Shoes that make the man

Around the same period when I was painting a bird’s nest over a reclining figure, I painted these shoes over something that was pale green.  The earlier color shows beneath the salmon colored cloth.

I was studying Van Gogh, and I painted not only bird’s nests after his example, but also shoes.  Again, I felt qualms about emulating another artist so closely.  Yet these shoes are also so plainly products of my imagination and not Van Gogh’s.  So sometimes, you see, you must simply trust yourself.

I read this Hemingway quote today about emulation: 

“Y.C.: Listen.  There is no use writing anything that has been written before unless you can beat it.  What a writer in our time has to do is write what hasn’t been written before or beat dead men at what they have done.  The only way he can tell how he is going is to compete with dead men ….

Mice:  But reading all the good writers might discourage you.

Y.C.: Then you ought to be discouraged.”

[Originally from By Line: Ernest Hemingway, pp. 217-218.  Taken here from Ernest Heimingway on Writing, Larry W. Phillips, ed., Scribner’s; NY, 1984: p. 93]

When I painted these shoes, I remember I understood them as being a portrait of the shoe’s owner as well as a kind of self-portrait.  I was also very interested in painting the space between one edge of the shoe’s opening and the other.  The empty air seemed to me as much a subject as anything else in this picture, and I was fascinated by it.  I wanted to make it seem very much that the air was inside the picture, and that this should not just be a question of appearances.  And the ways that the shoe laces fell, the beauty of the lines they described — something that is charged with meaning by gravity and chance — these were also qualities I studied in it.

It turned out to be a very pensive moment.  Van Gogh was a hero to me, someone whose works gave me reason to believe that art was worth striving after, even against odds.  Hemingway’s idea of “beating” the old dead guys is a peculiarly male approach to an idea, but essentially I agree with him.  If knowing the great works that preceed you discourages you, then you should be discouraged — for those things are your teachers. 

This might seem odd commentary coming from me, to those who’ve read this blog before.  I try to encourage, but these are not contradictory gestures.  Even Hemingway doesn’t tell the “discouraged” writer to give up.  Such discouragement in one who wants the prize has to be overcome.  What Hemingway is really counseling is courage. 

I had all sorts of qualms when I painted this, but I painted it anyway.  And that was my courage.

[Top of the post:  A pair of shoes, by Aletha Kuschan, oil on canvas, c. 1988]

Blank Canvas

Lately I’ve been reading books about writing, among them Ralph Keyes’s The Courage to Write.  I was wondering when I saw it why writing would require courage.  If you are writing a powerful exposé on a dictator and you have the misfortune to be a citizen living under the dictator’s rule, I can understand why writing would take courage.  But why would the writing of ordinary books evoke authorial fear?

The blank page has something to do with it.  Mr. Keyes has a nice quote by James Baldwin: “You go in with a certain fear and trembling.  You know one thing.  You know you will not be the same person when this voyage is over.  But you don’t know what’s going to happen to you between getting on the boat and stepping off.”  Seeing writing described in that way makes me want to get on the boat.  It provokes such longing.  Doesn’t Baldwin make writing seem like an breathtaking adventure?

Certainly various kinds of self exposure can evoke fear.  And embarking upon a project which has no predictable end to it could definitely seem daunting.  But in other respects I like the idea of the blankness of beginnings.  I am never afraid of starting a picture.  I am sometimes afraid of “wasting”materials.  I worry that the canvas I’m using is too expensive and maybe the painting will be a flub.  But the pursuit of a new idea always makes me feel like a kid — it’s better than childhood because I have ever so many fewer qualms than I had when I was a child.

The first lay-in of an idea seems like the most open and vibrating moment.  In those early steps, anything is possible.  A painting closes down as choices follow upon each other.  It comes to be more definitely “this” or “that.”  But even the narrowing of the path doesn’t faze me because by the time I arrive there I find that different kinds of new possibilities arise.  The surface lends itself to a million interpretations.

It’s not that I’ve never felt this artistic fear.  I used to approach a new project with fear and trembling.  But these days my worries run more toward concern whether I will succeed in finishing the many things I have started.  The starting of things is so delightful that it’s hard to discipline oneself to stay the course with any particular one.  I have, however, one painting that is taking me years to finish.  It is full of details, and I can imagine a circumstance in which the details keep yeilding to others more minute.  Yet I have no reluctance to work on the picture.  Indeed, it’s one of my favorite pictures.  With it I experience the opposite of my financial qualm:  had I known it would become so complex I would have used a better canvas!

I don’t quite understand the whole “fear” thing.  I have no wish to denigrate it, though.  Perhaps I should write a book.  Maybe then I’ll know what they’re talking about, they who say that writing takes courage.  But of those who say that painting takes courage — and we have our fair share as well — I cannot understand them, I have to admit.   I only used to feel that way when I was younger, and I had so many things that I didn’t know how to do.  I was afraid of getting everything “wrong.”  I feared making mistakes.

I have none of that fear now.  It is not that I know how to do everything!  My ego is not that big.  It’s just that I’ve learned how to learn.  When I don’t know how to do something, I find that some path toward it appears, and I just start going down that path.  Anyway, I’m much less hung up about “mistakes.”  A mistake is such a subjective thing.  Sometimes “mistakes” have such lovely ideas hidden inside them.  They are still mistakes, mind you.  They are those parts of the picture that look out of place.  But I find that a willingness to live with them can open all kinds of doors of thought.

After all “reality” in that sense of what an optician means when he says you have 20/20 vision is all around us, and we can look at it all day long.  But thoughts are so personal.  I like a picture that is full of thoughts.  And we so often find them in our mistakes if we will but look, for what is a mistake except something one aimed for and missed?  Or did you even miss?  Do you know what the idea even is?

Contemplate your mistake a little, and you learn what it was you aimed for and what you desire.

[Top of the post:  Early stage of a painting posted earlier in this blog, Woman in White, by Aletha Kuschan]

Learning to Draw

Most books that teach drawing have demonstrations that look something like the sketch above (taken from this source).  They begin with an oval-ish shape, horizontal and vertical axes, short smudge lines placed in strategic positions to represent nose, eyes and mouth, and so on.

They begin with the idea of a whole face, a regular or typical face, a norm.  They specify very simple directions that promise to be easy enough for anybody to learn. 

They are okay, as far as they go.  I wonder when I see them: are people really this afraid of making mistakes?  It’s just a drawing. 

If you want to draw, but are afraid to draw, try rules like these to get past your qualms and your reluctance.  But that said, the recipe for faces is a very inadequate approach to drawing.  Really, to be truthful, it’s an awful approach.  It is completely reliant upon very limited, conventional ideas of what a face should look like.  It holds no hope for anyone who wants to explore his or her own sensations of seeing.

If you want to draw, your first challenge is just picking up a pencil and beginning.  But if you are brave from the beginning, you will reap benefits later on.  Forget ovals and proportions.  Imagine instead that the object of your attention has lines wrapped around it.  Imagine placing your pencil upon one of those lines and copying it upon a sheet of paper.  Do not even care (in the beginning) overly much whether your lines match these lines in nature.  Just try (very hard) for the nearest match you can get.

If your lines cannot match at first the spectacle of what you see, at least have them be your lines.  What you saw, what you felt, not the recipe for conventionally considered faces.