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.

Flowers still “growing”

I tried to post this yesterday and wordpress wouldn’t let me (bit of a snafu).  And today I have tried a couple times to load some new photos to my computer and my Kodak Easy Share ain’t sharing.  This is what happens when technology rebells.

Anyway, this drawing is 30 x 48 inches so it gives me plenty to do.  I have some photographs of the still life, too, taken from different angles — helps me get ideas for other versions of the same motif.  Degas counseled the artist to “redo the same thing ten times, a hundred times,” and he thought you should look at the same motif from different angles.  Since I’m working in a pastel-like medium, his advice comes readily to mind.

This drawing is made with Caran d’ache water soluable crayons on Canson paper.  I’ve got a lot of quickly and vigorously drawn green lines down there at the bottom.  But I’m trying to work them into a dense Degas hatching mix.  More on that later.

If I can get my computer to cooperate! (Never let a PC see you sweat.)

Not enough hours in a day

Today’s been kind of busy!  I don’t have time to comment at my own post.  But it’s been a fabulous day here.  Hope you’ve had a fabulous day, too, wherever you are.  Sometimes there’s not enough hours in the day — in a wonderful sense.

Just like a kid.  I’m going to have trouble sleeping tonight because I just want to keep playing.  Been drawing my flowers, as you can see!  They’re beginning to get there.

Can’t wait for the sun to come up tomorrow!

Thoughts up Close

When you look at the details of a picture, you see how its illusion is created.  The image above is a detail of one section of the flower bouquet.  It zooms in on the flower patterns of the cloth that’s piled up against the vase of flowers.  From this vantage, much of the expression of three dimensions is lost to sight.  The shadows and the lights appear to exist on the same plane.  In the detail, one realizes how much the third dimension of this particular drawing was created by the motif as a whole since without the whole motif we cannot see distinctions of figure and ground.

These “textile” flowers are as impressionistic as were the “real” flowers in the vase.  Both are abstractions: shapes that appear in masses whose details consist of lines, hatchings and scribbles.  So, for instance I began some of the flowers of the textile’s pattern as rough, smeared shapes of red crayon.  And afterwards I went back into that red with lighter or darker shades to begin the process of imitating the tonal differences within the flower.  The irony is that is so doing one makes a “picture of a picture” since another artist designed the textile that I use in my still life.

The character of the drawing materials is hard to conceal, and I made no effort to hide it.  The visibility of the drawing is what attracts me to the use of crayons.  But it makes the illusion of the subject harder to achieve.  The tonal qualities of light passing over objects — the light and shadow of the cloth and its folds, or the diffusion of light around the contours of the vase, or the contrasts of light and shade amid the masses of flowers and leaves — all these effects have to be created through either hatchings or smudges and are refined by careful positioning of light or dark or warm or cool tones.

The visual qualities that pass before your eyes, the numbers of choices available to sight, are staggering in potential complexity.  From among all these possibilities one chooses a path that is your rendering of the picture.

It’s as though you confront a vast field thick with flowers and wild plants.  You see a prospect you want to reach, and you ponder what direction to take through the brush to reach your destination.  If you follow something you learned from an old master, it’s as if you have found a path that you can walk for a distance.  And when that path wears away and returns to the full wilderness of the meadow, from that point onwards you must walk your own path.

And this fact is not a difficulty.  It is freedom.

Painting is a slow path

I let a bunch of time go by without posting anything.  Like many bloggers, I spend some time musing and pondering this new medium called “the blog,” and wonder aloud about the different genres of writing that it can evoke.  For me as an artist, I would have to say that it’s impossible — or nearly impossible — to write about the work I’m actually doing —  at least when I’m doing it.  Art doesn’t make good journalism.  Art is not an “every day” kind of topic.  No “breaking news” going on.  It’s mostly quiet stuff.

I mean I could write a narrative of how I actually work.  But would anyone read it?  And survive?  Awake?

