Time passing through pencil lines of daffodils swaying

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Yesterday was sunny and warm. We sat on the bank and I drew my husband’s daffodils.  My daughter reclined on the grass nearby.  The big dog came and leaned against my back. Throughout the neighborhood birds were singing. A persistent breeze moved the flowers, shook them regularly, reminded you that you’re here for the experience. They won’t pose.

I had decided to record time — or my thoughts as I swim through a passage of time. I was taking notes. Spring’s stenographer. I applied old skills to a new situation.  I’ve sat through many a lecture where I took notes. Why not apply that diligence to a session in the yard? With pencil and paper, you take pictorial notes. They  concern the edges of daffodil petals.

What shape catches your eye?  What line is most graceful among the scattered candidates? And how much of that grace can your mind follow?  Perhaps not much, but I’ll catch what I can.  I sought to register the contours of petals and the shapes of the spaces between petals and to capture some of the tonal notes where a dark shadowed patch of grass lay adjacent to a flower’s brilliant sunlit form. Very dark here, less dark there, very light here, almost like light in your face.  Too complicated — so many things everywhere – fonds of grass, bits of weed, leaves with internal segments like quilts, smooth bending leaves, heart shaped leaves, shadows of leaves, criss-crossing of leaves.

In truth there’s so much to see that, like an auditor of a mesmerizing lecture, I could only get bits and pieces while riding a wave of sensation. Okay, I tell myself. Yet, however much it might have been fine to get a life-likeness, I would limit myself to my specific task which was to notice these small parts — the shape of the flower, some element of its architecture, and to ignore as much as I could the schemes that run through my head, echoes of art school proposals and how-to book suggestions, systems of thought that might get you a semblance only.  A visual idea sifted through a pre-existing scheme.

You might produce a picture of flowers, one that seems like it gets the whole. Yes, maybe. And isn’t that a bright task for perhaps another day? But today is for surfing Time’s wave. I needed to listen to the birdsong while making pencil lines.  And lines must be lines. Theses pictures of flowers are like birdsongs.  One flower, one song. Breathe. Start again.

Do birds, like singers, think about breath control? To they sense the rests in the music almost equally to the notes?

Drawing with a pencil you have no color at all. But what of it? This is abstract.  I accept it. Color also for another day. Steely graphite will have to do like the charcoal mantle of the annoying Starling bird. I still see the color. Indeed, my pencil took my eyes through a lovely ant pathway of color sensations and macular cell excitations alerted as a grey traveling line focused my thoughts upon a changing cascade of shades of yellow, shades of green.

Now those colors are memories. In the brain cells remember firing at colors.

I wasn’t trying to make a drawing of a group of flowers. I only wished to catch that passing moment with its passing thoughts. My flowers land randomly on the page as notes from the Lecture that Nature offered that day. Reality is so messy and chaotic — or so it seems. But perhaps Nature the virtuoso has a bigger logic that I couldn’t properly grasp.

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Time as Discipline

A few posts ago I explained how to begin a painting, using Monet’s Sunflowers as an example of something we could copy in imagination.  I wrote a rather longish account, and still I could only draw my theme in the most sketchy way.  To really paint, you must look deeply into the image — peering into its details discovering relationships between the parts and the whole.

To learn to see your aim should be to set up a motif that challenges you to notice as much as possible.  Eugene Delacroix described the goal as “to prolong the sensation.”  Obviously choosing a subject that can engage your thoughts and feelings in the fullest way has the greatest potential for inducing you to look deeply.  Choose something you love.  Choose something you find enchanting.  Not every painting has to be of this challenging sort, of course.  Different paintings aim at different things. But an artist who wishes to see as much as possible in nature has to seek the challenge that stretches his or her powers of observation.

One aide to the goal is time.  Setting a time limit means that you don’t pound your visual cortex against nature’s photons indefinitely.  You know that if you strive as rigorously as you can that, after a session, the gong will chime, and you’re done.  Closure offers this psychological boost that cannot be underestimated.  In tandem with setting a limit, it’s also helpful to make a rule of not being too fussy.  Moving a picture along, even working as quickly as your skills allow, helps too.  You force yourself to “aim and shoot,” again and again.  Working a little bit fast means that rationalizations have little time to interfere.  You try to make the connection between eye and hand as seemless as possible.  You allow a few “mistakes” to creep in, if they must, for the sake of the larger goal of seeing intensely and recording directly.

