Natural poetry in apparently simple images

I’ve been feeling the need recently to be more deliberate about my painting, more contemplative, maybe, and develop some themes regarding people’s relationships to their places, but I have been so active mentally on other things, that I haven’t really been able to or wanted to focus on close painting studies on a day-to-day basis. Perhaps that will come soon.

In the meantime I am just trying to stay active and try things out. Here’s my Aunt’s dog hearing something disturbing and rising from a nap. I love the effort and contortion he’s going through, just to tell off some small chirping thing. Sometimes there’s natural poetry in apparently simple images, and I don’t need to underlay theory.

I have posted in reverse order from completion back to pencil drawing.

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Daydreaming In Place

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…If I were asked to name the chief benefit of the house, I should say: the house shelters daydreaming, the house protects the daydreamer, the house allows one to dream in place. Thought and experience are not the only things that sanction human values. The values belonging to daydreaming mark humanity to its depths. Daydreaming even has a privilege of autovalorization. It derives direct pleasure from its own being. Therefore the places in which we have experienced daydreaming reconstitute themselves in a new daydream, and it is because our memories of former dwelling-places are relived as daydreams that these dwelling-places of the past remain in us for all time.

Now my aim is clear. I must show that the house is one of the greatest powers of integration for the thoughts, memories, and dreams of mankind…

From The Poetics of Space, by Gaston Bachelard

I am slowly reading Gaston Bachelard’s work “The Poetics of Space,” a philosophical exploration of home. The role that our spaces play in our lives has been an interest of mine for a long time, perhaps as far back as the first paper I ever remember writing (I think it was in 7th grade) on Frank Lloyd Wright, and I am trying to more deliberately bring this interest (and all my other interests) into sharper focus. The quote above so perfectly captures the importance of home, of the role it plays in humanity, that I couldn’t help but giving a silent Kerouac style “Yes!” while reading it.

One can find this safe place for dreaming in place elsewhere. What can be said about one’s home can extend to the places one frequents (though the home might be the strongest place), to one’s community, to one’s hometown. The coffee shop has become one of those places.

The challenge in painting any space for daydreaming is conveying it as such, giving it life, giving it a little mystery, the opportunity for meaning, or at least implication.

I’ve made some more progress in that direction with my painting this morning. I focused on the window, more or less finishing it off, and emphasizing the blown-out lighting. This helps convey the daydreaming feeling I think. I’ll bring that out further once I get to the facial expression. I’m really just experimenting with what I can do in painting. There are all sorts of tricks to borrow from cinema and photography, and I’ll try to get smarter about that over time. I also am trying this year to do paintings that feel more finished (not polished, though), have more texture and effect to them. I think the three I’ve finished so far, and the two I’m working on now, fit that profile.

Thanks for reading.

Millennials and Coffee Shops

IMG_3488.JPGThe prevailing narrative on the millennials’ housing preferences has been that they can’t get enough of big city living (they’re part of the drive for denser development), and they just don’t want to live out in the suburbs. Being on the fence between millennial and gen x, but not an example of the “delayed adulthood” set (we have two kids and a house in the burbs), I’ve been a little suspicious of the main narrative, at least for the simplistic reason that I don’t fit, and if I don’t fit, who else doesn’t? Of course, looking at a whole generation as some group-thinking block has its problems, though it makes for an easier headline, but it might still be useful as a discussion point because even a few percentage points shift in the balance between city preference versus suburban preference can be meaningful. On the whole the effect of millennials living in denser spaces may be there, but I’ve wondered if that’s a result of desire or something else? There seemed to me to be some nuance not making the headlines. This is some of that nuance. In this recent Atlantic article, there are a few studies cited indicating that millennials aren’t looking for long-term life in the city, they just can’t afford to move out because of when they entered the job market (obviously, it’s awful to enter work during a recession) and the high cost of living in the city near their jobs.

The surveys cited suggest that millennials want features of city life–easy access to cool places to hang out, easy access to work–but that doesn’t mean they want to live in a city. This makes sense to me. I’ve never been a true city person, though I loved my time in Providence, RI, but I do like having a few good local places (not in a strip mall) with character that I can go to regularly . That’s part of feeling like part of a community. Independent artsy coffee shops serve that purpose pretty well, and Leesburg, VA, where I live now, has a bunch.

The painting I’ve started above is at one of these coffee shops (Trinity House) in a very old house with what feel like secret rooms. Instead of the normal layout ofone or two big room around the counter, Trinity House uses the whole house as dining space. There’s even a playroom for the kids.

There seems to be a bit of Wyeth potential in this scene, so I’m seeing what I can do with an 8×10 study. I am preparing myself for some larger works, but I am just not ready for the commitment yet. More on that later. For now, thanks for reading.

