Fauna

Delacroix and Nature by Jeannine Cook

It is always encouraging when you read of a great painter in the past expressing what you feel about different subjects.  In this case, Delacroix opining about nature.

I bought a lovely book on Delacroix recently entitled Delacroix, Chevaux et Félins/ Delacroix, Horses and Felines.  Published in 2011 by the Bibliothèque de l'Image in Paris, it is a wonderful selection of Delacroix' watercolours, drawings and paintings of horses and lions, tigers and even domestic cats.  Masterful, vivid, probing and clearly, often, very much working drawings done from life as the animals moved around.  Many of these studies later found their way into major paintings he executed, especially his studies of horses.

What especially resonated with me was the page quoted as an extract from his personal journal, dated Tuesday, 19th January 1847. Delacroix opens by stating that the "Cabinet" of natural history is open to the public on Tuesdays and Fridays - in other words, he goes to visit the zoo at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris.  He joyfully lists all the amazing selection of animals to be seen there, both alive and stuffed, from elephants and rhinos to lamas or bison, and even the famous giraffe given to Charles X of France by Muhammad Ali of Egypt in 1827 which was, by 1847, still there in stuffed glory.

Delacroix then goes on to muse, in his journal entry for that day's visit, about the emotions he experienced.  "What could cause the emotion that I experienced at the sight of all this?  Perhaps that I was taken out of the pedestrian ideas that form my world, away from the street that bounds my universe. How necessary it is to shake oneself from time to time, to stick one's head outside, to try to read from the natural world, which has nothing at all in common with our cities and with the work of men. Definitely, this view I experienced made me feel better and more tranquil."

Delacroix loved watching all the animals he drew and painted - he got to know their movements, their attitudes, their characteristics.  He even drew their skeletons and skinned bodies to learn better how to portray them. His depictions of their movements and essence are full of vigour and passion, excitement and wonder. His studies are as fresh today as if they were executed yesterday. To my eye, as so often happens, that vigour and immediacy is however often lost when he uses those studies in his large oil paintings. 

Watercolour study of a cat's head, c. 1824-29, E. Delacroix, (image courtesy of the Louvre)

Watercolour study of a cat's head, c. 1824-29, E. Delacroix, (image courtesy of the Louvre)

An amazing series of lead pencil studies of lionesses, E. Delacroix

An amazing series of lead pencil studies of lionesses, E. Delacroix

Brown ink study of a lioness, E. Delacroix, (image courtesy of the Frick Collection)

Brown ink study of a lioness, E. Delacroix, (image courtesy of the Frick Collection)

Young tiger playing with its Mother,  from a lead pencil drawing that is very similar., oil on canvas, E. Delacroix, (Image courtesy of the Louvre)

Young tiger playing with its Mother, from a lead pencil drawing that is very similar., oil on canvas, E. Delacroix, (Image courtesy of the Louvre)

Study of a horse, Eugene Delacroix

Study of a horse, Eugene Delacroix

A study of a horse that shows Delacroix' probing eye.

The delight that Delacroix experienced from aspects of Nature is an emotion that I can relate to very easily. The endless fascination and wonder that is there for one to observe and learn about does indeed appear as soon as one steps out into the natural world.    

Art as Memory Stored by Jeannine Cook

It is always fascinating to leaf through a drawing book or a travel journal of sketches.  Immediately the sights and sounds associated with each work come back to one's mind, the magic carpet transporting one to deep shady woods, brilliantly sunlit docksides, wide marsh vistas.

Memories came flooding back for me today as I bade farewell to a silverpoint drawing, Come into my Garden! that I did a while ago.  It was purchased during a juried exhibition, "Art in the Low Country", at the Averitt Center for the Arts in Statesboro, Georgia.

Come into my Garden!   ,  silverpoint and white gouache highlights, Jeannine Cook artist

Come into my Garden! , silverpoint and white gouache highlights, Jeannine Cook artist

This is a reasonably large work, 16.5 x 15" image, with a toned ground to evoke the wonderful colours of lichen. Highlights are in white gouache, in the way that the Renaissance masters emphasised light when they used tinted grounds for their metalpoint drawings.

