Origins 1–World Book Encyclopedia

John Singer Sargent, Madame X, 1883-84, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC

John Singer Sargent, Madame X, 1883-84, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC

Books are sacred.

That’s what I learned growing up. We had to wash our hands before picking up a book. While singing, reading and other disruptive hijinx were not allowed at the dinner table, whether one was finished eating or not, because everyone stayed till everyone was done, the parental response to one of our questions was always “Look it up!” Oh joy! “Look it up” meant a free pass to get up from the table to consult the necessary volume of the encyclopedia—or dictionary, if the question was about an unknown word—and then enlighten everyone on the issue.  That “look it up” dictum has become an ingrained habit, one I am very pleased to have.

In my childhood home, the World Book Encyclopedia, tidy red books with glossy pages and gold stamping on the spines, resided behind glass doors in the corner hutch in the living room. Many a first-day-of-school photo was posed in front of it. My favorite volumes were CL-CZ, P and F, inside which I could find Costumes, Painting and Flags of the World respectively. Man, I loved the illustrated pages of historical and national costumes, and drew copies of quite a few of them. I never considered drawings like that to be art though; Art was to be founding the Painting section.

For middle class 1964, the Painting section was pretty up-to-date: it included the classics, stuffy and brown and hence uninteresting, or contemporary work, which had the virtue of being colorful, but seemed little different than preschool daubing in my child-opinion. Modigliani’s Girl in a Pink Sweater also couldn’t be Art, though it was featured there; after all, its simple forms and skewed features did not seem marvelously out of the way of my own drawing style. (I thought maybe this meant I’d be a famous artist one day.) But Sargent’s Madame X was something else entirely.

Madame X was the first painting I ever loved. I love it still. I love her haughty elegance, the risqué gown, the subdued shadowy palette, and of course, the virtuosity that is in everything Sargent ever touched. I’m not sure what it was about the painting that made me love it as a child, probably just the sophistication of the woman or maybe the black velvet of her dress. There was a lot of velvet to be seen in the Sixties and I loved all of it! But the child-memory that lingers includes a feeling for this woman, standing alone in a vast dark space, infused with light from who knows where, looking resolutely outward at who knows what. It was an exalted expression of the way I felt life to be, such as I knew it then. It moves me still.

A Study in Pale

Portrait of Jeanne Kefer, Fernand Khnopff, 1885

Screwonhead herringbone beach whites

Reading:  Michel Daguet, The Portrait of Jeanne Kéfer (2004)

“The economy of the palette goes hand in hand with the very measured manual gesture that leads Khnopff to prefer tight brushwork.”—Michel Daguet

Fernand Khnopff was a Flemish portrait painter active at the turn of the 19th century. I discovered his work in The Portrait of Jeanne Kéfer, a book available as a free digital download from the Getty Museum. Daguet’s analysis of the Kéfer painting is good, but I didn’t care much for his overstrained theoretical arguments. Still, it’s an interesting peek at the fin-de-siècle Flemish art scene and the way it connected with trends in France and England. Definitely worth a glance….as are many of the other titles in the series. Degas: Waiting, for instance, was excellent.

Khnopff was a portraitist who dismissed photography as an art form, but used it as a tool in his painting. I’ve been thinking about photography too, lately. His was a form of Impressionism influenced by rough-hewn modernist techniques and the luminous precision of Memling. Perfect. Khnopff’s work appealed to me right away.

What has been unexpected is the appeal that his subtle, pale palette has for me. I generally prefer an intense kaleidoscope of color; it must be the monkish side of me surfacing, I guess. Still, I’ve been looking at a number of things lately with more subdued palettes: the coloring in Mignola’s The Amazing Screw-On Head,  the subtle hues, textures and patterns in classic menswear styling and the harmonious pales I like in beach home interiors.

Will my own work change from its desire for flamboyantly color? Probably not. Maybe it is just the changeable spring weather that has me torn between stormy grays and the riotous floral palette just breaking out, but whatever it is, subtle harmonies really excite my interest right now. If only spring would definitely arrive…

A Day in the Life

I stumbled on this great BBC Four series over the weekend. Want to know what the daily life of an artist is like? Here’s one way to find out, if, like me, you don’t know any successful artists to hang out with and learn from. You won’t find any contrived artist statements or high society wanna-bes–just a cup of coffee in a messy studio, the pressure of exhibit deadlines, the cost of paints and the doubts and pleasures of doing the work. Take a look. Be inspired.

