Loose Ends

Loose Ends Ink on paper, 9″ x 12″

Loose Ends (above) was an exercise in creating a “good” line and being brave. Or it began with a sketch I’d drawn in 2011 (left). I was with my parents who were visiting friends in San Francisco and I decided to spend some time by myself at a small diner and drew this on the back of one of their menus. I was just doodling.

But I liked the result so much I didn’t want to mess with it… until 2018, when I set out to extend it to something bigger, and that’s when it became an exercise in bravery. I only got as far as making a carbon copy of the original sketch onto water color paper (which I’d prepared with several washes of tea).

I believed I had to recall what the original intent was or some idea behind the line work before I could extend the idea further. I decided finally, in the last week, to not worry so much about going back in time and doing more of what I’d already done, but instead continue the lines in whatever way my hands wanted to.

I worked on it over the course of several days, section by section, starting with the lower right-hand corner (left). I decided not to use pencil because that would allow me to second guess myself… and I got a mess of lines. (I later covered these lines with heavier lines so they now feel like something in the background.) It occurred to me that the curve of the lines was influenced by the size of my hands and where they naturally wanted to bend the line. When it veered from a smooth or “good” line, I simply took the pen off the surface and resumed where it took a “wrong turn.”

The next day, I moved onto the upper middle section and tried to create some uniformity by allowing the lines to criss cross within these pod-like shapes. (Below) It got a little boring and formulaic, so I found myself extending some of these lines beyond the confines of the pods.

On the third day I moved to the upper right-hand corner (left) and may have stayed on it longer than I should have. It became again a mess of lines. It had occurred to me that this was an exercise in a third idea and that was “saving” the drawing from one “mistake” after another — or this was apart being brave by trying one line after another, knowing full well I was going to make many more mistakes.

Or maybe it undermines the exercise in being brave, as being able to save the drawing from these mistakes makes it not so easy to make a mistake I can’t recover from. (Why does it feel like I could apply this to life in general?) I eventually turned to making certain lines heavier than others so my eyes could have something to focus on.

I though i was done, but on the fourth day, I realized there still some empty spaces, so I lazily extended any loose ends, allowing again the size of my hands to determine where the lines would bend, until they found their way the edge of the paper. The upper left-hand corner is above and the lower left-hand corner is below, left, and the lower right-hand corner is below, right, after I’d gone over certain lines with heavier lines.

On the fourth day, I started to lose my nerve and began by allowing myself to use a pencil before committing new lines to pen. I eventually stopped worrying so much and started and ended the last few lines with a pen.

Michelangelo (Copy of a portrait)

I found a good picture of Michelangelo online, and assigned myself the task of copying it to a sketchbook. I’d copied pictures before but I’d cheated by using grids (or other means). This was my first time I’d copied something with such intricate line work by eye.

There are a couple of things that helped me along the way.

1) General rules for proportions of the face. EG, you can divide the face into equal thirds between the hairline and bottom of the nose and chin. You might notice some lingering guidelines in the first picture.

2) The face is seen at a 3/4 view and on a slight tilt, so I made a guideline that followed the contour of the eyes to get the relative height of the eyes and drew everything else by using my best judgment.

3) I had been thinking of following lines so much that it felt like too much of a challenge to gauge the relative placement of the lines. For this drawing, I learned to think of the face as a three dimensional object and to gauge the relative placement of pieces of the face. EG, I had seen the temples as two curves in an outline, like the face was two dimensional, but here I saw the temples as pieces that sat at the upper right and upper left of the eyes.

I was tempted to leave it at that… but what was so appealing about the original picture was its line work

So to get the courage to begin, I allowed myself to draw the way I felt most comfortable drawing, by shading and with a pencil. I then went over it with a colored pencil so I wouldn’t have to worry about rubbing the lines away and to minimize second-guessing myself. I then took a deep breath and started applying ink… which was fine until I got to the creases of his eyes, which is when I took the fourth picture. I was filled with regret and thought that I should’ve stuck with the pencil… and glued some paper over my “mistakes” to go over it with pencil again.

I waited a day and after looking at it again I realized this was stupid and scratched off as much of the glued pieces of paper as I could… which muted the harshness of the lines but still allowed something to show through what was left of the paper and glue.

Not my proudest moment. But I felt inclined to add more ink over other features… then eventually went back to the eyes because there was a level of anguish expressed in the pencil that I had erased or which was overwhelmed by the intensity of the ink.

I realized that once you have ink the pencil can’t compete. You have to fully commit to ink and use colored pencil to supplement the ink.

Or I want to say I could fully commit… but I didn’t have the nerve.

