Reading: Arthur Wesley Dow, Composition (1914)

“In a word, first cultivate the mind, set the thoughts in order, utilize the power within; then the eye and the hand can be trained effectively, with a definite end in view. The usual way, in our systems of art‐instruction, is to put drill first, leaving thought and appreciation out of account.”–Arthur Wesley Dow

I finished this book a few days ago and it is without a doubt one of the best art instruction books I’ve ever read. Composition has always been a weak point for me, and since I tend to love books of this era, I gave it a try. Only after I was well into it did I discover that it was Dow’s teachings that O’Keeffe credited as a major influence in the development of her famous style. Makes sense once you’ve been through this book.

I did most of the exercises as I went along and will do them again because they really are effective. It’s rare for me to jump into the doing quite so readily; my way of learning is by reading, but the ideas this time made sense and sounded fun. They built from simple to complex and got your mind thinking and seeing in patterns rather than fussing with the technical aspects of drawing. I can see this working well for younger students or for anyone who wants to do art but gets frustrated when they can’t “draw well.” This book still won’t give them that–only time and practice will–but it might help in the creation of powerful images with the skills they already have, just the way children do. Most artists envy the sure genius of kids–this books can help you find your way back there, with smart instruction, not with commands to trust your intuition. It works.


Mr. Head

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I’ve been having some fun lately drawing pages, panels and characters from Mike Mignola’s The Amazing Screw-On Head and Other Curious Objects. Not that I’m saying I’m any good at it, but I get so involved with rendering the details of these drawings, learning with my hand what only looking will not convey, whiling away a lunch hour like it was only 5 minutes, having fun like a kid with a new box of crayons and a coloring book. There’s that word fun again. Never was that common in my vocabulary, sad but true. But I am having fun now, especially with Emperor Zombie. Now I certainly appreciate, nay, admire, the grit and ingenuity of our Mr. Head, but I am smitten with Emperor Z. He’s the perfect foil for doughty Mr. Head; a puckish Darth Vader with his soulful, empty eyes and his ever-present halo of flies. How can you not love this guy?

Quidditch reveals all…or does it?

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Reading: Ralph Adams Cram, Towards the Great Peace (1922)

“The only thing that is left in the line of emotional stimulus is competitive athletics, and for this reason I sometimes think it one of the most valuable factors in public education. It has, however, another function, and that is the coordination of training and life; it is in a sense an école d’application, and through it the student, for once in a way, tries out his acquired mental equipment and his expanding character—as well as his physical prowess—against the circumstances of active vitality. It is just this sort of thing that for so long made the “public schools” of England, however limited or defective may have been the curriculum, a vital force in the development of British character.”

That’s Cram discoursing on one of the few things he likes about public education in America and Britain, c. 1922. Believe me, he didn’t like much; and interestingly, in the intervening 92 years, schools are still bad in a lot of the same ways they were then. Cram was a religious-minded architect who built Gothic-style churches and university buildings in the first years of the 20th century, and I came to his writings while researching a restoration project that had come to an architectural firm I was working for at the time. He is extremely insightful in his diagnosis of the ills of his (and our) era, and well worth reading for that, though I can’t say his solutions were too practical, but I think he knew it. As I read this comment though, the Harry Potter books sprang to mind, but then, a lot of things remind me of Harry Potter. Just wait till I start talking about David Copperfield!

Harry Potter gains popularity early on in the series when he takes up Quidditch, a sort of irrational, flying rugby on broomsticks, for which he has a natural gift. The books have been criticized for the centrality of this goofy sport in the lives of the entire wizarding world from student to the highest levels of govenment, but those critics must never have lived where the fortunes and failures of the local football heroes provided the social and emotional core of a community. Or maybe they wished they didn’t… Even Rowling supposedly rued the day she injected Quidditch into the books, primarily because she found it tedious to try to conjure exciting action for each match that she wrote, but sport was always a part of the boarding school book tradition from which Harry Potter sprang, so there had to be a wizard equivalent. QED Quidditch.

So how do the characters in Harry Potter demonstrate Cram’s ideas? Most of the characters played Quidditch; it was a huge social factor in the school. Excellence in studies… less so. Sic erat scriptum Hermione. I was the same. Harry Potter, our erstwhile hero, came from obscurity to discover he had the makings of an athletic superstar. In Cram’s terms, this was a literary sign of his character and potential, and the books proved this out. His parents had risked their lives to save others and he grows up to become the same sort of man. Harry’s nemesis, Draco Malfoy, was also a skilled player, but his lack of character was made plain in his cheating, lying and generally underhanded methods of manipulating the game. His father, acting in the world of politics, operated in the same way. Harry’s buddy, Ron Weasley, had enormous potential when his self-doubt didn’t cripple him, which it mostly did. That was the view of the world his parents had taught him to see–poverty standing in the way of active participation and serving as an excuse for weakness and shortcuts. Exposed to stronger personalities like Harry, Hermione and Neville, Ron has a chance to grow, but his path is often an unhappy one. The only character that stands apart form this paradigm is Neville Longbottom: an orphaned loner who struggles for success in everything he attempts, Neville never played the sport, but nonetheless became a hero of the same stature as Harry. And with less outsized praise and more dignity, for my money.

Me, I was never very good at school athletics; I was not encouraged in it at home–and how many girls were, back in the day?–but I wanted to be a part of it, I wanted to get better, but mainly it was just the catalyst of anxiety attacks. Small wonder that Ron Weasley was my favorite from the books. But since athletics was not going to be the way for me, and surely cannot be anymore, perhaps I ought to study the Path of Neville. Own my differences, judge for myself, enjoy the victories of my friends. Maybe we all should.



