The Winter of Discontent

Self-Portrait by Katsushika Hokusai, 1760-1849

Self-Portrait by Katsushika Hokusai, 1760-1849

Six weeks into a semester a student expressed to me her observation that she “wasn’t getting any better.” Students often believe that their frustration is unique to them; that their struggle is evidence of a lack of “talent.” In the journey we make as artists there are many well-known landmarks. Frustration with our seeming lack of progress after an optimistic beginning is a big one. Let’s just borrow from William Shakespeare and call that one “the winter of my discontent.”

We enter this barren landscape typically at those times when we are taking on new concepts, new images, and new practices. These strangers in the room challenge our comfortable, familiar habits; they upset what we thought we were doing. Lurking behind the curtains of consciousness, ready to spring forth in judgement of the child that lies at the heart of every artist there is often a soured, old, adult intelligence, even in very young people. Our rational intelligence is no help; in fact it’s the problem. A great pianist doesn’t “think” about every note in the moment of playing it. The dancer at the bar is not the dance. The pianist playing scales is not the concert. Larger patterns and instincts guide the artist and only practice can develop these instincts. Practice is not sexy, but it’s crucial because only by ritual application to the problem of taking materials in hand and attempting another drawing does the process become familiar enough for it to seep down into the subconscious.  I’ve noticed that progress in making art does not happen gradually. It happens in quantum leaps, not unlike the way seeds grow, invisible to the eye, under a hard crust of earth until a soaking rain softens the ground and seemingly overnight, the field is green with new growth.

“I have drawn things since I was six. All that I made before the age of sixty-five is not worth counting. At seventy-three I began to understand the true construction of animals, plants, trees, birds, fishes, and insects. At ninety I will enter into the secret of things. At a hundred and ten, everything–every dot, every dash–will live”
― Hokusai Katsushika   (from Anne Harris, fb)

“It’s as simple and complicated as this: if we want to make our best work, we must believe that what we have to say matters. We must believe wholeheartedly in our own vision of the world. We must be willing to be imperfect, vulnerable, playful, uncertain, and authentic. Doing is the creative habit that separates those who go places from those who spin their wheels.” Sol LeWitt, in a letter to Eva Hesse (from Alan Rushing, FB)

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The Nude, Pinterest® and Censorship

I’m a relative newcomer to the social networking site, Pinterest. My first impression of the service was that it was mainly used by people as a kind of visual “wish list” of things they’d seen on the internet. It was not until I began to observe what artists were doing with Pinterest that I realized it’s great potential for handily building image databases for art. Jumping in,  I quickly built catalogs of art, enjoying the ease with which I could “pin” exemplary paintings and drawings off the internet and sort them into various albums by technique, theme, or medium for the benefit of my students. One of the drawings I posted was this favorite nude graphite study by the contemporary Spanish artist Antonio Lopez Garcia.

Antonio Lopez Garcia

Imagine my shock when I shortly received this notice from Pinterest:

Pinterest® notice of image removal

Despite the wording which seems to distinguish between art that might be “educational,” or “like you might see in a museum or classroom,” apparently no one from “The Pinterest Team” bothered to look into the matter. In fact, the drawing in question has widely circulated in art museums all over the world, and it is a regular visitor in thousands of art classrooms internationally, mine included, because it is, quite simply, a great masterpiece of figure drawing. There is nothing “sexually explicit” about it. Compared to the frankly erotic drawings of Egon Schiele or Auguste Rodin on Pinterest, the frank objectivity of Antonio Lopez’ drawing is tame indeed. My feeling is that some prudish and ignorant viewer thought it was a photograph and complained. Pinterest, afraid of offending its viewers, has only revealed its ignorance by removing it without the slightest research.