Remembering the sultry day I went to find branches festooned with the delicate lichen suddenly made me feel hot again as I thought back to the beginnings of this drawing.  I knew I wanted to weave together aspects of late summer in coastal Georgia, when the wonderful golden orb-weaver spiders have woven their webs into such amazing feats of resilient engineering.The lichen seems similarly tough, with all its different varieties growing on live oak branches.  Their quiet existence, like that of the spider's, goes along mostly unnoticed by humans. Somehow, silverpoint's fine lines seemed to match these late summer beauties, evolving as they do as the silver tarnishes slowly, and yet amazingly long-lived like them.

Silverpoint allows a close and detailed study of nature's complexities.  Executing such a drawing built into it memories that endure for me of a happy, fascinated late summer as I sat enthralled by the sophisticated designs of lichen and spider web.  Good memories to have!

Private Art, Public Response by Jeannine Cook

Every artist is sometimes impelled to create art that is not really intended for the big wide world. It is art that is perhaps made in reaction to a situation, a response to something that is joyful, troubling or passion-stirring. Often, that work is put away and not displayed in public.

This has happened to me several times, and my flat file drawers can attest to these drawings and paintings. However, once in a while, there is a situation where I suddenly remember one that seems to answer the parameters of some juried exhibition, and I think, well, it is worth a try.

Vertebral Distractions, silverpoint, Jeannine Cook artist

Vertebral Distractions, silverpoint, Jeannine Cook artist

The San Diego chapter of the Women's Caucus for Art has started running an on-line series of juried shows. One of them, "Transformation", seemed an appropriate place to enter one of my "private art" silverpoint drawings, Vertebral Distractions. I had created it from a small print out that my husband had been given at the Mayo Clinic after a portion of his spine had been examined. This small image was eloquent proof of why he suffers so much from chronic pain. 

I was so dismayed for him that I tried to think of all the every day joys surrounding us that could distract him - perhaps! - from his pain. It was a moment when we had a juvenile  Black-Crowned Heron who had adopted a shallow bird bath on our front deck as his personal pond for the summer. Meanwhile, the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds were flying their marvellous looping displays, butterflies flittered and the phalaenopsis orchids were a-bloom.

I was thus delighted to learn that I had won a prize for this silverpoint drawing, Vertebral Distractions, in the SD-WCA show. It was a double validation from the Judge, Hazel Ross, because, as I have said, this was a very private work, not intended for public viewing. It makes me realise afresh that no matter what one's original intentions, if an artist creates something born of deep feelings, it will resonate with someone, somewhere... the eternal conversations of human creativity.

Time for what we Value by Jeannine Cook

I spent a wonderful day yesterday drawing plein air with my friend and artist, Marjett Schille. It is gloriously the height of spring, with azaleas bursting forth, wisteria garlanding the trees with soft mauve fragrance, and the birds in courtship songs and displays everywhere one goes. We went to an island in the Altamaha River Delta,  Butler Island. South of Darien on the Georgia coast, it is accessible by road, but the area harks back to the antebellum rice plantation days. There are still the dikes and canals, along with the "trunks" which are the historic tide-driven gates that allow water to flood the rice fields carved out by slaves so long ago. The landscape is very much still man made, but since it is a Georgia State Wildlife Management Area, the ponds and fields are home to many bird species, enormous fish and clearly, many raccoons - to judge from the footprints along the sandy roads. In other words, a perfect place to go and paint or draw in spring.

Osprey Patrol, Butler Island, graphite, Jeanine Cook artist

Osprey Patrol, Butler Island, graphite, Jeanine Cook artist

While we were working there in companionable silence, amid a chorus of bird song from the bushes all around us, I kept thinking back to a passage I had recently read in the May edition of American Artist, where classical oil painter Patricia Watwood is quoted as hoping that, amongst other reactions, viewers would respond to her art by sensing"that there is time enough for the things we value. Time to craft a painting, to study, to learn, to enjoy, and time to sit still and contemplate a picture and the world that it contains."

