Talking about Silverpoint by Jeannine Cook

It has been a while since I could get to this blog – mainly because I am back for the second half of an art residence at DRAWinternational in France, and there is a certain fever of creativity.

No comments on whether the results are good or bad!

But the days fly past with the privileged situation of only requiring that one thinks about art, how to do something that pushes out boundaries and grow. Such luck! Nonetheless, there is the more serious side of the residency, namely giving and talk and demonstration to the public.

Of course, I suggested that I talk about my passion, metalpoint-silverpoint, and then had to spend some time putting together a serious survey of the history of this medium. That is always a fascinating exercice, and it reminds me how many different voices there have been and are today in this rather restrictive medium of drawing with a metal stylus on prepared paper. Selecting examples of contemporary metalpoint to show my audience how varied, elegant and imaginative are the silverpoint voices drives home to me what a special medium this is.

This is the poster/invitation to Sunday’s presentation – which I will give in French.

Poster for my Talk on Metalpoint at DRAWInternatioonal

Poster for my Talk on Metalpoint at DRAWInternatioonal

Meanwhile, I draw and draw, experiment and try to balance long hours of sitting with vigourous walks up hill and down dale in this delicious medieval village of Caylus. The weather is totally unlike usual Mediterranean September weather, in that it is distinctly chilly.

No matter, another layer on and get down to drawing!  In other words, vive l’art and art residencies!

Sharing One's Passion by Jeannine Cook

Between spending my days in hospitals and hotels, there has been little time in the last six weeks to remember about my real passion in life, art.  Nonetheless, luck lent me a day of being able to talk about art-making, the joys and fascinations - and challenges - that come with it.

Aloe Exuberance, Palma., watercolour, Jeannine Cook artist

Aloe Exuberance, Palma., watercolour, Jeannine Cook artist

I felt a little like this watercolour painting that I had done in early January, which I entitled Aloe Exuberance.  The talk I was giving about art was at the end of my exhibition, Brush or Stylus: Jeannine Cook's Choices, at the spacious Albany Arts Council gallery in Albany, Georgia.  A roomful of ladies and one gentleman gathered at lunchtime: I soon learnt that most of them were watercolour artists, some art teachers, and most were also curious about metalpoint drawing.

It was really restorative to be talking about my passion for art and about how I approached art-making.  Each of us is very individualistic about this process of creation, but nonetheless, as I reminded my audience, there is a unifying element to it all.  Beyond the life experience that each of us brings to art, there are the basics of technique, in whatever medium being used. 

Being able to draw, from real life, is for me of prime importance.  It doesn't mean that the finished result will even resemble what is in front of one; that is not really the point.  Drawing this way enables one to understand how the object works in space, how it is weighted, how it is articulated, how it smells and feels...  Even if later, the resultant art is abstract, there is a veracity, a knowledge implied that help to convey what the artist is trying to say. This understanding aids in composition, in colour planning in a painting, in catching the light, in organising what one is trying to depict.  Obviously, in a finished drawing, the initial understanding and exploration aid hugely, particularly if the drawing is in silverpoint/metalpoint, where no erasure nor alteration are possible.

Being comfortable in the medium chosen, whether it be watercolour or other painting media, is crucial.  That ease only comes with practice and understanding, but a realistic choice of pigments helps too.  A limited palette is often much more harmonious and does not restrict the range of colours and tones at all.  Being beguiled by all the brightest, newest and most luscious of pigments can be problematic in art! A little restraint often pays off and makes for a less complicated painting process.

Perhaps the most important aspect to me of creating art is learning to listen to that small, interior voice in one's head.  Trust it, because it allows the creation of truly individual pieces of art, expressions of you and you alone. You are a unique person and artist. Your own ideas and visions, your own way of expressing them, in an adequately professional technical fashion, are the path to your own artistic voice, one that will make you different from every other artist.  

Warbler Weaving, Palma - silverpoint, Jeannine Cook artist.

Warbler Weaving, Palma - silverpoint, Jeannine Cook artist.

As I reminded my audience in Albany, we are all products of complex, rich lives.  Thus our art-making can be equally individualistic and special.  In a way, this silverpoint drawing, Warbler Weaving, that I drew earlier this year, is a symbol of our creative lives as artists.  We weave together so many strands of different things - large, small, fragile, strong- to create art that expresses who we are.  The results go out into the world, sending messages and inviting shared experiences, as the creative circle is completed between artist and viewer. In the same way, this exquisite little nest I found goes from being a home in which to rear nestlings to sharing the warbler's magical creation with a wider human audience.

I was so grateful to the Albany Arts Council and its gracious Executive Director, Carol Hetzler, for allowing me to share my passion for art.  It enabled me to remember that I need to return to creating art, very soon.

Experiments in Art by Jeannine Cook

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".

The Last Days for the Red Cedar, Prismacolor, Jeannine Cook artist

The Last Days for the Red Cedar, Prismacolor, Jeannine Cook artist

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.

