More thoughts on keeping a sketchbook

I want to make a pretty book

Initially I was thinking of collecting all my free-standing sketches into one book but I couldn’t find a way to organize them into a cohesive whole.

Left to Right, Top to Bottom: 1) unknown source, 2) unknown source, 3) figures from plate 111 of 100 Views of Edo by Hiroshige, 4) from Twin Pines, Level Distance by Zhao Mengfu, 5) automatic drawing, 6) automatic drawing 

I then thought of cutting a bunch of charcoal paper to fit a specific size, drawing on them and then eliminating the pages that I didn’t like before putting them all together. It was the consistency of the pages that did a lot of the work that made the sketchbook — as an art project — cohesive.

I then realized I was getting distracted by the idea of making a book.

Book making still interests me but the goals meant for that kind of work gave me a reason to neglect the goals for using a sketchbook.

But what are my goals? 

I think having rules can be helpful. Jonan Lehrer’s article, “Need to Create? Get a Constraint,” for Wired, breaks down a study by Janina Marguc, et al, that looks into the psychology of how obstacles can help free up one’s creativity.

There’s also an interesting article by Ruthe V for the Seattle Artist League blog that gives examples of artists who overcame obstacles (not of their choosing) and incorporated them into their artwork.

Not forgetting the question of “What do I like?” I let my mind wander and focused on the question, What are “good” combinations?

Charcoal on newspaper print. Or any intense color to stand out on a grey background — the grey having a way of setting a certain mood.

Clockwise from Left top: 1) automatic drawing, 2) automatic drawing, 3) from photograph of Chauvet cave paintings as published in Drawing, by Teel Sale, et al, page 6, 4) automatic drawing

Orange or red or burnt sienna on cream toned drawing paper. Like the drawings from the Italian Renaissance. (I don’t have pictures for this.)

Confidence and the blank page

I’m also addressing the fear of making “mistakes” by imposing the following rule – “No pencil.”

Left to Right, Top to Bottom: 1) Lily, 2) Lily, 3) Foxglove, 4) Foxglove, 5) Squirrel, 6) Squirrel

Not allowing myself to use pencil meant I couldn’t erase anything and might get me out of the habit of compulsively making everything “perfect.”

Moreover, the constraint or focus of having to “save” a drawing after making a “mistake” compelled me to be creative in how to compose — IE experimenting with what colors work well side by side, creating layers and adding depth — which was often not intended.

 

Graphics of the German Expressionists

Sabarsky, Graphics of the German ExpressionistsIt occurred to me that maybe I shouldn’t be thinking of my art in terms of the line. The approach to German Expressionism, for example, I think was to focus not on the line but on how colors fill up space, particularly black; even how the lines fill up space, as they are so thick.

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 to understand the intent and approach of the artists.

 

The confusion and disorientation of modern man at the turn of the century created a need for immediate and tangible meanings. As a result the arts moved in the direction of a new primitivism. 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)

I want to emphasize this idea of “immediacy.” In terms of the line, thicker lines are bold and slower to move. It’s not about how well the elements flow but standing one’s ground. Wood blocks, in particular, can be described as emblematic. Or that’s one interpretation.

If I only think in terms of the line, I will be inclined to be guided by how well the lines flow. With the thicker lines you get from a brush, I should think not of how it flows, but how it fills up space. Or, if I want to continue to be guided by the “flow” of elements, I should focus not on two-dimensional depictions of line, but on three-dimensional depictions of how the “line” seems to fill up the illusion of space.

But this moves us away from German Expressionism, as the flatness of their work is another quality the artists commonly used for effect. Their work was intentionally made simple, in order to be emotionally accessible.

Below is a video that looks at specific examples and is not so much a book review as some first impressions of this movement and graphic art in general.

I start talking about the book at 1:26. 

 

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… 

____________________________________

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

 

 

My Sketch Vlog

So the last video was a bit clumsy. But I think the next one is better. Much better. (It even has background music.) It’s also the [better] beginning to a sketch vlog.

Nothing fancy. For example, this time, I again use newspaper print and Chinese ink, although eventually, I’d like to move onto using colors and drawing things from live models.

