koi variations

The big koi drawing got a rework.

 

big koi april 9 drawing state 2 (2)A few days ago (April 2nd) I posted a large preparatory drawing that I have used to rehearse a large painting that’s in the works.  The drawing is 50 x 42.5 inches large.  One challenge an artist faces making large works is photographing them.  In my case there isn’t enough natural light available in the room where I work to get a good photograph.  Doing photography outdoors, of course, introduces its own challenges (not the least of which is how to drag the drawing and its huge heavy drawing support outside).

Well, I got the drawing and its heavy support outside. But then I had to locate a place with indirect light because the first and easiest location for my photo shoot produced the image seen below.  Very charming, but not descriptive of the drawing.

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The photo did however prompt a wonderful idea: the photograph with its “clouds” was so lovely.

 Why not make those effects part of the drawing itself?

And I have since altered the drawing (new version at the top of the post) to introduce some of these lights that remind me of cloud reflections floating over the koi pond.  The over-exposed sections of light, made more dramatic in contrast to various shadows, are not real clouds, but they’re close enough to push the picture in that direction, and do note that these effects were still natural ones.

These were lights and shadows I found in nature. I’m still imitating nature here.

Certainly it’s possible to continue a process of this sort, I’ve taken the reworked drawing outdoors again and repeated this process.

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New lights and shadows in new locations on the reworked drawing.

Portraying Nature is a complex endeavor.  Nature is everywhere.  It’s in your head as well as “out there.” Time is a part of Nature too.

The stages are part of the lovely game of painting. Taking the picture into this direction is, granted, not the same thing as making a faithful representation of the motif en plein air.  But it is nevertheless a kind of naturalism and a kind of fidelity too.

the periphery of interest

Contrary to the center of interest is the periphery of interest.

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I was reading a list of forms of cognitive bias and ANCHORING caught my attention. I found it defined as “the common human tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information offered.” It hinders decision making — and hence invention — by getting a person stuck at square one.

In art, it’s certainly true, that the artist who is too focused on the “center of interest” (or as I like to call it the “nexus of focal attention” or the “convergence of visual acuity” or the “intersection of visual collision” or sometimes as simply “the point of no return”) —  as I was saying: such an artist might fail to see the forest because of the humongous big tree blocking his view when his whole face is covered with its leaves.

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I realize I’m babbling — maybe ranting — but I did say that I was turning my blog into a sort of diary.  And in a “It’s My Party and I’ll Cry If I Want to” sort of way, I permit myself an occasional rant from time to time.

I don’t like the concept of “a center of interest.”  Does it show? I file it under cognitive bias. I’m glad to see it has a name, anchoring.

The cure is to get the attention moving around again. I like natural attention, myself, that’s my personal preference. Letting your mind move around, willy nilly, as its wont. But if one’s brain has gotten sucked into the vortex, whether that vortex is at the center or somewhere else in the picture, the cure for the bias is to fasten the attention somewhere else. You’ve got to move it around — diffuse it somewhat,  forcibly, if need be.

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In my notes, I envisioned a grid — a desperate grid for the really hard cases — and inside each square of the grid you examine that portion of the picture to see what beauties it holds. And no I don’t stop there.

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Then you shift the grid a little and you have new passages, and you gaze into those also. And thus the whole image is like a matrix with many doors. Such a picture (obviously this represents an ideal) is like a shimmering tapestry of decisions and observations.

In ordinary time, the simple habit of following your thoughts in the order in which they occur is good enough at last — as a remedy against art books that posit all kinds of rules, the most insidious of which is the center of interest.

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I give it other names to diminish its charm. If we call the nexus of focal obsession by its other names — such as, the vortex of visual obsequiousness, then we avoid its becoming stronger by means of the “availability cascade,” the tendency of oft-repeated messages to be accepted as true simply because they are oft repeated.

So, pst!   Ipsnay the enter-cay of interest-yay.

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Note to self: fighting & the beginning

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A really wonderful painting with minimal technique is something to be sought (if technique is construed as “knowing the means of doing a thing”).  The problem with the beginning is that you don’t know what you don’t know. Usually you don’t know what you do know either.

