6, December 2010 § 2 Comments
When I first came to The Aegean Center for the Fine Arts, I had very clear ideas about who I was, what I liked to do, and what I was coming for. I was a writer. I loved to write. And I was coming to write.
Then, in the early days of the Italy adventure, Liz approached me and said, “I noticed you didn’t check photography on your application as something you are interested in.”
“It isn’t that I’m not interested,” I said. “But I thought I’d focus on art history, writing, and literature.” Again, I was a writer. I loved to write. And I was coming to write. After spending so much time trying to do anything except write, I had finally given in and mustered up the courage to go after my passion. Art history and literature would complement it. Everything else was a distraction.
“Well, if you like taking pictures, you should at least take the camera course,” she said. “It’ll help you take better pictures.”
I didn’t give her answer right away. I was so set on exactly what I was going to take and what my focus was going to be. Then, in my side discussions with other professors and students, I let it slip that I wished I could draw and take beautiful photographs. Soon I was hearing professors and students encouraging me. Just give it a try was a phrase I was beginning to hear a lot. And suddenly, I found myself attending the camera course, basic drawing, and watercolor.
Yet I was still hesitant. I had never done anything like this before. So I told myself that once on Paros, I would go back to my original plan of taking only art history, writing and literature.
However, once you try one new thing, it tends to open the door for other thing, and once on Paros, I found myself taking, in addition to the original plan, figure drawing and digital photography (even though I don’t have a digital camera). I also spent some time learning darkroom basics.
I have come to realize that no one is going to judge me or ridicule my artistic abilities. Being able to do something well doesn’t come without practice. Besides, this experience is about discovery, and no one expects anything out of me except the willingness to try something new. Maybe next semester I will try painting or printmaking….
4, December 2010 § 1 Comment
The thing I love about Printmaking is that there are so many changes you can make to the plate. Even though the idea of the printing press was to create duplicates, each time it’s printed it comes out a little differently.
Here at the Aegean Center we have learned how to add an aquatint, how to scratch out, and how to use a soft ground. Every day the work of the class is constantly changing and evolving. With each layer our plates transform into beautiful works of art. We also learned how to wipe out mistakes and elements that are competing with the composition. In the beginning of the semester I thought of Printmaking as an art form that was restricting, but after learning all the changes that can be made to the plate it has opened new doors. I also have been working on a collagraph plate. This is a method used with found materials collaged and painted over. This kind of plate is not as easy to change as a zinc plate. Nevertheless I have managed to achieve very different prints just by varying the methods in which I ink the plate. For the first print, I used a little bit of liquin in the ink, an amazing trick I learned from Jane, the Queen of printmaking. This loosens the ink and makes it easer to spread it into the recessions. The next print was inked in relief. Just rolling the ink over the whole plate. It came out very dark, which gives the image a different emotion. Then I printed one with both methods combined. I inked the plate, then rolled on dark ink over just the birds, trying to achieve a stamped on effect. When that did not give me the effect I was looking for. I took a print out of the studio and painted the bird forms onto the print itself. All prints have a different feeling and style. I am still not sure what I like the best or what way is most effective. I am enjoying the Printmaking class and am excited about the changes that I will continue to discover. -Hannah Merrill
9, June 2010 § 2 Comments
We are halfway through our final week of the Spring semester and a productive hush has descended on the school. The painting studios are full with the final touches being applied to still lifes, portraits and landscapes, there is a gentle hum coming from the printers churning out images in the digital lab and there is an intense quiet in the dark room as final photographs are being meticulously spotted and matted.
At thirty I never thought that I would return to school. I left England at the age of twenty with dreams of travelling and I never quite seemed to get around to settling down and taking the time for tertiary education. As I spent the next decade wandering the world my love of art lay dormant and surfaced only at times when visiting art galleries or trying to capture photographs of the places I visited. I had neither taken up pencil nor paint brush since leaving school but always yearned to be able to sit and paint the beautiful things around me. When the idea of taking time out from work to go on an art course first came to me I started scanning the net for possibilities and by pure chance I came across the Aegean Center. It took me a full year to actually gather enough courage to apply as I was well aware of my artistic abilities and was quite sure my application would be rejected on the basis that I really had forgotten everything I had ever learnt. I was wrong, I knew my desire to learn was there and after corresponding with John I felt so comforted in the knowledge that my beginner status would not be an issue at all I was impatient for the months to pass so I could be on my way to the school.
