Artistic Practice

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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When an Artist shares her Thoughts by Jeannine Cook

Reading Anne Truitt's Daybook; The Journal of an Artist underlines the subtle use of lines as a metaphor to depict how our lives evolve and change so imperceptibly.  The balance and intervals she uses in her drawings, such as her drawing, Remember No. 6 of 1999,  teach us all about the elegant possibilities of spareness in art.

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Recurrent Themes in An Artist's Work by Jeannine Cook

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.

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Getting down to work in art by Jeannine Cook

I wonder if everyone else has a hard time getting down to work again after the holiday period? As an artist, I find it is so easy just to let the days slip by, to think about what I am going to do, do office work, drift and dream.

Then I reread a quote I had noted some time ago from Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way. She remarked crisply, "Art is not about thinking something up. It is the opposite - getting something down." Ho - ho! Time to get doing – to stop devising the way to do something new and different, and just get down to trying to do it.

It is, in essence, putting into practise what I was drawing - namely getting the fire going again – like this silverpoint drawing I did, which I entitled

Flames of Oak,  silverpoint, Jeannine Cook artist

Flames of Oak, silverpoint, Jeannine Cook artist

What to do and how to do it are perpetual questions that each artist asks of him or herself. Even beyond those questions, there are other considerations, such as one that was evoked by a thoughtful friend recently. She was describing walking along a beach and collecting sharks' teeth with delight. She remarked that she tended to disdain shells for most of them had some imperfection. She then questioned her own judgement - who was she to judge of the merit of a shell, its state and level of beauty? And how did one know when something was beautiful? What are the criteria that the definition of beauty should meet?

These are all questions every creative person grapples with at one point or another. I replied that I thought the definition of beauty was, to a great degree, dependent upon the life experience one brought to the consideration, and was a very personal affair. Nonetheless, personally, there is a still, small voice in my head - or my heart, who knows - which says insistently - that is beautiful, that is worthy of intense scrutiny and appreciation. Stop and look - hard.

That is when, for me, the process of "getting something down" in art begins. Something magical has gone "clic" and then it is simply the nitty gritty of getting myself organised, out of my holiday optic – and getting down to work. Mañana!

The Rewards of Practice by Jeannine Cook

In a marvellous and most fascinating book, The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes (Pantheon Books, New York , 2008), I have been reading about the eighteenth century astronomer, William Herschel.

William Herschel, 1785, oil,   Lemuel Francis Abbott   (Image courtesy of  National Portrait Gallery )

William Herschel, 1785, oil,  Lemuel Francis Abbott  (Image courtesy of National Portrait Gallery)

His extraordinary dedication to making better reflector telescopes and extending astronomical knowledge led to his being appointed King George III's Personal Astronomer. He discovered Uranus, the seventh planet and the first to be discovered since the time of Ptolemy, and became a most celebrated member of the Royal Society.

His original profession was not astronomy but music, which he learned mainly from his father in Hanover. He was a gifted musician, composer, and music teacher, who met with considerable success in England, especially in Bath. However, his passion was amateur astronomy to which he dedicated more and more time. And this is where I found it so fascinating: his prior skill in sight reading in music and his dedication to practice in music-making helped make him, he believed, a far better astronomer.

Some people claimed that his finding another planet was mere chance, and he reacted defensively. He wrote on 7th January 1782, "I do not suppose there are many persons who could even find a star with my (magnifying telescope) power of 6,450, much less keep it if they had found it. Seeing is in some respects an art, which must be learnt. (My emphasis). To make a person see with such a power is nearly the same as if I were asked to make him play one of Handel's fugues upon the organ. Many a night have I been practising to see, and it would be strange if one did not acquire a certain dexterity by such constant practice." (Again, my emphasis.)

Richard Holmes further wrote of Herschel's skill in identifying stellar patterns as being honed by his many years of sight-reading musical scores. "Or more subtly, the brain that was trained to recognise the highly complex counterpoints and harmonies of Bach or Handel could instinctively recognise analogous stellar patternings." (page 115)

This fascinating account drives home to me the value of practice in whatever artistic venture in which one is engaged. The eye, the ear, the hand and thus the brain all improve with constant training . Herschel was indeed a shining example of the virtues of practice.

The Age of Wonder is a marvellous book through which to be reminded of these virtues.

