Artistic Observation

Art, Science and Politics equal Western Australian Beauty by Jeannine Cook

Western Australian artist, Philippa Nikulinsky, is not only a superb botanical artist, but allies science, dedicated field observations and enormous skill to a passion for celebrating all the ecosystems of Western Australia. Her long years of art-making allow her to record the ever-changing landscapes, flora and fauna in a fashion that goes beyond environmental issues and political concerns, ultimately to achieve an incredible body of beautiful work that enriches Australia.

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Revisiting Earlier Drawings by Jeannine Cook

The tang of mint, the fragility of a lily - botanical drawing teaches about so many aspects of plants. Yet it is interesting to measure that as I have evolved as an artist, those earlier drawings have led me on to learning so much more about trees, rocks, environments, places. Seeing two exhibitions of my botanical metalpoint drawings up now in Berkeley and Oakland at the same time is both a celebration and a realisation of how the world can teach us artists so much more, all the time.

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Creating Art: Staring until your Eyes Pop by Jeannine Cook

Vincent Van Gogh, Self-Portrait,  1889, Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art

Vincent Van Gogh,Self-Portrait, 1889, Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art

Author Simon Schamaused this wonderful phrase about Vincent Van Gogh, in his book, "The Power of Art".Schama talked of Van Gogh seeking to create art that was imbued with the "visionary radiance" that previous generations of artists had found in Christianity.  To achieve this source of light and inspiration that could reach out to fellow men, Van Gogh's approach was painting with "blood and blisters and staring until your eyes popped" (my emphasis).

Even though Van Gogh did not necessarily follow the time-honoured rules of perspective, colour usage or subject-matter, he sought to give his art a different, more open view of life that embraced nature in all its aspects.  His pulsating interpretations of trees, fields, and flowers show powers of observation that amaze. Catching the clouds, the light, the motion of the wheat, or, in the Olive Grove below, the silvery dance and form of the olive trees - all that requires great, tenacious powers, first of observation, then of organisation and simplification.

Wheat Field with Cypresses, Van Gogh, 1889, Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Wheat Field with Cypresses, Van Gogh, 1889, Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Olive Grove, Van Gogh, 1889

Olive Grove, Van Gogh, 1889

Every artist, especially those working with aspects of the world around him or her, knows that observation is key to understanding and thus depicting a subject.  It does not necessarily have to  be a realistic depiction either, just as in Van Gogh's case.  Nonetheless, staring and staring at your subject always brings rewards; you keep noticing fresh aspects, you learn how things interlock, how things work, where the light falls, how shadows shape things. In this month's Artist's Magazine,for instance, in an article on still life artist Eric Wert, he is quoted as spending long hours "trying to get to the reality of a particular element.  'But once all the data are there that makes something look real,' he says, ' I step back and let it become its own creature, develop its own personality.  I'm open to what the subject can start to tell me.' "

Another time one needs to stare, stare and stare some more is during life drawing.  As soon as an artist begins to draw from a live model, the conversation begins between eyes, hand and the model. The subtleties of light on skin, the delicacy of muscles in tension or at rest, the twist of limbs or torso only reinforce the need to look and understand.  Only with that understanding comes the freedom then to simplify, edit and create works that are powerful.  Take but one example - Rembrandt:

Constantijn Daniel van Renesse, , Rembrandt and his Pupils drawing from a Nude Model.  c. 1650, Image courtesy of Hessisches Landesmuseum, Darmstadt

Constantijn Daniel van Renesse,, Rembrandt and his Pupils drawing from a Nude Model. c. 1650, Image courtesy of Hessisches Landesmuseum, Darmstadt

Rembrandt,  Study of Female Nude seen from the Back,  1630-34, Image courtesy of the Courtauld Institute, London

Rembrandt, Study of Female Nude seen from the Back, 1630-34, Image courtesy of the Courtauld Institute, London

In other words, as the old English saying goes - "Open your peepers"! Your art will thank you.

Learning to See Things Accurately by Jeannine Cook

Saturday was one of those days when it was so misty at one point that one could hardly see anything across the marshes at Dunham Farms, Midway, Georgia. Within a couple of hours, however, it was brilliant sunshine and the world was transformed. It all made one stretch as an artist working outdoors!

I thought of a remark that Michael Gormley had written about the artist, Bo Barlett, in an American Artist article in the March-April 2011 issue. He reported about Barlett that, "Like many other artists, he notes that looking and learning to see things for what they really are (my emphasis), rather than seeing a projection of a preconceived mental concept, is key to the development of a visual language."

