Note to self: fighting & the beginning

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A really wonderful painting with minimal technique is something to be sought (if technique is construed as “knowing the means of doing a thing”).  The problem with the beginning is that you don’t know what you don’t know. Usually you don’t know what you do know either.

Generally people think of the beginning as being where the rookie is. What is less often noted is that anyone can be at the beginning in some context. Artists who do the same thing over and over, having mastered it (whatever It is), are arguably no longer at the beginning. They have achieved a mastery in the sense of being able to predictably repeat past performances at a similar level of difficulty with no loss in quality.

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But if you’re the sort of person who wants to be doing something new because you distrust sameness then the beginning is a place you can enter again.  It’s harder, though, than one might suppose. I can become a beginner if I adopt certain kinds of subjects that I have never portrayed. That might be great if these things were things that I want to paint. But lots of things that I never did consist of things that I never wanted to do. Doing those things now wouldn’t represent growth, it would just be stupid.

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So instead the challenge about doing something new relates to doing something that you want to do but have never done before, and more particularly doing something that’s difficult to achieve even at one’s present level of skill so that the challenge really puts you out of the comfort zone.  And THEN, not using one’s present knowledge to just think oneself logically through the technical problems, but rather using one’s ignorance itself as a tool so that you can dig, grab, flail your way along.

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I think I would rather struggle with a new thing than to use what I already know to render the new thing into some homogenized facsimile of what I already know.  Innovation — seeking and striving to get it — is more about immersion in a new experience than it is like coping by using all the old skills on new ideas. I don’t want to prettify the new thing with the contours of the familiar old things.

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Pierre Bonnard self-portrait

 

I want to confront the new thing in all its new-to-me-ness and fight my way through it just like I fought with subjects when I was a young artist.  Is that why Bonnard portrays himself as a pugilist in the series of late self-portraits made in the bathroom mirror?  Well, I don’t know. Bonnard’s intention and his thoughts across a hundred years is not available to me. But I want to find subjects that are hard in ways that formerly would send me to the fainting couch except that instead of retreating to the couch I want to stand and fight.

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Art doesn’t have to be a fight.  I’m not saying that. Art can be refined, easy-going.  It can be a long walk. I’m just saying that if it’s a long walk, I want to walk somewhere I’ve never been before. I am looking for new experience, even in the things I’ve done again and again. I want to experience them in some innocence. I want to be overwhelmed by them. I don’t want to know what I’m doing. I want to figure something out as I go.

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different media & variations on a theme

Bach made thirty variations

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of his aria for his Goldberg Variations. I haven’t made that many variations on any of my koi motifs yet. That’s an awful lot of fish to draw. But I do redo the same fishes again and again because I’m Degas’s dutiful student and he told me, “il faut refaire la même chose dix fois, cents fois.”  Okay, maybe he wasn’t talking to me.  But still I take these things to heart. So, I redo my koi — maybe ten times — not yet thirty — and goodness knows, Monsieur Degas, not one hundred times!

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Watercolor at the top, then colored pencil, then dry pastel (a detail, below), and crayon (also a detail, below that).

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What can I say?  I need one of these:

I'd rather be fishing

In my own way …

Amusement, whimsy & lines

Drew some faces rapidly with a pen for amusement

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and practice.

I made several versions of an image based on a photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron, the Victorian era photographer. (Above and below)  Each one is different, but all are based on the same photo.

Other faces come from other historical photos that I’ve found on the internet.

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They decorate a journal that I keep. They entertain me while I’m relaxing, watching tv, in my idle moments. And they are very freedom inspiring. You can’t undo a pen line (though I did use oil pastel to soften some passages) so I am swashbuckling in my use of the pen. It’s a wonderfully expressive tool. Built for exaggeration and impulse.

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I like to be often scribbling. I love the appearance of even just the ink on the paper. Pen ink is such a beautiful thing.

When I was a child learning cursive, I loved the shapes of letters and the shiny beauty of ink. That love has stayed with me across the many years.