Instead I focused on the jacket. There was some very obvious “moves,” like hashing in opposing angles. Similar to something Michelangelo did in his drawings was branching off of opposing lines, so the lines didn’t appear out of no where. I didn’t see this in the collar and so I didn’t try doing this in my own drawing, and I think it made the collar in my own drawing more two dimensional. I notice now, in the original, that at the bend in the collar there is a corresponding branching off of opposing lines; IE, the horizontal lines dip just where the vertical lines dip as each follows its own contours.

I know, it’s a far cry from the original (below). But there was a lot to learn here.

I wish I knew who to credit for the original. If you know, please comment below and I’ll add an attribute.

Copying Li Xue Ming (Part II)

Gaa Wai Copy of Li Xue Ming b 082419

This is Part II of Copying Li Xue Ming. In the video, I’ve chosen a portion of a painting by the artist to sketch. It’s the same painting as the one in Part I, but I focus on the cave, as opposed to the figure inside. I begin by commenting on the work as a whole and then talk through (often rambling, sorry) what I’m thinking while responding to the work with a brush.

It’s fairly long (30:06), and I start sketching (after a trial run) at 6:25 or so.

 

 

Copying Li Xue Ming (Part I)

Li Xue MingI recently moved, and out of the 437 that I own, this is one of the few books I could bring with me. I bought it at a brick and mortar store in China Town in San Francisco a few years ago.

I was having fun exploring the area, so discovering the artist, Li Xue Ming, may seem a little random.

I’ve been saving it for a rainy day, so to speak (IE, just one of those days when you want to discover something that sparks joy in your life), and hitting two birds (or if you want two bottles or two inanimate objects) with one stone, it also gave me a chance to think about how to develop my own style of line by looking at somebody else’s.

This video is of me preparing and using Chinese ink the old-fashioned way while sketching a figure inside one of his paintings.

I’m also preparing Part II, where I give a response to the work and sketch what surrounds the figure.

Gaa Wai Copy of Li Xue Ming 082419

Graphics of the German Expressionists

Sabarsky, Graphics of the German Expressionists

I’m looking to German Expressionism for how both the line and colors can fill up space, as opposed to only the “flow” of the line.

I happened to have the book, Graphics of the German Expressionists (1984), by Serge Sabarsky, on my book shelf. (I found this gem in a used book store.) The historical context (1910’s – 1930’s) from which this kind of work arose helps me to understand the intent and approach of the artists.

Sabarsky explains…

The confusion and disorientation of modern man at the turn of the century created a need for immediate and tangible meanings… This opened the way to the rediscovery of graphic techniques. In… their woodcuts, the German artists, especially the members of the Brücke, developed a style that used crudely simplified… forms…

… The printing of manifestos especially was almost exclusively done with carved woodblocks. These… were characterized by an immediacy that makes them… as modern today as they were six or seven decades ago. (pp 9-10)

Looking at the the works in 2019, I think “immediacy” refers to how pieces were intentionally made flat and simple in order to be emotionally accessible.

Much of the work is in black and white, and much of the potency I think is in the contrast between the two colors. Many of the works use large blocks of colors and thick bold lines — which could be referred to as forms or shapes, as opposed to lines that flow with their own “intent” to move in a certain direction.

The figures seem to stand their ground. Wood blocks, in particular, can be described as emblematic — something abstract but something you can recognize right away, and despite it being so simple, it is very emotional and evocative.

Some artsits used hashing, but I only focus on how broad strokes, IE those of a brush, fill up space and the interactions between positive and negative space.

Following two short essays that give some historical context, there are nine sections that each give a brief introduction to an individual artist before showcasing examples of their work.

Max Beckmann Otto Dix Lyonel Feininger Erick Heckel Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Otto Mueller Emil Nolde Max Hermann Pechstein Karl Schmidt-Rottluff

Getting Unblocked

Gaa Wai 062019 Tree 4

So I’ve been a little blocked… is an understatement. (That and “life” has been keeping me busy.) But no excuses.

I’ve been watching many (many) studio vlogs on YouTube, trying to find my way back, and the variety of work helped me put some things into perspective.

I’m thinking of furrylittlepeach and Christie’s interview with Wayne Thiebauld, as well as Ping Zhu and Leigh Ellexson,

If given the task of drawing any inanimate object, each artist could make it look unique from the other artists… But what is unique? To say this is a matter of style seems to oversimplify what they do, as does ‘following an attitude.’ (Even though that may very well be what guides them.)

I think while developing one’s “style” to what it is today, each artist had to answer many smaller questions, which bridged the gap between “attitude” and form.

