drawing tool for ink and wash

The drawing tool, used here with sumi ink and wash.

I have been drawing recently with sumi ink and wash using brushes and pens of various kinds. Some are reed pens that I cut from the stems from an old hydrangea bush. I wanted a tool to use with the ink that had more of the feel of charcoal in contact with the support, as opposed to the brush which has a softer feel in point of contact. It occurred to me that something like the tool pictured here might be made using these stems and a section of fabric that could absorb ink. I was surprised at how well this works, the fabric will absorb a large amount of ink, and so it is possible to draw for a longer time before recharging with ink. I’ve made these in a variety of sizes, but even using one size it is possible to get a variety of marks. One drawback in that after prolonged use, the fabric begins to fray, but is easily replaced. Click on the image here to view a sequence of steps for the construction of the tool.

collage with ink and acrylic

Untitled. Collage drawing with ink and acrylic on rice paper, © 2014 Graham White, artist
Rice paper with sumi ink, watercolor, and dry pigments mixed into acrylic gel. The acrylic paint used here is zinc white pigment mixed with a matte acrylic gel, poured onto the paper and then manipulated with various tools.

Typically I am working on a series of drawings based on a set of related ideas, and then cutting and tearing those into sections and repositioning the parts from one or more drawings to make each collage. I use an acid free glue stick for the adhesive, and may run a collage through a printing press to make sure the pieces are firmly pressed together before adding paint.

Interviews with artists

The Artists Documentation Program interviews artists in order to gain a better understanding of their materials, working techniques, and intent for the conservation of their works. The interviews, conducted by conservators, with Jasper Johns, Richard Serra, Brice Marden, Frank Stella, Cy Twombly, John Currin, and many others, are informal and often revealing of the artist’s intention, process, and personality.

Newington-Cropsey Cultural Studies Center interviews include Jack Beal, Wolf Kahn, Will Barnet, Audrey Flack, Donald Kuspit and other artists and writers identified with traditional forms and craft. The interviews focus on how the careers and work of the artists are situated within the larger social and art historical contexts of their time.

playing scales

James L. McElhinney’s drawing class at the Art Students League typically begins with several twenty minute sessions of thirty second and two minute poses, and then finishes with longer poses. I usually go in with a simple idea or problem related to the drawing in mind, and the short pose format presents an opportunity to practice different approaches to use of materials, composition or style, much in the way a musician might use repetition to refine the shape a musical phrase.

lost in translation

I have been working on a painting that was based on a image constructed from a group of drawings that had been cut apart, collaged, photographed, and transferred to the computer to composite in Photoshop. I projected a completed digital image onto canvas, sketched it in with paint, and then developed while using a printout of the digital drawing as a guide.

From the outset I knew there would be elements in the drawing that I could use for the painting or leave, and in the process of selection it became apparent to me that digital images are complete by themselves, and not waiting be translated to some other material–a perspective I had not had so clearly before. They are screen work, and could only be represented in some other form, as prints on paper perhaps, but those parallel forms would only represent them in the way that a photograph might represent a painting. That is, not very well.

In visiting the de Kooning retrospective at MOMA, the divide between what is actual in the world and what is a representation or simulation of reality is obvious. If you have only seen reproductions of his paintings, you have not seen his art. They are entirely about physical presence. Actual human scale and interaction, material, touch, and color… none of which can be represented successfully.

Digital media should also be experienced natively, as art and the media in which it is conceived and created cannot be separated. Or it should be clearly understood as journalism, a pointer to an original. Something new might be re-imagined in another media, but the actuality of the original will be lost in the translation.

paper collage

The ingredients are pages from books, paper and cardboard, cut, torn and glued, squeegeed with gesso, rolled with ink, printed with computer graphics–dots, text, photo imagery. Cut and re-cut, compressed, combined, and carved until it seemed like something was happening.

