15, May 2013 § Leave a Comment
Euphrosyne Doxiades revealed secrets about the encaustic method of painting in a recent workshop at the Aegean Center. Encaustic is an ancient technique in which pigments and wax are blended together and applied hot to a surface. An electric hot plate kept the wax at the perfect temperature to dip into and spread with a brush. Small alcohol burners were also used to heat metal spatulas which spread the wax. Working on a dark imprimatura the wax strokes leave a highly textured surface which can be further manipulated with heat. Electric tools can be used as well. The four color palette was employed; white and black, yellow and red. Euprhosyne’s book, The Mysterious Fayum Portraits, shows how this ancient technique was used for mummy portraits in first century Egypt. Her book is published by Thames and Hudson.
8, May 2013 § 3 Comments
by Jane Morris Pack
Surprised by the ease of painting in the dark and upside down, I left the reader waiting for an update while our underpaintings dried.
The projection seems bursting with color and light inside of our dark room or ‘camera obscura’ as is the Italian phrase. How strange it was to apply color then and find our efforts were too garish in comparison. Our second surprise with this project– how neutral the image needed to be.
I first suggested we tint our underpainting with some generalized glazes while still outside the camera. This gave us a sense of the general warms and cools. The vase was glazed in a warm transparent brown very thinly applied and wiped back with a rag; the wall was tinted with a veil of blue. In truth this glazing just barely altered the color of the painting from its monochromatic state to something resembling an old fashioned tinted photograph.
After studying Vermeer I saw that many of his tones are neutral, darks are mostly without color, half tones are very grey, and only lights have true color. This matches what we perceive of the projection. Highlights are obviously colored yellow or blue, gradations are very soft, contrasts are muted. Selecting a very limited palette of raw sienna and cobalt blue, with just a touch of cobalt violet (plus black and white), I matched the underpainting’s tones and scumbled on color very lightly. My application of the colors, once viewed in daylight, was too colorful. I went back in a second time and added greys, warm and cool, softened transitions and added transparent color glazes into the darks. The feeling of cool light this gave was more northern in feel, the greyed out colors were more photographically ‘real’. The process is somewhat demanding, light off and on, white card up, down, staring at the image, mixing color, all in the half dark. But it goes fairly quickly nonetheless.
The students were anxious to try a portrait but we quickly discovered that a human model needs to be very still or the results are skewed. Given fifteen minutes one can attain a likeness; more time generally results in a slumping model and a frustrated painter.
This project has taught us much about the use of color, its potency if restrained in use, the use of selective focus, the beauty of grey. I don’t think we are any closer to answering the final question of whether Vermeer painted inside of a darkened room but we have certainly understood that it would be possible to do so.
30, April 2013 § 3 Comments
During the middle of each semester the Aegean Center for the Fine Arts takes a week long pause from classes. The mid semester break provides an opportunity for students and faculty alike to travel to parts near and far from Paros. This post is a collection of notes on my travels to Delphi in Central Greece during mid-April.
-Jun-Pierre Shiozawa, instructor of painting
Legendary, mythical Delphi, where the two eagles of Zeus rejoined after circling the world. Where the Sybil sat atop her stone and the oracle foresaw Alexander’s conquests. It is the seat of Apollo, slayer of the monstrous Python at the Kastalian Spring below Mount Parnassus. Where Dionysios arrives to winter when Apollo departs every year to the land of the Hyperboreans. Delphi is a place of Gods, the Omphalus, the navel of the earth.
At the Archaelogical Museum of Delphi, a figure stands erect and alone. He is a young man. His skin, hair and robe are bronze and his lips and long eyelashes are copper. He holds reins in his right hand, writhing in static motion though disconnected from horses that escaped their charioteer long ago. There is another figure all but gone, save for his bronze left arm. It is delicate and thin, held forever upwards in a gesture resembling adoration or prayer. The charioteer looks outward and inward, a victorious champion, proud and reserved.
Today, surrounding the charioteer is a sea of faces, rapt, reaching up in the same gesture as the attending slave, arms above their heads, phones and cameras in hand.
