silverpoint

Reacting to Life Experiences as an Artist by Jeannine Cook

I recently had an exchange of e-mails with a fellow artist friend, whose wife had suddenly become very ill.  Both of us commented on the fact that there is such a change of optic when one is struck by serious family illness or some other type of trauma.  Everything important comes back into sharp focus and the “small stuff” falls away.

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The Dialogue with White by Jeannine Cook

I recently finished reading Edmund de Waal’s wonderful new book, “The White Road, a Pilgrimage of Sorts” and it made me very much more aware of white and the role it plays in my life as an artist. De Waal went on a fascinating odyssey seeking out porcelain centers, history of porcelain and as he did in his previous book, “The Hare with Amber Eyes”, the whole story is interwoven with his own life as a potter in England.

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"Motifs" as Mirrors of the Artist by Jeannine Cook

During my stay at DRAWinternational in Caylus, France, I found myself with the eternal conundrum – to work en plein air or to work in the studio. Partly, in truth, the colder weather made the choice a bit easier, but nonetheless, I was constantly aware of the tug of war internally, for I love to be out in natural surroundings to try and create art.

The other side of the equation is that in the studio, conditions for working are more organized and it is easier, physically, to work, particularly in metalpoint, which tends to be slower and more demanding of time and energies.

However, at the back of my head was a quote that I had read about Monet. He wrote, “All ‘motifs’ are mirrors – or else the project of plein airisme is as shallow as Baudelaire had once argued. The painter’s transactions with the ‘motif’ have as many dimensions as his sense of self and of his place in the world.”  ("Motifs" are subjects and themes in a work of art.)

It is true that one brings to any artwork a sense of what matters, in most cases at least, and I think that when the work is done outside, perhaps the additional, often subliminal, messages are just as important. Man’s “communion” with natural surroundings underpins everything, whether or not today, we realize it.In general, ignoring nature imperils us in so many ways, as we keep finding out.

For an artist, in particular, the web and waft of nature informs every gesture, every impetus, consciously or not. Thus when an artist works outdoors, there are so many complex and often enriching issues that influence the execution of a piece of art.

The other challenge is of course that there are indeed all those other considerations. An artist has to make choices, sometimes quick choices as light changes, or the scene disappears, or whatever. How to distill what one is trying to say, how to select the most simple and hopefully impactful aspects, how to mediate between a considered, controlled choice and a much more spontaneous, perhaps less “finished” piece of art, especially a drawing. Those are other aspects of plein air work. Each of these choices means that the work becomes a mirror of that artist, his or her sense of place in the world and self-definition.

I came across a lovely example of these simple artistic choices: last autumn at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, a wonderful place, there was an exhibition of silverpoint drawings that the American artist, Marsden Hartley, did.

He travelled in the 1930s to the Bavarian Alps and there, he drew a series of silverpoint studies that captured the spare geometries of these mountains. Very simple, very direct work – Hartley was communing with those mountain landscapes.

Marsden Hartley,  Mountain Landscape with House in Foreground,   (September 16, 1933). Silverpoint on paper. 14 7/8 x 10 5/8 in. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Gift of Michael St. Clair.

Marsden Hartley, Mountain Landscape with House in Foreground,  (September 16, 1933). Silverpoint on paper. 14 7/8 x 10 5/8 in. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Gift of Michael St. Clair.

Marsden Hartley, Waxenstein,  (September 13, 1933). Silverpoint on paper. 14 7/8 x 10 5/8 in. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Gift of Michael St. Clair.

Marsden Hartley, Waxenstein,  (September 13, 1933). Silverpoint on paper. 14 7/8 x 10 5/8 in. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Gift of Michael St. Clair.

Marsden Hartley,  Mountain Landscape  , September 1933. Silverpoint on paper.

Marsden Hartley, Mountain Landscape , September 1933. Silverpoint on paper.