I had it in mind to take the previous drawings I had made and ‘do something else to them,’ so often would start by editing out the parts of the drawing that did not seem necessary, compressing it vertically, horizontally. Then I would begin to add new graphic elements, trying to find something that would click into place. But removing parts of elements, obscuring or reshaping–erasing–was no less constructive in process, really no different. Sometimes I would feel that I was close to completion with something and then take it apart completely to see how it might go back together, and notice that one part could be combined with another drawing entirely, and continue there.

on sitting for a portrait by Lucian Freud

Over a period of nine months during 2003-2004, writer and critic Martin Gayford sat for a painting by Lucian Freud, and later, several months for an etching. In Man with a Blue Scarf Gayford describes his relationship with Freud as a sitter, a fair amount of information about the external process of making the painting, and occasionally, details that provide insight into how the work may unfold from Freud’s point of view.

The painting with the book title was included in Lucian Freud: The Painter’s Etchings at MOMA, 2007-2008, with the companion etching. In this related media file, Gayford talks briefly about his experience.

There are also clips on YouTube from Lucian Freud:Portraits, a film by Jake Auerbach and William Feaver, parts one and two, that contain interviews with a variety of Freud’s subjects, family members, friends and acquaintances. Together with Gayford’s book, these provide a very nice sense of the relationships that Freud fosters with his models in order to meet the requirements of the work.

semi-automatic drawing

This winter I began a series of drawings that were made by following a very specific procedure. I wrote down steps to be followed on a card. To start, tear a page out of a book and set it down on the worktable to make the first quadrant of a rectangle. Next, tear another page from a book and position it to form a second quadrant of the rectangle and glue it in place, and likewise for quadrants 3 and 4.

The unwritten rule was that I must decide immediately where each page should be placed in relation to another, and to the greatest extent, to avoid prolonged deliberation. I wanted to make drawings that worked with basic elements of drawing in as direct a way as possible and, for all of the complications, to remove the handmade mark from the process. It seemed collage would be a good approach.

The paper came from books and other printed items I had purchased from street vendors and thrift shops. As I worked, each sheet was selected for the typeface and density of tone, color, and drawing of the text on the page that would fit into the mix.

Often I would begin early in the morning and soon fall into a rhythm, making one drawing after another, attentive less to the distinction between starting and stopping work on each piece than aware of the process of continuing work.

This process felt somewhat like yogic breathing exercises I had been practicing, the objective to concentrate all attention on the act of inhaling, then exhaling, in a repetitive cycle, and let all other intention and desire fall away.

At times I would begin to see myself working,  almost as an observer, detached, watching myself make decisions without there being a need to intervene or “decide.” When applying glue a sheet might shift out of place, and if I tried to move it back would find that the initial location had been perfect, and could not be exactly recaptured. And the solution to this disruption–the correction–was not to try to fix the error, but instead to remove the sheet and start again, perhaps a different piece of paper, and make a fresh placement. This knowledge became part of the way I approached life painting, better to accept that something of character lost is unique, and start over.

Eventually I added steps that deviated from the inital procedure so that the process became less and less predetermined, but I still was able to hold onto that initial impulse to work directly, and stay out of my own way.

paintings, summer

Paintings done on canvas in Mary Beth McKenzie’s class at the Art Students League. When painting from life I tend to tighten up in the work in a way that I can avoid in drawings, and so set out this session to change that, working more quickly on several sketches in paint over the course of each two week pose, leaving work in various states of finish, and moving on–to take what I like in the drawing and work to get that with the paint.

I also have been increasing the scale of the image, to pull it up closer to the surface of the picture plane and to get away from reflexively setting the figure back into space–the relationship of viewer to image changes, moves closer. There is also less “other” space to contend with, and I can deal with the elements more abstractly and have larger surfaces to paint into with both more control and freedom.

drawings, winter – spring

I drew portraits from life, various charcoals and pencils, and typically during a six day pose, a drawing over one or two sessions. Starting again, from one drawing to another, and in each drawing.

Every drawing begins with an intention, to use a particular tool, or scale–some arbitrary form of entrance–and then if it goes well, the drawing unfolds in accord with some self-organizing logic. Which can change. I was listening to a Bob Dylan recording and while playing the bridge on guitar he made a mistake, and just as quickly changed the flow of the music to make that part of the piece. I thought… well, that’s it.