The homogenization of site-seeing
At the archaeological site, large tour groups assemble, noisy and sprawling. Languages from around the world call out as visitors organize themselves. At this entry point the ancient, mysterious site of Delphi feels oddly familiar. This can happen when visiting any other stop on the tour of famous sites around the world, from Times Square to the Taj Mahal. With the ticket stands, gift shops, cafes and crowds, the packaging is all the same from one place to the next.
In harmonious accord among the cypress trees and the ridges of Mount Parnassus lie the ruins of Delphi. It is not a very big site. As it ascends one climbs from temple to temple. Large marble blocks sprout from the earth like wild flowers. The ancient stones nestle into the mountain. They do not feel alien to this landscape, instead they remind one of how a bird’s nest integrates with a tree. It looks perfect in precisely the spot where it sits.
Sound and silence
Midway up between the temple of Apollo and the ancient theater the voices that echo over the valley of Phocis take on a new shape. One still hears the din of foreign tongues, but the color of the sound transforms in every way, in volume, frequency and expressive quality. The noise of the chatter at the entry gate is pulled, thinned, mellowed and spread over the landscape like honey. Past the Temple of Apollo, the cacophony finds a metronome and harmony of low voices, hushed tones and pauses: the sound of people in awe. It plays in concert with the steady hum of the place. High above the site at the theater the music is ever present, a chorus of humans, birds, bumblebees and winds.
When looking down past all of the ruins and over the great valley one feels they are receiving a gift, sacred and timeless. A gift that is too immense to be contained and must be shared. The sharing of this gift takes the form of silent appreciation from one stranger to the next–raising of the eyebrows, shaking of the head, deep inhalation and release of breath, a smile. The silence communicates in a way in which words never can: that we are only human and we are here but for a moment.
Questions and Answers
Humbled, visitors walk down and out of the ancient sanctuary of Delphi. Passengers pack in to buses and we continue on our individual journeys through the world, lives busy and full.
Home of the Delphic Oracle, travelers have long come to Delphi seeking answers to their questions. Yet what we find in Delphi it is not a place to answer all the questions, but a place to reflect on them.
19, April 2013 § 7 Comments
by Jane Morris Pack
Have you ever painted upside down in the dark?
While visiting Rome this winter I had the opportunity to study several Vermeer paintings in the exhibit at the Quirinale. They were part of a larger show called “Vermeer and The Golden Age of Dutch Art” and although there were some other fine pieces in the exhibit, the Vermeers outshone the others. They seem to glow from within and the accuracy of the perceived space is extraordinary. Johannes Vermeer has captured modern interest not only for his dreamy women engaged in mundane tasks but also perhaps due to the mystery surrounding his life. We know little about his training, his personal life or his methods. I was intrigued by his use of the camera obscura, which seems to be an accepted fact among art historians, and I purchased a book which discussed his use of lenses, “Vermeer’s Camera” by Philip Steadman. This book suggests that Vermeer used a small booth type of camera which one sits in, and not the tabletop type. I felt Steadman’s work was intriguing and it raised some questions that I wanted to investigate.
Advanced painters, those that have already done one semester with us, work on a project with me during the term. This spring I suggested we put our energies into discovering what makes Vermeer unique. His subject matter is neither original nor particular to him. His power lies in his method.
We did some preliminary toying around with a magnifying glass and a black tent pitched over easels to get a sense of what a lens will do. When we determined that an image could indeed be projected by that means I took the time to build a small room out of PVC pipe and covered it in cardboard and black cloth. This served as our camera obscura. Procuring the lens was a bit more challenging but after some reading on the Internet I discovered that we needed a lens with a low number diopter and the local optician was kind enough to allow me to try many lenses until I found the one with the correct focal length.
Once we had the lens and fixed it in place the next challenge was to see if the image could be traced easily and how one might go about painting on the tracing afterwards. We set up the still life and used a mirror to reverse the image right to left because I thought we would need to see the real still life to paint from it at some point and the lens by itself reverses the image. This proved unnecessary but I didn’t know that at the time.
