me and RD

I have loved Richard Diebenkorn’s work since whenever it was (a long time ago) that I first saw it.  Without knowing anything about him, just seeing one of his pictures on the cover of a magazine, I fell in love. His ideas have affected me since.

Here in the drawing from one of his little notebooks (above left) and the detail of my painting Distant Oak (below), I think the affinity shows.  I never met Mr. Diebenkorn (who was the same age as my mother).  But I still think of him as being one of my teachers.

DSC_1231 (3) Distant Oak smaller

narrating

The leaves on the tree outdoors

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or the panes of glass considered individually, seen in late afternoon. This painting with a window has so many possible ways of being taken apart, with each section of the image being like a portal that one can enter.

When did my fascination with still life begin? Maybe it was in childhood when I would stare at the row of figurines that my grandmother collected that lined her front windows, row upon row of strange curiosities in her narrow little house in southeast Washington.

The owl is a big figurine and the bird on the bud vase is another feathered companion. I’m not sure why they’re in the painting. Central casting sent them here. What am I supposed to do with them?

An earlier version of the owl looks like this:

owl in watercolor

I’m going to figure out how to get the pattern across the vase, particularly along the edge. I’m going to keep drawing it until I can find a version that’s flat and right in tone and color.

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different media & variations on a theme

Bach made thirty variations

fish watercolor

of his aria for his Goldberg Variations. I haven’t made that many variations on any of my koi motifs yet. That’s an awful lot of fish to draw. But I do redo the same fishes again and again because I’m Degas’s dutiful student and he told me, “il faut refaire la même chose dix fois, cents fois.”  Okay, maybe he wasn’t talking to me.  But still I take these things to heart. So, I redo my koi — maybe ten times — not yet thirty — and goodness knows, Monsieur Degas, not one hundred times!

fish colored pencil

Watercolor at the top, then colored pencil, then dry pastel (a detail, below), and crayon (also a detail, below that).

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What can I say?  I need one of these:

I'd rather be fishing

In my own way …

watercolor & me

Seeing other artists’ watercolors

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puts me into a watercolor mood — that and the late springtime heat.  I would love to dive into the pond with the koi. I’d also love to paint in watercolor again.  I need to clean the studio (again). The watercolor palette is buried somewhere under the pile of things. I need an archeologist to help me excavate!

Here’s a detail.

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These are more things that I found by visiting my facebook page to hunt down the owl.  See, what you find when you go looking for an owl!

incremental change

Think about creating a walkway in a garden,

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a path made with pebbles. Instead of dumping the bag of rocks into the path and pushing them around with a rake, you move them around pebble by pebble. Well, clearly I cannot do that — am not that crazy. But the changes to the picture seem like shifting pebbles around in a path.

I posted this before, and I have worked on it a little more. This is the larger version of the motif.  It’s on blue paper. The other smaller one is on brown paper.  I wonder if the changes are even visible to the spectator. More increments are necessary, I think, before the changes really take hold. I’m not ready to let this go, and yet the differences between where it is now and where it needs to be are slight.

I had posted details of the other drawing. Here are a few of the same passages from this drawing.

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It corresponds to this detail from the other version (below).

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And the central portion of the large picture:

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And the slightly smaller one (below):

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The one helps me think about the other.

One quality I love about pastel (both oil pastel and dry pastel) is the ease with which you can drag color over top of existing layers. The slight change in the surface, like rearranging pebbles in a garden path, makes the thing more tactile — and (somehow) seems (to me) to make it more real.

A garden scene of floating world with trees above and clouds below is not different from a herd of koi seen rushing through the water, the planes of water shifting as the koi move through. One is like the other. I often think that I am continually painting the same picture over and over, whether it is koi or landscape or flowers or something else.

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Why is a koi not just like a cloud?

first things

But what approach to teaching is most likely

101_8725 (2)to help people learn to draw accurately?  I’m thinking that I should adopt some of the strategies that I know contribute to realism. These are truly things that I sensed myself from looking at paintings. I didn’t learn theses ideas in a class or from a book, though I sometimes encountered similar ideas in those places too — which is perfectly logical since true ideas will occur to independent observers simply because they are true.