It has been said that to draw is to always start again. That is the ideal, the sense of the drawing continually taking shape. And then, not having known what the drawing should look like–it is a challenge to know when you are done.

Friedel Dzubas told a story about visits he made with Helen Frankenthaler to Willem de Kooning’s studio in the early 50’s. They would see paintings underway that looked incredibly strong and complete. Later they would see same work when he was finished with it, and think the earlier versions had been the better. I guess it is likely that de Kooning was the only one to have seen some his best work.

“For many years I was not interested in making a good painting–as one might say, ‘Now this is really a good painting’ or a ‘perfect work.’ I didn’t want to pin it down at all. I was interested in that before, but I found out it was not my nature. I didn’t work on it with the idea of perfection but to see how far one could go–but not with the idea of really doing it. With anxiousness and dedication to fright maybe, or ecstasy, like the Divine Comedy, to be like a performer: to see how long you can stay on the stage with that imaginary audience.” –Willem de Kooning, Content is a Glimpse: Interview with David Sylvester, 1963.

Well, I didn’t always get off the stage as soon as I should have. All of these on paper, about 18×24.

Alice Neel

A favorite artist these days is Alice Neel–as I am able to see more of her paintings the greatest of her achievement becomes more obvious–is there a late 20th century American painter of the figure who is her equal?
It is inexplicable that the current exhibition of her work, organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and now in London at the White Chapel Gallery, is not slated for a showing in New York, her home, it’s people her subject.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a telling exhibit of figurative artists, Facing the Figure: Selected Works from the Collection, 1962–2007 on view this summer and I have made it a point to try and visit most lunch hours to look at the 2 portraits by Neel, of Henry Geldzahler and Arthur Bullowa. Also included, paintings by Alex, Katz, Fairfirld Porter, Richard Diebenkorn, Phillip Pearlstein, Will Barnet and Andrew Wyeth.

The installation in the mezzanine gallery is intimate, and makes it possible to study the surface of the painting, faces of her subjects, at a few inches distance, and to discern the traces of initial drawing in paint and begin to understand how she put these pictures together. She had a complete understanding of the structure of the human figure and of styles of representation which gave her the freedom to either depict elements of the figure broadly or in detail, flatly or in volume, with greater realism or expression, and to select freely from this vocabulary as she worked across the figure or face the modes of representation that the picture required.

I try to see what the structure is that an individual painter has developed that allows them to manage all the varieties of information contained in a human face. Neel seems most always to emphasize the contour of the shape of the face, and within that the volumetric shape of the face, with clearly observed side planes that push the front of the face forward, and to draw the volume of the forehead and nose together. This provides a good foundation to support a variety of possible treatments of the details of the features, which may be drawn in line or more fully rendered.

Vincent Van Gogh

Of artists, I probably had been aware of Van Gogh earliest–a large print of Sunflowers hung on the dining room wall of our home in the 50’s, which I still have, in tattered form–and continue to enjoy and study his paintings and drawings, and writing. There have been some very good exhibitions of his work in New York in the last few years, Van Gogh and Expressionism in 2007 at the Neue Galerie, Vincent van Gogh: The Drawings at the Metropolitan in 2005, and many works regularly on view from the museums collections.

I began rereading his letters a few months ago and have just learned that all of The Letters have been published online by the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. The collection contains over 900 known existing documents in the original text and translation, with facsimile images of the original document and images of the artworks referenced in the texts.

de Kooning and painting

ciao ciaoI have been looking at mid-century American painting lately, in particular Philip Guston’s ‘black’ paintings of the 60s, and everything by Willem de Kooning.

As a young man in Rotterdam, de Kooning’s course of study, in the tradition of the guilds, melded training in decorative and art crafts. In Holland and then in New York he worked as a commercial painter while gradually committing to a life as an artist, and the tools and the tricks of his trade were adopted and transformed to become his process for creating an image.

The character of his mark making—his skill—is in his choice of the tool and quality of paint to match the requirements of the job at hand—the pragmatism of a worker.

