From Lascaux to your Kitchen Table


If you’ve visited a bookstore in recent times, you’ve undoubtedly noticed something kind of amazing happening and perhaps a little strange too.  Stacks of coloring books line the entrance.  Coloring books, once the special province of children, have become a passion for creativity seeking adults.  I didn’t notice the phenomenon when it first began.  The first books were probably like the lonely dandelion in a broad meadow.  I don’t know about you, but once I noticed this craze taking place (can we call it a craze?) the field was rich with flowers, abundant and luxurious with line and diversity.  I’m finding that these “wild plants” have sprung up in the book rack at even the grocery store.  I am wondering how soon it’ll be before coloring books and assortments of coloring tools appear in the dentist’s waiting room.  Soon, I hope.

degas notebook sketches

I’m going to be teaching a coloring book class in the summer. It’s my way of finding a place in the craze.  As someone whose love of art began in childhood, I greet this movement with tremendous optimism. For a long time Modern Art represented arcane artifacts that need the docent’s explanation to render them intelligible to mere mortals.  Though we inhabit the Present we’ve never been presumed to understand Our Time without a decoder ring. Art is something that’s made by your betters and spoken of in whispers.  Just hush and listen to a story about incomprehensible geniuses.

Well, that was then.  This is now.  Society seems to have skipped over something, has leapt over the turnstile, and people are racing toward drawing and design with a vengeance — and it’s purely visceral. They are crashing the gates. Imagery beckons one and all. Give us your tired, your poor, your whatever.  Pull up a chair, feel the pull of the line: start coloring.  Who knows where it leads. Answer your craving for color and line. Indulge in craftsiness and fun.  It’s the modern version of the quilting bee.  You grab a bunch of people, you color, you gab, and everybody’s happy.

1815 Vol_ 2 (2) Hokusai Sketchbooks colour woodblock print 22_6 x 15_6 cm

I think it’s a logical step from coloring the designs in a book to making your own.  I do believe it. And so I want a piece of the action.  We stand at the threshold of an innovation. If the coloring book should lead to lots of people learning to draw, to an increase in visual reasoning, I want to be at the front lines — pun gloriously intended.

i.stack.imgur lattice physics

Line has a very special cognitive place in the world of art. And coloring books are all about line.  Before all the “elements of art,”  before technique, before schools of art, before the dazzle of different media, before everything else comes line. Our ancestors in the depths of the cave drew bison with lines. I see the coloring book as the direct descendant of the cave wall.  Call me crazy, I don’t care.  I want to see what can happen when people take the next step — from coloring to draw-it-yourself. It’s a breath and a heartbeat away.  If you’re coloring in one of these books, you’re so close to something marvelous.  You might not know it yet.


Draw lines, young man, many lines; from memory or from nature – it is in this way you will become a good artist.


So said Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres to young Edgar Degas. The ladies are probably leading this revolution, but lines are no respecter of persons. Come one, come all, come young and old.  Draw lines. You never know where it will lead.

I’ll be teaching at the McLean Project for the Arts this summer.  REGISTRATION is open!

[Above: Albrecht Durer’s Rhinoceros; Edgar Degas, a page of caricatures; Hokusai, sketchbook page of fishes; sample illustration of a lattice (physics); and a section of wall at Lascaux.]

Degas thoughts

La tasse du chocolat Kunstmus Basel Degas

I think about Degas a lot.  I feel like he’s my teacher.  He died in 1917 when my father was just a baby, but I still feel that he’s my true teacher because his works were the world of lines that I studied in my youth.  It’s natural, then, that I have strong feelings about his pictures and strong opinions regarding his techniques.
Sometimes you run across artists teaching students how to use pastel as Degas used it. And one thing that I note when I come across these forms of advice is how much they dilute Degas’s actual practice.  In trying to explain Degas, these writers are over-simplifying him.  So for instance when you look at actual Degas pastels, they are very loosely drawn.  He took great liberty in dragging lines of color across forms, and it wasn’t a lack of precision that led him to use lines so broadly since Degas had developed his drawing technique so exquisitely in his youth that he could draw anything he had an interest in drawing.  On the contrary, Degas’s evident carelessness in using broad effects was aimed at getting a great degree of visual incident into his pictures.

