On the Subject of Style

“The trap exists because of the fish; once you’ve gotten the fish, you can forget the trap…. Words exist because of the meaning; once you’ve gotten the meaning, you can forget the words.”1 Chuang-tzu, Chinese philosopher

This used to be how I felt about writing. Even when I took up creative writing, I thought it was all about the content… and it’s not.

Getting to the meaning of one’s words is not the only reason why we listen.

We create to bring form to ideas, and this, I believe, is all about style.

I understand there’s a major difference between linguistic expression and visual expression. The first uses symbols (letters of the alphabet and the words they make) to guide you to conjuring up the ideas in mind, while the latter provides a physical structure to show you an idea at play.

But both can show how one sees the world.

I’m going to focus now on visual expression… and use a recent drawing to illustrate what I mean.

Initially, I got lost in the details and tried to copy this more precisely, but I stepped away for a day and when I looked at it again, I realized I had smoothed over all the nuances. It was static like a rock.

I often tell myself to “always know what you’re looking at,” but in this case, I decided to refer to a thumbnail of the original, so I could see again what initially made me decide to choose the image. I decided the goal is not to draw a poppy, per se, but to get ideas about what is a “good line.” Or, overall, when looking at a model, I am not drawing the model, I am making note of what makes the model pretty.

This approach is especially useful when thinking about auto-drawing, because with auto-drawing, the challenge is to maintain variation, to avoid making it look like patterns on wall paper. Looking all around me, I see “pretty lines” and beautiful color compositions everywhere and realize I can use almost everything as a resource. I just have to like what I see.

When I picked up drawing in 2008, I was mesmerized by a “pretty line.” It was a gateway into the visual arts, and a year later I wanted to utilize more color, but I couldn’t see where other artists were getting there ideas (color schemes) from.

Intuitively, I knew that you have to enjoy something to bring it into your work… or I should say you have to know what you like to gauge the progress of your work… to know that you’re achieving what you want to achieve.

Okay, it’s not simple. But creative work doesn’t need to be precise. Below is a video of me playing around with a recently opened set of Marie’s water color tubes.

I made a sketchbook for the purpose of experimenting with color schemes, and discovering how bright and vibrant the colors are made me giddy, particularly 511 (bright blue green) and 451 (looks like Prussian blue)

Here’s a picture of the poppy I painted in the video.

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1 This is from the introduction of Jerome Silbergeld’s Chinese Painting Style, and Silbergeld is using a translation taken from Burton Watson’s The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu, published in 1970 by Columbia University Press, p 302.

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.

Beginnings

Sorry for such a long break. Eh… life.

I’ve been pulling some things out of the works-in-progress pile.

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While on “break,” I found myself doodling or doing some “automatic drawing” (above). It reminded me of something I drew in 2011 (below), which I really like but have not been able to use. It just seems like a detail of something else, but I have no idea of what that can be.

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The flowers (below) were drawn in another style. Please ignore the creepy looking girl overwhelming… everything. I’d drawn the flowers and again didn’t know what to do with them, so I impulsively drew a face and then hair because… well, I don’t know why.

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I’ve since redrawn the flowers…

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I made a carbon copy of the original and redrew them onto a larger surface and then added more of them. I think it’ll serve as a context for something else… ?

Illustration vs Fine Art

I think the above are closer to illustrations than “fine art,” which makes sense because when I was drawing the original, Art Nouveau was really on my mind. Not that the movement didn’t produce fine art. Only, when I think of the Art Nouveau, I think of how they applied the beauty of what you might see in a frame on the wall (like a caged bird) and freed it into one’s living space, an object we sit, eat on or drink from. Unfortunately, it’s easy to let one’s ambitions fall short and produce something less “fine” and more “decorative.”

But what’s the difference between “fine” and “decorative?” Yes, there is the quality of the line and other elements of the form of a given piece, but I think an artist has to be careful of becoming formulaic, by recycling old “moves” so that it’s like the same song being played over and over again. It becomes a language from which there’s only so much meaning that’s being expressed.

I know one word can mean a variety of things; EG, some choice four letter words. But the variety comes from how you use them. Getting back to a “good” line… (1) It should have “good” form, and (2) lines and/or other elements should be useful to a greater context and/or better yet it should play off of other elements similar and/or different from itself.

Not sure if I’m there yet… Choices, choices… Of course, ambition can also kill an idea because an artist simply wants it to promise more than what it could be…

To be continued…

 

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.