dix fois, cents fois: Degas’s advice for artists

1157_10200754970055686_113377938_nTen times is probably a good number for deciding if you like a thing.  And a hundred times is surely a good number for mastering it (or for beginning its mastery).

Degas thought you should repeat things the way that a ballerina repeats her dance steps or a musician practices a musical figure.  You gain skill and sureness with each repetition.  But sometimes you also gain ideas.  The differences between one repetition and another can sometimes lead to new ideas. Thus it’s a source of invention in art.


“Il faut refaire dix fois, cent fois le même sujet.”  You must redo — ten times, one hundred times — the same subject.

across the room jan 6 2012

Certainly one hundred times is excessive if you don’t love the thing.  But ten times is a way of gaining skill.  And ten times offers enough repetitions to get to know the subject in a preliminary way — to learn it.  With ten repetitions you find out if you do love the motif — whether or not it’s the right motif for you.

101_8672 (3)

And if after you’ve done the subject ten times, you wish to explore it further then you know that your love is deep.

You could do ten versions of this, and ten versions of that, and discover through the process what kinds of things matter to you.  Somewhere in that process you will find that the subject holds deeper meaning (even if you don’t know what that meaning is).  At that point you want to plunge in and really explore its every aspect.  Exploration leads to invention.


detail of the drawing

I have certain subjects that I return to again and again.  I did not begin them with the idea that they would become my particular venues.  I went into the subject innocently.  But I was heeding some call — even if I was unaware.

I am not sure how many subjects I have — some I’m keenly aware of — the koi, flowers, seashells, certain kinds of landscape.  If I did one hundred of each — GOODNESS —  that would be four hundred right there!

Degas is a strict task master!  But this is all stuff that one loves.  It would be wonderful to do one hundred repetitions of each subject!

Today I’m beginning the Big Tidy Campaign of 2017 and part of tidying is taking inventory.  I begin this inventory with an inventory of my thoughts — and of my fishes!

more of these guys are coming soon


These were the prototypes.  I have a big clean canvas ready for a new version of this motif.  And I’m getting ready to begin it fairly soon.  A large preliminary drawing is in the works.

But note, I used to have a lot of studio space as illustrated above.  Now I’m inhabiting smaller quarters. Thus I am beginning the Big Tidy Campaign of 2017.  The thought of being able to comfortably work on this motif is one of my incentives to action.

Tidying is the chore.  The big koi pond will be my reward.

It’ll be fun to jump into the pond again … though I still have finishing touches to put on a companion piece.  That’ll be fun too.  But first I must reorganize.

the house is getting a make-over

little house resized

Neat people believe that a clean desk is the sign of a well-ordered mind.  Messy people think that a messy desk demonstrates the resident’s vibrant creativity.  Everybody rationalizes their habit into virtue.  Me, I’m a messy person who aspires to be orderly. Actually at this point, I would be pleased merely to get stuff off the floor and have some space in which to move around.  Hence, it’s time to tidy!

I got a book — because that’s how I roll — have an ambition — there’s a book for that! I’m reading “the life-changing magic of tidying up” by Marie Kondo.  The author has spent more hours of her life endeavoring to make this a tidier world than I feel is strictly necessary, but let’s just say that it’s also the bonafide cynosure of her expertise in the topic.  (I don’t think she’s ever heard of entropy.)

My dog will be happy because at present she cannot enter my studio, a circumstance that causes her to stand at the entrance of it and pout ostentatiously.  There are simply too many things sitting around that can catch onto a dog’s tail, thence to spread pigment everywhere as the tail wags.  But when I get things in order, she’ll be able to assume the much coveted role of official studio dog.

So, we’ll see how it goes.  Marie Kondo assures her reader (and their canines) that the effects of her instructions are life transforming.  I stand ready to be transformed!

Off white

I’m painting the kitchen.  The walls will be white.  The colors here are effects of the camera and the photo editing software.  But you can see the texture.

This is the blank wall, like the blank sheet of paper.  Only this blank sheet is much larger than a sheet of paper and I won’t be putting any pictures onto it — not any permanent ones anyway.  I might look at it and imagine my drawings.  Or I might daydream about some other summer day.  It’s my personal movie theatre upon which I can screen the films I have inside my head as I work.

I think it’s good to imagine something there.  To project.  And it can be the beginning of the impulse to draw.

Rearranging the Fish Pond

Yesterday was cleaning day at the studio, a task which I accomplish not with a broom but a ladder.  Time to take down a finished drawing to make space in the drawing corner for a new drawing 58 x 48 inches in size.  Reaching the wall is the goal.

While I was taking koi drawings down to rearrange them for storage, I momentarily had a rather large pond developing on the floor.

I spread them out so I could see how the fish got along with each other.  And the I folded one pond over the other while I was moving things to fix the new space.

It was raining outside.  Water outside, water inside.

The last occupants (below) of the drawing space got their last changes, and now they’re tucked safely away.  And I’m making a new pond.

Finding your inner geometry

When you’re an artist, it’s 24/7.  Always on the job.  You think you’re just buying groceries.  No, sir.  Watch how you arrange the stuff on the conveyor belt.  Order.  Harmony.  Proportion.  Don’t you place those cans just so?

