new year’s resolutions

monet 1
Claude Monet – Haystacks

January is a natural time for making plans.  A whole year’s calendar sits there all open and full of possibility.  I’ve been reading a lot about goal setting during the last year and so my “new year’s resolution” this year is to be more consistently resolved!  I have always enjoyed making plans but I never realized that there’s a real art to planning itself.

I’ve been reading books by Brian Tracy, the best of which, in my opinion, are “Maximum Achievement,” “Goals!” and “Eat that Frog.”  And I just read Tony Robbins’ book “Awaken the Giant Within” which is full of wisdom.  Some of his stories are a little dated now, but the ideas are pristine.

The first element of goal setting is self-examination.  I’ve been thinking a lot about what I want from art at this phase of my life.  I look back at some of my earliest heroes, artists like Claude Monet (above).  I want to figure out how to emulate my heroes.  So, for instance, I’d like to master large landscape painting.

As the goal books will tell you, big plans need to be parsed into smaller, doable, trackable chunks.  For that reason I’m doing a gazillion small landscape paintings, and I’m approaching them in many different ways.  I’m using acrylic paint because it dries quickly but I know that much of what I learn from free-wheeling acrylic painting can be translated into oil also.  And I’m going to translate it.

There are many other facets to my particular plans and I won’t bore readers with the details.  Each person has different goals and every project needs to be thought through in its individual paths.

I just want to share some of my enthusiasm for the beginning of another year.  It’s a blank canvas.  It is full of possibility.  You have many choices about how to paint your year.  And I encourage you to embark on the new year with joy.

So, eat that frog!  You can even paint that frog.  If you’re an artist, you can have your frog and paint your frog and eat it too!

(You’ll have to read Brian Tracy’s brilliant book, though, if you want to get the joke!)

frog detail 3

Tree Cartoon, the School of Fish

Every once in a while here, I post a collage or a “cartoon.”  This cartoon (large compositional study for a painting) belongs to the Big Tree idea that I posted in mid-June.

Other collages I’ve posted include this abstract image, this idea for a child’s mural, and this study of a detail of a painting.  It’s fun to organize them so that they can be compared.  I’ve never seen them together except here on line.

For almost every subject I undertake, I do studies.  Some of these studies take the form of collage. Collage is such a free and expressive media.  You can organize large areas of a picture in one swoop.

I like to explore the possibilities and details of the images I design.  Often these studies vary enough from the original to suggest new projects.  This particular collage was supposed to help me figure out the tree idea, but became more about the fish.  It takes on a new interest for me now as I embark on a new round of paintings of fish swimming.  Meanwhile the fish in this collage have found themselves quite a nice little pond where they bob up and down like corks.

[Top of the post: Cartoon for the painting “Big Tree,” by Aletha Kuschan, Xeroxed pictures glued to paper with crayon drawing]

Dream Fishing

When artists go fishing, it’s a little different sort of thing than when most people fish.  I’ve begun a series of koi paintings that occupy most my time.   Of course, the fish in the drawing are obviously not koi.  They are just fish.  They’re friends.   My generic fish that swim in the notebook in search of a fine blue stream.   They are rambling fish of imagination and dreams.  They come to cheer me on in my larger project that I’m just now beginning.Come visit my store on CafePress!

[Top of the post:  Swift Swimming Fish of Dreams, by Aletha Kuschan, drawing in a notebook]

Bonnard’s Marthe

In an earlier post, I wrote about making a copy of an orange jug from a Bonnard still life.  At that same Bonnard exhibit, I also made this small sketch/copy of Bonnard’s Nude in the Bath and Small Dog (Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh).  I was amazed by the color in the actual painting, which was quite different from what I found in books on Bonnard.  The lightness of the palette is had to describe, particularly as projected into the scale of a work as large as this painting, which measures 49 x 59 1/2 inches.  I tried to condense the essence of all that into my small notebook.

[Top of the post:  Notebook drawing after Bonnard’s Marthe in the Tub by Aletha Kuschan]

Magisterial Me

One might ask, “if you combined Richard Diebenkorn with J.A.D. Ingres, what would you get?”  My answer was — this.  Well, actually there’s a few more items in this stew.  Roman fresco imagery, as for example the image that Ingres referred to in designing Mme Moitessier (see previous post) as well as some branches pruned from the Garden of Livia at Primaporta and transplanted here (that I wrote about in a post called Heirloom Apples).  Actually, I guess that’s closer to gardening than cooking.  Of course, I’d like to think I contributed something here, too.  Me as chief cook and bottle washer, gardener and all around person.

