July 30, 2013

Colorful Bovines

A yellow bull. A red goat. This is my second drawing using exotic colors in a landscape with animals. I am satisfied with the results although it is somehow not quite up to my vision of what the drawing would be. Unlike my previous drawing of the lavender bull, the yellow bull was not inspired by any particular colorful experience of the natural world or the world of art. I just wanted a companion piece to the first drawing. Since I had just finished two black and white drawings of cows and bulls I felt like the color cows must be a set of two as well.

In turning back to figurative drawings in black and white I find that I miss these color animals and may have to go out to the countryside to obtain more examples. There certainly are plenty here in Orangeburg and neighboring counties in South Carolina.

July 29, 2013

The Lavender and Blue Bull

I never saw a purple cow
I never hope to see one
But I can tell you anyhow
I would rather see than be one
-Childrens’ rhyme

For the last few days I have been refinishing sketches of cows and bulls. I started out with my

usual grey and black pastel drawings but two sources of inspiration made me start thinking of color again. One was the film “Desert of Forbidden Art,” which told the incredible story of one man’s effort to save the art of the Russian Avante Garde as well as the folk art of Uzbekistan. There was a beautiful painting in his collection of a charging white bull with one white horn and one multicolored horn that looked like it was bejeweled. My other source of inspiration came from my flowering Rose of Sharon bush which I had propagated only last year from a cutting. The flowers of the Rose of Sharon were stunning - a soft violet blue bud that opened into a delicate pink violet flower with red spots. These violets and blues were the colors that I incorporated into my fanciful drawing of a bull - even his head abstracted to a solid lump of dark indigo like a ripening blackberry.

July 28, 2013

The Power of Light in Art

When I was a drawing professor, I had my students experiment with unusual lighting conditions. The most commonly used lighting is what photographer’s used to call “butterfly” lighting, which is light from both sides of an object, and variations upon “hatchet lighting,” which is basically light from one side. I used these standard lighting upon objects but also used conditions of frontal lighting, back lighting and light from below.

What my students found from the three latter unusual lighting conditions is that they often imparted an unsettling or visually exciting atmosphere to the person or object. I called this effect part of the psychology of light in painting and drawing. I explained this to my students by way of equating light with power.

In art as in life, people find peace in relationships that approach a balance in power. If light represents power in a work of art, balance between art and viewer is best achieved when subject and viewer are in the same light. A light from the side does this. The light on the right side of a model’s face would be hitting the left side of a viewer’s face, hence all is opposite but equal with viewer and subject inhabiting the same world of balanced shadow and illumination.

So what would happen if the lighting, and hence the balance of power in a work of art and the viewer, tilts more heavily towards viewer or subject? Light coming on to a subject from below, especially onto to a face or figure, creates a ghoulish impression. The expected shadow beneath a nose is replaced by a lighted entrance to two caverns. Shaded eye sockets become illuminated, giving the subject a look of terror or surprise. Toulouse lautrec employed this kind of light for his actresses from the theater. Edvard Munch used light from below in his self portrait to evoke a state of angst - the power of light here emanating from an unknown source from the depths of the earth.

Light shining directly onto the surface of a subject is what I like to call the “deer in the headlights” look. This light effect is one that could be affected by shining a flashlight directly onto a subjects’ face. The balance of power shifts strongly from the subject to the viewer. Perhaps this is why interrogations were performed with light on a subject. In a work of art, frontal lighting makes a subject look frightened and vulnerable. The tendency of strong frontal light to flatten out facial features can be depersonalizing as well.

When light is emanating from behind, a subject is transformed into a looming dark silhouette, often with a thin halo of light around the edges. Two German Expressionist painters were found of using back lighting in their paintings and drawings; Max Beckman and Emil Nolde. In max Beckman’s full figure self portrait, now in the Busch Reisinger museum in Boston, he faces the viewer dressed in a black tuxedo and smoking a cigarette - striking an intimidating pose, his face and figure blackened by shadow. Nolde created a similar effect by drawing plants in front of brightly lit windows, making flowers look like flying canon balls of black. Back lighting creates a sense of mystery, awe, or fear. It is the opposite of the vulnerable deer in the headlights. It makes the viewer the vulnerable one caught in the spot light, unsettled and humbled.

For reasons that I cannot explain, I often use back lighting in my own drawings and paintings. People stand in front of windows with the backs turned to the viewer. Animals painted at dawn or dusk sport yellow or orange halos around their opaque bodies. To me this back lighting expresses the uncertain and unknowable, such as a face that cannot be read of an uncertainty as to the time of day.

In my last drawing using my old cat Max, I placed him in a cavern with the light coming from behind his form. The cavern was originally a badly drawn study of a hip bone that I cropped and turned upside down. The back lit cat has his ears turned backwards, the way cats turn to catch sounds from behind without obviously turning their heads or bodies. Someone would be calling the cat’s name perhaps. Or maybe he hears approaching footsteps. It will remain as mysterious as the source of light coming into his lair.

