Saturday, August 28, 2010


I have a little to say about these:

Violet Gladioli, oil on canvas, 36"x18"

I just spent about a week painting these gladioli. My wife Charlotte bought them when we were in Minneapolis (the place with the hideous carpets). They were so beautiful I took a picture and vowed to try to find the discipline to actually paint them. I surprised myself and did.

From the start, I wanted to use Schiele's approach, as in his painting of a sunflower:

It has two qualities that I like - an almost autistic sense of detail, and a white background which flattens the object and emphasizes its overall shape. You can do a lot worse than ripping off Schiele for your first flower painting...

But while we're talking about shape, let me explain something. When I was very little, some psychologist-type gave me an image a lot like this to copy:

I remember there was a piano with a dark glossy wooden surface in the room - it was at a party at somebody's house. The psychologist-type timed my reproduction of the image. Apparently the speed was off the charts. I came here not to brag, but to explain: I tried to explain to this individual that I had, in my opinion, cheated.

My idea of the "legitimate" mode of reproducing the image was to conceptualize it as representing a rope, and to understand and draw the rope, with its layering over and under itself. I didn't do that, since obviously time was an issue. So I devised a shortcut - I drew each closed shape, like this, for example:

Having reduced the problem to individual shapes, I could draw each one, keeping them more or less in proper relation with one another, and not bother with the higher-level integration of the image. The image integrated itself, as long as the sub-shapes were accurate.

A long time later, I was thinking about how I'm more of a form artist than a color artist. I think I've discussed that here, and its neurological underpinnings. I see things in terms of structure first, which is expressed in gradations of light and dark. It's a constant struggle for me to represent the colors of things.

So while I was thinking about this form/color issue, I remembered that celtic knot test from when I was little. Suddenly, I realized that form itself is a derivative expression of what kind of representationalist I am. I'm a *shape* representationalist.

That is, I am still deploying the same cheat today. On my first visual sweep and sketching-in of any object, I automatically break the object down into two-dimensional shapes, which I represent in more-or-less-accurate relation to one another. Then the image integrates itself.

For a long time, I had to struggle against a kind of fragmentation of the overall body in my depictions of complete figures. Each part would look fairly right, but when you looked at the body as a whole, it didn't quite fit together:

On the Stairs, oil on canvas, 36"x24", 2006

This is a weakness specific to my mode of breaking down and rebuilding a complex form for the purposes of depiction. I had to specifically tackle and overcome this weakness over time:

The Rest, oil on canvas, 48"x36", 2010

For the same reason, I have never had any interest in those 10-second "gestural drawings" that life-drawing teachers are always on about:

This was posted by an artist named Benza at:

You can see why. This form of analysis is based on total integration of the figure into between one and four fundamental lines and curves. Teachers love this because it's "high energy" and also because it teaches you to do the broad forms first, and go to details later.

I naturally do details first, and broad forms later. One outcome is that I tend to get the broad forms wrong. But I've counter-trained myself to modify and get these forms good-enough:

I simply refuse to draw based on a fundamental cognition that is alien to how my visual analysis wants to operate.

What I am describing here is not meant to imply that this shape-analysis is right or wrong. It's right for me, because it's how I think. And it's valuable for me to know this about myself, because it allows me to understand what I'm doing, and some of my strengths and weaknesses, and some of the ways I can use both my strengths and weaknesses to generate interesting work:

Coming back to where we started, I hope it's clearer now why I would find the outline of the gladioli to be perhaps the most interesting thing about them:

I think the part of this that's useful for people who aren't me is that it's a good example of a question that's very handy to try to answer. No doubt each of you is an expert at something. And the question is this - what kind of expert are you? If you can identify the individual way that you are tackling your work in your field, you can understand how your cognitive and methodological quirks inform and deform your work, and you can understand and improve your work by recognizing the deep forces influencing its formation.

Practical notes: those last three drawings are from the Piera Pregnancy Project. I will have more to say about that soon.

And the nude on light brown paper - that will be showing with The Great Nude at the Governor's Island Art Fair, starting September 4. They were good enough to invite me to participate; I have four drawings there.

Have a great weekend, folks.


  1. I think you're right, each artist needs to find the way that works for their own eye and hand and mind. Many art instructors take a prescriptive approach in which there's a right way to do it, but that way can very well be wrong for any particular student.

    The Celtic knot exercise is an interesting one! The way you approached it is only one of several methods that might work. For instance, another way might be to sketch in the large shapes, four circles ringed by two overlapping ovals, then the straight shapes and finally erase the "hidden" lines. Trying to follow the line as a continuous rope is probably the worst way to approach the problem, and surely not how the figure was composed in the first place!

    Among the pictures in this post, I think I prefer the ones that reveal the breaking down into shapes, particularly "On the Stairs" and the Piera series.

