First Impressions of Picasso

The first works by Picasso I considered were from his Cubist paintings, but the only response I could muster was one of intrigue accompanied by very few words. The first works which elicited some opinion of what I was seeing were paintings from his Blue Period, which was much more straightforward and obvious. It is this obviousness which I found myself thinking of.

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Marker on drawing paper. From my sketchbook (2009) After Picasso’s  The Soup (1902-1903)

I was intrigued by how the body language of the figures were exaggerated, making the gestures very explicit. They reminded me of religious iconography from the Italian Renaissance. By presenting humans emoting in the same way as how the divine were emoting, these pieces elevate our humanity; only instead of their being glorious and holy, they’re sad and human; bringing a viewer, possibly, to associate the grand gestures of a church mural (along with its extraordinary significance to our very existence) with very common, lowly human life.
Indeed, it goes beyond abstract symbolism. Picasso carefully chose the body language he would employ in each piece – body language which creates tension with the context in which it is employed.

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Marker on drawing paper. From my sketchbook (2009) After Picasso’s The Absinthe Drinker (1902)

The Old Guitarist is not only an image of an old man with his guitar. It is a dual image of financial poverty and emotional nourishment. Two women sitting at a bar (or Prostitutes at a bar), with the figures’ backs turned toward us, is an expression of not only a desire but a demand for privacy. This seems to contradict their extraordinary openness with strangers as a way to make a living, and more importantly, by giving us a glimpse of them while not acting as prostitutes, Picasso invites us to wonder about them as human beings. By not showing us their faces, we might wonder what they look like, and by presenting them together as a pair, we might wonder what they’re talking about, if anything.

This tension engages a viewer emotionally and intellectually, while associations with religious iconography engages us, at least on a subconscious level, spiritually. There is also, of course, all these pieces being cast in blue. Indeed, the color scheme of any of these pieces can make a fair claim to being the main feature, because (a) by overwhelming us with its color, the monochromatic blue can color one’s perspective of the scene, and (b) it’s a series of scenes – a world of blue — which Picasso was observing and giving back to his contemporaries. You might say he added something to what was not intrinsically apart of what he was observing. On the other hand, you might say what he was observing was the social atmosphere of a given time and place as seen through the prism of his own life and the emotional import of a piece was indeed intrinsic to his interpretation of those times.

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Pen on drawing paper. From my sketchbook (2009) After Picasso’s Dance of the Veils (1907) 

Dance of the Veils (1907) was painted during Picasso’s African Period, which is just beyond his Blue Period, but I include it here because it’s an example of how the use of exaggerate body language can be seen throughout his works.

 

Study of a Mourning Woman (Part 2)

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This is continued from Study of a Mourning Woman (Part 1). In that post, I made comparisons between my experiences with drawing Durer’s L’Annonciation and this drawing, by Michelangelo. I also made notes on why I think it’s a good picture, which in a word is its presence and which is achieved by creating the illusion of the flow of volume. I liked Durer’s L’Annonciation for how beautifully the lines flowed; likewise, I like this drawing for how beautifully the volume seems to flow. There is a lot going on in Durer’s picture (EG, the angel is in mid-flight), while this drawing is of a woman standing still; and yet, her sheer presence seems to be greater than the whole scene of Durer’s. I can’t add much more, except to continue with the process of finally finishing the drawing.

Step 3 (cont): Continue drawing in the lines, piece by piece.

Note on using “guidelines”

When I say “guidelines,” I am referring to where the illusion of the flow of volume can be seen, which I made a carbon copy of in Step 1. Sometimes there’re hard lines accompanying these illusory lines. Often, however, the illusion of the “lines” you see are created by many minor lines stopping just where the illusory line would intersect. Sometimes the ends of these lines stay straight, so the abrupt end of the black of these lines depict the edge between light and shadow; EG, the lighted areas of the figure’s left sleeve. Often, the ends seem to curve around some bend in the fabric, so that many lines ending or changing one’s flow in such a way depict a space or surface of the fabric which is curving away from view or changing course in some way. EG, the fabric underneath the arm.

There was no use in trying to make a carbon copy of all the fine lines, because I often couldn’t see all of them through the tracing paper. It was also confusing to go by, because I could see many lines but some were darker than others and seemed to connect to lines which they didn’t connect to, etc. It feels like cheating anyway, and so, I relented and had to eyeball the minor lines. Near the end of a day’s work, I would feel lazy and do some guesswork or very close to making things up. This is when I knew I should call it a day. Fortunately, the mistakes I made in these moments of laziness (or exhaustion) could be edited later on.

