Dynamic Swimmers

advancing swimmersZig-zagging, radiating reflections announce the movement of the koi that swim in lazy formation toward the spectator. The calm quietude of the koi contrasts with the reflections created by their wake. They are dynamic in effect even when their actions are measured and smooth. The waves the koi make as they swim through the pond travel far from the fish ensemble. Their waves announce them to distant places and telegraph their presence to distant shores, saying, “The koi were here.”

Where the koi assemble, coming toward the spectator, passages of warm yellow, orange and red mix with pale luminescent silvery blue and mild violet tones in the level water. They swim in our direction and those jagged reflections begin to fall far behind them.

Dynamic Swimmers is drawn using Neocolors on Nideggen paper and measures 38 x 25.5 inches.

Koi Silk

 

Kois are wonderful animals.

bright fishes

They are lively, gregarious fish.  They are beautiful, graceful and swift swimmers. I often seek a parallel expression when I’m drawing and painting the koi.  I want the drawing to represent the qualities of the fish themselves.  The drawing should be direct and swift-seeming. Sometimes that directness is best achieved through the most obvious means.  Sometimes I draw the fish quickly and boldly so that the gestures of drawing can echo the movements of the swimmers and the water that flows around them. Hatch marks (parallel lines used to create passages of color and tone in drawing) help to further convey a sense of things moving, and calligraphic gestures of line also evoke motion and urgency. This drawing is one where the sense of swift movement — even more than of form — becomes the subject of the picture.  One partly submerged fish is so blurred that his forms are broken into a broad abstract shape and the blur takes on a loveliness of its own. Some pictures of animals focus on their anatomy, but in my koi pictures I have sought the relationship between the fish and the water and the ways that they fuse visually.

Koi Silk is painted using oil pastel on Nideggen paper and measures 38 x 25.5 inches.

The Convergence

DSC_0987 (2)The Convergence shows a group of koi racing across the surface from left to right. When The Convergence hangs together with Racing Koi (below) as pendants, the koi fishes seem to be racing toward each other.  In The Convergence brilliantly orange-colored fishes predominate and their complementary color contrasts brightly with the serene blue of the water.  The fishes’ forms are modeled and dimensional.  Some of their features are clear, and one senses the round slippery, firm shapes of the powerfully moving fish as they push through the water, as they companionably shove into each other.  Koi are “brocaded carp,” specially bred fish noted for their beautiful color patterns and strong hues.  In this picture the brightest colored fishes have accidentally gathered together, filling the center with vivid red-orange.  A linear energy runs throughout their movements.  Dark reflections in the water create lines that also parallel the strong contours of the kois’ bodies with energy that is vibrant and yet somehow soothing.

Converging Koi is a pastel painted on Canson Touch Mi-Teintes paper measuring 28.75 x 20.75 inches.

The companion picture Racing Koi, featured in the last post, is below.

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yesterday’s prep for today’s class

Went better.

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I began making some small oil pastels for practice, using photographic sources. I make them late at night and “some times the magic works and sometimes it doesn’t” as said the old Indian in an old movie I saw ages ago.

I also began making a copy of the head of a painting that I only learned about yesterday via Twitter. Wonderful thing about the internet is that you discover bits of art history that you never knew.  The painting is by Albert Herter.  What I post here will be just a detail from his painting. My oil pastel copy in the works appears immediately below, and his original below that.

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PS – in the “learn something new everyday category,” while I was looking for a link to Herter’s painting, having just learned about him yesterday, I misspelled his name. Well, it turns out that there’s an Albert Hertel who was a painter also.  You can learn about him here.

a koi drawing

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The central tangle of nervous lines is what I see first. I thought I had done about as much work on these koi as I could, but I now realize that all the dynamism occurs in the center. The upper part of the picture remains uncomposed. I put the field of blue there thinking that the solid color was all that was needed. But the nervous green lines of those central fish require some counterpoint from the other sections of the drawing. I was so mesmerized by the center that I didn’t recognize the problem.

I’ve worked on it some more.

I added a fish’s nose at the upper right, which is a better correspondence with the source photo I use.

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I had to get rid of as much blue as I could with a heavy eraser to be able to apply the orange.

After I added the fish nose, I began working on the opposite side simply to put more stuff there, stuff in this case being contrasting marks of dark and light blues.

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I press the oil pastel deeply into the paper sometimes and it frays away the top of the crayon, creating an impasto.

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Without the context of the rest of the drawing, details become episodes of abstract painting. The criss cross hatching on the right depicts a koi’s scales.

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Here’s the fish with the scales again. Ripples of water roll over the fish and into their open mouths.  The network of gestural lines follows these waves.

Here’s the whole thing again after these most recent changes. I might see more things to add or change after I look at it some more.

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It’s 18 x 24 inches on Strathmore 400 series. Usually colored papers work better for pastels (even for oil pastels), but this is a sheet of ordinary white paper. No doubt the white contributes to the over all luminosity of the drawing.

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

the art of making perfect mistakes

drawing little notebook

A friend said, “One of the biggest lessons to learn in art is to proceed fearlessly and to look at things in the light of making them more right.”

Why do we allude continually to our mistakes or to those things we perceive as mistakes?  There is always the disconnect between intention and consequence.  Though one uses the word “mistake,” and it carries all sorts of negative connotations, yet we need the word, we need to make mistakes, the mistakes are just the trace of however much striving an artist went through to get to a certain place.

You can guarantee that you’ll never make mistakes. It’s very simple. Attempt only easy things.  As long as you do only those things you know you can do, you’ll never make a mistake — or hardly ever.  Attempt that which you know to be challenging and you’ll be always making mistakes.  And yet you will be always doing something new, always gaining skill and steadiness.

drawing-sunflowers

I have learned over the years to suspend judgement about what constitutes a “mistake.” If you press on, continually working to sharpen both your perception and your skill in putting things “where you think they are supposed to go” then interesting things can happen. There’s some editing in art — as in writing — that can wait. It’s like a wine, you have to allow it some time to cure. I draw, I put things aside to work on other drawings, and later I look at things to decide what’s what.

In any case, you cannot escape alterations between what you thought you wanted to do and what afterwards you discover you did, so you might as well plunge ahead and keep learning.

My Italy of Thought

Years ago I began a large painting, one of my first large pictures.  Painted it in the living room of my parents’ North Carolina home using a ladder as an easel.  The motif was based on a parcel of land down the street from their home.  I tried to transform it into Renaissance Italy, the sort of place one of Giorgione’s gals would hang out.

These are samples of the several compositional drawings.  (There was a bunch.  I’m not sure what happened to them all.)  Looking through old notebooks, I found this one made in pencil (above) and this other in conte crayon (below).  The crayon adds to the Italian feeling, don’t you think?

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 ….