Thinking through pencils

Disclaimer: this post is a navel-gazing reflection on my note taking practices inspired by this great 10 minute talk on the importance of using different tools for thinking and expressing ideas: click here

In theory:
You retain more if you take notes by hand, and it’s even better if you doodle while doing it.
You get your ideas out best by typing, especially when you type faster than 24 words per minute. The key with fast typing is that you can keep up with the rapid flow of ideas.

In practice:
This is true for me. At the Smart Growth conference last month I took about 50 pages of notes with a pencil in a Moleskine Sketchbook. It was a physically satisfying experience with those two tools–I used .7 Pentel hi-polymer lead, which flows so nicely in the thick smooth sketchbook pages, I could keep up and synthesize at the same time. The Blackwing pencil is equally awesome. Note taking like this forces you to grasp the key points, and using a pages without lines encourages me to draw connections between ideas. My notes have circles and lines connecting different parts, words go in all directions, good ideas get boxed letters by them, and when I recognize building blocks for innovate concepts, I mark them and put a small note to myself about what to do about it later, what design question should be addressed as a result. After the events were over for each day, I spent dinner iterating through new concepts, asking more questions of myself and my notes, drawing new connections.

I run design sessions the same way, I just do it in public in a whiteboard–it actually makes for good performance art. When it comes to the typing stage, I can transcribe quickly but also get into thinking through the details. I iterate through more handwritten notes and sketches, then back to typing and continue the cycle until completion.

If I don’t take notes, my mind wanders to all sorts of questions I am working through. That’s sort of a shame. I love the BBC radio show In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg. I am always informed and inspired by it, but recently I’ve been unable to make it through an episode without my mind wandering off onto various problems I am trying to solve. I should really listen deliberately with a sketchbook and pencil in my hand. That’ll help me get through the episode on phenomenology.

I did start on some more painting, and I will post on that tomorrow. Thanks for reading.

Some Thoughts on Art and Truth, Finished Monument Painting

IMG_3440.JPG“For the ancient Egyptians, exactitude was symbolized by a feather that served as a weight on scales used for the weighing of souls. This light feather was called Maat, goddess of the scales. The hieroglyph for Maat also stood for a unit of length–the 33 centimeters of the standard brick–and for the fundamental note of the flute.”

Italo Calvino, Exactitude, from Six Memos for the Next Millennium

In the goddess Maat, the ancient Egyptians tie together self/soul, architecture, and art. I like this intersection because it gets at some of the different ways we try to understand (and shape) our place in the world (individually and culturally). Maybe I’m assigning a little too much to the idea, but I’ve looked to this feather concept as important to me, and the intersection of all sorts of things (art, architecture, self being only some of the points to consider) is a fundamental tenet of my approach to thought/work/whatever (think about/do a lot at once, let the intersections reveal themselves, recognize when they do, and build off of that, which is probably just a long-winded way of saying divergent thought). I’m just now getting this in painting by working simultaneously on several watercolors, though that list of simultaneous works has dwindled now that I finished this one, posted above, and the Pavese sketch last week.

I recall a debate in one of my writing classes when I was in a masters program–I imagine this debate a very common one–about types of truth in writing. I don’t think anyone really posited the right terms for it in class, but the basic sides for the sake of argument were between accuracy and truth, the idea being you could be accurate, but untrue, accurate, but missing the point. I wasn’t too keen on the discussion in class because it seemed to be poorly cast, and perhaps needed to be worked out in writing over time. But I’ve thought about it in different ways over the years, and another way of looking at it might be in terms of accuracy by the wrong measure, like using ounces instead of feathers. Perhaps you could say that art is about understanding and conveying truth as measured by feathers. Or maybe better, about the pursuit of understanding and conveyance of truth as measured by feathers. Or, even simpler (but with the same meaning?): Art is the pursuit of truth as measured by feathers.

I guess this leaves the how part of this line of thought to technique and style, which I am (and will be for a long time) still working through. As my skill improves, so too should my ability to measure with feathers.

As for this work, I did it in two sessions, laying in the sky and buildings with french ultramarine, burnt sienna, cerulean blue, and nickel azo yellow. Today I put some broken clouds/fog on top of the sky laid in last weekend, then finished with the trees, blotting out paint to get the fog and steam effects. The trees were done with perylene maroon, viridian, french ultramarine, burnt sienna, and nickel azo yellow. I could probably have done this with fewer pigments, but it worked out pretty well

I did whole painting with my Escoda Versatil #10 round. I like that brush because it allows for precision work, expressive brush strokes (the trees are mostly with the tip), and broken effects with the side of the brush. It’s not so good for washes, but I wet the paper first and used the brush to its best advantage but having broken applications of paint blend with the wet paper. It’s been fun getting to know my tools better so I can take advantage of their strengths and weaknesses.

