Cezanne Shapes

I got to see an old friend


after many long years separation.  Cezanne’s Vase of Flowers is back on view at the National Gallery of Art.  For years and years it had its own special place and I visited it, studied it, drew it, copied it — and then it was gone.  But it’s back, and recently I made this quick and rough drawing in front of the painting, drawing a portion of its features approximately life size.

It’s not the sort of drawing for getting a likeness.  I was instead keen merely to make the gestures that I see in one small part of the painting. And I want to do many more such drawings in the future — private drawings that I make for my own use even if I do also afterwards make some of them occasionally public by posting them here.

The painting, for those not familiar with it, is reproduced below.


You can learn more about the painting and can use the zoom feature to see it more closely here: http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/Collection/art-object-page.45867.html

I’ve drawn it many times before, as for instance here: https://alethakuschan.wordpress.com/2008/05/19/my-cezanne/

The portion of the painting I was drawing above can deciphered by comparing the same area from one drawing I made in the past.


Shopping for ideas


I’ve been visiting the National Gallery of Art in Washington on recent weekends.  Monet’s painting of his garden has been a particular destination.  I’m painting landscapes now, and I look at Monet’s surfaces and seek answers to questions that I’m encountering in my own painting.  I have five landscapes in the works at present, each in different stages of “almost there.” Mine are small paintings, 18 x 24 inches.  Monet’s painting is quite large. His measures almost 60 x 48.  The room is so large that the painting doesn’t seem that big when you’re standing in front of it, but — wow — it is. Some sense of the scale is available by seeing it with museum visitors.


Details of Monet’s painting are visible on NGA’s website.  You can zoom into the nuances.


75 Years Young


The National Gallery of Art in Washington DC is celebrating a birthday.  As part of the celebration the museum’s education department has a “Sketching is Seeing” program going until April 24th.  Visitors to the gallery can get a free notebook and pencil — pencils are courtesy of Faber-Castell company — and the Gallery is encouraging visitors to enjoy the art they see by making drawings of their own.  You don’t have to be an artist.  Just draw.  I got my free notebook and made a couple sketches  yesterday while I was there.

It’s a big planet and not everybody can come to the museum for the party.  But part of how the museum has changed over time includes this thing called the internet. Many paintings, drawings and sculptures in the museum’s collection are available to see on the museum website.  So even if you can’t be in Washington, you can still make drawings wherever you are and can post them on social media using the hashtag #NGAsketch.

That’s what I’ve done regarding the drawing above.  Using the website zoom tool while looking at Fragonard’s “Young Girl Reading,” I made this drawing.  At home I have the pencil, notebook and a flexible erasure.  Given the tonal character of Fragonard’s image, I find it helpful to smudge the graphite and pull out some of the lights.  Next time I visit the Gallery, if I want to draw Fragonard’s girl again, this drawing I made at home will help me better understand the image.  Think of this as a rehearsal.

If you’re near DC, come visit the museum in person.  The Education Department has some nifty displays set up in the Information room (that’s where you get your free notebook and pencil) — and these displays are themselves really fun.  Currently they’ve replicated a Harnett trompe l’oeil painting so that you can draw a still life set up rather similar (in a theatrical sort of way) to what Harnett might have been looking at.  Now doesn’t that sound like fun.

So go to the party in Washington, if you can make it.  Or if you’re far away, join the party from your internet location. And just draw!


When in doubt, draw

100_6341 (2)

I think the best way to learn how to draw is to copy the works of great artists.  The practice of copying is better than an association with any living teacher (as wonderful as that might be) because you can learn aspects of what the great artist knew without having the great artist standing there nagging you.  (Degas does have something of a reputation, deservedly or no, for being a bit of a crank.)

Many, many years ago I began my habit of acquiring art books so that I would have good reproductions of paintings to look at, enjoy, copy, and study.  And now the internet offers an added opportunity to learn that is so amazing that it’s difficult to characterize how revolutionary it really is.

