Thursday, November 23, 2017

You've gotta be kidding

Life drawing, red and white chalk

I'm continually mystified by the copious amounts of drawings and paintings of celebrities done by beginner or amateur artists. I realize they don't know any better, but still.  I've already mouthed off about how I feel about copying photographs:
("Get Real" -
What's bothering me now is the celebrity thing. It seems as though people are obsessed with TV and movie stars, singers, talk show hosts, politicians, athletes.

Is it because there's no one else to venerate? It's true that we seem to be living in an age of unprecedented corruption. But are we?  Is it possible that today we know more facts about exactly how corrupt our leaders are instead of just suspecting it?  Court records, tax returns, press coverage, and fact checking make the lives of public officials much more transparent. While I'm not arguing that people in power today are especially admirable, I think human history has seen worse. But I also notice that little celebrity art is of politicians.

The subjects of most celebrity art are movie stars in popular roles in big blockbuster movies. The character portrayed is usually not a real person, and sometimes it's not even a person (i.e., vampire, superhero, zombie, etc.) So the subject isn't real. It's all about fantasy. Ironically though, these artworks are fastidiously rendered in hyper realism, making real what is unreal. This feels to me like the old territory of religion. In an age of belief, the miracles of saints explained the inexplicable; the lives of martyrs demonstrated the inhuman. Fear and ignorance latch on to whatever they can find. I get that people need to believe in something.  I just hope that the religious icons of the 21st century are not drawings and paintings copied from photos of Elvis Presley.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Life without endorphins


I'm a pacer.  Usually, I pace when I'm thinking, I pace when I'm talking on the phone.  Being in motion seems to be my natural state.  I walk three miles every morning to wake up - I jump out of bed, throw some clothes on and walk. By the time I get home, I'm ready to start my day; my brain is clear; I know what I'm doing.

But I've been sick*.  Too sick to walk every day.  Too sick to pace.  Climbing a flight of stairs leaves me out of breath, weak and shaky.  My rule of thumb is that if I'm out of breath going up the stairs once, I'd better not do my three miles.  Conservation of energy.  As long as I'm still falling asleep on the couch for three hours during the day, I'm not in good health, and shouldn't be trudging back to the studio, trying to work.

This is a problem for getting any sculpture done.  By its nature, sculpture takes a lot more physical energy than, say, painting or drawing.  Clay is heavy.  Moving it around takes energy.  This is also true of converting clay sculpture into a permanent medium.  Both firing in a kiln and making molds for casting take a huge amount of energy for a sick person.  I can't do it right now.

But one good and amazing thing happened.  Just before I got sick, it had been beastly hot and horribly humid.  And even though my studio has air conditioning, I hate to run it for more than four or five hours.  So, somewhat miraculously, I prepared a clay surface for a relief sculpture I could work on in my house in the afternoons when it was just too hot to go on in the studio.  I also brought clay, clay tools, water spritzer, etc., and started the relief right away.  Two days later, I got sick.  And while there were a few days when I couldn't sit upright, for the rest of the summer, I was able to work on the relief sculpture, "Stallion," for a few hours every day in my house, getting in my two solid Hemingway hours (see previous post "Two Hemingway Hours," 5/5/15), and also, saving my sanity.

Being couch-ridden for part of every day, I've read even more than usual, and watched an almost incredible amount of movies.  Incidentally, I also found that alternating Downton Abbey with Game of Thrones counteracts the soupy qualities of one with the blood curdling aspects of the other.  (Although I did start to hope that somebody in rags would barge into Downton Abbey and go after Lady Mary with battle axe and direwolfe.)

Life without endorphins is difficult, but it is still life.

*Boring medical details:  tumors in my liver and lungs.  Phooey.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Late bloomer

Now that the wild asparagus season is over and I've eaten or given away everything that I picked, I'm mulling over the casualties of this asparagus season which was an odd one.  A lot of the thin, young stalks in shallow soil on a southern exposure or a warm microclimate, popped up early only to be hit with a late killing frost. And the freak snow/hail storm in May didn't help.  The really big, thick, old stalks, which are mostly planted deep, came up unusually late this year even after some exceptionally hot, sunny days.  The medium asparagus halfway between the two extremes were victims of deer browse much more often than usual, which is maddening, but they're hungry for something fresh and green, just like me. Deer usally prefer to eat the tops of asparagus plants already gone to seed, but this year, they ate young stalks, too.

I see a lot of parallels between asparagus and humans. We all know people who showed amazing abilities and talent in youth, but whose early promise was blighted by the human equivalent of a late frost - illness, injury, loss, accident - that nipped the development in the bud. And we all know people who survived adversity in their youth, only to be mowed down by destructive forces in middle age - disease, failure, poverty - who soldier on, but whose dreams never come to fruition, like the asparagus plants eaten by deer which never develop their feathery fronds and berries.  But there are those who are like the asparagus planted in deep soil, in a sunny spot, whose strong roots and gradual development protect them from all those ills.