We found that inside the booth we had a beautiful painterly projection and that the light coming from that was enough to see the palette and mix tones. Following traditional methodology we placed five tones directly onto the imprimatura, moving from the extremes of black and white and then locating the middle three. It was not difficult to find and apply the tones even though the image was in color but my advanced painters have had experience using the five tone range before. We took extra time to blend edges and smooth gradations. It is necessary to check your work against the projection occasionally which we do by turning on and off a light inside the booth.
The extraordinary discovery was that a very credible image can be made, despite working in the semi darkness, despite working on a colored, upside down image, despite the lack of a preliminary tracing. I was thrilled to see the results, though each student had individual differences in handling and application, the paintings were all very beautiful, correct and nuanced. The next step was to add color once our underpaintings had dried. Again, working entirely inside the camera obscura, we mixed and applied color, both as glazes and as opaque paint. I am waiting for our group to finish this step and then I will report again on the results.
The exhibit at the Quirinale was a chance to view paintings I may not get an opportunity to see again. There was also an obvious fake nestled in among the real work, something a trained eye could see. It will no doubt be bought by a major museum in the near future and pass into the oeuvre of Vermeer’s genius with an appropriate exchange of millions. But cynicism aside, the purpose of our exercise is not to make fake Vermeers. Sitting in the dark, seeing the painterly vision of light causes nearly all to exclaim at its beauty. We learn so much about color, surface, transitions of tone and application of paint following in the footsteps of this great artist. We have all gained immeasurably just by going through the process.
8, April 2013 § 1 Comment
John Pack says “Create yourself a limit and it’s yours”. Pushing through, opening the door to a new place is difficult regardless of the task at hand. But, what I see around me in the Aegean Center are brave creative souls pushing through, limit after limit…for what is on the other side?
Art to me seems to be a path into ourselves, into greater consciousness. But what does that mean? One analogy is the ability of our heart to hear. As we step along the path our hearts open up to more and more subtle sounds, discovering worlds that were previously deaf to our ears. The singers experience this directly in the ensemble with Orfeas. I remember a conversation with my mother after the first class “It’s really fun Mum, you can pretend you are an opera singer and in public! You HAVE to pretend, it’s like a serious game. I love it!”…and that was it. As I began to sing out operatically, I felt like I had pushed past the barrier of feeling like a prize idiot, warbling out notes, to be able to sing seriously in a choir. End of hard work, bring on the pleasure! I was pleased I was in tune and singing more or less at the same point as everyone else. Quite successful I deemed myself. But then, the ear jumps on a little bit, and suddenly I hear breathiness in that warble, that indeed there is a warble and that the vowels are coming out warped by my broad northern accent. I hit the despondency key, a minor third, and worry if I am simply not in the right place, or the right class. But I keep going and slowly pick up confidence again to sing out. Oh how glorious to be weaving sounds! But almost as soon I am back into imagining big audiences, that little bugger of an ear jumps on ahead putting into painful display that I don’t have resonance, that my throat doesn’t know what open at the back means, nor how to push air into my nose cavity or sinuses. Head voice, what? Too bedazzled to even tackle the idea of vibrato, I still somehow forget to remember to breathe. And so it goes on, through perilous peaks and fertile valleys.
The safe conclusion would seem that, being on a path, any path, and especially the artistic path, one is never in their comfort zone for very long. It takes discipline just to keep going and to concentrate, instead of collapsing on the floor in your favourite type of fit, blaming the world for being unfair.
Sometimes in the choir it feels scary, and more so when you have to sing alone. Sometimes it is just downright frog throat embarrassing. I often have attacks of feeling simply ridiculous. But somehow I get the musical backpack on again, and again, and again, each time starting anew. And curiously through this process I am learning to sing! I am finding my own voice. I come out, having sang with others, feeling loved and loving, feeling high. As I deconstruct my ego fear of the unknown, I have another thin veil lifted, so I can see myself a little clearer, it is a mini re-velation (re-veil-ation). Consciousness is not only the heart hearing, but also the mind seeing.
