New path ways in the Blogging Life

I have neglected my little blog lately while I rethink my path forward.  It’s not been so much a case of “writer’s block” for I have been writing copiously in my little notebooks in that arena of my life that is strictly low tech.  But I have lacked ideas for blogging.

And I guess it shows!

And I cannot present my paintings here for a season — though there’s plenty of paintings in the archives, of course.  For reasons that I cannot quite explain, the paintings I’m doing right now need to be secret.  Koi can be shy.  And these koi need quiet at the pond, invisibility, freedom.  So I have planned to write less about painting and more about …

well, more about something or other — just as soon as I figure it out.  Meanwhile, drawing a creamer is always good for keeping yourself busy while you’re figuring.

Regular readers know that I am my stuff.  That’s me up there!  Me as a creamer… yeah, it’s kind of weird.

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Making it Write

Write to yourself about why you paint.  Everyone wants an “artist’s statement” these days — I haven’t the foggiest idea why but evidently they just do.  Apply for anything and it asks you for an “artist’s statement” so apparently they are hot commodities!

As for me I say, “sit right down and write yourself a letter, and make believe it came from you.”  Tell yourself why you do what you do.  The left brain can explain the whole business to the right.  Those guys should stay in touch more — you know.  In fact, if you want to get really fancy, send yourself a Hallmark card — with the explanation, why you paint, all that.

What are you trying to achieve?  What do you want from your work? 

What I wanted above is to paint pomegranates. And then “I’ll be glad I got ’em.”

Hit it, Nat!

My Guest Spot at Gabrielle Bryden’s

As some readers have already discovered, those who popped over for a squiz, I was a guest blogger at Gabrielle Bryden’s Blog.  Gabrielle is the Australian poet I met via the confluence of Paul Squires’s poetry at Gingatao and Chinese silky chickens and hamster jealousies too complex to relate here.  Suffice it to say, I’m delighted to be featured there.  And the Koi are delighted as well.  The hamster, on the other hand, now has something new for her jealousy.

Now that my pictures are getting to be better known, I guess it’s just a matter of time.  I think I’ll sit a while and wait to see if the Museum of Modern Art calls.

Word verses Image

During my absence from my blog I did continue writing.  I’m a fanatical journal writer — so much so that I’ve begun to think of my journals as my “brain,” and I’d be hard pressed to even think if I couldn’t write a lot of my ideas down.  Writing seems like the only way of making thoughts become real.  Perhaps that’s because I’m otherwise rather badly organized and prone to forgetfulness.

Anyway, writing is so habitual for me that I’ve wondered sometimes if writing isn’t really what I should be doing instead of painting.  Then it hit me.  One reason I don’t do art when I’m “between places,” as I’ve been for over a month now, is that I always seem to need something to actually look at when I work.  I’ve never been one of those artists who doodles, or who dreams things up in imagination.  I like to have a subject of some kind sitting right in front of me.  I’m an observer.  I draw what I see.  It might be a combination of things.  It might be sometimes a real object, sometimes a photograph, sometimes a drawing that I look at and record.  But it’s always something.  I want vision to be rich, immediate, a real-time sensation from eye to brain.

So, maybe it’s time I branched out a little.  I often advise others to try new skills and get out of the comfort zone.  Here’s an instance where maybe I should take some of my own advice.

The image at the top of this post is one of a series of large paintings by American artist Jennifer Bartlett.  Given that it’s a painting of little pieces of paper with notes jotted on them, it illustrates my theme of the tug-a-war between words and images.  She attacked it pretty directly.  She did paintings of writing.  It’s from her series 24 Hours Air.

And then there’s tea

A certain kind of drawing is fast and free.  If you were trying to think out loud about something, you wouldn’t worry about eloquence.  And in a certain kind of drawing you don’t worry about eloquence either. 

It’s like writing a “to do” list for yourself.  It’s like quick catching a first impression.  It’s a form of play.  You create your own coloring book drawing, rapid-fire lines that you fill with color — or that you leave empty — it doesn’t matter.

It’s like mumbling to yourself.  Hmm … this goes over here.  This goes over there ….

