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Artistic Process: the Red Cow Woodcut

06Oct11

Trying something new out on the ol' blog after a long hiatus - I've been more active with my own art projects lately, so I thought I'd try out a few posts on the processes using specific mediums and take the opportunity to show off a few of my own pieces at the same time.

This spring, shortly after my last post, I took a trip to Nicaragua and Costa Rica to visit a dear friend, learn how to surf, and just bum around Central America for a couple of weeks. One of the places we stayed was a little eco-tourism farm on the island of Ometepe in Lake Nicaragua. The farm had a small herd of skinny red cows that roamed about pretty freely - on the first afternoon we stayed there, I saw the entire herd troop down to the beach to drink from the lake - an especially surprising sight given that the lake is the size of a small sea, and the beach had white sand and a large tiki umbrella.

I took a few photos of the cows, and came home thinking they'd make for a great woodcut.

Now, read the rest of this with a word of caution: I am no great wood-cutter. I use linoleum sheets and rudimentary, large tools, and the result is often pretty rustic. But for this particular piece, I really liked that effect.

I generally start with a drawing, and make a few practice runs at how I'm going to do the actual cuts - where highlights and shadows should be, and what types of line I'll use. Lesson #1 of print making: your final product will be the mirror image of the object you use to make the print, which I usually forget completely. If I were more dedicated, I'd use tracing paper to make a reverse image from my original sketch.

Next I move to the linoleum itself - this is by far the most time consuming process for me, because I'm still only making prints with one color. I usually work out a basic outline, then go back and make deeper, wider cuts into places that should be highlighted. Here's how this linoleum turned out.

When I'm near satisfied, I start making practice runs, sometimes just using paint to save my ink. Once I've made all the tweaks and changes I can handle, I use Speedball ink (I have in red and black) and a roller and wooden spoon combo to make the print itself. I use a medium-quality archival print paper.

 

And here's the final! I like a few things about how this turned out: the rustic feel of the lines, as I mentioned, with their uneven quality and literally rough edges, the head-on stare of the cow's face, and the impact of the ears - I tried to emphasize them by increasing the size slightly and widening the lines outlining them.

I made copies in black and red, and framed four of them together.

If you really, really like it, I'll send you a copy. $20 for one cow, $30 for two, $50 for four, unframed. You pay shipping. Leave a comment or send a message via onsugar to request.

always sunny

09Feb11

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No, not in Philadelphia. It may be midwinter here, but in SoCal it's always sunny.  I took a little trip south a few weekends back, and my photos of surfers were such a refreshing sight to see on a rainy Seattle day last week that I thought I'd share them. I also obsessively tried to capture the progression of a wave, from swell to crest to crash, unfortunately resulting in far too many mediocre photos of identical waves in mid-cycle. I forced myself to choose one sequence, which you see here - I think these would look lovely hung in oversize prints, next to one another along a long, high wall.

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Picasso! (numero dos)

12Jan11

Last week, I spent two hours reveling in the world of the Picasso exhibit. Taken on a journey through the artist’s tumultuous life and love affairs, the exhibit (in it’s first stop at the Seattle Art Museum through next week, headed to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts next from February 19 to May 15, followed by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco this summer) really does a standout job of immersing its viewers in Picasso’s “diary”. And as with any good diary, this one was full of sexual exploits and love affairs. I walked away from the exhibit impressed with Picasso, yes, but also with each of various women in his life who so impacted this artist’s incredible work (and incredible ego). Fascinatingly, Picasso recognized this intertwining (or is it dependency?) of art with love of women, by believing sexuality to be equal to creativity.

Picasso is organized into an almost overwhelming 12 galleries, each chock full of drawings, sketches, woodcuts, etchings, and of course, paintings. The exhibit begins early in his life, with an introduction to the Blue period through a painting reacting to a friend’s suicide. That work is done in a style similar to van Gogh’s, and is in stark contrast to the work hung next to it: La Celestina, a portrait of an old woman with a cataract that is in many ways typical of the Blue period.

La Celestina, 1904.

The next gallery shows Olga, Picasso's first wife, and work from his years of happy family life. His first experiments with cubism appear in this gallery, which led to his early masterpiece Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.

Olga, 1918.

Sacre-Coure, 1909.

That gallery is followed by a turn towards the weird during the beginning of Picasso’s family troubles and first adulterous affair, with a woman named Marie-Therese Walter in 1927. In a small room filled with bizarre distortions and increasingly sexual references, you see firsthand the turmoil the artist is going through – and putting his family through. The Acrobat provides a beautiful, if jarring, centerpiece to the room, complemented by sculptures and a lively colorful painting with penile imagery.