I will likely be back at the turkey painting next, but I also want to get a few more new paintings started. Just not sure what yet.

Thanks for reading.

More thoughts from Pavese

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We want Realism’s wealth of experience and Symbolism’s depth of feeling. All art is a problem of balance between two opposites.

Cesare Pavese, Diaries, 12.14.1939

Another revealing thought from Pavese that fits the painter as much as the writer. When it comes to painting, obviously I’m fond of the more realist work, though photo-realism isn’t especially interesting to me. I like to paint to explore, to understand, not so much to capture, but rather to convey.

In visual art, you can think of another dichotomy, between realism and abstraction. This composition is coming together a little more now that the basic colors of the book are laid in. I glanced at it out of the corner of my eye, and the tension between the rounded edges on the left and the angles on the right is pretty interesting. It’s realism and abstraction coming together with the close cropping if the mug, turning the objects into shapes, while retaining their identity as things, and hopefully taking on more potency than just that if I can execute this well enough.

A paperback book is not a very interesting subject to look at on its own, even a ragged one like this, but when painted, and all of the effects of watercolor are applied, I think the book can take on a more special quality. That’s what I’m hoping for at least. I’ll be darkening the book in places, trying to lighten the lettering, and scraping and sanding to capture the brittleness, which will be a nice contrast to the shine on the mug.

I am excited about this one as a sketch to work out a few ideas that might work well for larger works.

Thanks for reading.

The Apotheosis of the Ordinary

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In art one must not start with a complication but work up to it; not begin with the fable of Ulysses, to astound the reader, but with a simple, ordinary man and, little by little, give him the significance of Ulysses.

Cesare Pavese, Diary, 8.23.1949

I’ve been thinking about Pavese again as I’m revisiting some of my prior writings. There are a few writers who have been especially influential for me over time, the two most important being Italo Calvino and Cesare Pavese. Calvino for his inventiveness, and Pavese for his incisiveness. Pavese especially has a way of stating things so simply and so brilliantly over and over again that its both inspirational and intimidating, and that gives so many levels of meaning to even the simplest acts. He was Italy’s greatest post-war writer. Lines from The Devil in the Hills appear almost verbatim in Antonioni’s film l’Aventurra Basically, if you like Antonioni, you’ll like Pavese, probably more.

Pavese’s diary entry above might be an especially interesting one for a painter, particularly a painter of still lifes. I’m thinking of Wyeth, whose object-based portraits of people say more than their faces ever could.

Bringing about the apotheosis of the ordinary through art is an extraordinary achievement, especially visual art, because we don’t have the luxury of building scenes upon scenes over time like in a story. Each image must state and imply, (or denote and connote), and the power of the implication is the power of the art. How we do this, or try to, is the tricky part. Craft, genius, a mix of the two, whatever. This is what Pavese did so well, this is what Wyeth did so well.

This year, I want to be more deliberate about the connotation of my paintings (not all of them, of course, because painting itself is so much fun for me, it’s important just to do it, even if there isn’t much to it), and in so doing, I’ll be drawing more on my literary and critical theory side. As a nod to that, I think some books will start appearing in my work, especially still lifes. Who better to start that off with than Pavese for a little sketch.

Thanks for reading. Happy New Year!

Turkey, Marianne Moore, Roland Barthes

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To A Prize Bird
by Marianne Moore

You suit me well, for you can make me laugh,
nor are you blinded by the chaff
that every wind sends spinning from the rick.

You know to think, and what you think you speak
with much of Samson’s pride and bleak
finality, and none dare bid you stop.

Pride sits you well, so strut, colossal bird.
No Barnyard makes you look absurd;
your brazen claws are staunch against defeat.

Last night after a very nice Christmas day with my parents and my in-laws over, my daughters having fun with their dolls and new games (Don’t Break the Ice and Let’s Go Fishin’ are just as awesome now as when we were kids), I spent some time in the studio reading some new books (shown) and returning to work on the turkey. The above poem by Marianne Moore seemed fitting for this bird, his pride starting to come through with each brush stroke.

I read some analysis of Marianne Moore’s poems–it might have been Calvino’s essay “The Bestiary of Marianne Moore” that talked about the difficulty in understanding some of her work. In another essay I read recently–I think it was by Barthes, but now I can’t find it–there was a point about not as much attention being paid to the act of reading and to the reader as there is to the act of writing and the writer, that the reader is as important as the writer. With this in mind, creating is a form of reading, and juxtaposition might be a further way of interpreting work. Thank you Marianne Moore for adding something to this in-process turkey. I’ll be thinking about this painting a little differently now. And thanks Mom and Dad for the new books.