Under the Influence of Photography

Walter Crane“In short, photography is an excellent servant and friend, but a dangerous master. It may easily beguile us by its seductive reproductions of surface relief and lighting to think more of these qualities than any other, and to endeavour to put them in the wrong places—in places where we want colour planes rather than shadow planes, flatness and repose rather than relief, for instance, as mostly in surface decoration.”–Walter Crane

The above is from Walter Crane’s Line and Form (1900), which I’ve been reading…. and enjoying all his wonderful drawings! As an illustrator and designer, Crane is primarily discussing drawing for print c.1900 and the decorative arts. My interests are different, but I still think his ideas apply. I turn to photography because, lacking live models for extended study, I need images of people who don’t mind that I am looking at them. And if you don’t think that’s a problem, believe me, it is! Also, with photos, there’s action, variety and access to worlds I would not otherwise know. I’m aware that this does not create truly original work–the photos I draw from are not usually mine–but I haven’t given much thought to the nature of what photography presents and what I might be missing because of it. So this is interesting for me to think about.

I probably would have learned about this in art school, right?

How different are the self-portraits I’ve done based on photos from the ones I did using a mirror? Maybe self-portraits aren’t the ideal subject to examine on this point since all work is mediated by some form of optics beyond the eye. And when it comes to optics, what about my glasses? Mine correct for astigmatism as well as distance, and there is a distinct difference in work done with my distorting, naked eye. A new subject to dig into!

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?

Week in Review

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It’s been a little while since I rounded up my drawings, probably because I’ve been covering some uneven ground and creating work I’m not sure how to evaluate. Subject matter has shifted, broadened maybe, but I also feel as if I have been more hurried lately. I haven’t written much either, though I have given thought–and a few scribbled sketches–to visually mapping a recent story idea. It’s a stretch for me to think that way, to decide where words and image might unite to build a better story, but it’s where I’d like to be going just now.

Inspiration is flowing in from Twin Peaks, Jayne Anne Phillips short story collection Black Tickets, Boulet’s X-Files drawings on Instagram and Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. There’s something about that magical passage between worlds that really appeals to me; I have dreams like that. In fact, I had a somewhat threatening version of that just a few nights ago. You can sure count on David Lynch to help you dredge up all your inner darkness….

What is Beauty?

“No thing is beautiful. All things await the sensitive and imaginative mind that may be aroused to pleasurable emotion at sight of them. This is beauty.”–Robert Henri
Reading Henri’s Art Spirit again, a thing I’ve done every now and then over the past 30 years or so, I came upon the above remark, which I find to be a significant truth. Later, Henri goes on to say that it is useless for the student to do endless practice drawings to perfect technique if he cannot find something in the subject that excites him. He’s right–how dull that is! And yet, there are times when I pick a subject by default–I want to draw and there is a person sitting nearby–and so I begin, but in the process of observing and trying to make the drawing, I fall for the subject a bit. The man at the bottom of the page (center) was like that; he was just there and sitting still, so I had a go. I never did get him right, and I feel a little regret about that, even if it’s a nice drawing. Maybe my fondness is what makes the drawing work. I don’t know. It’s interesting to think about.

Wild Animals I Have Known

animalsEver read an animal biography? Written in 1898, the sympathy for other lives in Ernest Thomas Seton’s Wild Animals I Have Known seems very contemporary. Naturally, wild lives are short and often end violently, but these stories make you think about what human civilizations does, and could, mean.

The book is out of copyright and can be downloaded in numerous places on the web. Find an illustrated version–drawn by the author, the numerous ink wash and line drawings are well-observed, sympathetic and witty.

It’s the little things

George handed the hairpin to Ron and, a moment later, Hedwig soared joyfully out of the window to glide along side them like a ghost.

Being a critic is easy.It can even be productive if it deepens our ability to appreciate fiction or sends us off to write stories of our own. But once you know the story as well as many of us do, I think there’s fresh joy in finding the thousand brief moments like this. One by one, they add up to make a rich fictional world and a plot that has a feeling of inevitability.

I’m loving Harry Potter all over again.

Reading on Writing

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A brief note today on a few writing books I’ve been reading lately…

Brenda Euland’s If You Want to Write (1938) is a re-read. Her upbeat and encouraging voice was just what I needed when I read it in 2001,a few years after I began to write seriously. Euland believes that we all have a creative gift and that we often stand in our own way by trying to force our ideas into the mold of what we are told is saleable, popular and current. On this reading, however, I found the author a bit on the Pollyanna side., which I suppose means that her message has sunken in and I now have the courage to write freely by my own lights. Hopefully.

I had seen such great reviews of Francine Prose’s Read Like a Writer (2006) that I was excited to get a copy in my hands. I may have set my expectations too high. The book felt only half-perfected, as if a professor was still honing her lectures and approach to the craft to writing, which seems to be an accurate picture from the classroom examples she gives. I want more from a book than that. Certainly, the long excerpts from novels and short stories that she includes as examples of Words, Sentences, Paragraphs, Narration, Character, Dialogue, Details and Gesture were worth the admission price (many are now on my Must-Read list), but her waffling commentary is annoying. If she admits she doesn’t know what to tell students about writing and knowingly contradicts herself constantly, why is she writing a book? Note: Chapter 8 / Details was a let-down for me, but only because I’d read it as a stand-alone essay in The Eleventh Draft (ed. Frank Conroy, 1999). It had a strong impact the first time I read it, but a perfect re-tread with no additions? Boring.