Generally people think of the beginning as being where the rookie is. What is less often noted is that anyone can be at the beginning in some context. Artists who do the same thing over and over, having mastered it (whatever It is), are arguably no longer at the beginning. They have achieved a mastery in the sense of being able to predictably repeat past performances at a similar level of difficulty with no loss in quality.

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But if you’re the sort of person who wants to be doing something new because you distrust sameness then the beginning is a place you can enter again.  It’s harder, though, than one might suppose. I can become a beginner if I adopt certain kinds of subjects that I have never portrayed. That might be great if these things were things that I want to paint. But lots of things that I never did consist of things that I never wanted to do. Doing those things now wouldn’t represent growth, it would just be stupid.

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So instead the challenge about doing something new relates to doing something that you want to do but have never done before, and more particularly doing something that’s difficult to achieve even at one’s present level of skill so that the challenge really puts you out of the comfort zone.  And THEN, not using one’s present knowledge to just think oneself logically through the technical problems, but rather using one’s ignorance itself as a tool so that you can dig, grab, flail your way along.

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I think I would rather struggle with a new thing than to use what I already know to render the new thing into some homogenized facsimile of what I already know.  Innovation — seeking and striving to get it — is more about immersion in a new experience than it is like coping by using all the old skills on new ideas. I don’t want to prettify the new thing with the contours of the familiar old things.

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Pierre Bonnard self-portrait

 

I want to confront the new thing in all its new-to-me-ness and fight my way through it just like I fought with subjects when I was a young artist.  Is that why Bonnard portrays himself as a pugilist in the series of late self-portraits made in the bathroom mirror?  Well, I don’t know. Bonnard’s intention and his thoughts across a hundred years is not available to me. But I want to find subjects that are hard in ways that formerly would send me to the fainting couch except that instead of retreating to the couch I want to stand and fight.

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Art doesn’t have to be a fight.  I’m not saying that. Art can be refined, easy-going.  It can be a long walk. I’m just saying that if it’s a long walk, I want to walk somewhere I’ve never been before. I am looking for new experience, even in the things I’ve done again and again. I want to experience them in some innocence. I want to be overwhelmed by them. I don’t want to know what I’m doing. I want to figure something out as I go.

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the window at twilight

I’m not sure where the idea came from.

101_8736 (3).jpgIt seemed just to have arrived. Maybe I was thinking about this picture more than I knew because there’s something about it that I like, that keeps pulling me back.

I decided to put the two drawings together.  That was the idea. Put the window with the twilight effect behind the flowers on the table. The decision definitely connects the picture further to Bonnard, and that’s what I want.

I couldn’t find the drawing of the window. I had it just the other day. It sat on top of the pile, but I rearranged things and now the pile is gone, and  I don’t know where it is. But I have been able to make a first sketch of the idea by retrieving the copy I posted on this blog.

I arranged them on the computer screen so I could see them both simultaneously rather like the way they’re displayed here.

Formerly the two things had nothing to do with each other. Now they feel intentionally connected. What luck that I even made the drawing of the window. It had been a whimsical gesture at the time. I had been working in the studio all afternoon. As I was finishing up, I noticed how the light inside the room contrasted with the cool evening light outside as twilight descended. It’s an effect that I always love to see.

I hesitated to draw the scene since it would dissolve so quickly.  I only made the drawing on a kind of dare to myself. What was there to lose? Isn’t that why you learn to draw? To tackle the dissolving, transitory motif, to see how much you can grab before it’s gone? Why not sometimes just swat at scenes, see what you get. So I picked up the nearest sheet and the most ready box of pastels and began drawing very fast. I didn’t even know how much of what I was looking at was “the motif.” There’s just me looking up, seeing colors and finding that I want to stop everything I’m doing to look at them.

After seeing that the window could be joined to the table top motif,  I began to see various ways I could figure out the rest of the painting, too. One idea seems to flow from the others. Why not take the scene apart thing by thing?

