After my Spinoza letter last week, a number of readers wrote directly — most of them “got it” and a few didn’t. Thanks so much for extending this friendship. I’m deeply honoured. One of Spinoza’s noted ideas is that we humans have the privilege of taking cues from our natural world. For artists, the Animal Kingdom is a handy source of inspiration and joy.
Birds (class Aves) are things of beauty and enduring human interest. They offer the painter a stunning range of devices, of use in everything from landscapes to abstracts. Here are a few:
Pattern: The neck of an Avocet
Stipple: The breast of a Song sparrow
Soft: The down of a newly-hatched Mallard
Gradated: The side flank of a Pintail duck
Display: The tail of a courting Sage grouse
Camouflage: The body of a Whippoorwill
Elegance: The neck of a Great Blue heron
Texture: The neck of a Nene goose
Extravagance: The head of a Hooded merganser
Decorative: The topknot of a California quail
Startling: The face of a Short-eared owl
Cute: The deportment of a Pied-billed grebe
Colour: The outrageous, flamboyant Macaw
Surprise: The eye of an Oregon Towhee
Sophistication: The getup of an Emperor penguin
These motifs, and these are just a few, are readily available to anyone with open eyes. They represent deep-rooted, atavistic devices that humans need to see — timeless elements that keep delivering visual delight and intrigue. Miraculously provided, is it possible that we are simply invited to honour them? While we may never get into the business of painting birds, their pictorial energy and design are there for our use and inspiration. The connection may have us within the shaky walls of pantheism and anthropomorphism, but so what? I could be wrong, but I think it may just represent one of life’s great lessons: “If all else fails, follow directions.”
PS: “Glory be to God for dappled things —
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;”
Esoterica: My friend Fen Lansdowne and I were cruising slowly from side to side on a remote country road. Out of the corner of our eyes, we both saw it at the same time — a gray and white flash in the roadside hedge. Slowly backing up until we came alongside, a small window in the hedge disclosed a Northern Shrike in the act of impaling a shiny green beetle on a thorn. A first for both of us, we sat for perhaps a minute as the bird went about its private business, its black mask pulled around its face like a bandit. “Tasteful,” said Fen, “refined.” He was searching for the words to best describe the image. “A slick man for all times,” he said.
Spinoza and mathematics
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Port Moody, BC, Canada
I had a thought that Spinoza would have delighted in the “set theory” (and later Venn’s diagrams which are one of the most beautiful areas of mathematics). Then I found out that he indeed influenced Georg Cantor’s conception a couple of centuries later:
Abstract: “Cantor, the founder of set theory, cared much about a philosophical foundation for his theory of infinite numbers. To that end, he studied intensively the works of Baruch de Spinoza.” (from Studies In History and Philosophy of Science, by Paolo Bussotti and Christian Tapp)
There is 1 comment for Spinoza and mathematics by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki
by Nancy Schempp, Bristol, RI, USA
In Christian Science all objects are translated back into ideas. The object is temporal, albeit beautiful, but the idea is the substance, and is eternal. The idea of birds is ‘soaring aspirations.’ The full quote from Science and Health, our textbook, is “The fowls, which fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven, correspond to aspirations soaring beyond and above corporeality to the understanding of the incorporeal and divine Principle, Love.” This is not to take one iota from the grandeur of such winged beauties as we see them through the material senses, but rather to appreciate even more of their significance. I hope I do not offend you in any way by sharing this, but thought it might be of interest to our readers.
Mind’s eye painting
y Diane Voyentzie, CT, USA
I recently came across a book entitled Shouting in the Dark by John Bramblitt. A young man who became blind, he had never painted before, and now it is his lifeline… It made me ask a friend of mine, who has been blind since birth and is an older adult, if she would like to try painting. She was very enthusiastic about it, although in her entire life no one had ever asked her to try and paint.
I have been working with her and you would be amazed at the way she can describe things in her mind, and then can paint. I purchased a special “blackboard” for the blind which just uses plain paper and a ballpoint pen. With that she can draw, and feel her drawings… I give her a canvas and we put acrylic paint on a paper plate… red at the 12 o’clock, yellow at the 6 o’clock and so on… By putting a bowl with an apple and a banana in front of her, she can feel them individually, and then paint them on the canvas…
I have been so interested in this “haptic” seeing, that I read more deeply about it. Apparently the same areas of the brain light up by touch seeing, as in regular seeing.
