Finding the Gesture

Work on a painting takes many twists and turns. In the beginning I think about the largest shapes, those passages that will determine the whole painting, its effect, its unity. As a painting progresses each thing gets blocked in, and the most generalized form of each part starts to become gradually more clear.

But as the painting becomes very advanced, especially with a large painting, the question arises as to what the textures and details should look like. The acuity or image resolution is a little different with a large canvas. You can see the paint as paint, and you want all that surface to hold some interest of its own.

To get ideas about the surface of the painting, I turned to Claude Monet. Looking through a book on the waterlily cycle, I decided to make a “scribble drawing” using colored pencils. I chose the pencils simply for convenience, but their distinct difference from paint also adds an interesting complication as I began examining Monet’s gestural marks in a detail of his painting of wisteria.

Drawing with the pencils, I gave myself the liberty to make the broadest, most intuitive and least controlled gestures imaginable. I simply looked at the picture and interpreted it very freely. As you can see I changed the color — the color changes conform more to my own painting, the one that is the subject of my inquiries.

A close up of the drawing reveals how scratchy and random the lines are. They have their own sort of material beauty, similar in kind to Monet’s patches of color, but unique to the colored pencil. (Each medium has its own peculiar beauty.)

The scribble drawings (there are others besides the one featured) are a bit distant from the painting in appearance, but they are good practice for thinking about gesture. Though they look different, the gesture of arm, hand and idea are similar to what goes on in the painting. And it’s good to remember that one is not just drawing on the page, but drawing also in the mind.

The images that we make in our memories come back to assist us later on when we paint.

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Strategies for Invention

Making small colored pencil drawings is one of the ways I get ideas for my large paintings. The painting on the easel right now is 48 x 60 inches, and it’s well under way. But figuring out the details of the painting is a problem in invention, particularly as this is not a realist painting. It won’t be finished when it “looks like” the scene because the actual scene no longer exists. However, change can be a good thing. Not being able to revisit the real place offers up a great excuse simply to paint. But even when you’re “just painting,” you still need to get your ideas from somewhere. So I use the qualities of the various media as suggestions for surface details. My aim is to make the painting into something like a giant drawing, so that it might also possess all the freedom that drawings have.

So I make many drawings. Through much drawing, the forms of the image begin to fix themselves in my memory. And the drawing media, by virtue of their own innate qualities of beauty, offer something to “imitate,” since imitation is always one component of painting.

Small colored pencil drawings, like the ones above which measure smaller than 8 x 10 inches, are one way to think about the image. Neopastel (a Caran d’Ache product) offers another method on a slightly larger scale. The following Neopastel drawings measure about 18 x 24 inches. The larger drawings are getting closer to the gesture range of the large painting.

As you can see, I have taken the image apart and once components are separated this way they really do look more and more “abstract.” It’s good to remember that the whole surface of a painting matters. Even when you’re striving to produce realism, the details are still just shapes, colors and tones. The composition is the pleasing arrangement of all these bits of the picture even when the part does not directly correspond to something we can name.

The whole painting at present looks like this:

Those flower bunches in the sky need to be connected to the plants. And there’s much tweaking available in the large expanses. Some of the development of this surface really does wend into pure invention. So there’s lots of opportunity to “push paint around” and look for beautiful surfaces.

Ideas for this kind of work can start from small simple beginnings. Making broad gestures with big shapes gets you started and can provide a wonderful meditative way of musing about possibilities.

So if you take up drawing in colored pencils, beware. You never know where it will lead. Better get a supply of large canvas just in case.

In the meantime, enjoy your mark making.

cool water on a hot day

It’s hot outside!  How nice to dive into the koi pond, deep into that cool blue pool.

A blue pencil taken up in hand, examined, applied to the page — its blue alone is something to cool you off.  Gazing upon the blue colors, even far from water, even without swimming, the blue that can as easily be a sky as a pond — that blue will take you wherever you need to go.  It is worth the journey.  The journey into blue.

Orange fish make themselves the opposite of this blue and dash it up with their contrariness.  Some thoughts come like splashing — they just arrive boldly.   There they are.  Like fish who came from unknown depths — for just this moment now — to come into a present into which they belong.

When life is right and things are good.  And when there’s a pond of blue on a hot day …

Koi Hatchings

I don’t know if I ever posted a version of this picture before.  I had finished all but the top right-hand corner before I set it aside.  Only recently did I rediscover and finish it.  This drawing measures 18 x 24 inches so the gesture of the marks falls in between the small and the huge koi drawings.

I fell in love with hatching a long time ago.  Not only is hatching a beautiful way to make gradations of light and dark, but it is physically and mentally assorbing to do.  Perhaps it holds the same hypnotic charm as knitting.  You can carry a drawing like this around and do this “knitting” wherever you happen to be since so much of its character resides in the repetition of the little hatch marks.

