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.Read More
Olive trees are an integral part of the Mediterranean landscape, and they have been a recurrent theme in many artists' work. Sacred trees since early Greek times, they are astonishing in inspiration, as well as generous in their fruit and oil. No wonder artists love to celebrate these astonishing and often very ancient trees.Read More
Sometimes reading a biography of an artist helps a great deal. I have just finished the superbly detailed Cezanne: a Life by Alex Danchev, and am still absorbing the many lessons about art practices, as lived and learnt during Cezanne's life.
One of the main lessons I derived from this biography and from other wonderful publications and exhibitions of Cezanne's work is that tenacity needs to be allied with a dogged belief in one's own artistic vision or voice. Despite all his doubts and setbacks, Cezanne kept going back and back to certain subjects - apples, his beloved Mont Sainte-Victoire, self-portraits, etc. Each time, he did something new, something inventive, something better, stronger and more personal.
Another lesson that can be learned is how valuable it is to paint sur le motif as Cezanne called plein air painting. He went out time and time again to work in the sun and heat or difficult conditions - he found new ways to render the landscape. He told young painters, "The main thing in a painting is finding the right distance." But finding the correct distance often meant a great deal of innovation, a break from previous, Renaissance traditions of what was far and what was near. He collapsed distances, he gave us all licence to make horizontals and verticals indistinct one from the other, he showed that colour could serve as "all the ruptures in depth". In essence, he allowed us all to become 20th/21st century artists who can paint in whatever way seems appropriate.
Another vital lesson is that Cezanne looked and looked so hard at his subject - to find its "truth". He was frantically absorbing all he could about what he was seeing, trying to understand it, trying to grapple with it so that he could mutate it onto his canvas. "Cezanne at his easel, painting, looking at the countryside: he was truly alone in the world, ardent, focused, alert, respectful," as Renoir wrote. Every artist working from life needs to scrutinise the subject as carefully and attentively as possible - then, and only then, can one really hope to transmute it and interpret it according to oneself.
A lesson which resonates with me is Cezanne's passion for trees - pine trees and olive trees in particular. He painted them again and again, depicting them as one would depict a close friend, loved and carefully studied. They were noble examples of Nature, which resonated so deeply with Cezanne. As Ravaisou is quoted as saying in Cezanne a Life, "he was a sensualist in art. He loved nature with a passion, perhaps to the exclusion of all else; he painted in order to prolong within himself the joy of living among the trees." We can all learn from his paintings of the Large Pine and other tree paintings.
Paint with passion - that is what, ultimately, Cezanne seems to be telling us with the art, writings and musings that we have all inherited.
Our outer skin - nature - rewards a closer look on many occasions.Read More
Some while ago, I read a comment by a British watercolourist, Tony Foster, who had been painting on both the North and South Rims of the Grand Canyon. (He managed to paint six-foot wide pieces on location, quite a feat in of itself!) What he said was, "My thesis is that despite a world overloaded with imagery, certain places still retain the power to inspire awe and wonder. All of my work is based on the philosophy that our planet is a gloriously beautiful but fragile place, and that as an artist, it is my role to deliver a testament to the fact that wild and pristine places still exist."
He is right. Art is one way to remind people that we are still able to visit places that transcend our normal humdrum lives, with beauty and grandeur that humble and inspire us. But the subtext of such reminders is that we need to be vigilant, thoughtful custodians of such places.
This past weekend, when I was out along the Georgia coast, drawing, I felt myself to be in such a place of inspiration. There is something about a natural environment that has not been much changed nor manipulated by man: it has another feel, another rhythm. More primal, perhaps, but infinitely more powerful, subtle, complex and yet, very fragile. As you settle down in such a place to try and create art plein air, the magic of the place begins to seep in - the lay of the land, the movement of water, the breezes, the sounds, the play of light. It is hard to access how these influences show up on the art one is creating - perhaps only others can see them. Nonetheless, there is an alchemy, an inspiration that keeps one going.
Even when the art one is creating is on a small scale, unlike Tony Foster's, the dialogue between place and artist is very much there. Perhaps one is working almost instinctively, but the influences and inspiration of the place seep into what one is doing.
This metalpoint drawing, Marsh wrack, is about the wonderful, but seemingly chaotic patterns left by the dead Spartina grass swept up onto the high water mark by spring tides and left there to decay and re fertilise the salt water marshes. Having spent time drawing a tenaciously majestic dead red cedar tree in Prismacolor, it was interesting to focus in on the marsh wrack lying in rafts along the shore at high water mark.
Both these drawings were, in essence, about the cycle of life in such natural, wild places. The dead cedar was decaying, slowly and inexorably, host to lichen and insects, just as the marsh wrack was home to innumerable small crabs and insects who helped break down the grass stems.