I find that when I place pictures here and there, just gettin’ stuff out of the way, that sometimes — no, often — there are these weird collusions.  Look at how the lines from one painting continue into the next, through different subjects, sizes, and despite the “accidental” placement.

Think that you’re just cleaning the house?  Oh, no!  You’re composing, I tell you!  It just goes with wearing the badge.

What does it all mean?  I have no clue. My paintings mean something to me. The accidentally deliberate confluence of composed lines and shapes means something. I could bend your ear telling you what I think my pictures mean.  But the spectator will, in any case, find his or her own meaning. The artist doesn’t own meaning — nor does the artist understand all the implications of his own pictures.

We live in a society. Ideas hitchhike in our minds like fleas on a dog and find expression through an artist’s work. We borrow or steal without realizing.  There’s always going to be a subliminal element that occurs outside conscious awareness.

It needs other people to figure out art’s meaning, an audience, spectators who sort out the full consequences of what things mean.  For that reason alone, artists should be bold in using their freedom. But before boldness one needs skill.

The Real Me

I was going through a closet at my parents’ house, in the back room that was mostly my dad’s domain.  I was very curious what he had squirreled away over the years, and I found plenty of junkque to be sure, but I was very surprised to find hidden away at the bottom of the closet a bunch of drawings I made my first year in college (that would be during the Jurassic period for any geologists reading this).  Thank you, Dad.

Woaw.  It’s like going back in time and meeting yourself.  I found stuff I didn’t remember ever making, as for instance this collage above.  And the collages (there were three of them) were especially intriguing because I thought that my interest in making pictures by cutting up and gluing bits of paper was of fairly recent vintage, but I see that I was doing the Matisse thing for about as long as I’ve been an artist and long before my love affair with Henri.

Back at it

koi latest

Evidently I was working on this back in April or thereabouts.  At least that’s when I first displayed the image here at a post entitled Do Clean House Occasionally.  I’ve been working on this picture again, bringing it up from its roughed-in beginnings, and gosh darn, I’ve been cleaning again too.  Is that weirdly psychological or what?

I’m getting so organized I scare myself.  I’m in serious danger of losing my membership in the Phyllis Diller fan club (where bicentennial cleaning is the ideal).  Well, organized or not, I cannot have been cleaning all that much because look how much progress I made on my painting.

Head in the Clouds

cloud study1

Drawing clouds from life has been on my “to do” list for quite some time.  Indeed, if we could abolish the IRS, the Department of Motor Vehicles, bill paying, house cleaning, hamster cage cleaning, dirty dishes, and chores in general, I would have made tremendous progress in my cloud studies by now.

We’d have to abolish jazz violin music, too, I fear.  Once I pick up the fiddle, I find it hard to stop playing. 

Anyway, I had some enforced outdoor time today.  The sky was lousy with clouds.  And I finally got around to making a couple very fast studies.  Unfortunately, I forgot to look inside my crayon box.  Duh.  I had no white.  Okay, a few nubbed down crumbs of white crayon left.  So the white of the paper, which natually plays a significant role in cloud drawing, got very little assistance from an added white — to my great annoyance.  But it is my motto that one makes do.  When you’re out in the field eye to eye with Mother Nature, no excuses.  I would have bruised some grass and drawn with chlorophyll if I’d had to — that’s how much cloud time I’ve had lately! 

But, you know what, next time I’m checking inside my box!

cloud study2

As I drew (cursing under my breath, “my kingdom for a white crayon”) I noticed that my clouds were really rollin’ by.  It’s one of the great things about drawing that the very activity of it is so beneficial, notwithstanding the outcome of the drawing itself.  Of course, I’m all in favor of making a nice drawing.  I try to get one as often as I can.  But just watching these clouds in their fast changes, and this attempt to capture in my brain (if not in the drawing) these shapes is so wonderful.  Makes one feel so alive.

Truly one does not appreciate clouds nearly enough.

It’s such a big world, says Vincenzo

I have been house cleaning.  As some of you know, I do this at least once every decade.  I find the most amazing things. 

While I was rummaging through boxes of stuff, I came upon an art brochure advertising dealers in “master drawings.”  One of the dealers advertised itself with a portrait drawing by an artist I’ve never heard of Vincenzo Gemito (1852-1929).  And — I dunno — something about the directness of the drawing just bowled me over.  It’s so incisive.  The artist has wanted to catch every element of the figure, of each form.  A shoulder is as good as a strand of hair for this guy.  And all of it, he seems to find marvellous.

Aren’t human beings pretty wonderful?  And in all their forms, in every ordinary particular, so wonderous to contemplate.

Okay, it’s not what we typically think while standing in line at the Motor Vehicle Administration (as Seinfeld so aptly noted).  But when you feel this wonderment, you should go for it.  That’s what I think. 

The drawing at the top is not the one I saw.  I’m finding other works by Gemito on the internet.  But this drawing is pretty wonderful too.

UPDATE:  I found this catalog of Vincenzo Gemito Drawings on line here.