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The bowl of apples, for instance — should it hold apples? If so, why three? Should they be arranged this way or some other way?  Why not begin some studies and figure it out? I can go through the whole picture this way, making inquiries of each thing.

The drawing of the compotier that I love also makes me believe it would be good to put different arrangements of fruit in the bowl. This drawing, below —

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Meanwhile, why is the owl there? He has always struck me as being the feature that makes the picture look a bit clunky, but maybe he’s there for a reason? Making more drawings can help me sort out the questions. Can he be a more serious owl?

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I’m starting to feel pulled into this project again. That’s a good thing.

UPDATE:  Here’s another thought for this painting, a shell motif in the curtain.

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Related posts here and here.  Also here.

UPDATE:  Just realizing now how different the relationship of the flowers to the window is in the new idea.  The scale is utterly different.  I like this relationship better than the one I began with — so use it going forward.  Let the composition at the top be the guide.

UPDATE:  Information on owls in art:  https://eclecticlight.co/2016/06/23/owls-and-the-reading-of-boschs-paintings-1/

staying in the game

Count me among the professional artists

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though I’m enough of a student of Degas to feel some ambivalence about the term “professional,” However, art is the main thing I do and I have many pictures now that I’m preparing to market so therefore I am a professional. It’s my profession.  It’s what I do.

Nevertheless I understand the feeling of a serious amateur painter who asks “why am I doing this?” And it’s useful before venturing further to remind ourselves what “amateur” originally means: “late 18th century: from French, from Italian amatore, from Latin amator ‘lover,’ from amare ‘to love.’ Pro athletes were at one time banned from competing in the Olympics because they were paid athletes. The difference between amateur and professional related not to quality, but to money.

Anyway back to art, I have wanted to be an artist since at least the age of 9.  I know this because I stumbled upon something I wrote in grade school (my parents never threw anything away) that stated firmly: “when I grow up I want to be an artist.”  I’ll omit the date, but suffice that I was nine when I wrote it.

I have had many, many bumps along the road in my artist journey (and periods of time when I did almost no painting — as when I went to college where I studied literature). Painting is the thing that always pulled me back whenever I wandered, and it did so because I love the beautiful paintings by the Old Masters and longed for the difficult challenge of painting, have wanted to understand it at its highest level, and love thinking about and experiencing the world of visual perception. I like staring at stuff. Always have.

Moreover while certain subjects perpetually confuse me —  for example my brain has no use for mathematics which I say with no pride — the visual things have always felt like something I naturally and inherently understand.  Even when I had not a clue how to do some art skill (draw a contour, mix a color) I felt that inwardly I understood — that I could figure it out myself if I stayed at it long enough. That’s not to say that art came easily.  I recall that in the days when I first got serious about drawing, my head would ache.  After a session of drawing, I felt overwhelmed with fatigue.  Sometimes I just wanted to retreat to bed and take a nap. I was often having a case of the vapors.

I was young then, bit of a crème puff. As we get older, we get tougher — less quick to wilt.  Art’s struggles were not things I welcomed at first, but they are now. These days I want to make painting “harder.” I look for things that puzzle me, confuse me. I want to attempt things that I don’t know how to do. I come to that eagerness for difficulty from a place of skill.  I’m much more confident because I remember earlier times when I succeeded through difficulties. I face the unknowns by using what I do know. I gained skills over the years. I am eager to stretch and use them.

Youth is wasted on the young!

Still, there’ve been times when I think about a specific work — think to myself that it’s a wreck.  “Why waste my time going further with it?” I have learned to ignore that sentiment. A drawing I have that is now a special favorite went that way. I was drawing my husband’s garden from a photograph and about mid-way it wasn’t working, but I kept going because “what the heck.” It’s turned out to be a very lovely drawing to me now that it’s finished, and is different from other things I typically do.  I am so glad that I didn’t abandon it at that icky, awkward stage — that I kept going. I would post it here, but I haven’t been able to take a decent photo yet.  The colors are subtle, and all my attempts to photograph it so far failed to do it justice. Now that the weather is sunnier I’ll have another whack at the photography.  It’s on the long “to do” list.

