what drawing is

little lattice drawingDrawing is abstract. Drawing is the idea visible.  Drawing is artifice.

I drew in a little notebook some of the time while we listened to Musicians from Marlboro last night at the Library of Congress.

I was remembering a once and future painting of a fish who swims in a dream, of a lattice that surrounds ideas, of a bird that sings at night and of roses blooming.

looking back, thinking ahead

Dark and light, night and day

— elemental themes appeal to me.  They beckon like dreams. I do a lot of traditional kinds of pictures — and I love the discipline of tightly focused imagery like a vase of flowers — very basic — takes you to the foundations of seeing — it is to pictorial art what the sonnet is to poetry.  But I also venture periodically into stream-of-consciousness kinds of imagery.

Sometimes I hear that call again. I am not sure what sort of thing I’ve a yen for just now, but winter’s long nights and cold clear days are great for firing up the imagination.

Not knowing what’s next, I’m watchful for ideas.  In just such moods I find that ideas arrive.  Someone told me once that I needed to pick a theme and create a consistent portfolio, and I am NEVER — DOING  — THAT.  I follow the river current of thought because I know from experience that it leads to good places.

You go off in some tangent, but later you find that the wild explorations allow you to bring back knowledge — knowledge of a sort that you can apply again even to the traditional things — to even the simple vase of flowers.

Everything you learn enriches everything that you know already. So be bold, be daring.

Spontaneity verses Deliberation


It’s gawky and somewhat incoherent, and it’s one of my favorite paintings. I painted it years ago.  I had set the blue and white, China creamer on the steps in front of the house, filled it with clover flowers from the yard, and painted it quickly in raking light.  It was an impulsive thing to do and involved painting skills I did not possess. (There’s no interior differentiation of light in the shadow, for instance, little sense of space or dimension.)  I worked quickly, put in everything I knew how to put there and stopped painting when I ran out of ideas.  (No doubt the light had changed dramatically as well.)

I wouldn’t change anything about it.  I wouldn’t sell it either.  And since I doubt that people will ever be clamoring to buy it, the not selling isn’t really an especially remarkable gesture.

Bonnard three women
Bonnard, unfinished painting


I note that artists are often asking if they should continue working on something or whether they should leave it alone.  And on the whole, I have to say, that if you’re asking the question you should keep working.  The very fact that you’re asking the question demonstrates that you’re aware of defects in the work that you don’t know how to fix (or are reluctant to fix) but you’re seeking a kind of societal absolution from having to go forward.  Isn’t it good enough as it is?

It’s true that there’s a kind of beauty that is spontaneous even when unfinished — or especially because of its being unfinished — something that is poetically evocative because it leaves much to the imagination.  However, if you are always hoping to get lucky with happy accidents you never really learn the deliberate skills that can bring something to refinement.

One way of learning skill and to compensate for the disappointment that’s intrinsic to this problem is to redo the same thing several times. Essentially, you take Degas’s advice. When the fear consists in worrying that you’ll screw the picture up, then simply make several of them and spread the risk around among them.  One of them ought to turn out decent enough.

You practice the riff just as a musician practices music.  You don’t have to do it exactly the same way each time.  It can be a theme and variations like Monet haystacks.  But the point is that you set yourself a goal and then strive to meet it, rather than setting yourself no goal and hoping that somehow you’ll accidentally fall into a successful painting.  As with other things in life, if you have no goal (none, at all) how will you know if you have succeeded?  And even if you don’t know what you want, you do at least know of artists whose work you admire, who set some kind of standard into your mind of what good art looks like. You can emulate something even if your own goals are hazy. These exemplars might be as varied as Matisse or Andrew Wyeth, but you do have goals. The question is can you dare to seek your real goals?

If the real goals are too hard, you have to break them down into some sort of constituent parts.  Maybe you work on drawing one day, on color some other occasion –on composition, on tonality, or texture, or proportion — or whatever — whenever.  You can proceed in baby steps.

That said, I don’t know what goals I had when I painted the still life above.  I’m not sure I did have any that were specific, that I could articulate, nor even ones that I could locate in the works of artists I admire. In that instance I ran out of time and happened afterwards to feel a mother’s love for my imperfect off-spring.  But in other works, I set myself goals (they are somewhat shadowy but they still exist).  The goals do not inhibit spontaneity.  Quite the contrary they make it possible. And I work very deliberately toward accurate drawing, deliberate color effects, and I often find that a path toward invention opens up precisely because I am reaching for something high.

A variety among the works of the Old Masters, an unfinished painting: Jan van Eyck’s Saint Barbara.


Art is expression but it can be discipline too.  I’m not talking about the (to my thinking) empty discipline of the punitive plaster cast school of art — the one that says that you have to do a hundred pictures of noses from plaster casts before you can dare to portray even a turnip from nature.  I’m not talking about the false discipline of someone who sets artificial obstacles in his own path so that he can afterwards declaim about how many hours he spent perfecting a dry looking painting.

