Learning to learn

Reader comments help me greatly to clarify my ideas, and I thank everyone who leaves comments here.  In my previous post about the education of a hypothetical “great artist,” I argue that the most authentic form of art comes from the self.  Moreover, I argued that for this reason, the greatest artists — regardless how much education they had — were, in very important ways, “autodidacts.”

Perhaps I made it sound like an aspiring great artist should avoid schools, books, conversation and study.  So, I want to clarify the idea by saying that, quite the contrary, I’m aware that great artists typically had very thorough and deep educations.  Sometimes they had, like Rubens, a rich formal education.  Rubens’s education in rhetoric, history, language as well as his “internship” with the Carracci brothers in Italy made him a thousand-fold more savvy than the typical, much touted “New York” artist of today.  Monet, to cite a different kind of career, was certainly well acquainted the great paintings of the Louvre and with the main tenets of academic art of his era and had innumerable painter friends of all sorts.

Van Gogh who I had used as a role model of the perfect sort of autodidact did literally isolate himself and set to work learning to draw through sheer hard work and struggle.  But even Van Gogh had a direct “teacher” in the form of a drawing manual, one that was popular in his day by Charles Bargue.  But what distinquishes Van Gogh’s studies from the norm is the keen force of his personality. 

Van Gogh was well acquainted with art prior to his decision to become an artist.  He had worked as an art dealer, following in that a family tradition.  He had been a passionate visitor of museums.  He was deeply influenced by a wide number of artists and traditions.  While it is most unlikely that Van Gogh could have known the particular drawing at the top of this post, by Cornelis Hendricksz Vroom of 17th century Haarlem, Van Gogh was nonetheless probably deeply influenced by the tradition of which Vroom was part.  And for a modern viewer, well acquainted with the masterful graphic vocabulary that Van Gogh uses in his late drawings — all the dots and dashes and wonderfully expressive penlines of every sort — seeing this drawing by Vroom is a little like finding Van Gogh’s 17th century twin.

There are as many paths to art as there are travelers, but upon each path the person taking the journey has to find a spiritual compass within his or her own life.  Yes, an artist should study assiduously!  Certainly, a serious artist is very eager to learn and to see.  But the finding is certified not by outside authorities, but by the quiet, sure judgement of the self.

The Vroom drawing above belongs to the Albertina Museum which is in the process of putting images of its entire collection on line.  Its addition makes another wonderful resource of ideas for today’s artists.

[Top of the post:  Trees behind a Wooden Fence, by Cornelis Hendricksz Vroom  (1591/92 – 1661),  pen and brown ink, brown wash, 28.7 x 30.2 cm, Albertina Museum]


When it’s good to be your own teacher

The presumption is that if you want to learn to draw, you take classes.  And it would be hard to argue that taking classes would be a bad idea.  But a real artist, whether he takes classes or not, is in a certain definite way an autodidact.  The kind of study that leads to great art, or “serious” art, or whatever we want to call it, means being able to teach yourself.  The alternative to teaching yourself would be to have someone else telling you what makes something great or important.  And if you need to be told, how could you possibly create anything great or important yourself?

An innovative artist, or one who does something with exemplary ability, or one who sees things deeply has to learn to find the meanings of things within himself.  Why?  Because the alternative is an artist who needs someone holding his hand, leading him along, guiding the way — and who could this guardian be?  At what juncture would this dependency end?  Great art, the best art, the most thoroughly explorative art has to be something individual.  It’s a syllogism, really.  Insight abides in a logic that we can feel — that we get through a hunch.  Great art has to be innate.  It will arise from earlier traditions.  But it distinquishes itself by a living element that differs from the tradition.  And that something comes from the artist.

The drawing above was made by a great artist.  I once stood in front of it with a friend who’s an art historian who asked aloud how sure we can be that Van Gogh actually made this drawing.  It’s “very crude” — as indeed, it is.  For this particular drawing, much of the evidence rests with the provenance which is quite strong.  I should add that my art historian friend’s expertise lay in other areas, not in 19th century European drawing.

