Van Gogh was such a wonderful writer as well as being a great artist. If you rummage through his letters even at random, you always find something remarkable. So it is that I find this passage today:
The poor soil of Drenthe is the same, only the black earth is even blacker — like soot — not a lilac black like the furrows, and melancholically overgrown with eternally rotting heather and peat. I see that everywhere — the chance effects on that infinite background: in the peat bogs the sod huts, in the fertile areas, really primitive hulks of farmhouses and sheepfolds with low, very low walls, and huge mossy roofs. Oaks around them. When one travels for hours and hours through the region, one feels as if there’s actually nothing but that infinite earth, that mould of wheat or heather, that infinite sky. Horses, people seem as small as fleas then. One feels nothing any more, however big it may be in itself, one only knows that there is land and sky.
For Van Gogh on that day it was his being in an enormous prospect outdoors, among infinite seeming fields. For me it is the confined corner of my studio where I find another sort of infinity — for everywhere I look I see some small thing that opens large with details and beauty. And everywhere I look the things seem imbued with ideas. Nature has filled the room with thoughts and the things are poems.
When you need flowers, remember that you can find reproductions of my pictures on Fine Art America. (Got to plug my own site — this is an advertisement!)
I have put many of the flower pictures there, some koi, some landscapes. And there’ll be more coming.
So if you need something red, please think of me. And when you need flowers. And koi. And so on. Think of me!
Think about creating a walkway in a garden,
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.
It corresponds to this detail from the other version (below).
And the central portion of the large picture:
And the slightly smaller one (below):
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.
Why is a koi not just like a cloud?
The definition of art is a somewhat amorphous thing. Recently I chided someone for identifying “art” with whatever will challenge me, make me feel uncomfortable, touch me, transform me. I suggested that some things will have these qualities and yet will decidedly not be art. Driving in rush hour, doing taxes, taking a standardized test, getting a root canal — all are challenging. I guarantee the root canal will make you uncomfortable. Perhaps a dentist will argue that root canals are art. But, for goodness sake, let’s let the dentist make the argument. Artists don’t have to do it for them.
What is art? In the era when drawing doesn’t count, art has morphed into namelessness. Everyone is an artist now. Art is whatever you want it to be. And still life beckons.
Let me suggest that art’s definition be reserved for the hard stuff. Let an old master’s skill be an ingredient. Better that we be striving toward it than grinning and slapping our own backs in self-congratulation.
Life still beckons. I say art is a mystery, and I will pursue it. Better to ever pursue and never reach than to cheapen the journey with goo-gaws and touristy nick-nacks. Can I persuade you to share in the longing?
Okay, I don’t usually rant. But the ubiquitously recited litany that art will challenge me, make me feel uncomfortable, touch me, transform me — it’s so “me, me,me”! When did we lose our bearings? When did we leave nature aside? When did we lose our capacity to see inside the veil?
I copied Ingres (who knew what art is) and left the face blank. I think she makes a nice metaphor for Art. Art is she whose face is hard to see, the mystery that beckons, the life that needs transcription, a line suspended in air, a thought held in a breath, a definition that defies.
Today was a loose ends kind of day. Did a little of this, little of that, but had few chances to do a sustained bit of anything. Except I made this drawing. Pencil is such a moody, smudgy medium. Shiny too. Have to love the way that graphite gives off light as well as absorbs it.
The shell, too, reflected my thoughts back to me as well as absorbed some of them. The beauty of drawing is the way it lets your mind drift off to lazy, limitless, meditative places.
What counts is what remains behind. Sometimes artists — especially when they are new — are over-scrupulous in comparing what they make with its model. Even Matisse acknowledged that art is a truth that’s parallel to nature. You make your drawing as faithfully as you can. You really let yourself be in touch with the reality that you think and see and feel.
Afterwards, and of course there is afterwards, you have the drawing itself. It’s its own little world. You should not care too much whether it is the exact replica of Nature as you saw her. What is it in itself? In itself is all that the spectator will afterwards know. In itself is really what counts. You were making a drawing. You are not placing a landscape of dirt and trees and bugs and animals on the floor for your spectator to inspect. You are giving them an image — a visual idea on a sheet of paper. All that they can inspect are its lines and shapes and colors and forms.
Oh, don’t get me wrong. I love Nature. But Nature and Art are not the same thing. They are sisters, perhaps. But each is her own person.
I did the drawing above one day. I don’t now know where I was or what I looked at.
Sometimes I take my trusty Caran d’ache water soluable crayons out on the road, and I confront Nature face to face. (She has such a pretty face.) I have a few places that have become favorite haunts, and I revisit them and produce different versions of the same motif. The wonderful thing about drawing is its spontaneity. The world’s oldest medium is highly portable. To draw all you really need is a stick and a page.
Well, my sticks are elegant modern inventions, and while they’re not super expensive, they are pricey enough to brag about, and certainly worth rooting around in the grass to find the ones that one has accidentally dropped.
The water is a mirror, the first mirror. Narcissist might have bent over this glass. When water is very still, you can’t tell where the surface is. You can wonder if it’s a few inches away or several feet. I saw a pond like that once — in the middle of the forest — so still that its depths seemed only eternally to elude my touch, and it seemed also to resonate silence, an anechoic chamber of liquid rationality. This place was still. This place was so quiet.
I have some favorite things that I like to draw, this pond is one of them. I’ve drawn and redrawn it many times. I play it like a tune softly on the piano, noodle around with it, and its music is all rests and no notes. It’s not even a real drawing in the usual sense, but is just me making marks along the page, tossing virtual pebbles into the water, skipping them and waiting for ripples that never happen, that never come, for no echoes sound in this pond that is eternally still.
The clouds float by above and below, forever. Water vapor above, liquid water below. Mirror of light. The air will always seem to vibrate with an aqua-blue vibe. The marks, the restless marks, caught my nervous energy and fix it into a picture where I can look back and see Nature meeting me. For we’re here in this place, this grand and stunning place, and Nature waits upon us to notice.
Color conveys mood. One question I begin my koi paintings with is what color blue will predominate? For this particular painting my studies help me decide whether one fish (now in a leading role) will be a soft pale orange or a richly saturated orange. The color of the fish is especially important since orange and blue are optically opposite. If the fish is richly colored he will stand out in a maximal way, and if he is a quietly pale orange he will make a much less forceful impact.
I’m thinking this little fish deserves a big personality, but I’m trying to make certain the whole painting will balance. This study tries the quieter color. It’s also the first time I’ve dealt with the dark fish who dives downwards.
Today was drawing day. I made three studies for the koi paintings. The freedom of drawing is exhilerating. Beginning an idea from the blank page always delights me, but I am supposed to be finishing paintings. Well, this way I get to eat my cake and have it too. I am “working on” the painting — indirectly. I am trying out ideas, rehearsing my lines, all of which gives me necessary practice for the painting. But I still get to begin from blank.
The version above is a compositional sketch for the whole painting. In the next couple posts I make studies of the group around the dark fish.