"To paint is to portray upon a flat surface any visible object whatsoever." That's Albrecht Durer's definition of art, and I try to make it mine as well. The whole world is rich and fascinating. I draw things in order to better understand them. It's a celebration of life. But the celebration is incomplete until it finds its audience. Maybe you are part of this audience I'm trying to reach.
I began two new paintings of the hills motif since the last debrief. The image above shows the second canvas in block-in, and a third version that’s underway is the most generalized of the group. More photos to come once the rain stops. Three neopastel drawings measuring about 23 x 29 provide the motif in each case. I liked the drawings enough to make each one the basis for a painting. These additional paintings switch the schedule around a bit. So the Hill & Shrubs canvas is still only in the first stage, and I began reworking the Mountain but am not finished with it.
I’ve been wondering what motifs to use in the next suite of drawings. Have been looking at Monet late works in search of ideas. Yesterday’s whimsical post on the UFO topic reminded me of Chang Dai-chien’s mountains, which I hadn’t thought about in years. So last night inspired by the memory, I began fooling around using the computer art program and created a few image ideas.
I have to do a long session of drawing before I can figure out an actual motif that I could use to create variations. Experimenting with images on the computer prompts ideas.
This morning I woke thinking about how easy it would be to apply the lighter yellow-white to the passage where the hill meets the sky (in the current painting). Doing all the obvious, easy things, step by step is how you move each project along. Eventually even the things that seemed hard will reveal their easy aspect. One decision moves you in the direction of other decisions, some of which will seem obvious and inevitable as the ideas congeal.
A documentary I was watching about Bonnard featured projections of his notebook drawings onto the wall of his studio.
I see the idea I’m looking for inside parts of things, as in the lower portion of the picture I already posted.
The Oriental spaciousness that Monet admired is there, most apparent when you crop the design into a scroll format. There’s another element that I find I want, but not sure how to characterize it in words as yet.
Large ribbed cliffside, growth of trees and shrubs at the bottom, suggestion of caves that St Jerome would have found congenial. Colors could change. A sort of acid, neon, copper, Flemish green in this version. Just thoughts now. Won’t matter until they become drawings. From drawings to painting.
Reminds me of sitting on the floor doing the large two part koi drawing. Sitting on the floor influenced the image considerably. It was not simply the only way I could manage the large sheets (at that particular time). It affected how the drawing proceeded because of the limits it imposed on what you could see while drawing.
I watch the Behavior Panel on Youtube each time they have a new episode. Today I watched their analysis of the body language of several government officials who address the question of UFOs. Because of my current preoccupations, however, this time upon seeing a now famous Navy footage of an unexplained flying object, the feature that caught my attention is not the UFO but the amazing structure of the cloud canopy. I realized how much it resembles certain Chinese ways of portraying mountains, and as some of you know I am currently in full mountain mode myself with my painting.
The UFO is nice too, but isn’t that cloud canopy interesting? When you go to the footage, you also notice something that Chase Hughes of the Behavior Panel explains in passing, that the figure-ground contrast changes on the infrared video depending upon whether “black is hot or white is hot.” So, in certain passages the tops of the clouds are dark, and that produces an unexpected effect.
I was primed to think about the cloud canopy as mountainous by my current artistic preoccupations. I’ve been looking for new mountain subjects, and whenever I light upon some by happenstance, bells start sounding in my brain. Last night I was watching the old “Jewel in the Crown” series and was struck by the beautiful mountain scenes in that movie, as here, in this cropped frame of one scene:
With the Indian mountain range already firmly planted in my subconscious, I was well primed to see mountains in the cloud canopy of Navy UFO film, so much so as really to bump the UFO mentally aside. UFO? What UFO? I’ve also been thinking a lot about how to invent mountain images and that’s a process that you find a lot in Asian art. So while the US intelligence agencies are perhaps wondering if UFO phenomena have anything to do with Chinese drone technology — me, I’m wondering about how Chinese artists past or present would have depicted those layers of clouds.
I make little doodles in the notebook thinking about the positioning of dark and light passages in a picture, striving to create authentic “randomness.” It’s a topic I ponder a lot these days because deliberation is my way. I try to be deliberate even in regard to accident.
If you’ve got some idiosyncratic ways that ideas pop into your head, leave a comment. And if you like this post, please share it with your friends, relatives and neighbors, with the intelligence agencies and with anyone else you know!