It’s really not a big deal.  That’s a kind of drawing, too.  I drew this tea pot as casually as I would drink the tea.

[Top of the post:  Tea pot and Cup, by Aletha Kuschan, pencil and watercolor]

Portrait drawing

When I was working on one of the commissioned pictures I alluded to earlier, I made numerous studies of individual parts; and in the process of drawing and redrawing the face of one of the figures I was painting, I began more and more to identify with her.  She became for me like a character in a story.  As a novelist learns to watch the people in her fictional world, I began to “watch” this woman I was drawing, and I tried to figure her out. Or, like an actress learning a part, I tried to learn who she was merely by prolonged peering into her face.

I had a group of photographs to work from, and one photo was the pivotal one.  I redrew this photo several times.  And each drawing was a little different from the others.  Sometimes artists worry about the differences between what they are seeing and what they produce in their drawing.  But I liked and sought subtle differences from the photo.

The photographic image never changed, but my drawings did.  Even though they captured the general likeness of the photo, the act of drawing brought out various little bits of expression and emotion and thought.  For me, it animated her photograph.  I felt like I had drawn the woman herself — from life — rather than having just copied something static.  Looking at this, I don’t think anyone could tell she wasn’t there in front of me though she had died a decade earlier.

[Top of the post:  Study for a Portrait, by Aletha Kuschan, pencil drawing]

Est ce que Van Gogh aurait aimé bloguer?

Bien sur Van Gogh serait bloguer extraordinaire.  On pourrais dire il etait bloguer avant la lettre.

Do you think Van Gogh would have loved blogging?  Of course, Van Gogh would have been an extraordinary blogger.  One could say he was a blogger before it was hip.  [I hope that’s what I wrote up there.]

He wrote innumerable, wonderful letters to his brother and to various friends in French, Dutch and English.

Meanwhile you can find the image above and other equally wonderful ones at artlex.

UPDATE:  You can find a blog of Van Gogh Letters here.

HERE’S: a scholarly internet site with the complete letters

[Top of the post: Vincent van Gogh, Tree with Ivy in the Asylum Garden, May 1889 (Saint-Rémy), pencil, chalk, reed pen, and brown ink on Ingres paper, 24 x 18 1/4 inches (61 x 47 cm), Rijksmuseum Vincent Van Gogh, Amsterdam, F 1532.]

Shoes that make the man

Around the same period when I was painting a bird’s nest over a reclining figure, I painted these shoes over something that was pale green.  The earlier color shows beneath the salmon colored cloth.

I was studying Van Gogh, and I painted not only bird’s nests after his example, but also shoes.  Again, I felt qualms about emulating another artist so closely.  Yet these shoes are also so plainly products of my imagination and not Van Gogh’s.  So sometimes, you see, you must simply trust yourself.

I read this Hemingway quote today about emulation: 

“Y.C.: Listen.  There is no use writing anything that has been written before unless you can beat it.  What a writer in our time has to do is write what hasn’t been written before or beat dead men at what they have done.  The only way he can tell how he is going is to compete with dead men ….

Mice:  But reading all the good writers might discourage you.

Y.C.: Then you ought to be discouraged.”

[Originally from By Line: Ernest Hemingway, pp. 217-218.  Taken here from Ernest Heimingway on Writing, Larry W. Phillips, ed., Scribner’s; NY, 1984: p. 93]

When I painted these shoes, I remember I understood them as being a portrait of the shoe’s owner as well as a kind of self-portrait.  I was also very interested in painting the space between one edge of the shoe’s opening and the other.  The empty air seemed to me as much a subject as anything else in this picture, and I was fascinated by it.  I wanted to make it seem very much that the air was inside the picture, and that this should not just be a question of appearances.  And the ways that the shoe laces fell, the beauty of the lines they described — something that is charged with meaning by gravity and chance — these were also qualities I studied in it.

It turned out to be a very pensive moment.  Van Gogh was a hero to me, someone whose works gave me reason to believe that art was worth striving after, even against odds.  Hemingway’s idea of “beating” the old dead guys is a peculiarly male approach to an idea, but essentially I agree with him.  If knowing the great works that preceed you discourages you, then you should be discouraged — for those things are your teachers. 