Repetition in Art by Jeannine Cook

When I was thinking about how I tend to return again and again to the same flowers to draw or paint them, I was interested to find a review by Andrew Lambirthin The Spectator of 2nd January 2010 of William Feaver's monograph of the artist, Frank Auerbach. The review was entitled "Master of Accretion", and in the review, Lambirth wrote: "Painting the same subjects does not produce staleness and repetition, nor the contempt traditionally ascribed to familiarity. In fact, Auerbach states that 'to paint the same head over and over leads to unfamiliarity; eventually you get near the raw truth about it.'"

Catherine Lampert, 1986, Frank Auerbach: 

Catherine Lampert, 1986, Frank Auerbach: 

Frank Auerbach: Speaking and Painting by Catherine Lampert, book review: Portrait of the artist as no ordinary man (Image courtsy of Malborough Fine Art)

Frank Auerbach: Speaking and Painting by Catherine Lampert, book review: Portrait of the artist as no ordinary man (Image courtsy of Malborough Fine Art)

Feaver, a noted author of books on artists ranging from Lucien Freud to Van Gogh, comments, "Constancy makes for opportunity and feeds the impetus for surprise. Then it's a matter of focus and nerve."

It is true, I think, for all subjects in art. The more you delve into a subject, drawing and painting it time and time again, in different lights, in different circumstances and places, the more you realise that you still have a great deal to learn about it. Perhaps that is the addictive magic of art - it is a constant voyage of discovery. Even if you understand how things "fit together" in, say, a flower, each time nature produces some slight difference, some surprise. It all keeps one on one's toes, and reminds one of the need of careful observation, without taking anything for granted. Even if one does not work as Frank Auerbach does, with paintings that are built up and up over a long period of time, perhaps with scrapings down again, but all representing a huge psychic and physical effort, you can still work layer upon layer of experience in art. Even drawings done again and again of the same subject afford deeper insights and surprises.

I illustrated my previous post about every artist having favourite flowers with a silverpoint drawing I did of a head of Regale Lilies. These fragrant lilies were growing in one pot. In another pot was growing another Regale Lily, whose bulb had been purchased at the same time and grown in exactly the same way.

Yet one lily produced tight bunches on the head of flowers; the other produced single, far more open flowers, with leaves down the stem that were completely different from the other plants.

Lilium candidium - so sweetly perfumed, silverpoint, Jeannine Cook aertist

Lilium candidium - so sweetly perfumed, silverpoint, Jeannine Cook aertist

Only when I drew them and studied them closely did the differences become really apparent. A casual glance, even an admiring glance, would not have revealed such variations in habit of growth. It taught me to look far more closely at each lily as it grows and flowers.

Lilium candidium - silverpoint, Jeannine Cook artist

Lilium candidium - silverpoint, Jeannine Cook artist

No wonder Frank Auerbach became such a assiduous student of the same subjects for his art. I am sure he must find it incredibly rewarding. I certainly do, in my drawings that I return to again and again - the delights of nature are unending!

Found objects - artists' treasures by Jeannine Cook

A short article on an upcoming exhibition, "Rachel Whitehead Drawings", at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, gave an insight into artists' habits which rang bells with me. The article, "Allegra Pesenti", (the exhibit's curator), appeared in January's issue of Art+Auction. It described how Rachel Whitehead, principally known for her resin cast sculptures, also has always had a concurrent creative activity, her drawing.

Untitled (One Hundred Spaces) 1995 Resin (100 units) (Image courtesy of the Sataachi Gallery)

Untitled (One Hundred Spaces) 1995 Resin (100 units) (Image courtesy of the Sataachi Gallery)

Study (Blue) for Floor, 1992, Rachel Whiteread (Image courtesy of the Tate)

Study (Blue) for Floor, 1992, Rachel Whiteread (Image courtesy of the Tate)

That seems hardly surprising as drawing is so often the underpinning of any creative conception - the mere act of drawing out possibilities and forms helps define what one is trying to say, in no matter what media.

The much more fascinating aspect of this curated exhibition, which travels later to the Dasher Sculpture Center in Dallas and finally to the Tate Britain, is Whiteheads's collection of found objects. She, like so many of us artists, is apparently a collector of sticks, stones and oddments that range from dental casts to shoe stretchers. She considers them sketchbooks parallel and complementary to her drawings.