However, her point was an excellent one.  We now regard Vincent Van Gogh as having been one of the greatest artists of the latter 19th century.  What are we to make of a “weak” drawing by a great master?  How do we find the roots of greatness in an image such as this one?  When did Van Gogh change from an awkward draughtsman working in a period style to a great master who creates a radically idiosyncratic, individual style?  And what do the transitions from one to the other mean?

[Top of the post:  The Zandmennik House, by Vincent Van Gogh, c. 1879/1880
charcoal over graphite on wove paper, overall: 22.8 x 29.4 cm (9 x 11 9/16 in.)
The Armand Hammer Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.]

Copying Monet

With further research, I find that the Monet Sunflowers lives at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.  It is cropped in the image I used in the earlier post.  Click on the word “Sunflowers” in the previous sentence to see what the Met has to say about the painting, as well as to see a full image of it.  Meanwhile, I found this sketch after the painting by Karen Wall Garrison at her website.  She made the drawing after visiting the Met.

Ms. Garrison says of copying (in regard to a different picture, but the principle holds): “As I often like to do at museums, I stood in front of the painting … and sketched it. Not so much to make an accurate rendering, but to anchor into my memory the details.” [My emphasis.] 

All the drawing one does might be so described.  We “anchor” the images of things into our minds.  What an eloquent expression.  It goes to the very heart of why one paints at all.  We are grasping directly at aspects of life when painting, anchoring ourselves into the life we are living.

[Top of the post:  Drawing after Monet’s Sunflowers, by Karen Wall Garrison.]

Attention’s Gaze


I thought I’d give some advice.  This is free advice.  In a world where so many things are advertised as free, and so few things actually are free, I figure I offer people a genuine bargain.  Anyway, I am going to tell you how to begin a painting — for whoever is interested.  However, we shall not so much as lift a brush right now.  This will be mental painting during which time we look at a photo of a Monet still life and imagine various ways that we might paint something similar.  Are you game?

First, let me say, I took this image from the internet and am not familiar with the actual painting.  Looking at it here, it looks cropped on at least three sides.  Still, it’s quite lovely so let’s take it as it is.

Claude Monet, Vase of Flowers, 1881-2, Oil on canvas. Courtesy the Courtauld Gallery

Not many people realise Monet’s Vase of Flowers is unfinished. But in his correspondence, he writes about how he just cannot express the light falling on the flowers and the leaves to his satisfaction. In some places he has scraped paint off while, in others, he has painted over dried paint. Every so often he must have returned to this painting and added a few brushstrokes in an attempt to improve it.

This work leant against a wall in his studio for over 40 years. It was only in the 1920s that he finally decided to add his signature. But, we wonder, after struggling with it for so long, how did he finally decide it was finished? Was he truly satisfied with it? We tend to assume the Impressionists recorded everything they saw quickly, easily and fluidly. Monet knew the impression of light and likeness he wanted to give. But it was sometimes very difficult to translate what they saw into paint.

Let’s begin by noticing the obvious: that by the time the painting got a signature those flowers were long gone.  But how did he begin?  We have to imagine it. Start with the largest elements.  The first marks on a canvas are about the large features of the motif. If you place them first, the reason is fairly obvious: that way, as you make changes you are less likely to have to move around those same large things because they’ll already be firmly situated where you want them. That’s much better than their being where you don’t want them.   More significantly, the raison d’etre of the whole picture (in a great painting) is locked into the large elements from the outset.  But this is still the beginning. What’s the use of being timid at the outset? So you firmly decide to put those marks where you think they belong even though everything hinges on this early decision, oh my! Thank God it’s not brain surgery!

Even allowing for the cropping I spoke of, which was perhaps there from the outset (?) this painting’s structure is solid and fixed as though it etched for eternity.  Certainly within this core, you can really sense the factor that gravity plays.  All the flowers are balanced with respect to the vase so that we know the vase will not topple, though notably the arrangement is very natural and asymmetrical.