 

It’s, you could say, more of the same… but in video 🙂 I hope you enjoy.

N.B. I’ll mostly save my sketch vlog for YouTube, while here, I’ll resume posting things that go more in depth.

 

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, which helps me focus on what I should have and what is not necessary in my own version. Gaa Wai Copy of a Chinese Painting 051219 original

There are four things I can see : 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.

The video that accompanied this post has been deleted.* 

I begin the video by warming up and getting a sense for what it feels like to use a Chinese paint brush and how much paint/ink is suitable for the surface I’m using, etc. 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.

Please keep in mind, I have only 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 the only technique I remember is 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.

Below is my first attempt at copying the above sketch…

Gaa Wai Copy of a Chinese Painting 051219 1

… and my second.

Gaa Wai Copy of a Chinese Painting 051219 2

 

* Made a few rookie mistakes, like filming with my phone and without a tripod, filming with my particular kind of phone which produced a blurry video and letting a pop song play in the background (Birdy’s “Terrible Love). No worries, though. In my next post, I include another video with me copying a similar Chinese sketch/painting. I also hope to post many more videos on YouTube with me sketching to my heart’s content.

 

Salvaging Old Drawings: Fire Balloons

 

Gaa Wai (dot) com, Figure 5c

Like the initial drawing for Solar Flare, the figure above is an old drawing which I want to make use of. I’ve been thinking of creating layers and using sketches as elements in a larger story.

In my sketchbook, the figure fills the page, but it’s like the detail of a larger image. You get a character and not a full vignette, much less a full story.

Gaa Wai (dot) com, Fire Balloons, Oracle.JPG

The challenge of creating a story for the element goes hand in hand with the challenge of making the new drawing look like everything in it was meant for one drawing. I was looking for something simple and which the figure could naturally support. I randomly thought of fire balloons.

I prepared the paper with tea and created my first layer, which were lines depicting clouds, in the style of old Chinese paintings and painted with coffee.

I then made a carbon copy of the figure with the idea that it would act as a double image: an oracle and a fire balloon on fire.

Gaa Wai (dot) com, Fire Balloons, sketch (1).JPG

Midway, I thought of titles, but I may have gotten ahead of myself or ahead of the drawing. I thought of “Oracle on fire and there are people watching,” and I let the words guide me, because I couldn’t think of how to complete the drawing and sketched in silhouettes of people on the bottom.

I put it away for a couple of days and when I was ready to paint, I realized it was too much or it felt contrived or it didn’t seem like the drawing was developing organically in that way. (I can’t quite articulate the problem, but people on the bottom was not the right choice.)

So I replaced them with a close up of one of the balloons, which gave me an opportunity to have two elements interact.

Gaa Wai (dot) com, Fire Balloons

I knew, even while painting it, there were too many colors or it’s not a unified color scheme, and I definitely need to spend some time developing basic skills in watercolor. However, having completed the drawing, I could look at it critically. I could also look back at the process, which has revealed to me a few things.

Elements

New elements, like the wisps of smoke near the figure’s head and the fire/smoke in the balloon at the forefront of the picture look pretty and I’m already using them effectively as elements in this drawing, so I know I can use them again in other drawings.

They’re simple and can be used as building blocks, unlike the oracle, which seems too complex to use again in the same drawing without it looking like wallpaper or contrived in some way.

Line

In the original drawing, the lines in the bodice of the figure feel like lines from another drawing, so it looks confused.

However, if the bodice is really a balloon and the smoother lines are really fire and smoke, there would naturally be tension between the two elements, and using different lines for each can be seen as supporting this tension.

Story

It’s in the context of the story that this can work. It makes use of the structures that are already there and helps explain them.

There’s also the theme of Man vs Nature, and thus the oracle. Fire balloons are sent to float up into the heavens with the hope of granting wishes, while an oracle is burning. Or is the message too didactic?

The oracle having a girl’s face seems a little too explicit. Maybe I should focus more on the fire and less on the oracle… but the face is what’s pretty about the oracle. … Maybe it’s the hair, which looks too much like hair. Yes.

