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When I began this little acrylic painting on panel (14 x 11 inches) it looked quite different.  I liked it but I knew I didn’t like it enough.  So I decided to rework it.  The still life table had changed totally so that meant incorporating it into the new still life stuff — hence parts of it had to be completely repainted. Had no idea how that would go, but I’ve been experimenting with acrylic, so I figured there’s no better way to find out than to just do it. Here’s how it looked before:

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Since I switched to using acrylic paint, I have had Matisse in the back of my mind.  For a long, long time I have wanted to experiment with the “fauvist” ideas that Matisse pursued in his very early career. There were certain still lifes that I have always really loved — especially certain dark and rather chaotic ones — that seem to hold such fertile material in them.  Matisse chose to take his art in a different direction, but I have wondered what his painting might have been like had he followed the murky fauvisme instead.  And it seemed to me as though he left that trail there for others to explore ….

These are just two examples, but both reveal the dramatic lighting, murky passages and rough manner that Matisse explored.

So I have some projects planned that will pursue darker tonality, rougher and broader kinds of drawing and exaggerated color, but even in a small work like this painting of the little black pitcher, I have been trying to get at a more instinctive handling.  I find that some sources of interest for me are all the myriad color changes to be observed on a small scale between objects, as in passages around the perimeter of the orange, or between the orange and the lemon, or in between anything and anything.  Such observations in realist painting aim to get at the true appearances — and oddly enough I am striving for a true effect also.  And yet my picture doesn’t become realist.  It’s an odd paradox that Matisse explained as a parallelism — that you are aware of always wanting to get at some truth of perception but it is nonetheless an image that is “parallel to nature.”

The details are really important and for me they’re where the real action is.

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I don’t know how much I’ll work on the painting, and I like all these passages, but they can be further developed as readily as the whole painting itself was open to reworking.

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Each section of a painting can become like an independent composition.  And as your attention focuses on different parts, it’s like these “independent compositions,” can merge and shift constantly.

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I am also developing more latitude for abstraction or accident in the paintings.  Some things happen that turn out to be interesting that were never planned.  I have always been aware of such passages as I paint, but I never completely let myself just leave them or let myself develop them ….

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A passage like the one above which depicts a bit of drapery can become a great place for observing small color differences.  I just painted this green part broadly to cover up what was there from the earlier version, but it’s definitely a passage to exploit going forward.

I am keeping the process fun because I have a tendency to freeze up at various junctures along the way. So in contrast to past habit, I am telling myself that I have permission to pile on as much paint as I please.  Also I know that I’ll never learn what this medium is like if I don’t try out lots of different approaches.  Painting lots of layers over others is just “one of the approaches.”

I like acrylic because its fast drying time makes experiment easy.  You can paint pretty much as fast as you can think.  It can wear you out.  You can paint as if you were digging ditches so it can be “hard work” if that appeals.  Or it can be very whimsical and free.  Certainly you can allow yourself great freedom regarding drawing since you can always immediately paint over anything that you perceive to be “a mistake.”



imaginary light

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A place, a quiet land.  If you go there, you find resonating silence.   I imagine being poised for something.

The morning begins.  Or perhaps the day ends?  Can you tell the sunrise from the sunset at that horizon moment?  Or is some context necessary.  Do we know the meaning only relative to our own internal clocks?  To our awakening or our soon arriving sleep? Or is there some absolute physics of aspects that defines beginnings relative to endings?

A small study of thick paint and bright arbitrary colors seeks to ponder these weighty entropic questions in its small colorful way.

life class today


Very challenging pose


and I don’t like the drawing.  The model was fantastic.  I would have loved to do a straightforward portrait. I definitely wasn’t looking for a reclining pose, and the unaccustomed view was difficult to manage. However I was glad to get a version of the face that seems to have its parts in almost the right places. I found myself wishing I was painting for the sake of color and for paints greater ease of making corrections.

Before doing the life size version on the dark grey paper, I made a smaller color version on 9 x 12 Strathmore paper.  I like it a lot better though its more caricatured. It seems sweet somehow.

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I made several small fast drawings in the notebook at various junctures during the session, which I like better even though they are very spare and exaggerated.


They all appear at this blog as though they’re nearly the same size as the oil pastel, but the lines tell you that this is writing paper so you can judge that these are small images. It’s kind of fun to see them enlarged so that they compete with the oil pastel above which is approximately life size.

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When I draw this way I am just thinking to myself. It’s a way of putting things where I think they belong, and with each subsequent drawing I strive to correct errors of prior attempts. And yet I’m not focused on error, just drawing and putting lines down.

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I’m going to be teaching soon, beginning in July. I could have left these in the file but I include them because I am so often preaching about making mistakes and taking chances. I shouldn’t be lecturing anyone about mistakes if I’m not willing to make some very publically myself. Or — it’s not even that these are mistakes. They are drawings that are not particularly refined. They each have helpful information in them (helpful to me anyhow).

Sometimes artists will find a method that is pretty reliable that they can use in demos. When I teach I plan to avoid the prepackaged technique, and I’m hoping that the students will appreciate my high wire act. By taking chances I could, after all, fall on my fanny. And that would be awkward.

