4, November 2014 § 3 Comments
by Jane Morris Pack
The advanced painters this semester are examining the famous division between the merits of drawing versus color. We have done some reading on the subject and are working on portraits using the two different methodologies. The drawing approach favors a study of form and a clear use of line and shading techniques to depict the geometry of the face. The coloristic approach seeks patches of color which border other colors to turn form and to show light. This requires a clear understanding of color mixing: warm vs cool, light vs dark and pure vs neutral.
The debate between the merits of drawing versus color has been a long standing one. The most famous proponents of drawing were Florentines in the 16th century who disdained the colorists of Venice. Titian’s broken colorful brushstroke was to them evidence of poor draughtsmanship. This debate was forwarded to each successive generation and finds such artists as Poussin and Rubens on opposing sides. Ingres and Delacroix fought a similar battle.
The muscles and bones of the Florentine male nudes are perfect subjects for a drawn approach. Vasari rightly praised Michelangelo as the supreme master of this art. In Venice the preference for the female form in landscape was better suited to a coloristic handling. One thinks of the Giorgione nudes in the soft enveloping color of evening. Subject matter may influence the choice of one method over another but it may simply be personal outlook or the type of training an artist receives which determines the way to proceed. The finite correct world of drawing appeals to the intellectual mind. A line which describes a form is either correct or it is not. The color approach on the other hand captures a more fleeting, emotional, infinite world, one which shifts moment to moment with the changing light.
These two renderings of an eye show the different mindsets. On the left Sargent finds color swatches to depict the folds around the ball of the eye. The painting by Christain Seybold on the right gives us a linear understanding of every part of the eye. Although they both use color the priority given to line or to color is evident.
A paragraph from the story “The Unknown Masterpiece” by Balzac summarizes the confusion which arises when an artist is hovering between form and color. The master painter, Frenhofer, is critiquing a work by the painter, Porbus.
“Ah!” said the old man, “it is this! You have halted between two manners. You have hesitated between drawing and color, between the dogged attention to detail, the stiff precision of the German masters and the dazzling glow, the joyous exuberance of Italian painters. You have set yourself to imitate Hans Holbein and Titian, Albrecht Durer and Paul Veronese in a single picture. A magnificent ambition truly, but what has come of it? Your work has neither the severe charm of a dry execution nor the magical illusion of Italian chiaroscuro. Titian’s rich golden coloring poured into Albrecht Durer’s austere outlines has shattered them, like molten bronze bursting through the mold that is not strong enough to hold it. In other places the outlines have held firm, imprisoning and obscuring the magnificent, glowing flood of Venetian color. The drawing of the face is not perfect, the coloring is not perfect; traces of that unlucky indecision are to be seen everywhere. Unless you felt strong enough to fuse the two opposed manners in the fire of your own genius, you should have cast in your lot boldly with the one or the other, and so have obtained the unity which simulates one of the conditions of life itself. Your work is only true in the centres; your outlines are false, they project nothing, there is no hint of anything behind them. There is truth here,” said the old man, pointing to the breast of the Saint, “and again here,” he went on, indicating the rounded shoulder. “But there,” once more returning to the column of the throat, “everything is false. Let us go no further into detail, you would be disheartened.”
This charming story goes on to explore many aspects of the painter’s world. Balzac seems to have been a close listener to his painter friends and gives us this glimpse into studio practices.
Whether a contemporary painter favors color or drawing to construct an image is immaterial. The debate about their relative merits is interesting to art historians and art connoisseurs. But the art student is less confused about choices to be made when the two issues are separated and defined so that, unlike the young painter in Balzac’s story, one is not hesitating between the two worlds.
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.
24, July 2013 § Leave a comment
Today is the final day of the two week Figure Drawing Intensive at the Aegean Center. We are tired but exhilarated and all the participants have seen great improvement in their abilities to draw the figure. I see startling jumps in the comprehension of form and anatomy, exactness of position and character of the pose. In the last few days the ability to concentrate and focus has increased and a one hour drawing flies by without awareness of the time passing. We have worked in ink, finger paint, conte, charcoal and pencil. Yesterday we drew portraits. Now time is needed to allow the information to sink in and enter the subconscious.
It was a joyful experience to teach this group. Each student brought their unique skills and perspective and we all helped each other to achieve our best. Thank you to Eleni, Elena, Ellie, Maia, Cassie, Penny, Isabel, Anglelika, and Avril for your contributions.
19, July 2013 § 3 Comments
Nine students are attending the Figure Drawing Intensive now underway at the Aegean Center. Each morning we draw from the live model for two hours and every afternoon the class reconvenes to study some particular aspect of the figure, whether it be the form of the skull or the concept of negative space. We have worked in clay and cut figures from paper, learned names and parts of the skeleton, drawn cylinders and spheres. The ability to draw a geometrical form in any direction, from any angle, is a critical but often overlooked aspect to beginning figure drawing.
Our group is varied in age from 17 to 60 and although we are all women we represent five different countries. As a teacher my hope is that at the end of two weeks the students will be able to draw the human form from memory in varied stances. Drawing from the model then, with the level and degree of accuracy we hope to achieve, will enable the student to proceed on their own and improve with practice.
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