Thinking about using Fridays to debrief myself. I have been thinking a lot about productivity and how it’s managed. Usually what holds the artist back is not obstacles per se, but doubts. Sometimes situations can mess up your schedule, that would be my week this week — spending hours on the phone trying to straighten something out with no success at all so far. Before yesterday was over, though, I told myself I’m going to get some painting done. During the evening, as a consequence, I had one very productive session of painting. These days, at the very least I tell myself: “Just open the tube, put some paint on the canvas, pick a color, any color, put it anywhere.” That’s enough to prime the pump and get some real painting going.
In the past I have done small junk paintings, various “nothing is not right/anything goes” paintings for the purpose of learning. I’ve never done a big one. Always a bit more cautious about bigger things. One worries about wasting materials. But I know enough about subliminal painting now that I am much more able to throw caution to the wind. That’s actually part of the plan for the coming days: to create a few larger devil-may-care pictures.
Wu wei. Isn’t that what it is? That’s the Oriental name for a certain kind of not-trying, a complete nonchalance. The sprezzatura of Castiglione’s courtier. One wants to be a James Bond of art. Fearless, relaxed in danger, elegant. Yet to pull it off, you must be always finding ways to trick yourself. Turn off the hesitations, go directly into the perception. I am continually trying (and more often now succeeding) at just painting.
When I paint it should be similar to the way the dog wakes me in the morning. He’s polite but insistent. Sticks his nose in my face, looks me straight in the eye and informs me that it’s time to get up and feed the dog, please. I have to work on my drawing skills so I can portray that beguiling wild look. He has the most extraordinary keenness in his eye. And he makes sure we’re eyeball to eyeball. Insistent but polite.
Lately I’m making these small colored pencil drawings. No particular reason why colored pencil. Just a change from the oil pastel. Whenever my schedule permits I’m going to do some traditional pastel images, but it’s too complicated now. Just too much bother. The colored pencil drawings are fun. They’re small and manageable. Sometimes I do them while watching a program. They’re a great sort of automatic drawing. I don’t even have to pay attention very closely.
I’m developing a kind of musician’s fake book of images, tunes that I can revisit and use for improvisation. At some juncture I’d like to paint a large picture completely from memory and imagination. So that wouldn’t be so different in truth from what Diebenkorn did all the time. But we get to a destination by different routes. And it’s not as though I want to do that from now on forever — it’s just another thing to try. All my previous work habits still suit me just fine.
The drawings are already interpretations, usually from photographic sources, though not always. Drawing from a drawing or painting from a drawing creates an interpretation of an interpretation. It becomes imaginative drawing, making things up as you go along — or at least a path toward that direction.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the format as a Cartesian space, one where you could theoretically put any shape anywhere. You try “this spot” — what’s that look like when things are organized around “this.” What about if you change that first notation in the succeeding little drawing: I want to learn at some point how to do a painting from one of those little blue ball point pen scribbles that I enjoy making so much. Monet did a loose representation of one of the waterlilies in a notebook. Loose sinuous lines suspended across the page, the sparest silvery graphite traces.
I’m very eager to produce a lot of the largish landscapes, rather as quickly as I can. I want to see what effect the speed of production produces also. Sometimes if you work quickly enough, you don’t have time to think. That too is a way of tricking oneself into intuition. I also like the physicality of it: it’s like mowing the lawn or washing a big stack of dishes. You can look back afterwards and see the clear effect, the job accomplished.
The picture at the top is there to remind me of the destinations — pictures in rooms, rooms as mental and emotional spaces, moving through rooms of a house as though through passages in a dream. Quotidian topography. The shape of moods, times, and moments. Bonnard notebook drawings as rooms, thoughts about rooms. Your smallest notebook jottings can produce a grand effect. The singularity before the big bang. Never underestimate the little notebook jotting.
The disruptions of the week were unfortunate, but c’est la vie. The three pictures in the studio now are the focus. Retrieve that focus by deciding now what each one needs.
The hills motif is the most free for all. Complicate the color effect in whatever ways seem interesting in the moment. You can get the linear aspects from the source drawing or leave them out.
The hills, shrubs, trees & reflections picture can remain basic. Stick to the pristine version. The looser more drawn version can save for another time.
The mountain picture shifts back toward the drawing. Draw over the painting thus far to get the lines back using bits of both linear source drawings.
Start the California scene from the two small darker painted versions. Also a good motif for the next sequence of colored pencil/Miss Marple drawings. (Or whatever you’re watching next.) Getting the image blocked in will make up for the vast waste of time encountered from this week’s mindless bureaucratic distractions.
