thoughts of flowers, future tense

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Drawing some yesterday, planning future flower paintings — to take up the loose threads of paintings I began but never finished — and get new ideas for possible future works.  I love making pen drawings as a way of dreaming about things.  It helps me get acquainted with the objects.  The smallness of scale makes me feel as though I enter another dimension through the pen lines.  It’s a way of mentally moving among the objects.

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Some objects need special consideration.  The blue compotier will be empty and its interior spaces will need to carry a lot of weight alone.

I will draw it over and over.  Each drawing helps me see it differently.

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I was also inventing a still life in the notebook, adding things as I thought about them.  It’s just an idea for something where yellow is the predominant color (as my written notes attest).

 

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Then there was a little sketch for another idea that’s already on the back burner simmering.  I day dream about this picture that I’ve written about before.

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morning coffee drawings

rose wc

I have neglected my flower project so this morning I decided to resume thinking about the project by doing some studies of flowers. The flowers on this watercolor page are actually two different vignettes from the artificial flowers I have in my studio still life. They will probably none of them find their way into the painting that’s in the works, but they help get me into flower-thinking-mode.

And the mode is important too.

Just now as I was on the porch photographing the watercolor page, I was surprised to note that there was still water puddled here and there. Don’t know if it’s visible in the photo or not.

I was also very mindful of the humongous spider that I see in that same location at night.  I think he’s strictly nocturnal so I don’t anticipate encountering him in the daylight.  At least I hope not!  He’s very big, very scary (for the arachnophobic). and besides that I’m worried I might trip over him.

Seriously.  He’s big.

Anyway, in episodes of coffee sipping when I waited for passages of the watercolor to dry, I made a quick oil pastel of the same central rose. I’m looking at a volume on Sargent lately and I marvel at how much the man was always painting or drawing something. Little vignettes, random sketches, you name it. The lesson for me is this: be often drawing.  Look all around you, and draw what you see.  It’s that simple sometimes.

rose oil pastel

learning the owl

In idle moments I play in earnest.

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I get better acquainted with the subjects of my paintings. You cannot know an owl too well.  And the vase with the songbird design on it needs understanding too.  These late night drawings keep me musing over the topic of my picture. I drew them from this set up seen below, seen here in daylight.

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They are parts of this painting that exists as yet only in sketches and in thought.

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the wise old owl at midnight

I drew the owl late last night.

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In dark owl time I drew him darkly to begin thinking about his wise place under the flowers in the large still life in front of the window at twilight. These are not the colors of the picture. They are the colors of the corner of the room at that comfortable hour. For the quiet nocturnal enjoyment of drawing inky shadows, I arranged him in a mantel of blues and blacks far removed from the light and airy pictorial table under flowers.

But this drawing is for getting better acquainted with the owl, not for figuring out the specifics of the painting — which is still a plan for a painting, not an actual painting.

I took some photos of the set up, back when it existed. It’s long since been disassembled. The camera distorts all the relationships between objects so that they don’t conform at all to the large cartoon I made for the painting. But the mind distorts things, too.

And yesterday I added the window behind the flowers using the blue pastel made at twilight, added it in a pen drawing, the first version of the altered idea.

The idea of the owl in that sketch is fuzzy and scribbly. The scribble version by its incompleteness can offer suggestions of ways to go forward with the idea. Indeed that is the chief virtue of scribbles, their openness to suggestion, the ways that they reveal possible paths without insisting on any singular interpretation.

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And now it’s sunny outdoors, a lovely bright and warm spring day.

UPDATE: In response to Judith’s comment I’ve included a close up of the owl in the drawing (the ability we have now to enlarge digital photographs this way is marvelous).

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The owl is an inch high in the actual drawing. You can see if you look closely that his body was longer at one point and that I just indicated his face and the holes for the candle light in his body by a few marks then sort of scratched over the whole to make him dark. The whole concept is gestural and quick.

There’s a kind of drawing where you just record your ideas and you don’t fuss over them. Imagine how many drawings one can make in a day — when there are no worries. And if you are, nonetheless, being specific about the thoughts then the drawing still records a lot of information. Think of it as like taking notes.  It’s not a kind of drawing to submit to “critiques” (you would never invite someone to critique the notes you take at a meeting, would you?) and yet sometimes such drawings will turn out to have a delight all their own.

 

How to draw with great skill if you don’t know how to draw

And a hint: I don’t know how to draw either.  If we cannot draw as well as Ingres or Durer, we’re not there yet.

ingres girl in a chair

[Ingres drawing of a girl in a chair above.]

How you draw with great skill if you don’t know how to draw is that you focus your mind entirely upon what you’re seeing and then let your hand follow your visual thoughts.  It takes some daring to follow this path because what you see may not actually find its way accurately into the drawing, and we are oh so cognizant of what other people think, are we not?

after huysum

[sketch made from a still life by Huysum at the National Gallery of Art above]

The essence of the blind contour is that it trains you to observe more keenly.  Let’s say that I’m drawing my still life objects.  I notice the various contours.  I follow them with antlike thoroughness.  (Remember that ants can run; this needn’t be a slow process.) I can notice the contour as a flat silhouette against its background.  But maybe there’s a tea pot with paintings of fish swimming across its surface.  My eye can jump to those and the ant can follow those silhouettes without having bothered to finish the other one.

