Thursday, July 26, 2012

Old Gold #3 - Venezia

Le Serenissima. Of all the cities I have ever had the pleasure of visiting, arriving by train in Venice has got to rank among the most aesthetically sublime. Approaching Venice over the causeway is visually enticing -- a sneak preview of things to come. The train station is all massive and marble -- perhaps appealing only to those who are fans of Art Deco. But, to exit the station on a sunny day and to be struck by the complementary blues of the Grand Canal and the clear Adriatic sky on the one hand, and the warm earth tone of the Venetian architecture on the other, is to be transfixed.

gondolas (coming and going) near my hotel

And then there are the acoustics. As beautiful as Rome was, the sound level was like that of any modern city anywhere on the planet. After all, street traffic is noisy. In Florence, on the other hand, many of the streets and neighborhoods have been designated pedestrian only, and the only sounds are of voices and the rather soothing rhythmic plink, plink, plinking of masons hammers. But Venice, oh Venice! In Venice there is no vehicle traffic (nor many lanes wide enough to handle vehicles if there were.) The only sounds are those of people and, as you approach the canals, the lapping of water against hulls and the occasional relaxed thump of a slow-turning boat motor.

 a Venetian family "car" 

a peaceful, beautiful backwater 

Granted, there are crowded tourist centers -- historic attractions where visitors frequently outnumber residents. But it is easy to slip away down a narrow calle and spend hours sketching and exploring quiet, but beautiful neighborhoods with their earth-toned houses and small, unassuming churches (frequently housing art treasures that put to shame the collections of many world-class museums.)

 Burano is a delightful riot of pastel colors 

When the heat and the closeness of the alley walls begin to press in on you there are the vaporettos  -- the water busses -- offering a fresh breeze and the open lagoon, making their regular runs to the surrounding islands. Due to the summer heat, I chose to forego a visit to the glass furnaces of Murano and chose, instead, to explore the residential canals of Burano, the Lace Island -- l'isola all'estremità dell'arco della pioggia.

The canals are streaked with every color of the rainbow.

And, in the evening, there were quiet promenades with soothing breezes off the Adriatic, Vivaldi concerts performed by female quartets in period costumes playing period instruments in Vivaldi's own Santa Maria della Visitazione (La Pieta), or simply a late night drink at one of Piazza San Marco's sidewalk cafes (now with most of the tourists tucked safely away in their hotel rooms for the night.)

Interestingly, I usually use the same medium and sketchbook structure throughout a given trip. But not so on my last visit to Italy. In Rome I worked primarily in colored pencil and pen & ink. In Florence most of my work was in watercolor. But in Venice and Burano I alternated between line drawings in pen & ink and oil paintings -- the medium of Titian and Giovani Bellini.

sometimes I sketched on postcards

and sometimes on scraps of watercolor paper tucked into my sketchbook

And, as with so many visitors before me, Venice's siren song continued to haunt my creative thoughts long after I returned home -- even showing up in the form of a glimpse of the Grand Canal (lifted from one of my sketches) in a portrait I did of my daughter in her very first formal gown (for our first father-daughter dance.)

Le Serenissima

I hope you have enjoyed our little visit together and that you'll join me again for the next installment of Old Gold -- when we're off to the Lake District.


Saturday, July 21, 2012

Tools of the Trade #2 - Plumbago, Napoleon and a No. 2 Pencil

"Necessity, who is the mother of invention."      -- Plato, The Republic

Some things become so interwoven in our day-to-day routine that we run the risk of taking their special properties for granted. The subject of this installment of Tools of the Trade is just such an item -- such an integral part of so many people's lives that we don't even think about it, or what the art world might be like without it.

In 1564 a tree was blown down during a storm in the Cumbrian Lake District of Northern England, uncovering the world's first pure deposit of a strange new substance. The new material soon came to be called "plumbago" (after the Latin word for lead) and rapidly gained in popularity among artists for its amazing mark-making properties.

By 1600 plumbago had become of strategic importance and was controlled by the British crown. (It had been discovered that canon balls cast in graphite molds were more spherical and therefor had more range. And this, in turn afforded Britain's navy a tactical advantage over her enemies.) This did not prevent plumbago (now cut into square rods of about 3 inches in length and wrapped in twine) from making its way into the hands of printmakers in Holland, where it was initially used to prepare images for portrait engravings. However, so delicate and detailed were the new drawings that they were soon being sold as finished portraits -- "Plumbagos" -- and were highly sought after. There popularity would continue for the remainder of the century and just owning one of the new "pencils" soon became a mark of affluence and prestige.