The Acrobat, 1918.

Moving into a blatantly sexual period, the next gallery is devoted entirely to work inspired by or picturing Marie-Therese. I reacted strongly to these works, each of which is erotic in varying degrees of intensity as well as is, well, round. Picasso obsessed over rounded lines, circles as a motif, and the sexuality inherent in curves of bodies.

The Reading, 1932.

One can only imagine how good Marie-Therese must have been in bed – and indeed the exhibit includes a quote from Picasso: “Marie would do whatever I asked.” This flexibility, utter devotion, constant willingness is evident in what I perceive as an almost perverted contrast between softness, and violent emotion or distortion – an increasingly pastel color palette with rounded lines, yet nudity and strange, shocking body positions augmented in their sexuality by abstraction.

Picasso’s next affair with Dora Maar, represented by work in the next gallery which led up to Guernica, provides a stark contrast to the imagery in the previous work. He emphasizes line even further, but this time with sharp edges and straight lines. His color palette shifts entirely to bright vivid intense colors, and the juxtaposition makes it easy to imagine what type of woman Dora Maar was –intelligent, intense, and always challenging for Picasso.

Dora Maar, 1937.

His final love affairs aren’t given as much weight in the exhibit, but I found most interesting the one woman who left him, and the woman who replaced her and remained with Picasso through his final days: Francoise Gilot (the former), and Jacqueline Roque (the latter). These works remain colorful, and continue to play with line. The portrait of Jacqueline below also shows a stronger sense of shape in throat and body, and of the hand of the artist in his palette knife scrapings in the back- and foreground.

Jacqueline, 1954.

The exhibit quotes Picasso as stating many times, as he looked back through the century of art, that when thinking of true peers, “all things considered, there’s only Matisse.” It closes with late work and some lovely photographs of the artist throughout his life, with his family, lovers, and in his studio. All things considered, this exhibit is a fantastic look at the life of a wonderfully productive artist, but in many ways most interesting for the insights about the women who were such a central influence and inspiration to his masterpieces.

Picasso.

09Dec10

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Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, 1907.

Ok, forgive me. I’ve completely neglected my hobbies for the past four months. My boyfriend returned from epic adventures at sea! And then we went on vacay. And I had a work trip, and a glorious return to Ann Arbor!, and Thanksgiving, and now here it’s almost Christmas and I still haven’t been to see the Picasso exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum.

I know that Picasso is one of the most iconic artists ever. But I have to be honest: I’ve never really taken to his work. I also haven’t ever studied him, and I usually find that I like artists more and more as I spend time on them.

The SAM’s exhibit has been uber-popular, and I fully expect it to be a fascinating grouping - the pieces all come from the Musée National Picasso in Paris and are part of the artist’s own collection – a collection he began for himself in order to define his legacy.

What little I have studied of Picasso has focused on his move from realism into Cubism, and the interest in distortion that seems to have led him there. I’ve scanned some of the images that will be included in the exhibit on the SAM’s website here, and look forward to seeing the organization of the exhibit. Will they move us chronologically through the artist’s periods? Will they group and contrast different works from different periods? What will they teach us about the artist’s choices in life and art?

While skimming the paintings, I found a thoughtful recording of Chuck Close (a wonderfully detailed and realistic portraitist who was born and raised in Seattle) discussing his first art purchase - a Picasso lithograph - and its influence on his work as a young painter. “I wanted to understand how works of art got made, and Picasso was a figure in that for me. So much of Picasso is directly painted, you can see a record of decisions he made, you can even see what tool he used, what kind of brush he used, you can see palette knife, brush handle to scrape through paint.” The works of these two artists on the surface almost couldn’t be more different, so I think it’s interesting to hear that one found so much to learn from the other.

I’ll do an update on my favorite pieces once I see the exhibit; until then, here’s a little chronology for you so you can see the cast range of styles Picasso worked in.

La Vie, 1903. From Picasso's Blue Period.

Portrait of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, 1910. Super cubist.

Stravinsky, 1910. Line drawing.

And finally, the famous Guernica, 1937.

Two Depositions

21Aug10

So, I may just be depressed because my boyfriend has been in Alaska for the past two months, or because summer in Seattle has been so short-lived, but for some reason these two paintings of Christ’s deposition from the cross (a definite downer of a subject) seemed like good things to write about this week.

Painted by two popular Italian Mannerist painters from the Florentine school, Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino, these depositions are interesting to me not because they’re depositions (mannerist painters loved the nascent emotion in the scene), but because of their composition.

