Syllabus and Charybdis

I’m much less affected by criticism these days.  But when I was a youth, the criticisms I heard sometimes really stung.  I recall once I was painting a scene from a pier.  It was a big deal for me, who was unaccustomed to painting where others could watch, to be painting at a popular locale, but I had steeled my determination.  A man came up to me after I had been working a little while and expressed his displeasure with my little picture by saying, “YOU see THAT?!” 

I was just learning to journey through the complicated world of visual perception  and was hardly prepared to champion my meager en plein air efforts.  I was an innocent girl standing on a pier with an aluminum easel.  (Should I have pushed him into the water?  One good shove’ve done it.) I cannot speak to what motivates a stranger to make comments like that; surely my picture did him no harm.  I wasn’t even exhibiting it:  I was painting it!  Would someone, a stranger, look over your shoulder while you write a letter to a friend and offer to correct your grammar?  Writing – in the act of it — is private; but paintings done in public the public thinks to be their fair game.  Writing is sex and painting is marriage, I suppose.

I took it, I think, as well as I might have given my youth.  Recently I’ve come under fire again (after long quietude) this time from another artist also a stranger.  In my fifties I look upon the phenomenon in quite a different way.  This bee delivers no sting.  After years of studying various masters through books and the museums; after unreckonable hours of my own trials in drawing, after sustained moments squinting, gawking, looking, and perceiving color and its after-image; after many midnight vigils contemplating the purpose of subject matter, plunging into the emotive depths and toe-holing the high eyrie intellectual cliffs of meaning; after feeling the rich music of presence before great masters and before Nature (that ever mysterious lady); after many elongated minutes spent in simple meditations over my beautiful creamer or the sea shell Walter gave me decades ago, or fashionable Doll – after all I have accumulated in squirrel-storehouse self-awareness I have become fairly impervious to wholesale criticism such as I got.  Instead my woman’s intuition inclines me to look to the motives of the critic.

Ah! Therein lies a mystery of sorts, one for an astute novelist to use to make a Gilbert Osmond or a Hector Bartlett. As a painter I deal in surfaces, the thought thread of motivation I’ll leave for sister arts to portray.

Better that I should share my wisdom, if you’ll allow me so immodest a word, though wisdom it is.  Look to your general purpose:  do you wish to be a “great” artist?  I do.  Do you want this “greatness” so as to be “famous someday”?  No, I do not.  What I want is the possession of the visual knowledge that the old masters had about the world.  If I had wanted fame, I’d have sought fame in the proper American fashion:  I’d have worked assiduously day and night to become a Rock Star – get me a guitar, some long legs (not sure where you get those), a few riffs and a husky siren voice,  just like any fame-coveting, red-blooded American woman would.

As to fame “someday,” I can’t see the percentage in it.  Rich?  Oh, rich is different.  Give me buckets of money, only the fame you can keep.

Je voudrais être illustre et inconnu.

Here’s the kicker, boys and girls: seek always to increase your skill, your ability to draw with precision or with devil-may-care; draw with emotion, with spontaneity, with vigor, with quickness or with long sustained power.  Draw a line from your mind’s thought-paths.  In however many ways you can find to expand your resources: follow the same motive as regards color, scale, proportion, motif, tonality – any other aspect of art one can name.  Seek skills; while seeking, use well the skills you already possess.  Ask questions with these tools, make assertions, and delight in the veil of light everywhere around your eyes.  Look at, study “Nature.”

These things are enough.  They are an embarrassment of riches.  What you can do and what you long to do someday, there’s a path to follow.

Il faut avoir une haute idée, non pas de ce qu’on fait, mais de ce qu’on pourra faire un jour; sans quoi ce n’est pas la peine de travailler.


What other people think about it, well, we do wish to be understood and to be liked.  But that’s the extent.  The criticism that matters, the praise that matters also, has to be your own for in making art you do no more than project aspects of your life into an outer vessel. 