I love that drawing. And I wouldn’t have that drawing if I had listened to those doubts. There are other works that were also awkward that I’ve made the last year that I didn’t like so well — one I already posted at this blog though I didn’t report the negative feelings. It’s reposted above.  I know that I have learned things by doing the blue still life above, have gone out of the comfort zone.  I know it because of the negative feelings. So even regarding the blue still life, I’m glad that it led me into new territory. Perhaps at some later juncture that new territory will further develop into something that does have meaning for me, that I’ll care about the way I love the drawing of my husband’s garden.

I could explain exactly what features of the blue still life I don’t like, but it would be too much of a digression in an already long story.

Maybe it’s different from your situation.  This post develops from a long comment that I left at another artist’s blog. I’ve adapted it here — making it even longer! But you and your situation — I have no idea to whom I speak.  Who’ll find these words?  Today or some other time?  I don’t know who you are.  I hope that you’ll consider what I say when I tell you about discouragement — everybody feels it — and persistence.  If you love what you do — or if you want to love it — you must stay the course. That’s the ticket price.

Because painting is my chosen vocation and I’m committed to it unequivocally, I paint come what may.  (By “paint” I comprehensively include drawing in any medium, painting in any medium — oil, watercolor, pastel, other kinds of crayons, colored pencils, acrylic — I have used a lot of different materials.)

I don’t know if you have any idea how awful a violin sounds when played by someone who doesn’t know what she’s doing — especially a cheap violin.

I have another example also — an even better one. It demonstrates that I know something about the difficulties that beginners or amateurs or others on the spectrum of experience feel.  Some readers have known me to reference this topic before. When my daughter was little she began violin lessons through the Suzuki program (the one that emphasizes early lessons). I saw all these little kids playing the instrument, knew that some would get to be good at it in just a few years and asked myself “why not me too.” So I got a cheap violin and began learning along with my kid (I already knew how to read music, but with the violin I found that — for me — learning to play by ear worked better).

I don’t know if you have any idea how awful a violin sounds when played by someone who doesn’t know what she’s doing — especially a cheap violin. It really did sound like I was torturing some unfortunate animal. I didn’t just think about quitting sometimes. I thought about it every time I touched the instrument which was nearly every day. Later I bought a decent student instrument and it sounded a little better but I was still a long way from being “musical.”

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I kept at it. Now after over ten years I am beginning to understand the violin and I play well — not likely to ever be confused with a “real” violinist but I am very glad that I didn’t give up. It opened up a whole new world. I hear music differently now — especially if there’s violins in it. I hear the violins as I never heard them before. I love my violin and have a special relationship to what I learned because I gained it mostly alone (had a few lessons for a while but not many). I did it my way. Just like Frank Sinatra. Cue music (especially the violins).

And yet! When I first warm up, in let’s say the first ten minutes of a session, I often wonder all over again if I should quit the violin — even now — why keep doing it — I’m not very good — etc. I hear all those negative messages again inside my head. I have learned to ignore them. After a bit, warmed up, I play music that I love and I am always getting better. And I enjoy it. It stretches my mind! And I can put on a record album and play along with it. Some professionals can’t do that if they don’t play by ear. Isn’t that neat!

If you hear a voice telling you that you cannot paint, then paint my boy, and that voice will be silenced.  So said Van Gogh.

He knew a thing or two about hearing voices. Sometimes the temptation to quit comes when one is nearest to making a break-through. So if you love what you’re doing — and sometimes even if you don’t love what you’re doing! — I think you gain by having faith, going forward, being willing to see where the path leads, find the new experiences and the new knowledge that it offers. The feelings change.  They wax and wane.  The knowledge stays.

Good luck to you one and all!

[Cat freaked items — available for purchase here.  I borrowed their picture to illustrate my early violin practice.]