Instead I’m trying to evoke a living kind of discipline, one established in longing, the sort of situation in which you find that you love something very much, enough to strive to get it right.

monet 1monet 4monet 3

monet 2
How many haystacks did Monet paint, anyway?


So these two ideals can sit comfortably side by side.  There are times when the first few strokes catch the thing in a way that painting further would only ruin.  And there are also kinds of achievement that only arise from persistent work, which will never be got on the cheap.  It’s good to leave yourself open to both options: to be willing to work hard and to be ready to recognize the (rare) instance of inspiration when the thing seems to paint itself.  And you have to be honest enough with yourself to admit that there’s a huge world of difference between these two kinds of art.

blue compotier
Study of the blue compotier. It never got any farther than this.

I don’t know how many times I’ve drawn the blue compotier, but I love drawing it and it’s blue corridors hypnotize me every time I look at it anew.

first things

But what approach to teaching is most likely

101_8725 (2)to help people learn to draw accurately?  I’m thinking that I should adopt some of the strategies that I know contribute to realism. These are truly things that I sensed myself from looking at paintings. I didn’t learn theses ideas in a class or from a book, though I sometimes encountered similar ideas in those places too — which is perfectly logical since true ideas will occur to independent observers simply because they are true.

Think about that next time you’re trying to figure something out.  You’ve got your own logic machine sitting there on top of your neck.

There were always things that I did — for instance I knew that you have to sort out the large forms first. I put local color down as simplicity first (if it looks like green, use green, then adjust).  I knew that some things can be accessed as contour and some things are only with great difficulty understood through line. I find that tonality and masses are the easiest way to quickly summarize a scene.

I want to reconsider these ideas. I’d like the force of the ideas to be able to impress itself upon me anew — as though I were noticing something for the first time. For it’s not obvious that the large forms are anything specific.  Actually the large form is an idea within an idea. Yes, the large form is the thing to be sorted out first because the large form will take up most of the page (or the canvas), but of what does “the large form” consist? That’s the other reason why it comes first, because one is figuring out what “it” is. That choice can be pliable, can be different things visually at different times. Perceptually it’s “what you notice now.”  Deciding that “this” is the large form verses “that” makes all the difference in the world as to how the painting will proceed.

Things in a painting are not identical to things in life. Things in a painting are what we see. They are percepts.

A painting is not identical to its subject matter.  A painting is an idea about the subject matter, a way of thinking about it, seeing it. Emotions might be present also, but they aren’t part of “the painting” until they have a shape.  So that shape is the thing. Any subject might be conceptualized many different ways. The same motif can be rethought many times. That’s why I’ve been able to repaint the same things again and again and have them turn out differently over successive efforts.

It goes back to the original meaning of abstraction in art. It’s difficult to illustrate “the big idea” at the start of any picture. The illustration above is random, from the grab bag of things.

The notion about “mistakes” — whenever art teachers are relentlessly concerned with avoiding mistakes — alleging that the differences between what you want and what you got occur because you didn’t get it right — they imply that you should know what you want before you see it. (Obviously it’s often true that a mistake is a mistake.) But invention isn’t about “getting it right.” Not in that sense. It’s about making an image that has — when all is said and done — certain qualities that hold it together and make it into something that’s like a world unto itself.

Well, here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten me into.  I think that’s a good analogy for art (minus the slapstick and the potential for injury).  One is looking for a fine mess and a way of getting into it.

Foliage abstraction

For today’s morning coffee drawing I looked out the window and drew the dense confusing foliage of a beautiful, but enigmatic tree.  When presented with something like the dense confusion of masses of leaves, you do well to simply let yourself go.  I let the pen trace the edges of what I thought I saw.  I wasn’t concerned about its ever looking like a tree.  Honestly it doesn’t really “look like a tree” even in real life.  It’s simply a wall of green.

Of course I know it’s a little wood out there so it doesn’t need to “look” like mine or anyone else’s idea of a tree among trees.  However in drawing one sometimes wants the stuff to “look like” what it is.  Were I too insistent upon that goal in this instance, I suppose I would just never draw this wood because it IS a confusing mass of leaves.  Period.  That is the reality.  There is no beautifully differentiated sense of lovely trees hanging out with other trees.  If you were a bird zooming down looking for a branch to light upon, you’d better have terrific navigating skills.  Cause it’s a jungle out there.

So sometimes in drawing you let yourself enter the jungle of lines.  You just wander around scratching at this and that.  Watch the light pour over things and pretend you’re taking a photon’s journey.  This didn’t need to be anything more than a meditation upon tangled green confusion.

And that’s what it is.  Oh, and the coffee was great.

