It’s raining in Paris. The open-air book and print kiosks along the Right Bank of the Seine are clothed in plastic sheeting, their owners huddled in overcoats. They smoke soggy cigarettes, pull down their caps and complain to their neighbors how the weather is ruining the business. Notre Dame Cathedral rises up behind, a grey eminence, as if it has always been there. Through the streaming droplets, I’m looking at contemporary Japanese woodblock prints, clothes-pegged alongside inexpensive, shrink-wrapped reproductions of Hiroshige, Hokusai and Utamaro. At one time, on this exact pavement, the likes of Van Gogh, Bonnard, Degas, Cassatt and Toulouse-Lautrec would have examined these same images. Here are some of the characteristics they might well have noticed:
Gradations in large areas with intermediate tones.
Integrated forms with implied borders.
Stylized, neutralized and formulized expressions.
Beguiling combinations of curved and straight lines.
The dynamic and slow-fast-slow nature of some curves.
Two-dimensional patterns within three-dimensional forms.
Plain, formalized and controlled perspective.
Use of solid black for strong contrast.
Pattern gradations on particular fabrics.
Hard-won gradations for sensitive areas such as hairlines.
Pictorial attention to ordinary domestic scenes.
Decentralized or off-picture subject placement.
The early Impressionists would also have understood the origins of this art form. At first there was Japanese painting with its characteristic Sumi-e brushwork, and its “first stroke right on — no going back” limitation. Then there was the translation of this freehand skill into the stubborn resistance of the wood block. So that the fine lines on the key blocks would stand up in relief to take the printer’s ink, the incising had to be made carefully around and up to the lines. The adaptation from one form to another presented special problems and invited special solutions. The early Impressionists would have seen that technical awkwardness, while frustrating and demanding, often becomes the generator of a new way not only of making art but of looking at things. Forcing one art form to become another opens new opportunities for invention.
PS: “This day I have found something wonderful that I shall surely copy.” (Vincent van Gogh)
Esoterica: Japanese art came out of the rain and went upscale. Siegfried Bing (1838-1905), a German living in France, travelled to Japan and collected wildly. Bing launched a magazine, “Le Japon Artistique,” and hired van Gogh to promote it. Bing didn’t pay him much, but van Gogh was pleased just to be surrounded by the collection. Bing’s Parisian gallery was called “L’Art Nouveau.” The Art Nouveau movement turned away from rigid classical designs and found inspiration in nature in the shapes of flowers, birds and insects. Bing was a catalyst who united his passion for “japonisme” and the skill of selling.
Van Gogh and copying
by John Fitzsimmons, Fayetteville, NY, USA
Van Gogh did a lot of copying, and his style and subject matter show very direct influences from Japanese prints, Millet, etc. The attitude towards copying in art school was somewhere between denial of its benefits or disdain towards it as something that discourages creativity. Van Gogh wasn’t creative? One day I had come to a dead end on a painting, so I decided to do a copy and looked through an Art in America magazine for something with the criteria of getting the largest image. There was an article on Millet, an artist I had no particular appreciation for, so I tore out a poor but full page reproduction of a shepherdess, a young girl sitting on a rock. I worked for a couple of days, copying it the best I could, and discovered all kinds of great things about composition, color, light. And I found an appreciation of Millet and in turn an appreciation of Van Gogh’s appreciation of Millet. A few years later I saw that Painting in Boston and was really struck by it. I have done a few copies since then but not as many as I should have. I often refer back to what I learned 30 years ago from Millet.
Open to the spirit
by Scharolette Chappell, Auburn Hills, MI, USA
I pour paint, one color into another, let it dry, then mix a thin glaze and pour, let that dry, etc. This process of building layers usually takes a couple of days. I stand the painting up and listen. I leave it or decide to add a touch here and there. Lately, faces keep appearing. Painting is such a spiritual experience for me, sometimes I feel like something from the ethers enters into the flow of paint and there it be. I know this sounds rather crazy, but I started thinking about what art is, any art, any discipline (music, dance, visual) and see two parts of man, the physical and spiritual. The belief system of the society in which we exist is, in effect, the only art we can produce. Take, for instance, Native Americans, African tribes, Japanese, or Chinese painters, etc. If we nurture our spirit, perhaps we become Mozart, Picasso, or Gandhi. I feel I can safely say art is the spirit of man. If you are open to it, the spirit comes through.
Block print effect
by Janet Toney, Greeneville, TN, USA
I love block prints. They are beautiful and graceful. I especially love the large areas of solid color, and the positive/negative space. A few years ago I attended some life drawing sessions. We did sketches of nudes, 2 one-minute sketches, changed pose, 5 five-minute sketches, and then several twenty-minute sketches. I liked my drawings as they were, but I felt they could be more interesting. I took digital photos of them, downloaded the images onto my computer and began to play. I soon saw I could create a similar look to the block prints. I made many different works from each photographed sketch. The images printed out nicely. I used matte photo paper which gave a velvety look to the prints.
