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 Snow-proof Refuge of Thoughts

My snow-proof refuge is my imagination fitted with an oil pastel box.  After digging out of all that snow, I’m longing for the color green and cannot be bothered to wait for nature to provide it.

Of course spring is just a couple weeks away, and already we are feeling hints of pleasures to come.  And you see robins everywhere.

Call me an early adopter.  I’m doing greens now.  I’m getting warmed up.  And when spring breezes and leaves arrive  in earnest, me and my paint box are going to be ready!

Self Portrait of Imagination

Have you ever had one of those idle moments when your mind wanders, and you seem to see yourself as though you were in a scene from a movie composed of your own thoughts?    Some part of your “me” who is the director tells the cameraman where to stand to get the shot, and the actor begins to act — except you are the director and the cameraman and the actor, and it all takes place in your mind during a split-second in time.  It is not how you see yourself in fact (from the chest down, no face, just arms, hands, a front of a body but no back of a body), nor is it the way you see yourself ordinarily in a mirror (front only and in reverse), but it is instead a scenic way of imagination-seeing of yourself from whatever angle the camera of your mind happens to pan, perhaps from above, or from behind, or from the side, or the front — perhaps interacting with others, seeing indeed the whole space in ways that you don’t actually really see.  No photons are injured in this imagining because it’s all mental.

I must have experienced this many times before I was ever consciously aware of it.  For my conscious awareness of it, I thank Julian Jaynes and his book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, which I read back during the Jurassic era.  It’s called “body image”  and it’s a real gee whiz how does my brain manage to do that kind of thing.  Mother Nature is so clever.

Of course as I describe how I was thinking about all this today, that becomes another self-portrait — but I’m getting ahead of myself.  I was wondering about Degas.  Someone’s comment had set me musing about Degas as my “first love” in drawing — when I was young — when I loved with the passion of the young.  Then I was thinking about the differences between copying something by Degas (an excellent exercise) and drawing something in a way like Degas drew — assimilating his ideas as he assimilated the genius of Ingres.  Then as I thought all this stuff, I began to see myself thinking about it.  (It was just a moment of navel gazing, honest.)  And then I wondered “what would it be like to draw the image you have in your mind as you imagine that you see yourself?”  It would be a self-portrait of the body image.

Wish I could report that I sat down then and there and pumped out a dozen drawings.  Would that life were so generous with time!  But I had “miles to go before I sleep” and consequently made only these two little drawing pages.  Perhaps I shall do some more later.  For now, I pass the idea along for the adventurous reader to try a few of his or her own.

To any psychiatric professionals who might happen along this post, really I’m fine.  And to bibliophiles, you have to admit: Jaynes deserves some kind of medal for construing one of the more ambitious book titles

Meanwhile, the nice thing about body image is that you can imagine yourself younger than you are!

Shell Topography with Coffee

shell linear shell

I have  a shell I like to draw.  It’s my old friend, the subject I return to when I want to rediscover something.  When I want to find a new way of thinking about visual things, I go back to my shell.  It’s familiar shapes hold many mysteries — all new. 

Meanwhile turning from my “serious” drawing, I pause and have some coffee.   I doodle during my break.  I let my pen go willy-nilly along whatever paths whimsy chooses.  So I drew this while I sipped coffee.  It was my break from a longer, more studied drawing.  I tried to let my pen follow across the contours of the shell’s surface — along it matters not what directions — zig-zagging this way, that way.  The technical name is “cross-contour” drawing.  I was thinking along the lines too of something that computers are more adept at making, topological drawings.

In any case, these lines were lazy coffee, idle thoughts talking, stream of consciousness with a pen line,  taking a break, kind of drawing.

By the sea, in thought

conch sea shell

Still collecting sea shells far from sea.  The colored pencil scribbles have won my heart.  The merits of any particular medium draw one in — but sometimes also the way that a tool resists helps one think.  The blunt ends of the pencil have made me look at all the edges in the picture as more porous than I had hitherto considered them.  And then the shell itself becomes porous as well.  It seems to enlarge in its associations.  Do I hear the sea inside its chambers?  Does its pearlescence tell of other kinds of light, of dawns and twilights in distant skies?  What lies behind the veil of any drawing — or more’s the point — what lies behind the veil of the object itself?  The photons it scatters into my vision.  And what is its meaning?  Especially after the creature who made it has long left it behind?

In search of freedom

Whimsical landscape in pen

Our summer mornings have been so fine.  We open the windows early during this the mildest summer of my recollection.  Washington DC is famous for its humid, boiling summers (which I have always loved like a turtle loves the sun).  But this year our summer will be famous for its mildness, and we have savored this mildness for the rare loveliness it offers.  The breezes waft through the rooms, rattling the blinds, rustling papers, scattering thoughts and dreams. 

I sat in this ocean of air and drank my morning tea like a rich monarch, wealthy beyond counting in photons and molecules of atmosphere.  With all this heady luxury, I plotted out my course.  I decided that I would rule with a kind pen, but that my empire should be vast and free.  What if one’s thoughts roamed wildly?  To draw whatever one pleases.  The drawings can come from anywhere: from photos, from life, from bits of paintings one sees in the museum, from imagination and memory, from dreams and wishes. 