But if I do fall, I’ll dust myself off and continue drawing.

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Representing the eyes as slits was especially delightful. I strove to pare things down to big essential shapes.

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I turned this one around because I like it better from this angle. That’s another thing about making these sketches: they give me ideas. Here it’s not a reclining person, it’s a face of someone upright.

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A pose like this one is difficult to draw and to get true. The positions of the features are confusing when seen at this angle. We’re used to seeing people upright. Also the effect of gravity changes the features and a really good drawing will capture that change. The movement of the face is toward the floor so the lower cheek will be drooping a little, even in a young model with very plastic features.

I rely on perception and I throw the line like you’d throw a baseball. Aim, throw. If you don’t take chances then a certain versatility never has a chance to occur. Sometimes you get one shot at something, and to do it the way you experience it may take bravado. But if we always demure and follow a safe route we never learn how to seize the moment, never prepare emotionally for the bold gesture.

If a befuddled robin happens to land on a limb in front of you while you’re drawing, you haven’t time to say to yourself “this is an oval, here’s another oval.”  You better just start drawing — fast — before the bird realizes his mistake.

If I needed this pose for a painting, I’d hire a model and do several versions until I got it right. But in life class you do the day’s pose and then move on. You never know what you’ll get and you just try to be adaptable!

For my ego’s sake, I want to post a similar drawing I did that worked out.  I drew it from a photo, but I still think it has some bragging rights.

reclining child

Similar idea except that this time it succeeded!


Revisiting my idea

I’ve been doing an experiment in a life class

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memory of my original impulse illustrated


once a week drawing heads larger than life size using bright invented colors. Each week the drawings seem radically different from ones I made in the class before, from which I conclude that I succeed in their being “experimental.” But I had more motive than just trying something new. I had a specific idea that prompted the whole thing.  It was an idea about a color.

Remembering what prompted me to attempt this experiment, I realize that I haven’t used that color yet. I haven’t actually done what I thought would be the good thing to do.

It began because I was looking at someone else’s drawing, a drawing made in a life class, it was larger than life size and was conceived tonally. The lighting of the model was strongly directional and each student’s drawing had a cast shadow that fell from the model’s chin. A row of these drawings was visible from where I stood, each with the same cast shadow. Looking at one of the drawings, the thought popped into my head, “what if instead of a dark shadow, there was a shape that was a beautiful brilliant light violet color.” I’ve written about my project before HERE.

I know I’ve been affected by my fondness for works by Henri Matisse, Pierre Bonnard, Richard Diebenkorn and by the late works of Edgar Degas. In front of the actual model, one feels a tug toward realism — a kind of demand that you get the drawing right, obtain a likeness. I’ve been very free with color, but I feel this conflict about drawing and am never sure what I really want from the session. The artists I’m emulating were in each of their different ways, though, very free about the image.  The most notable would be Matisse’s La Raie Verte.

la raie verte Matisse
La Raie Verte, Henri Matisse


The colors are completely invented. The drawing is very sparse and bold. And yet one gets the feeling that the identity of the sitter is present. I don’t want to paint my drawings in pastel like Matisse, but I am striving to get at a similar freedom. And it’s not that I want to paint in a fauvist way, but merely that I want to see where something leads. I want to understand this impulse from the inside.

Richard Diebenkorn portrait face


When Richard Diebenkorn experimented with a similar idea (above and below), he did so quite literally, using the bold lines, summary drawing, exaggeration of drawing and exaggeration of color just as Matisse had used before him.

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Diebenkorn, page from a notebook


The arbitrariness or expressiveness doesn’t just arise from “modern art,” however.  Degas used color, light, and paint texture very expressively in fairly early works. It’s a trend that always ran like a current in his art, sometimes classicist, but sometimes romantic.

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Edgas Degas


In Degas’s late works the treatment of the figure both in terms of drawing and color becomes very rough and exaggerated. I particularly love his late pastels for their rugged beauty.


In the life class, I feel a tension also because the other people drawing are for the most part seeking realism.  I’m the outlier. I’ve done realist drawing.

Aletha Kuschan, self-portrait using a mirror c 1987


Yesterday however my drawing was very far from realist.  I was not attempting to make it exaggerated in form, and the challenges of the particular pose were considerable: I draw the face much larger than life size so I am making decisions about proportion continually. The model is not always easy for me to see, and during several poses I’m having to look up at the model so that the pose is foreshortened.  Sometimes I can’t get back from my drawing and with my nose to the paper I’m actually looking at my drawing from a foreshortened view, having to look up to see the top and down to see the bottom. Yesterday’s drawing was definitely not what I wanted. But there’s no experiment if you’re unwilling to make something that you didn’t exactly intend. The experiment lies in the not knowing the outcome, when deliberation and happenstance meet.

one of yesterday’s drawings in pastel


It’s strange that the exaggeration that I love in the works of my heroes makes me a little uncomfortable in my own painting. I’m not sure what the discomfort means.

Do I want a greater simplicity such as one finds in Bonnard (left) and Diebenkorn (right)? Bonnard’s works evidently sometimes had very chaotic beginnings and we know also that they had quite amorphous and complicated conclusions.