Here’s a close up of progress so far:

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Starting Early On a Winter of Study with Oscar Newman and a David Tripp Style Tree Study

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When the weather gets cold I get more studious. Now that I have a daily bus ride to and from work that totals about 2 hours a day I have plenty of time on my hands. Therefore it seems right to declare this to be Winter of Study, even though it’s still fall.

On the reading side, my winter of study will be focused on the human side of housing, finance, planning, and architecture. I have some background in architecture history, but there is always more to learn, and now is the right time to be deliberate about it. To start it off, I am reading Oscar Newman’s 1972 work “Defensible Space,” a concise summary of which happens to be on the front cover in the picture above.

On the painting side, I want to take a more deliberate approach to my work in a few ways. First, I just want to do more small works of whatever for practice more frequently so I can get better at working quickly and confidently. Second, I want to focus more on people. On the first subject, I did a small tree study of a tree in my backyard. My house is on a hill and backs up to woods and a creek, so there is no shortage or leaf and tree compositions to do. I like the way David Tripp has done small studies of these on his blog, so thought I should start my winter of study on the painting side with something in his style. Here’s a close up on it under a mat.

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Over time, I hope to bring my painting and my work in housing together, but I need to be more confident in my abilities to do so effectively and regularly.

And for anyone interested in what’s in my sketching palette:

Daniel Smith French Ultramarine
Winsor and Newton Cerulean Blue
Sennelier Turquoise Green (pg50)
Maimeri Blu Prussian Blue

Daniel Smith Lemon Yellow
Daniel Smith Quinacridone Burnt Orange
Sennelier Yellow Lake (py150–nickel azo yellow)
Sennelier Viridian (mix of viridian and pg7. I thought it was pure viridian when I bought it)

Sennelier Cad Red Light
Maimeri Blue primary red magenta
Daniel Smith Perylene Maroon
Sennelier Titanium White (will likely replace with white gouache as it looks better on toned paper).

Thanks for reading.

Thoughts on Jamie Wyeth, Expectations of the Artist, and the finished Stormy Sailing painting

Recently I read a couple reviews of the Jamie Wyeth retrospective at the MFA in Boston that were critical of the show, the main point being that his work as a whole lacked a unifying purpose, that he was technically exceptional, but without the capital A in Artist.

I suppose thinking of his work in these terms makes sense given the show was about his career, but I also wonder if that’s what we should expect of an artist. If you took Winslow Homer’s work over his life, would there be that unifying purpose? Maybe the struggle and wildness with man and nature, but does an artist have to have such a theme? I can understand the critique of Jamie Wyeth, but some of the comments across multiple reviews (one in the Boston Globe) about his gull paintings seeming like a nightmarish version of something you might find in a seaside New England town’s local arts gallery seemed a bit off. His gull paintings were remarkably potent, and the Inferno painting showcased also in video was incredible to me. They had a twist to them that clearly separated them from what could be called “tourist art.”

Wyeth had a range of styles, including expertise in the Wyeth family way, but I see this range as potentially representative of an exceptionally talented artist trying to find his own voice among the many he can channel, and sometimes that challenge can be more meaningful than the challenges of one who clearly has his own voice. I see it as representative of this larger human struggle to understand ourselves and our own potential.

I wonder about my own art. I have neither the skill not potential of any Wyeth, but that isn’t the point. I, like anybody else, am just trying over time to figure things out. Painting happens to be a pretty fun and phenomenal way to do that, being useful and influential beyond just the problem of conveying and conversing visually.

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Here, in this sailing painting, I am working through a style that I have been pursuing over this year–one of somewhat rough brushwork, of materiality in watercolor. Watching the Wyeth Inferno video at the exhibit and also available on YouTube got me comfortable being more aggressive on the brushes–Princeton Neptune faux squirrel brushes happen to be great for this because they are high quality but very affordable, so you can really mess around without worrying about wrecking them. You don’t need them to keep the point, that’s what the sables of stuff synthetics are for. You can see my work on the sail especially comes from scrubbing the brush into the paper, letting it dry out. I like showing that I used a brush, letting some of the effort come through because that also makes the work more interactive, more conversational–or at least I can pretend it does.

Part of the narrative about Jamie Wyeth is a son trying emerge from the shadow of his father. Another part, as Andrew Wyeth put it, was a competition. Andrew Wyeth said in his biography, “When you get fame–you see, I’m in competition with my son whether I want to be or not. Just the fact that I exist as a painter.” I don’t like either of these characterizations. I prefer not in the shadow of, or in competition with, but in conversation with.

Thanks for reading.