There is a grace and a privilege for each of us if we can somehow organise our lives as artists - and viewers of art too, of course - to have enough time for matters artistic. To be able to have enough flexibility to put aside a block of time just to go off and paint, single-mindedly, for a day outside in some beautiful place. To have had the time to hone one's skills sufficiently that one can feel comfortable working plein air. To have the inner serenity, without nagging preoccupations, to be able to enjoy the whole experience of being out in nature, where ponds pulse with life and the trees are visibly leafing out hour by hour. And indeed, at the end of our time of painting and drawing, to look at Marjett's lovely watercolours and marvel at her creativity that results in highly original yet evocative paintings.

Ensuring that we all have time for the people, the things and activities we value: that is the true art of living, I suspect. As an artist, I felt that my day on Butler Island yesterday met those criteria wonderfully.

Ways of Protecting Nature by Jeannine Cook

Yesterday, the golden spring light invited us to visit the Harris Neck National Wild Life Refuge in McIntosh County. This small and diverse refuge has been protected since 1962, and it evolved from being a World War II airfield, with long tarred runways. Now it is a fascinating area of ponds which are home to many species of herons, egrets, wood storks, ducks, coots, turtles and alligators large and small. Beyond are areas of maritime forest, and an amazing area of tarred runways now crazed with cracks through which cacti, grasses and trees are inexorably forcing their way as nature reclaims dominance.

Wood Storks ,Mycteria americana, Building Nests Rookery, Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge NWR, McIntosh County GA (Image courtesy of Brian Brown)

Wood Storks ,Mycteria americana, Building Nests Rookery, Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge NWR, McIntosh County GA (Image courtesy of Brian Brown)

To me, as an artist who tries frequently to direct my energies to creating art that makes people aware of nature's complex beauties and importance, Harris Neck is the perfect example of undoing man's abuse (justified or not) on nature. Cicero said in his Second Philippic speech in 44 B.C. that "Destroyers of the forest are enemies of the public weal". For the last century and more, we have witnessed at an ever-increasing rate the destruction of forest and the environment in general. This assault on "the forest" makes federal, state and local protected areas all the more important for everyone.

Woody Pond Habitat with Palm Tree Harris Neck NWR McIntosh County, GA (Image courtesy of Brian Brown, photographer)

Woody Pond Habitat with Palm Tree Harris Neck NWR McIntosh County, GA (Image courtesy of Brian Brown, photographer)

The efforts of artists of all stripes to help people understand and appreciate the magical beauty of such areas and their value to society are important. Drawing, painting photography and film, music, sculpture temporary and permanent, poetry and writing : all these disciplines are vital in this never-ending need to alert people that we must all, throughout the world, push back the "destroyers of the forest" and protect nature. The "public weal" demands nothing less, and I for one, as a visual artist, think it is a privilege to depict aspects of coastal Georgia's natural beauty. Harris Neck's magic reinforced my feelings as we visited it yesterday.

Louis Agassiz Fuertes by Jeannine Cook

Many years ago, when we first moved to coastal Georgia, I had the delight of seeing an exhibition at Savannah's Telfair Museum of Art about Louis Agassiz Fuertes. Not being born in this country, I am always catching up on matters American, and this wonderful naturalist-artist was one such discovery.

I was reminded of his paintings and quick, skillful pencil drawings when I read of an exhibition which has just opened at the New York State Museum. Born in 1874, Louis Agassiz Fuertes was soon recognised as a very skillful artist, and his short life (he was killed in a car accident in 1927) was devoted to recording birds through North America. Cornell University, his alma mater, has a wonderful collection of his work.

Belted Kingfisher Megaceryle Alcyon by Louis Agassiz Fuertes

Belted Kingfisher Megaceryle Alcyon by Louis Agassiz Fuertes

This leading bird artist of his day was a dedicated artist who tramped through woods and vales to record birds in the wild, as well as using specimens back in the studio for his detailed paintings. He knew how to capture the essential character of each bird. His knowledge of habitat for each bird species was also superb. His work made him one of the important pioneers, following in Audubon's footsteps, for environmental awareness. We all owe him a huge debt of gratitude as his work made people aware of the need to protect birds and their habitat.

A pair of passenger pigeons (accompanied by a second work _, (Image courtesy of Askart.com)

A pair of passenger pigeons (accompanied by a second work _, (Image courtesy of Askart.com)

Look out for Louis Agassiz Fuertes' paintings and drawings - they are a huge delight.

