Finding the Abstract Details

I have been wondering, for myself and maybe it’s relevant also for some kindred spirit somewhere among contemporary artists, what happens if you begin in the place where Pierre Bonnard left off? How do you assimilate someone else’s insights, make them your own, and then take them in a personal, individual direction? I have loved Bonnard for a very long time, but I have always been a little timid about following him too closely because what if people thought that I don’t know how to draw?

It’s one of those silly thought patterns that interrupt one’s intention and disturb one’s courage.

The question about the path, however, is not exclusively about Bonnard. One could ask the question about any artist at all. You could love Botticelli or the Rohan Master and want to modernize them in the sense of reinterpreting the art through your own life and circumstances.

Anyway, to emulate one’s hero, there’s many things one has to learn. Also, you find the manner of learning that suits you. If you’re familiar with Bonnard’s art, for instance with the many drawings that lay behind his images, you’d recognize that the drawing above is not the sort of drawing he made. It’s too abstract. In this case it’s not a drawing of any thing: it’s a drawing (a further interpretation of) an abstract part of the painting I’ve been working on (below). It’s a scribble of some brushstrokes that were already without clear form. But for me it was simply a sketch I wanted to make. It was a way of thinking about the gestures of shapes.

The whole painting (above) measures 36 x 60 inches. I have made numerous drawings, some large, some small, for its design and I stole the initial motif from a famous artist who is not Bonnard. More and more I invent its parts, being guided by what’s already there. It’s like looking for objects inside clouds. I firm up things that seem to exist as hints.

And with thoughts about Bonnard I have become much more careless about the color too. As one sometimes does with drawing, I began painting parts of the picture with my non-dominant hand (left in my case). Using the non-dominant hand seems to break through much hesitation. I find myself not only working with a different freedom, but thinking about the picture with a noticable letting go.

The whole definition of a detail changes. The details are not leaves, grasses, tree boughs — or not exactly. They are instead blobs of color, dots, dashes, veils, strokes, various marks. Then you realize that there’s no obvious number of them, no obvious conclusion. You could continue dotting and dashing the picture forever in theory. (That was Bonnard’s problem actually.)

Of course one does stop eventually and at last. Whatever’s there when you do stop is the picture completed. I am not at the beginning of this process nor at the conclusion, but somewhere in between today — not sure quite where. But it’s an interesting development. It’s a change for me. And it’s nice to be continually learning.

Does anyone have a guess which famous artist I stole from?? If so, leave your answer in the comments. Other comments are much welcome too.

And if you liked this post, please consider sharing it on your social media. Thank you for reading!

Answering the question “why”

drawing of a basket by Pierre Bonnard

As I said already, the path to a clean the house is not a straight line.  I take detours. Reading Marie Kondo’s book “the life-changing magic of tidying up” gives me ideas for how to clean my house and unclutter my mind. Once I am living inside that less cluttered mind, there’s the question of what to do. I am also reading a book on mindfulness.  I found it at the end of the aisle at Barnes and Noble.  It’s a “bargain book.”  Costs under eight dollars.  Thus even as I am moving other books out, I acquire new books.  Such is life.

This book on mindfulness asks me at the beginning of the third chapter (after I have tasted a raisin) why I am reading the book.  It’s kind of a talking book.  It asks questions and you’re supposed to answer them.

I bought the book because I read books on psychology.  Mindfulness is a topic that interests me.  But why now?  It was at the end of the aisle where it caught my attention.  And it cost less than eight dollars.  Seriously.  That was the reason.  Okay.  But why did I not notice the myriad other books on the ends of aisles?  Barnes and Noble stores have many aisles.

Psychological topics interest me. I buy the book to learn how to talk about mindfulness, but mindfulness itself is familiar territory. Of course, one can always learn new lessons from familiar things.  When I was a youth we called it “being lazy.”  In my family’s world sometimes you disparaged something that in fact you really believed you need — so don’t be mislead by the description. No one wanted to be always working and lack time simply to live.

The book asks me questions, I can ask questions too.  Why a basket?  Why Bonnard’s basket to illustrate this post? You don’t have to answer, though, not unless you want to.