Think about that next time you’re trying to figure something out.  You’ve got your own logic machine sitting there on top of your neck.

There were always things that I did — for instance I knew that you have to sort out the large forms first. I put local color down as simplicity first (if it looks like green, use green, then adjust).  I knew that some things can be accessed as contour and some things are only with great difficulty understood through line. I find that tonality and masses are the easiest way to quickly summarize a scene.

I want to reconsider these ideas. I’d like the force of the ideas to be able to impress itself upon me anew — as though I were noticing something for the first time. For it’s not obvious that the large forms are anything specific.  Actually the large form is an idea within an idea. Yes, the large form is the thing to be sorted out first because the large form will take up most of the page (or the canvas), but of what does “the large form” consist? That’s the other reason why it comes first, because one is figuring out what “it” is. That choice can be pliable, can be different things visually at different times. Perceptually it’s “what you notice now.”  Deciding that “this” is the large form verses “that” makes all the difference in the world as to how the painting will proceed.

Things in a painting are not identical to things in life. Things in a painting are what we see. They are percepts.

A painting is not identical to its subject matter.  A painting is an idea about the subject matter, a way of thinking about it, seeing it. Emotions might be present also, but they aren’t part of “the painting” until they have a shape.  So that shape is the thing. Any subject might be conceptualized many different ways. The same motif can be rethought many times. That’s why I’ve been able to repaint the same things again and again and have them turn out differently over successive efforts.

It goes back to the original meaning of abstraction in art. It’s difficult to illustrate “the big idea” at the start of any picture. The illustration above is random, from the grab bag of things.

The notion about “mistakes” — whenever art teachers are relentlessly concerned with avoiding mistakes — alleging that the differences between what you want and what you got occur because you didn’t get it right — they imply that you should know what you want before you see it. (Obviously it’s often true that a mistake is a mistake.) But invention isn’t about “getting it right.” Not in that sense. It’s about making an image that has — when all is said and done — certain qualities that hold it together and make it into something that’s like a world unto itself.

Well, here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten me into.  I think that’s a good analogy for art (minus the slapstick and the potential for injury).  One is looking for a fine mess and a way of getting into it.

recasting the past

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I would chide myself for not finishing things except that there’s also this upside to procrastination: I look through my stacks of drawings and rediscover them, take them up again, and complete them from the vantage point of a different place in time.  I found this drawing in a stack.  It’s 22 x 16.5 inches.  This picture depicts the same motif as one that I posted a few days ago. Everything’s a bit different in this one. Lines shake a little more. A color might be punched up a bit more. Also the paper color and texture are very different, and these differences affect everything else in the picture.

Oil pastel is a sensitive medium. You can do quite a lot of dragging color over previous colors and the combination of marks produces a dynamism.  It also allows colors to mix optically so you actually get different color effects than you would if you tried to mix the pigments into each other as you would with paint. You can see in the details that follow how textural oil pastel can be.

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I’m not using a “technique” when I do these marks. They are instead all decisions, responses to something that I’m seeing. I am drawing with the sticks and so the marks are drawing “ideas.”  For instance, in this detail there was a limb hanging out over the water and it separates from the background by its slightly brighter aspect.  I put down a light line, some marks for the leaves on the branch, and a dark line that marks the limb’s separation from the background.

It’s all abstracted and simplified in relation to the thing I’m looking at, but these are decisions.  They are specific, nonetheless. And a gazillion specific decisions adds up to lots of marking in the drawing.  And I find it really wonderful to think about the scene in these ways.  See this, put it there.  See something else, there it goes.

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It can make you feel very connected to the place. Here’s the same passage in a different orientation. I saw ripples in the water so I put down the ripples. I saw bits of lighter green so I just drag them across the darker green. The layers of pigment pile up in ways that imitate the density and confusion of light that comes from the scene.

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Up close the passages are very abstract.

