Cast your line

I want you to imagine something with me.  Imagine we’re at a sparkling lake.  Someone is fishing — perhaps even you.  Definitely not I, but someone is.  He or she is casting a fishing line.  Can you see it?  Slow it down now in your thought.   Play it in slow motion like a film in your mind.  It’s the part of the movie with the most enchanting music. 

And as the fisher casts the line, we see it — and hear it — suspended in the air.  We see the filament unraveling the air, bending with a most exquisite grace, bending backward, reaching forward, as though alive.  It propells forward.  It straightens slightly.  It catches up its own elegance into graceful curves.  It stretches out into space.  The filament cuts into the air.  Molecules slip out of its path.  And it seems like a little eternity that it just hangs there, loose and reaching, ever reaching and finding.  It is a completely sure and true spectacle of beauty.

It is pure linearity.

Hold the thought of it a minute like holding a breath.

That, friends, is what Monet’s drawing is like.  Hidden inside his notebook — like a graphite treasure of simplicity and wisdom — in his unprepossessing carnet, are these lines that drop onto the page endowed with resilient freedom. 

Cast your thoughts upon the vacant air, and they will look something like a Monet line.  See the plain daylight fall into the pond’s depths, see that the reflections are lines like these, thought lines that catch a living reality.

Now that’s a fine, plump fish indeed.

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Teapot’s encore

teapot-again

I was thinking about how I used to  get so lost in looking at objects when I first started drawing, many years ago in my youth.  I did not then always start in a logical place.  Sometimes I just started with the first sensation of color or line that caught my attention. 

Sometimes my drawings were way out of proportion when I did not consider the whole object but instead fastened my gaze on one part — and then jumped to the next part that caught my notice — and then the next — and so on, like a grasshopper holding a crayon.

I was thinking this morning how delightful it would be to draw that way again.  To go where delight leads and let the lines fall where they may.

Naturally with my teapot sitting right there, it became the star of my rejuvenated experiment.
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Into Paradox

flowers21

I’ve continued working on this drawing.  None of the changes and additions that I’ve made to it are even noticable so far, and I haven’t taken a new photo yet.  But I post it again to illustrate what I notice about my thoughts as I continue drawing, trying to go deeper into the image.

One  thing I notice is how difficult it can be to look at the same things — the same still life, the same drawing — day after day and try to find the “new” in it — the present moment.  One’s thoughts can get so crowded with extraneous ideas.  I sit down to draw, but I might actually be thinking about something else.  It’s not that it marrs the drawing to think about other things, because it doesn’t necessarily do that.  It’s just that one might as well have the experience of seeing the things!  That’s what it’s for, isn’t it?

As with playing a musical instrument, once you have learned to play a piece you can reproduce it — almost mindlessly.  But, where then, has the music gone?  One wants not only to hear the music, but to feel it also — to be swept up inside it.  And the challenge in drawing is to be swept up in that.

There’s a paradox about art (perhaps true of all the arts?).  When you are very new to it, it presents lots of technical difficulties.  In painting, learning to draw or to mix color or, in piano learning to read music and to manage ambidextrous fingerings of lots of notes!

Eventually one gets increasingly comfortable with the difficulties — so much so that eventually they aren’t even difficult.  While a beginner, though, one has so much raw desire.  And after one has become more practiced, some of the desire has perhaps been unintentionally tamed.

One needs to find the desire again — even the difficulty needs to become a new discovery.  The uncertainty one fought against, the feeling of failure or the fear of it, the absent confidence — ah, they were friends if only one knew!

To not know how to draw is the most marvellous thing!  In not knowing, one is searching and striving.  Would that make all beginners masters? And are masters all washed up?  No, of course.  But the spirit of beginning is always something to strive toward no matter where one finds oneself in a continuum of “skill.”

Truly the beginner spirit is more realistic also.  To suppose that one already knows is inaccurate.  Reality is always bigger than we are.