Expression, habit, technique

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detail of something or other, hatching

 

Technique — the prize of art pedagogy, the thing that artist’s manuals promise to teach, is (for my money) the thing best understood after the fact, maybe after a century or two of fact, but it’s something that clutters the mind if you’re striving to look at the motif in front of you in any sort of new way. Technique is “how a thing is done.” If a violinist plays a sonata and you hear the technique, the sonata has failed because technique is not supposed to announce itself. What you’re supposed to hear is music, what you’re supposed to see is the painting. If, on the contrary, the painting looks like the artist first did this, then that,  as a series of steps, it has definitely failed.  The more its stages are visible, the more epic the failure.

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Hendrik Goltzius detail of his engraving of the Farnese Hercules

 

Technique that succeeds is hardly recognized as such. If it produces things that seem as though they simply belong, if the still life looks like it just appeared on the canvas, and technique is invisible, that’s art. The paint might be very apparent — as paint. Or strokes of the pastel stick, as lines and marks. It’s kind of hard to hide the graphite in a pencil drawing. The shiny graphite is the beauty of a pencil drawing. Before it’s even a thing, there’s the beautiful graphite line itself. The technique that is invisible doesn’t hide the medium, it hides the process.

If the artist doesn’t know how he did something, the viewer isn’t likely to know either. That’s one for beginner’s luck. A truly clueless rookie doesn’t know how to do anything, and if he concentrates with laser focus on striving to get a picture to resemble the reality he sees, he might just make something astonishing. Making discoveries in art is like making discoveries in any other field. It’s about finding new knowledge. The problem is that once we know a little about art, it’s hard to get that rookie innocence back.

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Albrecht Durer drawing made when the artist was 13 years old.

 

Getting innocence is a very worthy sort of striving. The visible world is marvelous, and we only suppose that we know and understand it. We should allow ourselves full tourist status in this life. Gawk at everything. Why just the sky alone …

La peinture, c’est très facile quand vous ne savez pas comment faire. Quand vous le savez, c’est très difficile.”  Edgar Degas

Painting is very easy when you don’t know how to do it. When you know, it’s very difficult.

(I don’t know what Degas meant. But his words tell me that knowledge, though essential, also imposes barriers to experience.)

Habit is something that you do over and over again without awareness. Habits are necessary formations. Without habit a person would face each experience like Adam at the dawn of creation. Having a habit means being able to act with naturalness and grace because you act without conscious thought, or you think “I will do thus” and then you do it. Intention and action flow together seamlessly. Habits are only a problem when they’re bad habits or when they’re no longer useful to the context. And the best way to rid oneself of bad habits is to over-write the bad habit with a better habit.

Expression is where habit and technique meet reality. You know how to do something, you have a well-learned way of doing it (your habits). Maybe it’s color mixing. Maybe color comes to you so effortlessly now that you see the color and begin mixing it without even thinking about it. Expression involves the decisions that you can make in the moment when you have skill and decide that you want to do something. Expression is purposeful action. But by expression I refer to something that links us to experience like our skin links us to the air. Expression is the thing that can be immediate. It can contain technique. It can over-ride habit.

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early Van Gogh drawing

 

Expression is like doing a thing a certain way every day, and then one day abruptly changing your mind and doing the thing in an entirely different way. Expression is about choosing.  So even the rookie, maybe even especially the rookie, has expression because he’s saying “I’ll do this, then this, then this.”

These are just some random thoughts. If they make sense to you, terrific. If they make no sense, ignore them. I’m not even sure myself what I’m talking about. Sometimes one rambles. The argument against technique might sound like an argument against refinement or classicism or virtuosity, but I don’t mean it that way. Ingres’s drawings, full of difficulties, are miracles of art. Sorting out technique, habit, expression — they are words, ideas, strivings.

Il faut d’abord qu’il copie et recopie les maîtres avant qu’il lui soit permis de peindre un radis d’après nature.  Degas

It’s essential first of all that he copy and recopy the masters before he’s permitted to paint a radish from nature.