Portrait of an Unknown Man, 1659, V&A Museum

Portrait of Lady Anne Churchill, 1700, V&A Museum

A second source of plumbago was discovered near Nürnburg, Germany. While it was far less pure than the restricted British deposits, it was plentiful and a lucrative international trade -- until a British and German blockade of France was initiated in1792 following the beginning of the French Revolution. Desperate to find an alternate, home-grown source for "pencils" the government of the new French republic called upon the inventive skills of Nicolas-Jacques Conté -- artist, adventurer, inventor, army officer, and artistic advisor to Napoleon. Within days Conté had discovered that by baking a mixture of refined graphite powder and kaolin clay he could produce outstanding "graphite" sticks, that by varying the amount of clay he could control the hardness or softness of the sticks, and that these sticks could be placed in either a metal "port-crayon" or a hollowed out wood sheath. And thus the modern pencil -- the Queen of all artists' materials -- was born.

Nicolas-Jacques Conté

Within three decades the astonishing mark-making capabilities and expressive range of this new medium had revolutionized the art world -- to the point where no artist would thinking of doing without this now "essential" tool and patrons were as likely to commission a pencil portrait as one produced in oil paints.

Family Portrait, c. 1819, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres

A pencil helped announce my son's arrival to the world.

A pencil combined with watercolor to capture the glow of my daughter's smile.

And pencils have always been on hand to capture those fleeting moments,

be they asleep...

... or awake.

In the hands of a skilled artist/explorer like Thomas Moran the graphite pencil has been able to capture magnificent vistas through expressive line and word.

Or it has been partnered with light/dark washes or the merest hint of color to convey landscape on a monumental scale. 

Green River, Wyoming Territory, 1879, Thomas Moran

The pencil has also been a prime tool for the naturalist, ideal for recording observations and measurements of flora, fauna, geological formations and meteorological conditions under conditions that would make ink weep and paints run.

Species Notes, Fort Worth Botanical Gardens

Species Notes, National Arboretum, Washington, DC

Nature Journal Entry

Cicada, graphite and w/c on paper scrap

Grasshopper, graphite and w/c on paper scrap 

Great Blue Heron, graphite on gessoed panel

So, the next time you see a lowly pencil lying forlorn and abandoned on the ground pick it up and invite it to join you. It will certainly prove helpful on your next adventure. (And, who knows, it may tell you of its own!)

Some folks even collect "new old" pencils -- old pencils that were never sold and are still in their original boxes (in this case, early 20th century.)


OK, to be honest, "great" is probably a bit of hyperbole. But I thought it might be interesting to introduce a little giveaway (everyone likes "free stuff", right? and free art supplies doubly so) as a "Thank you!" to everyone who has visited my blog and left such generous comments.

This is how it will work. I will announce the "grand prize giveaway" item with each new posting of Tools of the Trade. (I'll try, whenever possible, to make it relevant to the theme or subject of the post.)
Posting a comment to the Tools of the Trade article automatically enters you in the drawing. (No purchase necessary! ;-D) The "contest" will run for one week, or until the the next Drawn to Life article is posted. The name of one winner will then be drawn (art pun) at random and the Grand Prize will be shipped off via snail mail as soon as my studio schedule permits.

So, without any further ado....

The Great Art Giveaway (Episode 1)!

This week's giveaway prizes (OK, they're pencils right? and I have plenty to spare) are: 

one free box (12 pencils, never used) of General Pencil Company No. 595 (Soft) Carbon Sketch pencils. (If you want something blacker than graphite and smoother than charcoal, these are your puppies!) 

one free box (12 pencils, never used) of Sanford Ebony pencils. (This pencil was originally developed by Eberhard Faber GmbH, using an oversized lead that is soaked in palm oil before being locked in its wood sheath. It produces what is possibly the smoothest, darkest tones possible with a graphite pencil.) (Note: The pencil beneath the box is from another box. This box is unopened.)

two Sanguine Conté Crayons (unused, in their original bubble pack) manufactured by Conté a Paris, the company that still bears the name of the inventor of the modern pencil. 

Thanks again for dropping by. I look forward to reading all of the comments. And I hope you'll join me again for the next posting in a week or so. (In the meantime, if you're enjoying the new blog please share it with a friend. The more the merrier!)

Au revoir jusqu'à la fois prochaine !

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Woody Guthrie at 100

I grew up during the era of the American Folk Music Revival and at an early age there were four people who influenced my profound love for America's natural beauty: the painter, Thomas Moran; the naturalist and author, John Muir; and the activists/folk singers, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. They were, and still are, my heroes.

oil painting by Charles Banks Wilson

Happy birthday Woody Guthrie. "This land is (still) your land. This land is my land. From California to the New York highlands...."

(And I'm still roaming and rambling.... )

"This land was made for you and me."

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Old Gold #2 - Firenze

Careful research and extensive reading before a journey helps the traveler to develop a better understanding of, and respect for, the people and places that will be encountered along the way. Not trying to do everything in one visit will keep the trip more pleasant and more memorable (and give you more alternate options when Fate presents you with an unexpected change in plans.) And being prepared to jump at unexpected opportunities -- the place, event, or people you didn't learn about in your pre-travel research -- is the thing that Adventure is made of. "When traveling on the river, go with the flow!"