As a painter myself, and one who volunteers painting time for Alzheimer’s patients, I see that the value of the “seeing” right brain in the mind is very strong and sometimes is not given the credit it should have. When words lose their meaning or their ability to be spoken, pictures can sometimes replace and project meaning. We have so much to learn about the healing aspects of the creative forces alive in each of us.
Thank you for all that you do… The beautiful letter you wrote about Spinoza and also the artistic words you used to describe birds, leads me believe that you would be interested in this “mind’s eye” painting.
The roadrunner’s personality
by Jackie Knott, Fischer, TX, USA
Let me add one more inspiration to your list — personality.
We have several roadrunners that regularly visit us. They seem particularly engaged with their human co-habitants. They greet us with coos (they’re from the cuckoo family) from a few paces away. Not shy, they jump up on the birdbath and if it isn’t brim full will clatter their mandibles to reprimand us. They’re impressive birds, up to 24″ long.
This guy uses the back stair to hunt for dinner. I’ve watched him leap down, grab a snake, and trot off to that rock and beat it senseless. Then run off into the trees to partake of his feast in private. He’s fond of hiding in the shade of rocks and shrubs.
The animation roadrunners present is endlessly fascinating. They will raise their crest, comically wag their tail, fluff their feathers and stretch their wings, and then quickly run off. This one bird will challenge every one of your devices available to an artist.
The Mayan legend how the roadrunner got his varied plumage is entertaining.
Regardless, our feathered good omen is a fun friend to have and never fails to make me smile.
Hats off to artists who can capture not only the color and physical characteristics of birds, but that unique personality that makes them what they are. That’s one tough assignment!
An artist’s perception
by Brenn Pruet Kunkel, Richmond, IN, USA
Your artistic descriptions give the visuals accurately. If I were to place one word to describe a color, mood, pattern, texture, atmosphere, temperature to a subject matter (in your email it is various birds), I believe you have done a good job at educating your readers. This, as you know, can apply to all that we choose to paint. But the true artist (in my opinion) is the only one that can discern this. When you or I look at a tree, we see it through different eyes than the person who doesn’t create or can’t see the forest for the trees. I think we, as artists, see beyond each subject’s form, color, texture, temperature, etc. An artist has what I would call, a ‘second sense’ about most things. While others view in singleness (is that a word?), we are multi-faceted in sight and mind.
I don’t know about you, but I feel blessed of who and what I am, an Artist. I won’t be the greatest artist in the world, and don’t care to be. I am just happy to paint and paint. There are many, many outstanding artists who inspire me and I need them to give me inspiration. But in my tiny, little world that envelopes me, I am as great as I can be, in this moment. No, not the greatest, but great enough. So, today, I will strive (again) to be greater than the moment before.
Looking at the details
by Liz Gowen, Port Penn, DE, USA
I am a potter that loves to draw on some of my work and paint with colored slips. I have been following your post for several years now and really enjoy them. I believe you had a post over the last year that said that when we become overwhelmed, we should concentrate (I am paraphrasing here, since I can’t remember the specific words you used) on the smallest of things, and look at them in detail. After reading this I purchased a macro lens for my camera and started taking nature walks photographing the smallest of flower, insects, and birds in my garden that I walk past daily, noticing the beautiful flowers explode with new dimensions. This led to a re-centering of my life for a long period as well as some new work in my studio. I would like to find that original post to reread it and share with others. After today’s post, it made me look again for your website’s archives to find this letter, but instead, I found your email, so I could ask. I would appreciate any help in finding this one of your previous letters. Turning 61 tomorrow I feel the need to re-center again and see where further this letter might take me. I also have difficulty explaining this phenomenon to others, and would love to share this with them.
(RG note) Thanks, Liz. You’re probably thinking about “Bob’s minutiaescope” from the letter Too wonderful to see of August 23, 2005. It’s a macro-set digital camera on the end of a spade-like stick that’s triggered remotely from the handle end. It takes all kinds of wonderful close-ups and random patterns that you might not otherwise notice unless you have your nose right on the ground.
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The sweet beauty of our earth
by Lisa Hill, Richland, WA, USA
I simply love birds, birding and all things birdy. Reading through the list of birds in your Pied Beauty letter, I clearly envisioned each with their unique characteristic so suited to the descriptive “device.” My favorite is the deportment of the Pied-billed grebe.