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Let’s say we’ve got an ant that can jump as well as run.  What if you notice a flower at the top of the picture, then a design near the bottom?  What if you note that a sinuous line created by the adjacent edges of several different objects seems to go across the whole image?  You can draw that.  If you are “just looking” you can draw anything and you need not reference whether the feature you’re drawing supports the illusion of the picture. Some things we perceive may actually confuse the illusion of the picture sometimes, in certain contexts.  But how does an artist know the worth of visual information unless he tries it out first? You may not even know for a long time what the significance of a line is, or a color, or a form.

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You can observe objects and make a drawing that gathers psychological information, that takes you through your subject, that explores its various potentials. When we see the works of great masters in the museum and find their pictures full of an amazing verisimilitude, what we don’t see are the drawings, sketches, studies, pochades and whatnot that directed and supported the form the finished painting would take.  Much unseen information lies behind a highly finished painting.  In studies, sketches and incidental drawings a contemporary artist can gather his own (or her own) information in the living moment.

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What do you want to learn about the things you paint that is separate from a finished painting? Remember too that what you learn is drawn in your mind, drawn with your thoughts.  There’s a keenness of perception that is exhilarating in itself.  Let yourself have this freedom to roam mentally through the veil of light before your eyes. It has its own great worth as lived experience.  And then too, it also teaches you things that cumulatively can find their way into finished works.

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To draw with great skill when you don’t yet have the level of skill you desire means that you sometimes develop your perception first. You put aside the schemes of the art classroom (centers of interest and whatnot) and let your mind simply roam while your hand records the path as best it can — as perhaps a blind contour, or better still as simply a brave drawing — one in which the mistakes are let to be what they are. It’s a leap of faith.  But recall we said that this ant can jump.

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[Ants in a still life by Huysum. Photo credit here.]

Be often drawing.

Bonnard in the land of dreams

Bonnard drawingThere’s no accounting for the heart and its vagaries.  I feel sometimes almost as though I should apologize for loving Bonnard.  I’m not sure why I feel this way since he is truly a great artist.  But so many of his paintings seem naïve, or overly simple, or mussy.  Perhaps I’m afraid to emulate his ways since they could lead one so far from the incisive mark into a realm of dreams.

Well, be that as it may.  I love the guy and there’s no help for it.  So I am taking everything about him more seriously beginning with his drawings, those strange, intensely private, small scribbles — some of which are hardly bigger than a largish postage stamp.

What I love about Pierre Bonnard’s painting is his attention to beautiful oddities — making whole pictures — complex pictures from perceptions, memories.

I’m asking myself about the directness of thought and feeling that he gets from the small gestures. When so much of the spectacle before our eyes eludes us anyway, why not grab for the ephemeral by crude and quick means. Pull as much of reality as you can get into a tense, small line and hope for the best. A Bonnard drawing is a hope and a prayer — and a quick ploy to nudge Mother Nature into yielding over some of the richness of her material splendor.

 

 

the art of making perfect mistakes

drawing little notebook

A friend said, “One of the biggest lessons to learn in art is to proceed fearlessly and to look at things in the light of making them more right.”

Why do we allude continually to our mistakes or to those things we perceive as mistakes?  There is always the disconnect between intention and consequence.  Though one uses the word “mistake,” and it carries all sorts of negative connotations, yet we need the word, we need to make mistakes, the mistakes are just the trace of however much striving an artist went through to get to a certain place.

You can guarantee that you’ll never make mistakes. It’s very simple. Attempt only easy things.  As long as you do only those things you know you can do, you’ll never make a mistake — or hardly ever.  Attempt that which you know to be challenging and you’ll be always making mistakes.  And yet you will be always doing something new, always gaining skill and steadiness.

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I have learned over the years to suspend judgement about what constitutes a “mistake.” If you press on, continually working to sharpen both your perception and your skill in putting things “where you think they are supposed to go” then interesting things can happen. There’s some editing in art — as in writing — that can wait. It’s like a wine, you have to allow it some time to cure. I draw, I put things aside to work on other drawings, and later I look at things to decide what’s what.

In any case, you cannot escape alterations between what you thought you wanted to do and what afterwards you discover you did, so you might as well plunge ahead and keep learning.

Violin Lesson

Sitting in the car waiting during the violin lesson, I drew a fast sketch of koi for a painting I’m working on back at my studio.  The June heat made the wax pencils respond more smoothly and knowing I had to jump out of the car in a few moments to fetch my kid quickened the pace of my drawing.

A drawing like this isn’t about what the drawing looks like, it’s more about looking at the ideas and thinking idly (if quickly) about them.  And yet, I love scribbles.  And sometimes it happens that later on, looking at a little sketch like this will bring back to memory the sensation of the whole moment.

window of the notebook

I have a notebook that I’m filling up with pen drawings.  Usually I crop drawings to eliminate the extraneous edges, but when you’re dealing with a notebook, to crop the picture is to ignore the notebook itself, and that I think eliminates a significant part of the charm.  An artist’s drawing notebook, like other books, participates in a mystique of opening and closing.  You enter another world, as it may be, in opening a book.  Closing it, you leave.  A book is rather like a door that way.

I like the area of space in the unused page, the way that previous drawings bleed through and appear like ghosts.  They blur the edges of separation between the pictorial things and remind the observer that everything exhibited is ultimately just lines of ink on a sheet of paper.

I have several vases in the notebook now.   Each drawing is a little world.  And the notebook, therefore, is what?  Door to a miniature alternate flower universe.

journey of the pencil

So you paint the pictures as you might walk through the places, and you notice features and ask yourself questions about this and that as you go.  Your painting is like walking, and you don’t know what the scenery will look like until you come upon it.  The drawing as it unfolds depicts the real landscape, and you are moving through its spaces vicariously by the act of drawing.  And the thoughts along each passage are like footsteps.