These places of inspiration owe at least some of their power, perhaps, to the implicit reminders that, untrammelled by man's intervention, nature continues its exquisitely balanced and logical cycles of birth, growth, decay. We are straying into a world that should, and can when allowed to, continue to evolve and exist in amazing, elegant sophistication.
As artists, we are privileged to get glimpses of these wonders.
When luck is kind and an opportunity presents itself to work in peace and beauteous quiet, experiments in art-making are a serious option.
As part of the WCAGA Drawing Marathon, a day of plein air work had been organised for yesterday, Saturday. Luck was indeed on our side - it had poured with rain the previous days, and today, the day after, while Saturday dawned crystal clear, sunny and delicious. With such good auguries, it was time to try different media, different subjects in art. It seems to me that it is so important always to try to grow as an artist by experimenting, refining one's voice and one's style of art, whilst still remaining true to that little "inner voice". As artist/art coach Bob Ragland once remarked, "Being an artist is like planting a garden - plant the seeds and see what sprouts".
Seeing what sprouted was fun as I worked yesterday. I used sepia Prismacolor to tell the story of a wonderfully contorted dead red cedar which was slowly decaying, lichens and other forces working on its reduction.
Growing right at the edge of the marshes, the tree showed what happens when salt water levels rise and affect both the tree's root system and the solidity of the oyster shell bank into which its roots burrowed. Using Prismacolor to depict the tree is a very different medium, as compared to graphite or silverpoint, with its wide range of tone and its waxy quality that can lead to build-up on the paper. Like silverpoint, Prismacolor does not allow erasure. So the experiment was about flying blind, to a certain extent.
Another venture I tried was to look around me with fresh eyes, to try and see possible subject matter that was totally new and different for me. It is always tempting to return to the same types of subject matter in art -in essence to stay in a zone of comfort and depict things/places/people with which you are familiar. I am not sure, however, that one grows a great deal if you are always doing the same things - whether it is making the same pastries over and over again, using similar phrases only when learning a new language or doing the same things again and again in art-making.
Charles Hawthorne, the American painter who founded the Cape Cod School of Art, declared that "in his attempt to develop the beauty he sees, the artist develops himself". In other words, try putting on new spectacles in life.
I spent some time prowling along the wonderful interface between salt marsh and high ground, with sunlight filtering through the many live oaks, cedars and palmettos. But what I finally "saw" was the wonderful patterning of the marshwrack, the amazing amalgam of dead stalks of the Spartina alterniflora or Cord grass, the essence of the salt marshes of the South Eastern coast. The high tide gathers up these dead stalks and deposits them in wonderful rafts at the high water mark along the banks and higher ground. There, they eventually break down, aided by the activities of a myriad small crabs and insects, and contribute to the enrichment of the marshes and salt water, nourishing all life in the marshland nurseries. This marsh wrack was the subject of my next drawing experiment, using metalpoint to follow its rhythms and weavings. Gold, copper and silver followed the Spartina's patterns,a meditation about life, decay and new developments, both for the marshes and, I hope, for my art.
It's funny - when you are scrolling though masses of art images, there is sometimes one that stops you, grabs you and makes you investigate carefully. This happened to me the other day when I was trying to find out more about the Iranian poet and artist, Sohrab Sepehri, who lived from 1928 to 1980. His poems are beautiful, but it was his paintings that interested me.
He apparently had a love affair with trees all his life and did the most wonderful renditions of their trunks. He spent time in the early 1960s in Japan and was very much influenced by Japanese art, especially woodcuts, and Japanese haikus. He later had a very successful international career in art, and spent time working on a series that he called The Tree Trunk Series.
Apparently shy and retiring, Sepehri found a means of expression, as a painter, in his renditions of trees and landscapes, using soft brush strokes and a restrained palette to create these semi-abstracted portraits of trees that are very arresting, yet somehow very specific to place and implying great space beyond the canvas. His huge canvas, painted in 1978-79, is called House of Kashan and below, an earlier work in the Tree Series. As was commented in an auction catalogue on Arcadja, "To him the tree was a symbol of benevolence and stability in a world corrupted by ignorance and malice, his majestic portrayals capture absolutely the quiet grandeur of ancient forests and harbour an undeniable mystical quality." Painting trees kept him anchored in a world in which he felt very comfortable, particularly when he had to deal with places like Manhattan, in which he felt very alien.