Into the Magical Circle


Lucian Freud, Self Portrait

“‘I always thought,’ says LF, ‘that the artist’s was the hardest life of all.’ Its rigour–not always apparent to an outside observer–is that an artist has to navigate forward into the unknown guided only by an internal sense of direction, keep up a set of standards which are imposed entirely from within, meanwhile maintaining faith that the task he or she has set for him or herself is worth struggling constantly to achieve.”–Martin Gayford, Man with a Blue Scarf (2010)

In the spring I read Dear Theo, a condensed version of Van Gogh’s letters, and from them learned so much about how he worked and of his hopes, despairs and plans. I’m finding the same thing in the Gayford book. It has no definitive answers, but it does offer a glimpse at a great artist at work, opens a few pages onto his life, his methods, his ideas and his personality. It’s the food I didn’t know I was starving for.

But this quote, and others like it scattered throughout the book, are what it’s all about for me, especially for someone who still dreams of being inside the magical circle that is an artist’s life. How do we keep going, in spite of a less-than-inspiring day jobs; how do we find that faith in ourselves? I don’t know, except that I wonder if it doesn’t have to do with vision, that image in the mind we are always struggling to translate into words or paint, that thing we see that no one else does, that gravitational feeling about our object that will not let us rest. Everything we do, as LF would say, we are doing for our life. It’s that serious…if you let it be. Maybe it’s the vision that takes you home.


The Importance of Drawing

gayfordI’ve been reading Martin Gayford’s chronicle of his sitting with Lucian Freud, Man with a Blue Scarf, but since it is Freud’s birthday today, it seemed a good time to write about him. I’ve just begun the book, but so far it’s great, not just for the insights into Freud’s working methods and ideas, but also because the writer is an art critic who looks with a keen and humanizing eye.
“Being able to draw well is the hardest thing–far harder than painting, as one can easily see from the fact that there are so few great draughtsmen compared to the number of great painters–Ingres, Degas, just a  few.”–Lucian Freud

Freud goes on to make his point by describing a painting by Max Ernst he once owned. Over time, he got tired of it, largely, he believed, because Ernst did not know how to draw. It’s an interesting idea–we may be able to master painting without being able to draw well, but that the superior draftsman brings something extra, something more, to anything he paints. I merely dabble in paint, would like to do more with it, but this quote inspires me to try harder with my drawing. After all, who wouldn’t want to earn the right to the company of the likes of Degas and Ingres?

Looking Closer: A (Weird) Painting in the Grand Manner

Tiepolo, The Martyrdom of St Agatha, 1750.

Tiepolo, The Martyrdom of St Agatha, 1750.

I saved this image of Tiepolo’s St Agatha some time ago, long enough in the past for me to forget why–I probably liked her expressiveness–but looking at it last night, I was going to delete it. And then I started noticing things…. like the four lurkers. Click to enlarge the painting and you should be able to spot them all: the man to the left of the column, the brown skinned man whose eye appears to the left of Agatha’s head, the fair-haired person who seems to peer through her halo, and the turbaned man looking right at us over the pointing finger of the torturer.

What does it mean? I have no idea. It just struck me as weirdly modern. I’ll keep it around–even if it does bother me a bit.

Week in Review

ADovercoat boy summer dress from Moebius2

Schiele1 Schiele2

These are the main things I’ve been working on over the last few days, although there are doodled people I see on the streets, practice drawings of hands and the Gorillaz characters scattered throughout my journal and on scraps of paper that seem to proliferate wherever I am. Aside from Moebius and Schiele, I’ve also gotten very excited about the work of Sergio Toppi, Bill Sienkiewicz and Kenneth Rocafort. Still reading Harold Speed’s drawing book from 1913 (free download on Project Gutenberg), which is full of all sorts of helpful thoughts on composition, brushstrokes, line quality, and exactly what it is that an artist gives us with his work. Or should. Maybe more thoughts on that later…


“It is the experience and the poor work of every day which alone will ripen in the long run…”–Vincent van Gogh

A reassuring thought on days when you don’t measure up to the best work you know can do. I am now come to the last months of Van Gogh’s life as I read through his letter to Theo, and still, in describing Starry Night or a self-portrait or the famous Irises, you read his lament that he cannot do the quality work he knows he could do. His health is broken and yet he plans ahead, while you, the Reader, sigh and say to yourself “It’s not to be, lad.” A humble man who never got a break. It seems unfair and makes you wonder what Fate has planned for you….

Going Wrong

climate change

“After all, your ‘method’ of work is nothing. Why be tied to any method? You will say that when you step out of your rut you don’t do as well. But what does that matter? It may come better later.”–Robert Henri

Henri is ever the advocate for the perpetual student, both of work and of life. Better to be engaged with the world around you, looking for what interests and excites you and making your art full of those feelings and enthusiasms. In the end, he believes being an artist is about pursuing those high moments in life–the art is just a record.
So, this is just a record–an imperfect one–of a series of images I enjoyed. I wish they had been less flawed, but maybe you can tell I had fun.