Cogito Ergo Sum

Portrait of Rene Descartes, by Franz Hals (1648)

Portrait of Rene Descartes, by Franz Hals (1648)

René Descartes, the French philosopher, walks into a bar. The Bartender says, “Hey, René, you want a scotch?” Descartes replies, “No, I think not.” And then he vanishes.

Happy Birthday, Monsieur Descartes!

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Drawings in color

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Again a stressful week limited the amount of useful real work I was able to do, but I did make a few things I liked. The first was a small marker drawing and the second was a watercolor based on a composition by Felice Casorati. I’ve been fascinated with foreheads recently, which is probably why this fellow’s is preposterously high; you know, the way kids draw the daisies bigger than the house because they really like flowers. (Obviously not a future architect.) I stumbled onto the Casorati image on Pinterest, but knew nothing of him prior. He painted in the early decades of the last century and has a lyrically simplified composition and figural style that was half abstraction and half della Francesca. He’s one I’ll be studying this week.

Retro Friday: Self-Portraits (1979-1980)

1979 marker double 1979 pencil 1980 summer pencil double

I’ve added a few more items to my Self-Portrait gallery, pencil and marker drawings from 1979 and 1980.  In the first set (1979), I believe I was just back from a bad day at work–pretty much a given in those days–which may well explain the hostile expression. I was so thin back then–all that long neck and the ears that stuck out when my hair was pulled back. And dig those gigantic plastic frames! They were stylish then. Odd how I went for the glam-fashion frames when I dressed like a hippie; I’ve never really known what I was doing with clothes.

I don’t remember anything of the circumstances of the second one, also 1979, such great, thick hair I had back then, but the third set was from a sultry summer afternoon in 1980. I was hot, bored and miserable and it shows. This set is my favorites in this group; I especially like the folded hand I lean against. My face looks elongated too–in fact it’s quite round–a distortion that occurs every time I draw without my glasses. Is it my astigmatism? Maybe. I read a theory once that claimed El Greco drew the way he did because of astigmatism, but does that mean every Italian Mannerist had astigmatism too? I don’t buy it entirely. Interesting thought though. I do know that when I draw without glasses, the proportions look fine to me.

62 Books

  1. Sinclair Lewis, The Trail of the Hawk (1914)tree_of_knowledge_BW
  2. Sinclair Lewis, Main Street, (1920)
  3. Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend (1865)
  4. Sinclair Lewis, The Job (1915)
  5. Will Eisner, Comics and Sequential Art (1985)
  6. John Berger, About Looking (1990)
  7. Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here (1935)
  8. Sinclair Lewis, The Innocents (1917)
  9. Charles Dickens, Bleak House (1853)
  10. Sinclair Lewis, Free Air (1919)
  11. Margot Livesy, Eva Moves the Furniture (2001)
  12. Charles Dickens, David Copperfield (1850)
  13. Walter Crane, Line and Form (1900)
  14. Ralph Adams Cram, Toward the Great Peace (1922)
  15. Ken Ilgunas, Walden on Wheels (2013)
  16. Mike Mignola, The Amazing Screw-On Head (2010)
  17. Patrick McCabe, The Butcher Boy (1992)
  18. Carol Armstrong, Cezanne in the Studio (2004)
  19. Ramiel Nagel, Cure Tooth Decay (2011)
  20. Richard Thomson, Edgard Degas: Waiting (1995)
  21. Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist (1839)
  22. Frederick Buechner, Brendan (1987)
  23. Michel Daguet, Portrait of Jeanne Kéfer (2004)
  24. Barry Unsworth, Morality Play (1995)
  25. Elizabeth Cropper, Pontormo: Portrait of a Halberdier (1997)
  26. Arthur Wesley Dow, Composition (1914)
  27. Masterpieces of the Getty, Illuminated Manuscripts (1997)
  28. Charles Dickens, Nicholas Nickelby (1839)
  29. Edmund Sullivan, Line: An Art Study (1922)
  30. Goldner and L. Hendrix, European Drawings 2 (1992)
  31. Bruce Perry, Fitness for Geeks (2012)
  32. M-M Gauthier and G. Francois, Medieval Enamels (1981)
  33. Patricia Anderson, Images of Charity, Conflict and Kingship (1981)
  34. Kristen Kimball, The Dirty Life (2010)
  35. Elizabeth Teviotdale, The Stammheim Missal (2001)
  36. Manga Study Society, How to Draw Manga, Vol. 3 (2000)
  37. J. Holmes, Notes on the Science of Picture-Making (1920)
  38. Charles Maginnis, Pen Drawing: An Illustrated Treatise (1903)
  39. John Crowley, Little, Big (1981)
  40. Andrew Loomis, The Eye of the Painter (1961)
  41. Paul Graham, Hackers and Painters (2004)
  42. Allie Brosh, Hyperbole and a Half (2013)
  43. Arthur Guptill, Why Architects Still Draw (2014)
  44. Paolo Belardi, Lectures on the Science of Human Life (1849)
  45. John Caspar Lavatar, Aphorisms on Man (1724)
  46. Veronika Sekules, Medieval Art (2001)
  47. JK Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (1998)
  48. JK Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (1999)
  49. Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul (1993)
  50. R. Poore, Pictorial Composition (1903)
  51. Rudyard Kipling, Stalky & Co. (1899)
  52. JK Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (1999)
  53. Henry James, Picture and Text (1893)
  54. Henry James, Washington Square (1880)
  55. James Hillman, The Soul’s Code (1996)
  56. Jay McInnerny, A Hedonist in the Cellar (2006)
  57. Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential (2000)
  58. MFK Fisher, Musings on Wine and Other Libations (2012)
  59. Kenneth Patchen, But Even So (1968)
  60. Theodule Ribot, Essay of the Creative Imagination (1906)
  61. MFK Fisher, A Cordiall Water (1961)
  62. Auberon Waugh, Will This Do? (1991)

