my secret bunker studio in an undisclosed location in Washington DC is among those in need of the finishing.  Having established that fact, I promise I will not discuss the koi pond every day between now and the final strokes (of either the brush or the crayon).

Finishing the pictures is a task unto itself, with its own erratic schedule, creative whimsy, strategies and longish time spans.   Finishing is like Phase II in relation to which creating the first overall image (or “blocking in”) was just the framework.  Everyone is different.  I seem to never start a picture and continue straight through to its completion.  I start a whole bunch of pictures, often supposing that various ones are “almost” done, only to go back to them again and again realizing that the topic held much more than I ever supposed.

On one level, one could say that finishing a picture involves adding more details — except that the details are as variable as the whole picture is, as amorphous, as open to discovery.  Indeed, it’s in the discovering of whatever “details” there are that I seem so often to find out what the painting is.  As though the painting were a large flat surface filled with doors, each detail seems to provide an access to some kind of world lying behind the picture’s surface.

koi shadow upper left detail

I often don’t know where to start when I recommence work on a picture.  I just pick somewhere and get to scribbling.  It’s almost as though you could play a piece of music by beginning arbitrarily upon any measure and still turn out okay!  (A reason why I prefer painting to music.) 

Since the koi are (and must be) based upon photos, this opening of doors, happens when I translate sections of photos into the picture.  The transcription of a photo into a picture can be a very creative endeavor, and the same is equally true about the details of a photo.  I find that the details become virtually pictures in themselves or almost pictures within pictures. 

koi photo crop enlarged

I look at a bit of photo that is perhaps a few centimeters across as I hold it in my hand (enlarged above) and draw whatever features I notice, whatever strikes my fancy, exactly in the order in which my fancy is struck.  You can see a fish that swims underneath what looks like a reflection caught in the wave crests.  The warm orange colored koi with black spots and stripes slides under and also (it seems) through this dark veil.  The reflection both reveals and hides the fish. 

Translating it into crayon, as seen below on a different koi, I draw and scribble out shapes of colors.  Later I go back into these passages with other colors, that adjust or contrast with them.  The drawing with crayon resembles a warp and weft of fabric strands and can produce the most astonishing color effects, that seem naturalistic from a distance, but which are a crazy quilt of transpositions up close.

koi drawing detail of a fish textures

It’s both naturalistic and abstract simultaneously.

Later in the morning I was turning round in my mind the question of whether to add a large koi to the lower left of the picture.  I have a good candidate, but I wasn’t sure whether to put him in there or not.  I decided to rough him in, drawing over top an earlier idea that I had for that section.  When I was younger, I would never have attempted to put something so haphazardly into a drawing of this kind, but these days I know I can draw the guy.  It’s just a question of yes or no.  Slopping him into the pond with a few scrubbly colors doesn’t faze me because I realize my drawing skills are up to the task of rendering him, and I know these crayons are tough enough to take enough layers of work to “forgive” a few tactical changes.

koi drawing lower left first lines of new fish

The fish shapes get his size and position.  I’ll put more fish into his form on another occasion.  In the picture above he still floats over the shape of the earlier version.  By the time I got finished this morning’s work, some of the earlier drawing had already begun being covered up.  I’m going to draw the guy, too, on a separate sheet to get to know him better.  I can’t help begin thinking of these fish as individuals, almost as though they were pets. 

koi drawing with big fish added oct 28 09

Still standing back to see how the new guy will get along with the rest of the pond.  He’s a big guy, a regular Moby Dick.

It is hard to see her face

after Ingres two

The definition of art is a somewhat amorphous thing.  Recently I chided someone for identifying “art” with whatever will challenge me, make me feel uncomfortable, touch me, transform me.  I suggested that some things will have these qualities and yet will decidedly not be art.  Driving in rush hour, doing taxes, taking a standardized test, getting a root canal — all are challenging.  I guarantee the root canal will make you uncomfortable.  Perhaps a dentist will argue that root canals are art.  But, for goodness sake, let’s let the dentist make the argument.  Artists don’t have to do it for them.

What is art?  In the era when drawing doesn’t count, art has morphed into namelessness.  Everyone is an artist now.  Art is whatever you want it to be.  And still life beckons.

Let me suggest that art’s definition be reserved for the hard stuff.  Let an old master’s skill be an ingredient.  Better that we be striving toward it than grinning and slapping our own backs in self-congratulation. 