I painted this rather large picture over top of another image, one that was originally destined for a large commission.  And it’s also got a painting on the verso … so whoever buys it will get a strange two-fer.  I think I’ve basically invented a new thing: the monumental, reversible painting.

[Top of the post:  Woman in White, by Aletha Kuschan, approx 80 x 80 inches, acrylic on canvas]

Getting Squared Away

Squaring up: the technique of copying that uses a grid.  Comparing the squares of the source image to the drawing underway helps an artist draw the relationships between visual elements correctly.  It’s especially useful when an image needs to be enlarged. 

And that’s why I used it.  I was painting this bridge into a large portrait and needed to get the architectural structure right.  I made this little version from a photo, then enlarged this image by making a similar grid on the canvas I was painting.  So it had this very practical purpose.

Still I think the gridded drawing has a unique charm of its own.  It turns each square into an abstraction and heightens the abstraction of the image as a whole.  The order that it imposes is also comforting somehow.  Having these grid lines here, I feel confident that this little bridge isn’t going anywhere.  It’s locked down on the page. 

[Top of the post:  Little Bridge by Aletha Kuschan, colored pencils]

Feeling Arboreal (finding the inner tree)

If anyone recognizes what this is:  congratulations!  You might have a fine career ahead of you in psychology!

I made this drawing to obsessively reinterate an idea I’ve been working on — relative to a large mural sized painting whose subject I’m frankly at a loss to explain.  However, I’ve been around the art block enough times now to trust my instincts and to believe that a picture, whose meaning is baffling even to me, its author, may well hold ideas that can matter to the larger audience of my fellow human beings, 3 billion or so of my closest friends. (You gotta think big.)

It’s a tree.  I don’t know why I feel compelled to portray it this way, rather than to make it more conventionally tree-like.  But there it is.  And let me tell you, your subconscious mind is a fabulous, truly wonderful and remarkable thing!  I have stalled on this idea for well over a year, working on other things, and forgeting about this picture. 

However, last night as I was driving, I turned a corner and saw a large tractor trailer stopped at a light perpendicular to me at a street onto which I was making a right turn.  In the general darkness, as I turned, I noted the enormous shadow of a tree cast onto the side of the trailer.  Imagine that huge flat surface being like a canvas, here was the image I’ve wanted to portray in ridiculously large scale, here it was on the side of this truck as on a great, crazy moving canvas!  Sometimes you feel as though the great loving God and nature and your own mind are all meeting at the same intersection.   It’s a great shot in the arm, let me tell you!

Comments, explanations, psycho-analysis are all welcome.

[Top of the post:  the author’s small compositional drawing for a very large enigmatic painting.  By Aletha Kuschan]

Beginner’s Luck

Certain kinds of beauty come when the artist is a raw beginner.  I’ve pulled out old drawings and appreciate anew the memories they evoke.  I wish I had drawn more.  Would that I had drawn tirelessly.  Lack of confidence trips up too many young artists.  But the drawings I made when I  knew comparatively nothing have a raw, innocent candour.  And now I find I reseek the beginner’s mind.

I began drawing some years ago using my left hand (I’m right handed).  I wanted to get the awkwardness back, wanted it to slow me down and trip me up, and make me think harder about where my hand’s lines would go.  I have loved the wavy line that is the consequence.  The two kinds of drawings, right and left, seem to have slightly different personalities.  It’s like finding your alter ego.  There you are, long lost twin!

Do not have preconceived ideas about what drawing should be or how it should look.  Sometimes be an explorer of the uncharted world. 

You are living your life for the first time.  It’s all new.  Even when one is old, one has never been old before. 

[Top of the post:  the author’s high school drypoint of her Momma, scratched on plexiglass plate, based on a photograph from the 1940s.  Aletha Kuschan]

To Mike

          I’m glad my comments were helpful.  Commenting on your drawings helps me as well, since it prompts me to consider how and why I draw.  I guess I want to teach drawing.  I’ve thought about it certainly, but I cannot do so in a traditional studio setting for various logistical reasons, my schedule, family obligations and so on.  But through writing, perhaps I can find an outlet for teaching the ideas that I wish to share. I see drawing as being a wonderful tool for observing life, and through observing things I also see a path to knowledge about life, even to wisdom. 
How perfectly lovely to have a wife who encourages you. Listen to your wife.  (I’ve already written about marriage here, so isn’t that apropos?)  Her advice to keep your drawings, heed it well.  Okay, maybe not every single scrap.  But certainly the ones she tells you to keep!