Artists and Copenhagen by Jeannine Cook

As I listen to the complex issues and concerns that the thousands of climate change delegates are grappling with at the on-going Copenhagen Conference, I keep thinking of all the art that has been done over the past centuries that is, in essence, a record of the world as we have known it.

From John James Audubon, with his masterful opus recording America's bird life, to the myriad wonderful botanical artists working today, like Australian Margaret Saul, or wildlife artists like British David Shepherd or American Timothy David Mayhew, there is an important role for art in the discourse on our planet's health.

Elephant and Anthill by David Shepherd CBE, (Image courtesy of The Field)

Elephant and Anthill by David Shepherd CBE, (Image courtesy of The Field)

The Ivory is Theirs, David Shepherd CBE, (Image courtesy of the artist)

The Ivory is Theirs, David Shepherd CBE, (Image courtesy of the artist)

Photography has become the vivid adjunct to this discussion. Each of us artists who dedicates many hours to recording and celebrating aspects of our natural world, on land, under water or in the air, is a witness to the complex, vital web of life that sustains us. In reality, this vast body of artwork about the natural world is an urgent sub-text to the Copenhagen debates. If mankind chooses to continue jeopardising the survival of countless species, then the records of artists will be a beautiful but very sad testimony to what is being lost,

Every time I do a silverpoint drawing of a fragile spring flower, for instance, I find myself wondering how many more springs will be graced so predictably with these flowers. I am sure that Audubon would be appalled to know the status of many of the birds he depicted. I suspect that David Shepherd finds the East African flora and fauna he celebrated so wonderfully in the 1960s, for instance, to be sadly changed and diminished. When artists of all descriptions find themselves recording endangered species and reminding their viewers of vanishing beauty and complexity, it is a situation of sounding the tocsin.

I hope that the politicians gathered in Copenhagen are art lovers.

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.

Daily delights by Jeannine Cook

Since I have been involved with hanging an art exhibition for my upcoming open studio/wine-tasting event, my 15th Annual Art-Tasting, on December 5th, the business side of my brain has had to dominate in the past days.

Nonetheless, there are daily delights that feed the right brain and give me such joy as I busy myself in the studio. Looking out of the windows onto the salt water creek in front of the house, for instance, I caught sight of huge swirls of water along the edge of the creek. Curious, I grabbed the binoculars, so that I could see more clearly beyond the overhanging tree branches. Lo and behold, about fifteen white ibis were down on the bank, having the most wonderful, vigourous baths in the salt water. Once drenched, they flew up into the trees above. There, they shook out their feathers, poked and preened, stretched and fluffed. Such a production. The final stage in the grey early morning was a concerted flight up to the roof of our house, one wet ibis after another. It must have been the best source of heat around, in their estimation. In due course, looking up, I saw a V formation of pearly white-breasted ibis taking off from the roof - all dry and clean, ready for breakfast!

White Ibis in the Marshes

White Ibis in the Marshes

Other moments that give a wonderful moment of respite come from watching four brown pelicans glide in wondrous formation just above the water, seemingly effortless in their aerial ballet as they patrolled the creek for a likely meal of small fish.

Brown Pelicans (Image courtesy of Phil Lanoue Photography)

Brown Pelicans (Image courtesy of Phil Lanoue Photography)

Or glimpsing a gathering of wood storks sailing higher and higher above the marshes on a thermal, soaring so effortlessly on their wide-spread wings, the essence of elegance that always makes me think of Japanese brush paintings of storks. Some while ago, I did a big watercolour painting of the wood storks, for I find them so magical.

Soaring above Creighton, watercolour, Jeannine Cook artist

Soaring above Creighton, watercolour, Jeannine Cook artist

Autumn brings its own share of sounds on the water too. Suddenly, we can hear the wonderful growling call of mergansers as they bob in unison far down the creek, fishing and preening in a mass of vibrant black dots on the water. The best sounds, however, are those of the dolphins blowing as they surface to breath, before diving again to fish and play. These sounds are a daily delight that are an enormous privilege to hear.

Somehow, preparing an art exhibition gets done, between these delicious distractions!