Editing.

I used two different erasers. The first, I believe, was a white, hi-polymer eraser, and it could lighten the darker areas of ink. When this ran out, I began using a pink, paper-mate, which could erase the ink entirely, if I really went at it and the ink hadn’t been absorbed too deeply.

I wouldn’t recommend the pink, paper-mate, because it can tear apart the surface of the paper more easily than the white, hi-polymer. OTOH, I was desperate. I had clocked in so many hours already, and I wanted to like the end result.

With the new eraser, I was able to clean up the face and the knee and random places of her clothing. When you focus on the lines too closely, you can lose a sense for the quality of the depiction of the flow of volume. I did a lot of work in pencil before applying ink, but near the end, I skipping the use of a pencil. Sometimes, this was a mistake, because when you make a mistake in the flow of volume, you make a mistake which involved many minor lines. Fortunately, these mistakes were usually not where the ends of these lines end abruptly, but instead curve and continue on in another direction, so that what the eraser could not erase could be hidden by newer lines. It’s a bit of a blur where the fabric falls underneath the arm.

Visual Rhythm

I had said, in my last post, that I couldn’t enjoy this drawing piece-meal. I’ve changed my mind, and it’s because I can appreciate his use of visual rhythm. EG, where the knee protrudes from underneath the clothing, the lines seem to follow suit, and bend just where the knee bends. We see how the lines follow the shape underneath while maintaining some rhythm as lines.

There’s something hypnotic about repetitive motions/sounds/visual elements. Just listen to the rhythm of music or poetry or look at random fencing that lines a yard or public garden. You feel like there’s something there that can take care of itself so you stop listening or looking so carefully and allow yourself to get carried away.

When you see it in this drawing, it’s the repetition of one nice flowing line after another, so even when you look at it closely, at one line, you can enjoy how nicely that whole space seems to flow.

Step 5: Add “sepia”

I wanted to make the whole drawing the same color as the original. I didn’t have a writing tool which could make the fine lines in that color, so I used a black ball point pen. I then thought I could go over the ball point pen with a gel pen in “sepia” where the lines were thicker. It looked weird.

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It looked a little psychedelic, as though the shadows (which were supposed to recede from view) now popped into view. I didn’t panic, though, because maybe if I gave it a wash of tea, the lighter lines would change to the color of the tea.

Step 6: Give it a wash.

Well, they didn’t. The tea didn’t do much at all, so after daubing the drawing dry, I immediately applied a wash of coffee. The color was really nice, but it didn’t make the black ink brown; instead, it enhanced the black and the psychedelic look of the drawing.

Study of a Woman in Mourning 2 (14)

The next morning, I could only hope I could edit of of what I’d done, and to my delight,  the pink, paper-mate eraser could erase the black lines underneath the brown. The brown lines didn’t budge, but at least they didn’t look so heavy, so the line-work became more subtle again. I did some more editing and trimmed the edges (because I’d applied two coats of coffee wash after the initial coat of tea wash in the span of 15-20 minutes and it was ruining the paper; IE, the wash had seeped underneath the surface and made parts of it blotchy).

I scanned the last picture and, noticing that part of the clothing underneath the arm didn’t flow very well, did some more editing.

The final version is the scan above.

For fun, I also saved a copy of a version that I tweaked using a photo editor.

Study of a Woman in Mourning 2 (14) sepia

Hard to find ink that is a true sepia color and not merely brown and harder still to find writing tools in color as fine as the ball point pen I was using. If I did have such a writing tool, my drawing could’ve looked like the image above.

Note on time

It’s been two weeks and two days since my last post, and I can say that I took a small break (life), but even so, I spent three to five hours at a time between photos, and there are 12 photos between the first photo and the one taken after I finished applying the ink. So this itty, bitty drawing (about the size of a sheet of paper) took me 36-60 hours, not including the time I took to give it a wash and do more editing, as well as the time between photo 7 and photo 8 when I lost the use of the camera for two to three days of work.

There was a lot of thinking and staring at the original, and trying to figure out just what I was looking at and how the lines work to create the illusion of the flow of volume. I want to say here, that while editing, I focused on how the flow of volume supports the illusion of some presence of a figure, but I only focused on the flow of volume. I think having the right proportions lends itself to the presence of the figure, for which I used a carbon copy.

Finally, you could say the last bit of work occurs when the picture is actually viewed, when the viewer sees the illusion.

