Du Bonheur/Of Happiness

“Bonheur. Tirer du bonheur de soi-même, d’une belle journée de travail, de l’éclaircie qu’elle a pu apporter dans le brouillard qui nous entoure.”

Happiness.  Derive happiness from yourself, from a good day’s work, from the clearing that it makes in the fog that surrounds us.  — Henri Matisse quoted here

The koi raises its face up to the light and air from the inky darkness, from the fish-filled spaces of under-water.  Dear kind kindred face of living creature sharing this present time, living in it fully, having a reality known clearly to God, being.

The inky-ness of the water, of the paper, of the depiction — is difficult to get at that mystery adequately.


ébauching the ébauche

The ébauche is the first fast sketch when you cover up the canvas, when you put things into their places.  It’s a “point and shoot,” direct from the hip kind of painting.  I guess every artist loves that aspect, the part where you mould reality, when you allow yourself to respond to what you see with minimal intervention between thought and execution or between feeling and intention.  Indulgent, I can not wait to finish one picture before beginning another.  Instead I have lined my canvases up,  a regular “Monet,” me and I move from one idea to another– then make the circuit again as though playing the child’s game of musical chairs. 


And when the music stops, one of the pictures will be done, and it’s time to put on some more music.

Back at my Post

The difficult thing about writing a blog is that if something comes up that prevents you from working, there’s no one else to take over temporarily.  I’ve got no staff.  The interruption in my life that prevented me from blogging has also kept me from painting.  And whenever I go a long spell without working, I find myself wondering if I should continue as a painter.  After all, most people in their jobs have regular pay and routine expectations about what they’re supposed to do.  But as an artist (so far at least) my pay is most irregular and my work routine — which often offers great expanses, oh yes, of delicious freedom — is definitely not routine.  The boredom of the routine is absent, but so are the comforts.  It takes discipline to keep plugging along powered by one’s own will alone, and given that the direction is often unclear — well, it can be daunting sometimes.

I got a comment from a reader that blended with my morning thoughts as I resume this blog.  His comment made me realize again that whenever a diligent artist gives up, it leaves the field wild open for all the poseurs (and the art world’s got tons of those).  So, it becomes almost a duty to keep going if at all possible — not for one’s own sake alone but for the dignity of one’s profession.

I haven’t even been near my studio in a month.  Looking at this photo of one of my paintings on the wall, seeing it “in progress,” reminds me of periods spent painting.  I have no idea yet what this “tree” is about, this tree that doesn’t quite look like a tree.  It’s big.  It’s sloppy.  I’ve repainted huge areas without solving the puzzle of what it ought to look like.  It’s structured and ill-defined all at once. That’s a lot of “almost” to have to deal with.  Yet you get a hunch sometimes, so you follow it.  It’s a very private and tentative adventure.  Yet it’s genuine.

Yet the feelings that accompany seeing this image are wonderfully nostalgic.  Sometimes you begin something and have no idea where it will lead, whether it will ever make any sense, and you have no guarantee at all that the whole thing isn’t just a waste of time.  Sometimes you’re tempted to just give it away. But you don’t.  You keep working.  And one reason you keep working is that it’s fun.

I am back at my “post,” a word that I now find has many connotations.  I’m returning to duty.  Art is a fine calling.  And so one soldiers on because that’s just what you have to do.  “Soldiering” might seem like a big metaphor for my humble calling.  But I remember a particular soldier as I write, and the memory recalls me to my duty.  And sometimes it’s the small duties that we particularly need to keep.

Scribbly and Leafy

Art is an interpretation of things.  Whenever we draw from life we confront one idea of reality — that highly acute (thanks to optometry) clear world with sharp edges and infinity of focus.  Our eyes light upon different things and the mind blends them into one continuous idea of what’s “out there.” 

In the arts of drawing and painting, by contrast, the world exists in two dimensions, and it has a finite size.  Maybe it’s just 11 1/4 x 8/7/16 inches like Raphael’s Saint George and the Dragon at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.  Maybe it’s 1.50 x 1.97 meters like Monet’s Nympheas at the Musee Marmottan.

However big or small it is, a picture represents a little world in itself — very much in finite and usually rectangular terms.  So the artist always needs to be aware of the differences between the world as he sees it before his eyes, verses the world as it exists in pictorial imagination.  Then too there’s the difference between the artist’s intention and the picture itself, which sometimes takes on a life of its own.

