When you paint as much blue as I do
sometimes you need some yellow and orange. The koi pictures that feature so prominently in my life and studio make one need strong warm colors from time to time as a foil to the watery blue reflections of sky that dominate those works. Since I have an ancient squash that’s been sitting on the kitchen shelf for longer than I’m willing to admit, and as I don’t think I’m interested in cooking it anymore, I decided that it’s perfectly suited to the still life table where it sits very nicely.
I painted it with watercolor in the picture on top, and afterwards decided to have a go at it with oil paint too. For the oils I paired it with one of the sea shells.
The light comes in from the window facing south at the backyard and also from an east facing window that bounces light from the neighbor’s light colored house, filtered through the leaves of shrubs I need to prune. I have a bright yellow plastic table cloth that I bought for a dollar at the grocery store, purchased for its brilliant color and assembled together the items and ambient light all make for much bright yellow wending warmth.
So, there they are — today’s immersions in a foil to blue. The balance of the color reproduction is off. The pictures are cooler and more lemon shaded (especially in the cloth) than gets captured here. But I learned long ago that the camera sees things a little differently than our eyes do. And the reproduction catches the general sense, and hence is as we say “close enough for jazz.”
Sea shells on the shelf, say that several
times quickly. When I finished drawing my late night owl of the previous post, I turned my attention to the sea shells with the ceramic bird. I have an oil pastel that I work on when the light is right, and this pen drawing, made from a different angle, in different light keeps me thinking about the forms.
Small sea shell against colors reminiscent of the sea
This one now joins two similar shells painted in oil pastel. All three are framed and ready to make their way in the world. Ah, now for that part!
Here’s the other two. I also got a frame for a small shell painting. The beautiful framing is done by Georgetown Frame Shoppe.
I put the shells onto many different kinds of backgrounds, backgrounds that are not ocean, not sand. The olive ground is earthy, almost like grass. The shell has a sort of wing, like a stone bird. Drawing the sea shell launched it into a sort of motion that I never intended. Drawing often leads to various surprises. Draw to learn, draw to see, draw to think.
The little sea shell is dwarfed by koi.
The pastel is dust. Shell of dust, colored like earth and sky.
I have a still life that I set up so that I could better study the color blue. It’s been sitting there for a while, and last night for the first time I decided to begin drawing from it. The pastel above is the first attempt. Objects in this drawing are a little larger than life size. While I was working I got confused about the sizes of some of the objects relative to each other so I used passages of color to think myself through the drawing questions. Because I’m still sorting through the drawing questions, I have not really begun using it to study blue in earnest. But the color questions as well as the drawing questions are ones that I begin thinking about with this first drawing. It’s like reading through a new piece of music. On the first read, you don’t worry about every note; instead you just want to get through it from beginning to end and hear how it sounds.
This morning while I was waiting somewhere I drew the still life from memory. I was so proud of myself, supposing that I had remembered all the still life items. It was only after I got home and compared the memory drawing with last night’s pastel drawing that I discovered I had forgotten the dome-shaped dark blue bottle. How on earth did I forget it? It’s a favorite, beloved object, one that I’ve portrayed many times. But today in my mind as I sketched, it disappeared down the rabbit hole.
The violet colored pastel paper complicates the whole business of “studying blue,” but even when doing this as an exercise I find I want to add on other elements. And I am “studying blue” as another way of thinking about my koi paintings. And thus still life painting can sometimes help solve visual questions that pertain to other genres.
A complex still life is like Nature. When you go out into the world, into the fields, the forest, the meadow, you find a gazillion things scattered willy-nilly according to a prodigal and crazy logic devised by Nature our Mother. She’s a harried housewife, Nature, and drops one thing here while on her way to get that, and can’t remember where she left that tree or raccoon, that froggie on the lily pad … those birds sitting in the oak … where’d they get to? Never can find her keys, Mother Nature. But what difference does it make when luxury and profusion are the trades you ply?
A lot of artists arrange a well-organized still life for contemplation, one that’s sure to have a center of interest. Others of us, affected by a visual ADHD, crave clutter. For me I find rationality inside the clutter. Gravity still rules. Things aren’t flying off the table, exiting the solar system. Physics still has it all under control. But patterns and colors abound and edges bump into other edges.