Of course, I’m not going to let Degas stop me from painting all the radishes I want.

a glorious procession of days

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Outdoors, drawing ideas about the garden, some of which might make it into a painting — or not. But my eyes see the color and the brain has got to be learning something. So some of it will seep into a little landscape I began this week, my little pochade of the backyard.

Huysum our new dog snuck into the drawing, having found himself a piece of wood to chew. He’s still a puppy and has all those little shark teeth itching his gums as the big dog teeth begin to poke through.

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A new dog, a pencil and notebook page, a glorious spring day all conspire toward making the heart glad. I’m the day’s stenographer, swimming through time, in this little patch of earth, here to follow the angles of shadow on buckets and barrels and the sinuous lines of the squirmy puppy in the bright light.

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Tracing paper is not just for tracing

Tracing paper is not just for tracing.

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You can draw on tracing paper too. You can draw directly on it as you would draw on any other sort of paper. The difference is that you can see through it. So when I place the tracing paper drawing on the cartoon, I can see what flowers will be covered up by the addition of a new flower. It will help me sort out the imaginary spatial relationships of the flowers in the bouquet relative to each other.

Drawing the flowers on the tracing paper rather than tracing them from the drawings I’ve made (or from the sources that I’m raiding) gives me yet another opportunity to rehearse their forms.

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I will have depicted each of the flowers several times by the time I make my painting, and these rehearsals are part of the rationale of this approach to painting. Having practiced them before, I’ll have a different level of preparation.  And I enjoy really learning these forms. It’s musical. It’s like practicing a piece of music.

All this process is part of creating the cartoon for a flower painting that’s in the pipeline, which I wrote about before HERE.

Balmy morning of the painting

I woke this morning with such a desire for work.101_0377 (2) The only problem I ever have is deciding what to work on but this morning I opened my eyes to the thought of finishing the garden picture, the one with the clouds. It was as though I woke up in that scene. The exhilarating light, the balmy air, the intense blues and greens, exuberant growth of plants.

Desire to finish the garden picture was aided no doubt by a little landscape I began a day or so ago.  I paint it from memory, drawings and imagination though the scene is right outside the back door.

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All through the painting session I was popping out of the chair to look out the kitchen door. Throughout the hours I made drawings of the yard, then would paint a little from the drawing I made until blank areas in my mind prompted me to get up and take another look again.

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With each prominent question, I’d go back to the door make another little drawing and I worked this way throughout the afternoon until the light changed so much as to render my questions moot.

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The weather is identical today to the weather when I began. So I might work on the little landscape before resuming the painting of the garden. It was the former that drives this renewed desire to resume the latter. The day is young so I’m not yet sure what I’ll do.

All line all the time, then color!

Line in art is abstract, but it’s so much a part of our mental nature that we hardly notice.  (Maybe we’re abstract? Hmm.)

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Anyway, taking off my Plato hat now, I’m going to be teaching a coloring book class soon.  Coloring books are everywhere.  They are best sellers on Amazon. They crowd the entrance of Barnes and Noble.  I’ve even seen them in the grocery store.  People — evidently, from what I hear — color them to relax. We’re a nervous society, always on the go, and we need to relax.  Well if coloring them is relaxing, just think how relaxing it would be to draw them.  That’s what I say.  So I’m seeking to ride this wave, in teaching, to encourage people to draw.  I’m teaching a coloring book class in July at the McLean Project for the Arts, and my goal is to use the coloring book craze as a step on the journey of draw-it-yourself.

People who are entirely new to art, never drawn anything, “can’t draw a stick figure,” can make a coloring book image without drawing.  I have ways that you can steal everything from somebody else without going to jail.  So there’s that at one end.  At the other end, I have ideas for advanced artists to put more line and linearity into their imagery — that’s where I’ll be going with the idea in my participation in my own class.  I’ll be sorting out the details of a cartoon that I’ll later use to make a painting.  For people in the middle somewhere, I have a ton of ideas for how making coloring book-like images can sharpen the lines in the mind.  “Go linear” will be the motto.

Add color, experiment with color.  Rinse, repeat.