What I really admire of the people around me here in the Aegean Center is that they are prepared to go through these unveiling limits into the new unknown. I see it in their eyes when Jane or Jun hold up their work as an example for others to see: it is exposure, it is uncomfortable and it is scary. In each piece, each person is expressing their real selves to the world, and it feels as if the light of attention would burn us alive naked without our blanket fears to protect us – and yet on the other side of that woolly limit we keep discovering that nothing happens at all: we are not rejected, but instead feel closer to the others, nor do people snigger at our lob-sided proportions, but are supportive…They know too well how we feel and that underlying a botched up expression are shifts and changes within helping us along the path to Beauty. Each class we discover that our drawings parallel how we are learning to see more consciously, when marvellously, magically, we are taught to allow our inner figures, once dull and flat, to dance into new dimensions onto the pages of life.
The same fear knocks about in the writing class. Unusual it is for someone to read without a slight quiver to their voice, a shaky hand, or having to repeat bumbled lines. It is really scary, especially the first couple of times, where one feels like throwing down the paper and collapsing into the rapidly forming pool of sweat beneath one’s chair, or screaming out “Fire! Fire!” and jumping out through the window. But thankfully, one does not. One continues through the torture, only to realise that the discipline of getting to the other side brings a deep sense of satisfaction.
On one public reading there was a girl who didn’t want to read, but Jeffery announced her to the public, unbeknownst to her, no prior warning. As she dazed to a stand her work was shoved into her hand. Crikey! I can imagine how she felt, the energy for holding her legs up disappearing into thin air, eyes unable to grasp that simple idea of focus, hands suddenly forgetting how to hold onto paper thin dimensions and the mind simply collapsing into autopilot, blindly flying through a war zone as all on board have fainted under the pressure. But did she scream and shout at Jeffery afterwards, accusing him of being a psychological criminal? No, she did not. She thanked him. He had pushed her through to greater self confidence, because she experienced in her body (she in-corporated) the fact that her fears were not real, that actually nothing had happened at all: she didn’t die, or faint, or collapse, she read her work, people liked it, and everyone moved on.
I think everyone can relate to feeling uncomfortable expressing their true selves. I was brought up in a family where farty is the adjective for arty, and where collage is something kiddies do in primary school to fill in time before they are able to do proper studies like maths. It has been difficult to fully believe my own belief that art is useful, but harder is the idea that I will not be shot down by some World War II fighter plane for enjoying myself. Somehow it feels like a crime to allow myself to become more who I really am. I struggle through this limit, wondering about bills, my waist line and raining bullets, and yet, nothing dire happens at all. Quite the contrary in fact: it is me firing up, exploding with excitement, and I find that instead of bullets raining down, work comes in.
My right brain is so thankful that after years of being tied up in the dark, damp dungeon of my mind, it is being given fresh air, it is allowed to go out to play…class after class, singing, writing, drawing. This intuitive, random, holistic hemisphere is being asked to take over, something that she has been ready to do for years, waiting for the day she can shine. As I continue through the exhaustion of dealing with the constant new, class after wonderful class, each little step is adding up. I can feel a shift in my brain, I am seeing a little more of this wonderful world that we live in, as new ideas greet me changing my inner landscape. I feel something in the world within me that I have never met before and yet feels like an age-old friend: I am contacting with my own creativity. It breathes a sigh of relief as I breathe a sigh of deep gratitude to the Aegean Center. I am sure I cannot be an exception to the rule. Feeling the others as they walk along their paths beside mine fills me with confidence that after exposing my inner world not only to them, but to (fear of fears!) to myself, I will not burn in the flames of chaos, but instead will come closer to a deeper understanding of who, and more importantly what, we are. Each class, each step takes us a little closer. Stepping through limits into a new open space, we begin to feel more confident expressing ourselves, motivated onwards by the joy of creating…until of course our ears open a little more, our eyes see wider horizons or our pens dig to previously un-delved depths, throwing us back into that un-comfort zone, into that red rawness that gradually, our brave creative souls, get more and more used to rising through.