Rhythm of line
by Steph Salt, England
I have always loved the understated and deceptively poetic simplicity of Japanese wood block prints. I even made several pieces part of my life study course, and I was the only one to choose that type of art. I straight away saw how Matisse’s style must have been influenced by it, and to some extent my latest pieces are also influenced by Matisse’s work. I just love the rhythm of the lines.
by Suejin Jo, New York City, NY, USA
Your visit to the Seine embankment made me think ofmy own artistic journey from the Far East to New York. I was trained by American Abstract expressionists such as Stamos and Vytlacil at the Art Students League of New York. But one might say that the Eastern sensibility is rampant in the enclosed painting Dream of Lotus from early ’90s work. Then another painting from the late ’90s, Monster in My Closet could be classified(?) as a very Western painting. Am I going back and forth from East and West without being able to reach a synthesis? Since the world is going so global, annihilating our cultural differences fast, both in commerce and art, I and my art may be just cultural relic from the period when one suffered identity crisis of East and West.
by Pepper Hume, Spring, TX, USA
My own experience of translating an idea from one medium to another has always been stimulating. In my case, it’s been switching from two dimensional to three. Relationships and shapes that pleased in the 2-D representation can lose their power to other elements when the viewer’s viewpoint is no longer under the artist’s control. While designing costumes, I was often saddened that the personality of my original pencil drawing was lost in the full color rendering of a design. The finished costume on the actor was a third manifestation, radically different from the drawing or painting. Add the way it moved on stage and you got a fourth manifestation achieved by collaboration between the actor and the designer. I call this existence in time the fourth dimension.
by Valerie Norberry, Kalamazoo, MI, USA
I took a year of Sumi-e from Pat Schafer of Three Rivers, Michigan, who went to University of Chicago. Loved it. Took half an afternoon whenever I could get it. What an opportunity. Don’t forget to mention with Sumi-e you dip the brush three times, once in clear water, then blot, then in 50% ink/50% water, then blot, then dip tip in 100% ink, then stroke. There is a meditative frame of mind when doing all this dabbing and also when grinding ink. We ended up using black watercolor for ease and time limitations.
Art is personal
by Dusanka Badovinac, Netherlands
Experiencing art and making it is, and it has to be, very personal. I read once something what Edvard Munch said: “The way one sees is also dependent upon one’s emotional state of mind. This is why a motif can be looked at in so many ways, and this is what makes art so interesting.” The cat from Bonnard is for me The Cat with personality. But I can understand that somebody can see that different. Once I had an exhibition “My landscapes,” where I had paintings of only women. There was a painting of my mother I painted 15 years after she died, painting of my grandmother as a symbol of her belief, also some paintings of poems I translated on canvas. It was a great success; nobody thought it was wrong to call them landscapes… except one friend (also artist) who made a very strange face saying, “These are no landscapes, why you call them that way?” He is a good artist but he is having a completely different emotional construction. He thought it was stupid.
Claude Monet influenced
by Lorraine Khachatourians, Saskatoon, SK, Canada
Your mention of the Japanese influence reminded me of my visit to Giverny in the autumn of 2005. I hadn’t realized just how interested and influenced Claude Monet had been by the japonisme of the times. There were a large number of his woodcuts throughout his home, and gave one a sense of just how much he loved this type of art. The lovely bridges as well as certain plantings throughout his garden are the most obvious influence, and these were reflected in his paintings. Being on site made the connections between his life and his work that much more immediate. Visit Monet’s collection of Japanese WoodBlocks.
by Maxx Maxted, Nimbin, Australia
How times change. We are never sure exactly where we are standing in time and space because for the most part we are the ones standing still in the face of inexorable change. We don’t even notice how things change around us but unconsciously go with the flow of the Esprit du temps. Take the example of the Vermeer forgeries of the 1930s. Van Megeren did the best he could to imitate the Master. He even fooled the top experts of the day. But that is the point. Today no middling to fair expert would pass them. They have a definite 1920-1930 ‘feel’ about them. It’s a fashion thing that we get so used to changing that we all become more expert due to the increase in general education and the total pictorial saturation not experienced by previous, invariably pictorially illiterate, generations. Which includes Bonnard. Look at the impact Japanese prints made.