July 22, 2013

Ducks and Bones in Black and White

In my latest amalgamated drawing, I combined my studies of bones and birds. Both sketches were originally made in a natural history museum. I simply cut out the images of the bones as well as the bones and played at combining them in different ways to make rather surreal compositions. I liked how the duck’s undulating shapes echoed the curves of one of the bones so I made a drawing in black, grey and white pastels pairing them up. I then noticed that my cut out template of the duck, when turned over, would fit inside the bone so I used this to make a mirror image. I rendered this mirror image paler than his counterpart to create a fossil, or ghost-like impression.

July 19, 2013

A Sage's Empty Shoes

Three cats. Three chairs. Three sitters. A sage with empty shoes. My recently completed pencil drawing is an amalgam of images from studies of a cat from life ( made to look like three different cats here), a seventeenth century doll I adapted from the internet, and a reproduction from a museum catalogue of a Japanese painting of a Zen master. The chair that the cat is sitting on is from a museum catalogue of the King’s Apartments at Hampton Court Palace. The chair belonged to William III, 1689-1702, as did the Blanc de Chine statue included in the background of the drawing.

When drawing objects, whether rendering a reproduction of another art work, or a study from life, the slow process of drawing intensifies the observation of details. Even looking at an object or picture for a long time does not require the same close observation of details as painstakingly attempting to reproduce it. You think you see but you don’t until you draw. I became aware of this when reading the caption for the illustration of the painting of the Zen master. The curator described the figure as being in the classic pose of the sage, with his feet resting on a cushion. While drawing the figure, however, I noticed only empty shoes on a cushion - the sage’s feet ostensibly tucked underneath his clothing, obscured unfortunately by the doll’s head and chair in my drawing. The author of this section also describes the chair as being draped with fabric so that only the legs are visible when in fact there is no fabric on the chair and the arms and back of the chair are quite clearly visible. I find discrepancies like this amusing. To check this out look at the Portrait of Zen Master Kiko Zenshi on page 377 of the museum catalogue Circa 1492, Art in the Age of Exploration, published by the National Gallery of Art and Yale University Press in 1992. I suppose there is a small lesson to be learned here about trusting one’s own observations and not taking the word of authority too literally. My guess is that the author who wrote the description for the painting in the catalogue was relying on the memory of, or other scholar’s descriptions of similar images rather than first hand study of the object. And the catalogue for the exhibition that his description was published in was simply too large and grand, as was the exhibition itself, for anyone to notice the error at the time.

Like the pencil drawings that preceded it, this drawing was a labor of love for details, no matter how small or seemingly inconsequential.

July 14, 2013

From Drawing to Painting and Back Again: A Man and His Cat on Christmas

I still have in my collection a small square painting I did of a man and his cat looking at a painting of two dancing men who were sporting tuxedos and top hats. Or perhaps they both were watching them live on a wide screen television. Either interpretation will do. The small painting had some charm and I’m surprised that noone purchased it. But at least it is being seen again since I posted it on Etsy.

Looking through my notebooks, I found the original sketch for this painting. In keeping with my current drawing completion and restoration project, I added details and finished the background with complex patterns drawn in pencil - expanding the 6" x 6" composition into an 8" x 10" drawing. This entailed adding two more cats and revamping the entire scene into one depicting a celebration of a solitary Christmas. Or perhaps the man in the drawing has already been to enough parties and was now back home to be entertained shortly before retiring for the evening. Either interpretation will do.

Once again, the lavish details of the drawing made it much more complicated (and time-consuming to complete) than the painting. I even troubled myself to create a pattern in the rug in one point perspective, with the vanishing point at a Christmas ornament at the juncture of the wall and the floor. This patterned turned out to be a bit overwhelming so I broke it up with rectangular areas of white.

One amusing detail for me is the painting on the wall of a woman’s leg and a skirt. This was taken from an illustration I made for a poem called “Lady Joy Killer.” (Perhaps I will post it in the future). Mozart used to include passages from his earlier operas in his new ones - like the theme from The Marriage of Figaro in Don Giovanni. So I figured if Mozart could do it then so could I.

Although the drawing appears to be a revision of the painting, actually it is a return to original observations and impressions. The man was a nude model that I studied from life at Parsons School of Design. The dancing men were drawn from a live performance in Trenton, New Jersey. The two cats were my studies of our enormous Maine Coon. Max has been appearing in a number of new drawings, the latest one finished today to be posted later.

July 13, 2013

Saintly Teeth and an Ungodly Mess

Some time ago, my friend and fellow artist Lee Malerich suggested that I should try to integrate my medical experiences into my art. Lee had done just that with her cancer experience. It was a way of creatively making use of daily experience - no matter how strange or disconcerting. So I followed that advice at the time and created a good body of work; mosaics of charts, satirical icons, and a number of paintings.