Barlett's observation is so true for all of us as artists. I found that as I peered through the mist to try and see accurately, it became a series of surprises. What I saw first, in the scene below, (Edge of the Creek, Dunham Farms,graphite), were indistinguishable silhouetted lines of distant horizons. I looked harder, and finally began to see individual small islands and different trees edging the marshes.

Edge of the Creek, Dunham Farms, graphite, Jeannine Cook artist

Edge of the Creek, Dunham Farms, graphite, Jeannine Cook artist

The same thing later occurred when I wanted to draw the wood storks perched on a dead tree on a distant island. The birds moved constantly, the wind riffled the palmettos and their fronds were a maze of lines and ever-moving shapes. It was a real challenge even to make any sense of the scene, let alone create a drawing.

  Dunham Farms, Midway - wood storks , graphite, Jeannine Cook artist

 Dunham Farms, Midway - wood storks, graphite, Jeannine Cook artist

Another effort of intent observation, later in the day when the sun allowed one to see better in the forest, was trying to follow the myriad lines and patterns in a magnificent old dead live oak tree trunk. Time had distilled the upright trunk to rhythmic sinews, an endless maze of movement. Its patterns and rhythms fascinated me, but I found it really challenging to sit and concentrate on following its ways whilst trying to create a sensible drawing.

  Live Oak Rhythms,  Prismacolor, Jeannine Cook artist.

 Live Oak Rhythms, Prismacolor, Jeannine Cook artist.

Every time that I go out to work plein air, I am reminded of how difficult it actually is to look really hard and see things accurately. It is a siren call to assume one knows what is going on in the scene in front of one. It is so much easier to think one knows. Only when I remind myself to look again and again, with my eyes really open, do I discover that Nature is once again liable to fool one. In other words, a facile, preconceived "visual language" would not necessarily be an accurate one that reflects one's artistic voice.

The Artist's Eye by Jeannine Cook

When I was talking to an artist friend recently, she commented on her diffidence about drawing. She said that she had difficulty perceiving things spatially sufficiently accurately to draw them. I reminded her that each artist's eye is personal, and that each of us perceives things in a different fashion. There is no one correct way to organise space in art, especially today.

As I was talking to her, I kept thinking of the Fauves, and the recent art treasures that are coming to auction as a result of famous art dealer Amboise Vollard's personal art collection being released from its long-held Société Générale safety deposit box, where it lay from World War II until 1979.

Amboise Vollard

Amboise Vollard

Sothebys is to auction off famous, brilliantly vibrant paintings such as André Derain's Arbres à Collioure, one of his most emblematic paintings.

Arbres à a Coullioure, 1905, oil on canvas, Andre Derain

Arbres à a Coullioure, 1905, oil on canvas, Andre Derain

It is the perfect example of the artist's eye being individual, bold and really unique. Organising space can be highly original, as Derain showed. The trees in this 1905 painting are patterned, with pure colours juxtaposed to convey the pulsating, brilliant Mediterranean light. The landscape is pure energy, the space organised for maximum dynamic impact. Indeed, Derain himself remarked, "Le Fauvisme a été pour nous l'épreuve du feu. Les couleurs devenaient des cartouches de dynamite; elles devaient décharger de la lumière." (Fauvism was the trial by fire for us. Colours became charges of dynamite; they had to explode with light.) The Fauvists needed to have an eye that was radically different, for instance, from that of the Impressionists who had proceeded them.

Perhaps Odilon Redon summed up the "artist's eye" situation the most eloquently. He said, "The artist will always be a special, isolated, solitary agent with an innate sense of organising matter." That means that each of us, as an artist, basically has license to organise our art as we deem fit on the painting or drawing surface. That is both a luxury and a challenge!

Eyes of the Artist by Jeannine Cook

Everyone can appreciate how valuable artists' eyes are, but not everyone then goes on to think about the different ways artists use their eyes.

Of course, seeing the canvas, paper, marble or other vehicle for artists' expressions is key. The subject of the art piece, often objects gazed at by the artist, is also looked at by the artist. Yet the different techniques of using one's eyes as an artist dictate many different approaches to art. Plein air art requires careful observation in person, usually of landscapes.