I tell you — boys and girls, ladies and gentlemen — we have come no further – and this is not a bad thing at all – this is the heart of the matter, we find that Socrates and his Delphic Oracle were right:  you must know yourself.   Your portion of the cosmos and its mystery is all you’re granted.  But hey, what do you want?  In American we’ll even throw in fries and a Happy Meal. 


Another Kind of Green

Another cabbage showed up.  Was compelled to drop everything to draw this cabbage.  Another of those situations where spontaneity rules the day.  If you want to draw garden vegetables, that’s the way it is.  On the other side of this drawing is the boiling pan.  Maybe a little cabbage salad. 

I like this drawing well enough, but the cabbage has escaped it.  Instead I have abstract art.  Well, happy news, I hear that the vegetable seller has a ton of cabbages.  So another cabbage, another day.

Making plans

I like to think about stuff before I do it.  I was the child always asking “are we there yet?”  I am the one who cannot wait and must imagine it if I cannot just have it out-right right now.

Over morning tea I was thinking ahead that way.  Traveling into the future with a pen and some wishful thinking.

Comportment, compotier

You cannot imagine what a thrill it was, the day I found my blue compotier.  I had loved Pierre Bonnard’s compotiers, scattered here and there through various paintings, sometimes filling a subordinate role, sometimes occupying center stage.  It is completely irrational to love an inanimate object that way, even if it is made of blue glass and has little tear-drop patterns around its roller-coaster-wavering rim.  The way that things are colored through it!  The way it stands so elegant and tall.  Crazy, perhaps, but Bonnard was crazy first and infected my brain through his pictures.

Last night I wasn’t sleepy.  So I stayed up with my compotier and made a series of drawings.  Here are the “apples of my eyes.”  After making the first, I was just getting warmed up, and I pulled out another sheet to sing another silent verse.  The second is a lot like the first.  I must have really believed what I drew since the two agree in many parts. 

For the third go around, nearing Three O’Clock in the Morning, I was ready for a little change of pace. 

A little off topic, but evidently there’s no American way of saying “compotier.”  American’s have to do it in as French a manner as they can manage.  As an Anglo word, the Brit’s have it all wrapped up.  [If you click on the little UK flag at the link, you’ll hear the British pronunciation.  Do note, that there’s no little American flag.  And the Australians and the Canadians …?  What they do with this word is anybody’s guess.  Is there an Australian in the house?]

Anyway,  I got some nice detail photos of the rim shot moments (hat tip to the late great Paul Squires of Gingatao).

I dare you to find a fish in there.  (Regular readers realize that I haven’t gone totally batty.”

No koi, just apples!

And after that it was to bed!  Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Believing It

I took up the violin at age 47 when my daughter was a Suzuki student.   That was eight years ago.  For a variety of reasons, including that we have aimed our resources at teaching the kid, I haven’t had much instruction — a few lessons here and there over the years coming from a variety of different violinist acquaintances.  Mostly I taught myself to play by ear, listening to and trying to unravel the melodies of my favorite jazz musicians.   At first I sounded like I was torturing the cat (no offense to Alice, above, who also loves violin).  But over time I’ve gained an increasing understanding of my instrument and a growing confidence.

Nevertheless I was completely unprepared for what happened yesterday.  I was in the parking lot and a neighbor approached me, asking “are you the person who plays violin?”  In a building full of strangers that can be a somewhat scary question: is this going to be her nice opening way of telling me I have to pipe down, that she can hear me clear across the building?  But instead she said, “I crack my window open whenever you’re playing so I can hear it better.  I think your playing is just beautiful.”

I am still dumbfounded.  What a kind thing to say, what an amazing surprise, and am I beginning to be almost a real violinist?  After eight years….

Don’t tell yourself you “cannot” do something for reasons “x,” “y” and “z.”  When I began the violin, through all that cat-torturing phase, it was hard but somehow I felt an affinity to that violin and knew that playing it was “possible.” 

Believe it.  Do it.