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If when observing parts of the picture using a camera, they seem to be well composed, then it suggests that the process of thought going into the small elements of the picture are mimicking the compositional choices you make when you work on the whole.  The relationship between whole and part ought to be in harmony.  Any one of these details ought to seem like it’s the natural child of the parent image.

I like this version better than the one I posted a few days ago.  So, learning from the experience working on this one, I’ll return to the slightly larger format and carry it further some more too.

On the whole, I’m quite content that I never finished these when I first began them. Finishing them now is working out really well. I don’t know how exactly to use time in painting, but when events conspire toward a good outcome — I’m glad for it.

Casting the Flowers

In anticipation of the coloring book class I will be teaching in July, I am sometimes doing a more linear kind of painting

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than I usually do. This particular flower painting will also be a composite. The flowers will have never existed together. The vase is one I’ve never owned, and the first full version of the image is something that I am assembling on a large sheet of paper that will serve as the cartoon for the painting.  Only when that drawing is complete will I even have a clear idea what I’ll be painting. Right now, it’s casting call time.  I search for flowers for the major and minor roles in the picture.

bouquet mine start

Thus I am gathering flowers.  Don’t other flower painters do that?  They perhaps go to the florist, or to their gardens, or out to a field and gather the blooms to arrange in the vase.

flower after old masterMe, I raid art history books for flowers to steal, though I may also toss in a few flowers from life as well … In any case most of my flowers will have bloomed hundreds of years ago.

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These are some early candidates. The rehearsals won’t begin for a while.  The flowers haven’t even read their lines. This is just the beginning.

Today’s drawing from the model

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I’ve begun attending a life class for the first time in a long time.  I made two drawings, both larger than life size heads in fauvist colors on Canson mi-teintes. The drawing above was my second drawing of the day.  The only pastels I used were Rembrandt 30 count half sticks.

Here’s a close-up of the head.

model close up

A Plea for Boldness

I left these words an art marketer’s blog. Did I go too far? Or not far enough?

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I can identify my motivation very easily: it’s what you’ve called artistic excellence. It forms all the reason I ever wanted to do art. Trips to the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC during my childhood brought the old masters into my life, and when I decided that I wanted to paint just as surely I ached to learn how to paint at a level of skill like the great artists of the past. So the first challenge was learning to draw. Drawing is still a challenge, always will be a challenge. I had a natural affinity for color, yet I had to learn how to use colors through countless sessions of experiments mixing them. Later on, I realized that it is possible to be “all dressed up” without knowing “where to go,” and then I sought to figure out invention in art. How can art be simultaneously modern and traditional, answer the challenges of skill posed by great artists of the past and still address thoroughly modern ideas?

I have neglected the business aspects of art, and chasing after awards never appealed to me at all. My choices have created problems that didn’t need to be there — I mean that a better focus on business wouldn’t have harmed my efforts any — though it’s also clear that digital photography and the advent of the internet makes everything a gazillion times easier than in the past. Simply taking a decent photograph of a painting was a complicated endeavor when I was a youth and required a significant investment in time and money.

In short I can understand a more balanced approach — one that matches personal vision with PR and business savvy. But too many artists today are content to create a kind of art that fails to meet the minimal skill sets of even the second or third tier artists of the past whose works now live in museums. That is, I think, sort of tragic. It’s a failure of vision, of ambition — a failure of taste — it lacks guts. And if there’s anything that I could persuade a younger generation of artists to embrace it is skill and daring. Go shoulder to shoulder with Monet, or Hokusai, or Ingres, or Giulio Romano, or Domenico Tiepolo. There is no artist living today who has the pure chutzpah of Domenico Tiepolo. At least give it your best try.

I’m not lauding any particular style, but am making a plea for ability and boldness. Make a sort of art that could sometimes compare with a Hollywood movie. Wouldn’t it be wonderful?

[Above: Punchinello’s Farewell to Venice, Domenico Tiepolo, National Gallery of Art in Washington]

Use this link to see a version of the image that you can enlarge: http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/Collection/art-object-page.57482.html