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.

First Impressions of Van Gogh

In Van Gogh: Master Draughtsman, Sjraar Van Heugten describes the techniques Van Gogh used for his drawings, but he stops short of elaborating on his style.

He describes Van Gogh’s work based on people at the Dutch Reformed Old People’s Home as “large pencil drawings in a vigorous, angular style. He worked with carpenters’ pencils, which have more solid leads than ordinary pencils. The wide piece of graphite in the middle of these pencils allowed him to draw both broad and narrow lines. He liked to press hard, and he also liked to work with wet paper, so he used torchon, a strong, rough watercolour paper. This method gave to many of his figures a power of expression that does justice to the model’s age and character.” (33 – 36)

I am prompted to ask, What about this style “does justice to the model’s age and character?” Why are thick lines suitable for depicting Van Gogh’s models? To be fair, I do agree that there is a “power of expression” but maybe only because both the views of the author and myself are seen through a modern lens.

He again uses the word “angular” to describe drawings inspired by illustrations Van Gogh had collected from periodicals and says “they were studies meant to represent certain types, not characteristic portrayals of specific people. (37)

By “certain types,” Heugten is referring to people who were struggling to get by, financially. Like the illustrations, Van Gogh rendered many of his drawings in black and white. He also experimented with materials and “discovered that milk… can take the shine out of graphite and give it a velvety black quality, an effect that he greatly appreciated and that was well suited to the realistic drawings he wanted to make.” (39)

Why was this “well suited to realistic drawings?”

I haven’t read much in terms of criticism or interpretation of Van Gogh’s work, but even so I have some bias. Here are some first impressions of Van Gogh’s work.

First, color can create a particular mood. Bright colors can make a picture look more cheerful and distract or make a viewer feel something they may not have felt otherwise. For example, I don’t think many people would disagree when I say that Van Gogh’s paintings are full of vitality, due to the contrasting color schemes.1  

So it’s interesting how black and white can create a more somber mood, somber being more fitting for a scene with somebody or a group of people living in poverty. I can’t say much else except that, to look at color, maybe we have to look at one’s psychology.

Like other contrasting colors, the color of the white negative space can make each black mark for the positive space more noticeable. The markings on the page have character and are more easily seen as individual marks. When you see each mark you see how the artist engaged with his materials, and the way an artist marks a page is akin to his hand writing. He may even have some signature moves.

For Van Gogh, it feels like everything wants to be seen: each vigorous mark, each shape and even the gesture or pose of a model.2 Or am I, by “vigorous,” assuming too much? Given how much we as an audience like to emphasize that Van Gogh was prone to mania, am I betrayed by some bias and seeing each mark coming from more angst than careful deliberation?

Maybe I can say that despite his careful deliberation, his angst shows through.

Overall, how Van Gogh marked the page speaks of Van Gogh… and he in turn spoke for the models.

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1 Like Iconography

2 This was in line with contemporary experiments with color

Van Heugten, Sjraar. Van Gogh: Master Draughtsman. Harry N. Abrams, Inc, 2005, pp 33 – 39.

On the Subject of Style

I wanted to talk about style but quickly realized I couldn’t make any generalizations, because it’s so personal and subjective. Instead, I found myself looking at where I am as an artist.

I

I wrote the following description of my work a few months ago and it still holds true.

I like to look at what the most basic component of a drawing can do. EG, flow of a line or variations in line quality. There is often an interaction between two or more components: between the colors of each and/or how each occupies space. There may be a definable subject, like a vase or flowers. But I’m not exploring what an actual vase or flower looks like. I am exploring what the elements that compose the subject can do: the style of line, how it depicts the subject, how it may vary in what emotions it may elicit from the style itself.

When I consider color, I want the surface to get as much attention as the medium. So how smooth or textured a surface is can influence what medium I choose. It becomes one component that can interact with other components of the work.

Overall, my drawings are a meditative process as I mark the surface line by line. It is about interactions as much as it about rhythm.

It’s good to explore, but I think style goes beyond this; also, I might maintain some intent for a handful of works but then I’ll move on to something else. So my attempt at writing an artist statement above may have been premature.

Maybe a sense of style will reveal itself after a culmination of many works over time. It may require I get some distance from my work to see what path I’ve been on.

II

I’ve been thinking about how to create mood, and I find that watercolor helps me express a mood I currently enjoy as artist and audience. It’s often where I am or where I want to be, mentally.

I created color cards the other day, and the process of simply applying the medium to a surface was soothing and showed me the potential for larger works.

Color Cards for E-Sumi watercolor series Shadow Black by Boku Undo

I also created cards for washes of Lipton Black Tea and Sencha Green Tea. Lipton Tea is an old favorite while Sencha barely showed even after six washes.

I am looking for mediums that can produce a soft and subtle tone, although I say this while reading a book on Van Gogh as Master Draughtsman, whose use of oils were suitable for something more aggressive and exalting.

I mention him here only because I know I can admire his work while knowing I do not make the same choices for my own work as he had for his. I think it’s important to develop a sense of what your choices will be. I don’t want to reduce the creative process to a matter of taste, because one’s approach and intent also influence one’s choices, but at the same time I am guided by my sense of taste with almost every choice I make in the creation of a work.

Oasis (2020)

III

I want to go beyond relying on “intuition” and have a better sense of what I’m doing.

I think I may have been confusing intuition with taste.

Intuition, I believe, is the subconscious culling lessons learned and applying knowledge I might not be conscious of, while taste is a matter of what is pleasing to me. The latter is a product of my personal experience and my current frame of mind.

IV  

I’ve been breaking down the idea of being creatively blocked, at least for myself. I had to first see my overall work as going beyond any individual work. Being aware of my own frame of mind helps me change my approach from following how I feel intuitively to being conscious of the idea I’m responding to, asking questions and observing the idea at play.

Seeing my creative process as a way to explore, I had a silly notion that the more I know the less creative I would be. I say silly because I couldn’t possibly run out of things to explore. Moreover, being creative is equally driven by a desire to express oneself.

I think about how artists might go through multiple phases throughout one’s career, and I don’t think a change in one’s approach or intent for one’s work will necessarily change one’s style; although having seen more and learned more, one’s style might evolve.

When thinking about the style of a given artist, I ask myself, Do I see the same artist in one’s early work as I do in one’s later work?

V

It is important to know what I want to get out of being creative.

Overall, being creative is a way for me to think freely, and to do this, I have to see more and know more. I have to live my life. I have to engage with the world around me.

Of course, I don’t have to do everything all at once. I can manage my creative impulses on my own terms.

I believe there is a balance between engaging with others and being honest with what one shares.