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unfinished Bonnard painting

I have been mulling over my experiences in the life class trying to figure out what’s the best way to go forward during the remaining sessions.  I have collected some images from the internet of things to draw at home to “practice” and am thinking about doing my next in class session by drawing the model at a smaller scale and then perhaps making the larger than life size pastel from my initial drawing (enlarging it) rather than directly from the model — or letting the first drawing be a quick rehearsal for the pose.

I just don’t know what I’ll do, what I “should” do, or even quite what it is that I seek as yet because it’s all part of this experiment.  As chance would have it, however, I did not use a violet shadow in any of the drawings I’ve made so far. The color violet was the idea that prompted the entire project.  I’m thinking that at the very least I should obtain a stick of the violet color I need and have it on hand next time to carry through that part of the idea.



drawing the model in life class

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— near the end of the session I made some small sketches. The one above is about 4 inches in height.  I had drawn the head in pastel, larger than life size, on a standard sheet of Canson paper. I had been looking at the pose for most of the three hour session and I could no longer see my drawing.  The drawing was right there. My eyes were working fine.  Glasses, clean. But my brain was “give out” as my relatives used to say so I made some sketches to address the questions that lingered.

I was sitting in front of other artists. To avoid blocking their view I was sitting on the floor and the model on the stand was slightly above me so I saw her head slightly at an angle, slightly foreshortened.

I made the first of the sketches in my pocket calendar. This drawing is about three inches high.

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This smallest of the drawings felt most connected to my large drawing.  It’s rainy today so I’ve just photographed the pastel on the easel in the present light, such as it is. At least the easel communicates some of the scale of the drawing.


I see now that I forgot to take the manufacturer’s sticker off the sheet of paper!

My other little sketches are less structured, yet each one seems to get some little bit of information. After a while I was tired but it was still pleasant to think with the pen.

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Even an inaccurate drawing communicates a bit of mood sometimes.  Ideas sneak in.

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The proper structure of the underside of her jaw was a big question. The other special challenge was getting the left side of her face since in the course of posing it would wax and wane as the model shifted slightly.  She was an amazingly disciplined model. No one can sit perfectly still.  Her left eye wasn’t even visible most of the pose but it appears in my large drawing so perhaps it was visible at the beginning.  I’m not sure …

(Some of the other drawings from the life class are here. And the first ideas for the series, here.)

Head seen through color

With a very specific goal in mind, I began

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attending a drawing group a couple weeks ago, and I set myself the task of drawing heads. They will be always larger than life size and always in pastel. Moreover, my idea is to use color to understand the forms — even arbitrary color.

I got the idea when my daughter was attending a portrait drawing workshop taught by Teresa Oaxaca. Whether it was by instruction or happenstance, all the participants produced charcoal drawings that were either life size or larger — many were larger. Their method if I understand it correctly (I only saw the drawings during their breaks and wasn’t privy to the conversations that took place) was to conceive the head in terms of light and dark. The model was strongly lit from one side so that many of the heads had a cast shadow of the chin raking across the shoulders.

Looking at the several drawings, an idea popped into my head: “what if the shadow, instead of being dark, was pale violet?” And in my mind I could see a kind of pale violet such as you often find in Bonnard’s palette.

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Influenced by Fauvisme, I decided to use color somewhat arbitrarily in the ways that Matisse, Bonnard, Diebenkorn and others used color.  Thus I make these images fairly rapidly and instinctively.  There’s much information to process. I see many things I want to record so I just point and shoot. The goal is not to produce a likeness, but to capture as accurately as I can some of the visual incident that catches my notice — however, I am also running the ideas through this mental lens of exaggerated color.  See something, draw it in the manner that you think about it.  So my pictures begin in odd ways and follow no logic per se except that of my attention.  Whatever I notice first, I begin drawing first.

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I discovered afterwards, though, that some priorities govern my choices.  The first priority is color. I choose the colors to relate to something I’m seeing, though the relationship is not literal — not local color.  Sometimes the warmth or coolness of the color relates it to formal aspects of the figure, to whether something comes forward or recedes in space. Sometimes the color relates tonally, but not chromatically to what I’m seeing.

Sometimes the color is a whim, a feeling, a hunch. On the whole, I choose color over tone. Next in priority is line when something linear strikes me as especially intriguing and lastly tone for the sake of the form — in that order.  More or less.

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I have no idea where it will go.  And I like that too. When I’m there, actually drawing, I do very little evaluation of the image. Mostly I react to what I see.  And thoughts about the resulting images are something I leave for later on — for some future meditative moment.

Yesterday the session was all short poses so I never made a large pastel.

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These short drawings are on small sheets or in a notebook. The sheets are about as large as regular photo copier paper.

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This last drawing is a rapid sketch using oil pastel.

Today’s drawing from the model

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I’ve begun attending a life class for the first time in a long time.  I made two drawings, both larger than life size heads in fauvist colors on Canson mi-teintes. The drawing above was my second drawing of the day.  The only pastels I used were Rembrandt 30 count half sticks.

Here’s a close-up of the head.

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