Mannerism, the time after perfect realism was achieved by the likes of DaVinci and Michelangelo, is definitely well known as a period of distortion. Faces distorted by emotion, or body parts shortened or lengthened (Parmagianino’s Madonna of the Long Neck, 1540, below, is a famous example of Mannerism where distortion occurs in the name of beauty) – mannerists took what the High Renaissance painters and sculptures had learned about the human form and pushed it a step further. What I enjoy about mannerism is that artistic license had become an accepted concept – a commissioner knew that a mannerist painter would probably give him something he didn’t expect; artists had moved from craftsman to intellectuals.

Back to these two depositions, then. Both are painted on large panels with rounded tops, the center of altars. Both are colorful (Pontormo’s in bright pastels, Rosso Fiorentino using more dense and vivid tones), and both communicate the emotion of the scene through the body language and facial expression of the figures. But works are absolutely different.

The composition of the Pontormo Deposition from 1526-1528, the second work above, is downright strange. First, it doesn’t include a cross, wholly unnatural for a painting of the deposition. Figures are stacked on top of, in front of, and behind figures, and he plays with fabric throughout so that you feel a crowded, upended motion in the work. Background, once so important in the works of DaVinci, has been completely removed. There is no suggestion of a hillock that the grieving Mary could be standing on; rather, she hovers in space with other women on top of her. As you look at the frightened, distraught, and saddened faces in the work, the pale pastel colors and angelic golden curls do little to soften the feeling of upendedness that Pontormo creates.

Rosso Fiorentino’s Deposition from 1521 is quite different, in my mind. While he also stacks his composition, he acknowledges space within it. He maintains the tradition of the cross with weighty, solid beams and includes ladders for his figures to float on. The painting is anchored by the two bright, hefty cloaks at each of the bottom corners of the work. He too upends the viewer with diagonal lines of the distraught kneeling woman in red across the lower half of the work, and the skinny legs and arms of the man wrapped in yellow on a ladder above her. He’s deftly layered these figures, with a bottom tier standing on solid ground, a middle tier on the ladders, and an upper tier in the man above the cross. The eye circles round the work, but the strong vertical lines keep the journey orderly. Rosso’s Christ may be just as unsettling as Pontormo’s lack of setting, though – the peaceful, ashen face seems to smile.

Both works are great examples of Florentine mannerism, and really worth seeing in person if in Tuscany. The Fiorentino piece has recently been restored, and I still remember the vivid blues and reds from a day trip to Volterra, where it hangs, that I took two years ago. The Pontormo work is in Florence at the Chiesa Santa Felicita.

fotographie #2 - adventuring

02Aug10

Me and Julie took on the Olympic Peninsula this weekend and came back with a passle of pictures. These are all taken with my lil' point and shoot, but the scenery more than speaks for itself.

A boating party

28Jul10

Now for another summery work – one of the loveliest, in my (oh so humble) opinion.

August Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party (Le dejeuner des canotiers), 1880-81, is of course a well-known work, and especially when seen like this (in print, on the web, or in a slide) I don’t think the full impact of the work is felt.

When I lived in Washington, DC, I used to trot off to the Phillips Collection once a week (when they were open late on Thursdays ) to gawk at this painting, and of course the rest of their wonderful collection (like the Rothko room I mention in this post).

Two things surprised me about this work when I first saw it in person: its size, and its range of color. It is a large painting, at least three feet wide by two and a half feet high, and it makes the characters painted seem almost life-size. I wanted to tip right in to the painting – the open foreground adds to that sensation, allowing the viewer to stand at the edge of the table as if you’re invited to the party.

The colors, especially the bright flowery orange used as an accent throughout the work, also made me peer in closer to explore the painting’s details. The oranges and blues feel almost neon, seen up close in accenting lines on hats, flowers, and shirts.

But it’s the sightlines in this painting (just as easily seen above as in person at the Phillips Collection) that electrify the work. Man looks at woman, who looks at dog in foreground of the piece, over half-empty wine bottles. You must stare through his sight line as you look past and see the next couple: the lovely young woman in blue on the right, facing us, who is definitely having a nice time with that coy dark haired man in his dapper white suit. Their hands almost touch as she turns to flirt with him, fingers so close that if you kept watching you might see that electric touch. Past them, a rakish bowler hat faces a woman leaning on the rail, engaged in conversation. This one, to me, looks like it isn’t going quite as well – she may be bored. Or perhaps just overheated.

I do wonder what (or who) that man at the rail is looking at, in the white sleeveless shirt. A lover who has denied him, across the party? And I also love to count the seemingly different classes in this party, if identified by dress – two men without sleeves, all the way to the man at the back in his shining top hat. According to Wikipedia this is Renoir’s group of friends, and the woman with the dog is his future wife (I’m no longer a scholar, I don’t have time to go to the library, forgive me for citing Wikipedia).