I know the feeling of being dissatisfied, but you can learn a lot from past drawings.  People think “yes, I’ll learn to recognize my mistakes.”  That’s not what I mean.  If the drawings bother you, stick them in a drawer and get some distance from them.  Later after you gain skill, you’ll gain confidence and then the drawings may prove helpful.  I had ideas from my earliest inkling that I wanted to be an artist — a beautiful shifting mirage of things I saw that held great meaning for me.  I tried to draw them, but lacked the skill.  I was dissatified with those drawings, but I kept them anyway.  Looking back at old drawings now, ah, how  revealing!  To find ideas that I had forgotten — oh, some of them good ideas!  I have the skills now to pursue these thoughts, and because I kept the drawings, I have the reminders of these perceptions, these appearances, that I once wanted to do.

At the time of their making, you may not have recognized that these things you sought even were ideas.  Time of itself provides a means of observing life.  Seeing events through the perspective of time, we see differently than when events are actually taking place.  Time is not just a theme for the novelist.  It has meaning in the visual arts too. 

Well, anyway, you want to spend some of your regular working hours — your art hours — drawing from life.  Even though it’s far more difficult than copying, drawing from life is incomparable because in this direct perception of things, you have no intermediary.  You copy drawings to learn different ways of thinking visually, and you draw from life to learn to carve your own path. 

 
I liken it to target shooting.  You aim your pencil, point and shoot.  Sometimes you miss.  You try again.  But it involves you in a very precise way of thinking and also a personal one.  If you draw what you notice then the drawing becomes a map of your attention and perception.  And that can be really marvelous, and again also provides reasons for keeping the old things — because you may lack the skill to record all that you notice, but even the imperfect attempt gets at parts of it — so, you see, by keeping old drawings you get to bump into your past self.  Another form of time travel.
 
Getting a job as an artist — that is very tricky, I won’t kid you. If you get one, put in a word for me too!  How good are you at self-promotion?  If you’re a strong self-promoter you might find employment as an artist before you’re really “ready” in which case you can (hurray!) learn on the job.  Being unsatisfied with what you do, of course, makes self-promotion complicated.  So, some employment related soul searching is wise.
 
As a hobby, art is a fabulous thing.  Winston Churchill painted to relax so you’d be among quite dignified good company. Perhaps you cannot be an artist full time, but have you considered becoming prime minister?  As to formal training, I was in lots of classes in my youth, but honestly everything I know about art I learned by trial and error and by very careful study of old masters’ pictures. The best art is personal, and the lessons that really count come from inside your head.
 
Well, I’m glad to be able to give advice and especially where your wife’s concerned.  Listen to her.  A man always does well to heed his wife’s wise counsels.  Don’t be “super” critical, just self-critical enough to move forward.  Let your love of drawing guide you.  Love is a good teacher.

[Top of the post:  Winston Churchill painting in 1946.]

Time Travel

If you copy something in order to learn to draw, it’s best to copy something by a great artist, for the great artist has more ideas and better ones than a lesser artist.  So you’ll learn more.  We tend to think that visual materials render transparent representations of things, as though the artist just presents what is there.  But it is, in fact, visual ideas that the artist creates.  They are ideas about appearances and of course they vary tremendously from artist to artist and from culture to culture.  Edgas Degas expressed it well in saying that “drawing is not form, but a way of seeing form.”

Copying a drawing is like doing a brief apprenticeship with its author.  He tells you what he noticed and what he ignored.  What he noticed is the drawing itself.  What he ignored you have to figure out for yourself by comparing his drawing with life.  Engaging in a conversation of this sort means being able to choose your teacher from any artist that ever lived — so long as you have access to his or her images!

I copied Matisse’s 1901 painting La Coiffure in a sketch book while visiting the National Gallery of Art.  It’s not the first time I’ve done so.  One earlier occasion I was visiting the gallery, plodding along a bit sleep deprived from a late night the night previous.  Sitting before Matisse’s picture I just relaxed and gazed admiringly at it.  The afternoon was growing late. I had to go.  But some impulse prompted me to make a fast drawing — just 5 minutes, I told myself.  So I began to draw with a pencil in a little notebook.  And then — amazing thing — it was as though someone were shining a flashlight beam at the painting upon each contour where I drew.  As I copied the line, my brain lit up that part of the painting. 

I was perfectly sober.  I’m a tea loving, tea totaler.  Sleep deprivation can have its own intoxicating effects.  But I want to give some credit to the pencil and my hurry, also.  And to Matisse, of course.  And to an over-worked, but grateful imagination.

[Top of the post:  Copy after Matisse by Aletha Kuschan, crayon on paper]