One at a time

Been thinking about Bonnard today.  The freedom of his little notebooks comes back to me, and I am astonished at the obviousness of what I realized.  Why didn’t I think of it before?  If you want that sort of thing, you must simply try it.  I don’t say my little sketches will compare with Pierre’s.  But if I ever hope to make the drawings that do, I must first try.

Try, fail.  Try again.

Succeed, enfin.  Succeed at last!

Art Writing Bold Drawing 1st Edgar Degas Drawing Award

With the news that Benedicte has completed her one hundredth portrait drawing at Julia Kay’s Portrait Party, I’ve decided to institute an Edgar Degas Drawing Award to artists who draw a subject one hundred times — according to Degas’s wise advice “il faut refaire la même chose dix fois cent fois.” [“You must redraw the same thing ten times, a hundred times.”]

Benedicte is the first winner!  Congratulations Benedicte.  Here’s her 100th portrait party drawing.

Read about her experience here.

Ideas you can keep in your pocket

I find more time on my hands.  It’s like looking inside your wallet and realizing there’s a twenty that you didn’t spend, not knowing — having forgotten, it was there.  Me, I had minutes I wasn’t aware of, time to spend.  And being thrifty, I try not to spend it all in one place, but whenever I have a little pause I just look and record.  A few crayons, a little notebook, some idle observations, and I have a scene.  A picture of a moment.  And it all fits into my pocket very snugly.

It’s already tomorrow in Australia

Orchids for the Orchid Room.  November 19, 2010 would have been the 47th birthday of the great Australian poet Paul Squires who left us so suddenly in July of this year.  The poem below revels in the interconnected, bloggy-thingyness of Paul’s creativity:  words, links, sounds, performance.  Vintage Paul.  Gingatao.

Australian sentences #who’s counting

December 7, 2009 at 6:46 pm | Posted in poetry, writing | 19 Comments
Tags: , , ,
If I want to I shall write a life-times worth of poems about dogs and love, frogs and fish and how amazingly beautiful my wife is. In Australian pubs we used to turn the empty glass upside down and slam it on the bar. In the bad old days, that was, now of course we politely request a quick phone call to our lawyer.

It’s a hard life being famous and poor, I tell ya.

READ the rest here.
(this piece has been podcast here, with all the linked poems)

To teachers: On Lesson Plans

Teachers are supposed to have lesson plans because if lessons are planned then their outcomes can be predicted, and little Johnny will learn.  And that’s why modern education is everywhere praised.  Okay, maybe not.  If not, why not?  Well, sometimes the best things happen all unplanned.  Sometimes opportunity knocks. And even you’re not ready when opportunity knocks, it can be a good idea to give opportunity a chance anyway.

I had a “plan” to draw cabbage this season.  Lo and behold, a cabbage appeared.  But I wasn’t prepared.  I had the crayons, but didn’t have the right paper.  Later I got the paper, but didn’t have the crayons.  Finally paper and crayons were together in the same place, and the cabbage had wilted into an unrecognizable, “floppy eared” mess.  But I drew it anyway, both when I had the wrong paper but the right drawing tools, and later when I had all the necessary tools but a pooped out cabbage.

To understand the difference between “lesson plan” art projects and the kinds of working drawings that real artists make, first we have to take a little peek into the pedagogical culture that pervades nearly every public school in the land.  I searched on “7th grade art lesson plans” and arrived HERE.  At a lesson plan that proposes to teach a “Cezanne-style still life,” the curriculum standards are stated forcefully:

1-E (5 – 8) Students select media, techniques, and processes; analyze what makes them effective or not effective in communicating ideas; and reflect upon the effectiveness of their choices
1-F (5 – 8) Students intentionally take advantage of the qualities and characteristics of art media, techniques, and processes to enhance communication of their experiences and ideas
2-F (5 – 8) Students select and use the qualities of structures and functions of art to improve communication of their ideas
3-C (5 – 8) Students integrate visual, spatial, and temporal concepts with content to communicate intended meaning in their artworks
4-D (5 – 8) Students know and compare the characteristics of artworks in various eras and cultures.