With all that going on, its easy to get lost in the painting. Renoir beautifully organizes it for the viewer so that we’re able to take it all in delightfully, without feeling overwhelmed. The circle of white, anchored by the tablecloth, is a constant for the eye to return to while it flits around from face to face. The open space he’s preserved in the top left/middle of the piece is also a sort of anchor, a restful place for the eye to go. I like to look there, peering through the foliage onto the river just as one might do if you were standing a bit further down the rail yourself.

Enjoy your own boating parties! It's almost August!

Summertime art, if there ever was such a thing...

06Jul10

Janet Fish is a contemporary American artist who seems to like the same things in art that I do: color, and unexpected composition. And more color.

I was just reading up on Ms. Fish and found out that she grew up in Bermuda. It got me thinking about something that I’ve always loved about studying art: how a sense of place comes out in an artist’s work. Studying the history of art is really just like studying history, but with nice pictures in the text books and fewer battles to remember.

In the case of Janet Fish’s work, her time in Bermuda seems to me to have an impact in most of her work. This piece, Tropical Still Life, is the most obvious example (my school had a print of it, and for three years every time I walked by it I smiled, especially on those cloudy, bleak days that seem to be the only weather in winter in southeast Michigan). I love the use of color, first and foremost. You can’t ignore the color. I once wrote an article for that same school’s newspaper about this print, but it was printed in black and white and hardly anyone even recognized the piece.

But the composition is also interesting. She places a lot of weight directly in the foreground with the halved fruit, and the orange in the center of the work is also the darkest spot which makes the eye perceive that spot as receding. Finally she places palm fronds in the top corner of the work, so that it seems you’re peeking underneath the branch to look at the little fruit spread. And with the endless squiggles, even appearing under the orange glass dish, you almost miss the happy little bird in the top right corner. The eye sort of circles around and around the work, following the curve of the bananas, and she doesn’t really let you rest on anything.

That activity of the eye is an accomplishment for a still life painter – and I think its what makes her paintings and prints so appealing.

That, and the skill she has in painting glass. Take a look at the work below. You really cannot debate the skill here – reflection upon reflection, behind and in front of layers of glass. Have you ever tried painting glass? Even drawing it? I find it next to impossible to get it to look remotely realistic. But even in this work which is so much about reflections on glass, her use of color is still so striking, so vibrant.

Interested in buying yourself a print? I believe this is her dealer.

fotographie

16Jun10

Jim and I have become our own little photographers of late, after we got a camera this winter. A few of our Seattle pics...

Horses, Part II: Degas

15Apr10

 

Edgar Degas is probably best known for his paintings of dancers. Magical, poetic paintings, they beautifully showcase the ideal form of a dancer, and the idealism of dance performance. But some of my favorite Degas works are about an entirely different show--horse racing.

I've been pondering for a while the idea that horses and dancers provide similarly interesting forms for artists--lots of muscle, elegant poses, and a variety of emotions to explore. Degas is one artist who explored the similarities quite thoroughly. In my post on Marino Marini and his sculpture of the phallic horse, I do not mention his exploration of the female human form in his own dancers. Two artists with such starkly different ways of representing form seemingly take interest in the same subject.

The above example of Degas' small scale sculptures, like most of these works, was originally formed of wax. Most weren't cast into bronze until after his death in 1917. Most people agree that he used these small and quickly formed wax sculptures to observe and better understand a form before he painted it. You can see horses repeating this pose in many of his horse racing works. The work below, At the Races (c.1885-1892) shows horses in a variety of positions. Troll through a google search of "degas horses" and you'll see any number of works with similar subject, even similar composition. And he worked on his paintings of women in this way too - the motif of women bathing, usually seen from behind with a clear view of the back, is explored over and over in small wax (now bronze) sculptures. The National Gallery in DC has great examples of Degas sculpture and painting.

 

So why is it interesting? The sheer number of horses Degas painted, for one (and Marini sculpted). Yes, they may have sold well, but he was personally intrigued by them too. In the late 19th century, artists felt their independence and the existence of artistic license in everything from medium to subject matter more than ever before. An artist like Degas choosing to paint or sculpt two things over and over and over again is a shift in the art world--Courbet, his predecessor by a few years, painted landscapes over and over and over again, churning out hundreds. But that was to make a living. Not because they were fundamentally of interest to Courbet as an artist. Degas, and Marini, both saw in horses and dancers a fascinating subject whose forms could (and did) take years to explore.

So where does an artist like Takashi Murakami fit in? He recreates works, re-works subjects, and churns on motifs over and over again, but does he decide what his work will be, or does the market?

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