I have been looking at my nearly “finished” drawing of flowers and finding a blank slate inside it.  So much about it is still tentative, I think.  Like the edges of the flowers in the vase where they juxtapose the flowers in the textile.  Where does one begin and the other end?  How does one put this into the drawing?  And space and dimension, how are they to be represented in this flat image?

I find that I am almost more interested in ways of thinking about appearances than strictly in depicting appearance. Sometimes my pictures have a strong life-likeness (you see the vase and the flowers, right?) and sometimes the features I find most intriguing lead to decisions that break the illusion.  If you discover a wonderful line, let’s say, and put emphasis on it, the line may bring the whole thing forward, making the picture flat again. And yet one discovers all kinds of beautiful things in the motif — percepts that are hard to resist.

There’s still so much that’s possible in a drawing like this one.  How much more so in the blank page.  The beginner mind is desirable — it is the continual possession of the newness of the moment.

Learning to learn

Reader comments help me greatly to clarify my ideas, and I thank everyone who leaves comments here.  In my previous post about the education of a hypothetical “great artist,” I argue that the most authentic form of art comes from the self.  Moreover, I argued that for this reason, the greatest artists — regardless how much education they had — were, in very important ways, “autodidacts.”

Perhaps I made it sound like an aspiring great artist should avoid schools, books, conversation and study.  So, I want to clarify the idea by saying that, quite the contrary, I’m aware that great artists typically had very thorough and deep educations.  Sometimes they had, like Rubens, a rich formal education.  Rubens’s education in rhetoric, history, language as well as his “internship” with the Carracci brothers in Italy made him a thousand-fold more savvy than the typical, much touted “New York” artist of today.  Monet, to cite a different kind of career, was certainly well acquainted the great paintings of the Louvre and with the main tenets of academic art of his era and had innumerable painter friends of all sorts.

Van Gogh who I had used as a role model of the perfect sort of autodidact did literally isolate himself and set to work learning to draw through sheer hard work and struggle.  But even Van Gogh had a direct “teacher” in the form of a drawing manual, one that was popular in his day by Charles Bargue.  But what distinquishes Van Gogh’s studies from the norm is the keen force of his personality. 

Van Gogh was well acquainted with art prior to his decision to become an artist.  He had worked as an art dealer, following in that a family tradition.  He had been a passionate visitor of museums.  He was deeply influenced by a wide number of artists and traditions.  While it is most unlikely that Van Gogh could have known the particular drawing at the top of this post, by Cornelis Hendricksz Vroom of 17th century Haarlem, Van Gogh was nonetheless probably deeply influenced by the tradition of which Vroom was part.  And for a modern viewer, well acquainted with the masterful graphic vocabulary that Van Gogh uses in his late drawings — all the dots and dashes and wonderfully expressive penlines of every sort — seeing this drawing by Vroom is a little like finding Van Gogh’s 17th century twin.

There are as many paths to art as there are travelers, but upon each path the person taking the journey has to find a spiritual compass within his or her own life.  Yes, an artist should study assiduously!  Certainly, a serious artist is very eager to learn and to see.  But the finding is certified not by outside authorities, but by the quiet, sure judgement of the self.

The Vroom drawing above belongs to the Albertina Museum which is in the process of putting images of its entire collection on line.  Its addition makes another wonderful resource of ideas for today’s artists.

[Top of the post:  Trees behind a Wooden Fence, by Cornelis Hendricksz Vroom  (1591/92 – 1661),  pen and brown ink, brown wash, 28.7 x 30.2 cm, Albertina Museum]

When it’s good to be your own teacher

The presumption is that if you want to learn to draw, you take classes.  And it would be hard to argue that taking classes would be a bad idea.  But a real artist, whether he takes classes or not, is in a certain definite way an autodidact.  The kind of study that leads to great art, or “serious” art, or whatever we want to call it, means being able to teach yourself.  The alternative to teaching yourself would be to have someone else telling you what makes something great or important.  And if you need to be told, how could you possibly create anything great or important yourself?

