It is so ordered.
The Supreme Court of the United States made big news yesterday, and it is fitting to unveil this painting today.
The Massachusetts Drawing Act of 1870 – 24×24
Last week a thirteen year old art student, who is also studying music, wrote to ask for some advice on how to make a career out of art. She had seen my work at the Granary Gallery and Adam and David P. Wallis, two of my Gallaristas, encouraged her to share her thoughts. I got a bit long winded, but here is a portion of my response…
I do have some advice, actually.
You are beginning to learn how to express yourself, your thoughts, your feelings and the world as you have come to know it, in many different creative ways. Just like you are finding with musical instruments, there are skills that you need to learn in order to play the notes and make the music you want.
Same is true in art.
There are basic skills that you need to learn.
Tools and techniques that you will need to master in order to use them to make your art.
And just as in music, while you are learning how to play those instruments, your musical tools, you probably are also being taught to listen. Listening to the music but also to yourself. Where does it come from in you, and what is it you want to say with the music you make.
Same with art.
So you practice. Any good teacher will be able to show you how to use pencils and brushes and paints, even digitally. As you get more serious, there is plenty of color theory and art history out there that will fill out your understanding of how to do the craft behind your work and how others before you have chosen to express their practiced talents.
I believe the foundation for all of that is drawing. You need to train you hands to see what your eyes are seeing.
I’ll tell you a story about one of my grandsons, Ben.
Ben came to visit when he was about 15. He had an art project to do for school so I cleared a corner of the studio and he worked along side my easel. His homework was to take a photograph, which his teacher had given him, and make a drawing of it.
I wasn’t exactly thrilled with that concept, and I’ll explain that a bit later.
So, Ben worked for a while and seemed to be struggling, and asked me to look at it.
In the art world this is called a critique. But you probably already know that.
I could see right away what his problem was. It was a photograph of a leaf. Not a leaf.
I made him put down his pencil and put on his coat and walk outside with me.
It was autumn, we have lots of big trees, the ground was covered with…you guessed it… leaves.
I told him to get out the rake and make a pile of them and then pick out half a dozen.
Then I had him really study each one and pick the one which felt the most beautiful to him.
We brought it inside and I asked him what made him choose that one.
OK, now Ben, describe the qualities which made it beautiful.
Then we talked about all the curves and lines and textures in that leaf.
You know how they curl in on themselves as they dry and fall off the branches.
We talked about those curls as gestures. What other forms in nature echo those same gestures.
The challenge was to get Ben to “see” that leaf with all his senses.
To make a personal connection between himself and the beauty he initially saw in it.
To get deep down inside of the living thing which that leaf had been, what it spent it’s life doing and why. You get the idea…become one with the leaf.
Then, after teaching his eye to see, I gave him back his pencil.
It was time to teach his hands to replicate what he now saw, much more deeply, with his eyes.
Here’s where I explain my concerns about the photograph.
Don’t get me wrong, I use photographs all the time as references. When there are things I paint which can’t be right in front of me, say the ocean…because I live in Pennsylvania, a landlocked state…or…birds, which is my theme for this year’s show. They tend not to stand still.
Well, then, I rely heavily on photos I have taken. Hundreds of them sometimes.
I call my camera my backup hard drive. It is both a memory tool and a detail tool.
You might have seen that I like detail. My camera allows me to collect all the information I need to get up close and personal with the scenes and objects I want to paint and to bring them back, via the photos, to the studio to study in depth and then to render.
But…and here’s the important bit…
the camera is only a tool, and the photograph only a reference.
Most of the actual work of painting is about all the years of hard studying and practice I have put in to learn how to use the tools.
The first tool to master is the pencil. Go ahead and play with paints and brushes and computers. Explore and get your hands and clothes covered in color and clay and whatever else interests you.
But don’t let go of that pencil until it does exactly what you want it to do.
Take your sketchbook everywhere. (I even took a fun detour for a while and taught myself bookbinding so I could make my own sketchbooks. As my friend Ted, the art teacher on the Vineyard, used to say…that was sorta fun.)
Draw, Draw, Draw.
Ask other people, teachers, friends, to critique your drawings.
Ask them to be honest but nice.
Listen to what they say and how they respond and see if it matches what you were trying to tell your hands to do.
And, at this beginning stage, draw from life. What was frustrating Ben about his leaf was having to look at a flat, one dimensional image of a leaf. He didn’t even take the photo. So he never even held the leaf. He couldn’t follow the curve on one edge to see where and how it ended up on the back side. He was being asked to draw a form without enough information to really understand that form.
So yes, I use photographs. But, I only use ones which I have taken. To take a photo means I have to be standing in the presence of the subject. When I am in front of that object I am using all my senses to learn about it. I rely heavily on my sketchbook. I take lots of notes and do sketches on scene which also helps me back in the studio.
After many years of practicing, I have a good understanding of how to use my tools, the nature of my subjects, what to leave out and what to leave in…my art teacher, Jim Gainor, used to say, ‘’”Paint the air and not the chair”…and I work really hard.
My partner Pat likes to remind me, “what you focus on expands”.
I have been focusing on art all my life.
I study feathers to better understand birds. I stare at the ocean to learn how the light changes on the water. I read about weather to help explain the clouds…you get the idea. A curious person will be learning new things every single day.
I’m always studying and trying out new techniques. Your new pal David P and I were just sharing some technical ideas a couple weeks ago. I learn tons from listening to other artists talk about their process.
My pencil sees pretty well now, but I still draw. When I want to really understand an object, I draw it.
Wow, I just read back what I’ve written. Geez that was long winded. That’s what is called, “warming to ones theme”. I should have warned you at the beginning to at least grab a snack to get you through. But, if you are reading these words, then you made it to the end.
I hope that someday years from now,
on a day when you are working hard in your studio,
you get a note from a thirteen year old just like the one you wrote to me.
Then you will know how good it makes me feel that you took the time to write,
to express an interest in my work, to share some of your dreams for the future,
and to ask for some advice.
The work of a painter is mostly done alone, by yourself at the easel. It is meaningful but often very hard work. It’s really nice to hear from someone, out there in the big world, who reaches into the studio to tell you they “get” it.
Thank you for that.
I’m attaching a sneak peek at one of the new paintings which will be headed up to the Vineyard next week for my Granary show. It’s title is, The Massachusetts Drawing Act of 1870. Your assignment is to go look that up. I’ll give you a clue, it was the first time that art classes were legislated to be taught in schools.
In it you will see a feather, a quill, which is what was used to hold ink and, like a pen, to draw or write…way back in the day. See how I made this fit the bird theme ?
Alongside, on the desk, is also a pencil.
That particular one was a gift from Ted.
Remember Ted…kinda sorta.
See what is written on the pen…Beginners.
There’s your foundation…
now grab your sketchbook and a pencil
and get to work.
Draw me a leaf.
Yours in flying brushes,