Behold the prodigious reading of the past year… A few of these books I’ve written about already and I’m sure a few themes are obvious….drawing instruction books from the early 1900s… comics… art historical books (long ago college major)…six novels by Sinclair Lewis, five by Dickens…dabbled a bit more with Henry James (his novel What Maisie Knew, 1897, I read last year; it was a favorite)… and toward the end of the year, books on cooking and wine.

Little, Big was a book that came to me as a recommendation. The first part was some of the most pleasurable fiction I’ve ever read, fantastically imaginative in the way the first 200 pages of Helprin’s Winter’s Tale was; the middle painful, poignant, but perfect in its breath-stopping way; but the end was such a disappointment that I can’t in good faith recommend it. When it was right, it was as inevitably perfect as an elegant mathematical equation, but its failures felt like failures of vision, perhaps a desire in Crowley to make an end to the gigantic task he’d set out upon. Yet I will re-read it one day, hoping that the magic at the start is not tainted by my knowledge of the unconvincing end.

My choices were varied this year, drifting back as far as the 18th century and as contemporary as 2013’s Walden on Wheels by Ken Ilgunas and Allie Brosh’s very funny comics on depression Hyperbole and a Half. I truly, deeply loved the Ilgunas book, which would be no surprise to those who know me, fondly I hope, as a bit of a tightwad. Ilgunas was buying freedom with his frugality and so am I. A great read about a very determined (and smart) young man. Brosh is best when she writes about dogs; she also draws them exceptionally well, not so much in a da Vinci sort of way, but more that her pictures capture the souls of dogs. Her style can be pretty goofy, but effective just the same.The other smart man I was excited to discover was  Paul Graham. His essays are profoundly insightful: he has a way of finding a new perspective on controversial ideas and curious phenomena, leading you through his thought process in his lucidly constructed arguments. God, I love smart people! I now read everything he writes as soon as it’s posted.

The “bests” though were the early Sinclair Lewis novels, Trail of the Hawk being the favorite of the ones I read this year (Our Mr Wrenn, another favorite, I read late last year.) There’s something about the sense of life you find in the writing in the early 19th century that I can’t get enough of. It’s a picture of youth and optimism, of chasing dreams and holding onto ideals, and when it’s important, going your own way. Maybe it’s the belief in progress and limitless horizons, a conviction in the goodness of living, that seems so utterly alien to the world we live in now. Reading these books is a refreshing, hip-pocket vacation. But it was apparently no easier for these writers to hold to these values than it is for the rest of us. Past 1920, it’s gone from Lewis: I found Main Street a depressing inversion of his previous values, though oddly, for a dystopian-future novel, It Can’t Happen Here was not so bad. Same goes for James Branch Cabell, another favorite writer, but it took a bit longer for cynicism to overrun his work. I feel I have an essay in me about the writers of this period, but I’m not done ruminating on it yet. Meantime, these books will be part of my regular, re-reading rotation.

Reading is a real adventure for me. I don’t travel much or do much that’s daring, except in my head. I never know where I’ll end up when I start reading or even what sort of thing will appeal, and while I do try to complete certain programs of study, half the joy is the serendipity of finding a kindred spirit in the pages of the book. Some of the best people I’ve known live in them….and always will.

 

Week in Review

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It was a tough week…stress at work and then illness…but I was lucky enough to draw a lot from life. It all depends in if the weather is good and if people get upset with being looked at. This week, I was fortunate. More pencil work, which I’m enjoying as a break from the merciless ink line. I’m reading a medieval art book and hence this sketch of the Virgin and Child statuette from 1410. I also got a Sergio Toppi book, Sharaz-de, which is amazing, every single page a gorgeous composition, all while advancing a story. And the ink line work is so exciting! Jason Polan’s two Museum of Modern Art books came, too; I just wish I could find the time to really study them. How in the world do artists keep their work going while holding down a day job? We all have the same 24 hours. Maybe they have more energy…. Meanwhile, I struggle along, wishing for more time, the chance to do color, watercolors or the paintings I sometimes see in my mind’s eye. But no color this week…maybe next.

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…

Into the Magical Circle

LF

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.

Gesture Drawings

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pink  Apoxyomenous   Slowly getting the hang of how to use these markers for gestures….

I am so out of practice with figure drawing that the proportions end up way off… and not in any cool, stylistic way either. If our fashion model on the left has such a long willowy neck, it’s not exactly a mark of beauty to give her the shoulders of a linebacker! (I do like the colors and the combination of media though, so I’ll need to try that one again.) But gesture drawings are meant to train the eye and hand to take in all of the figure, its motion and its proportions, at once, and that is what I so obviously need.

Drawing people on their lunch breaks serves up certain basic types: eating, drinking, smoking, talking and the cell phone. Maybe it is the art historian in me, but I keep wondering what future generations will think of this hand-to-the-face gesture of cell phone conversation? We need explanations in art history class for just what the Apoxyomenos is doing (scraping oil from his body after a work out); so, how long will it take before this ubiquitous gesture of our time becomes meaningless?