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.
During the last several months my schedule has become one of almost constant interruption so I’ve been tinkering constantly with ways of trying to hold onto ideas. Last paintings that I tried stalled because just as I get “fired up” I have to stop and turn my attention elsewhere. For a time I was hardly painting, taking refuge in drawing (admittedly NOT a bad refuge) and other things (reading, study).
Well, I still have a large partly begun canvas on the easel — and I’m NOT giving up on it. Far from it. But I did sit myself down one day and gave myself a heart-to-heart talking to (I find that an integrated personality is highly over-rated). I decided — or me, myself, and I decided — that any painting is better than none.
What’s more I have tons of materials left over from some old projects that I no longer need for their original intended use. I decided that I was going to crank out something. Whatever it was, some of it was going to be fast and free.
It’s better to be painting than not painting. It is better to be making line and color decisions than no decisions at all. I decided that I’d rifle through old photos — better working from photos than not working at all — and I was going to paint whatever I could — whatever I wanted to — I was throwing caution to the winds.
Needless to say, I’m beginning to really have fun. And I’m getting more jealous of my painting time than formerly. Sometimes I’ve got fifteen minutes.
By golly, I whip out the brushes. Fifteen minutes is fifteen minutes!
I will make many such little drawings while I work on my painting of flowers. I posted an earlier one already. Such drawings are made after the manner of a person muttering to herself; they are my haphazard thoughts made in idle moments. When I take a break and relax in my chair — or while I talk on the phone — I begin remembering my painting. These sketches are my memories.
These pen gestures each reveal subtle differences in feeling about what the picture is “supposed” to be — what I think it is — in the effervescent moment.
We spent lots of our holiday drawing, my ten-year-old (soon to be eleven-year-old) art assistant and I, but the cloud cover always seems to thicken whenever anyone reaches for a camera so I’ll have to keep you in suspense a while longer regarding our results.
Meanwhile, I rearranged the studio today — always a heady experience as I realize that I’ve misplaced half the items I own and find myself becoming reacquainted with them in the shift and bustle. Greetings! There you are! Where’ve you been? Whatever possessed me to put you there? But reunited now ….
In preparation for new still lifes I have been planning, I shifted stuff around once more, finding old things, no doubt losing new items by disturbing their places. But I have accomplished my goal: I have two flower still lifes set up for work.
I have been dreaming about these pictures, imagining them in my head, contemplating the meanings of flowers. Finally I can stop dreaming now and begin working.
Art is an interpretation of things. Whenever we draw from life we confront one idea of reality — that highly acute (thanks to optometry) clear world with sharp edges and infinity of focus. Our eyes light upon different things and the mind blends them into one continuous idea of what’s “out there.”
In the arts of drawing and painting, by contrast, the world exists in two dimensions, and it has a finite size. Maybe it’s just 11 1/4 x 8/7/16 inches like Raphael’s Saint George and the Dragon at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Maybe it’s 1.50 x 1.97 meters like Monet’s Nympheasat the Musee Marmottan.
However big or small it is, a picture represents a little world in itself — very much in finite and usually rectangular terms. So the artist always needs to be aware of the differences between the world as he sees it before his eyes, verses the world as it exists in pictorial imagination. Then too there’s the difference between the artist’s intention and the picture itself, which sometimes takes on a life of its own.
And the artist needs to be alive to the qualities of the medium used to make the picture as well. Not all media are equal to all tasks. Letting the picture travel to those ideas that the medium itself suggests (by virtue of its unique qualities) is one way that artists learn to invent ideas. Sometimes necessity is the mother of invention. Sometimes the medium limits what is possible and thereby creates the forms the picture will take.
Crayons are scribbly. They can produce continuous tones, too, of course. But line is their hallmark and their characteristic virtue. And nature too is composed of a great many lines. So the marriage of material to subject, where crayons are concerned, often leads to scribbles of one sort or another.
And one needn’t resist this. Because scribbles can actually be quite beautiful.
[Top of the post: a quick study after nature, Scrubs at the Arboretum, by Aletha Kuschan]
One problem that artists have at the beginning arises from a misapprehension. When seeing a painting in a museum, people often think that that’s it. They see a complete, whole and finished thing and mistakenly suppose that the artist just painted it. Such a task, anyone would acknowledge to be difficult, but to create ex nihilo — which is often what people mistakenly suppose artists do — would be really, very hard — perhaps impossible. In fact most complex pictures have lots of studies that lie behind them. Studies can take many forms, but usually they exist. Typically they are not on display. They reside in the background. They lie stored in a drawer in the artist’s studio.