I suppose these paintings and the commentaries I have been able to read about Sepehri's optic on trees, both in his writings and in his art, all resonate with me, because I too love depicting trees. I find each one to be utterly individual, powerful and very much worth of a portrait. I realised that I keep returning to trees as subject matter, especially for my drawings in graphite and especially silverpoint, because I was selecting work to put up on another website to which I was invited this week. Since one travels in hope in life, this site is apparently aimed at designers and decorators - who knows! Nonetheless, my making a selection of art led me to posting a series of tree images.
What is always so interesting is to see how each artist approaches interpretation of trees. Since we all bring our life experience to the art-making, that is logical. The main point is to celebrate trees!
I realise that I am extremely lucky often to be surrounded by very beautiful trees, of very different types according to where I am in the world. I can quite understand why people worshipped trees and why today, there are so-called tree-huggers.
There is a majesty and serenity inherent in a large tree, something that dwarfs human presumptions and quiets one's fears. Their trunks tell of their capacity for endurance, adaptation and survival; their shapes tell of past influences of weather, treatment by man or animal, drought or abundance of rain and nutrients. This huge beech, growing in Givhans Ferry State Park in South Carolina, spoke to me insistently, in the cold spring light. Before long, as I was drawing this in graphite, I was totally at peace, unaware of anything save the tree.
Every time I find myself drawing or painting a tree, I remember a remark that Paul Cezanne apparently made: "Art is a harmony parallel with nature". In the case of trees, as wonderful representatives of nature, they help me achieve a degree of harmony and serenity that is a huge gift. When I perched uncomfortably on a very hard rock to draw this Aleppo Pine on Palma de Mallorca's outskirts, I was oblivious of the curious looks given me by people walking their dogs. I was somehow in harmony with this luminous tree that spoke of times when Palma was not such a sea of concrete.Drawing in silverpoint seemed appropriate for it had the same wonderful luster.
This is another silverpoint drawing of an Aleppo pine, growing far up on the mountains above the city of Palma, where the view takes one far over the sea to the neighbouring island of Ibiza. The driving winds are shaping this pine, as it clings to the rocky mountainside. But it somehow seemed timeless.
These rugged pine trees, growing on a windswept ridge in Brittany, were equally "eternal" in feel, as I sat in a ploughed, muddy field to draw them. Farmers were passing with huge trailers full of manure to fertilise their fields, and they gave me some very curious looks. The crows were calling far overhead in the soft luminously grey sky. It was a time when my art did indeed provide me a passport to a "harmony parallel with Nature".
This quiet that comes to one as one works outside en plein air is especially magical. Nothing else seems temporarily to matter - just the dialogue between what one is trying to depict and one's hand working on the surface of the paper. Yet one hears bird song, the sound of the wind, different calls of humans or animals - but as a backdrop only. It is somehow a different experience to when one is deep in work in the studio, perhaps because of the vagaries of the weather and surroundings. Another aspect also comes into play when trees are the subject matter: they are intensely, logically complicated in their form and growth, and somehow one has to sort that all out, without depicting every single branch or leaf. Each type of tree is totally individualistic, and I liken drawing each one to doing a portrait of a person.
Perhaps, however, one is more likely to be in harmony with trees than with a fellow human being that one is drawing or painting? Who knows!
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.
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.
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.
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.
I must have walked the sandy lanes of our neighbourhood thousands of times in the past years. I know the area well enough to feel comfortable walking in the dark, knowing which protruding roots to avoid in the road, where the overhanging branches almost touch one's head.
Yet I am constantly amazed and delighted at how different the familiar scenes look each time I venture forth. Yes, the light and temperature change, depending on the weather and the season. Yes, the seasons bring forth different stages of vegetation and thus variations in colours of leaves, subtle changes in the marsh grasses. But there is something else that happens.
If each of us sets forth, consciously with eyes open and aware of surroundings, a walk yields wonderful rewards. An artist, especially, needs to keep eyes fresh and alert. You never know what will suddenly hit you as being special, worthy of exploration as an ingredient in art-making. No matter how well you know your surroundings, they can suddenly appear in a totally different way, given a willingness to look. Perhaps it depends too on one's frame of mind, what is happening subconsciously in terms of art...
This past week, I was rewarded with a whole new, exciting series of subjects to draw. Trees which I love and know well began to "talk" to me, not as I usually see them in terms of mighty, elegant structures with green canopies far above. My eyes were riveted to their barks, the ways this outer casing rippled and cracked, swirled and split, peeled and shredded. Every tree is different, even within the same type of tree. And one side of the tree is different, in many cases, from the other side of the same tree trunk. Totally fascinating.
These are just three examples of the bark of the wondrous Live Oak (Quercus virginiana).
Needless to say, my walks have been slowed down a great deal, as I use my fresh eyes to explore these new terrains!