Looking at my own work, I noticed that I’m very drawn to a particular color scheme: background colors made from red tea and blue-grey’s (more grey than blue) and red-orange lines. While browsing Artsy (I searched Chinese ink, as that was the medium I’m already drawn to) I found myself adding one Chinese artist after another, as their color schemes seemed to be answers to questions for how to develop my own color scheme.

Overall, I want to say it’s “smoky” or airy. Maybe ethereal… which sounds… like I don’t have a clear understanding of what they’re doing. I do know that I like it though, and knowing this, as opposed to following a trend or simply being intrigued and curious, is crucial in being able to answer the smaller questions, as those aren’t apparent in finished work. I have to have an idea, even if it’s only intuitive, to focus on, to have somewhere to go (as opposed to being where everyone already is).

OTOH, seeing a variety of others’ work and looking back at my own work, I feel like treating this — not wanting to be guided entirely by any aspect of others’ work — as a rule was something that was blocking me.

While I ended up veering away from the styles I copied, I can not say it was my copying the drawings which led me to go in another direction; and while I did reflect on the experience of making a copy, I didn’t go further and think of how it could apply to work of my own.

So thinking of my own work… the questions of line, color and form remain. These will only really be answered with each specific work, but I think I’m getting closer to a combination of broadly defined aspects which can guide me… intuitively…

Line: For the brush, I think I should change my approach from using the brush to guide me to being weary of what objects will lend themselves more to lines made by a brush (thicker and greater variety in quality of line from thick to thin, etc).

More on this…

Color: I think I can benefit from more exposure to others’ work. I like what I’ve seen on Artsy. (Wang Quian, Lin Yang Qiang, Zhang Yanzi, Yiming Chai, Arnold Chang, and Xu Ming) I’d like to emphasize that I was already trying similar colors for my own work before looking at other artists.

Form: I’ve been focusing so much on my line, I’ve actually focused on forms surprisingly little or close to not at all. When looking at others’ work, I’m drawn to stories in Surrealism and/or collage. I’m thinking of Shahzia Sikander, who does this and follows a color scheme similar to the one I’m trying to develop for myself.

… I may be over-thinking this. But being blocked is a matter of psychology and I think it’s worth it to think things out, even if it seems obvious (especially after writing it down) because it helps to get the brain going through the motions.

So much of art is a matter of psychology.

 

 

Finding My Line

Bear with me as I use this blog to talk through some problems, namely with being more abstract on a fundamental level. (It’s a technical post that asks a handful of questions and provides no answers… although it may help to know that these are problems you may encounter when transitioning from a Western approach to an Eastern approach.)

Gaa Wai 062119 Tree 1

I went to a local park last weekend and discovered a very interesting looking tree. I thought I could open up the idea of this tree by taking parts of it and deconstructing it, so that I would have a new way (or my own way) of showcasing some of its nuances. I couldn’t. In hindsight, I realize I had some obstacles to overcome.

1) I was using a new vehicle (a brush) for a familiar medium (ink).

2) My moves were bigger by virtue of my using a brush.

3) I wasn’t in the right frame of mind. a) “Deconstructing” was my way of zen drawing but I didn’t put two and two together — that I had to have that approach (the one for zen drawings) to produce the same kinds of results for previous zen drawings.* b) I was outdoors and I had never tried to draw outdoors before, while in that head space.

How did I respond?

1) I went home and instead of making the video I intended to make (about the tree), I made a video on materials. (Not very exciting and, honestly, very basic. But if you’re interested, you can find it here.)

2) I pulled out two books in Chinese (Wei Xin Yi  and Li Xue Ming) from my personal library, each of which focus on the art and style of a given Chinese artist, looking for ideas. 

3) I went to the park again, but instead of going to the tree, I sat down on a bench and reconsidered my approach.

Obviously, using a different tool will have an influence on one’s approach. The moves you make with a brush will of course be bigger than those with a pencil. But there it is. Because they are bigger moves, they will be more abstract and thus I will have to be more conscious of the process for making choices. This seems to take me out of the “zen” frame of mind I would go to while drawing with a pencil.

… And yet, the sketches of Hiroshige, for which Hiroshige used a brush, look very zen… as do the works in the two books I mentioned earlier.

Hmm… I think about what I’ve seen so far in this genre. Yes — there are a lot of big moves. One of the most basic elements is the depiction of a leaf or segment of a branch with one stroke of a brush. The body of the figure below, from Li Xue Ming, is composed of a few continuous, thick lines that remind me of Chinese calligraphy, as though, for this artist, the skills for calligraphy are the same for depicting how a figure is enrobed in fabric.

Very different than the painstaking line-work of Italian Renaissance drawings. And much more abstract.

Li Xue Ming from book Li Xue Ming

Eh… getting back to me. I am very inclined to make small moves and build (ever so slowly and organically) from basic elements.