What defines a study? One might say that it’s any work of art that takes a separate aspect of an idea and pursues it in isolation. When you study old masters’ techniques, you find many such drawings that rehearse ideas that are later used in completed paintings.
So, it’s “okay” to take an idea apart and pursue it in bits. The drawing at the top of the post is that kind of drawing. I was interested in the drapery and drew it in isolation. To create this drapery I had first made a photograph — but even the photograph is part of the pursuit of an idea. I’m still not certain where it’s going. Or if it’s going anywhere.
The figure has no head or face and hardly any arms. These details don’t matter at this juncture, and I left them out. The details here are to drawing what scales are to music. This is a drawing of riffs and phrases. Such things have their own charms.
[Top of the post: Drapery Study, by Aletha Kuschan, colored pencil on Nideggen paper]
Just finished reading Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. Won’t spoil it for those who haven’t read it, but it’s kind of like Moby Dick — only a whole lot shorter! It is really extraordinary what a great writer can do with a little bit of theme. Basically a fellow goes fishing, in Hemingway’s story, and yet the tale reveals bits of an entire life.
Also in recent weeks, I’ve read John Hilton’s Lost Horizons and Ursula Le Guin’s Lathe of Heaven — both wonderful stories. I had not meant to become seriously diverted with reading, but I’m on a roll. One trip to the library netted me a pile of books (still thinking in fishing terms), and they chanced to be so good that once I began a story, I couldn’t quit!
Back to Hemingway’s tale though, if you’ve read it you know it’s very visual. And if you’ve read this blog, you know that I’m often preoccupied with the topic of fishes. So, diving deep into this story I was confronted with some issues of my own life. Was beginning to wonder if I’d need to illustrate something from the story.
I like monumental art. But would I really do a fish that large? Are all fish stories questions about magnitude? Does my fish affectionately named Pixel need to grow? And would my apartment studio accomodate him? Would anyone ever purchase his picture if I did it? Or would I live with a giant painting of a fish the rest of my life?
Got to mull over these and other questions. Meanwhile, I’m moving on to the next book. My next Hemingway selection will be Moveable Feast. I can manage that much. Food. Still life. Been there, done that.
Meanwhile, wishing you safe seas.
[Top of the post: Two Men in a Boat, by Aletha Kuschan, aquatint]
Sometimes you paint something in much the same way you’d go for a walk. You just decide that it would be pleasing to be occupied with visiting an imaginary place, and in the case of art, one visits by painting. That’s how this picture came into being. I think I must have painted it in winter. I was definitely in the studio and not anywhere near Hawaii. The river, meanwhile, could be purple in nature by some rare convergence of weather and odd lighting, but chiefly this one is purple because I felt like making it that color. Also, it’s rather a gravity defying river in its gesture.
Sometimes you cannot explain why things have to be as they are, but the composition of this picture obeys a chromatic and compositional logic that are necessary to it. The things that make it what it is increase it’s tropicality, and I wanted it to be very tropical. Perhaps it became more tropical than nature herself ever is.
[Top of the post: Tropical Ridge, by Aletha Kuschan, acrylic on canvas]
A certain way of painting nature belongs to the French. And whenever an artist adopts that way, be it Jennifer Bartlett or Richard Diebenkorn or Winslow Homer, it is the same as speaking French. Call it “visual French.” I have myself been studying different dialects of it. In this picture Bonnard was my teacher. He has a certain distinctive accent that I think I caught in nuance, even though he never would have drawn in the medium I used, or drawn something this large or in quite this way.
Translation is a valuable metaphor for the exchange of ideas that take place among artists living in different eras. I can talk Bonnard’s talk, but I still sound “simply and frankly American” (as Mary Cassatt once famously said). And while I might adopt a second language to express my visual ideas, just like Polish Joseph Conrad became an English novelist, I am nonetheless giving my own opinions.
People trouble themselves over much with the question of originality. Yet one would be hard pressed to be anyone other than oneself. I may speak a visual French, but the pictorial ideas are mine. Thus the language is not quite French even, or English, or American. In a final sense one speaks the language of the self. Spoken earnestly, it’s a language that others can understand without a translator for it speaks to all the other selves in the clear tones of feeling and life.
[Top of the post: Speaking French to the Trees and the Sky, by Aletha Kuschan, crayon on Canson paper, 60 x 47 inches]