Nine summers ago, a New York friend told me of an American writer she knew living in Italy and looking to swap studios. I scraped together a ticket and rented a piano to be delivered the day I arrived. A few months later, the writer’s neighbour picked me up at the airport and, as she placed my bag inside the door, invited me to come later to a small dinner party in her apartment. “I’m here to work,” I ached, but her eyes, like grey almond Modiglianis, turned minutely downward at my stupidity. “See you at nine-thirty.”
Yearly Archives: 2017
Notan is a Japanese word that means “lightness-darkness.” It represents one of the basic principles that help compositions stick to the wall. Notan has nothing to do with local or chosen colour. It’s the ability to see things in terms of black and white, and to consequently build strength in imagery. When compositions work in black and white — they work.
Whether they put a name to it or not, artists in all cultures have long recognized the value of notan.
On the first day of art school in our first foundation class, our professor, a grey-bearded sage in brown corduroys, casually mentioned that Cézanne had already achieved everything in painting, so this was probably just a hopeless exercise. In terror, we squeezed out the assigned palette and studied a table of fruit in the middle of the room. In the library later, I checked what I was up against. “With an apple I will astonish Paris,” wrote Cézanne. For his innovation, his work was rejected seventeen times by the Paris Salon before a fellow artist intervened.
Painters sometimes run into problems when they attempt larger works. This goes for artists who transpose smalls into bigs, as well as those who make bigs for their own sake. For many, bigs and smalls can appear to be the work of separate artists. Spontaneity and simplicity in the small give way to complexity and labour in the large. In the larger painting we may be trying too hard or trying to “give too much.” Big paintings can fall into the “mish-mash” category — too much going on. Small paintings rarely have this problem.
In Homer’s Odyssey, when the hero Odysseus had to fight the Cyclops Polyphemus by putting out his eye, he first introduced himself by the pseudonym, “Nobody.” So, when Polyphemus cried out in pain to the other Cyclopses that “Nobody” was trying to kill him, they thought Polyphemus had been afflicted by a divine power and, instead of helping him, recommended prayer as the answer. Twenty-eight hundred years or so since the creation of The Odyssey, Homer scholars are debating whether Homer himself may have also been a Nobody.
On the value and importance of drawing, teachers often ask, “Why is it most people don’t sign up for drawing classes? Painting classes are always more popular.” Also asked, “Is it true that John Ruskin used to run drawing classes for factory workers?”
He did. Ruskin believed in drawing. He thought it was part of the informed life and good for everybody. One of the most eloquent art advocates and critics of all time, Ruskin himself made thousands of fine and sensitive drawings.
Victoria Prooday, a Toronto occupational therapist and blogger specializing in child brain development and neuroplasticity, recently cited some alarming statistics about skyrocketing childhood depression, ADHD and teen suicide rates. Calling it a silent tragedy, she attributed the problem to an epidemic of well-meaning but bad parenting. Her post has been read over 10 million times, proving to her that the dilemma is real and prevalent.
On Saturday I was looking for something to paint when I noticed a commotion near at hand in the bush. A bear, I thought. Then the hook of a walking-cane stuck out. “What are you doing in there?” I asked. A man’s voice and then a man emerged. “Lookin’ fer an’ pickin’ chokecherries,” he said. He was a rough character, like an old cowboy in a baseball cap — he was wearing an old-fashioned galvanized iron apple-bucket with a canvas bottom. The cane was for getting at the high branches. “Try ’em,” he said, handing me a handful
I recently returned from travelling to find a pile of mail gems, many from readers of these letters. One was a gift of a small paperback postmarked Crescent Pond, New Hampshire. I crawled into bed and into a list of timeless painting tips ordered by importance, the essentials highlighted and supported with first-hand insights from old and modern masters.
A subscriber wrote, “Success as an artist to me is when you go to sleep your last thoughts are about creating. When you wake up in the morning your first thoughts are about creating. It comes from the gut, from your insides.”
They say that if you wake up in the morning looking for a cigarette, you’re addicted. Quite a few creators — not all — fit the profile described. Further, it seems there’s often a relationship between our feelings of success and some sort of addictive behavior. But unlike other habits that may threaten health and happiness, this condition might just be good for you.