An innovative artist, or one who does something with exemplary ability, or one who sees things deeply has to learn to find the meanings of things within himself.  Why?  Because the alternative is an artist who needs someone holding his hand, leading him along, guiding the way — and who could this guardian be?  At what juncture would this dependency end?  Great art, the best art, the most thoroughly explorative art has to be something individual.  It’s a syllogism, really.  Insight abides in a logic that we can feel — that we get through a hunch.  Great art has to be innate.  It will arise from earlier traditions.  But it distinquishes itself by a living element that differs from the tradition.  And that something comes from the artist.

The drawing above was made by a great artist.  I once stood in front of it with a friend who’s an art historian who asked aloud how sure we can be that Van Gogh actually made this drawing.  It’s “very crude” — as indeed, it is.  For this particular drawing, much of the evidence rests with the provenance which is quite strong.  I should add that my art historian friend’s expertise lay in other areas, not in 19th century European drawing.

However, her point was an excellent one.  We now regard Vincent Van Gogh as having been one of the greatest artists of the latter 19th century.  What are we to make of a “weak” drawing by a great master?  How do we find the roots of greatness in an image such as this one?  When did Van Gogh change from an awkward draughtsman working in a period style to a great master who creates a radically idiosyncratic, individual style?  And what do the transitions from one to the other mean?

[Top of the post:  The Zandmennik House, by Vincent Van Gogh, c. 1879/1880
charcoal over graphite on wove paper, overall: 22.8 x 29.4 cm (9 x 11 9/16 in.)
The Armand Hammer Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.]

To Mike

          I’m glad my comments were helpful.  Commenting on your drawings helps me as well, since it prompts me to consider how and why I draw.  I guess I want to teach drawing.  I’ve thought about it certainly, but I cannot do so in a traditional studio setting for various logistical reasons, my schedule, family obligations and so on.  But through writing, perhaps I can find an outlet for teaching the ideas that I wish to share. I see drawing as being a wonderful tool for observing life, and through observing things I also see a path to knowledge about life, even to wisdom. 
How perfectly lovely to have a wife who encourages you. Listen to your wife.  (I’ve already written about marriage here, so isn’t that apropos?)  Her advice to keep your drawings, heed it well.  Okay, maybe not every single scrap.  But certainly the ones she tells you to keep!

I know the feeling of being dissatisfied, but you can learn a lot from past drawings.  People think “yes, I’ll learn to recognize my mistakes.”  That’s not what I mean.  If the drawings bother you, stick them in a drawer and get some distance from them.  Later after you gain skill, you’ll gain confidence and then the drawings may prove helpful.  I had ideas from my earliest inkling that I wanted to be an artist — a beautiful shifting mirage of things I saw that held great meaning for me.  I tried to draw them, but lacked the skill.  I was dissatified with those drawings, but I kept them anyway.  Looking back at old drawings now, ah, how  revealing!  To find ideas that I had forgotten — oh, some of them good ideas!  I have the skills now to pursue these thoughts, and because I kept the drawings, I have the reminders of these perceptions, these appearances, that I once wanted to do.

At the time of their making, you may not have recognized that these things you sought even were ideas.  Time of itself provides a means of observing life.  Seeing events through the perspective of time, we see differently than when events are actually taking place.  Time is not just a theme for the novelist.  It has meaning in the visual arts too. 

Well, anyway, you want to spend some of your regular working hours — your art hours — drawing from life.  Even though it’s far more difficult than copying, drawing from life is incomparable because in this direct perception of things, you have no intermediary.  You copy drawings to learn different ways of thinking visually, and you draw from life to learn to carve your own path. 

 
I liken it to target shooting.  You aim your pencil, point and shoot.  Sometimes you miss.  You try again.  But it involves you in a very precise way of thinking and also a personal one.  If you draw what you notice then the drawing becomes a map of your attention and perception.  And that can be really marvelous, and again also provides reasons for keeping the old things — because you may lack the skill to record all that you notice, but even the imperfect attempt gets at parts of it — so, you see, by keeping old drawings you get to bump into your past self.  Another form of time travel.
 
