I’ve done a certain still life motif many times and ought to know it by heart, and yet I find upon trying to draw it from memory that it becomes vague. I keep wondering how I can train my visual memory, and the only way I can figure to do it is by simple exercise. I make the drawings and see how much I can either remember or invent.
I suppose that’s the key: when memory fails, begin inventing things that might be there. Then if you cannot remember everything at least you have begun building another skill — imagination.
People who routinely draw from imagination may wonder why anyone would find it difficult. But nearly all the drawing I’ve ever done has been done in front of something. I am so habituated to looking at whatever I draw that it is difficult to pull things out of the empty air — or “from the space between my ears” — but the more I do it, the more natural the task becomes.
A painting that portrays koi fish swimming in a pond has lots of possible meanings — particularly for whoever believes (as I do) that the actual fish mean something. But when an artist like me is working on such a theme, and there are many different versions of these fish, what do the differences between one version and another offer in the way of meaning?
Monet had the hay stacks, the water lilies; he studied the changing light from a single vantage point. I study the changing patterns of the fish as they swim. When I deliberately move a fish from here to there because the change seems like it would make the image hold together better, then I am making the fish swim in new patterns. Rather than watching the fish swim, I am moving the fish myself.
Different versions, different patterns portray slices of time. A camera stops the light and a transient moment of a koi dance appears, not otherwise visible to the eye. When I move drawn fish around, tweaking the frozen captured dance to suit my purpose, that’s fiction. But it means something to me. No longer the visual architecture of fish swimming in their watery herd, it’s a floor plan of my mind’s desire.
It’s koi math, koi logic. Or that’s what I tell myself anyway.
What I learned from Henri Matisse: “Look at Nature. Make stuff up.”
It’s not easy drawing from life. Clouds float away. The light changes. Stuff happens. If you attempt to depict everything “exactly” the way you find it you’ll go bonkers. So you look at Nature and make stuff up.
That’s what I did in this one, though I cheated a little, was looking out a window.
If you can imagine it, you can draw it. Took me many years to realize this fundamental fact about drawing. Much of the work of becoming an artist is caught up in learning how to “imagine it,” — in even recognizing what “imagining it” means.
I was looking at these flowers when I drew them, but the whole act of looking involves an imaginative gesture too. The image of “what you think you see” as it organizes itself in your mind.
I love my compotier so much, I draw it first thing I wake up, even if I wake up at 4 in the morning. It appears in the corner of a pen drawing I made this morning and described in an earlier post, but I give it a spotlight of its own because it’s my wonderful compotier — dreamed and imagined!
I woke around 4 a.m., stirred and then I realized I was really awake. Didn’t want to risk waking anyone else. So I padded to the kitchen and made a cup of hot chocolate, then I padded back to a comfortable spot. There was enough ambient light from the street that I never turned on a light indoors. And while I drank my warm cup, I pulled out the black pen and started drawing in the dark. I could see the large shapes, but not the details of the page. And there was no still life except the one I was thinking about.
It’s an interesting freedom got when you are drawing just thoughts without their having to be anything. And at 4 o’clock in the morning, one is not likely to demand of a drawing made over a warm cup that it be anything.
I noticed my kid’s latest art project today, chiefly because it’s sitting on the floor of the car on the passenger side, looking remarkably like one of those floor protectors that the mechanic puts under the pedals when he climbs behind the wheel of your car. It’s supposed to be a mask or something. Made from a large sheet, it has openings cut out to represent eyes and mouth. Maybe it’s a pumpkin. It might be orange on the other side. I don’t know. Never bothered even to look, it does such good service keeping the muddy feet off the pathetically soiled carpet on the kid’s side.
The appearance of this artifact set me wondering once more why art is not taught in schools. There are many recipes in the art curriculum, but not much thoughtful content.
Art teachers do not teach art as a subject like other subjects, as a discipline. They do not encourage exploration for exploration does imply that there is a destination at long last. What one gets in the place of curiosity are recipes — sure fire instructions for easily achievable ends. So I’m thinking that perhaps I shall start doing an occasional post expressly for school teachers. The first thing one must persuade teachers to embrace is the idea that it’s okay to make mistakes.
Artists draw all manner of exploratory images, sketches, caprices, ideas tossed off.
I pause from time to time while I’m working just like anyone else. And during one of today’s more memorable pauses my mind wandered off to consider the question of still life again. I was sitting facing my koi painting which I’m just now resuming, but my thoughts had drifted to the possibilities of cabbage — even of many large cabbages, perhaps. With them might be sleek white leeks, and dusty brown potatoes, and the whole was to be surrounded by the most lovely rich darkness of browns and inky black shadows. I began quizzing myself why I would be painting this thing, a large modern “larder” picture.
The larder picture would be a study in the beauty of young shades of green like the first sprouts of spring grasses or like the cold sturdy welcoming leaves of a stout cabbage. Around it all, darkness. So, how do you make the colors be like layers of light? Or the dark, like layers of darkness?
I got back to work today after a detour of over a week spent doing life’s unglamorous, necessary chores. Fittingly I dove into the koi pond again, ever my refuge. Here’s what I was able (joyfully, indulgently) to do during a day’s session.
My fish swim into the pond from left to right. Here they come now.
Before long the pond is full and almost everybody’s arrived.
The koi begin to separate into individual identities.
And as I left the pond today, the water was becoming a darker blue, some koi were getting their spots and stripes, and a reflection or two waved over the surface of the water. During my next visit to the pond, I’ll layer colors one over another through the whole pond, filling out fish personalities, peering into the pond’s entire watery warp and weft.
It’s good to be back.