I’d forgotten the initial drawing had the face as the centerpiece and everything flowed from the figure of the girl, so it looked too much like a girl. It demands your attention and competes with the fire balloon as the center of everything, when it’s not anymore.

Color

I originally had the figure in red, but decided midway that it would be difficult to use it and have an overall unified color scheme, so I added blue to make it purple.

I’m not very good with colors, and it’s something I need to work on in terms of finding what I like. You have to like what you draw in order to gauge whether or not it’s getting better or worse each time you edit the piece.

I tend to approach my work with the idea that Less is More, and for this drawing, as with many others, I want to show off the line. I tend to use the variety of colors (if there is a variety) to help me do this.

Like Flowers II, each color can help a viewer keep an eye on an element while it interacts with another element.

The elements for this drawing are Fire (bodice of the oracle, bottom fire balloon), smoke, fire balloon (intact), fire balloon (not intact) and Oracle. (Some parts double as parts of two elements.)

Technique

Layering two colors of ink looks really cool.

Gaa Wai (dot) com, Fire Balloons, Edit 1 sketch

So I decided to limit the colors to red and black (Fire vs Smoke vs Fire Balloon) The smoke and fire balloon will both be in varying hues of gray, which suggests the fire balloons, even the ones intact, are floating up like the smoke; they are both the color of ash.

This makes room for the color of the clouds, which are painted with coffee.

Gaa Wai (dot) com, Fire Balloons, Edit 1, sketch 2

I had considered not having clouds and actually freaked out a little when I added them midway, because they seemed to be overwhelming the figure, but after applying ink to the bottom fire balloon, it all balanced out again. One of those things you don’t know until you try.

Because they are in a different color and are a different style of line, they do not readily interact with the figure and fire balloons, and therefore add another layer or the illusion of depth. They also make the transparency of the ink more noticeable, which underscores the idea of the fire balloons being beautiful and fragile, which creates tension with their being dangerous and their power to wreak havoc on the environment when their thin shells inevitably burn and start fires elsewhere.

WIP

I still have to finish the larger balloon and add and color in a few smaller balloons but the overall idea is there.

 

Salvaging Old Drawings: Solar Flare

I have a few things that are products of automatic drawing, which I’ve put aside for a while. I always wanted to do something with them but, until now, I couldn’t think of anything.

They are works in progress. (Sorry, more incomplete work.) But they share something in common: each were completed in one sitting but can be used as an “element” in a larger work.

For the first two, I was limited by the actual surface area.

033018

When I ran out of room, I simply stopped. This was last year and at the time I wasn’t at home, where I could reach for a larger piece of paper, and once I was home, I had stepped out of the right frame of mind and didn’t bother trying to find it again.

Drawing, Teel SaleWell, in 2009, I had bought a book that takes you through techniques in contemporary drawing (Drawing, 5th edition (2003), by Teel Sale, et al), and recently, an image I’d seen while flipping through its pages, had lead me to a place, mentally, where I could expand on the above ideas.

It was Brice Marden’s Cold Mountain Addendum 1 (1991-1992). It’s on p. 60, in Chapter 2, which is on “gesture and other beginning approaches,” and is used as an example of a continuous drawing.

 

Brice Marden, Cold Mountain Addendum, 1991You know how they say, “There’s no role too small for an actor?” It reminds me that, no matter how basic one’s approach is, you can still create something as moving and intriguing as this.

Material used were ink, ink wash and gouache on paper, which also gives me ideas, although, for now, I’m sticking to ballpoint pen, at least until I’m sure of what I’m doing.

Gaa Wai (dot) com, Solar Flare, sketch  (1).JPG

I’m tentatively calling this Solar Flare. I made a carbon copy of the top drawing (above) and considered simply repeating it over and over again… but it quickly started looking like a wallpaper design.

Do you see how in the initial drawing there appears to be a girl’s head? It’s fine if I do it once, but it’s easy to notice if I do it more than once. I thought it would be enough to change all but one of those places where the girl’s head hows up.