Getting a job as an artist — that is very tricky, I won’t kid you. If you get one, put in a word for me too!  How good are you at self-promotion?  If you’re a strong self-promoter you might find employment as an artist before you’re really “ready” in which case you can (hurray!) learn on the job.  Being unsatisfied with what you do, of course, makes self-promotion complicated.  So, some employment related soul searching is wise.
 
As a hobby, art is a fabulous thing.  Winston Churchill painted to relax so you’d be among quite dignified good company. Perhaps you cannot be an artist full time, but have you considered becoming prime minister?  As to formal training, I was in lots of classes in my youth, but honestly everything I know about art I learned by trial and error and by very careful study of old masters’ pictures. The best art is personal, and the lessons that really count come from inside your head.
 
Well, I’m glad to be able to give advice and especially where your wife’s concerned.  Listen to her.  A man always does well to heed his wife’s wise counsels.  Don’t be “super” critical, just self-critical enough to move forward.  Let your love of drawing guide you.  Love is a good teacher.

[Top of the post:  Winston Churchill painting in 1946.]

Time Travel

If you copy something in order to learn to draw, it’s best to copy something by a great artist, for the great artist has more ideas and better ones than a lesser artist.  So you’ll learn more.  We tend to think that visual materials render transparent representations of things, as though the artist just presents what is there.  But it is, in fact, visual ideas that the artist creates.  They are ideas about appearances and of course they vary tremendously from artist to artist and from culture to culture.  Edgas Degas expressed it well in saying that “drawing is not form, but a way of seeing form.”

Copying a drawing is like doing a brief apprenticeship with its author.  He tells you what he noticed and what he ignored.  What he noticed is the drawing itself.  What he ignored you have to figure out for yourself by comparing his drawing with life.  Engaging in a conversation of this sort means being able to choose your teacher from any artist that ever lived — so long as you have access to his or her images!

I copied Matisse’s 1901 painting La Coiffure in a sketch book while visiting the National Gallery of Art.  It’s not the first time I’ve done so.  One earlier occasion I was visiting the gallery, plodding along a bit sleep deprived from a late night the night previous.  Sitting before Matisse’s picture I just relaxed and gazed admiringly at it.  The afternoon was growing late. I had to go.  But some impulse prompted me to make a fast drawing — just 5 minutes, I told myself.  So I began to draw with a pencil in a little notebook.  And then — amazing thing — it was as though someone were shining a flashlight beam at the painting upon each contour where I drew.  As I copied the line, my brain lit up that part of the painting. 

I was perfectly sober.  I’m a tea loving, tea totaler.  Sleep deprivation can have its own intoxicating effects.  But I want to give some credit to the pencil and my hurry, also.  And to Matisse, of course.  And to an over-worked, but grateful imagination.

[Top of the post:  Copy after Matisse by Aletha Kuschan, crayon on paper] 

How to Draw

It sounds too simple.

You pick up a pencil (or pen), you look at something, you draw.  The best things to draw at first come from nature.  The reason is simple.  We are parts of nature ourselves.  Whenever we look closely at the natural world, we rediscover something of the inner workings of our own souls.

The drawing already exists inside your mind.  Whether you realize it or not, you have preconceived ideas about what things look like.  And then when you observe the thing anew, you also notice some features before others.  There’s an order in your awareness that lies hidden until you begin to draw. Your attention is drawn to particular features in an order that corresponds to your feelings.

Beauty in particular is a teacher.  When we find something beautiful, our attention lingers over it.  And it’s the drawing out of our thoughts, their suspension over time, that reveals the structure of a thing.

A drawing can be very direct and simple.  You can describe the contours of the object to yourself with a line.  This idea of the contour being a line is something we take for granted, yet it’s a remarkable fact about thought.  There is no actual “line” there, only the contrasts between light and dark, only color patches.  The idea of line is tied both to what we already know about a thing’s shape and also to one’s description of this shape as something that passes through a pen over the passage of time.

I wrote something about this topic on Art Writing Bold Drawing, too.  You can find it here.