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.


Sorry for such a long break. Eh… life.

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


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.


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.


I’ve since redrawn the flowers…


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.

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.

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.

P13 (2)
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.


New Year’s Resolution

Over the years, I have amassed over 420 books. I buy some, I trade some. I’ve actually sold a few I’d purchased on Amazon back to Amazon buyers for cash (via the link where you don’t see who the buyer is) and then a few years later bought the exact same books back. I have a problem. I like books, but I think I really like spending money. It seems to promise you a kind of joy which is limited only by one’s imagination. Yes, this blender can change my life. I will eat healthy from now on because of this blender. Yes, this sweater can change how I feel about myself. I look damn good in this sweater. Yes, this book will give me an experience that can be added to all those other experiences I’ve had and think of whenever I see my book shelves full of books. I feel smarter just looking at them.

Well, there lies the problem. Since college, I’ve maintained a personal library half full of unread books. It really has been 50%, as I’ve read some, traded or sold some, and bought even more. I would like to work through my library and see if I really like all my books.

For this reason, I’m going to expand the scope of this blog. This means, every now and then, I’ll be spending some time responding to old books. It may not be every week, as I am an incredibly slow reader ( I tend to over-analyze everything), but it should be enough to make me feel like I am making progress… in life.

Some books really are very old, and about a year ago I did finish “minimizing” my library. (It took about one to two years for the same reason I am making this New Year’s Resolution), and now I am staring at over 200 yet-to-be-read books that I could not bear to let go of. To my credit, many of these are academic books or books on philosophy or heavy duty history books, but there are a few books of fiction and art history as well, which are screaming to be appreciated and to bestow upon me the knowledge I should already have by now.

Well, here it goes…

2011, Untitled 


The Paradox of Zen Drawing

I want to continue a couple of threads I left hanging in my last post,  Zen Seeing, Zen Drawing. (Anything in blockquotes is from that post.) 

Franck anticipated that “Fundamentalist Zenists may… question [Zen Drawing’s] validity as Zen practice.” (p. 25) I glossed over this because Franck doesn’t address this question directly. He only continues to describe what Zen Drawing is to himself, so that readers could do the same for themselves.

From what I can understand, the aim of practicing Zen is to become one with everything. When practicing Zen drawing, your goal is the same but you focus on what you are drawing, which is particular. The focus being so narrow may be why some critics say Zen Drawing is not a valid way of practicing Zen. Zen is supposed to be unknowable, because seeing it is paradoxical. When everything is as one, you can not distinguish any one part from everything else.

You could say I liked his artistic style, but Franck… focuses not on the final product, that which one can see as a particular “style,” but on the work itself… In short, Zen is about seeing and not producing. It is not a means to another end but an end in itself, and this suggests that an art student, who wants to be more skilled in one’s ability to put down on paper the idea of something one sees, is missing the point of practicing Zen drawing.

I can see how this describes Zen Drawing as meditative. You are practicing the art of seeing something that is outside of yourself, and maybe this can be a gateway to practicing true Zen; however, it also keeps you focusing on something particular, so the act itself keeps you from practicing true Zen.

On the flip side:

What if I am thinking like an art student and not as somebody who practices Zen? I would say “Zen drawing” is indeed recognizable and because of its approach.

Dress scan resize 10

There are a few drawings in my sketchbook which look a lot like “Zen drawings,” even though I had no clear notion of what Zen is when drawing them and had no intention of achieving Zen via drawing. I simply had the idea to follow the lines of an object, much like contour drawing.

I deliberately chose objects that had a lot of lines.

Bag scan resize 10 Cherry Pits scan resize 10


I was very fascinated with lines, much like the Italian Renaissance painters were fascinated with drapery.

There was something very calming about letting the lines of a reflective surface or the folds of a paper bag lead/guide me, because I was immersed in an idea that was very beautiful to me, but it was the product — the work of the lines — and not the work of being one with the object that was my primary focus.

I may have been thinking of a particular style I’d seen in various comics and/or graphic novels, but I was conscious of similarities only in hindsight. What is interesting is that my “Zen drawings” can be distinguished from those of Franck’s.

Franck, Zen Seeing, Zen Drawing

Franck’s 1993 book is above, and another drawing of my own is below.



Cup 1 crop resize 25Cup 2 crop resize 25

Even if we put aside the intent or lack of intent to practice Zen, the difference in the “look” of the drawings can be tied directly to the artist’s approach and way of seeing. I was focused on the flow of lines, while Franck allowed his pen/pencil to leave the page more readily, which gave way to shorter lines and less “flow.”

Maybe I saw the essence of a thing in the flow of its lines, but I still wasn’t focused on the thing as a whole. On the other hand, it was how the flow of lines could manifest into the depiction of a recognizable object — as well as its “airiness,” my term for the style of these drawings — which made the lines more meaningful, or in artistic terms, more “beautiful.”

This draws up one final question. Is the beauty of a drawing the same as its essence?

Edit: I added the below text December 22, 2017 

Some may say “yes,” but I have to say “no,” simply because not every drawing has an essence which is “beautiful.” Some may argue that everything is or can be beautiful, but that would dilute its meaning until, possibly, it doesn’t mean anything at all.

[Drum roll, please… ]

But doesn’t this sound a lot like Zen? If everything is one and any part of Everything (yes, with a capital “E”) is beautiful, then Everything is beautiful… Or is it? Some can call it an ugly mess, but maybe the focus should be bigger than the ugliness or the beauty. Maybe there should be no focus at all, only being one with Everything.

Or is it the other way around? Some may say that if you see Beauty (yes, with a capital “B”) in the particular, then you see Beauty in the abstract, as an ideal; like how you know what the perfect circle would look like by seeing an imperfect circle.

Either way, if you can see Beauty as an abstract idea/ideal, you can see Everything, as long as you can see everything as beautiful.

Problems with this argument:

1 You have to see everything as beautiful.

2 When you “see” anything, you see it as something apart from everything else. So it is not seeing but being [one with Everything] which allows you to achieve Zen.

a Doesn’t that happen naturally, without any “work” at all? Physically, yes, but psychologically, no. There is an unstated premise that you can keep yourself apart from all else, on a level you might describe as psychological… I think. I actually haven’t studied Zen, but I’ve been around the idea of Zen or I’ve been around one or more people who have been interested in it; much like how I’ve been around Christian ideas and Buddhist ideas in general.

3 If Beauty is Everything, then Beauty does not exist at all. Beauty exists only as a particular quality of an object distinguishable from other particular qualities, those which are not beautiful.

a So Zen believes there is no Beauty?

Hmm… If you can simply say there is no Beauty, you can say there is nothing that is ugly. If you say, “It’s a choice of saying there is Beauty, but there really isn’t any Beauty,” then you can also say, “If you can see Beauty, then there is Beauty ” — If you can make the definition, there exists the defined, as an idea.

Jury is definitely out… so stepping away from the proverbial tree, let me consider a bigger question…

Ideas are human constructs, but where do we get our ideas, from within oneself or from beyond oneself; and if from within oneself, is it arbitrary?

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