The problem in art, after you solve all the other problems, is what to do. The old saw about “being dressed up with nowhere to go” is true, and it’s the bane of art. People talk about the technical things, but thank your lucky stars for all the technical stuff — for when the technical stuff is all used up then you have to decide quite simply “what to do.” At that moment, perhaps it’s a good time to turn to the drawing challenges that people have graciously suggested.
I add one of my own: draw your hair. It’s a good “tempus fugit” subject. Said differently, draw your hair while you still can — while you still have hair, while you can still hold a mirror, while you still have a sense of humor ….
And if I’m too late with my advice, and you don’t have any hair, get a doll with big hair …
One wonder of drawing in notebooks is the experience you get opening the notebook after a chunk of time has passed and having a day of your past life come rushing back into being. If there were one reason that stands above all others why artists should indulge the practice of drawing in notebooks, I’d say it was this. Indeed, the notebook is like a diary except that rather than relying on words it deals in images.
Both diary and drawing have their unique capacity for distilling time. I don’t praise one above the other. All I do is exhort people to keep them, one or the other, a record of words or pictures — at least for a season.
It’s like canning peaches. This is my canning: only I canned a whole pond and included some ducks too.
I have been watching how-to videos on Youtube. There’s a great variety of them to choose from, some of which have the potential to teach genuine ideas and some that are awful, but amusing in unintented ways. As for myself, however, I was always a reluctant student. I took lots of art classes when I was young, of course, but I had such strong notions of what I thought mattered and very little patience for being led down someone else’s path that it’s only in my maturer years that I have any interest in art instructional methods.
Perhaps I might have met with fewer hard knocks had I just listened to others. But to tell the truth, I am glad I was a poor student, and I’d do it all over again: for confronting the world’s resistance does in itself teach a powerful lesson.
One gathers that lots of people want to know how to do art, but the real way of art is simply to work. You want something. You try for it. You fail. You try again.
If I were to give one bit of advice it would be this: go about the business of art as a child plays at a game. Let’s say there’s a bucket over there and you have a pile of rocks. Throw the rocks at the bucket. How many make it in? That is the paradigm for success in drawing: how many rocks make their way into the bucket? And how many of the lines that you’ve drawn resemble the thing?
There is no short cut nor should you want one. The beauty of throwing rocks in a bucket is that you throw rocks in a bucket.
The end of the year is a time for reflection. As I pour over internet postings, I am astonished to notice that “representation” is no longer an oddity. When I was a youth, in contrast, it was axiomatic that picture-making was passé, “nobody” (one was told) “is doing that now.” There was an avant garde that did not include renderings of the visible world. And that was that. While it’s true that the art world was governed by a kind of anything goes, what it really meant was “anything but that.”
Anyone looking at art today easily sees that the old rule is gone. I am astonished how much figurative painting is unabashedly made now. And I blame the Internet. The “art world,” as has happened to so many other Establishments, has lots of competition now. While it was always true that private galleries sold representational art, probably sold more representational art than abstract art, yet in the old order all the prestige accrued to whatever ArtNews crowned. But that’s just not true anymore.
Well, it never really mattered anyway. If you loved whatever it was, you were inclined to do whatever it was. Lots of artists have persisted in my generation following their heart’s desire. All I say is that it’s good they did because “ding dong the witch is dead” and Dorothy’s got her slippers, the Wizard of Oz has taken off for parts unknown, and the midgets are singing their hearts out. And life goes on.
Before long, painting a simple vase of flowers is going to be the ne plus ultra. It’s just a matter of time.
Ah, and you will have known me when!
(As for koi, don’t get me started ….)
Today’s episode of scribbling catches me drawing the images on objects in the still life. A tin jar has a bird and floral motif on a dark field with all kinds of lines running through it. And I propped a greeting card against a vase: the card has flowers on a black background. I drew bits of each while having coffee this morning. They get sort of morphed together here in my scribble. Each scribble by itself is about the size of a postage stamp.
I like to have things in a still life that have pictures in them. And while I’m not working on a still life, it’s fun to just draw the stuff in little random bits — just to be looking at it.
All this is also a way of paying tribute to the anonymous artists who made the images on the stuff. How much gratitude one feels for the images that are everywhere around, made by innumerable “somebodies” out there to adorn the world.
I was going through one of my big boxes of stuff and found a little booklet called “Landscape Painting in Oils,” by Leonard Richmond published by Pittman Publishing in 1962. I was only seven years old in 1962 and not yet painting, so I’m guessing that I acquired the book (however I acquired it) somewhat later. Certainly by the time I was in high school I was attempting landscapes that had a bit of the feel of Richmond’s work — so, possibly he was among my “early influences”??
Be that as it may, everyone has had that experience of the sudden rush back through time. Whatever opens the door to the past brings with it a set of ineffably wonderful related memories. For a second, it was like being young again — like breathing the air of my childhood: Mom in the kitchen fixing supper, Dad with his head under the hood of a car in the back yard, and my cat somewhere nearby available for petting.
I had stored the book with the page open to the image above, thus I infer that it was something of a favorite at the time, much later on, when I packed the big box of stuff.