I arrived in Pistoia in the Fall session of 2009. Before I so much as left the train station the local taxi drivers had me figured for a student and barely needed to be told to take me to the Villa Rospigliosi. Heading up the gravel drive surrounded by olive trees it was hard to imagine that this beautiful old villa would be my home for the next three weeks. I remember being the last to arrive so had no time to meet anyone before the evening meal and the first night celebrations were held so I was quite surprised when I walked in and found that everyone was younger than me. I remember thinking that first night that maybe I had made a big mistake, everyone was so young, so talented and I was quite out of my depth. Again, I couldn’t have been more wrong, socially it was the most wonderful diverse group of people and artistically everyone was at so many different stages of development acceptance and understanding was immediate. Those first few weeks passed by in a whirlwind of museums, cathedrals, train rides, bus rides, gelato, pizza and pasta all shared with new people, excited as I was to learn all about Italy. After so many years of seeing famous masterpieces in books and on film it was so different to see them in their proper homes or in museums and after such a short time I was amazed at how much information I retained. This complete immersion in the Renaissance really was the only way to truly begin to understand the magnificent pieces of art, paintings, sculpture, frescoes, architecture and music. With most of our days taken up by tours with Jeffrey and Liz our practical work time was limited to a few days at the villa. These were moments to enjoy our surroundings and get our first feelings as to what our studio studies would be like when we went to Greece. As somewhat of an indecisive person I found it hard to choose what course to study so found myself attending all the lectures in the hope that I could narrow my field of interest. My initial idea was to study painting and drawing, however when John started to talk about the digital process I found it too hard to resist so as we headed to Paros I was taking the majority of the courses.
The rest of the semester was quite different, Paros gave us the opportunity to unwind from the hectic schedule that Italy had provided us with and begin proper our studies. With each of us moving into our separate apartments and studios we had time to gather our thoughts from all we had experienced and there was an exited air and a new appreciation to the arts.
Paros became quieter as winter approached and our small group enjoyed classes and hikes, pot lucks and movie nights. The semester break allowed people to travel to other European countries and explore some of the other Greek Islands. On return work continued and I decided that one semester was just not enough time for me to achieve everything I had set out to do. So it was in that first week back from the break that I decided to come back for another three months in the Spring.
So spring arrived and I headed back to Greece, a new semester with new goals. Again I had the trouble of being completely indecisive so signed up not only for painting, drawing and digital photography but this semester I would also study print making, a completely new medium for me.
Three months can pass by extremely quickly, Paros has changed greatly from the quiet cool of winter and spring came suddenly with Easter, the island waking up as we headed towards a hot summer.
The dynamics have changed slightly this semester as there are a number of mature students attending the school. This has been a great change and it made me realize that there is no ‘standard’ Aegean Center student, if someone has motivation and drive then they will fit in.
I wanted to share some of my work as I believe that I have come a long way from those first days of basic drawing where my ‘straight’ lines were quite wobbly and my figure drawings looked like something more suited to a horror film. I believe that I now have a solid background and knowledge in all the fields I studied and I’m happy that I chose to do so many subjects. Art continually evolves and I think one of the greatest lessons learnt whilst studying in Greece was patience. Patience to sit for a few hours purely to draw, patience to work through problems encountered in Photoshop and probably the hardest to learn but with the best results patience with layering, scumbles and glazes in oil painting.
I cannot claim that I’m ready for the commercial art world, neither do I want to be; this course for me has been a purely personal desire to be able to fulfill a long standing dream. I I feel that now I can go out into the world, continue my travels and this time I will be able to have the confidence to paint the places I see.