Finish the three canvases by next Friday. God willing.
If you’re reading this and you’re not me, I hope you’ve enjoyed hearing me talk to myself. Do wish me luck getting the three canvases completed by Friday for this week has been in some ways a productivity disaster — except for the marvelous background sound of red-eyed cicada song. Certainly the bugs have done their utmost to serve as artistic muses.
A friend of mine who’s in the cookbook business once told me that a general standard for deciding if a recipe is “new” is that it departs from another published recipe in at least three ways. Nature manages to get diversity from a lot less. According to one often repeated rubric, we share >99% of our DNA with our nearest ancestors on the evolutionary tree. (To find out how much you’re like a banana, click here –> Do People and Bananas Really Share 50 Percent of the Same DNA? | HowStuffWorks.)
Once I created a whole series of images based on someone else’s artwork. I liked the other artist’s composition a lot, but none of the rest of the picture appealed to me. So I took the abstract composition and overlaid it with entirely new material. When I was done, I am quite certain that even the author of the artwork would not recognize his picture’s offspring. The drawing at the top of the post is one sketch from that very fecund idea.
Ideas come from somewhere, and human beings are imitative creatures. Think of children and their make believe. When we send our kids to school, they act out all the family secrets. It can be amusing. In art one of the best ways to learn — from foundation skills to complicated master skills — is to imitate the work of someone else who has already been there. Sometimes imitation can lead to sameness, but imitation also plays a huge role in innovation. It all depends upon how imitation is managed.
The drawing above is a copy after a Pierre Bonnard painting in the National Gallery of Art. Being in a different medium and having lots of other novel visual features, it looks significantly different from the original. But if you know Bonnard’s work, you can recognize the subject. The drawing below is a partial copy of a portion of a living artist’s work, and it looks so different that I feel quite sure I could show it to the other artist and he would never recognize his idea inside this drawing.
I like to steal things. I’m a regular magpie. But I also like innovation and am always trying to find ways to create challenges for myself simply because it’s fun. I don’t like to do the same thing too much. Or, actually, that’s not quite true either since I took Degas’s advice very much to heart “you must redo the same thing ten times, a hundred times.” I love drawing and redrawing the same things. But I have found that you can redo the same subject and also change it. Both things are possible.
These days I do a lot of drawing from life, and I do a lot of stealing. When I steal, I consciously ask myself “how I can change the image?” since that disguise is where I discover the thrill of the theft. Can I isolate the elements of the image that I love best from other features that are identifying? How this challenge is managed varies from project to project, but here’s a few parameters to consider.
Change the color. The above drawing is a detail from a Monet waterlily painting, but where Monet had painted blues and greens, I drew in reds and oranges. I also changed the format. The book illustration I was looking at was vertical, I drew that vertical image in a horizontal format and began unconsciously stretching things to the sides. This sort of format change doesn’t work with all subjects, of course, but it often works well with landscape features (geology being what it is).
I also changed media. What Monet did with paint has to be thought through very differently when using colored pencils. The media themselves impose various limitations and aids. So far I’ve already hit the cookbook rubric. There are many other things one can change.
You can reverse an image. Crop an image. Crop and invent around the cropped feature. You can add elements or subtract elements (as Rubens did in a famous little drawing at the National Gallery of Art). You can change media. You can change the tonality. You can change the size and scale. These are rhetorical relationships, and looking at the tropes and schemes of rhetoric you may well find other ways that you can make jazz variations of existing visual tunes.
Across time through family resemblances you find out who your visual ancestors are. (Sometimes as with real ancestors, there are surprises.) The above drawing is taken from Constable, but run through some Degas, Bonnard and Diebenkorn (and others, including of course me) along the way. You assimilate skills by emulating the skills of other artists. Regina Carter said that early in her jazz career she learned by ear to play all the major solos of Charlie Parker on her violin. And through a careful sort of stealing you recombine the visual DNA and invent entirely new imagery.
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When I log into my computer, MSN’s landing page appears, and I’m immediately informed about whatever MSN thinks is important in life, which invariably is either politics, crime, or disaster. Disasters vary, but politics is exceedingly predictable. Whatever MSN wants me to think regarding politics is reliably identical to whatever they wanted me to think yesterday — so much so that one can “predict” the “news.”