The Guidecca (A Summer  Day on the Giudecca, Venice, watercolour, John Singer Sargent

The Guidecca (A Summer  Day on the Giudecca, Venice, watercolour, John Singer Sargent

Life drawing too implies careful study of the nude model posing, as do still life studies which are usually based on arrangements made and set up for the artwork. Portraiture gets even more decisive, obviously, because a portrait implies a need to reflect some fidelity to the person being depicted. However, the methods of achieving that portrait are varied; one in particular depends very much on the use of the artist's eyes. I am referring to the use of sight-size, when an artist sets up the easel at such a distance that the subject of the portrait (or life drawing and painting too) is the same size as the image being created. Few artists learn this method today, but artists as diverse as Henry Raeburn, Joshua Reynolds and John Singer Sargent all employed this way to convey a unity of impression in their art, rather than copying all the details. A few ateliers do teach artists how to use and trust their eyes in this fashion - Charles H. Cecil's Studio in Florence, Italy, is one, the Bay Area Classical Art Atelier in California is another, the New York-based Grand Central Academy of Art is yet another.

JUlia Chapin Alsop, 1909, John Singer Sargent

JUlia Chapin Alsop, 1909, John Singer Sargent

Working directly from life for drawing and painting is a time-honoured tradition down the centuries for artists - learning to trust one's eyes as you seek to capture the image. Quickly capturing the gesture of a moving person, the characteristic flight of a certain kind of bird, the essence of flowing water, the gait of an animal - all these require careful observation from eyes that become more and more trained as the artist grows more experienced. Practice does indeed make perfect or nearly perfect, as the eyes learn to observe. As an aside, I was fascinated recently to read about a current exhibition, "Michelangelo: Anatomy as Architecture", at the Muscarelle Museum of Art at The College of William and Mary through April 11. Twelve drawings on loan from the Casa Buonarroti in Florence apparently are unusual in that they reveal Michelangelo jotting down visual ideas in a hurry, alongside verses of poetry and various notes. We associate Michelangelo drawings with wonderfully accomplished and often very finished works, but this exhibition includes works that show a much more down-to-earth approach to devising and executing an idea. Apparently it is obvious from some of these drawings that Michelangelo was carefully scrutinising ancient sculptures for his human figures, as well as using his knowledge of direct dissection, after he had peered carefully at muscles and tendons in human bodies - in other words, using his eyes a lot.

There is another aspect to artists' eyes that is vital and fascinating. In the March 2010 edition of Art+Auction, Marisa Bartolucci wrote a long and interesting article on "Zen and the Art of Axel Vervoordt". She recounted that it was apparently the Belgian painter, Jef Verheyen, who taught Vervoordt about the Zero movement and introduced him to a fresh manner of seeing. "The way one looks at things is of the utmost importance. You must feel things with your eyes" (my emphasis). This is a wonderful concept, going to the heart of any art, whether it be the eyes of an artist or those of someone viewing a created artwork. Trained eyes, which imply study, practice and much thought in many cases, allow deepened appreciation and skills. Everyone is enriched by the eyes of artists and art-appreciators.

Nurturing the Inner Artist by Jeannine Cook

Hope does spring eternal. I assumed that once I was back at home from my hospital stay, I would soon be able to get back to creating art. Not quite so, I discover! An arm sling and other medical "accoutrements", plus a good dose of rummaged-around nerves and muscles don't yet make it easy to pick up pencil, silver stylus or paint brush.

Nonetheless, one does not just turn off the artist's eye. As I first walk into our house, the golden, crystalline late afternoon light floods across the marshes and water in front of us, and I marvel. Still waters reflect a heron's white body catching the rose-orange glow of setting sun as it flies across the creek. At early sunrise, the next morning, the eastern sky's brilliance allowed enough light to sparkle rings of water in the creek below us: the otters were fishing for breakfast. At each of these marvellous moments, I find myself trying to remember, to store up the images so that later, they can, somehow, show up in my art, so that I can share these wonders with others.

Late afternoon view from our home in coastal Georgia

Late afternoon view from our home in coastal Georgia

Another view from our home in coastal Georgia

Another view from our home in coastal Georgia

Within the house, I look afresh at things I have not seen for ten days. Shapes of orchid petals, shadowed into sculpture, tillandsia flowers which have fully opened in my absence into elegant rhythms amid their undulating tendrils of ephiphyte energy, shadows of ornaments lengthened in the morning sun. These are all aspects of life that can be woven into art-making, I hope.