Richmond died in 1965. An internet site selling one of his posters describes him as “a British graphic artist and poster designer. He studied at the Taunton School of Art and the Chelsea School of Art.” He was born in 1889.
I have been busy the last few days, and I haven’t had much time for drawing. But while I talk to people on the phone, I can heedlessly draw in a little notebook. My eyes and fingers are not troubled by my preoccupation. Hardly caring how the lines fall, I draw as naturally as I would look at the things which I set up on the table for the still-life-in-progress that I haven’t time to do. I gaze, I draw. Scribbling lines wander around like ants at a picnic.
Mom and I talked about a half-hour this morning when she first woke. We talked and my absent-minded gaze produced pen lines without my full participation. And though I didn’t on this occasion, one could tell the other party “I’m looking at the blue compotier. The reflections are very fine! And the glass is so clear in this light.”
What fine light spreads over the earth daily from the nice star around which our planet revolves. I notice a peck of that light while I breathe the sweet air, drink my coffee and chat with Mom on the phone.
It is not exactly “art” in this case, just a bit of the time captured. And now in reflection I have not only the drawing to enjoy, but other pleasures added. Have you ever noticed the lovely sheen that comes off the pen from a ball point pen? And the color of my notebook’s paper is very golden in this night’s lamp-light. And the paper feels so smooth as your fingers pass over it.
These things are not “art” either, and yet drawing has such pleasures that far transcend even the great joys of art. I must tell Mom all about it tomorrow.
Have begun another still life with a vase, and between painting episodes, I sometimes draw to collect my thoughts in a more compact way. When you redraw something many times, sometimes you make corrections. But sometimes you draw it the same way again and again. This doing it the same way repeatedly, always arriving at consistent results, doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve got it “right.” Sometimes you get it “wrong” and with each repetition you get it perfectly “wrong” in the same exact ways, and this intriguing fact demonstrates that your mind constructs the scene a certain persistent way. One might say that in such a case the artist is not only drawing the subject “wrong” but seeing and perceiving it thoroughly “wrong” as well!
Get it “wrong” enough times and perhaps you stumble into some very deep self-knowledge …?
Now then, if for some unfathomable reason you cannot appreciate your inner errors, if you felt you truly must “correct” your mistakes, you’d need not merely to engage in further repetitions, you’d have to “correct” your very thoughts themselves (assuming a true correction can be discovered). One would need a means for conceiving the image in an entirely new way.
That could be so superfabulously wonderful — a form of invention that’s different from the invention of the “mistakes” — and I definitely counsel in favor of such plucky newness of perception. Personally I favor any form of going forward, whether its new mistakes, new versions of the old mistakes, or new versions of something that leads to getting it “right.” But whatever one does, it must be acknowledged that the repetitions themselves were a necessary part, for it was the repetitions — especially their stubborn consistency — that reveals that something was drawn “wrong” in the first place. It’s this having one path that suggests the possibility of other paths.
As to deciphering what is “right” — ah, that’s a whole other question for other meditations.
Walter Pach in his 1938 book Queer thing, Painting remembers the famous artists he met as a young man traveling in Europe. One of those artists was Henri Matisse. He has an insightful vignette of Matisse:
Matisse’s fundamental belief is that there is no such thing as essential change. Appearances change, men learn certain things (we were speaking of the early work of Cezanne as compared with his late painting), but the man is the same, and it is the man that counts. He showed me his first picture, a thing he did in the small town he came from, and at a time when he had never met an artist. A book had given him certain rules for composing still-life objects into a design, had told him what colors to buy, and the effects of their combination. His result was an “old fashioned” imitation of a bit of nature. The canvas remained at his home until after his father’s death, when it came to him with other household effects.
“Shall I tell you what I thought when I got that picture again, after thirty years without seeing it? Well, I felt a discouragement such as I have rarely known. It seemed as if I had not made one step of progress. Every quality I have ever obtained is in that canvas, at least in embryo. And when people speak of certain arts as primitive, they simply show their insensitiveness to the grand expression in such work; if they saw that, they would realize that the form and color were perfect in their relationship to the idea of the race….”
My drawing above, made with memories of Matisse, this drawing of my daughter when she was little, is so like other things I made in the deeper past, like things I made at my beginning. I have felt Matisse’s sadness too, when I realized that things I make now are so much like the way I began. Somehow I thought that learning would be utterly transformative. But to believe that your early works will not resemble your later work is like believing that your old face will not resemble your youth.
It is as though you looked at your face in a mirror and expected it, somehow, to be someone else’s face.
I thought about the column of air in front of the giardiniera jar and the blue bottle. If you found that position in the air that marks the forwardmost plane of what you’re seeing where would it be located? That’s one edge — there are three others. Inside that invisible box of air sits the giardiniera jar and the eight-sided blue bottle, sitting on the old plastic table cloth with yellow flowers and pale green leaves on a field of pale blue, and behind them the green plaid formica top of the old table that inhabited my grandmother’s old house. That pretty much cordons off the world of this little painting.