Gaa Wai (dot) com, Solar Flare, sketch  (2).JPG

But it wasn’t enough. I began noticing how the other part of the initial drawing was making patterns. It was becoming “easy,” which doesn’t incline a viewer to keep one’s eyes roaming through the whole work, and although I’d wanted to call this “Wires” before, and even had planned on drawing half of the lines in green pen, I can’t help but see this other part of the initial drawing as a flower.

On the other hand,… maybe I was being too ambitious. Maybe I should see this approach through (using one drawing over and over again). I could be hanging onto the idea only because I like parts of it, mostly the new parts… and it takes a lot of time… and there was so much hope for the initial idea… Sigh…

But I decided to start over again with the intent to use the flower as a recurring element, but to space them out with new lines and to make sure no two flowers are going in the same direction or doing the same exact thing.

I’m in the process of making a carbon copy of the larger work, and along the way, editing the lines or making different choices than the first attempt, one 9″ x 12″ sheet of tracing paper at a time.

Gaa Wai (dot) com, Solar Flare, sketch (5)

I never do a good trace, so I really am drawing the image over again, which is good practice for drawing “good” lines and maybe even developing a style… ?

Gaa Wai (dot) com, Solar Flare, edit 1, sketch (6)

So far, this is what I have for my second attempt.

Next: Fire Balloons

 

Materials: Ballpoint Pen

Do you remember my Trees? Here are my attempts at drawing Lenny or Tree 2.

First, I did a really bad wash, then trying again, I made the mistake of using a sharpie, as a short cut, which isn’t waterproof… LOL. Then, I tried again, but I noticed — finally — that my pen work was very heavy handed. Here’s a close up of the first and third images from above.

In person, it’s much worse. I learned, eventually, that you just have to have patience with the medium. The ink won’t come out faster because you’re putting more pressure onto the paper.

I also learned that you can do a lot with a pen, like varying the intensity of the color and even shading in areas the way you would with a pencil. In fact, it’s very much like using a pencil, but the color won’t smear and it shows up more easily on digital files… yay!

Trees 2c crop

I’ve also practiced using two different techniques: hashes and randomly filling in all the little white spaces. Okay, the second one isn’t really a technique… but I think it works better, or once your hands get accustomed to doing it that way, you don’t have to be as mindful of what you’re doing. I mean, it’s easier, overall, to get an even finish.

I used hashes for the above and randomly filled in all the white spaces for the one below.

Tree 2c scan resize 10

For the record, the images at the top of the page are of the 2nd to 5th attempts and the two directly above are from the 5th and 6th attempt. They were both scanned with a setting of 600 dpi. The 5th has a wash of tea, so it’s more yellow, but as far as how smooth the color is, I’m much more pleased with the 6th.

It may be that if I had better skills at using hashes, the 5th would’ve been better.

Trees 1

Here’s an attempt of another tree (George or Tree 1). I used hashes, and I think I was doing a pretty good job, but at one point, I got a little antsy and wasn’t happy with how dark one of the sections was getting, so I desperately used a Pearl Pink eraser to try to erase some of the ink.

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Above is a close up of the hashes and below is a close up of where I applied the eraser too harshly.

Trees 1, crop b

I allowed myself to do this, because an eraser can actually be your friend when using a ballpoint pen. I used the Pink Pearl eraser to get the textures for Don or Tree 3c, below.

Tree 3c scan resize 10

It did do some damage to the surface but not so much that I couldn’t keep applying ink and erasing some more. Very sturdy paper (Strathmore watercolor, series 400).

With the hashes, if done well, it looks a little like cloth, with the eraser, it reminds me of stressed denim (I don’t know why), and with randomly filling in the white spaces, it looks the most polished.

By the way, you can find the following trees on Saatchi: two versions of George or Tree 1a and Tree 1b, one version of Lenny or Tree 2c , versions of Don or Tree 3b and Tree 3c (although Tree 3b is only for show) and Val or Tree 4a.

Tree 1a scan resize 5Tree 1b scan 5
Tree 1a and Tree 1b

Tree 2c and Tree 3c

Trees Val 2 102218

Tree 4a