And the artist needs to be alive to the qualities of the medium used to make the picture as well.  Not all media are equal to all tasks.  Letting the picture travel to those ideas that the medium itself suggests (by virtue of its unique qualities) is one way that artists learn to invent ideas.  Sometimes necessity is the mother of invention.  Sometimes the medium limits what is possible and thereby creates the forms the picture will take.

Crayons are scribbly.  They can produce continuous tones, too, of course.  But line is their hallmark and their characteristic virtue.  And nature too is composed of a great many lines.  So the marriage of material to subject, where crayons are concerned, often leads to scribbles of one sort or another.

And one needn’t resist this.  Because scribbles can actually be quite beautiful.

[Top of the post:  a quick study after nature, Scrubs at the Arboretum, by Aletha Kuschan]

Drawing from “life”

The same Renaissance portrait sculpture that I drew and posted previously is pictured above from a different angle.  The wonderful thing about drawing from a sculpture is that you can study a figure from various angles, and yet always the pose is the same since, of course, she never moves. 

I was aware of an artist’s manual, written by none other than Peter Paul Rubens, that exists now only in a fragment.  He advised artists to make drawings after sculpture (as was his own practice) and to draw in such a way as to breathe life into the figure.  It should not look like a sculpture, but like a person.  I was aware of that advice and felt at the time of the drawing that my version was too much sculpture still and not enough of a person.  However, looking at the drawing now from a distance of some years, I think the woman in the drawing looks very alive — even despite her iris-less eyes. 

That’s why you draw first and editorialize later.  You need to gain distance from your drawings if you are really to understand them.  At the time of their making, your mind is full of your intentions — many of which do not make it onto the page — many of which are even conflicting and unformed.  And your mind is full of the model, which will of course be different from the drawing in innumerable ways (and this is not necessarily a bad thing).

When you are drawing, you should simply concentrate upon drawing, being focused on the subject and your visual thoughts about it.  And afterwards you can learn to understand the drawing you made, but you have to realize that it takes time.  What you notice about your drawings changes with time.  (Sometimes your drawing gets better!  Sometimes it gets worse.  Que sera sera.)

I can’t find the particular sculpture that I drew on the National Gallery’s website.  Perhaps I can locate it at a later date.  However, it is similar to this figure attributed to a follower of Andrea del Verrocchio. 

I like the way this woman’s head is held high, the way her neck is as supple and erect as a young plant.  This would be a difficult pose for a model to hold without tiring, which is exactly why drawing from the sculpture has so many benefits.  This model not only doesn’t move: she never gets tired. 

[Top of the post:  Drawing after a Renaissance Sculpture, by Aletha Kuschan]

Time as Discipline

A few posts ago I explained how to begin a painting, using Monet’s Sunflowers as an example of something we could copy in imagination.  I wrote a rather longish account, and still I could only draw my theme in the most sketchy way.  To really paint, you must look deeply into the image — peering into its details discovering relationships between the parts and the whole.

To learn to see your aim should be to set up a motif that challenges you to notice as much as possible.  Eugene Delacroix described the goal as “to prolong the sensation.”  Obviously choosing a subject that can engage your thoughts and feelings in the fullest way has the greatest potential for inducing you to look deeply.  Choose something you love.  Choose something you find enchanting.  Not every painting has to be of this challenging sort, of course.  Different paintings aim at different things. But an artist who wishes to see as much as possible in nature has to seek the challenge that stretches his or her powers of observation.

One aide to the goal is time.  Setting a time limit means that you don’t pound your visual cortex against nature’s photons indefinitely.  You know that if you strive as rigorously as you can that, after a session, the gong will chime, and you’re done.  Closure offers this psychological boost that cannot be underestimated.  In tandem with setting a limit, it’s also helpful to make a rule of not being too fussy.  Moving a picture along, even working as quickly as your skills allow, helps too.  You force yourself to “aim and shoot,” again and again.  Working a little bit fast means that rationalizations have little time to interfere.  You try to make the connection between eye and hand as seemless as possible.  You allow a few “mistakes” to creep in, if they must, for the sake of the larger goal of seeing intensely and recording directly.

Certain subjects in art will prod you along mercilessly if you let them.  I used to paint bunches of flowers from the yard or from the florist.  I found that the most time I could ever spend upon them was four hours, maximum.  After that, all the blooms had drooped a little — or they had shifted so much from their initial positions, even the hardiest, as to comprise an entirely different ensemble of relationships by session’s end.  Shadows, of course, change too.  Nature has its own clocks that make an artist nimble.  You should use these clocks to help you.  They are great forms of discipline.