28, May 2010 § 1 Comment
Tonight the breeze has kicked up. With the chill in the air you wouldn’t know that it was late April in Greece. From the harbor I hear the rumbling of a ferry coming in to port, the hydraulic ramp lowers and the announcement to disembark echoes through the winding streets of Paroikia: “Kyríes kai Kyrioi…” It will be sunny tomorrow, and while warm in the sunshine, the shadows will retain a cold element unrelated to the bright light of day. I have been here on Paros since early March studying photography, my photographic journey having taken me through the world and back several times. Throughout this time I have been documenting my life and travels with my camera and, if French surrealist Jean Cocteau is correct and my camera is an extension of my mind’s eye, then the images have been indicative of my state of being.
Since 2004 I have taken my photography more seriously. This has been an enlightening path and I have sought out mentors and peers in a quest for more knowledge and community. Like any journey, I have gleaned myriad experiences and mixed results. In the summer of 2009, for instance, I took part in three workshop weekends hosted by the Woodstock Center for Photography, near where I live. Although educational, I found the celebrity quality of some of these sessions disturbing, as they focused more on some vague notion of artistry and industry connections rather than skills or craft. But I still came away understanding more than when I arrived, if only to avoid the fad-driven sycophantic consumerism that feeds stardom.
Through a close friend I had been introduced to a small fine arts center on the island of Paros, in the Cycladis Archipelago. I had visited the school in late May 2009 and filled out the on-line application a few days later at a cyber-café 25 meters from the front doors. By November 2009 I had been accepted to the Aegean Center for the Fine Arts. My head swam with possibilities and options. As my departure drew closer, I became more nervous. What if I don’t measure up? What if it doesn’t work out? Indeed, what if…
When I arrived on Paros I was thrilled but terrified. There were painters, writers, photographers and vocalists-19 students in all and about half returning for a second or even third term. The majority were half my age. School began on March 8th and for the first time in many years I felt like the new kid, awkward and obvious. My first class would be Silver Photography, a black and white darkroom course taught by Liz Carson. I had had a fair amount of instruction in that genre and during the past year had been working in my own darkroom at home. This course would smooth off my rough edges and introduce me to the communal darkroom concept, a daunting prospect for a late-night loner such as myself. The second avenue was the reason I had initially applied. Digital Printing, taught by John Pack, the school’s director, would become, in the next few weeks, the most rewarding, demanding and emotionally painful experience I had experienced in many years.
John is a gentle taskmaster. He is a bright soul. He wants us all to succeed, to love artistic creation, growing continuously, both inwardly and outwardly. He wants us all to be poets. I use that term in the broader sense for I feel that his Weltanschauung applies to the whole of the student body, not just those interested in photography or the digital process. With this in mind he began by giving us a basic digital toolbox. This made us all hungry for more but he pulled us back, guiding us rather than letting us run wild. His first koan was “To play-just play”, he said. “Practice. Make mistakes.” His academic philosophy is perceptive and passionate, namely that too many colleges and universities worldwide push students through an academic meat-grinder, producing uniform post-modern drones. He hopes to introduce us to a life-long artistic substance that will have meaning and value beyond the commercial or popular. This is an enriching and painful experience, a satori from which I shall never return. But I digress. First came the pain.