10, March 2013 § Leave a Comment
Painter and printmaker Mayme Donsker recently came to the Aegean Center to give a presentation of her work and process. Mayme’s art bridges drawing, printmaking and photography to express a deeply personal unified vision. Born in Minnesota, Mayme’s presentation began with a description of how her father’s creative approach as a photographer influenced her art over the years. As an oil painting student in Rome, Mayme came to embrace her love of draughtsmanship setting a new direction in her pieces. Many of the drawings displayed during the talk were from her series “Love songs,” poetic, semi-biographical images with references to her Minnesota past, life experiences, inspirations, and “dream studios.” We sense that the “Love songs” say something specific for Mayme but we are free to draw from their meaning what we will, allowing the pieces to speak for themselves.
Mayme then described how collaging images together from old photographs became a new guide and inspiration to find the feeling and ideas she was searching for. Her collages are simple and seamless–it is striking how one image can convey a coherent sensibility assembled from many different sources. In Mayme’s work lies the notion of timelessness as opposed to nostalgia. In “Avalanche”, a clipping of an old photograph from a Beatles concert translates into something else, a statement of wild passion and ecstasy.
Looking at Mayme’s drawings as projected on the wall left one desiring to see the originals, pieces which are built up in such a way where the collage and drawing are intertwined and layered with various shades of matte gray and sparkling black. Mayme described how the collages informed her drawings and through searching for the essence of an image, she aims to find the ‘composition within the composition.’ Magically, when cropped and isolated, a photo clipping can be more open and universal in its meaning. The image “Elbow to Elbow” is not about a specific love story, but about love in general open to each and every interpretation.
The strength of Mayme’s work resides in how genuinely her art reflects her sensibility as a human being. When listening to Mayme one gets the sense of an artist sensitively tuned to her own distinct vision of humanity. Her artworks are windows into that vision regardless of the medium or subject. In describing her pieces, Mayme said, “We may want our children to grow up and become doctors or artists, but ultimately they become whoever they are meant to be and you love them all the same.” An unconditional love for her work shines through in Mayme’s art. It moves and inspires art students and artists alike to aspire to love what they create and in so doing to be true to themselves.
21, February 2013 § 2 Comments
When I first came to the Aegean Center in the fall of 2007 to work as John’s assistant, I had always been under the impression that artists were born with talent, with a special way of seeing the world and the rare ability to easily render it on paper. Drawing had never been easy for me. My love for art would often inspire me to try my own hand at it, but the results were always discouraging. I thus resigned myself to being an admirer of art, to visiting museums and taking art history at university (where studio art was closed to non-majors, giving the artist this special status and reinforcing the idea that art cannot be taught to the uninitiated).
This was something that on one level upset me, as I had always had the urge to draw and to express myself visually but never the ability. On the other hand however the forces at work had conspired to convince me that this would always be out of my reach, and so I, with not a small degree of regret, accepted my place in the world, or my place outside of art.
Then I came to the Aegean Center and for semester after semester I watched students with no prior training– armed only with that creative urge– enroll in one or both of the drawing classes and emerge three months later able to draw, to do competently all those wonderful things that artists had always impressed me with — lively gesture drawings, still lives with dramatic tonalities. The students were happy and their work seemed painless.
So in the spring of 2010, at Jun’s urging, I finally took the dive and enrolled in Basic Drawing. This class met once a week every Thursday morning from 9 to 11. That particular semester we had a handful of returning students from the Italian session and I remember that first day in class feeling particularly uneasy being with others who already seemed to know what they were doing, for whom drawing, to some degree at least, came relatively easy (for a classic overachiever like myself this was a very intimidating position to be in).