Life still beckons.  I say art is a mystery, and I will pursue it.  Better to ever pursue and never reach than to cheapen the journey with goo-gaws and touristy nick-nacks.  Can I persuade you to share in the longing?

Okay, I don’t usually rant.  But the ubiquitously recited litany that art will challenge me, make me feel uncomfortable, touch me, transform me — it’s so “me, me,me”!  When did we lose our bearings?  When did we leave nature aside?  When did we lose our capacity to see inside the veil?

I copied Ingres (who knew what art is) and left the face blank.  I think she makes a nice metaphor for Art.  Art is she whose face is hard to see, the mystery that beckons, the life that needs transcription, a line suspended in air, a thought held in a breath, a definition that defies.

Big Blue Water

koi latest large one

I had a big piece of canvas draped over an empty stretcher for a long time.  Well, finally got the staple gun loaded and got to work.  The canvas was stretched, the idea was laying there ready to begin, and I’ve begun work on the last large koi painting of the season.  I know that I’ll want to do others, maybe next year or a few years hence, but for now I’m in finishing mode.  All the koi are coming up to the surface — so to speak — getting their last layers of paint.  The pond will be stocked.  The fish can just swim.  And afterwards I’ll begin a new series on some other topic.

The last koi picture has perhaps some added allure for me.  Call it the finale.  Accordingly, for me, this canvas feels most like a dip in the water.  The innate beauty of the color blue captivates me now while I work.  This picture is one in which the water and its fluidity will provide the central theme.  Added to the indulgent pleasure of the motif, I’m using acrylic paint this time so that the work goes much faster.  Usually I love oil for the exact opposite reason — its slowness, its nuance — but I’m dolloping large puddles of color, pushing loaded brushes at this canvas, letting the shapes happen fast, thinking and reacting in one gesture.  It’s really a lot like swimming — which seems just about right. 

The painting is still new, lots of work ahead.  It sits at the end of a long gallery of fellow fish.  It’s my delight to see in the morning.  It reminds me why I first began painting.  This big pond will, I hope, make the spectator feel as free a fish!  Oh, may we truly know the delight of life on our blue planet.

Remembering: Putting Names with Faces

head of a girl

While I’m on my memory theme, I took this face from some old master, but I can’t remember who or where.  (Other than that, and the continual dance of hide and seek that I play with my car keys, I have a great memory.)  I think it’s from a Degas portrait.  (Is there an art historian in the house?)

The advantage of drawing from old masters is that you get such neat ideas.  If I draw from life, I can use what this image teaches me.  Of course, I’m usually drawing fish.  But, hey, they have such fine chiseled profiles, they really do.

Anyway, my violin hero Stephane Grappelli used to play a Bach duo with Jean-Luc Ponty, de temps en temps.  They called it their “Bible.”  So, I take a break from my jazz koi to draw a little classical Degas sometimes.

Memory’s labyrinth

shell one

Lately I’ve been reading a book on memory.  Can’t recall the title ….

The author takes the reader through a series of exercises and explanations designed to improve short and long term memory.  Many of the memory tasks are odd.  You’re supposed to memorize lists of random numbers and other randomly generated things, like names.  I couldn’t bring myself to try any of those experiments, given my general habits of innumeracy, as well as a certain distain I feel for the rote element of memorizing items as an end in itself.  That  just doesn’t appeal to me.  Otherwise, though, I’d say I probably have  a good memory.  Most of the time.   Nonetheless  the book — I’d recommend it if I could just recall the title — has many good bits of advice, some of which I already pursue.  For instance, his first bit of advice is that you keep a journal.  And what is a blog, if not a bit of a journal?

All of my reading about memory set me thinking again about memory in art — about drawing from memory, about the difficulties — for most people — of forming a steady memory of visual things.  We’ve all heard about some people possessing a photographic memory, and some savants like Stephen Wiltshire have unexplained and exceptional ability to remember visual things.  But whether we realize it or not, our visual memory is quite fungible.  We remember very selectively, and people subconsciously make all kinds of substitutions for the sake of meaning that differ significantly from the original perception.

shell two

Maybe it’s just me.  But I am amazed by my relative inability to draw a convincing conch shell from memory.  I have drawn the subject many times.  Looking through some notebooks today, I found a few of the drawings I’ve made in years past.  Regular readers may recall that I also posted some new ones not too long ago.  Yet every drawing of shells I make is drawn from life. 