Marsh Wrack, metalpoint, JeannineCook artist

Marsh Wrack, metalpoint, JeannineCook artist

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.

Metalpoint's Voices by Jeannine Cook

Sometimes, when I am working in silverpoint - or metalpoint, when I include gold or copper in the drawings - I find that there is a wonderful parallel to music and musical instruments in these shimmering lines.  Perhaps my imagination runs away with me - who knows!

I find that the pure, simple line produced by silver being passed over a surface prepared with ground reminds me of the ineffable beauty of a boy's soprano voice as it floats out into Gothic vaults and dies away to a whisper.

Solitaire, Wild Acres,  silverpoint, Jeannine Cook artist

Solitaire, Wild Acres, silverpoint, Jeannine Cook artist

Perhaps  a drawing like Solitaire, Wild Acres could illustrate what I mean for the silver lines are essentially simple.  As I drew this image, the mountain air was crisp and thin, again a suitable parallel to a soprano voice.

Balsam Mountain Beech , silverpoint, Jeannine Cook artist

Balsam Mountain Beech, silverpoint, Jeannine Cook artist

When the silver lines are more sustained and yet their delicacy is evident, silverpoint reminds me of violins. The range and subtlety of this instrument is echoed in silverpoint's capabilities.  This drawing, Balsam Mountain Beech, shows some of these characteristics and was great fun to "orchestrate" as the leaves curled more and more as they dried out during the time I drew them.

A Day at Manassas Bog.  silverpoint, Jeannine Cook artist

A Day at Manassas Bog. silverpoint, Jeannine Cook artist

Silverpoint allows for deeper, complex tones, such as those of a violoncello.  Sometimes the choice of ground for the paper surface will allow these darker, more sonorous voices to emerge from the silver lines, just as the cello sings in that wonderful lower register.  A Day at Manassas Bog allowed me to explore this aspect of silverpoint, for the subject matter, all dried plants, seemed to resonate with deep memories of past seasons.

Mist on the River,  silverpoint, silver, Jeannine Cook artist

Mist on the River, silverpoint, silver, Jeannine Cook artist

Even the sound of a human whisper has a parallel, I feel, in some ways of using silverpoint.  Often whispers go from soft to loud, or vice versa. They seem staccato, truncated, random, muffled at times. This  drawing, Mist on the River, made me think of whispered voices carrying on the river Edisto as I sat quietly on the bank, early one fresh spring morning.

Grevillea,  silverpoint, Jeannine Cook artist

Grevillea, silverpoint, Jeannine Cook artist

Perhaps I am being more fanciful than ever, but a drawing like Grevillea makes me think of a piano playing.  The Grevillea tree is so wonderful in its silver-white to dark green-black and its pulsating energy sets up rhythms and harmonies that seem to echo those one hears so often, with delight, from a piano being skilfully played.  The leaves are sturdy, yet light, and the branches tough and resistant - similar to aspects of the piano, an instrument of such versatility. 

Fallen Palmetto,  silverpoint, Jeannine Cook artist

Fallen Palmetto, silverpoint, Jeannine Cook artist

My last "interpretation" of silverpoint's voices: when all the lines are working, some light, some dark, some deep, some quiet, but all in miraculous harmony, then one can perhaps think of the drawing as paralleling an orchestra playing.  Rhythms, pauses, simple passages and complex moments – a drawing can have those aspects that one finds also in an orchestra.  Fallen Palmetto, while I was drawing this complicated pattern, made me think of such an orchestral performance.

Sometimes, drawing can become even more fun to do when one imagines other aspects of the medium.  I love listening to all the voices that silver, gold and copper can produce.  It enriches the whole experience of drawing in metalpoint.

From Reading about Art to a Metalpoint Show by Jeannine Cook

Threading my way between matters of health, matters of daily life and delights ranging from markets that are a visual and sensual feast of fresh produce to turquoise-sapphire seas sparkling enticingly, I keep trying to remember I am supposed to be an artist!

A reminder of this came this week with the opening of "Luminous Metal: Contemporary Drawings in Metalpoint" at the Clement Art Gallery in Troy, New York. Despite Hurricane Irene being in evidence in the area, apparently there was a goodly number of people at the reception. Photos of the show can be seen on Facebook. I was one of ten artists invited to exhibit in this show, something I was delighted about. We each had to submit three pieces for the show, and judging by the photos and sneak preview, we are all as diverse as possible, which of course makes for a fascinating exhibition when it comes to savouring of the wide range of possibilities even within this relatively narrow medium of silverpoint/metalpoint.

Meanwhile, threading though my daily life, I keep dipping into a truly interesting book which I found recently. Entitled "Artists' Techniques and Materials", it was written by Antonella Fuga, translated into English by Rosanna M. Giammanco Frongia, and published by the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles in 2006. One of the simple reasons I looked at it originally in the Royal Academy bookshop in London was that it was one of the few books dealing with artistic techniques and media which talked of silverpoint. (I found some seemingly definitive and weightly tomes on drawing there, which did not even mention the words "silverpoint" or "metalpoint" - shame on the authors, for they did not do their homework.)