Language of design
by Sam Noto, Silver Spring, MD, USA
In response to your comments on design, I would like to add that the essence of design is in the vocabulary. The structured jargon for Fine Arts is the basis for our professional communication. Without it, it is very difficult to talk among ourselves about structure of any painting, sculpture, drawing and all the other media. The elements and principles of organization are listed in numerous text books on the subject of design. Note that The Fine Arts is a profession just the same as all the others. In addition to our common body of abstract knowledge, the jargon of our profession is critical.
I teach both two and three dimensional design. The cornerstone for each class is the vocabulary. This allows the students and I to discuss, critique and comment on any presented art work. Poor art is usually bad design. If I can’t pinpoint the misuses of the principles, I cannot say it is bad design. It has nothing to do with whether or not I like it!
Help required with acrylics
by Aaron Kambeiz, Canada
I’m about to tackle my first actual honest to goodness painting — a big eight foot by four foot canvas. I’m going to try to use acrylics to do it. In planning the piece, I’m realizing that I’ll have to paint big blocks of the piece dark-to-light. Any tips to improve the covering power of acrylics? Should I try ‘gouaching’ the paint by mixing it up a bit with some titanium white? Cut it with a little gesso? (Is that safe?). The Kroma guy I talked to recommended admixing a bit of diatomaceous earth — is this a good idea?
(RG note) Thanks, Aaron. The other day I was thinking about doing a little open heart surgery. I phoned a doctor friend and told him if I could only find out where to make the first cut, I could take it from there. It’s only a pump, right? I’ve fixed pumps before. Aaron, go get a book on acrylics. I could be wrong, but I think you’ll find out that ‘gouaching’ and diatomaceous earth are not necessary. I’ve found that acrylics, in most pigments, dark and light, have excellent covering power. A good idea would be to get the hang of proper priming. You could start with The Acrylic Painter’s Book of Styles and Techniques by Rachel Wolf. Now where’s that knife?
by Barbara Steinberg-Orlowksi, Hawaii
I have been extensively trained as an artist in college, privately since a child up through college, always had private art classes to supplement my regular art training in schools, so I am very well trained in classical art. I moved to a remote island 22 years ago, away from all family to paint and be inspired by the island’s beauty; always had been independent and self-motivated, driven by an internal passion to paint. Just after 9-11 my husband and I did two large fundraisers for the American Red Cross, raising money for victims with a huge art auction we coordinated. We found we liked serving the community. We volunteered, taking time away from our own careers and did not realize it would lead to another four years of volunteer work.
I single-handedly coordinated a watercolor association, giving cheap but high quality monthly art workshops attended by artists and seniors so it became a community asset. I also single-handedly coordinated over 6 juried art shows in four years; a huge effort since so many local artists were able to show their art in mainstream galleries, juried by top artists I asked to help. I also worked tirelessly creating by-laws, dreaming artists would join the board of directors and we’d non-profit and even worked with planning dept. to start an art gallery for the group.
I wore myself out and after four years of artists taking all I had to offer ended up really tapering off in volunteering to my group. What happened is I had less energy to paint, which is my passion, and started feeling resentment that I was being used. I had an accident, injuring my neck, so I was in pain for most of 2006 so stopped painting. When the pain stopped, I was out of practice painting and now it has been so long since I have painted and still have the resentment towards those artists who never inquired how I am and cared about me when I poured out my love to start and keep that group going for four long years. I had envisioned a group that consisted of volunteers working together for a common goal but that never worked out. I am writing this to ask for help to get back to my art–some encouraging words to get back to my art.
Birch plywood woodcut
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 Valerie Hallford of Kelowna, BC, Canada who wrote, “I spent a good deal of time in Paris with tears of joy running down my cheeks.”
And also Dayadevi Heart-Catterall of Healdsburg, CA, USA who wrote, “In the early ’70s, I lived in Paris for 4 years and saw all those prints you speak of. On the weekends, I would motorbike by, eyeing and occasionally stopping to leaf through the vendor’s stock and eat a crepe.”
And also Beth Mahy who wrote, “The Japanese broke the woodcut work up into designers, cutters and printers — all three working in concert on a single image. Some of the cutters were ‘line’ specialists, in other words, they were experts at just executing cuts up to those fine lines.”
And also Roberta Faulhaber of Paris who wrote, “If you’re still in Paris, there’s a great show of Monet’s Japanese prints at the Musée Marmottan right now.”
And also Caroll Drazen who wrote, “You mention the book and art kiosks (les bouquinistes) along the Right Bank on the Seine and, unless something has changed very recently, they are always along the Left Bank. By the way, a musical companion to my ‘raining in Paris’ images are the piano pieces by Erik Satie, Les Gymnopédies. To me they evoke exactly the setting you describe – kiosks, Notre Dame and all.”
(RG note) Thanks, Caroll. I have always mixed up left with right. As for Satie, I see him driving a ’21 Bebe Citroen onto the stage at the Paris Opera.