15, August 2017 § Leave a comment
Raphael’s Drawings: at the Ashmolean & Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave
At the end of the session this last spring John and I traveled to England to spend a few days in Oxford. We went to see a show of Raphael’s drawings at the Ashmolean, a collection of over hundred and twenty of his original works of art. Drawing exhibitions are far and few between and I was particularly anxious to see this one because Raphael’s draftsmanship is extraordinary and difficult to find and see in person.
It has been said that drawing, within the visual arts, holds the position of being closest to pure thought. (Elderfield) In this sense the drawings allow us to see inside Raphael’s mind as he composed images which would evolve into paintings, frescoes and tapestries. His exploratory line and his imaginative thought process are clearly on view in these works. You feel him working through ideas, expressing emotion with a variety of poses and exploring specific narratives. His drawings are derived from models, imagination, and sometimes from memory. What struck me most was the delicacy and fineness of his workmanship, the exquisite details and the accuracy of his line, his potent understanding of how light describes form. I learned that he often used a stylus to sketch out the preliminary form on the paper before beginning the drawing. This was called a blind line because it did not leave a mark. The drawing was then refined with either metal-point, red chalk, or charcoal. Exploring the spiraling tensions and revealing a staggering knowledge of anatomy he amplified the composition with interlocking negative space and groupings of figures. He was able to reveal the emotional quality of the figures with a minimum of information, sometimes showing only the back of a head or a gesture of the hand to communicate the mood. With rhythm, geometry, and poetry of line his drawings become a testament to the human form as an expression of life force.
On the way back to Athens we stopped in London and were lucky enough to see the exhibition “Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave” at the British Museum. This artist’s encyclopedic knowledge of nature is on show with many drawings done with ink and brush, woodblock and illustrated books. Again I was struck by the detail and careful renderings, the delicacy of his work. I think it was Ruskin who said that in fine art there must be something “fine” and I thought once again, looking at Hokusai, that perhaps this is something we’re missing in much of contemporary art. It seems that the muscular, the shocking and the mundane have more value to us than careful observation and recording of form which is so lovingly revealed in these masterworks. Although the artists lived two and a half centuries apart and on two different continents, although they depict two different cultures, there are common elements to their work. Both artists express the inexpressible through the twisting forms of human anatomy, pushing to discover at some level our common humanity and our extraordinary capacity to endure. Meticulous, patient observation combined with imagination and the desire to reveal truth is the binding principle that brings these two artists forward into our world with enduring quality.
Jane Morris Pack
19, July 2016 § Leave a comment
Jane Morris Pack
Learning to draw the human figure is a challenge and demands a clear understanding of how to capture form. It is also a difficult task to do in two weeks but the eight students attending the Intensive Summer Workshop did an amazing job of pulling it all together in a short time. We worked from the model for two hours every morning and then after lunch the projects included working in clay and drawing the bones and muscles. Learning to draw the basic geometric forms was given particular attention as they are the building blocks for all form. We investigated perspective, built a clay head, foot, hand, nose and mouth. The students traced their own proportions life size on paper and then added the skeleton and muscles to those drawings. On the final day, as a creative exercise, we hung paper cutouts onto a line and played lights over their forms to suggest movement.
Since drawing is such an intense activity we needed a few distractions to smooth the steep learning curve. One night was spent watching the stars appear from a vantage point high on the mountain after sunset, on another we had a wine tasting of six prominent Greek varietals, and lastly a full day was enjoyed on a wonderful boat trip around the neighbouring island of Antiparos. Thank you to all of my wonderful and enthusiastic students from whom I learn so much.
8, June 2016 § Leave a comment
By Jane Pack
Annelise teaches theatre at the Aegean Center and I teach figure drawing. This last semester she was taking my class and I was taking hers. We often heard our words to students echoing each other, she commented that I sounded like a theatre teacher and I frequently wanted to break in on her classes and exclaim, “The same applies to drawing!” Of course the arts are grouped for a reason, as creative endeavours each challenges the practitioner to move out of their comfort zone, to search for meaning, to communicate feeling. But drawing and acting seem to have a particular resonance with each other, similar vocabulary can be useful in each: gesture, rhythm, movement, weight, form, vision. And each requires intense concentration, a challenge to refresh and renew our approach each time, a thoughtful and deep presence. It has been said that drawing, of all the visual arts, is closest to pure thought. And acting has that same intensity, the need to be in continual focus or risk losing it all.