This blatant censorship reminded me of the struggles of American artists in the late 19th century to work from and show nude studies in a society in which nudity was considered immoral. Aside from a few Popes demanding fig leaves to cover the genitalia of sculpted nudes, Europe has rarely been as conflicted about the nude human body as have Americans. In the 17th century, Europe disgorged the Puritans who found the New World an appropriate blank canvas for imposing their curious notions of morality on a society. To the present day they continue to dog the American consciousness with their peculiar equation of nudity with sinfulness.

A particular incident in the history of American art makes a poignant example of how deeply this perverse view has insinuated itself into a particular faction of American culture which seems uniquely incapable of recognizing the difference between fine art and the exploitations of pornography. In our art schools of the late 19th century, female models were commonly required to wear a veil to protect their “modesty.” Were the model’s identity to be revealed, she would ostensibly be ostracized for the moral outrage of exposing her body to strangers. Thomas Eakins, a celebrated teacher of anatomy and figure drawing at the Pennsylvania Academy of Art in Philadelphia, finding the veil a hindrance to his students’ understanding of the anatomical connection of the head and neck to the shoulders, scandalously defied the requirement and removed it from the model. For this simple act he was fired by the directors and trustees of the Academy.

Eakins_-_Nude_woman,_seated,_wearing_a_mask

Ironically, to our modern eyes, Eakins beautiful drawing of the veiled model would actually seem to have more in common with certain kinds of contemporary pornography than she would without the veil. I’ve written to Pinterest, as has another artist from whose site the drawing was removed. I hope to re-post this image to my Pinterest albums at some point. Until then, hat’s off to Pinterest’s rivals in the social networking sphere, Facebook and Tumblr, for not removing this beautiful work of art. “The Pinterest Team” needs to carefully weigh the damage that their ignorant censorship of great art will do to their reputation among artists who increasingly use Pinterest as a teaching vehicle. A simple solution would be for Pinterest to adopt the practice of Tumblr, which allows posters to restrict albums that certain viewers might find troublesome. Or, even simpler, how about just doing a simple Google Image Search when someone complains, Pinterest Team!?

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Finding the Middle Ground

“It’s so fine and yet so terrible to stand in front of a blank canvas.”  -Paul Cezanne

When we think of paper we usually think of a clean white page, but working on white paper is a relatively recent convention in drawing. Throughout the centuries drawings have mostly been executed on toned papers of various sorts. A toned paper has one advantage over white in that its darker tone immediately addresses nature’s preponderance of middle values, allowing the artist to move off in both directions from the middle-ground, toward the upper reaches of the value scale by adding white, or toward the darker end by using a dark medium.

In the hands of the masters of any time period two compelling qualities stand out in works on toned grounds. The first is unity. The pervasiveness of the toned ground in all parts of the drawing generates a virtual atmosphere in which all parts “live, move, and have their being.” The color of the page is like family blood, so to speak, tying the whole together in ways that are much more challenging to do when working on a white drawing page. On white, the entire value scale must be added and calibrated without the reference of the middle ground. The dominant lightness of a white drawing page can deceive the eye in the initial stages of the drawing, making even relatively light marks appear much darker at first.

The second quality is economy. Economy of means is almost always a quality of great drawings, of any sort, but drawing on toned paper makes it easier to do more with less. In toned-ground drawings whole parts of the drawing are effectively untouched, yet they participate fully in the expression of form and space. The added darks and lights activate the recessive nature of the ground, shaping it, giving it form and inviting it to participate in the whole.  Like the silent intervals between musical notes, the ground becomes an active player in the structure of the drawing by the action of the dark and light notes.

And finally, with a nod to Cezanne, a toned paper is somehow just not as blank at the beginning as a white one!

A selection of drawings, past and present, that demonstrate the unique potentialities of drawing from the middle ground.

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New Tumblr for Drawing OWU

Screen Shot 2014-02-15 at 12.52.20 PMCheck out the new Tumblr companion to Drawing OWU. You can find the link in the right column under Blogs.  The Tumblr Archive feature allows you to easily see pages of thumbnails of every image ever posted on this blog, while the Home page  and search option allows grouping of images that are related by one or more characteristics. You can look at drawings organized chronologically, stylistically, thematically, or by technique or  nationality. Enjoy!