When I arrived here on Paros and began to use my digital camera, I was dismayed to realize that for years I had been taking the same type of picture. My old images failed to excite me. There was no life in their shadows, no warmth in their light. I tried the old ways of seeing, but my eyes, it seemed, had dimmed. Thankfully my silver work did not suffer this dilemma, in part due to the complex ritual and practical restraints inherent in that particular format. My mood became despondent. I searched for answers, but there were none, or perhaps my ears didn’t hear them. I spoke openly with other students about this and other feelings. My psyche was in turmoil and as the days turned into weeks, my inner crisis grew. This sense of failure intensified as spring break approached. All I could envision were my empty portfolios at the end of the term and the lonely ferry ride back to Athens. One day John took me aside and said, “I have an assignment for you. I don’t know what it is yet, but I will tell you soon…” I waited expectantly. A few days later he had my answer. “I want you to take pictures of negative space. Take only 36 images. Pretend you have a roll of film in your digital camera, not a card that holds hundreds.” I felt a weight lifting. In a deep part of my being lies the need for direction, for tight structure within which I find the freedom for work. Without this architecture my conception becomes formless and vague. He had given me a task. So I rented a little car and spent the day driving around the island. I came back and showed him my work. I was happy, but he was happier. He showed me something I had never seen in my work or myself. For years I had always been taking pictures of what drew me, but always from a distance, or at least disconnected in isolated empty space. He said, “You are good at this, but you are also in a very safe photographic place. I am pushing you out of that.” My new assignment was to find what I loved and then discover in that larger space what initially drew me to the image. “Get in close”, he said. “As close as your lens will allow. Take that picture, then come back and show me what you’ve done.” The fog lifted and my eyes cleared. Fear had kept me safely at a distance all these years but fear of what? Personal expression? Art? Myself the artist? Intimacy?
He wants us to be poets. He wants us to find in the visual world not just our voice, but the means of expressing it as well. He wants us to know the craft and the machinery, and then we can make our own decisions and use the best of what any tool has to offer. He wants us to play and practice. The guitarist Robert Fripp speaks of ‘the craft of guitar playing’. After almost 45 years of innovative musicianship, all of it professionally, he still sits down every day and plays scales for at least an hour. He must practice the craft of guitar playing, just as I must practice my craft of seeing and working with light and shadow. The more I practice, the more I learn and the more I learn the more I want to practice with different tools. Only then can my vision flourish.
I am not the same person who arrived here in March. I have left that man behind me, like a snake leaving its skin on a shadowy forest floor. The results of my punabbhava, my “becoming again”, are new to me and exciting and not always comfortable. A vision calls to me, a need to see light, shape, texture and movement as a single event. There is no need for explanation. My work sings and focus measures time in meters. The shadows are bright. The light is warm.
–John D. C. Masters Paros, Spring 2010
15, May 2010 § Leave a comment
The Aegean Center has been featured in the Summer Issue of Creo Magazine. The author, Silvia Viñas, wanted to highlight a student’s firsthand experience at the Center and chose Shanoor Seervai, a student fall 2009 Italy-Greece Session, to interview. (Shanoor, we miss you!)
13, April 2009 § 1 Comment
Since writing my previous post, we have made a lot of progress in Jane’s Velazquez seminar. We began painting with a putty mixture, which is a technique that Velazquez and many of the Old Master painters seem to have used. We made our own putty out of marble dust and oil. Jane purified the marble dust that she got from a local construction yard through an extensive process of rinsing, allowing it to settle, pouring out the impure water, and drying it out. With the clean, dry marble powder, we experimented with adding various mediums to make putty. We tried three different consistencies of oil, liquin, and egg yolk. Each medium gave the putty a different structural quality and drying time.
Making putty was something new to me and I found it very satisfying. New research into many old paintings (by Velazquez or Rembrandt for example) shows that artists often mixed putty with their paint pigment. Using putty in this way instead of oil is a way to make the paint more transparent, more sculptural, and quicker to dry. Linseed oil will yellow with age and crack on the canvas’s surface, but putty will not. We found that using putty doesn’t make the paint chalky and opaque like adding white does, but it does make a little pigment go a very long way.
When I experimented with putty, I immediately loved it. It is a very economical way to prolong your oil paint since it is extremely cheap and easy to make – just mix marble dust and oil together! I chose to paint a knotty old olive tree that I saw in Lefkes on one of our hikes. One of the wonderful benefits of living in such a beautiful place as Paros is that nature is everywhere and it serves as a constant inspiration for artwork. Putty is especially great for painting organic shapes and it helped free up my brushstroke, which is usually more tightly controlled. I felt like I was sculpting and molding the paint as I applied it in thick gobs. I went in with several layers of paint and subsequent glazing into the knots and dark shadows. I am pleased with the final effect; the paint quality, particularly in the sky, has a unique semi-opaque yet luminescent feel. Because I had so much fun with this painting, I plan on painting another olive tree using putty.