[Top of the post:  Lilacs in a Vase, by Aletha Kuschan, oil on canvas]

My early still after Manet

When I was a youth, I made this still life of things around the house.  (The pink sloping surface on the right represents a typewriter covered with cloth.)  I was trying to do something Manet-like.  The particular painting I had in mind is Manet’s Still life with Melons and Peaches at the National Gallery.

As you can see, I didn’t quite finish my painting.  Lost my nerve, I suppose.  Or ran out of ideas.  Probably a little of both.  Still, I find that I like the painting as is.  It has all sorts of visible pentimenti — even in that respect it’s Manet-like.

[Top of the post:  Author’s early attempt at still life in a style of Manet, by Aletha Kuschan, 28 x 28 inches, oil on canvas]

Alice, Olympic Yarn Ball

The stands are crowded to capacity!  Yarn Ball is the big event for Cat Olympics!  Indeed, not only are the stands filled to overflowing; security is very tight too.  You have no idea how hard it is to keep the fans out of the game.  When you’ve got yarn rolling in front of  150,000+ cats, you know the tails and whiskers are twitching!

Alice has gained an early lead, but there’s still a lot of yarn on the ball.  This is anybody’s game, and this year’s contenders are fast cats.  We’re rooting for Alice, of course, and it looks like she’s got a great shot at the title.

[Top of the post:  Alice and other Olympic athletes in the Yarn Ball Chase at 2008 Cat Olympics in Beijing, China as drawn by the younger artist of the household]

Shoes that make the man

Around the same period when I was painting a bird’s nest over a reclining figure, I painted these shoes over something that was pale green.  The earlier color shows beneath the salmon colored cloth.

I was studying Van Gogh, and I painted not only bird’s nests after his example, but also shoes.  Again, I felt qualms about emulating another artist so closely.  Yet these shoes are also so plainly products of my imagination and not Van Gogh’s.  So sometimes, you see, you must simply trust yourself.

I read this Hemingway quote today about emulation: 

“Y.C.: Listen.  There is no use writing anything that has been written before unless you can beat it.  What a writer in our time has to do is write what hasn’t been written before or beat dead men at what they have done.  The only way he can tell how he is going is to compete with dead men ….

Mice:  But reading all the good writers might discourage you.

Y.C.: Then you ought to be discouraged.”

[Originally from By Line: Ernest Hemingway, pp. 217-218.  Taken here from Ernest Heimingway on Writing, Larry W. Phillips, ed., Scribner’s; NY, 1984: p. 93]

When I painted these shoes, I remember I understood them as being a portrait of the shoe’s owner as well as a kind of self-portrait.  I was also very interested in painting the space between one edge of the shoe’s opening and the other.  The empty air seemed to me as much a subject as anything else in this picture, and I was fascinated by it.  I wanted to make it seem very much that the air was inside the picture, and that this should not just be a question of appearances.  And the ways that the shoe laces fell, the beauty of the lines they described — something that is charged with meaning by gravity and chance — these were also qualities I studied in it.

It turned out to be a very pensive moment.  Van Gogh was a hero to me, someone whose works gave me reason to believe that art was worth striving after, even against odds.  Hemingway’s idea of “beating” the old dead guys is a peculiarly male approach to an idea, but essentially I agree with him.  If knowing the great works that preceed you discourages you, then you should be discouraged — for those things are your teachers. 

This might seem odd commentary coming from me, to those who’ve read this blog before.  I try to encourage, but these are not contradictory gestures.  Even Hemingway doesn’t tell the “discouraged” writer to give up.  Such discouragement in one who wants the prize has to be overcome.  What Hemingway is really counseling is courage. 

I had all sorts of qualms when I painted this, but I painted it anyway.  And that was my courage.

[Top of the post:  A pair of shoes, by Aletha Kuschan, oil on canvas, c. 1988]

From that Nest Hatched These

I guess the nest pictured in the previous post hatched these.  (Making imaginative allowances for time.)  After I became a mom, actually some many years after I painted the bird’s nest, my daughter drew these baby birds.  I assembled them as a trio and put them into the nest she’d made.  A xerox version of them now appears in a collage I’m using for a picture I’m painting.  It’s the same collage of the “weird lizard.”