Notice the repetitious declaration of what students will do.  Evidently saying that they will do it makes it so.  No where will you find a greater display of magical thinking than in the declaration of learning objectives, no where will you be farther from the wisdom of the adage that “you can lead a horse to water but you cannot make him drink.”  And no where, than in this lesson plan on Cezanne style still life, could you find a better example of notions that would have horrified the actual Paul Cezanne!

Instructions for the lesson plan are these: “After a study of the artist Paul Cezanne, students create thumnail [sic] sketches for a large scale oil pastel still life drawing.” 

I didn’t choose this particular lesson plan to ridicule it, I found it at random, but it exemplifies the typical problem:  it relies entirely upon language and says nothing about seeing.  It gives no hint how “after a study of the artist Paul Cezanne,” one is to do anything at all with a still life.  The fact that students are making thumbnail sketches and not drawings of a more ordinary size, using oil pastels no less, suggests that the teacher has no very clear conception of how Cezanne himself worked and not a lot of confidence in the ability of the students to deal with a real still life.

Also, the lesson attaches itself to the name of a “famous” artist, but with no idea of how Cezanne’s still life is similar to or differs from any other still life.  Moreover it offers no suggestion as to why students should look at Cezanne to get ideas for depicting objects when they might as readily take things they like themselves for their own personal reasons and draw them just as artists have done for centuries.

Back to my cabbage.  It is neither a Cezanne cabbage, nor a Chardin, nor Van Gogh, nor an Andrew Wyeth cabbage, but merely an ordinary Maryland cabbage, born and raised.  It’s appeal for me was its being GREEN at a time when I seem to be aching for a bit of that color.

Here’s what I did, my lesson plan, teachers take note:  I put it on a waterproof surface (it was wet).  I looked at it.  I drew it.  Unfortunately all I had for drawing at the time of the cabbage’s serendipitous arrival was some Strathmore 400 series 18 x 24 inch smooth surface paper, a fine paper for pen and ink but an annoying one for use with crayons.   Perhaps as significant as anything else, though I had the wrong materials, I drew the cabbage anyway.  This is not a trivial distinction as regards the typical approach to pedagogy, for it wends toward this great insight:   no one ever died by drawing a cabbage using the wrong materials.

That wonderful Maryland vegetable, born and raised, that blasted cabbage, was so complex!  Its leaves had little serrations along every bit of their wandering edges.  And it was so layered!  Leaves over leaves, each leaf alone a magnificent spectacle to behold … I very nearly disavowed my interest in cabbage drawing right on the spot for the evident difficulties I faced.  But I stove on.

What I did:  I drew the largest shapes I could identify in as free a manner as possible.  I looked particularly for the “anatomical” forms of the cabbage, the places where its form was most noteworthy — the roughly spherical center part, and the pattern of over-lapping leaves, seeking to understand one leaf at a time.  I had so much God-forsaken smooth white paper to cover that I also used the crayons very generously as tones, raking the strokes across close together to make something like a continuous tone upon which I could try to depict a distinction or two of light or dark.  Though I had this 18 x 24 inch sheet, I still had to reduce the size of my drawing from that of the actual beast which was much larger than what I could easily draw.  And I got frustrated too, so that my drawing — big though it is — remains only a sketch of sorts and enacts the whole narrative of my finding myself so intimidated by this vegetative-wonder.

That’s how real art goes, you see.  You strive in various ways.  You fail in various ways.  And you stave onwards.  Another day, another cabbage.

My own curriculum standards:

1 The artist will notice the largest aspects of the motif and attempt to record them with a line that is at once precise but free.

2 The artist will draw even in the absence of ideal conditions, materials or circumstances abiding by the dictim:  “nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

3  The artist will refuse to be intimidated by a cabbage.

4  The artist will try another, future cabbage again on some happy day.