In Jun’s painting class, I have done several new paintings. I chose to paint a scene of rather pissed-off cats perched on a dumpster. It is an image that we see on every street corner and I find it quite humorous. Cats, which I traditionally think of as cute cuddly animals, lurk threateningly around big trash cans and I can’t help but wonder what goodies they are gruffly guarding. I wanted to dramatize the scene so I used a slight worm’s eye view to look up at the cats who glare down at me, enhanced by a harsh sense of light with raking cast shadows. The background was a struggle because at first it flattened the sense of space and felt artificial, like a wallpaper that the cats were stuck on top of. I tried to subtly gradate it, which helped but I am still not pleased with it. I played with various textures on the cats, the trash cans, and the landscape, and worked up gradually with many layers. I enjoy people’s reaction when they look closely at the cats’ expressions; it’s a painting that’s ok to laugh at.
I also did a reflection painting. I began it much like the portrait I did of St. Paul, with a burnt sienna monochromatic, then heightened and darkened the details. My still-life set up was dominantly black so I went over everything with a black glaze but that left the fabric feeling very transparent so I added positive paint on top of it. This was rather frustrating because I had gone into so much detail in the underpainting and I ended up covering it over with the next layers. Having the framework laid out so thoroughly did help because I had studied the folds and crevices so intently that I understood the fabric’s form and how it was draped, thus making it easier to paint. For me the painting was a concentrated exercise in breaking down a complex subject into shapes and forms.
While I was working on the more arduous reflective study, I did a smaller side painting for fun. In Liz Carson’s photo history class, we were looking at early photographs of hazy cityscape scenes. I was attracted to the symmetric forms and shapes and I wanted to create a simple city line and play with blurry abstracted reflections. I have been meaning to experiment with letting watery paint drip and blend together since this is a texture I want to incorporate more into my work. It was a good way for me to loosen up and focus on paint quality rather than on form. I used many layers of glazing and a limited palette consisting mostly of pthalo blue, burnt umber, ocher, and black.
In keeping with geometric forms and combining watery paint and dripping methods, I painted the view from our school’s courtyard, looking up at a studio window. I sketched the scene in Draw Club one morning because I was drawn to the harsh morning shadows cast on the wall and all the sharp architectural angles that went off in odd directions yet all seemed to flow harmoniously together. I also found the simple color planes soothing and liked how they juxtapose the sinewy wire forms. I built up my color carefully and gradually with several layers of paint scumble and glazing on top. I integrated dripping on one of the walls and I painted the sky with very watered-down paint. The final piece conveys a rather simple relationship between shapes and colors. Next we are working with a limited color palette, setting up still-lives with only white or grey objects. This will force us to focus on subtle differences in hue and tonality.
6, April 2009 § 1 Comment
Photography students took advantage of the colorful pomp and circumstance of this year’s Greek Independence Day Parade in Paroikia. Led by the local marching band, school children paraded along the windy waterfront in traditional Greek garb. The symbol laden foustanella, pictured above, was worn by the military in the revolution of 1821. Its 400 pleats mark the 400 years of Ottoman rule in Greece.
Thanks to Lliam for the photos.
30, March 2009 § Leave a comment
Current photography student Sam Walker will be exhibiting a series of portraits taken of the Albanian community of Paros. The show opens April 4th at Franca Scala Antiques in Paroikia.
25, March 2009 § 5 Comments
This semester the returning painting students are meeting with Jane Pack for a weekly seminar where we are delving into the work and style of Velazquez. We are learning a tremendous amount about both the process of how he painted and his techniques. Our long-term goal for the semester is to produce a replica of his masterpiece ‘Las Meninas.’ Through learning step-by-step about his painting methods, we will each do our own portion of the painting ‘in his style.’ There is a lot of preparation to do before that point, and we have begun with learning how he went about creating a portrait. Using this method, we are painting one of his portraits ourselves. I chose to replicate St. Paul from his painting of Saint Anthony the Great and Saint Paul the Anchorite.