There was an odd dental experience that I had thought of including in the health inspired art work at the time but never did.. It was just too weird. The experience was an adverse reaction to a local anesthetic at the dentist’s office. One thing the anesthetic did was make me extremely giddy, so that I was beginning to make rather bizarre jokes for the amusement of the dentist and his assistant. I proposed an idea to the dentist that we could create a sideline business to generate income from his Catholic and/or Orthodox patients. ( Pardon me for sounding politically incorrect here but these were things I was saying under the influence). I suggested that I could design small tattoo like images of saints, apostles and other holy figures that the dentist could then etch onto patients’ teeth so that they could smile with holy grins. I followed this suggestion with irreverent laughter. The dentist, not quite picking up that I was hopelessly looped, laughed with me. What followed was a bit of a mess that landed me in the Emergency Room, which is probably why I chose to forget that little hallucination instead of committing it to an art work.

Lately I have been reworking old drawings and making new ones of my studies of fossil bones and teeth. Recalling the odd experience of the saints on teeth hallucination from a safe distance, I was curious about just what superimposing images of icons on the teeth would look like. Using reference material from my book on Russian Icons as well as the Book of Kells, I drew images of saints, apostles, and the Virgin Mary on my drawings of shark’s teeth and the teeth connected to the fossil remains of a mandible. This was a challenge because the teeth on the mandible were rather small, making this drawing a collection of miniatures. But nevertheless, the animal versions of Mark, Luke and John are there as well as the child Matthew. The larger shark’s teeth gave me a little more room to maneuver, with more detailed images of the Virgin Mary and two saints. I carried the toothy theme of this drawing right through to the decorative border, which was completed with rows of variously shaped teeth.

The drawing turned out to be not only a recording of a past event, but a harbinger of what was to unfold in the week following its completion. For now I find myself yet again in the position of having to be in the office of an endodontist and scrambling to find an alternative to local anesthetics. Acupuncture? Short term general anesthesia? Meditation? A stick to bite? Or perhaps it is now time to invoke the patron saint of teeth and the art of dentistry.

July 6, 2013

Crow Spirit

It is not every day that one has an experience that feels almost mystical. But such an event happened to me a few days ago. It happened during my morning walk around Webster Woods.

My walk was proceeding as it usually does, with my mind not fully engaged in the natural beauty around me on account of aches and pains. Suddenly I was stopped in my tracks by a huge black raven, or perhaps a very large crow, that flew into a tree before me and created a great stir. I saw once on PBS that crows are quite intelligent and can even recognize human faces, so I wondered if this animated black bird knew me. He kept my attention by flapping his wings and calling out repeatedly.

Not knowing why, while this glossy black bird was cawing away and gyrating like a dancer, I averted my eyes and looked down at my feet. There on the ground next to my left foot was a white oblong shape. It appeared at first to be yet another piece of ubiquitous tissue trash around the park, but I kicked it to be certain. To my surprise, out of the sand popped a beautifully napped Native American spear head (photograph at top). It was flat on one side so I concluded that it was actually the beginning of a spear head that had split in half before it was finished. Nevertheless it was still attractive and precious so I took it home with me and cleaned it up.

Because of the juxtaposition of the crow with the spear head, I was curious about what some research would reveal about the crow in Native American religion. I was fascinated to find out that a crow was part of the Ghost Dance, whose spirit was invoked for healing powers and that the crow was said to represent long distance healing. It may be all coincidence, but how appropriate to have this experience of the crow and the spear while I’ve been recovering from a protracted illness. I have indeed made a turn for the better and have been much more functional than usual these past few weeks so I’m cautiously optimistic.

In the spirit of the crow, I’m posting a poem I had written earlier, which I then illustrated after I became ill. In my illustration, the crow dancer is a female figure because I included her in my chapbook of poems about female spirits and otherworldly creatures. Despite the fact that my experience of the animated crow does not dovetail exactly with the quiet crow of the poem, it still resonates on other levels.

Crow watches you
with eyes you cannot see
black on black against the setting sun
waiting in quiet silhouette upon a branch
Crow seeks you
in benevolent predation
to feed upon your sorrows
and swallow your regrets
Crow finds you
alone among the living
lost within memories of departed souls
who call and call your name

Crow grasps you
in her claws folded
tight around your waist
her black beak hard against your face

Crow knows you
when you cross the bridge
into that great void
and come back home again

July 3, 2013

A Man from Yesteryear Sleeps Among Today's Textiles

For another one of my newly completed detailed pencil drawings, I chose a study of a seated man. Like many of my previous drawings, this one was begun about two decades ago. But it only seems complete now that it has been filled out and refined. After fleshing out the tones in the body of the seated figure, I completely did over the background. In keeping with my other drawings in this fastidious style, I made use of repeating geometric and textural patterns, eliminating some details from the original sketch and adding others. The plant and the footed bowl remained from the sketch, but the plant was stylized and refined so that the stems, flowers, and leaves looked like Shiva’s dancing arms.

I carried this sinuous pattern through the composition by adding long tassels ending in leaves to the drapery on the table. Another imaginary detail I added was the five part hanging weaving on the wall. It took three days to complete this, but slowly it got done.