First Note to Self

Thinking about using Fridays to debrief myself. I have been thinking a lot about productivity and how it’s managed. Usually what holds the artist back is not obstacles per se, but doubts. Sometimes situations can mess up your schedule, that would be my week this week — spending hours on the phone trying to straighten something out with no success at all so far. Before yesterday was over, though, I told myself I’m going to get some painting done. During the evening, as a consequence, I had one very productive session of painting. These days, at the very least I tell myself: “Just open the tube, put some paint on the canvas, pick a color, any color, put it anywhere.” That’s enough to prime the pump and get some real painting going.

In the past I have done small junk paintings, various “nothing is not right/anything goes” paintings for the purpose of learning. I’ve never done a big one. Always a bit more cautious about bigger things. One worries about wasting materials. But I know enough about subliminal painting now that I am much more able to throw caution to the wind. That’s actually part of the plan for the coming days: to create a few larger devil-may-care pictures.

Wu wei. Isn’t that what it is? That’s the Oriental name for a certain kind of not-trying, a complete nonchalance. The sprezzatura of Castiglione’s courtier. One wants to be a James Bond of art. Fearless, relaxed in danger, elegant. Yet to pull it off, you must be always finding ways to trick yourself. Turn off the hesitations, go directly into the perception. I am continually trying (and more often now succeeding) at just painting.

When I paint it should be similar to the way the dog wakes me in the morning. He’s polite but insistent. Sticks his nose in my face, looks me straight in the eye and informs me that it’s time to get up and feed the dog, please. I have to work on my drawing skills so I can portray that beguiling wild look. He has the most extraordinary keenness in his eye. And he makes sure we’re eyeball to eyeball. Insistent but polite.

Lately I’m making these small colored pencil drawings. No particular reason why colored pencil. Just a change from the oil pastel. Whenever my schedule permits I’m going to do some traditional pastel images, but it’s too complicated now. Just too much bother. The colored pencil drawings are fun. They’re small and manageable. Sometimes I do them while watching a program. They’re a great sort of automatic drawing. I don’t even have to pay attention very closely.

I’m developing a kind of musician’s fake book of images, tunes that I can revisit and use for improvisation. At some juncture I’d like to paint a large picture completely from memory and imagination. So that wouldn’t be so different in truth from what Diebenkorn did all the time. But we get to a destination by different routes. And it’s not as though I want to do that from now on forever — it’s just another thing to try. All my previous work habits still suit me just fine.

The drawings are already interpretations, usually from photographic sources, though not always. Drawing from a drawing or painting from a drawing creates an interpretation of an interpretation. It becomes imaginative drawing, making things up as you go along — or at least a path toward that direction.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the format as a Cartesian space, one where you could theoretically put any shape anywhere. You try “this spot” — what’s that look like when things are organized around “this.” What about if you change that first notation in the succeeding little drawing: I want to learn at some point how to do a painting from one of those little blue ball point pen scribbles that I enjoy making so much. Monet did a loose representation of one of the waterlilies in a notebook. Loose sinuous lines suspended across the page, the sparest silvery graphite traces.

I’m very eager to produce a lot of the largish landscapes, rather as quickly as I can. I want to see what effect the speed of production produces also. Sometimes if you work quickly enough, you don’t have time to think. That too is a way of tricking oneself into intuition. I also like the physicality of it: it’s like mowing the lawn or washing a big stack of dishes. You can look back afterwards and see the clear effect, the job accomplished.

The picture at the top is there to remind me of the destinations — pictures in rooms, rooms as mental and emotional spaces, moving through rooms of a house as though through passages in a dream. Quotidian topography. The shape of moods, times, and moments. Bonnard notebook drawings as rooms, thoughts about rooms. Your smallest notebook jottings can produce a grand effect. The singularity before the big bang. Never underestimate the little notebook jotting.

The disruptions of the week were unfortunate, but c’est la vie. The three pictures in the studio now are the focus. Retrieve that focus by deciding now what each one needs.

  • The hills motif is the most free for all. Complicate the color effect in whatever ways seem interesting in the moment. You can get the linear aspects from the source drawing or leave them out.
  • The hills, shrubs, trees & reflections picture can remain basic. Stick to the pristine version. The looser more drawn version can save for another time.
  • The mountain picture shifts back toward the drawing. Draw over the painting thus far to get the lines back using bits of both linear source drawings.
  • Start the California scene from the two small darker painted versions. Also a good motif for the next sequence of colored pencil/Miss Marple drawings. (Or whatever you’re watching next.) Getting the image blocked in will make up for the vast waste of time encountered from this week’s mindless bureaucratic distractions.