I just learned, for instance, that the National Gallery has updated their website and it’s possible to see enlargements of their paintings now online.  I made my drawing of Edgar Degas’s “Girl in Red,” using the enlargement at NGA’s website.  So I am able to peer right into Degas’s girl’s face in a way that I could never do in front of the actual painting.

sketch 1

I made some fast sketches too because I enjoy just putting down the visual ideas as they occur to me.  It’s fun.  There’s something very freeing about looking at something and taking aim.  Some people go to the Carnival and toss balls at the bucket hoping to win a prize.  I throw pen lines at a notebook, and it’s Carnival all the time.

sketch 2

The image changes in subtle ways.  Your hand goes to different places.  But then too, after a while, you have all these notebooks that you open, and have these faces that look back at you.

sketch 3

I make some drawings from memory too.  I think about the image after I have spent a long time drawing it, and the memory is physical almost more than it’s visual.  I remember the image in my hand.  Sometimes I draw with my non-dominant hand, though I didn’t yesterday.  Of course it’s easier to draw with one’s dominant hand.  My right hand has many more memories than my left hand.

sketch 4

I also think it’s good to draw late at night when you are too weary to fight yourself, when you can be persuaded simply to let a drawing be what it is, when drawing and dream meld together.

Can you imagine a person at the Carnival who just kept throwing balls at the target?  Someone would not give up!  There might be a hundred balls lying about that missed the target, but he was determined to win the prize!

Absolutely no photography allowed!!!

I just returned from the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC where I got my first look at the just opened Willem van Aelst exhibit.  Evidently most peoples’ reactions to seeing these intensely realistic-looking paintings is to take a photograph, and photography is prohibited (since the paintings are all loaned by various different parties some of whom don’t want their property photographed).  The guard was having to tell people over and over again while I was there, “No photography!”  I said to him that the invention of the camera was the bane of his existence, and he corrected me: “No, the cell phone is the bane of my existence.”

So, obviously everyone should do like me and make a drawing!  There’s no prohibition against drawing.  This drawing is a detail from, “Still life with Snail,” one of the several ornate and sumptuous still lifes.  It’s a beautiful exhibit.  Sharpen your pencils, everyone, and get thee there.  (And leave your camera at home.)

Saint John in the Desert

The austere beauty of Domenico Veneziano’s Saint John in the Desert:  I wish there were a vacation package that offered this – that filled one’s longing for a spare, rocky desert.  Air as clear as thought, no cloud in the sky, peace in an orderly universe, with the nakedness optional though you have choices also between elegant finery and hairshirts according to your inclination.

A stream of crystalline purity runs through the dry land, and pleasant looking rocks lie scattered about willy-nilly.  And your own body has the sharpness and durability of a Platonic Idea. 

How much can an image be reduced to its essentials?  How much can a life be reduced to its hardest purity of alacrity and keen longing? St John is being remade into an elemental man, reduced to barest essentials, into stark simplicity.

[At the top:  Domenico Veneziano’s “St John in the Desert”  National Gallery of Art in Washington DC]

Drawing, talking, remembering

Back in 1986 the National Gallery of Art mounted a beautiful exhibit of Matisse’s paintings from that period when he lived in Nice.  Mom and I saw the show together.  It’s hard to believe that was a quarter century ago!  I was looking through the catalog while talking to her on the phone today.  She didn’t remember our visiting the exhibit, but I reminded her that we did.  We had wandered through that enormous exhibit like two ladies of leisure.  I remember well the lazy way we paused in front of pictures and enjoyed the beautiful colors, the clear light of those paintings, and the feeling of elegance and serenity those paintings evoke.  It was as though peace and calm and quiet orderly life might go on forever.

While I was talking to mom, I made a pen drawing of one of Matisse’s exotic young women.  They look out from the pictures with a dewy youth that is eternal.  Today’s “phone conversation drawing.”