Painting is a slow art form.  Sometimes it’s like watching an ant parade.  You make all these abstract decisions: how large is this shape?  what color is this exactly?  should I put this here or there? should this line be wider?  lighter?  should it taper? or should it be bold?  or is it okay — even wise — to fudge?  to guess?  to be in doubt? Should an edge be hard or soft?  Do I draw today?  Or should I paint?  And for me, lately, my questions are ones like “do I finish the koi or begin the flowers?”

How does one make these questions interesting for a reader?  Even my mother is not holding her breath waiting for the answers, yet these choices are — they really are vibrant, living questions.

To be able to describe the act of painting and all its attendant thought processes would be a fascinating project if you could truly put the reader into the same relationship with things that you’re in when you paint.

That’s one of the things I try to do, but it’s hard.  We are the heros of the dramas we live ourselves.  Yet it doesn’t always look so exciting to the outside observer.  To capture the authentic excitement of quotidian existence ain’t easy!  Especially when its small and it unfolds slowly.  Like molasses leveling.

But I try.

I paint the koi from photographs

I paint my koi from photographs. It would be an interesting experiment to do them entirely from life. Many years ago I painted from life almost exclusively, and back when I decided that I would be an artist, when I was trying to learn what I thought of as being the foundation of art, I worked from life.  I’m glad I did.  The habits I gained have worn well.  But later on, I found that certain subjects did not fit into an approach devant le motif.  Indeed, it became a kind of lesson in art history too — to become more aware of all the various kinds of artifice employed to create seeming “life likenesses” over the centuries.

The koi was something I wanted to do to explore abstraction in the wake of my renewed love for the work of Californian Richard Diebenkorn (one of my favorite 20th artists).  I found something that was very perceptual and which had a lot of distortion built into it, but which was of course as “real” as one might ever desire.  Yet I soon realized that I needed the photograph for practical reasons (the koi pond was not convenient to my home).  But I also soon found that the photograph interprets the image so thoroughly that many of the effects I found most interesting could be achieved by no other means. 

The camera stops time.  In some of my photographs (I had no idea what I was doing, by the way), the water was frozen.  Planes of the water’s structure were caught and carved out of their constant fluidity.  The amazing shape of the water as it moves was there to draw — something that I cannot see with the naked eye. 

Then the fish, also, were alterred in interesting ways.  In some photos the fish are stretched out as they swim through the exposure, the exaggeration of their shapes simulating something of their movement.

Happily I found that the photograph was amenable to interpretation as readily as the real place.  I began by drawing the photos very faithfully (I thought), but my own habits of vision interpolated something that wasn’t strictly there.  One introduces “distortions” that arise from longing and attention.  So I was in effect synthesizing the experience in ways parallel to what I would do when drawing from life.  Only the photograph opens up a world not visible to ordinary sight.
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The abstraction and the free gesture

There are so many ways of painting a thing.  That’s what the real abstraction of art is about.  As you are drawing, as you are noticing your subject, your attention takes you to qualities that someone else might not notice — or might not notice with the same emotion that you feel.  As your gaze ranges over the image, caught in the attraction of what matters to you, you are reinterpreting the life that you see.  Your being held captive in the subject gives it meaning — it reveals the meaning it holds for you.

The choice of subjects, the choice of how to see the subject, these are very personal things.  Many artists paint the same subjects, and sometimes a convention takes hold and the paintings will be similar.  This isn’t necessarily bad.  Conventions, traditions, can be very rich.  They can be ennobling.  Sometimes they enlarge ideas.  Many great artists chose to work in styles that were broader than their personal territory.  The great English landscape painter Turner made many landscapes in imitation of earlier masters like Claude Lorraine.  However, the reverse is also true: sometimes imitation of a style can become too conventional — so much that it conceals rather than reveals feeling and life.

But to let yourself be simply alive before the subject, to let your thoughts range where they will, to allow the subject itself (such as the swift koi) determine what the meaning will be — this is a wonderful way of losing oneself — and of finding oneself — in art.

Then painting is like music.  And it just goes over us and through us and carries us along with it.

These first blocked-in forms are a simple melody that I hum to myself: the music’s first notes.