Travelling south from Hamburg to Garmisch-Partenkirchen,in the Bavarian Alps, Hartley apparently produced 21 of these spare distillations of the mountains. 

Hills by the Lake, #2, silverpoint on paper, 11 x 15 inches, Marsden Hartley (Image courtesy of the Ownings Gallery)

Hills by the Lake, #2, silverpoint on paper, 11 x 15 inches, Marsden Hartley (Image courtesy of the Ownings Gallery)

Marsden Hartley produced a body of work that validates Monet's observation about "motifs" or subjects being mirrors of the artist.

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!

Gratitude and Art by Jeannine Cook

There was a wonderful quote at the bottom of an art site that I saw recently: "The essence of all beautiful art, all great art, is gratitude."  The wise man who said this was Friedrich Nietzsche, author and originator of countless bons mots.

It is true.  Think of how you feel as you come out of a wonderful art gallery or museum, where you have feasted your eyes on wonders and stretched your mind in new directions.

When you encounter a portrait or a self portrait of someone who inspires and humbles, it makes one grateful. Take Rembrandt, for example, with his unflinching self-portraits, that tell one of life's experiences, the highs and the lows.  They give one perspective for one's own life.

Self-Portrait,  1669.  Rembrandt van Rijn's last self-portrait (Image courtesy of the National Gallery, London)

Self-Portrait, 1669.  Rembrandt van Rijn's last self-portrait (Image courtesy of the National Gallery, London)

I am always delighted when one feels a connection to past artists, a sense that there is a marvellous heritage to inspire one's own artistic endeavours.  As a silverpoint artist, I love it that Rogier van der Weyden recorded Saint Luke drawing the Virgin in silverpoint.

Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin,  c. 1435–40, Rogier van der Weyden (Image courtesy of  The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin, c. 1435–40, Rogier van der Weyden (Image courtesy of  The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Think of the way Paul Cézanne can take one to expansive, simplified yet oh so powerful places, thanks to his obsessive staring as he painted his beloved landscapes around Aix-en-Provence. His watercolours of Mont Sainte-Victoire  take one to magical worlds.

Château Noir devant la montagne Sainte-Victoire  1890-1895, Paul Cézanne ,watercolour, and pencil on white paper, (Image courtesy of Albertina, Vienna) 

Château Noir devant la montagne Sainte-Victoire 1890-1895, Paul Cézanne ,watercolour, and pencil on white paper, (Image courtesy of Albertina, Vienna) 

Nietzsche  was right about the gratitude.  He also remarked, "Art is the proper task of life".

Definitely a coherent man in his thoughts about art and artists.

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.

Unexpected Gifts to Artists by Jeannine Cook

Sometimes, when it is hard to remember you are an artist because other events crowd in on you in life, there are gifts that come along to remind you about your real passion, art.

One that came to me last year, but has come around at the exact moment I need it most at present, was an invitation to exhibit in a solo show at the Albany Arts Council in Albany, Georgia.  The date has come around, for April 2013, at a point when it is most helpful in my life. 

Brush or Stylus: Jeannine Cook's Choices will open with a reception from 6-8 p.m. on Thursday, April 4th at the Albany Arts Council.  Later, on April 30th, I will be giving an informal talk at a Brown Bag Lunch. 

Azalea indica,  metalpoint 10 x 7" image, Jeannine Cook

Azalea indica, metalpoint 10 x 7" image, Jeannine Cook

This is the image used on the invitation, a silverpoint and copperpoint drawing I did of the wonderful, luminous big-flowered azaleas so typical of spring in the Southeast of the United States.

The exhibition will include watercolours - mostly landscapes of coastal Georgia - and silverpoint drawings of flowers, trees and other subjects that lend themselves to this high key lustrous medium.  Since the silver, gold or copper that I use in a stylus cannot be erased, the drawing is always an adventure.

