after Rubens

I’m always looking for ways to trick myself into drawing.  One thing that I’ve found helpful is to use those occasions when you are naturally off guard.  For instance, late at night is a good time for fooling yourself into taking drawing chances — especially if you are tired.  You tell yourself — I did this only last night and it worked excellently well — you say to yourself, “Just one more drawing, and I’ll hurry.”  Contained are two effective hypnotic suggestions:  “just one more drawing” becomes “why make a big deal when it’s just one drawing among many” and “I’ll hurry” means “whatever mistakes I make I can blame on the hour.”  These are good incantations for removing qualms.  And once you are drawing qualm-free, sometimes you become free enough to learn new things.

I started this drawing after Rubens (above).  It’s nearly one-to-one in relation to the image in the book I used, and this old book is printed all in black and white.   I started lazily, but as even just minutes creeped by — it was nearly midnight –fatigue started tugging at me. So I decided to step up the pace, until finally I raced through things that ordinarily I might have decided I didn’t even have to draw — like the buttons and do-dahs on the bodice of her dress.

Scribbling fast lines and making instanteous impressions of the buttons and pearls — just tossing them down wherever it seemed like they belonged (point and shoot drawing) was exhillerating.

What a great thing to do right before going to bed.  It’s a wonder that I didn’t dream all night long of pearls in scribbles.

Early morning catch

I rose early and began my koi scribbling.  The kinds of lines that the ball point pen makes are more various than I’d ever have guessed.  It turns out to be a capacious and sensitive instrument.  I refer to the very cheap Bic Cristal pen that you buy in a pack of ten.  Here’s an advantage of the modern era.  Wouldn’t Rubens be jealous?

Not only is the instrument subtle and supple.  But the reference photo reveals so many possibilities to me.  I repeat these motifs again and again and find them endlessly fascinating.

These are my scales that I play on my pen in the morning making koi songs.

Life in Progress

Sometimes life throws you for a loop.  You have plans to do such and such, and it doesn’t work out.  Maybe your driver’s license comes up for renewal, and you have to postpone your paradise so that you can stand on line for endless hours.  That’s not what happened to me, but that’s the other loop I’ll be thrown into when I get free of this one.

Anyway, I’ve learned with the years that for an artist the key to dealing with life’s unexpected and sometimes unpleasant surprises is to have plans B, C and even D safely tucked in one’s pocket. 

I had to interrupt my lovely work’s momentum to do something perfectly mindless for onwards a week now.  But I have picked myself up (figuratively), dusted myself off, and I’m mentally swimming the koi pond again, if not in fact, then almost in fiction.

I had an image I stole (top of the post), that I cut into four segments, rearranged, and to which I later added things, new fish.  It’s a mode of invention I borrowed from Peter Paul Rubens (and from whomever he borrowed it from).  I come back to it now as a thirsty person comes upon a clear stream (or these days comes upon a little store that sells cold drinks).

In this picture I see the possibilities for endless others.  And when possibility is what you’ve got, you take it. 

Possibility first, reality after.

Rubens, master of the first blockbusters

In times past I spent many happy hours in front of Rubens’s magnificent Fall of Phaeton.  I made a bunch of drawings of this one horse alone, which are scattered throughout several notebooks. 

Sometimes I just stood and looked without a notebook.  Phaeton is a mesmerizing tour de force.  Once I stood for forty-five minutes in front of the painting, looking, staring, pondering — sometimes getting up close to marvel at details, sometimes standing back to admire the sublimity of the whole. 

A museum guard stood nearby, aware of my marathon watching, and deep into my session he finally ventured forward to help me (I must have seemed to need it), saying vaguely, “um, er, if you have a question about the painting, there’s a plaque here with some information.”

That’s when I decided perhaps it was time to go, that I had bewildered the guard for long enough.  But I could have stood there a fortnight.  Rubens is better than the most gripping movie.

“I should be happy to give 10 years of my life,” said Vincent van Gogh while gazing at Rembrandt’s Jewish Bride in Amsterdam in 1885, “if I could go on sitting here in front of this painting for a fortnight, with only a crust of dry bread for food.”

That’s kind of how I feel about Rubens.

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]

Learning to learn

Reader comments help me greatly to clarify my ideas, and I thank everyone who leaves comments here.  In my previous post about the education of a hypothetical “great artist,” I argue that the most authentic form of art comes from the self.  Moreover, I argued that for this reason, the greatest artists — regardless how much education they had — were, in very important ways, “autodidacts.”

Perhaps I made it sound like an aspiring great artist should avoid schools, books, conversation and study.  So, I want to clarify the idea by saying that, quite the contrary, I’m aware that great artists typically had very thorough and deep educations.  Sometimes they had, like Rubens, a rich formal education.  Rubens’s education in rhetoric, history, language as well as his “internship” with the Carracci brothers in Italy made him a thousand-fold more savvy than the typical, much touted “New York” artist of today.  Monet, to cite a different kind of career, was certainly well acquainted the great paintings of the Louvre and with the main tenets of academic art of his era and had innumerable painter friends of all sorts.