The clump of flowers sits just above the vase like the bough of a tree.  The vase itself has been realized very simply as a smallish cylinder, its rim partly hidden by the lower most leaves of the bouquet.  One could indicate the edges of the cylinder with just a couple strokes in the beginning.  One side of the cylinder is lit and is lighter than the background.  The other side is in shadow and the edge of the background just adjacent to it is slightly lighter than the background overall.

Above this cylinder, I would — if it were me — scrub in a little green in droopy passages to represent (in the most amorphous way) the lovely green leaves that crown the vase — from which the flowers emerge.  I would, if I were beginning, keep things simple.  I would make the green very generic and the blue of the vase just a little warmed by a little yellow.  The background is mostly greyish created through a combination of yellow ochre and ultramarine blue that have been diluted with lots of white.

Some of the leaves are dark, some are light.  For the dark, I would thinly scrub in some veridian or phthalo green from the tube.  And the lighter leaves can be made lighter with an addition of pale yellow and white.  At the outset, the point is to mark the contrast — leaving the nuances for later.  Similarly, I would put the flowers in early, trying to position them with precision — though not a precision that is obtained by hesitation and worry.  I would approach it like target shooting.  Aim, fire.  If you think the flower is “this big,” make it “this big.”  If you think it goes “here,” put it “here.”  Don’t take all day.  Stick ’em in there like you were arranging flowers in a real vase.  If they don’t look right, move them before the painting gets complex.  Use a thin amount of paint at first, draw lines, be spare and free about it.  Get them as close to their relative positions as you can discern and then move on.  (It is just a painting, after all.  First of many.)

The curve of the round table is very gentle, and it takes up very little of the composition as we see it here.  You could draw this contour in with a red line — or a grey line.  This contour intersects the vase at just below the half way mark so that’s a helpful landmark.  I would “measure” these things optically, however, in our target-shooting spirit.  The point of drawing things directly is that you teach yourself to sense proportion and shape in a natural way — you begin to internalize a gesture that matches what your eyes see.  Whenever you let hesitation and fear of mistakes scare you into grabbing tools or using all kinds of hand gestures and whatnot to get the proportion, you might as well be sending yourself an engraved invitation to be timid.  Put the things where they seem to belong.  The worst you do is get relationships “wrong,” though later this “wrongness” may turn out to be interesting.  It will at least reveal to you what you thought you saw, which admittedly has some meaning of its own.

Indeed, the advantage of copying something is that the source remains stable.  If art conservators do their job well, Monet’s painting is not going to change.  Thus the differences in how you perceive the painting can always be measured against the stable image.  For that reason, it’s good to recopy a painting that you copied “incorrectly” in the past.  You begin to learn the painting, just as a musician learns a piece of music.  It’s a good exercise and through a succession of variant copies, you can watch yourself making progress.  Later at some calm junction of your life, when you have gained experience and are ready to forgive yourself for making mistakes, you can also look quietly and objectively at the distortions or errors that you introduced into the image, and sometimes it happens that you discover a distortion that you actually rather like.  At that moment, congratulations!  you have found a new source of invention!  Matisse built a whole career on expressive distortion, raising it to a high level of enterprise.

From first gestures like these, you build up more and more information about the image you are copying.  You begin by putting in the first biggest “things” and the biggest relationships between things.  Please note that the empty spaces of a picture are as much a part of the image as the stuff is.  Yes, there are flowers.  And there are spaces between the flowers.  One paints the whole thing.  A wise artist will realize that the spaces are not insignificant.  Quite the contrary, as in real life, the spaces determine that the “things” will be where they are and will be what they are.  Where would we be without all our lovely molecules, I ask you?  Where would the flowers be without the air that surrounds them, without the shapes that press upon their locations?  The painting is “everything,” and you must be aware of this “everything,” even if only subliminally.