I was wondering about ways to subvert that morning filter. The idea popped into my head that perhaps I could just make a list of “things to think about,” pleasant things that I might adopt like cognitive trampolines to hop from “whatever I’m supposed to think about today” to something I’d prefer to think about this morning. So, let’s say I decided that for morning I’d think about flowers. Whenever computer surfing seems aimed on getting me to fall into the propaganda filter, I would hop onto a flower instead — rather like a bug. Flowers are a good topic for me. I love drawing them. They feature prominently in my art. The thing would not be to hypnotize myself into only thinking about flowers — though nothing wrong with that — but more just a way of distracting myself from the recipe that is “supposed” to construct my thoughts.
The point is more about CATEGORIES. If one were to make a list of OBJECTS OF THOUGHT, rather like a STILL LIFE of words and ideas, what sorts of things would you choose for yourself? Reading around a bit in Buddhism I’ve lately come into acquaintance with the notion of clearing one’s mind. That seems like an interesting phenomenon too, but tricky to manage. So if you cannot clear away the cobwebs, what about merely choosing the categories for yourself? If one’s mind were presented with a buffet table of interesting items — an organon, a taxonomy — that you prepare for yourself — what items would be there?
Okay. Maybe one is not Aristotle and you don’t want the bother of inventing the system from scratch — rather like someone who isn’t much of a cook and needs the help of various things that come readymade in boxes — but still you go shopping and you select the span of things.
If you select things to think about — even by merely pointing and choosing — you’re mapping out territories in your mind. And what if, moreover, you say to youself, “I’d like to think about something a bit different today,” you have to go looking. You have to FIND new territory. What might that consist of? How do you search out new objects of contemplation? One wants a dictionary. Nature’s dictionary perhaps.
They might be things with names. They might be percepts that lack names. It doesn’t matter. They might be words, in a writerly way of being. They might be sights or sounds … or tastes or aromas, actions, distant memories, reconfigured bits of the past. For some people it might be math — not for me, alas.
Leaves, clouds, shadows, contours, hatchings, buzzing cicada song. Maybe I will contemplate the folds in a cloth and whatever they have to tell me about gravity and light. Maybe a doll in a fancy dress.
Maybe I will think about large amorphous landscapes of places I’ve never been except in dreams or drawings, vivid places composed of the colors I like, dramatic scenes bright with light that would be breezy and clear if I walked there.
Or maybe I’ll think about creamers and tabletops and past conversations and tea times with old friends. Creamers rendered into bright blue lines that curve or intersect in ragged ways. Creamers decorated with flowers.
If you were creating your own taxonomy of thought and feeling, how would you find the categories? How set that table of contemplation? If your mind wants filters, why not choose the filters yourself? The act of choosing is expansive — it enlarges experience, one choice prompts another.
Set that table with the items that suit you, that put you mentally where you want to be.
And if you like this post please SHARE it — particularly so that others might go hunting for items, that they might consider creating their mental schemata to compete rigorously — possibly triumphantly — against the massive social hypnosis that pop culture offers tediously and daily.
The earth has a slow process for creating mountains. My process is relatively slow too, but not as slow as Mother Nature’s process. The mountains I make on the canvas seem to emerge slowly, however I can happily report that so far none of them takes millions of years. That’s good news since I’m not convinced my patience would ever stretch to accommodate that timespan.
My mountains emerge across weeks of time. They begin usually as images I find and manipulate in photographic form, which afterwards get translated into a variety of drawings, and from the drawings at last a painting begins. The acrylic painting above measures 30 x 40 inches and began as quite a small drawing in color pencils (below). My mountain’s got a little tweaking still, but that’s all and it will be ready for installation.
How about you? How’s your patience managing? Does your patience keep pace with the demands made of it?
What is the quality I seek in mountain images? What features? Mass. Weight. Largeness. Diffusions of light. Rolling forms. Linear patterns, lines that snake through the whole scene. Sensation of near and far. I am guessing. I am not altogether sure what the appeal is for me.
I don’t live near any mountains. I get source pictures for mountains from internet photos or books. More and more, I begin to make them up. Or I alter a photo source until my picture looks increasingly unlike its original. I ask myself if it’s real mountains I want or pretend ones.
Mountains have time in them. They’re old. Even “young” mountains are old (to us). Mountains suggest permanence. Jesus compared faith to moving mountains. In every religious tradition the mountain top is the place of visions.
Artistically, the forms are closely related to drapery. The old masters with their drapery studies might have been inventing mountain ranges. Gravity is the key in both instances — and light.
You can, like Albrecht Durer, punch a pillow and create some mountain ranges to draw. Or like Richard Dreyfuss’s character in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, you can make mountains from your mashed potatoes. They are closer than you realize.
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