I used to have qualms about colored pencils.  Colored pencils were supposedly an inferior medium, not suited to serious art.  But my child-like nature (I love all art toys) along with the natural seductiveness of the medium itself lured me.  It helped that I needed a safe medium to use when my daughter was a crawler.

My love affair with colored pencils began during my daughter’s infancy, but years of using the pencils has confirmed in me a sense that they are as “serious” as you want them to be.  Pshaw!  Or as frivolous!

Earlier this week I made a copy after Cezanne’s “Still Life with Apples and Peaches” in ball point pen that is similarly filled with hatchings.  The technique common to both drawings makes these sister drawings even though the subjects are quite different.

In each instance the technique means that you have to create a surface that has its own raison d’etre.  The blues of this passage of interwoven pencil lines, and the texture of the pen marks each have to make sense on their own — apart from what they portray.

Color Charting the Mind

One advice I would offer to people learning to draw would be to experiment with the materials.  Drawing is a separate skill from mixing colors or from knowing how to use a particular artist’s material — colored pencils in the example above.

You can separate out the tasks, like color mixing, and gain mastery of the parts in ways that prove helpful later when tackling a whole drawing.  For color I think you should mix everything with everything.  Ignore the advice that says “only do this” or “only do that” and instead just go crazy.  Especially ignore the “never” advice.

Are you never supposed to mix more than two colors together?  Mix five together — or ten — more more.  (Try not to wear a hole through the paper with all that rubbing.)

The main thing about color and color mixing is simply to notice what happens.  Be very alert to the visual properties of whatever mixing you do.  How does mixture or juxtaposition change the character of the colors?  Particularly important is how does the melange of colors make you feel?   Color can by-pass reason and zip right straight into your head, affecting your mood.  Learn not only what combinations create this or that color, but what combinations create this or that emotion.

Someday, then, the artistic problem becomes more interesting:  how to mix the feelings ….

A new koi pond

Work on the new koi pond got off to a good start.  I’m doing an experiment with this one, having made the underdrawing with colored pencil over which I’m using Caran d’Ache water soluble crayons in veils of color (like water color).  Some of the early pencil lines will show through from beginning to end so there should be a different feel in the picture’s texture.

Early on the colored pencils have an open, airy look like a drawing made by spiders spinning colored lines of web.

But by the time today’s work was done, a new pond was beginning to appear.  Still lots of work ahead, of course.  Lots of wonderfully enjoyable work ahead.  I’ve gone fishing.  Again.

fish like food

fish like food

but are like emblems/ as symbols or digits of encryption/ for bold vigor, a shimmering shiny idea/ such swift action, delicacy, grace, gregarious garrulousness or volubility

you could draw the folds of the bed covers and find ripples and waves that resemble currents in water/ and the dreams of your sleep move like the fish/ at the bed’s edge you peer forward to see better, they swim into your angle of vision/ a glimpse is just a fragment/ the whole pond holds all the fish

the fish swim in and out as fleeting thought do/ hold the attention a moment then dissove from sight/ folds away into another narrative

thoughts that dart, dive, are gone/continue swimming somewhere below the surface/ felt pushing heavy curtains of gravity forward/ forward only alas

Drawing lessons from the koi pond

Had to do some research yesterday so I went swimming.  Ah hem! Okay, it wasn’t all research, it’s just that I had to take the kid swimming.  Perhaps I wanted to go as well.  But even beside the beautiful blue of the swimming pool, I could not let go of my koi.  In our beach bag of supplies, besides the sun block and the snacks, I took colored pencils and my big tough notebook.  My pencils were pre-sharpened (though I have a handy portable sharpener like kids take to school) and I drew blue patches and fish silhouettes.

Was thinking about how people learn to draw, and I decided that this would be a pretty good first foray into art for those so inclined: to take simple materials like colored pencils (for the pool I use the cheap dime store brands!) and make color patches.  You put colors beside other colors and teach your eye to marvel at how certain color combinations make your perception dance.

I think of it as proto-art — that first impulse to mark, to color, to decorate, seeking and discovering delight.  For me these pool side drawings are experiments with different patterns.  But for someone else they might also provide simply a beginning.

I swam a lot too.  In between swimmings, I swam in the pond of thought.  Being in the pond, I learn the role, find my inner fish, work to get inside the Koi mind.  And outside the pond, I play like a child with my artist’s tools.

Joy of Being Lazy

princess dress2

I wrote yesterday about being a lazy draughtsman, how drawing from photos and searching for my inner Xerox machine lets me tune out everything except the color patches before my eyes.  It’s an uncomplicated kind of art in which I sometimes find refuge.  And, well, I went refuge seeking again today, having enjoyed it so much yesterday, and made a couple more drawings of my daughter in her “princess” dress.  She was playing with caterpillars. 

princess dress 3