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Graphite Drawings

Ubiquitous in every art school and artist’s tool box, the humble graphite drawing pencil has an interesting history. In the 16th century graphite came into use as a marking medium in England where large deposits were discovered and first put to use by farmers to mark sheep. The slippery properties of the mysterious dark substance also made it an ideal lubricant for releasing cannonballs from their molds. Hardware stores today still sell powdered graphite as a dry lubricant for locks and other machinery. Because of its crumbly, friable texture, the first graphite “pencils” were made by encasing the soft material in sheep skin. Germany developed the graphite stick in the 1600s. Originally graphite was thought to be some form of lead, which it is not, but the reference to pencil “lead” lives on. The modern wooden pencil dates to the 19th century when graphite began to be mixed with clay as a binder, a discovery that some attribute to Henry David Thoreau whose father was a pencil manufacturer. The hardness or softness of the composite graphite-clay mixture could be moderated by baking which led to the development of the familiar grading system we use today for drawing pencils. The tonal range of graphite makes it a uniquely beautiful drawing medium, distinguishable from chalks and charcoals by its characteristically silvery color. The variety of its effects can be seen in this selection of drawings from different artists and periods.

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Drawing Into Painting: John Virtue

John Virtue is a British artist known for his massive black and white paintings that he executes from a unique medium of ink mixed with shellac. His initial research involves making hundreds of on-site drawings. From this material he builds his evocative paintings in the studio. Virtue’s most celebrated series, 13 large-scale paintings of the London skyline, was carried out over two years from a studio in the National Gallery in London.

“The thing about London is that everybody knows, or thinks they know, these buildings. But the more you look at them, the more mysterious they become, so the more fascinating they become.

I would draw there, and then I would draw there. That would be one morning, and then I would do one part another morning… and so on, and I’d build them up sequentially; and then I’d mix them all up and I’d bring them all in here, and they inform the way you work and it helps you to be very free. It was phenomenally exciting, and stimulating, and refreshing, every day to get up and go and draw what you say are very, very famous and iconic buildings, and bring all that material in here and go to work.

I’ve never felt any need to put in cranes, and buses, and cars, and airplanes – the noise, if you like, of London. I like using it for my own ends which is to make abstract compositions, but from the way I perceive the world. The monochromatic way of working tallies exactly with the way I look at… the world. It’s a way of seeing that resonates, rather than a way of seeing that is comfortable or is referential to other things.  

The basic materials, and they have been for the last twenty-six years, is a black ink mixed with shellac. I use titanium acrylic and I like working onto the raw canvas because I can bleed the image in; I like the idea of the image impressing itself into the canvas, and then I use rags, and my hands, all kinds of brushes, quite indiscriminately, quite promiscuously, in what I’ll use to try and get an effect.”

John Virtue from The Bespoke Film Company on Vimeo.

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Brush Drawings

From the sinopia drawings that served as preparatory designs for Italian fresco paintings, to the stream of consciousness drawings of modern abstraction, drawing with brush and ink or other liquid media has a long tradition and appears universally in both eastern and western cultures. Drawing with wet media can be challenging for students who are used to the traction and forgiving nature of a pencil or charcoal. Unlike drawing with dry media where you can endlessly probe, plan, measure and erase, wet media seem to have a will of their own. Once the mark is made there’s no going back. You’re committed. In eastern traditions brush drawing is an extension of long meditation on the subject, which includes not just the objects one is drawing but also a keen sense of the instrument’s nature. This is an idea that still bears up for anyone trying his or her hand at working with ink and brush. Like putting a bridle on a wild horse, it works better if you understand and work with the horse’s nature than if you try to impose your own will for absolute control. Let the brush have its way, guide it where you can, and be open to what can happen. The ride is often more exciting than the destination.

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