WHAT?  What kind of question is that?  Why did I post a basket or why did Bonnard draw one?  Either question will do.  Or some other.  I’m not particular. But the topic is basket. My subconscious chose it.  If you have a problem with that, take it up with my subconscious.  Not my area …

An artist draws this and not that.  The subconscious is always posing suggestions — “draw this.”  And the suggestions raise questions, “why this?”  And the questions are often difficult to answer.  Sometimes the answer I offer myself is “why not?”  But that reply is not an answer, it’s an evasion.  It can be taxing to answer questions. Laziness (in the way my family understood it) is a way of getting answers by evading the questions in the first place.  You just let your mind wander around.  Not that we were even self-conscious enough to notice we were being mindful.

As for the book I read its name is, aptly, “Mindfulness: a practical guide” by Tessa Watt.  Someday — perhaps even soon — I’m going to begin writing a book called “Drawing: an impractical guide.”  But that’s a matter to take up in future posts.

the multitude

Whenever the pond is crowded exciting things happen in between the fish.  I wish I could capture the full impact of all that takes place, but there’s just so much going on.  That’s why I have to make so many drawings because the amount of information to learn is staggering.

In between just two fish the color changes will shift like magic in the water from one fish to the other, or the water and light will hide part of a fin and reveal part of a fin like an exotic aquatic fan carried by the kabuki fish-dancer, or the reflections or the shadows will float upon the water and be strung like jewels in a necklace —

— or, that little razor sharp line of light that circles all the floating dark patches — that light alone is worth two thousand drawings, if I had only the stamina to make them.

Learning about the small stuff

Made another honey jar drawing this morning, of which this above is a detail.  I was wondering if perhaps I was carrying my honey jar research a little too far.  How many drawings of this set up do I need to make?  Yet I find that I enjoy looking at this same motif again and again.  Moreover, more surprising, I learn something new with each drawing I make.  When a simple meditation upon a honey jar can yield so much perception, you have to wonder about the character of the life we live.  There is so much to see, hear, taste, touch, do and remember in life.  So much to learn — all the time, every day.

Making Noise

I have been surveying “how to” books again.  There are some good ones out there.  Most of them break the process of drawing or painting down into systematic steps which are intended to make the complex pictorial task simpler.  Yet there is something about the carefulness of how to books that has always bothered me a little.  In the attempt to eliminate mistakes, they demonstrate much unnoticed over-confidence in regard to what is “correct.”  And where is innovation?

Innovation is hard to define.  One way it comes about is through personality.  Everyone is different, and if an artist impresses his (or her) identity into a work it perforce becomes individual.  And yet to put your own ideas down, you must engage your own struggle with the material.  That struggle leads to mistakes — those effects that were not intended but which occurred because of some blank space about what you know.

I call these extraneous mistakes “noise.”  In the above my aim was to portray a geranium, and yet there were things in the background that were complicated and hard to summarize.  It’s a short, spur of the moment picture.   And I was just putting down quick colors and lines in the moment.  Much of what enters is accident, wasn’t necessarily meant to be there, yet IS there.

Sometimes the noise contains ideas, sometimes not.  But sometimes it has amorphous glimmers, or the nubs of ideas, ideas hidden in the shadows, and whispers.  If you let that noise happen, you capture the all of your thought — even its indecision and confusion. 

When you follow a recipe, you get the meal that was foreseen all along through the instructions.  In contrast to that,  “noise” provides one path to an unknown future destination of ideas.  The recipe is like a map of known territory.  The noise is a path through twilight.

That’s all the difference I can think to describe between these two states.  Every artist does a bit of both things, follows directions and makes noise.  I just want to be an advocate for the noise.

Art Quote du Jour

A poet must work on the material which makes most demands on him, or he will arrive at a false position.  One is always learning, and it probably takes a lifetime to know what one is born to write, but at least its characteristics recur, and one recognizes what belongs to one’s own ground. — Vernon Watkins (1906-1967)

Time Management for Artists, numero uno

First know that there is never enough time.  You have to use what is available.  I have tried different efficiencies over the years, but what I found most effective was having a child and obviously that won’t work for everybody.