Velazquez worked with the strategy of starting from a ‘middle ground’ and building up from there by adding darks and lights. I began learning about this method of working last semester and I am beginning to really understand its benefits. It is a way of working that allows the artist to be economical with his use of layers, paint, and brushstroke. For me, it makes the various steps in creating a painting more manageable because as Jane says, you break down a complex subject (like a face) into various layers, and in each layer you deal with a separate issue.
Velazquez began his portraits with an underlayer of paint, or ‘imprimatura.’ I used yellow ochre mixed with a bit of black. When dry, he would make a rough sketch of his subject with dark brown paint (I used raw umber). This should be loose and to get it correctly modeled, I used a rag to constantly wipe out and mold the shapes in St. Paul’s face. I was intimidated at first but this method of blending, wiping, and re-applying over and over allowed me to get a facial form that I was happy with. In a way it took the pressure off of getting it just right the first time. And since it is the first layer, any mistakes can be fixed in succeeding layers.
In the next stage, we “heightened with white” like Velazquez. Jane taught us how he would mix chalk with his pigments to get a certain silvery-opaque quality. We are adding zinc powder to our white to help quicken the drying time, which is very slow for titanium white paint. I applied an ochre and white combination instead of straight white so that I can bring up the darker tones more gradually. I found this step of “heightening” very enjoyable. The major ‘decisions’ had already been made when I used brown to sketch out St. Paul’s face and shape his features, so in this stage I was building on top of the framework I had laid.
On top of this white, Velazquez would apply a layer of glaze to bring the tones back closer to the base color. He would repeat this process of heightening and glazing back down, using different colors of glaze within the earth palette (yellow ochre, a red pigment like burnt sienna, black, and white) to achieve a rich skin tone. I too did this, and found that my slow buildup of the canvas gave me time to contemplate and think about the process, planning out several steps in advance. Working in many layers allows me to get a feel for the subtle nuances of the forms and their shadows. In the process of heightening with white, I began noticing little details that I hadn’t seen in the initial sketch, like the indentations within cavity of the eye socket. I also added some ‘positive paint’ into the wet glaze. This gave St. Paul’s face more body and form. I found that I also had to go back in and darken select areas and add more white to brighten other places. In the final step, Velazquez would put the finishing highlights in with thicker paint. Looking at close-ups of his portraits, we can see the movement of his brush and how he used brushstroke to model his figures with incredible skill. I added some last touches also, and when I put in the highlights of the eyes, it made St. Paul come alive on the canvas.
Aside form Jane’s class, I am working on other paintings with Jun’s painting class. for the first painting, I chose to take a quirky spin on the traditional still life setup. I had the idea of poking fun at the traditional ‘fruit still life’ by mimicking a police lineup and hanging my subjects on the wall under harsh spotlight, as though they are suspects for committing a crime. Fittingly, the spotlight is an artist’s lamp. I had fun with this idea and I tried to create a dark and dramatic painting yet have it be silly at the same time. For this piece, I knew the lamp would be a challenge so I began by sketching it out, first with a loose gesture drawing, and then with a more detailed sketch in which I carefully examined the tones and reflective qualities of the different parts of the lamp. Doing this sketch helped me tremendously. I had the image of the lamp, it’s proportions, and the shapes of its reflections already worked out in my head, so I was more confident depicting these qualities in paint. Completing a detailed pencil sketch of challenging objects before tackling them in paint is something I am definitely going to more often.
I love painting vegetables and I found it enjoyable to build up in layers much like the Velazquez portrait I am working on. I used many layers of glazing with burnt sienna, black, blue, and green to get a sense of depth in the shadows. Last semester I learned a tremendous amount when I replicated Vermeer’s Woman with a Balance and I applied those lessons to this painting. I wanted a similar sense of atmosphere and space so I used a light scumble over a dark ground and applied subsequent layers of glaze on top of that.
Coming up in Jun’s class we will be looking into reflections, literally. I am going to study the complex reflections on glass objects which will be a great challenge and I am looking forward to it. Stay tuned…