I urge students to challenge themselves to use new approaches for each drawing, to keep themselves from being bored with their own accomplishments. I teach craft and expression side by side, but push technique so that the students can think emotionally and still be outside those feelings enough to communicate them. In theatre one loses oneself in a role only when the self steps aside and allows the dramatic impulse of the playwright to come through. I found I was thinking almost like a draughtsman when I was crafting my role: what shape, what form, what movement, what rhythm. And the actress, Annelise, considering how a drawn gesture communicates tension, where the human form expresses emotion, what the speed of the line or its weight can do to change the depiction.
Each discipline has its magical storytelling moments, each includes the element of audience although that is profoundly more weighted in a performance on stage. Still, the draughtsman is performing too, the moment the pencil encounters the page. Most importantly, with practice and discipline, each art brings us closer to our unique self and wakes us up to the present.
3, October 2013 § 1 Comment
Learning the secrets of perspective drawing takes on special significance when we are concurrently learning about the art of the Renaissance. Leon Battista Alberti, the great Renaissance artist, architect and scholar detailed the methodology of mathematical perspective in 1435 when he published his book, ‘De Pintura’, in Florence. The knowledge soon spread to every part of Europe as artists adopted one point perspective to project their figures into space and create a window into an imagined world. This method assumes a single view point for the observer. The reduction of scale and overlapping of forms combine to work the magical transformation of a flat plane into a representation of three dimensions.
Students at the Aegean Center learn to use one and two point perspective using simple exercises and then apply this knowledge to direct observation. Once this is understood and absorbed then the drawing of rooms, buildings and furniture is a simple matter and more complex forms of designing space can be utilised.
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.
10, January 2012 § 4 Comments
The National Gallery in London is hosting a show entitled “Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan” which opened last month and focuses on his time as court painter to Ludovico Maria Sforza.
The exhibition sold out in the first week but we were fortunate enough to get tickets in advance. On view are 7 paintings, 60 drawings, 33 of which are from the Royal Collection. This makes the show a unique opportunity to see an artist at work, thinking through ideas and culling through various postures and positions for compositions. The paintings are surrounded by preparatory drawings, some of which relate directly to the work on display. The most sensitive drawings are those done on prepared paper with silverpoint and white highlights. This means that the paper was covered with a layer of animal hide glue mixed with pigments, in this case usually blue. The drawings were done on this ground with a fine piece of silver wire, carefully and gently touched to the paper and built up in intensity by continued stroking. The white highlighting is probably pigment mixed with egg tempera applied with a brush. Looking closely at these drawings I could barely see the strokes of the brush in many cases leading me to believe that he may have just tapped the pigment on, dotting it onto the paper with a tiny brush. These drawings were more delicate and refined than I had imagined before I saw them in person. They are small in scale, perhaps extracted from sketchbooks. Other drawings were done with pen and ink, the diagonal shading lines revealing the left-handedness of the artist. Leonardo believed that he could reveal scientific truths about the world thorough deep and clear observation. These intense and precise drawings give us insight into the physical world as well as into the mind of the artist himself. Leonardo’s sketches of human anatomy are still among the most admired drawings of their kind.
The crowds were rather overwhelming but we managed to spend time with each piece. A companion of mine remarked that she found the paintings rather cold. Indeed, Leonardo is not appealing to our heart but to our head. His intellectual approach demands a quiet and intense engagement with the work which was rather difficult at times with the press of people. Still I found time to inspect each piece. It is interesting to note how much of each composition was left unfinished, revealing the underdrawing in many cases. Leonardo was known for leaving his paintings incomplete, but it is hard to determine how much of this is out of neglect or if he purposely chose to leave areas as they were first drawn. His exquisite angel in The Virgin of the Rocks (from London) has perfectly realized features but his hand is a smear of lines on the back of the baby Jesus. The paintings are full of these inconsistencies. He was among the first Renaissance artists to use light rather than color to direct the eye. His sfumato, or smokey, technique reveals and disguises edges leading the viewer through his rocky landscapes and over the curvature of the human visage.
John and I were able to see the show two days in a row, thanks to his foresight in purchasing tickets. It is an education for modern artists to see such an sumptuous body of work, to understand better the process of a great genius. I also plan to apply some of the things I learned to my own methods this winter. There is no greater joy than having new inspiration and the National Gallery show has provided ample opportunity to imbue some Leonardo.
-Jane Morris Pack