I learned the joys of collecting stones and shells from the time I could walk, along the dazzlingly white - and in those days, deserted - beaches of Kenya and Tanzania. With the boom of surf beating on the distant reefs, the treasures to be found on the pristine sands were amazingly beautiful, not only for the diversity of tropical shells, but also for the reminders of long history, in the blue and white shards of early Chinese pottery and porcelain. Dhows, plying the Indian Ocean through millennia of trade winds, connected China and the Far East to India, the Middle East and East Africa: broken dishes used on the vessels would be thrown overboard.

These beautiful shards have been one of my treasures, and I found a way to include them in one silverpoint and watercolour drawing I did some while ago. "Three Generations - Braided Memories" used designs from the Chinese shards.

Three generations, braided memories of Kenya, silverpoint, silver foil, acrylic, Jeannine Cook artist

Three generations, braided memories of Kenya, silverpoint, silver foil, acrylic, Jeannine Cook artist

This was but the first of my many, many collections of found objects that I keep squirreled away. In the due and right time, they will become part of the creative process, I have learned. I know that many of my artists friends are inveterate pack rats too, but it is interesting that someone known mainly for her sculpture regards her collected objects as vital parts of her drawing activities. Good for Rachel Whitehead!

Jigsaw puzzles and art by Jeannine Cook

I was reading a thought-provoking article in a copy of The Spectator (21st November, 2009) by Matthew Parris today about jigsaw puzzles and religion, a train of thought induced by hearing a talk by Dame Margaret Drabble on her book about her aunt and jigsaw puzzles. This led me in rather a different direction, I suppose because of being an artist.

Dame Margaret advised starting to do a jigsaw puzzle by getting the outline sorted out first, because the one side with a straight line helps. Parris reflected that if one regarded life's experiences as pieces of jigsaw puzzle, there are no helpful edges that can serve as a delineating frame for putting order and coherence to such situations as religion. However, if one thinks about the jigsaw puzzle analogy for matters artistic, it can be of possible help.

First, of course, a delineating frame is always wonderful to use - even by using one's fingers as a frame - to compose a scene if one is trying to decide what to depict. Second, and more intangibly, I suggest that finding the straight-sided pieces first - in art - really is equivalent to sorting out basic technical considerations first before doing any artwork. By that, I mean deciding what medium to use for a work, then what surface - paper, canvas, etc. - what size of image. Composition, the "atmosphere" and, above all, deciding what one wants to convey in the artwork are other aspects of the puzzle frame.

A jigsaw puzzle of a painting by Claude Monet

A jigsaw puzzle of a painting by Claude Monet

The content of a piece of art, as symbolised by the jigsaw puzzle frame, is really the summum of one's experiences in life, one's skills in matters technical, the impact of what moves one to create that image, realistic or abstract. In essence, within that frame, can be contained one's persona as an artist, for good or for bad. Selecting out the "straight-sided" aspects of oneself as an artist can therefore perhaps help in mapping out what one wants to do and achieve. From that frame, the inside, odder-shaped pieces of life and experience can be better organised to make a powerful piece of art. Even the analogy of coloured pieces of jigsaw puzzle can pertain: the artwork can be made more coherent by the choices we make when beginning to work on the frame of the puzzle first. For a realistic artwork, of course, even the source of inspiration - landscape, still life, person, etc. - can help us assemble the jigsaw puzzle pieces within the frame of the conceived artwork.

Ultimately, fitting together all the pieces of the puzzle that we artists deal with on a daily basis is just as much a fascinating challenge as any box of complex jigsaw puzzle pieces.

Back to Basics by Jeannine Cook

Reading an article in this month's Art + Auction about "Artists - Back to the Future" about a recently-noted trend of artists and their collectors returning to simpler, more personally-executed and handcrafted creations, I was struck by the statement: " Just because there is a simplicity in means does not mean the process or results will be simple. It's this question of how do we get back to basics by going a very, very long distance. It's a balance between immediacy and complexity" (Massimiliano Gioni, curator of the New Museum, New York).