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A gestural line, dense hatchings: I find them endlessly fascinating. The energy of cross-hatching can be exhilarating and yet also relaxing because it is both dynamic and repetitive.

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More not-art

Maybe the concept of drawing that is not art

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rapid oil pastel drawing of the window at twilight comparing indoor light with the declining light outdoors

 

holds special appeal for me because when I first realized that I wanted to be an artist, when I was a teen, I found drawing so difficult. It should be noted that some painters never draw, and that drawing isn’t really essential to painting since the drawing of an image can be subsumed into the process of painting. But I wanted to draw. It was a puzzle too because sometimes I could draw and sometimes I couldn’t. I couldn’t understand why it should turn on and off, but it did. Now I have some ideas about why it can turn on and off and even now — after let’s not mention how many decades of drawing — my ability to draw still turns on and off sometimes. The difference now is that when it turns “off” I just continue along knowing that it will turn “on” again shortly.

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Bic Cristal pen drawing of leaves and a flower after Huysum, copying from the book “Miraculous Bouquets” by Anne T. Woollett [plates 7 & 8]

However, the problem of drawing persists in my mind and thoughts about the solutions to the problem also persist because I had so much anguish in early days. Moreover in finding out that the solution is to simply continue along, I learned over time to appreciate the gains of drawing particularly on those occasions when drawing seemed to be going badly. And I learned to love the immersion into visual perception. I have come to love the stenography of drawing, the use of a drawing tool as biofeedback for those occasions when I simply look at a thing and think about aspects of its appearance.

Having the pen in my hand cements something in the thoughts. It uses more of the body. It connects me more to the sensation than if I were only looking. In neurological terms it invokes neuroplasticity. I am drawing on the paper, but I am also drawing something on my mind’s surface too.

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oil pastel drawing of a fabric design that appears in a painting in progress

 

Art is associated with an image that ultimately gets presented to a public. Art is a cultural thing. Art is something we do for our neighbors — on some level. Maybe Vermeer was an extreme introvert (who can really know?) but his art came to enjoy rock star status in our era. I doubt Vermeer could have ever imagined its having such powerfully broad appeal across time and cultures. How could Vermeer imagine anything about our world? Okay, so that’s an extreme example. Putting a picture in a local exhibition or offering it for sale in an art gallery are also ways that it becomes “art” for the participation of lots of other people outside the artist’s narrow orbit.

But as fine a thing as art is, I also cherish privacy and the value of ideas that are not comprehensible. I involve myself in an irony by declaring the privacy of some of my drawings while writing a post on the Internet! It’s just that I know other people do these things too, and my point is to say, “Hey.  This is marvelous.” You cannot know what I experienced as I display my incomprehensible, scribbly bits of visual biofeedback. But I’m telling you this is wonderful stuff. And for a music lover, even the sound of a musician practicing scales can be thrilling. The sound of the instrument. These episodes are like that.

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another drawing from the Huysum book “Miraculous Bouquets” [frontispiece]

I am justly proud of the beauty of the line produced by the pen. Can you see how amazingly lovely some of this is? Bic Cristal deserves perhaps most of the praise, but I get some too for the use of the tool. And dime store pencils on cheap paper, and other tools used with devil-may-care freedom offer delights.

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oil pastel drawing that I’m glad I made because it gave me some ideas

 

Because I’m telling you — that while I was looking at these things, the objects on the still life table that I’ve drawn and redrawn a gazillion times, which I never find boring (I suppose these are some of my scales and arpeggios) or the really confused visually wandering thoughts about the plant and architectural forms that I see from the back door of my house, and thoughts about things seen in the dark, or the birds that flew past my head, the leaves of grass on the ground — I can scribble the thoughts of these things and the drawing has probably no verisimilitude AT ALL.  But I know what I felt. I will own the memory of this moment more strongly for having used the drawing tool.

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pencil drawing of Huysum’s leaf

 

Someday it may even work its way into my art also.