Wherever you are, with whatever medium you possess, on sheets of any size, in colors of any hue, to make careful tight drawings of a world you love with obsession or fast, frivolous, whimsical drawings tossed off as fast as thoughts fly.    Blind drawings proddingly, probingly made as though stumbling and fumbling through a fog or mist, the mist — the world.  The world a shining veil before one’s eyes.

What if you drew whatever popped into your head?  What if you took all your limitations and used them?  Push everything to the edge.  Let whimsy rule.  To draw anything, anytime, anywhere.  And to seek a perfect freedom of line in a royal realm of images.

Invention is the Mother of Necessity Fille

attrib to  A Carracci

It started out with Necessity.  She was invention’s mother as in you need something, you make something.  She was like some mothers who say, “go make something of yourself.” 

So Invention did.  Invention made so many things.  And then we got used to the things and decided we couldn’t live without them.  (We’re like that with computers now — remember back when we didn’t have computers…?)  So, soon the inventions are necessities, which in turn become mothers to more inventions. 

Got that?

It’s a classic mother/daughter resemblance.

I found this image in my book on Annibale Carracci.  I used to not own a book on Annibale Carracci, then someone invented this particular book, and it became my necessity, and I couldn’t live without it.  And I don’t.  I bought a copy — where I found this picture — which now I share with you.  Actually, to be picky, it’s only attributed to Carracci.  But what the hey?

We should all be making something like this.  It’s very modern.  Faces looming out of landscapes.  Feeling the inspiration yet?

Drawing and Dream Fishing


I have been painting koi, and some might wonder what techniques lie behind the paintings.  Ever since the French Impressionists, we’re accustomed to the idea of painting landscape from life “en plein air.”  And I do sometimes visit my friends the koi with a notebook and make sketches. 

However, most the drawing and painting I do of the koi grows out of photographs.  Indeed, I could not pursue the images I make without the camera.  And the use of photography in these koi paintings I make leads me closer than ever backward into the techniques of old masters.  Prior to the 19th century when paint was first put into tubes, artists made sketches from life, but all their serious painting of nature took place in the studio and depended greatly upon drawings, imagination and imitation of works by other artists.  Art has always been influenced as much by other art as by “reality.”  And it’s still true, of course, though we are not always aware of the subliminal kinds of imitation in which we indulge.

My paintings develop from photographs because the camera can stop time, and thus it captures a natural effect that I cannot see with my eyes.  For instance, while one can makes lots of drawings of individual koi swimming about (which is hard enough), one cannot capture the complex relationships of many moving fish to each other.  Yet when I study my photographs I find that the koi navigate their watery paths in herd-like ways.  Their passages through their “fluid-scape” is more than the sum of individual parts.  Beautiful patterns emerge as they swim sometimes in concert, sometimes in solos, and sometimes in gentle and amicable “collision” courses during which they bump into one another and exchange a brief but cordial greeting.

Thus I need my photographs, yet I do not just copy them.  I often make drawings — studies — from the photographs, just as one makes studies from life.  Through this process of preliminary drawing, quite often new visual ideas emerge, and sometimes it’s these ideas that affect the painting as much as the source photo(s).  Then too, I sometimes recombine elements of several photos to invent a new composition and in this regard I find myself doing a modern revamp of a very ancient “old master” process. 

Sometimes I make “quick” sketches from the photos (as in the picture at the top of the post) — though I have “all the time in the world” to copy a photograph.  I find that the quick interaction with what I see helps me seize some aspects of the imagery and — equally valuable — to ignore other features, distracting details perhaps, in the search for whatever visual gesture finally expresses this “je ne sais quoi” that I want.

The painting you make is never exactly the same thing as “reality.”  Whether the artist stands before the motif, or works in the quietude of an insulated studio, the real subject of the picture is the interior landscape of the painter — the one inside one’s head.  As Degas said: “L’air qu’on voit dans les tableaux des maitres, n’est pas l’air respirable!”  And that goes double for the water!

More Fast Landscape: Repetitions


This painting actually bears little resemblance to its reference photo.  It’s a distant cousin from its source.  I will be going outdoors again (someday, alas!) to paint in front of the motif.  But until that happy day, I work from photos and alter them to suit my whimsy.

Painting landscape by whatever means is great practice for dealing with Mother Nature’s more urgent and changeable moods.  But it also reminds you that art is art.  In the final analysis I must persuade the spectator that this water and these clouds are like the ones he carries around in his heart.

Meanwhile, I have done this landscape before.  Using the same photo, I produce different pictures.  It is as though I visit the water again on a different day under different skies.

More Fast Landscape: Water is a Mirror


Anything with water in it seems very psychologically suspicious to me!  Water is Nature’s great big mirror, and all landscapes with water strike me as sideways alllusions to Narcissus! 

Look into these waters and see the waves in my mind!  Cause I’m deep!

But, really.  Blue is such a rich, luxurious color.  We are all wealthy beyond our dreams on a day when we stand beneath a deep blue sky.  I make this series of landscapes in my apartment studio from photographs and imagination.  Sometimes the weather outside has been frigid and grey.  But indoors its 72 degrees, humid and mild beyond measure beside the river bank of my thoughts where many singing birds sound out their bright chorus.