The textures of the marks take on a huge importance in his drawings.  Think about a great musician — and Degas knew and portrayed a lot of musicians.  A violinist or cellist at the height of his powers doesn’t just play the notes on the page: he interprets the music and in particular he interprets the sounds coming from his individual instrument.  String players speak of “colors” in the notes they play, and just as the musician listens for the depths of a sonorous tone coming from the full technique of playing so Degas is watching the pastel lines as they form on the page and is using the physical beauty of the materials as a strong element of the subject.

“Drawing is not form, but a way of seeing form.”

Le dessin n’est pas la forme, il est la manière de voir la forme.

Sometimes drawing isn’t even the form; it is the space around forms or the area of the paper that lies between one form and another.  Degas made the spaces between things a factor in the drawing.

His drawings are images of the things he portrays — the bathers, the dancers, the horses and jockeys, etc. but they are also the lines and colors that express visual ideas — the width of a line, its swell and taper, its passage over other lines in the hatching, the combinations of colors and their effects, the suggestion of motion in these lines — and it is not just the motion one might expect of the subject — dancers move, horses and jockeys move — but also our thoughts move, our eyes scan this picture, our feelings are in motion and the gesture of a line can relate to all these qualities.

Artists emulating Degas are always so much less bold than the man himself was. If we want to learn the lesson he teaches, we do well to take his lessons more to heart by striving for both the complexity and the daring that he sought.

The illustration above comes from the Kunstmuseum Basel.


When in doubt, draw

100_6341 (2)

I think the best way to learn how to draw is to copy the works of great artists.  The practice of copying is better than an association with any living teacher (as wonderful as that might be) because you can learn aspects of what the great artist knew without having the great artist standing there nagging you.  (Degas does have something of a reputation, deservedly or no, for being a bit of a crank.)

Many, many years ago I began my habit of acquiring art books so that I would have good reproductions of paintings to look at, enjoy, copy, and study.  And now the internet offers an added opportunity to learn that is so amazing that it’s difficult to characterize how revolutionary it really is.

I just learned, for instance, that the National Gallery has updated their website and it’s possible to see enlargements of their paintings now online.  I made my drawing of Edgar Degas’s “Girl in Red,” using the enlargement at NGA’s website.  So I am able to peer right into Degas’s girl’s face in a way that I could never do in front of the actual painting.

sketch 1

I made some fast sketches too because I enjoy just putting down the visual ideas as they occur to me.  It’s fun.  There’s something very freeing about looking at something and taking aim.  Some people go to the Carnival and toss balls at the bucket hoping to win a prize.  I throw pen lines at a notebook, and it’s Carnival all the time.

sketch 2

The image changes in subtle ways.  Your hand goes to different places.  But then too, after a while, you have all these notebooks that you open, and have these faces that look back at you.

sketch 3

I make some drawings from memory too.  I think about the image after I have spent a long time drawing it, and the memory is physical almost more than it’s visual.  I remember the image in my hand.  Sometimes I draw with my non-dominant hand, though I didn’t yesterday.  Of course it’s easier to draw with one’s dominant hand.  My right hand has many more memories than my left hand.

sketch 4

I also think it’s good to draw late at night when you are too weary to fight yourself, when you can be persuaded simply to let a drawing be what it is, when drawing and dream meld together.

Can you imagine a person at the Carnival who just kept throwing balls at the target?  Someone would not give up!  There might be a hundred balls lying about that missed the target, but he was determined to win the prize!

Loved from Afar

There’s a famous Degas drawing, an étude pour Sémiramis, that I have always loved.  It’s made using graphite, watercolor and gouche and lives at the Louvre, I think.  A friend of mine saw the original once in an exhibition.  But I have known it only distantly from books.  Looking through one of those books yesterday, I decided to draw it quickly.  And I discovered to my surprise that I no longer believe he made it from life.  (Please note, that some art historian somewhere has researched the matter and published his opinions definitively whereas this question of mine is totally personal.)

I used to assume that the old masters could do anything.  And they could!  But even in their being able to leap over tall buildings with a single bound they still bent to earth and did things in ways that afterwards might strike us as normal.  And so it was that I now conclude that Degas made his drapery study from a mannekin.  In his drawing she has no head and her lack thereof relates to her having possessed perhaps an uncomely stuffed mannekin sort of head that the artist found uninteresting to study for his painting of Sémiramis!  (Evidently she lacked the pizazz of my Doll with Big Hair.)