Certain subjects in art will prod you along mercilessly if you let them.  I used to paint bunches of flowers from the yard or from the florist.  I found that the most time I could ever spend upon them was four hours, maximum.  After that, all the blooms had drooped a little — or they had shifted so much from their initial positions, even the hardiest, as to comprise an entirely different ensemble of relationships by session’s end.  Shadows, of course, change too.  Nature has its own clocks that make an artist nimble.  You should use these clocks to help you.  They are great forms of discipline.

[Top of the post:  Lilacs in a Vase, by Aletha Kuschan, oil on canvas]

From that Nest Hatched These

I guess the nest pictured in the previous post hatched these.  (Making imaginative allowances for time.)  After I became a mom, actually some many years after I painted the bird’s nest, my daughter drew these baby birds.  I assembled them as a trio and put them into the nest she’d made.  A xerox version of them now appears in a collage I’m using for a picture I’m painting.  It’s the same collage of the “weird lizard.”

To Mike

          I’m glad my comments were helpful.  Commenting on your drawings helps me as well, since it prompts me to consider how and why I draw.  I guess I want to teach drawing.  I’ve thought about it certainly, but I cannot do so in a traditional studio setting for various logistical reasons, my schedule, family obligations and so on.  But through writing, perhaps I can find an outlet for teaching the ideas that I wish to share. I see drawing as being a wonderful tool for observing life, and through observing things I also see a path to knowledge about life, even to wisdom. 
How perfectly lovely to have a wife who encourages you. Listen to your wife.  (I’ve already written about marriage here, so isn’t that apropos?)  Her advice to keep your drawings, heed it well.  Okay, maybe not every single scrap.  But certainly the ones she tells you to keep!

I know the feeling of being dissatisfied, but you can learn a lot from past drawings.  People think “yes, I’ll learn to recognize my mistakes.”  That’s not what I mean.  If the drawings bother you, stick them in a drawer and get some distance from them.  Later after you gain skill, you’ll gain confidence and then the drawings may prove helpful.  I had ideas from my earliest inkling that I wanted to be an artist — a beautiful shifting mirage of things I saw that held great meaning for me.  I tried to draw them, but lacked the skill.  I was dissatified with those drawings, but I kept them anyway.  Looking back at old drawings now, ah, how  revealing!  To find ideas that I had forgotten — oh, some of them good ideas!  I have the skills now to pursue these thoughts, and because I kept the drawings, I have the reminders of these perceptions, these appearances, that I once wanted to do.

At the time of their making, you may not have recognized that these things you sought even were ideas.  Time of itself provides a means of observing life.  Seeing events through the perspective of time, we see differently than when events are actually taking place.  Time is not just a theme for the novelist.  It has meaning in the visual arts too. 

Well, anyway, you want to spend some of your regular working hours — your art hours — drawing from life.  Even though it’s far more difficult than copying, drawing from life is incomparable because in this direct perception of things, you have no intermediary.  You copy drawings to learn different ways of thinking visually, and you draw from life to learn to carve your own path. 

 
I liken it to target shooting.  You aim your pencil, point and shoot.  Sometimes you miss.  You try again.  But it involves you in a very precise way of thinking and also a personal one.  If you draw what you notice then the drawing becomes a map of your attention and perception.  And that can be really marvelous, and again also provides reasons for keeping the old things — because you may lack the skill to record all that you notice, but even the imperfect attempt gets at parts of it — so, you see, by keeping old drawings you get to bump into your past self.  Another form of time travel.
 
Getting a job as an artist — that is very tricky, I won’t kid you. If you get one, put in a word for me too!  How good are you at self-promotion?  If you’re a strong self-promoter you might find employment as an artist before you’re really “ready” in which case you can (hurray!) learn on the job.  Being unsatisfied with what you do, of course, makes self-promotion complicated.  So, some employment related soul searching is wise.
 
As a hobby, art is a fabulous thing.  Winston Churchill painted to relax so you’d be among quite dignified good company. Perhaps you cannot be an artist full time, but have you considered becoming prime minister?  As to formal training, I was in lots of classes in my youth, but honestly everything I know about art I learned by trial and error and by very careful study of old masters’ pictures. The best art is personal, and the lessons that really count come from inside your head.
 
Well, I’m glad to be able to give advice and especially where your wife’s concerned.  Listen to her.  A man always does well to heed his wife’s wise counsels.  Don’t be “super” critical, just self-critical enough to move forward.  Let your love of drawing guide you.  Love is a good teacher.

[Top of the post:  Winston Churchill painting in 1946.]