But when I had my child, I learned quickly — with Nature as my teacher — that children require intense care, which gobbles up a day’s time very fast.  You have left over chunks of perhaps five minutes here and five minutes there.  And I began seizing those minutes.

Five minutes can be a lot of time, I discovered, perception being such an amorphous, stretchy and variable thing.

A child grows and time quantities change, and one must adapt to new measurements.  Still I’ve kept the fundamental insight: use the time that’s at hand.  One handful will do.

[This post is dedicated to the life and memory of Paul Squires of Gingatao, a great poet of the early 21st century.]

Moments of Recognition

The koi swim in the pond of imagination, but otherwise have been pretty neglected by me.  I love my koi, but other projects have interjected themselves into my life, and I’ve had to put the koi temporarily aside.  Still, I see the pictures each day — most of them — and my thoughts wander off into wonderings about when and how I’ll resume work on them.  When you put something like this aside, a part of your soul is still invested there, and parts of your mind still work the problem, still linger around the edges of a wish.

I got a book from the library on the American impressionists, American artists of the 19th century who had visited France and were inspired and influenced by the modern French painting of that time.  Got the book to help me think about landscape.  Actually I even own a copy of the same book, but I got this copy because I saw it and remembered that it was interesting and realized that I would most likely never locate my own copy.  (Regular readers will recall that house-keeping is not my forte.)  Anyway, I opened one of the pages and landed on a reproduction of this painting by John Singer Sargent, Stream in the Val d’Aosta.

Then I had one of those lovely “ah ha!” moments.  All of what one sees in the amazing way that Sargent scatters light and color across the canvas — his rendering of and evocation of the higgly-piggly spilled out arrangement of rocks and colors, reflections and patterns, among the wet and the really wet, expresses exactly what I’m longing for in my koi.  That spilled-across-ness of light and water.

I don’t know whether the koi should be catagorized as “landscape” or not.  Certainly the meaning of landscape applies to them as well.  The koi as I understand them characterize a separate world that parallels human imagination.  The koi transport one just as fully as a landscape communicates a mood or narrates a meaning.  And John Singer Sargent in this amazing painting has certainly mapped out the territory I’m seeking to discover.

Sometimes you happen upon a correspondence like this, and it’s such a lovely delight — this finding of a kindred spirit, the discovery of a teacher-fellow traveler.

I started the koi painting above last October.   My painting is so flat compared to his.  Granted mine’s “in progress” and also the angle of recession in space is different.  But I look at the Sargent and realize the qualities I’m missing, the things I need to be seeking.  Well, all that from an innocent trip to the public library ….

Learning to Draw

Most books that teach drawing have demonstrations that look something like the sketch above (taken from this source).  They begin with an oval-ish shape, horizontal and vertical axes, short smudge lines placed in strategic positions to represent nose, eyes and mouth, and so on.

They begin with the idea of a whole face, a regular or typical face, a norm.  They specify very simple directions that promise to be easy enough for anybody to learn. 

They are okay, as far as they go.  I wonder when I see them: are people really this afraid of making mistakes?  It’s just a drawing. 

If you want to draw, but are afraid to draw, try rules like these to get past your qualms and your reluctance.  But that said, the recipe for faces is a very inadequate approach to drawing.  Really, to be truthful, it’s an awful approach.  It is completely reliant upon very limited, conventional ideas of what a face should look like.  It holds no hope for anyone who wants to explore his or her own sensations of seeing.

If you want to draw, your first challenge is just picking up a pencil and beginning.  But if you are brave from the beginning, you will reap benefits later on.  Forget ovals and proportions.  Imagine instead that the object of your attention has lines wrapped around it.  Imagine placing your pencil upon one of those lines and copying it upon a sheet of paper.  Do not even care (in the beginning) overly much whether your lines match these lines in nature.  Just try (very hard) for the nearest match you can get.

If your lines cannot match at first the spectacle of what you see, at least have them be your lines.  What you saw, what you felt, not the recipe for conventionally considered faces.