After the killing frost, I thought the whole asparagus crop was going to be a bust because nothing was showing up for the longest time.  It was quite dry for spring, and I wondered if that was contributing to the problem.  But then the big ones emerged, alive and well.  And they are the best of all.  You'd think that the big, old stalks would be tough, but they are the sweetest and most tender of all wild asparagus.  In the end, it was an almost normal season.  Somehow, the wild things always know what to do.  Too bad you can't have a Congress like that.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Rhapsody in green

The first time I went picking wild asparagus with my brother-in-law forty years ago, I couldn't see any, while he seemed to find asparagus everywhere he looked. "You're looking with city eyes," he said. He was right. I had just arrived from downtown Philadelphia and all that green hurt my eyes.  Gradually I lost my city eyes and I could see the wild asparagus, too. Every spring, I bathe my eyes in the soothing, calming, nourishing green that is everywhere. There are so many colors of green.

For almost twenty years years, I didn't go back to the city at all.  I lived in rural NE Wisconsin where I had a huge garden, and grew the vegetables we'd eat all winter. I canned, froze, and dried everything possible; I even made ketsup. During those years, my eyes became totally acclimated to the country, and I was overjoyed to see the purply green tips of the wild asparagus poking up every spring.  Free vegetables!  No planting, weeding, watering, fertilizing! Also delicious.

But for the last twenty years, I've been splitting my time between Boston, MA and Door County, Wisconsin. Consequently, every year I go through the same adjustment from city to country that overwhelmed me all those years ago. And in the spring, when I'm staring at a patch of grass and wild grape vines to find out where the asparagus went, I hear the memory of my brother-in-law's voice, "Slow down. Give your eyes time." It's good advice. I remind myself of that when I get to the studio, where I transition from one studio to another. My eyes need time.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Two color chalk drawings on toned paper

The Red Sweater - red and white chalk

Not all drawing materials are created equal.  For two color chalk drawings, I use Gioconda sanguine chalk and Gioconda black graphite. These are also called "5.6 mm. leads" and they're used in a lead holder. For highlights, I prefer white Conté pencil to any other white.

I loathe charcoal. I have always detested the texture, the scratchy sound, the light weight of it in my hand, the abrasive feel of it on paper. I actually started out drawing with chunks of dried red clay on newsprint, so red chalk is a logical drawing material for me. Chalk is very forgiving; it can be erased and worked over again and again as long as you have a good eraser like a Staedler. Light, sparing touches of white chalk for highlights are the best possible treat of the whole day. The deep quality of chalk smudged with a stump feel generous and rich, but I don't smudge very often. 

Canson mei-tintes paper is my first choice for chalk drawings, which I use for long drawings.  For me, a long drawing is 10 minutes or more; for shorter drawings, I use pen and ink.  The colors of paper that work the best for me are grey and tan, both of which show off white highlights the best.  I buy individual sheets of paper and cut them to fit the size of my drawing boards. My masonite drawing boards are three sizes:  9 x 12", 11 x 16" and 13 x 15.5."  I fold the paper to size and cut it with a kitchen knife, so there's a proper rag edge on one side showing the quality of the paper, as you would on top quality printing paper.  A large sheet of Canson paper will give me two large pieces for my largest drawing board, or four small sheets for my smallest.  The large size results in strips of paper 14 x 4.75", which I use for small drawings, testing new materials and trying out new ideas. Lately, I've been using Strathmore pads of grey paper for graphite and white conte, and really like the texture and finish for life drawings.

I sometimes use watercolor washes with chalk drawings, and for that purpose, Derwent watercolor pencils are great.  For portraits drawings with washes, I especially love their Venetian red watercolor pencils.   

Not surprisingly, my favorites artists for drawing are Watteau, Rubens, Leonardo and Michelangelo.  I try not to think about them when I’m drawing.  They are as incomprehensible to me as the work of Mozart or Shakespeare.  I’m not sure I’m even the same species that they were.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Pen and ink drawings

Besides chalk, my favorite drawing material is pen and ink which I use for quick sketching. I draw freehand without preliminary pencil construction lines; I measure by eye alone. I try to ignore the details and just draw the big shapes. The looser and more relaxed my hand is, the faster I can draw. Leaving the tip of the pen on the paper produces loops and squiggles, but saves crucial time trying to capture life’s ephemeral moments. Moving people, expressions, gestures, postures may only be visible for a few minutes or seconds so I have to work fast.  The absolute black of ink provides maximum contrast with the paper's absolute white, accentuating expressive line. There is no substitute for the immediacy and vitality of drawing from life. You can't get that exuberance and spontaneity any other way. I love to draw people wherever I go, especially in planes, airports, subways and trains.