  2. I'll be giving this some thought, but I wanted to say right off that I just LOVE the nude on light brown paper!!!

  3. Interesting! My area of expertise is foreign language learning. And just like art, everyone uses certain innate cognitive abilities to tackle learning. This is why the single method approach of the 90's (think Berlitz) was such hooey. In learning language my fundamental cognitive approach is more like yours: form and detail first. That's why I tend to suck at a language up until I am suddenly great at it. I am all locked up in the details and getting each piece accurate (pronunciation, verb conjugation, or tones for Mandarin). The broad brush, auditory learners just flow with it and are off the ground in no time - though sometimes in the long run, they never quite master that accent or may hang on to simple mistakes into the advanced stages. That's where counter training is great, like you did with your art. That type of language student, I try nail to the wall (pardon the violent image), and force him/her to really master the details. (It's the only way to get from intermediate to advanced.) And the student locked to form and structure, I try to throw some curve balls and get their mind to be more elastic with language. Great blog, by the way.

  4. Hi folks! Sorry for the long delay - it's been a busy week.

    Fred, the "right way" doctrine is one of the reasons I've been avoiding art classes since high school. Let me expand a little on it, too - not only do I not want a teacher telling me to do it the right way, when it's the wrong way for me; I worry even more that a teacher will tell me a right way that *is* the right way for me - but maybe not the one I would have chosen or discovered on my own. So it's taken me longer to assemble my technical skills than it has artists I know who went to class. But everything I have is mine, and that pleases me no end.

    Your analysis of the celtic knot problem is very interesting. It never occurred to me to consider multiple alternative strategies. I think I thought of erasure at the time but rejected it as inelegant (I probably didn't think of the word 'inelegant' at that age though). You're right that the approach I described is a lousy one, but it still appeals to me as the noblest approach, because it involves the most total comprehension of what is being observed. It is the method of Funes the Memorious, if you like...

    I'm glad you liked some of the pictures!

    Ed - thank you! I love that drawing too. And I hope you had useful thoughts.

    Chit-Chat Chinese - thank you so much for pitching in with a perspective from a different field altogether. The parallels are fascinating, and it sounds like you are adaptable enough as a teacher to be able to reach each student in the way most suited to them. The parallels are personally pleasing to me because one of my primary interests is the aesthetics of knowledge and cognition. That is, I think that certain structures underlie a lot, or maybe all, particular fields of study or bodies of information, and if you can grasp those structures, you have a marvelous shortcut for making solid most-probable guesses when, in fact, you have no idea whatsoever what you're talking about. Which I don't, a lot of the time. Anyhow, I'm glad you're enjoying the blog overall - thanks for reading!

  5. The logic of a Borges story will certainly tie you in knots!

    What is the greater understanding? That of the one who walks the labyrinth, experiencing its every convolution, or that of the one who knows the rules of constructing the labyrinth, comprehending its structure?

  6. Yes it will!

    OK, greater understanding? I'm going to tend to come down on the side of the rule-knowing guy, like you couldn't guess.

    But if the question is greater *wisdom,* I'm going with the guy who walks the labyrinth, but only if we mean "walking" in the sense of he brought a bulldozer.

  7. If you have a bulldozer, you needn't follow the boundaries of the labyrinth. The path to the center becomes a straight line!

  8. In perusing this blog (which I just stumbled upon) I am just a hair's breadth short of utterly astonished at how much overlap there appears to be with your interests and idiosyncrasies, and my own.

    To wit, you appear to be quite scientifically literate, and bring this literacy to bear upon artistic questions I thought only I had wondered about in those terms.
    (You're a bit like Johnah Leher, only rigorous and insightful.)

    Moreover the strengths and weaknesses of your visual cognition appear quite similar to my own, and it might amuse you know I spent several frustrating months trying to master gestural drawing (inspired by some of Sargent's looser pencil sketches) before giving up in exasperation.
    I even felt a sense of justification like that you describe, saying to myself, "my mind just doesn't work that way".
    It was worth setting myself the challenge, but my style of perception is far too topographical to have had any hope of meeting it.
    Oddly enough, I find I can ape reasonably well the visual tricks I see in the line drawings of Matisse and Ingres, as I see you have done quite well.

    1. Klaus - first of all, I apologize for the delay replying. In fact, before you made this more detailed description of yourself, I assumed you were somebody else I know, who also calls himself Klaus.

      I'm very glad that you're enjoying this blog and that you're finding some utility in it with regard to your own work. If you've got a blog or website, I'd be happy to get a peak at what you're working on.

      As for Matisse, go back to a very early post titled "Against Authenticity" to get a much more wordy take on my relationship with his drawings. And I have a bunch to say about Ingres's drawings in a series of posts called "How Did He Do That?" (I think - I can't remember what I wrote, or thought).

      Anyhow, thanks for taking the time to read, and for your kind words, and I'll look forward to hearing your thoughts in the future.