Materials

Lead pencil
Ball point pen, black
Gel pen, sepia
Tea (wash)
Coffee (wash)

Copy of Michelangelo’s Study of a Mourning Woman from Michelangelo — The Drawings of a Genius 

Study of a Mourning Woman (Part 1)

Michelangelo vs Durer

What makes this a great drawing isn’t in how delicate the lines are. Unlike Durer, you don’t see how pretty a single line flows to and from another. You see bigger “moves,” like the posture of the body and the contrast of the lighter areas with the darker areas, depicting a source coming from the left.

Overall, the figure has a great presence, despite its small size, achieved by Michelangelo’s greatest move(s) — depicting the flow or illusion of the flow of the drapery, which is three dimensional. He does this with many fine lines following the contour of the volume. What’s tricky (but so wonderfully successful) is depicting a given contour line as it coincides with the perspective/angle at which you are viewing that area of the figure.

Durer does this too, but his “moves” aren’t so unified. IE, the overall goal of this drawing was to express volume, whereas Durer filled his drawing of L’Annonciation with individual, pretty lines and objects, so I found myself enjoying Durer in pieces; while drawing Michelangelo, I found myself not enjoying individual areas but sought motivation by checking on how the drawing was coming along and hoping the end result would look as good as the original.

Having said this, I have to admit I liked the body language of the head and hand. If I were to crop only this area of the picture, it would be great to look at in itself.

Flow of Volume

It’s tricky because it’s an illusion. You don’t convey it with a single line, but all the minor lines that follow inner contour lines and which depict areas in light and shadow.

I used guidelines (as did Michelangelo — you can see them in the original) which convey the flow of the volume — the way the fabric falls and moves.

This — the volume — is what’s pretty about the drawing, and the lines that help convey this are what make me say, “Nice moves!” This is not a simple matter of making sure the lines all fit into the space given. You have to make sure these major lines drape the shape of the figure underneath. You have to make sure it does not hide the body language conveyed by the pose the figure assumes. You could say, in the original, it even enhances the body language.

Unfortunately, I have not finished drawing a copy of my own. I made two attempts. The first I worked on and off during July.

I began with a carbon copy, which yielded a blur of lines, so I made another carbon copy, which was less detailed and which I used more like guidelines. Initially, I was focusing a little too hard on getting the lines right and not on why I liked the picture to begin with, and without the latter, I got lazy and was eventually shading more than hashing. I didn’t like the progress I was making and, after a couple of weeks, lost interest.

At the beginning of this month, I began a second attempt, which so far, I’m more or less happy with.

Step 1: I made a carbon copy, but I only used the second trace (the “guidelines”) from my first attempt.

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Step 2: I started with something I knew I liked about the drawing, which was the head. Even though it’s not very accurate in my first attempt, I liked how it turned out, so I knew the idea in itself was good (to me, personally).

I made sure I was focusing on why I liked this part of the drawing — I could see a human face peeking through, and, accordingly, I made sure I got a clear sense of the feelings expressed from that face. I also tried to stick more closely to the lines used in the original and to not resort to shading (as opposed to hashing), because that can look sloppy and express less authority over the lines drawn.

Step 3: I went over the lines in other parts, making sure I knew what I was looking at and was conveying ideas with confidence and from a clear sense of what I mean to convey in my version.

And the final stage I reached is below.

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Once I finish the drawing in black, I’m planning to erase as much of the ink as I can,  wash the surface in tea and then darken certain lines in sepia. I’m hoping that once I erase the black ink, the paper will be more free to absorb a different color. Probably not, but in my head it’s a cool idea. We’ll see.

Materials

Strathmore Water Color Paper Series 300
Ball point pen, black
Lead pencil, black

Copy of Study of a Mourning Woman from Michelangelo: The Drawings of a Genius

Coffee, Tea and Da Vinci

Do you ever browse through art books and think, Wow, I wish I had that. Well, I do… and often. Obviously, drawings you may find in a book by a renowned artist is likely out of anyone’s reach, and obviously anything by Da Vinci is in a museum by now. But damn, I still want one… of this drawing… and that drawing…

So I got to thinking… I have a very limited budget — and I want to be happy — and if money can’t buy what I want anyway, how about some good ol’ fashion elbow grease? I then had an ah-hah moment. I could use this desire for stuff as motivation to develop some skills for my own work.