I soon realised, however, that the book I did buy by Ms. Fuga is a gem. It is teaching me, in succinct and clear fashion, with wonderful, annotated illustrations, about media in a way that has me enthralled. Not only are drawing media talked of, but all manner of other media - printmaking, painting, sculpture, mosaic and intarsia, ceramics, glass, metalwork and jewellry, as well as contemporary techniques. Within each discipline, there are a myriad techniques explained, many of which are new to me – filigree glass, reticello work in glass, scagliola intarsia, for instance. There is a page of text for each, so that you learn enough about each technique to be at least sensible about it - and it is a door opened to further exploration if you want. Such fun!

It certainly keeps reminding me of the privilege of belonging to this great band of incredibly diverse artists, one that has existed since time immemorial in such intensity, imagination and skill.

The Elegance of Imperfection by Jeannine Cook

Back in May when I was in Spain, I read with interest a long article in El Pais by Antonio Muñoz Molina on the artist Vija Celmins' exhibition then showing at New York's McKee Gallery. The descriptions told of how Celmins works, in her studio, in quiet solitude, communing with objects that she has brought into the studio from walks on the beach or Western deserts, from sidewalk or garage sales in New York or where ever. Her close inspection of the objects then is translated into minutely detailed, intimate paintings and drawings of surfaces, interiors, textures, patterns. Their abstraction and depth, both in tactile effect and message, seem to reach far beyond the mere frames. But always, these images apparently allow for imperfection, as it is first in nature and real life, but more so as she creates her art. The overall effect is powerful and compelling.

Vija Celmins  , Web # 1,  Charcoal on paper, Image courtesy of Tate /  National Galleries of Scotland

Vija Celmins , Web # 1,  Charcoal on paper, Image courtesy of Tate / National Galleries of Scotland

Sky, 1975, Vija Celmins, Lithograph on paper, (Image courtesy of the Tate, London)

Sky, 1975, Vija Celmins, Lithograph on paper, (Image courtesy of the Tate, London)

Her work is very well considered, with awards and exhibitions in major institutions in this country. What interested me was the way she apparently deals with blacks - in paint but especially with graphite. When drawing with graphite, with all its permutations of hardness in the grades of Hs and soft Bs, a lot of skill is need to go on getting a more and more intense black. Unless you are careful, as with pastels, the paper surface gets to such a point of "saturation" that no more graphite will adhere.

What is always fun, when looking at other people's art or reading about it, is to have a sudden idea about something interesting and new to try in one's own art. Thinking about Celmins' work brought back to mind a wonderful goldpoint/platinumpoint drawing I saw in the Telfair Museum of Art metalpoint exhibition, The Luster of Silver, in which I was involved in 2006. Dennis Martin, now sadly deceased, had done the most sensitive and beautiful portrait of his wife. He then surrounded this delicate, almost ethereal three-quarters-size portrait with deep, dark, lustrous graphite. The contrast with the goldpoint drawing was dramatic and most effective.

All these thoughts about artists' skills with graphite are tempting me. Now if the temperatures outside would just diminish a little, I could go off and start doing some drawing plein air!

The White of Paper by Jeannine Cook

I have drawing on Stonehenge paper, which I find so responsive, and the white of the paper came again to the fore. It is fascinating how the white of the surface on which one is painting or drawing suddenly takes on its own life and begins to dictate.

Initially there can be the white paper fright - rare, I have to admit, but it happens. This is when one is totally intimidated by that pristine white surface facing one on the drawing board. It is so pure, so virgin, so unsullied. Where on earth does one start? And CAN one even start sensibly? But then that stage passes, usually pretty quickly because one is already all involved with the project already and anxious to move ahead.

The Three Feathers , metalpoint/watercolour, Jeannine Cook artist

The Three Feathers, metalpoint/watercolour, Jeannine Cook artist

Once into the work, the decisions as to where to leave the white of the surface, or even if to do so, become more interesting. And the paper itself begins to talk and dictate. White is a powerful colour; it is not just the negative part where one has not put colour. It can hold its own against all comers, and can even dominate too much unless care is taken. And, of course, it does not have to be pure white - I draw on cream papers where the same situation pertains. Since, ideally, I try to adhere to the concept of "less is more", that plays hugely into the role that white can play, particularly in a drawing. It is all a balancing act, where a sense of composition becomes important. And of course, it becomes fun and interesting, because you never know if you or the white of the paper is going to "win".

I think every artist should cultivate their own personal relationship with that powerful player, Lady White, because it can lead to endlessly rewarding dialogues and good art.


Welcome by Jeannine Cook

Tanzanian by birth, European by heritage, British-American by nationality, Jeannine Cook is one of a small number of artists worldwide who specialize in silverpoint drawing. Her luminous watercolor paintings complement these shimmering drawings executed in silver. Cook's work is in many public collections in the United States and Europe.

Jeannine Cook Drawing

Jeannine Cook Drawing

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