Another gift I was recently given out of the blue was being selected by curator Tania Becker to be included in a six-artist exhibition at Spruill Gallery, Atlanta, Formations: Patterns  in Nature.  Four of my silverpoint drawings, two on a white ground and two on a black ground, were selected. 

Balsam Mountain Beech,   silverpoint, 15 x 11" image, Jeannine Cook

Balsam Mountain Beech,

silverpoint, 15 x 11" image, Jeannine Cook

Rings of Time I,   silverpoint on black ground, 7.5 x 5.5" image, Jeannine Cook

Rings of Time I,

silverpoint on black ground, 7.5 x 5.5" image, Jeannine Cook

Turmoil - Red Oak,  silverpoint on black ground, 7.5 x 5.5" image, Jeannine Cook

Turmoil - Red Oak, silverpoint on black ground, 7.5 x 5.5" image, Jeannine Cook

The exhibition opened on 14th March and will run until June.  It sounds to be an interesting show and I was crestfallen not to be able to get to its opening.  Nonetheless, being in the show was an unexpected surprise.

Another gift from the blue is always when an artist gets a phone call from a collector who says that they have moved to a new home and feel that another "Jeannine Cook" drawing or painting is needed.  What a delicious compliment.

These are the sort of gifts that any artist appreciates, but in my case, as I sit with my husband in a hospital room, far from my studio world, these are vital reminders of my other self.  The gods are kind!

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.

Botanical Art by Jeannine Cook

Botanical art is enjoying a great resurgence in popularity and appreciation. The British, Australians and some Europeans had continued always to favour this form of art, partly, perhaps, because of the strong horticultural and plant collection/husbandry tradition. Kew Gardens and other important botanical gardens round the world had kept alive the tradition of fine art married to botany. However, with the founding of the American Society of Botanical Artists in 1995, this art form took off. Another decisive factor in this renaissance has been the enthusiastic and hugely influential support of Dr.Shirley Sherwood.  Not only has she collected botanical art all over the world and helped artists most generously, but she has now enabled Kew Gardens to have the world's first gallery devoted to botanical art, the Shirley Sherwood Gallery.  (I am proud to say that she owns one of my silverpoint drawings.)

Azaleas in March, silverpoint, Jeannine Cook artist, Private collection

Azaleas in March, silverpoint, Jeannine Cook artist, Private collection

With increasing interest in botanical art, the ASBA has been organising important exhibitions around the United States. The Society, to which I have belonged for many years, has become more and more imaginative in exhibit themes and attuned to today's environmental concerns. A show which has just opened at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, demonstrates this: "Losing Paradise? Endangered Plants Here and Around the World" shows art done by forty-one artists from the five continents. The exhibit has already travelled to the Missouri Botanic Garden, the Chicago Botanic Garden and the New York Botanical Garden.

Using the simplest of media - graphite pencils, pen and ink, coloured pencils and paint - the artists not only captured the essence of the plant but they document its structure, habit of growth, colouration and general characteristics in exquisite, accurate detail. Again, as with so many works of art done from real life, as opposed to photographs, each artist creates an individualistic interpretation of the subject matter, combining artistic skill with the energy and passion inspired by that plant. In the case of this particular exhibition, there was an additional energy. The Society posted the call for this exhibition about three years previously, so that artists all around the world could seek out endangered plants and help draw attention to their plight by the art created. What more enlightened role could art play!

The Eye of the Art Collector by Jeannine Cook

Thanks - once again! - to ArtDaily.org's listings, I happened on an up-coming Sotheby's sale of old Master Drawings from a private collection. I spent a fascinated hour on their site, going through the E-Catalogue of the drawings, some eighty of them, the ideal occupation for a dark, rainy day.

It is always extremely interesting to view a collection of art formed by one person, particularly a person who has a trained eye and knowledge of the media involved. I quote from the news release about this collector (who apparently spent about 25 years assembling this collection). "In his very personal forward to the sale catalogue, the collector who assembled this remarkable group of drawings wrote that he embarked on collecting “with the bold aim of looking over the artist’s shoulder”. There can be no question that he succeeded in this aim. The light that these extremely varied studies shed on the artistic creative process is both intense and wide ranging: we see every moment in the artist’s thought process revealed and illuminated."