Tillandsia  recurvata   Flowers, silverpoint and white gouache highlights, Jeannine Cook artist

Tillandsia recurvata  Flowers, silverpoint and white gouache highlights, Jeannine Cook artist

As I delight in the beautiful natural world in which I am so fortunate to live, I am also reminded of the diversity of optics that artists have on the very concept of making art. Catching up on the March issue of ARTNews, I found a remark which resonated : "Duchamp made it quite clear a long time ago, and so did Warhol, that art isn't an inherent form but a lens and a set of tools to interpret the world around us". (my emphasis). This was a remark made by Nato Thompson, chief curator of the non-profit public arts organisation, Creative Time, in rebuttal against questions and criticisms about whether works about community or social change are art. Carly Berwick was examining "A Different Way to make a Difference" in public art, methods that are poles away from my personal approach to art, but which are meeting the needs for socially engaged art, particularly in urban settings. The article reminded me forcefully that we are all very diverse as artists, with reactions and concepts that vary enormously, not only because of our surroundings but because of the stage in our individual life experience. So it is normal, and indeed vital, that each of us, as an artist, speak in our own voice, because society needs our diversity of inspiration and creation to help interpret and celebrate the world.

Art and Oxygen by Jeannine Cook

Yesterday, I was listening to a doctor talk about the value of oxygen for someone who is suffering from heart problems and resultant breathing difficulties, even if it is just creating a "bubble" of enriched oxygen around the mouth and nose of the patient. Better breathing, a heart that feels more functional and thus an increased feeling of well-being – a simple, but important path to an improved quality of life. But of course, in order to have the supply of this extra oxygen, you have to set up either a tank or machine, and take the time to get the oxygen treatment.

Today, I was reading the December edition of ARTNews, with a feature article on Marina Abramovic and her upcoming presence at MOMA, New York. She was quoted as saying, "Artists have to serve as oxygen to society." Her objective is to get people to stop and gain a sense of time through her performance art, and thereby alter their perspective and perception of their surroundings, world and life in general. In essence, she becomes the oxygen tank.

Marina Abramovic

Marina Abramovic

I think that just about every form of art - visual, performance, musical, whatever - can have this intrinsic value of causing people to stop, even momentarily, and thus alter their perception of the world around them. Perhaps that is why people have created "cabinets de curiosités" and then museums full of wonders – they provide the oxygen to allow societies to breathe deeply, reflect, learn and enrich life. A beautiful photograph, a wonderful painting, a drawing, a piece of music - I know that my life has been made rich beyond belief by seeing or hearing such art, and that frequently the image or the sound has stayed with me long after.

No wonder Ms. Abramovic used such a metaphor of how to maintain or engender a healthy life or a healthy society.

Open Eyes by Jeannine Cook

I marvel constantly at the wisdom and insights that I stumble across on the Web. Following a thread on my passion, drawing, I found this observation from the artist, Timothy Nero. He said, "Drawing keeps the eye fresh, the mind alive, and intuition nimble."

Timothy Nero, "Set and setting; An observation-all over your back," 24.75" x 25", acrylic on panel, 2017. (Photo: Courtesy of Timothy Nero)

Timothy Nero, "Set and setting; An observation-all over your back," 24.75" x 25", acrylic on panel, 2017. (Photo: Courtesy of Timothy Nero)

Every draughtsman knows instantly what he means. As you draw, you find you see things differently, more intimately, with more awareness of space, connectivity and light. Your mind works more alertly, even on a subconscious level, and your senses are honed and more tuned. The act of drawing is a very complex, alive-making affair and things happen in the drawing that you cannot foresee as the artist.

Interestingly, Marc Wilson, Director of the Nelson-Atkins Museum, made a parallel observation about viewing art in an interview reported today by Tyler Green on his Modern Art Notes blog. Mr. Wilson was talking about the galleries in his Bloch Building addition to the Museum and how art is presented there to the public. He said, "I'm not trying to teach you art history. I'm trying to open your eyes, your own senses and your own intelligence to what's in those works of art. That's the first step."

What art involves, whether in the making or the viewing, is basically, I would venture, a good dose of curiosity and having the willingness to open yourself up to new experiences and insights. It is a way of seeing and understanding another person's viewpoint, another version of reality or imagined "reality". In an era when open-mindedness is in short supply in many domains of society, it is to be celebrated that art has still the ability to break down barriers, inhibitions and prejudices. This situation does, however, imply quite a responsibility for each artist somehow to be the provider of keys to unlock doors to different, perhaps new experiences. Perhaps it is lucky that most artists are almost impelled to draw and paint, whether or not their results have this effect. Each of us, as artists, just needs that special feeling of being really alive as we work.