The evidence of the making in de Kooning’s work and the face of the picture are one—as with a raku pot—the material of the object and transparency of craft is the appearance. So to look at his painting is always to see the image as it is constructed. And then, to think about how one decision must follow another. And consequence.

Guston – Cage – Rothko

“During the last and most productive decade of his life Guston often quoted a remark made to him by John Cage in the 1950’s. ‘When you are working,’ he remembers Cage saying, ‘everybody is in your studio—the past, your friends, the art world, and above all your own ideas… But as you continue painting, they start leaving, one by one, and you are left completely alone. Then, if you’re lucky, even you leave.'”  –Michael Auping, Philip Guston, Hatje Cantz, 1999.

“I think of my pictures as dramas: the shapes in the pictures are the performers. They have been created from the need for a group of actors who are able to move dramatically without embarrassment and execute gestures without shame.

Neither the action nor the actors can be anticipated, or described in advance. They begin as an unknown adventure in an unknown space. It is at the moment of completion that in a flash of recognition they are seen to have the quality and function which was intended. Ideas and plans that existed in the mind at the start were simply the doorway through which one left the world in which they occur.”    –Mark Rothko, ‘The Romantics Were Prompted,’ Possibilities 1, 1947-48.

summer into winter

Continued through the summer and fall to draw for a week or so before painting, and then in the later fall to draw directly with paint, generally working for one or two sessions. So I was able to try out one approach after another, and settled into drawing through several stages in one night, an initial drawing using a light violet/gray, then blocking in dark values, redrawing again in red and then to get contrast in immediately, again with black. Then the second session, begin by redrawing and move into color.

portrait pratt
portrait monica
portrait Jeanine and Clay
portrait Clay

Julie and Hockney

portrait julieI took this painting as far as I could given the time, and would shift some values and color if I still had the model to work from—more interested to continue with new studies.
I picked up a book this past weekend by David Hockney, “Secret Knowledge, Discovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters”, as much out of curiosity as anything. Given what I have known about Hockney, it seemed an unlikely subject. As it is, the book first published in 2001 and expanded and reissued in 2006, has caused a stir in some circles, and chronicles Hockney’s conjecture that the very rapid improvement in the quality of naturalistic representation in drawing and painting over a period of only ten or so years in 1420-30’s may have been made possible by the use of optical projections onto painting surfaces using concave mirrors, lens and other devices.
His research and study, which he has obviously taken very seriously, is based on his own experiments with “copying” devices as used in the past, the visual evidence in paintings, and his observations of how the characteristics of these devices might influence an artists’ choices in mark making and that the look of images the devices create might have influenced the development of style.
These practices have not been widely known he argues, because the knowledge was intentionally suppressed, by the rules and laws of the guilds, for fear of the power and condemnation of the church and because artists naturally protected the discoveries they made that gave them any advantage in their work.
The premise at first seems far-fetched, but he raises so many surprising questions about the artwork and demonstrates plausible ways in which optical techniques could have been used to create certain qualities, that for me, it has changed the way I will look at art in that period, and later. Moreover, it directs my attention to what the idea I have is of what an artist does, and where that idea has come from.
The book is also a great collection good quality reproductions of works by many of the greatest of painters. I am so glad I let my curiosity (and confidence in Hockney) over-ride my caution.

julie xx?

I have been drawing a week, painting a week. I take the drawings from life and draw from them, and from memory. One of many here, the one I am most happy with. Another model this week, I focused on seeing as much as I could and the focus, as it were, of the drawings increased from one to the next. The final drawing had a style that was just the result of the concentration. I have been reading Van Gogh’s letters, and it comes across how much he was able to see when he was looking, much more than he could put down. In his painting, style the result of his intoxication with looking.
oil portraits

new painting

I have been working on a painting at the Art Students League with Costa Vavagiakis that represents an welcome step forward in the way the image is made. A simple change—working with large brushes and no medium. I load the brush, strop away excess paint on the palette, and then drag the paint onto the canvas so that the color and value are built up in layers of pigment. I had been working with small brushes and thinned paint, brushing and drawing out shapes of color and value. This new approach feels better to me, and looks better.