There is a remarkable energy and life evident in the drawings this collector assembled. The artists are clearly in the throes of excitement and creativity. Famous names or not, it does not matter. The hallmarks of these drawings are immediacy, directness, sureness of touch and stroke. The collector does indeed describe well what he sought - and found - when he selected these works. Different media, different subject matter, some clearly well thought-out and planned, others on the spur of the moment, catching images almost on the fly... Some as aide-mémoires, others as exploration. In short, the collection came across to me as a most interesting selection of artists' emotions, desires, endeavours, aims... running a gamut of approaches and techniques. Little interesting items too, such as remarks about an exquisite study of a seated woman by Jean-Antoine Watteau. "It was executed in a combination of media that Watteau used only occasionally, but to striking effect: the majority of the figure is built up with a network of silvery strokes of graphite (a very rare medium in Old Master Drawings), (my emphasis) while the accents in the face and hands are in a more typical red chalk, an extremely effective juxtaposition that creates a lively yet utterly elegant figure."

When you go back and try to find out about the use of graphite before the early 18th century, it is indeed hard, as a neophyte, to find allusions to many graphite drawings. Pure graphite, first mined in Borrowdale, England, in the 1500s, seems initially to have been used for under drawing in the 16th century. It was more forgiving than metalpoint, especially silverpoint, the draughtsman's favoured medium during Renaissance times in spite of silverpoint's linear qualities and permanence of mark. Graphite does not seem to have been used much for drawing until well into the 17th century. Artists tended to favour chalks, red and black, as well as charcoal for studies and finished drawings alike. (Interestingly, the Venetian artists continued to favour black chalk, whilst the perhaps more flamboyant Florentine and Roman artists preferred the harder red chalk with which they could show off their skills!) Graphite became widespread only in the 18th century, with the increasing difficulty of obtaining good-quality natural chalks and the simultaneous production of a fine range of graphite pencils after the invention of a graphite pencil in Nuremberg in 1662.

Graphite drawings then become far more widespread: John Constable, Jongkind and later John Singer Sargent, for example, all used graphite in their work, particularly when working plein air.

Self-Portrait, 1806, John Constable, (Image courtesy of the Tate, London)

Self-Portrait, 1806, John Constable, (Image courtesy of the Tate, London)

Ingres was famed for his use of hard graphite pencils when drawing his wonderful detailed portraits of people.

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (French, 1780-1867).  Study for "Raphael and the Fornarina  "  (detail), ca. 1814. Graphite on white wove paper, 10 x 7 3/4 in. (25.4 x 19.7 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Robert Lehman Collection, 1975

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (French, 1780-1867). Study for "Raphael and the Fornarina" (detail), ca. 1814. Graphite on white wove paper, 10 x 7 3/4 in. (25.4 x 19.7 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Robert Lehman Collection, 1975

By the turn of the 19th century, Cezanne and so many others commonly used pencils, as have we all done since in the art world - often to great effect.

Paul Cézanne (1839–1906) , Hortense Fiquet (Madame Cézanne) Sewing,  ,c. 1880, Graphite Samuel Courtauld Trust: Princes Gate Bequest, 1978

Paul Cézanne (1839–1906), Hortense Fiquet (Madame Cézanne) Sewing, ,c. 1880, Graphite
Samuel Courtauld Trust: Princes Gate Bequest, 1978

But back to the Sotheby E-Catalogue of the drawings that occasioned my little foray into the rarity of Old Master graphite drawings... (and by the way, the definition of Old Masters in Western art is work executed before 1800...), it is well worth going through this collection of images of drawings. It allows one to remember how interesting it can be when one sees an art collection formed by one person with the courage of his or her own convictions and erudition.