You deal with the big things first:  the big shapes, the main colors (let your green be green and your yellow, yellow, and add in the nuances after).  Later you look at each of the many parts, and you treat each of the parts as though they were the whole (for in a sense of course, they are).

Now, you might ask (I hope you’re asking), which parts are parts in an image where everything matters?  When the spaces between the things are as much factors as the things themselves, how does one demark the difference between part and whole?  Oh, this is where painting becomes very philosophical and personal.  What is a part, you ask?  A part is anything that you perceive as being a part.  Even in making a copy, you are doing something very personal.  For you will notice different things, in a different order than Monet noticed even in copying his painting.

This order of attention, this order of operations, this “I notice this” and “now I notice that” is your individual mind at work.  It’s a lovely process.  Don’t mess with it, just indulge it.  Try yourself, test yourself to see how much you can notice.  Try to notice more and more.  Record what you notice, as you notice it.  This journey into perception is “the beginning of knowledge,” for the painter.  Take it.  It’s a fabulous trip.  Believe me!

Once you start paying attention to the visual world in this manner, you will see things differently around you.  What you first see in a copy of a Monet still life, will reap observational benefits of intensified awareness all around you.  The world is a beautiful, subtle, technicolor place.  We just have to learn to see.


Blue Fish

The little blue fish:  I copied him from somewhere … I don’t remember the source, which I changed so much that I can no longer recognize it.  He didn’t start out life being blue.  He evolved.  He borrowed something blue, as well as something old.  It was a marriage of minds.

I liked the eye.  When my daughter was a baby, I used to make drawings of animals like this. I would sit on the floor drawing while my baby crawled around.  And she would pick up a pencil and scratch up the eyes.  I don’t think she liked the drawings looking at her like that. 

But this is (of course) the Proverbial Fish.  The one that got away!

Dear Great Artist of the Future

Somewhere out there is a young artist who I hope will eventually find these words.  All the writing I do is directed to this person, who quite possibly hasn’t even been born yet — or who perhaps celebrates a first birthday even as I write.  This artist is not like most artists because he (or she) is “destined” to become a great artist.  And I am keenly desirous of writing to this young person, not because I have anything essential to tell him since a great artist comes already fully equiped, straight from the factory (who is Mother Nature, after all) with all the innate essentials for greatness intact. What the young great-artist-to-be really needs most of all is encouragement. 
Many are the people who would divert you from your path because — well, there are several reasons.  One, they do not believe greatness is actually possible — or not anymore — and so you shouldn’t make the attempt, you should instead go with the flow and master all that is hip and happening now.  Second, are the people who believe in greatness, they just don’t think you’ve got it.  Why?  Well, because they know you.  The “great” artist cannot be anyone that we know personally since “great” people are always afar off, somewhere else.  They are exotic.  They live in Paris (19th century) or New York (20th century) or in some other “important” place.  They could never live in Delft (Vermeer) or Provence (Cezanne) or in Maine (Winslow Homer).  And if you think you’re great, then you’re just conceited.  Shame on you.  Hipness hubris — since hipness and greatness are joined by an equal sign these days.

[The drawing of asparagus was made by my young, great artist at age 9.]

My Cezanne

There’s no better way to understand an artist than to walk a mile in his shoes.  This is one of many studies I’ve made of Paul Cezanne’s Vase de Fleurs at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.

Seeing Orange

A grand version of the idea I’m promoting is visible here, complete with bird’s nest.  A close inspection of the actual painting would also reveal insects.  Dutch artists loved to paint still lifes filled with living (and crawling things).  Ants were very popular.  Some of the roaches who make occasional appearances at my apartment may sometimes be found wandering through my still life?  Perhaps.  Though if I ever see them, I shall choose not to paint them. 

Notice that the Dutch 18th century artist (this National Gallery of Art painting is by Jan van Huysum)  likes the same orange that I do!