I started thinking about how I personally would define basics and the balance between immediacy and complexity. I realised that for me, the answer was very simple - I only have to look at Japanese or Chinese art of past centuries, woodcuts or brush paintings in particular. Perhaps I should initially admit to a predisposition to Japanese art: I grew up with Japanese woodcuts on the walls of my home in East Africa. They were part of one set of a huge series of woodcuts that were commissioned after the 1923 earthquake by foreigners living in Yokohama. They were copied from traditional woodcut images, and the objective of this wide-ranging commission was to help the artists get back on their feet after the devastating earthquake and fire. The set with which I lived was very varied but of great beauty and, of course, of especial meaning for me since my grandfather had been one of the people commissioning the Japanese artists.

Snake Gourd, woodcut, after Seitei Watanabe

Snake Gourd, woodcut, after Seitei Watanabe

That said, I have later learned that the essence of simplicity in art does indeed require enormous skill and sophistication of mind and hand. I find that some of the hand scrolls, paintings and screens of the Momoyama and Edo periods in Japanese art (1573-1615 and 1615-1868 respectively) are the essence of aesthetic simplicity and oh so utterly beautiful. Many years ago, there was a truly wonderful exhibition and Harry Abrams catalogue publication, "Birds, Beasts, Blossoms and Bugs. The Nature of Japan". I frequently dip back into this publication because I find it of enormous inspiration and nurture, reminding me, particularly for silverpoint drawing, that as long as I really, really know the subject matter I am drawing, less is really, definitely more.

An example of such basic mastery is, for instance (and very a-propos with our autumnal migrating flocks of crows streaming noisily past our windows), a series of three ink paintings with wash on paper of crows, "Snow, Moon and Flower". One, " Crow in flight before the Moon", by Maruyama Okyo (1733-1795), is just a deftly detailed crow silhouetted in flight with the moon half delineated in white behind him - so minimalist it is breath-taking. And one has to remember this is a brush painting in ink - no room for hesitations, erasures, or even running out of ink at the wrong moment. Certainly one definition of "immediacy". Another of these paintings is "Crow on a Plum Branch" by Matsumura Goshun (1752-1811): the bird perches on the branch in simple, believable reality, yet he is pared down to only the essential detail. The plum branch is reduced to a shorthand suggestion which, nonetheless, is entirely complete in its depiction.

Crow on snow-covered Plum Branch, Kawanabe Kyosai, 1870----1880s, Colour woodblock print, (Image courtesy of the RISD Museum)

Crow on snow-covered Plum Branch, Kawanabe Kyosai, 1870----1880s, Colour woodblock print, (Image courtesy of the RISD Museum)

Another wonderful six-fold lacquer screen in the same show was of crows in flocks and gatherings of raucous intensity, just their silhouettes against the gold leaf on paper. It was executed by an unknown artist in the Edo period of the early 17th century, but done by someone who had studied this emblematic bird intensely, in all its attitudes and stances - at a time when there was no photography to freeze flight or movement. It is yet another wonderful example of back to basics – knowing your subject matter thoroughly, having a mastery of your technique and compositional intentions, and just following the age-old tradition of an artist using hand and eye to create images that convey messages of beauty, angst, joy, whatever.

Back to drawing - hooray! by Jeannine Cook

How nice it is finally to get back to drawing after travels and the imbroglio of daily life! Life drawing is a passport to sanity for me and makes me feel more centered again. That hush in the room as a dozen or so artists concentrate on drawing is like a benediction; it reminds me that there is this whole union of artists out there all over the place, quietly doing their best to create art in all sorts of versions and visions, all intense and passionate. A nice universe of which to be a part!

Time and time again, I read in the press the comment from an artist that only when he or she is actively involved in art-making is there a sense of coherence, even harmony, in that artist's world. When one is not drawing, painting or whatever the creation involves, then there is a feeling of disquiet, dislocation. It is true in my case.

As I peer at the intricacy of fingers clasped, or the play of light on muscles on an arm or across a back, time becomes meaningless, for a while. That is a good feeling. It makes me think of the quote I read the other day from Antoni Gaudi, the great Catalan Modernist architect from the later 19th and early 20th century (think of la Sagrada Familia church in Barcelona): "Everything comes from the great book of nature." Life drawing is certainly part of that enormous and endlessly fascinating tome.

Main Gate, Dragon, Antoni Gaudi, Guell Park, Barcelona

Main Gate, Dragon, Antoni Gaudi, Guell Park, Barcelona