Da Vinci Complete Paintings and DrawingsI have a bad online shopping habit, and I recently purchased a few art books, one of which is Leonardo Da Vinci: Complete Paintings and Drawings, by Johannes Nathan, et. al.

It includes a biography and treats Da Vinci’s work by categories as well as offers notes on individuals pieces, so you can spend a nice afternoon with it or simply pick it up to look for a specific work and read a little at a time. It is the perfect coffee table book for people who love coffee table books.

I’d also bought Christopher Nichols’ Leonardo da Vinci: Flights of the Mind, and in it there’s a small picture of Study of a Lily, which immediately caught my eye… and using both books, I set out to make a copy of my own.

Step 1: I used tracing paper to copy directly out of the book. I know I should be using this step to develop an eye for proportions, but… I’m lazy and am limited in time (I see my life dwindling away before my eyes… always), and this is what takes the longest to perfect in a drawing.

Da Vinci: Complete Paintings and Drawings 

As you can see, the drawing is clipped at the bottom, so I used Christopher Nichols’ book, which has a smaller but full picture, as a reference for the bottom of the stem, as well as for seeing how the lily was framed by the paper.

Step 2: I flipped the tracing paper over and traced over the lines with a pencil, making a “carbon copy.” I then used the dull edge of my lead pencil’s eraser cap to rub the image onto water color paper.

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Step 3: Using a “carbon copy” produced a blurry image, so I had to smooth out the lines; IE, I had to consider the “gesture” or flow of the lines. (See Nicolaides and Me.)

From far away, you can see a lily, but up close, the lines didn’t make sense, and I had to continually ask myself, What am I looking at? What does this line do for the overall drawing and does this line connect to that line or that line?

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I then went over it with a fine pen in sepia.

Step 4: Color. I began with a light wash of tea. Yes, red tea. I shameslessly used the good kind too. I mean, there’s good tea and there’s bad tea… and I used the good tea. (This is my idea of seizing the day.)

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Step 5: Volume. So far, I have two browns: the bold lines of the sepia pen and the wash, which makes the background the same color as the lily. If I kept the background white, the lily would’ve stood out more like a cartoony graphic, especially with the bold outline. By sharing the same color range, the lily looks more like it’s in its natural setting.

I then used coffee to add shadows or, by deliberately leaving certain areas clean of coffee, I created the illusion of highlights.

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I also added actual highlights, but only to mimic the original drawing, with a white pastel pencil.

Here is the final drawing in detail…

Not a perfect copy. After applying ink, I realized I’d gotten a few places wrong. I also overdid the ink, so the outline is much more bold and makes the lily look more cartoony and less natural than in the original drawing. (I have a tendency to obsess over making perfect lines.)

I mean, there is definitely a lot of “me” in this drawing; however, I think it has its own charm and I was able to produce the same “gesture” as the original.

Materials

Strathmore Water Color Paper, Series 300
Gel pen, sepia (small)
Tea (wash)
Coffee

Copy of a Study of Lily from Leonardo da Vinci: Complete Paintings and Drawings

Nicolaides and Me

NicolaidesThere are so many art books you can find online alone. One in particular is Kimon Nicolaides’ The Natural Way to Draw. It emphasizes the importance of the work itself by offering a series of schedules of exercises. You may know the line, “Don’t think. Do.” Well, this book is telling you to think and do.

By thinking, I am referring to how Nicolaides begins each schedule of exercises with a small lecture on how to approach each exercise, which is important, because the more approaches you are aware of, the more choices you have when you are approaching new work of your own.

Steal Like an ArtistLet me borrow from another book, To Steal Like an Artist. The overall advice, if you allow me to paraphrase, is that if you want to learn how to be a better artist, you learn how other artists think. You see and think as others did/have, until you find something that works for you. Over time and with more “doing,” you will naturally use some amalgam of skills and/or approaches you’ve learned from others, along with what you do intuitively.

Full disclosure: I only got through the first few exercises of Nicolaides’ book  before I moved on to my own way of doing things. Even so, I’d like look at something he discusses in those first few pages: what he calls a picture’s “gesture” or an element in the drawing which conveys movement of energy. If you are drawing an athlete throwing a discus, for example, the “gesture” may be that of a circular motion and the potential of somebody just about to throw a discus or just having thrown one.

I would like to add that the flow of the line itself is as much of the “gesture” as the idea of the subject being drawn. In fact, it was much easier for me to access the idea of conveying a “gesture” by thinking of the line, as opposed to thinking of the subject.

More on this in my next post: Coffee, Tea and Da Vinci