Target date

Finish the three canvases by next Friday. God willing.

If you’re reading this and you’re not me, I hope you’ve enjoyed hearing me talk to myself. Do wish me luck getting the three canvases completed by Friday for this week has been in some ways a productivity disaster — except for the marvelous background sound of red-eyed cicada song. Certainly the bugs have done their utmost to serve as artistic muses.


in between times

rock creek park scene

Courses in life seldom run straight.  Like a river or creek they bend against time.  I work steadily toward my “big painting” project and yet it seems to be standing still at present.  In between times I am also beginning to draw landscapes outdoors in oil pastel.  I made this drawing quickly.

Might be going out again today.  These drawings — at present — aren’t ones that I set out to make — not yet — not so far.  They are instead things that I do while I’m waiting around for someone else.  So sometimes when I am on someone else’s schedule, I still draw.  I am finding more and more that bits of time gathered here and there are useful for seeing.  I probably never would have made this drawing had I not found myself momentarily at loose ends.

And you never know where these things lead.

indoor “plein air”

tree at Botanic garden mar 18 18

I went sketching with my sketching group to the Botanic Gardens at the foot of the United States Capitol.  Inside the enormous greenhouse you can do “plein air” sketching indoors.  Great option for cold weather for the faint of heart non-outdoors-persons like myself — though for the record the weather the day of our visit was magnificent!

Above is my drawing using Caran d’Ache Neopastel of a tree growing in the corner of the main gallery.

keen scribbles

corner crepe myrtle drawing

I feel an unabashed love for the material appearance of oil pastels (Caran d’Ache Neopastels to be precise).  I love to describe somewhat “loopy” forms with them.  I love mixing colors by abrasion.  I love the way that you can drag one color across another and create as it were almost veils of color.

So even when the situation is stalled (as I make drawings for a painting that I’m unsure how to complete), I can nonetheless love the act of drawing because the materials themselves are so beautiful.

I have rehearsed these forms many times and they still hold my interest.  Indeed, it’s stronger than that. They hold me captive.

Teaching drawing at MPA soon!

MPA refers to the McLean Project for the Arts in McLean, Virginia, and I’ll be teaching drawing there during the winter session.  Here’s some of the things that class participants can look forward to doing.


Continuing Drawing
For both beginning and continuing students seeking to improve their skills. Hone your drawing and observational skills in this dynamic class as you draw from life and subjects of your choice. Gesture, line, proportion, mass, volume, value, tone, perspective, and shading will be covered. This class will provide a strong foundation for any level. Optional prerequisite: I’ve Never Held a Pencil: Drawing for Beginners.
Instructor: Aletha Kuschan
9 lessons @ 2 hrs, $260/235 MCC district residents
6607.317         Tu, 1/17-3/14              4:30 – 6:30 p.m.
The class features a systematic and fun introduction to many, varied ways of making drawings.  We’ll draw things from life.  We’ll draw things from memory and imagination.  We’ll make quick adventurous, exploratory sketches and we’ll do sustained and probing drawings of things.  We’ll create tableaus of objects to discover the theatrical side of art.  We’ll look for ways to reduce inhibitions about trying new things, and we’ll talk about how artists get new ideas for their art — both technically and narratively.  This class is the big buffet table of drawing, and I guarantee it will be a lot of fun.  Beginning artists will dive into a ton of interesting things to explore and experienced artists can find ways to advance their own goals by a careful reassessment of the foundational skills.

Some features of the class are outlined in more detail at this post, including what materials artists need to will need to have.
Here’s a link to MPA’s website.  Class registration opens on December 12!

Thinking about

I have to think about the stuff before I paint it — these days, at least.  Formerly I would set up the easel and have at it, but nowadays I typically must obsess over the thing some, fuss over it, sneak up on it, walk around it, muse, mess with, improvise a jazz riff or two over it.

So I have another painting on the “to do” list that’s been in a holding pattern since August, and I must go through the picture courtship ritual.  Decided that this time, I’d start with something simple and direct. 

Picked up the pencil.

And where I began ….

Summer Children

Art ought to portray our hopes and longings.  It ought to lead us into questions about why we’re here and life’s purpose.  While art can be about any of the concerns of mankind, it ought sometimes to be about wonder and delight and celebration.  And nobody knows how to celebrate life like a child does.

If we look at children and watch what they do with complete spontaneity and abandon, we should ask ourselves what they know that we don’t.  Or what they know that we’ve forgotten.  Children are true connoisseurs of living.  Whenever I see a child play, it reminds me that I’ve good cause to be thankful.  A child’s world is real joie de vivre.

[Top of the post:  Drawing of Two Children  by Aletha Kuschan]