shell three

And I have tried drawing the shell from many angles over the years.  The words of the famous French painter Edgar Degas come back to my memory:  “il faut refaire la même chose dix fois, cent fois,”  (you must redraw the same thing ten times, a hundred times).  Moreover Degas advised artists to draw a subject from every angle.  Certainly the sea shell lends itself to such intense and loving scrutiny.  It is an amazingly beautiful and complex object, a labyrinth of visual delights.

shell four

As much as I’ve looked at the shell, and as many times as my pencil has followed it’s meandering lines, complex though it is, I ought to be able to remember something. 

shell five

I have been diligent.  These drawings posted here are a mere tip of the ice berg.

shell six

When Degas said, “draw” I took the admonition very much to heart.  I have drawn my shell more times than I can remember.  And yet, I can not draw it par coeur.  Been thinking I should set myself the task one day of drawing the shell from memory.  First draw it from life, and immediately afterwards draw it again from memory — remembering the drawing, you see, more than the shell itself.  I need what so many memory systems utilize — I need a meta-step — an intermediate image that I can commit to memory.  The shell itself is far too complex — for it contains more qualities than I can capture in my drawings even when I am looking!  Of course!

So, there’s another item for my “to do” list.  Maybe I will try it sometime.  We know I have made these affirmations before.  I’m still trying to find some cloud time.  Well, it’s noble to aim at a noble goal.  I may take a while to get around to it, but I like my idea nonetheless.  Nothing wrong with stocking up for a rainy day!

shell seven

Back at it

koi latest

Evidently I was working on this back in April or thereabouts.  At least that’s when I first displayed the image here at a post entitled Do Clean House Occasionally.  I’ve been working on this picture again, bringing it up from its roughed-in beginnings, and gosh darn, I’ve been cleaning again too.  Is that weirdly psychological or what?

I’m getting so organized I scare myself.  I’m in serious danger of losing my membership in the Phyllis Diller fan club (where bicentennial cleaning is the ideal).  Well, organized or not, I cannot have been cleaning all that much because look how much progress I made on my painting.

Chromosomally Speaking

drawing after Rubens Helena eyes

I do need to talk to you.  Have been wondering what is the way.
You looked so apprehensive, which I’ve decided to take as a huge compliment.
I maybe 54 but I still have a je ne sais quoi even despite an otherwise meager French vocabulary.
So, you should not be apprehensive, but there are still things to learn that defy even the
great educational attainments of golf (in a male cosmos).
So, I’m working the problem.  I will be ingenious and devise something.  And meanwhile
you should teach a Y chromosome to talk.
(At first I misspelled compliment above (complement) and I thought afterwards that was true too.)

Head in the Clouds

cloud study1

Drawing clouds from life has been on my “to do” list for quite some time.  Indeed, if we could abolish the IRS, the Department of Motor Vehicles, bill paying, house cleaning, hamster cage cleaning, dirty dishes, and chores in general, I would have made tremendous progress in my cloud studies by now.

We’d have to abolish jazz violin music, too, I fear.  Once I pick up the fiddle, I find it hard to stop playing. 

Anyway, I had some enforced outdoor time today.  The sky was lousy with clouds.  And I finally got around to making a couple very fast studies.  Unfortunately, I forgot to look inside my crayon box.  Duh.  I had no white.  Okay, a few nubbed down crumbs of white crayon left.  So the white of the paper, which natually plays a significant role in cloud drawing, got very little assistance from an added white — to my great annoyance.  But it is my motto that one makes do.  When you’re out in the field eye to eye with Mother Nature, no excuses.  I would have bruised some grass and drawn with chlorophyll if I’d had to — that’s how much cloud time I’ve had lately! 

But, you know what, next time I’m checking inside my box!

cloud study2

As I drew (cursing under my breath, “my kingdom for a white crayon”) I noticed that my clouds were really rollin’ by.  It’s one of the great things about drawing that the very activity of it is so beneficial, notwithstanding the outcome of the drawing itself.  Of course, I’m all in favor of making a nice drawing.  I try to get one as often as I can.  But just watching these clouds in their fast changes, and this attempt to capture in my brain (if not in the drawing) these shapes is so wonderful.  Makes one feel so alive.

Truly one does not appreciate clouds nearly enough.