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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learning the owl

In idle moments I play in earnest.

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I get better acquainted with the subjects of my paintings. You cannot know an owl too well.  And the vase with the songbird design on it needs understanding too.  These late night drawings keep me musing over the topic of my picture. I drew them from this set up seen below, seen here in daylight.

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They are parts of this painting that exists as yet only in sketches and in thought.

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beginning of an idea

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The idea to draw larger than life size heads in pastel began with a drawing from memory in my notebook. I was impressed by a group of charcoal drawings made by students in a workshop and wondered to myself what it would be like to have color function in a pastel drawing the way that tonality was functioning in their charcoal drawings. I made a sketch from memory of their model based on someone’s drawing and kept the idea tucked away for the proverbial rainy day. Now I’m attending a life class once a week that I devote to my experiment.

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The parallel lines are the rules in a writing journal.  Thus the drawing above is very small. What’s visible above measures about 3 x 5 inches proving that you never know where some small thing will lead.

 

how to teach: this is a question

The first thing to know when you begin to draw is

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what you love. And since different people love different things, how does one teach?  If I teach my taste to someone who cares about something else, how am I helping that person to reach his goals?  The person who loves Mary Cassatt above, may not care as much for the Rohan Master below.

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Both are master artists. To understand their ideas through your own drawing would take considerable skill.  In certain ways the Rohan Master is more difficult because of the exaggeration of the forms. How do you learn how to do that? What degree of exaggeration is right?  He has kindred spirits among moderns.  And yet some artists that we associate with mannerism had very realistic skills. Take Gustav Klimt’s drawing below.

klimt gustave drawing of sister

In the history of art there are so many models to choose from to guide one’s study. But there are modern artists of considerable skill as well. For a student, the prize might be Walt Disney or Andrew Loomis.

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Andrew Loomis

Andrew Loomis is not so far afield from one of my favorite artists Pierre Bonnard (above), whose smallish drawings led toward the making of sometimes enormous paintings.

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I’m going to ask my students what they like, and what they love, because I believe that artistic skill is driven by longing.  You work harder for the things you love.  And the history of art is filled with so many different ways of seeing, thinking and feeling.  The Master of the Osservanza (above) is very different from Pierre Renoir of the famous Boating Party (below).

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They are both pretty different from Pieter Brueghel. His battle of the angels was one of my favorites works of art around the time I began college.

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What is the thought process behind such a work?  How did the artist invent his monsters? Once created how did he manage the amazing tonality of this image above?  The transitions of light around these invented creatures is astounding. The image is cinemagraphic.

What a contrast to the lightness of Domenico Tiepolo’s Punchinellos!

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Some art is severe, as in Albrecht Durer’s copy after Andrea Mantegna.

Durer bacchanal-after-mantegna

There’s some beautiful and lyrical severity too in J.A.D. Ingres’s portrait of Mme. Moitessier (whose figure is borrowed from a Roman fresco).

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So I am somewhat at a loss for finding the beginning.  Artists need to discover what they love so that they’ll have a destination, letting their longing take them along the path.

Whether the destination is simple or complex, you need to know where you want to go. And you make the best progress when the choice is your own.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

drawing is a way of thinking

I draw all the time now.

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I have notebooks of every size. There’s always some kind of notebook in my purse, but if somehow my notebook has escaped from the purse, there’s always something else to draw on — a calendar or a scrap of paper.  I didn’t used to draw as much and as freely as I do now. I regret that lost time since I get so much enjoyment from drawing, and the only reason I didn’t pursue it constantly in the past was inhibition.

The sooner you rid yourself of that inhibition, the better.

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Notebooks are for thinking. The thoughts can be careful. Or they can be spur of the moment, stream of consciousness, blurry, furtive, haphazard, tentative, carefree, rapid, or exuberant.

Some of my favorite drawings are hidden inside notebooks.

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A lot of wonderful memories are hidden there too.

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Casting the Flowers

In anticipation of the coloring book class I will be teaching in July, I am sometimes doing a more linear kind of painting

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than I usually do. This particular flower painting will also be a composite. The flowers will have never existed together. The vase is one I’ve never owned, and the first full version of the image is something that I am assembling on a large sheet of paper that will serve as the cartoon for the painting.  Only when that drawing is complete will I even have a clear idea what I’ll be painting. Right now, it’s casting call time.  I search for flowers for the major and minor roles in the picture.