So instead he concentrated all his attention on the drapery of a wonderful garment!  I wonder where he got that from?!

And ladies, I ask you, why don’t we all wear dresses like this today?  We could dress like rock stars, we could ….

Versions, another cat

As with most motifs I draw, I redrew the cat several times.  I used a photo (not having an actual cat anymore) and made several very different drawings from the same source photo.

So, I guess we’d have to call them “mistakes” given that they do not accurately reproduce the photo.  But I love my “mistakes” — they turn one cat into several, each with a different mood.

Cherish your mistakes, artists, and be sure to make as many of them as you can!  Il faut refaire la même chose dix fois cents fois.  [You must redo the same thing ten times a hundred times.]  Mr. Degas said it!  And we must do it!

A little mystery of art

The mythology of various artists, it is an aspect of how their work is interpreted.  It’s important to recognize, even to experience, the myth if one is to understand certain things about the artists, about the impact their work has made.  Artists like Matisse and Picasso devised their own myths, had well-styled public faces while they were living.  They recognized the importance – Degas also, in his being “illustrious and unknown” – to preserve the mystery of art.

[Above, my copy after a Degas drawing of a dancer.]

Time Management for Artists, Rule SEVEN (a lucky number)


You have built-in factory-installed sensitivities to beauty.  Use this incomparable skill given to you straight from Mother Nature herself!

Remember it was Edgar Degas, the great painter, who said that art criticism consists of “ooh” and “ahh.”  And Degas was no slouch.

[This post is dedicated to the life and memory of Paul Squires of Gingatao, a great poet of the early 21st century.]

My my my Myopia

Myopia, nearsightedness,  is a visual defect in which distant objects appear blurred because their images are focused in front of the retina rather than on it.  A more serious defect than myopia, however, would be small-mindedness.

I voluntarily got entangled briefly in a discussion on the merits of British artist Howard Hodgkin, in which I found myself somewhat reluctantly coming to Mr. Hodgkin’s defense.  Some readers know I can be curmudgeonly where “modern art” is concerned, and though I like Mr. Hodgkin’s paintings, I did wonder if it was worth the bother to defend him, after I had been so cruel to harmless Ellworth Kelly.  And given that people simply like what they like, the defense seemed like it would be (and was) an exercise in futility.

Nevertheless, the buzz about Hodgkin prompted me to revisit a book that contains some of the artist’s own words about his art, and I always find his erudition totally charming and insightful.  So, armed with that, I was prompted to think some more about Degas, Hodgkin’s hero and mine.  Of Degas, Hodgkin writes, “His technique is amazingly inventive, but surely without conscious virtuosity; it was a search for a language of maximum directness and simplicity….”  He says further, “There is a tradition equating marks in nature and marks made by an artist which goes back to Leonardo and his blotchy wall, to Hercules Seghers, Turner, etc.  But there is something of a painter’s philosopher’s stone about the mark which is itself a final pictorial statement, and something representational in itself, and also emotionally expressive.  Degas looked for different ways of making these marks all his life and kept finding new solutions.”

I decided I’d try looking at Degas through Hodgkin’s painting (in my way).  Got the books out and set up to copy.  On a whim, I took off my glasses — thinking of the eye problems attributed to Degas in his later years.

You see, my glasses are laying there to the left.  And I’ve got Degas’s Dancers (Toledo Museum) and my notebook, and the Howard Hodgkin book open to two of his paintings, and Jennifer Bartlett snuck in as well at the top with pages from In the Garden.  The remote control is nearby so I can listen to Maria Rita.

Emboldened by Hodgkin’s abstraction and my own myopia, I just had at it for an hour or so.  To treat (a few) of the details of the faces in the Degas, I had to press my nose right up to the image.

And it was more of these quick days of pretending that oil pastel is paint.

I don’t wish to be too hard on narrow minded folks, though, for then I must reprimand myself, and furthermore I think sometimes we need our prejudices when they serve a purpose.  And artists especially sometimes dearly need their prejudice, what with the world being such an awfully, achingly big place ….