To have a fine mess to get into, an artist can approach still life as though it were en plein air. Notice the abundance of shapes, colors, the confusion of proportion as you try to get your “ducks in a row.” That’s how I roll. I pick something and draw and the devil take the edges. My pencil as my machete, I hack my way through the jungle of lines, shapes, colors, forms and plant my flag at the end of my travails.
And Nature indulgent Mother glances wryly at me, her hyper-active child. Minute in the cosmos.
For many years I’ve used oil pastels, for so long I cannot remember, and one thing I love about the medium is its directness. You open the box, select a color and begin drawing. And drawing easily becomes painting since you can lay the pigment down in many ways, can blend it, can even work over top it (to varying degrees).
When I work with pastel, I feel such direct contact with the object I watch. One imagines that the pastel somehow touches the thing’s surface. It’s as though a stylus connects to the object and to my hand and runs across the thing’s surface (such as with the shell above) and directs my hand to make gestures that echo the shapes of the thing’s forms. An imaginary Rube Goldberg contraption-of-the-mind connects me to the things I see as though by thought levers and perception wires.
Dry pastel, the older more traditional medium, one that’s been around since Lascaux, offers the same possibilities of connection with the subject. It is messy to be sure. It’s dusty. It is more complicated and less portable (because of its complications), but its effects are so beautiful that one learns not to care. The directness is still present.
My boxes of pastel lay open on the table. When I go into the studio I immediately set to work. Sanded papers hold pigment abundantly, and so the artist has many ways to manipulate the color. All the usual ways are available: through color choices, through drawing, scale, choice of motif, and other options beckon also.
You can color the ground with watercolor and draw over it. You can fix the pastel and work over the preceding layers with greater freedom than I ever imagined was possible. I drag colors over colors with abandon. Lest I make it sound easy-peasy, the material will fight back; it’s doesn’t sit there dormant. It gives you challenges that you want to seize, if you’re someone who loves lines and loves colors, and must always be describing the things you see. Pastel puts up a good resistance, offers continually new chances to aim and stalk and meander and explore layers of light and dark and the lines that an artist’s mind wraps around things because everything is wrapped in lines, you know ….
See all the lines?
The shell and the drawing are different. The shell is made of minerals formed through invisible intelligence. And the drawing, on the contrary, comes about through mute astonishment. At that juncture a wise artist will transform himself modestly into a compliant stylus. You empty your thoughts and “walk” through a landscape of lines, colors, and light and dark patches.
The marks are thoughts that signify, “I see the curve swell toward this direction,” and “the line escapes here and dissolves,” or “this part seems to press into the space-time here — then to disappear behind the dimensions that float in front of sight.” The marks are thoughts and emotions too.
Some lines betray one’s doubts: “I think the contour is here — or is it there?” Some marks skate onto the paper boldly, whether by confidence or by the sudden loss of friction. Thoughts can slide along the paper and you can get ahead of yourself, as the saying goes.
I chose them originally for their forms. The shell is a complex object in the way that Nature likes complexity. You can turn a shell around, examine it from various perspectives, and each view offers substance that your thoughts can try to grasp.
I wanted something hard to draw, something that would push back as I sought to understand it. I get some of the form of the shell inside my mind successfully only to discover that it has new elements that I didn’t notice before. The more I push, the more it pushes back.
Even without color the shell is mysterious, the ways that light and dark curl around its ridges and projections. Add color and the complexity increases as warm hovers or cool recedes around it in a veil of light.
I’ve been spending my days and nights at the beach. There’s a beach in my mind and along its shores, sea shells float upon the incoming tide and are deposited on the still life table where they pose majestically while sitting among a variety of brightly colored cloths.
And I stare at them. And they would perhaps stare back at me, except that the mollusk has long since flown the coop.
So I contemplate them. At long last I will frame the drawings, and send them back into the ocean of the world, where they can float into someone else’s consciousness and bask in the gaze of a mollusk-mesmerized spectator. And mollusk magic will hold sway. Again.