This might seem odd commentary coming from me, to those who’ve read this blog before.  I try to encourage, but these are not contradictory gestures.  Even Hemingway doesn’t tell the “discouraged” writer to give up.  Such discouragement in one who wants the prize has to be overcome.  What Hemingway is really counseling is courage. 

I had all sorts of qualms when I painted this, but I painted it anyway.  And that was my courage.

[Top of the post:  A pair of shoes, by Aletha Kuschan, oil on canvas, c. 1988]

Blank Canvas

Lately I’ve been reading books about writing, among them Ralph Keyes’s The Courage to Write.  I was wondering when I saw it why writing would require courage.  If you are writing a powerful exposé on a dictator and you have the misfortune to be a citizen living under the dictator’s rule, I can understand why writing would take courage.  But why would the writing of ordinary books evoke authorial fear?

The blank page has something to do with it.  Mr. Keyes has a nice quote by James Baldwin: “You go in with a certain fear and trembling.  You know one thing.  You know you will not be the same person when this voyage is over.  But you don’t know what’s going to happen to you between getting on the boat and stepping off.”  Seeing writing described in that way makes me want to get on the boat.  It provokes such longing.  Doesn’t Baldwin make writing seem like an breathtaking adventure?

Certainly various kinds of self exposure can evoke fear.  And embarking upon a project which has no predictable end to it could definitely seem daunting.  But in other respects I like the idea of the blankness of beginnings.  I am never afraid of starting a picture.  I am sometimes afraid of “wasting”materials.  I worry that the canvas I’m using is too expensive and maybe the painting will be a flub.  But the pursuit of a new idea always makes me feel like a kid — it’s better than childhood because I have ever so many fewer qualms than I had when I was a child.

The first lay-in of an idea seems like the most open and vibrating moment.  In those early steps, anything is possible.  A painting closes down as choices follow upon each other.  It comes to be more definitely “this” or “that.”  But even the narrowing of the path doesn’t faze me because by the time I arrive there I find that different kinds of new possibilities arise.  The surface lends itself to a million interpretations.

It’s not that I’ve never felt this artistic fear.  I used to approach a new project with fear and trembling.  But these days my worries run more toward concern whether I will succeed in finishing the many things I have started.  The starting of things is so delightful that it’s hard to discipline oneself to stay the course with any particular one.  I have, however, one painting that is taking me years to finish.  It is full of details, and I can imagine a circumstance in which the details keep yeilding to others more minute.  Yet I have no reluctance to work on the picture.  Indeed, it’s one of my favorite pictures.  With it I experience the opposite of my financial qualm:  had I known it would become so complex I would have used a better canvas!

I don’t quite understand the whole “fear” thing.  I have no wish to denigrate it, though.  Perhaps I should write a book.  Maybe then I’ll know what they’re talking about, they who say that writing takes courage.  But of those who say that painting takes courage — and we have our fair share as well — I cannot understand them, I have to admit.   I only used to feel that way when I was younger, and I had so many things that I didn’t know how to do.  I was afraid of getting everything “wrong.”  I feared making mistakes.

I have none of that fear now.  It is not that I know how to do everything!  My ego is not that big.  It’s just that I’ve learned how to learn.  When I don’t know how to do something, I find that some path toward it appears, and I just start going down that path.  Anyway, I’m much less hung up about “mistakes.”  A mistake is such a subjective thing.  Sometimes “mistakes” have such lovely ideas hidden inside them.  They are still mistakes, mind you.  They are those parts of the picture that look out of place.  But I find that a willingness to live with them can open all kinds of doors of thought.

After all “reality” in that sense of what an optician means when he says you have 20/20 vision is all around us, and we can look at it all day long.  But thoughts are so personal.  I like a picture that is full of thoughts.  And we so often find them in our mistakes if we will but look, for what is a mistake except something one aimed for and missed?  Or did you even miss?  Do you know what the idea even is?

Contemplate your mistake a little, and you learn what it was you aimed for and what you desire.

[Top of the post:  Early stage of a painting posted earlier in this blog, Woman in White, by Aletha Kuschan]