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little notes I’ve made to myself about a project

 

 

Thought management for artists

pencil drawing after Bonnard

 

You have to find out what works for you — sometimes down to the very fine detail.  Should you stay up at night and draw into the late hours?  Should you get to bed early and rise with the dawn?  Do you need coffee to get started or a very cold bottle of water?  What kinds of notebooks are appealing?  Have you ever wondered what it would be like to spend a day going round with a small notebook drawing random sights?

Or perhaps you do that all the time, and what you need is to choose some very complex image and work at it relentlessly.  Do you work from life?  Make drawings from memory?  Have you investigated things that artists did in history and apply them to contemporary motifs?  Do plans and schedules keep you on track?  Or are you the sort of person who needs to feel spontaneous?

Whenever something isn’t working for me, I try something else.  Sometimes I just start drawing in medias res because I’ve lost the thread of my ideas.  Then I find that just moving my hands jump starts some thought process, like a dream remembered, and I rediscover the thing hidden in my mind.

Telephone Time

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.

The small spaces in stuff

In a detail of my current flower painting I see an opportunity to indulge in microcosm-making by which I mean that there’s enough “stuff” in just one small section of the bouquet to create a whole series of new works.  Is mind-boggling to consider.  Maybe here’s one reason why I am always making “studies” — it’s just that there’s so much to gaze into, Mother Nature being so mesmerizing.

Here’s a photo of roughly the same bit of still life as it appears in the section of painting illustrated above.  Astute readers will notice that these flowers are not real.

It’s not Mother Nature in the flowers that I find so mesmerizing in this instance, but Mother Nature in the photons — all those marvelous little light-thingys bouncing around in amongst all the other thingys.

I did a drawing too (one of many).

Flowers of the New

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We spent lots of our holiday drawing, my ten-year-old (soon to be eleven-year-old) art assistant and I, but the cloud cover always seems to thicken whenever anyone reaches for a camera so I’ll have to keep you in suspense a while longer regarding our results. 

Meanwhile, I rearranged the studio today — always a heady experience as I realize that I’ve misplaced half the items I own and find myself becoming reacquainted with them in the shift and bustle.  Greetings! There you are!  Where’ve you been?  Whatever possessed me to put you there? But reunited now ….

In preparation for new still lifes I have been planning, I shifted stuff around once more, finding old things, no doubt losing new items by disturbing their places.  But I have accomplished my goal: I have two flower still lifes set up for work.

I have been dreaming about these pictures, imagining them in my head, contemplating the meanings of flowers.  Finally I can stop dreaming now and begin working.

Working in fits and starts

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I work in fits and starts, and recent weeks have been busy with distractions — some of them quite removed from painting and art.  (Unless you consider helping a child make a Halloween costume art!)  But I did get away for a few hours to make a drawing straight from nature — on a lovely autumn afternoon as the guest of this welcoming tree.  You can compare the drawing with a photograph below.

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I think it’d be fun to draw it from the photo, too.  And I may do so.

Or I might not.  I find that I’m often capricious when it comes to making plans.  I’ll call that artistic license!

Mirror of Water

The water is a mirror, the first mirror. Narcissist might have bent over this glass. When water is very still, you can’t tell where the surface is. You can wonder if it’s a few inches away or several feet. I saw a pond like that once — in the middle of the forest — so still that its depths seemed only eternally to elude my touch, and it seemed also to resonate silence, an anechoic chamber of liquid rationality.  This place was still.  This place was so quiet.

I have some favorite things that I like to draw, this pond is one of them. I’ve drawn and redrawn it many times. I play it like a tune softly on the piano, noodle around with it, and its music is all rests and no notes. It’s not even a real drawing in the usual sense, but is just me making marks along the page, tossing virtual pebbles into the water, skipping them and waiting for ripples that never happen, that never come, for no echoes sound in this pond that is eternally still.

The clouds float by above and below, forever. Water vapor above, liquid water below. Mirror of light. The air will always seem to vibrate with an aqua-blue vibe. The marks, the restless marks, caught my nervous energy and fix it into a picture where I can look back and see Nature meeting me.  For we’re here in this place, this grand and stunning place, and Nature waits upon us to notice.