A change of pace

I’ve been in such a rut lately.  A friend of mine said I should reconnect with my roots and my old loves, so I went to the National Gallery of Art in Washington today.  Decided to draw still life since that’s what I’m working on in my own painting.  Found this Frans Snyders painting, Still life with Grapes and Game.  Besides the grapes and the game, it also features a tray of figs.  That’s what I drew.  You can see them on the left-hand side of the painting.

I only had two hours to look at paintings and also to make my little drawings now that Washington has upped the cost of its metered parking to new heights.  The Mint stamps only so many quarters, you know.  Anyway, before I made my oil pastel version, I drew it with pencil.

In both versions, I was not especially concerned with how Snyders painted his subject (though of course that’s a very interesting matter).  Instead, I drew the figs just as though they were real figs, putting my colors down in ways that suited my thoughts and making little attempt to describe Snyders’s thoughts and techniques.

It’s tricky being in a museum drawing this way.  So many factors enter in that people typically don’t think about in regard to art.  For instance, my left hand started going numb on me from balancing the pastel tray under my notebook.  And my purse and coat started weighing heavily on my shoulders.  (Could I be getting old?!  NO!)  Still, people ought to know that my hand was going numb while I was working and that my shoulders started to ache!  Hey, brownie points, please!

Alas, there goes my violin career.  Anyway, I feel that looking at this painting — even though I wasn’t thinking about Frans Snyders’s techniques — helped free up something in my brain as regards my own pictures.  Time will tell.  (And I’ve got to get back to the museum more often.)

Tapestry of the garden myrtles

crepe myrtles 3

I have a favorite painting at the National Gallery of Art, a dear old favorite friend of a painting.  Me and this painting go back years!  It’s Vermeer’s Girl with a Flute.  The tapestry in the background, in particular, amazes me.  The background alone contains some of the most astonishing bits of painting that I’ve ever seen.  In the softly articulated, indistinct shapes of the fabric behind the girl, you find much of the painting’s music.  Its flute notes are all piped in blending, meandering riverlets of color and tone.  They are so out-of-focus as to be completely unrecognizable, yet they are persuasively, pervasively “real.”  Whenever I see the painting I’m reminded that all of life is like this one scene.  The world is luminous and mysterious, indefinite and mutable, meaningful and inscrutable. 

And in something like this spirit of inscrutability I enter my garden of crepe myrtles.  I don’t of course own the garden.  I own the scribbles that establish the garden of my pencil.  Though I have to follow the park rules about when I can visit my trees, with my pencil they transform into personal, imaginative property.  I wander through them like the lady of the manor.  And I abstract them with all the freedom that Vermeer taught me to feel before nature.

My pencil lines are thoughts about form.  I say that the tree boughs shall grow to such height!  I will that the greens be bright!  I indulge all my whim for foliage and fond.  If I want significant swaths of bright white paper peeking through, so be it!  It’s my dream, my vague and transcendent fabric!

crepe myrtles 1

crepe myrtles

My lament

drawing after Titian whole

I was telling a friend of mine last week, as we strolled through the National Gallery of Art, how much I missed my old friend Titian.   His painting Venus Blindfolding Cupid has been taken off regular view ever since somebody decided that it’s not a real Titian.  The theme is ironic.  Love, blind.  Well, I’d say that some of the Italian curators are have a little vision problem too.  It’s such an incredibly beautiful painting.  Interesting to compare with its counterpart in Italy.  (The image exists in a different version across the pond, probably one reason that the authenticity of the NGA picture is doubted.) 

Alas.  Well, thinking about it got me in motion.  I went digging around looking for a reproduction of the image so I could look at it.  And I made the quick drawing above.  Became quite captivated by the face — which is more ordered than the face of the Italian picture.  Quite possibly the NGA version might be painted by another artist — I’m not saying it’s not.  But it’s such a beautiful painting.  Can’t it be enjoyed simply for what it is?  For its own loveliness?

drawing after NGA Titian