I like pen and ink for quick drawings because ink marks can’t be erased or changed so you can’t dither around - you have to be deliberate and fearless.  It’s also very expressive and flamboyant; the best thing is to just dive in and draw.  Pen and ink are especially useful for croquis drawings, very quick sketches made in just a couple of minutes.  The idea is to ignore the details and draw the fundamental, underlying shapes.  These loose, rapid drawings are meant to capture the gestures.  I like to sketch people in airports, parks and streets; pen and ink are perfect for that.

For ink drawings, I use either reed pens, or a Schaeffer calligraphy pen.  The reed pens are simple dip pens that are practically indestructible - I've had mine for more than forty years. You can use them with India ink, which is the blackest black on earth.  And you can use them with all kinds of funky inks that would clog most pens.  What the heck!  You can even make your own ink and use it with impunity with a reed pen!  The down side of  reed pens is that  it's not always possible to carry around an opened bottle of ink with you, which feels like walking around with a live grenade.  An open bottle of ink isn't welcome in a lot of places, so for those places, I use a Schaeffer calligraphy pen (with the fine point) loaded with a cartridge of black ink.  The ink isn't permanent, nor as black as India ink, but at least you can draw in black ink on the subway or in a restaurant so you don't miss all those free models. Every now and then I use fine Micron pens, but I dislike the uniformity of the line. I switch to Microns if I'm having technical problems in the middle of a drawing I want to finish before the model disappears.

My masonite drawing boards are three sizes:  9 x 12", 11 x 16" and 13 x 15.5."  For ink drawings, I use cheap white copy paper  (8.5 x 11" and 8.5 x 14") clipped to a drawing board, so if  I’ve made an irrevocable mistake in an ink drawing in the first 60 seconds, I just chuck it and start again.  It’s important not to feel intimidated by your materials.

On the other hand, although it's important for an artist to use permanent materials on acid free surfaces, not every drawing has to be archival grade materials. After all, one session of life drawing can produce fifty drawings.  Doing fifty drawings a week (which is a ridiculously small amount) fifty weeks of the year for the last forty years, I've produced over 100,000 drawings. You can't save everything.  When I come up with some good short drawings, I take digital photos, and ultimately the cheap copy paper will go the way of all flesh.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

What just cracked?

Some sculpture packing and loading operations go better than others. A couple of weeks ago, I loaded two sculptures on their way to a show in a museum more than an hour away. First sculpture, a fragile terra-cotta, went into the car fine.  The second, not so much.  The second sculpture is epoxy and bronze, which is pretty indestructible.  Unfortunately, I forgot that since the last time I'd loaded this sculpture into a car, I'd switched cars and my new one has much less cargo space.  So when I shoved the sculpture into the back seat, I jammed it so badly that the arm cracked. Horrified, I got it unwedged from the door, opened the hatch and slid it into the back, jamming it once again, this time against the ceiling, which is lower than my old car. Finally, I managed to get it into position, which I had previously measured to make sure it would fit. I took a deep breath. Due at the museum in a few hours, there was no time to repair and patch the damage properly. So, I rounded up some supplies from the house. I grabbed every temporary repair material I could think of - plaster, clay, epoxy, acrylic, brushes, paper towels, plaster tools, stir sticks and started to drive.  Along the way, I realized that almost none of this repair material was going to be a quick fix that I could do under the critical eyes of museum staff, so I decided to stop by the local Walmart to see what they had. I thought maybe some muffler repair putty would work. Amazingly, in the arts and crafts department, they had a small package of plastalene in five earth colors that must have been geared for diorama makers, because the colors were black, brown, green, tan and white.  I grabbed a package, paid for it and drove.

When I got to the museum, I unloaded the first sculpture and all went well. Before I unloaded the second, I made the mistake of explaining what had happened to the very nice woman receiving work. She was aghast. The more I explained, the more horrified she looked. Obviously not a sculptor. Not everything always works perfectly. I hope for perfection, but I don't expect it. Molds don't separate. Casting materials go bad. Stuff doesn't set correctly. Things blow up. I got the feeling she wasn't an artist of any kind because she was so freaked out. This was obviously not someone who had ever had a day in the studio that looked like a 3 Stooges episode, and I don't know any artists who haven't. What the heck. Accidents happen. Trying to disregard the atmosphere of disbelief and horror, I brought in the damaged sculpture, and showed her what I was talking about. I started smooshing plastalene together to match the epoxy bronze. I filled in the crack, which thankfully was on a sleeve with lots of folds of drapery, and I anchored a couple of places on the base. From a foot away you couldn't even tell there was a repair. I called over the horrified woman and asked her what she thought, and she admitted, "You're right. If you hadn't told me it was there, I never would have seen it."   The museum put the repaired scupture in a glass case that has so many reflections you can barely see the arm, much less see the repair job. This stuff cracks me up.