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Thus I am gathering flowers.  Don’t other flower painters do that?  They perhaps go to the florist, or to their gardens, or out to a field and gather the blooms to arrange in the vase.

flower after old masterMe, I raid art history books for flowers to steal, though I may also toss in a few flowers from life as well … In any case most of my flowers will have bloomed hundreds of years ago.

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These are some early candidates. The rehearsals won’t begin for a while.  The flowers haven’t even read their lines. This is just the beginning.

All line all the time, then color!

Line in art is abstract, but it’s so much a part of our mental nature that we hardly notice.  (Maybe we’re abstract? Hmm.)

bouquet mine start

Anyway, taking off my Plato hat now, I’m going to be teaching a coloring book class soon.  Coloring books are everywhere.  They are best sellers on Amazon. They crowd the entrance of Barnes and Noble.  I’ve even seen them in the grocery store.  People — evidently, from what I hear — color them to relax. We’re a nervous society, always on the go, and we need to relax.  Well if coloring them is relaxing, just think how relaxing it would be to draw them.  That’s what I say.  So I’m seeking to ride this wave, in teaching, to encourage people to draw.  I’m teaching a coloring book class in July at the McLean Project for the Arts, and my goal is to use the coloring book craze as a step on the journey of draw-it-yourself.

People who are entirely new to art, never drawn anything, “can’t draw a stick figure,” can make a coloring book image without drawing.  I have ways that you can steal everything from somebody else without going to jail.  So there’s that at one end.  At the other end, I have ideas for advanced artists to put more line and linearity into their imagery — that’s where I’ll be going with the idea in my participation in my own class.  I’ll be sorting out the details of a cartoon that I’ll later use to make a painting.  For people in the middle somewhere, I have a ton of ideas for how making coloring book-like images can sharpen the lines in the mind.  “Go linear” will be the motto.

Add color, experiment with color.  Rinse, repeat.

Unpredictable

Something prompted me to draw the koi in pastel, a material that I haven’t used in a long time.  And I am making the drawings on a smoother paper than one typically uses for pastel.  And it happens that the fine Sennelier pastels I’m using are very crumbly.

It changes my relationship to my intentions to be using materials that impose so many demands of their own.  You think this, it does that.  I thought to place a color “here” and watched as the crayon crumbled under the pressure of my gesture.  Everything has become subject in an unknown degree to whimsical accidents such as a cake of pigment that breaks along an unseen mineral edge in response to pesky laws of physics.

It is abstract art.

I had decided to use pastels today for the sake of the unpredictable.  I decided to amuse myself with drawing, to have fewer specific expectations.  I am sent back in time, back to when I was short on experience and tall on desire.  So I’m drawing, and I’m just watching what happens.

I’ve sent myself back to school.

Beginnings

“The beginning is the most important part of the work,” said Plato.  I think.  I’d be more confident of his having said it, or written it, if I knew where he is supposed to have said it.  And instead I found these words at one of those Plato Quotes sites.

It does seem like something Plato would have said, sounds very Plato-ish.  If he didn’t say it, he certainly should have.  Well I confidently attribute it to him because it suits my purpose, and better to have him saying it than me.  He’s so famous and wise.
The beginning of art has the potential of being hugely important!  When a picture starts out in a bold, deliberative way, with the large elements presented in full, the artist builds an underlying structure as a strong foundation for everything that comes afterward.  Everything that the artist sees and presents later can be tethered to that underlying plan with invisible glue.
If you can imagine a bottle of Elmer’s Thoughts, those forms you pour out to which everything else sticks — rather like “Plato’s ideas,” then you’ll know what I’m talking about.

The grass was greener in the Middle Ages

I have sometimes done pictures that tell or suggest stories.  Yesterday I found an unfinished panel where I was beginning to paint “Spottie leaping through the forest,” an as yet unwritten, untold legend of our now departed dog Spot and his astonishing and unparalleled canine athleticism.  What prompted my mind’s eye image of Spottie’s feat, I cannot tell.  Some epiphanies just come unheralded, you know.  But I’ll bet that one influence upon me has been King Rene’s Book of Love, Le Livre du Cueur d’Amours Espris.  Its vivid colors and enchantingly depicted scenes stick to your mind like honey.  Perhaps as I feel once again its spell, I can finish the story of the Great Spot and give the world a new canine hero who is the equal of Lassie and Rin Tin Tin combined!