This had presented its own problems: IE, small moves can lead me to follow a subject too closely so that I simply “copy” what I see. To address this “problem,” I would simply see this approach through to the end and be more extreme. What could this approach yield for me? I knew I wasn’t capable of “copying” it that well, like a camera, and when my eyes got lazy, I knew my brain would have to interpret for my hands what it saw but on an abstract level. This is when — if I am consciously thinking of style — I can choose what kind of interpretation I will make.

This approach has worked very well for me while using a pencil or ball point pen. The [new] problem now is that I’d taken for granted how the line of a pencil or pen is consistently fine and predictable. I’d even incorporated these features into how I think, visually, and conceive of a given subject on an abstract level.

In short, a line produced with a brush varies in width and texture and is not as predictable, and I have to learn to do more with fewer moves because each move is bigger and uses up more surface area. Sketches with fewer moves also look more elegant and efficient.

To be continued… 

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* I use the term, zen drawing, loosely. I could just as well say contour drawing.

 

 

Chinese Painting

Collection of Chinese SketchingsA Collection of Chinese Sketches By Ancient Well-Known Artists (1997), was compiled by a family friend, Yu Tong Ho. He distributed photocopies to a handful of people when he was planning to teach a course in Chinese painting. The course never came to fruition, and sadly, he is no longer with us, but I kept the copy given to me, and I’d like to use it to develop a sense for how to compose in a similar style with particular attention on how to use the negative space.

I chose a sketch I could immediately appreciate. Gaa Wai Copy of a Chinese Painting 051219 original

Specifically, I could see four things: the individual gestures of each of the thicker leaves, the gestures of the thinner leaves, the direction or composition of the thicker leaves as it moves across the page and how the thinner leaves kind of support the composition of the thicker leaves. The thinner leaves offer another layer which gives a sense of depth, as well as lead you out into the distance, which contrasts with how the thicker leaves make your gaze want to focus on them and to stay in that general area. 

Knowing how to appreciate the original helped me focus on what was and was not necessary in my own version. 

I should note that I was informed by one other experience painting in this style. It was a course with a professional painter who was invited to teach a handful of people from the Chinese community, and it was while I was in high school. She taught us how to paint bamboo and leaves, and I vaguely remember her telling us that going from one end of a section of bamboo to another is one motion. The thickness varies only by how much pressure you apply, letting the hairs flay out more, then less and then more again.

I painted a handful of bamboo so my hands could remember and so I could become more familiar with how much paint/ink is suitable for the surface I was using, given the brush I was using. I don’t have a name for the ink (my apologies), as it was also given to me, but the brush I bought from amazon, and the paper is just newspaper print.

Below is my first attempt…

Gaa Wai Copy of a Chinese Painting 051219 1

… and my second.

Gaa Wai Copy of a Chinese Painting 051219 2

 

The Sketchbooks of Hiroshige

The Sketchbooks of Hiroshige (2001) by Daniel J Boorstin (foreward) and Sherman E Lee (introduction)

I recently discovered this at a used bookstore. It’s a reproduction of two sketchbooks by a Japanese artist by the name of Hiroshige, which are currently held in The Library of Congress.

There are two editions. One is perfect bound and the other, this one, opens out like an accordion, which is similar to how classic Japanese literature were bound. In the perfect bound edition, you don’t get to see the sketches all the way to the edge. While, after a brief forward and introduction, [this edition] immediately gets into the plates and you can open up each volume in its entirety. Each page flowing into the other page.

Flipping through the pages of any sketchbook, you get to see the way an artist thinks visually and not just the ideas as abstract ideas but something that has already taken form… and how he thinks in a specific medium. Moreover, you see how he made use of a specific size, color and type of surface, which can limit where the lines go, how big the gestures are and the effectiveness of a given color and medium. 

To quote Daniel Boorstin, in his foreward, “The economy of these pages, like the simplicity of the Japanese garden, reminds us of the Zen paradox of the redolence and fullness of empty space.”

Hiroshige is utilizing the negative space as a major feature, so it’s really easy to see and appreciate the simplicity of his gestures and strokes, which somehow depict a scene in a very vivid and meaningful way, whether it’s looking at a single, central subject or an entire scene and where where multiple figures stand in relation to each other.

In only a few strokes, you know these are two people here and two more here carrying a load of some kind together… and here are some shrubbery. Looking at the color of the sketchbook pages, I notice there is a choice not to give it a wash but to rather make use of it to suggest it’s a certain time of day, in which you’re catching a glimpse of the work they do in the early morning hours. The color of the pages help to set the tone of the entire sketchbook.