The first thing Jun had us do that morning was to draw a series of lines and circles, in an effort to loosen up our arms. We then explored the range of our pencils, making marks with varying degrees of pressure. It wasn’t until the end of class that Jun placed various still life objects on the tables in front of us giving us five minutes to draw them. This was mine, my very first drawing. As you can see I couldn’t even fit it on the page:
We were then instructed to draw the same object but instead of focusing on its outline, we were told to draw its mass, with the pencil beginning at the center of the form and pushing out towards its boundaries. Already there is a marked improvement; the vase is more upright, more symmetrical and better conveys a sense of volume. Nevertheless, I remember leaving that class a thousand times humbled, but I was determined to learn, and I trusted Jun one hundred percent.
I was not disappointed. In the following two weeks alone, with very basic instruction on perspective, I was already able to competently render the illusion of three dimensions on paper. What was particularly amazing was that I was already in possession of the skills I needed to do this– 1) I could tell time and 2) I could draw an ellipse.
For the remainder of the course we built on the techniques that add movement and emotion to a work, completing various exercises on line quality and tonality. We also received further instruction on how to see the way an artist sees (yes, it can be taught!), appreciating negative space and identifying composite shapes. This new way of seeing immediately changed the way I saw the world both in and out of class. It added something to my routine walks around town and helped me to better analyse why I found something beautiful, what it was about a certain tree or building that appealed to me. Otherwise boring minutes in a waiting room or in line at the bank became instructive, as I would catch myself thinking, “Now how would I draw that?” all while isolating shapes and imagining line quality.
I quickly discovered the value of being in a class with more experienced draughtsmen than myself, for I learned as much from them as I did from Jun, who took great care to foster an encouraging, constructive and non-competitive environment. Whenever we looked at each others work it was never with the intention of a critique but always with the intention of learning how to achieve certain effects, what improvements can be made and how — always how. To see how my classmates rendered the same objects in a still life, to gain insights into their decision making and problem solving, was an invaluable experience. (I should add that my insecurities about my own progress vanished once I realized a mixed level classroom is beneficial to everyone; you can learn just as much from a poorly conceived drawing as you can from a good one).
At the end of the semester Jun assigned a final drawing entirely of our own choosing. As I am particularly attracted to the melancholy in art, I wanted to try constructing a vanitas scene, a la 17th century Dutch still lives. I imagined something dark and moody, a bittersweet reflection on the ephermeral nature of existence. I imagined my viewer and the quiet terror that would seize him as he contemplated his own mortality! With these thoughts I deviously went about collecting all the necessary items — the drapery, the skulls, the roses that would inevitably wilt! I set up my still life late at night within the darkened walls of my living room and was certain (oh so certain!) that my intention would be fulfilled because I had willed it and because I had the skull, a real skull (no questions, please)– but no! Hours later, looking down at my paper, was the chair, covered by my bed sheet, and there the skull, looking ever so goofy and benign. The roses too refused to look menacing. And only then did I realize where the real difficulty lies in making art: to perfectly illustrate your intention, to convey mood and alter the emotional state of the viewer, to conjure feelings and stimulate his senses. This takes more than three months– it can take an entire lifetime– but I emerged from Basic Drawing confident that I had a better idea of what I had to do to get there, and this involves working towards a masterful command of perspective, line, composition and tone.
While I feel that I did not capture the mood I intended, or achieve much by way of composition, I am always so impressed whenever I compare my first drawing of the vase to my final drawing. At the same time, however, I am saddened. My original ideas about art and art making were wrong. But why? How did I come to believe them in the first place? That art making was reserved for a talented elite? I cannot pretend to understand just how these ideas came to permeate society, but they are dangerous, to say the least, and have far reaching consequences. Looking back I realize that had art been taught differently in school when I was a kid, with equal focus on crafts and traditional drawing techniques, my life could have been vastly different. I believe that children can afford to make one less snowman out of cotton balls if it means acquiring more sophisticated means of exploring the world and expressing themselves. Children are curious and capable and a crafts based curriculum seriously underestimates them.
It is these thoughts that lend my final drawing its elusive somber mood. But the good news remains, that art can be taught, and I delight in this as I draw and examine this beautiful, mysterious world of which I never, ever tire.