Van Gogh who I had used as a role model of the perfect sort of autodidact did literally isolate himself and set to work learning to draw through sheer hard work and struggle.  But even Van Gogh had a direct “teacher” in the form of a drawing manual, one that was popular in his day by Charles Bargue.  But what distinquishes Van Gogh’s studies from the norm is the keen force of his personality. 

Van Gogh was well acquainted with art prior to his decision to become an artist.  He had worked as an art dealer, following in that a family tradition.  He had been a passionate visitor of museums.  He was deeply influenced by a wide number of artists and traditions.  While it is most unlikely that Van Gogh could have known the particular drawing at the top of this post, by Cornelis Hendricksz Vroom of 17th century Haarlem, Van Gogh was nonetheless probably deeply influenced by the tradition of which Vroom was part.  And for a modern viewer, well acquainted with the masterful graphic vocabulary that Van Gogh uses in his late drawings — all the dots and dashes and wonderfully expressive penlines of every sort — seeing this drawing by Vroom is a little like finding Van Gogh’s 17th century twin.

There are as many paths to art as there are travelers, but upon each path the person taking the journey has to find a spiritual compass within his or her own life.  Yes, an artist should study assiduously!  Certainly, a serious artist is very eager to learn and to see.  But the finding is certified not by outside authorities, but by the quiet, sure judgement of the self.

The Vroom drawing above belongs to the Albertina Museum which is in the process of putting images of its entire collection on line.  Its addition makes another wonderful resource of ideas for today’s artists.

[Top of the post:  Trees behind a Wooden Fence, by Cornelis Hendricksz Vroom  (1591/92 – 1661),  pen and brown ink, brown wash, 28.7 x 30.2 cm, Albertina Museum]

Adjacent To

Perhaps because paper was once in short supply, we note that the old masters drew on their rare pages with more joyful abandon than is typical of artists today.  And they were more thrifty.  Often a page of old master drawings will have several subjects on the same page, and they will not necessarily have anything to do with each other.  Often they are at right angles to each other.  And sometimes artists (like Ingres or Rubens) would even put more than the correct number of limbs on their figures — all presumably in the interest of deciding what the pose should be.  Four armed ladies?  Let’s not go there.  Save that for another occasion.

In our era of anything goes, it’s interesting that this conceit — this putting lots of things onto the same page hasn’t caught on as a revivified trend.  Heck, a lot of artists could do it and suppose that they were inventing something brand new (the ones who have not studied history, that is).

Besides things that happen to rent space on the same page are the colors that halo objects.  Everything in the world is colored and if you look really closely at all the color, it can drive you nuts!  There is so much of it to notice.  I didn’t peer too deeply in this drawing, but just enough to put some blue on top and green on the side of the marigold.

[Top of the post:  Studies of Plants by  Aletha Kuschan]

How to be inventive without getting arrested


Back when the old masters were in charge, you could copy another artist’s work.  Indeed during the long eons before photography, the only way to disseminate images was through drawings, prints and copies.  “If I’m going to be famous, more than three guys need to know about these paintings” was the worry.  And thus the print was born.  But copies, of course, were even better.  You’ve got the color and scale too.

A young artist or admirer was, of course, expected to ask permission first.  (Please ask was the most common thought bubble at the time.)

Now, alas, we have copyright laws.  Bah humbug.  Happily there are ways around it, though if anybody asks I’m admitting nothing.  Look to the example of the great Peter Paul Rubens.  His work is a veritable Rhetoric of ideas about drawing and invention.  Not the least among them is the Battle of Nude Men, a drawing at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.  (Readers can chastely click here.)

The Battle of Nude Men is a complex work based on copies of two images by Barthel Beham.  Julius Held tells the story of this drawing in his book Rubens: Selected Drawings.  Though taken from the Beham prints, the figures are arranged “freely.”  Moreover the drawing is composed of several sheets that have been cut up, and reassembled, presumably having been differently ordered before their cutting.  So, it’s an early collage!

Anyway, the rearrangement of images taken from other artists (don’t worry Beham was copying too — notice a strong Michelangelesque quality to Rubens’s drawing) was a particularly beloved way of cutting a new coat from old cloth.  And what we learn from this today — let’s lower our voices now — is that you can take another artist’s work and if you alter it sufficiently much, you can pay tribute to the artist from whom you steal (using the sincerest form of flattery), while creating an entirely new and original work.

And that’s exactly what I’ve done above, using a photograph — I cut it up, rearranged it, created the spaces between the pieces, began inserting my own invented fishes based upon the cropped fish parts that were visible around the edges, and am on my way to creating my own Battle of Nude Fish.

Who says the old masters aren’t the most modern guys around?