Your own personal Rorschach test

If you want to know the inner contents of your mind, rather than looking at somebody else’s butterfly ink-stain pictures, make some of your own — then look into the in-between details.  There in the indefinable whatever of your heedless marks — those that you made while your mind was all fixed upon some idea — those that look so crisp and abstract when removed from their context — that’s where you look.

And if you want to peer even deeper, stack a bunch of those randomized details one on top of the other, as I’m doing here.  You can find the inner corridors of your brain and you can take a little walk around in there.

Wow, it’s dark in here.  Anybody got a flashlight?

What you’re supposed to do with this deep psychological information is anybody’s guess.  But I know where you can look to find it.  It’s there in the hidden whatcha-ma-call-it moments of the picture.  Your own Rorschach upon which you can endlessly Dr Freud-analyze yourself!

And it’s so deep.  


Notwithstanding innumerable art appreciation classes offered round the world, people still don’t understand abstraction in art.  The public doesn’t understand because they were never supposed to understand. And certain artists don’t understand because they first encounter the word through the mediation of the schoolhouse.

The idea of the abstract was from its outset an obfuscation. Every artist who ever tried to draw something either faces or struggles against the ways that the materials possess their own qualities.  So while abstraction as an idea might seem confusing, its reality is quite commonplace.  The marks you draw are at first just marks.  You begin with a blank canvas, and every line, color or tone that you place on the canvas that does not instantly present the motif in a mimetic way is “abstract.”  The most descriptive marks are also abstract too, but we’re less apt to notice.  The fact is that we see nature entire and each effort (of whatever sort) to separate out qualities is de facto an abstraction.  

But abstraction as a deliberate confusion of seeing came into vogue and persists as things do — just because.  Sometimes it can be marvelously used but it has become a convention now.  Its root taps deep down into Nature, but fads do not trend the way a thing winds into the mind’s labyrinth as a touchstone of perception and dreams.  No, the fad becomes a path disappearing into thickets.

The interior of thought

You can break down the process of drawing something into components for the purpose of learning.  Many of these elements of drawing are well known even to non-artists: composition, light and shade, proportion, perspective, free-hand drawing.  Of this latter, I have long wondered in a wry way what its opposite might be, though I must acknowledge it’s a wonderfully expressive term:  free-hand, as though to marvel at the degree of control and daring that one sometimes finds in drawing. 

The well known terms can be broken further down into even more expressive nuances.  For artists, one might list things like contour drawing, cross-contours, blind contour, gesture drawing, drawings that can be corrected through erasure (pencil, chalk, etc.) and drawings that cannot be corrected (pen).  For tonality, one notes that there are many ways to create the appearance of light and dark:  hatching, cross-hatching, stippling, continuous tone, curved hatching, smudging. 

For proportion, one studies accurate, “realistic” proportion in various ways, sometimes by the use of devices such as a perspective frame, or by measuring with the hand or another kind of sighting tool or by training one’s own internalized sense of measure (again another variation on that marvelous free-hand approach — a kind of “point and shoot”).  Of course, along with proportion are various discoveries of and uses for distortion.  Moreover one uses the angle of vision to enhance the quality of dimension in objects whose forms are more easily recognized by one facade rather than another.

And so on.

However, there are entirely different ways of breaking down the process of drawing.  You can break it down in time — drawings made quickly, drawings drawn out very slowly, drawings made incrementally over days or weeks.  Drawings that are timed. 

Drawings made to understand the nature of binocular vision, or that study the texture of something attempting to evoke the sense of touch, drawings made from memory, drawings whose sole purpose is to understand one aspect of something such as a study that answers a question that maybe only the artist herself is asking.

Habitual Delight

In between times, it’s good to have something that regularly provides delight, and for me it’s the koi.  I have to take breaks from them sometimes and draw other things, but then they are so delightful to revisit, and I strike out in search of some new thought to find in the old pond.  It’s part of the rhythm of work, like waking from sleep, like pauses during the day, like holidays in the calendar year.  Things that predictably recur and new things that surprise. 

When I first began doing art, I never would have guessed I’d draw so many pictures of koi.  But they are my “abstraction,” my excuse for dealings in pure color and pure line.

A pond’s surface has no up or down

I dug some large drawings out of storage to have a new look at them.  Old koi more scribbly than their more recent cousins.  These were made one fish removed from the real, abstractions formed of abstractions.  What can I say?  I like to scribble.  In these exercises in thought fish, it’s hard to identify the top of the picture, so it doesn’t strictly speaking have an “up.”  I made these somewhat like my old Aussie pal, the late Emily Kame Kngwarreye, my teacher I never met — anyway, I sat on the floor and drew with the fishes spreading out horizontally (as fishes should).

And so I compared the scribbly with their firmer finned friends — all this taking place, of course, at my secret studio in the capital of the USA.