The excerpt from “Pied Beauty” brought back the memory of a unique experience I had three years ago. I sing in a choral ensemble, The Mid-Columbia Mastersingers. We sang a marvelous piece of music for chorus, chamber orchestra and percussion called “Missa Gaia: Mass for the Earth” by Libby Larsen. Ms. Larsen is one of the most prolific and oft-performed living American composers. She was our Artist-in-Residence guest for several days prior to, and throughout the three performances of her piece. The Gloria movement of this Mass was the “Pied Beauty” poem in its entirety.
I tell my students over and over that differences are what catch the human eye and attention; the edges of dapples and stipples, the juxtaposition of couple-colors, and the contrast of value, which trumps all. One could get along just fine in this world with no color vision, but so sweet is the colorful, pied beauty of Gaia, our Earth.
Although I am a writer not a painter I enjoy and look forward to your twice-weekly letters. However, the time has come to seek your advice.
I recently committed to keeping in trust for her son, my sister’s art collection, not to mention a host of other items including pottery and furniture, some of it quite valuable. Alas, my sister has dementia and has been in residential care for some time. The storage cost of her goods was adding further on-going expense for my nephew.
To store much of the stuff my 360 square metre partially insulated metal shed will suffice as it only houses miscellanea and a few pieces of farm equipment. Whilst the goods are insured for fire and theft, my concern is whether the paintings will be damaged by the extremes of temperature experienced here, especially in a corrugated iron shed. I live in rural New South Wales, Australia. In winter — which is approaching — the temperature commonly drops to three or four degrees below freezing. In summer the temperature inside the shed could soar to as high as 45 degrees C. The shed is weatherproof, with a cement slab floor. Humidity has not been a problem here in the past although locals reckon climate change is altering the old patterns.
Huntsman spiders abound and silverfish and insects lurk but I’ve not yet encountered a snake in there!
The paintings were professionally packed (by a removalist company, not specialist art people) and have butcher’s paper between their faces and the bubble wrap that surrounds them inside painting/mirror-width cardboard cartons. As to what the paintings are I can only say that apart from the icons they are all framed and include works in oil and acrylic. There are three religious icons (allegedly) valuable and probably Russian, judging by the Cyrillic letters on some.
Because they are cheerful and uplifting, I propose to hang in my home some of the more recent plein air works in oil by a contemporary Australian artist, Kasey Sealy. However, there is also a French still life (I can’t make out the signature); an early still life by George Chalmers, a member of the Montsalvat group of painters who worked in Eltham, Victoria in the early 20th Century; a forest scene by another early 20th Century Australian Peter Glass, some early portraits by Per Garman-Vik, a contemporary Norwegian painter plus assorted others.
I know we are putting off today what we — or my nephew — will have to do in the future which probably will mean selling. However, in the meantime we are marking time and simply keeping the works safe.
I haven’t even mentioned the comprehensive collection of pots including many by a highly regarded Australian, Peter Rushforth, as we figure they — and a few bronze sculptures — should be okay in the shed.
We would be grateful for your guidance on storage of the paintings, especially the icons, please Robert. My nephew is especially protective of those as his mother so loved them. He has scant space but I did insist he take one of the icons which had borer holes in its old timber back. Although probably treated some years ago as we couldn’t see any dust, I couldn’t risk my timber and timber-filled house.
(RG note) Thanks, Anonymous. The operative words for painting and other art storage are cool, dark, dry and insect free. Your iron shed is not ideal as it may heat up like an oven in the increasingly warm Australian summers. Shade trees come to mind. A vapor barrier of polystyrene (in some countries it’s called jablo) tacked to the walls and ceiling and laid on the floor may help to stabilize humidity. Paintings need to be stacked vertically and not touching each other. The periphery needs to be sprayed a couple of times a year with an insecticide (we use a product called Raid). I would also lightly spray the backs of the icons or any other wooden items. Those bore-holes are part of the provenance but you don’t want more of them. Snakes are not normally connoisseurs.
Enjoy the past comments below for Pied beauty…
Chinese ink/watercolour painting 13 x 19 inches
by Lisa Chakrabarti, Los Angeles, CA, USA
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Ali Ghotbi of Isfahan, Iran, who wrote, “I am a painter and designer who would like to be more connected with artists in the world. Can you help me?”
And also Bill Ger who wrote, “Spinoza — the gift that keeps on giving.”