Before leaving home on my Italian adventure I decided to construct my own journal, selecting a paper that I felt would serve equally well for graphite, pen & ink, and light watercolor washes (I chose Strathmore 500 Series Drawing.) and a structure that would be both rugged and versatile (a coptic sewn structure in a soft leather wrap-around binding modified from a medieval design.) To save weight and limited space in my luggage (one carry-on sized backpack and my sketch kit) I decided to forego my fountain pen and ink bottles and opted to drop a dip pen in my watercolor box and let my watercolors do double duty as drawing and writing medium.

My early morning departure from Roma was on a Sunday. The streets were free of the usual weekday traffic. I virtually had the bus to myself and enjoyed one last, leisurely tour of the Eternal City en route to the train station. I even chose to take the local train to Firenze instead of the express so the hill towns and countryside would be more experience and less blur. I wasn't disappointed by the alternating parade of rolling hills, farms, vineyards country villages, and hilltop towns.

Arrival at Florence's massive Stazione di Santa Maria Novella is a little hectic, even on a Sunday. But, walking just a short distance from the terminal, I quickly realized how much quieter, more relaxed, the city was than Rome had been; with fewer vehicles -- more "pedestrians only" streets. Many of the local busses that passed me were powered by nearly silent electric motors (to reduce noise and air pollution?)  As was to be expected, the areas around the Duomo and the Ponte Vecchio were bustling with tourists and shoppers. But side streets were refreshingly breezy and quiet. And the noise level dropped steadily as I neared my hotel in the Oltrarno. (During the work week I was struck by the fact that, in many neighborhoods, the predominant sources of sound were people's voices and the repetitive "plink" of stonemason's hammers. How wonderful, I thought, that there was at least one modern city that was still building for permanents.)

I set a rule for myself before leaving home; I could draw all I liked, but I could not spend more than half  of each day indoors. So, I alternated between visits to museums and churches, and leisurely strolls through parks and along residential streets. I visited the Casa Buonarroti -- where I was awestruck by intimately scaled drawings, a rough model for a sculpture of a mythical river god (constructed of clay applied over an armature of reeds and hay), and a tiny maquette that still bore Michelangelo's finger prints! -- and then imagined myself following in the man's footsteps as I wondered streets that may have been layer out by the Etruscans. And I spent hours standing along the Arno or sitting in a sidewalk cafe, watching Life go by and enjoying its multi-colored flavors. Ah, la dolcezza di non fare niente!

I spent one morning visiting what is (for me) the best laid-out, most human-scaled art museum in the world, and then contemplated it all over an al fresco lunch at one of the best-located terrace cafes anywhere (the Uffizi!) After lunch I took a nap back at my hotel (a very decadent self-indulgence for any American over the age of 10). And, in the late afternoon, I sketched in the Piazza de' Pitti and strolled the Giardino Boboli.

Early one evening, just as I completed a pencil sketch of  Giambologna's Rape of the Sabine Women, I heard trumpets and drums. (Travel rule: in Florence, always investigate the source of drums and trumpets!) Within minutes I was sketching a group of 15th century noblemen and athletes as they made their way toward Santa Croce. And within a half hour I had joined a group of enthusiastic spectators as we watched two rival neighborhood teams compete in a game of Calsio Storico (which I later learned is also known as Calsio Fioentino -- a slightly-less-than-fatal ball game, with fewer rules than Aussie foot, played on sand) as nightfall slipped gently over us. It was all so spectacular!

Most evenings, however, I preferred to find myself back at my hotel, where I could enjoy a refreshing drink on the roof-top terrace, enjoy the fragrant scent of the wisteria, and relax as - one after another - the neighborhood church bells took their toll. And, in the mornings, I learned that the Florentines were far more relaxed about the start to their day than their Roman counter-parts. As I would start out after breakfast on my morning sketch crawl I would find the goldsmiths' shops of the Ponte Vecchio shuttered behind their beautiful, massive, wooden shutters (which went completely unnoticed by the throngs that visited the bridge's glittering shops throughout the rest of the day.)

It's probably safe to say that, "All work and no play" is seen as decidedly unhealthy by Italians in general, and Florentines in particular. And, while art making IS play to me, my landlady didn't see it that way. Every day she would kindly, gently (and firmly) provide me with a list of free, non-touristy performances and events to entice me out after it had become too dark to draw. So, finally, in order to set her mind at ease and stop her from loosing any more sleep over me I joined the residents from the neighborhood around the Piazza del Duomo to enjoy a cup of fresh gelato and a delightful open-air opera performance provided free for the benefit of all by a local television station. (SO many things in Florence were free -- offered just for the fun of it.)

And every evening ended with an update to my journal and an illustrated card or letter home to my wife and son. (I love snail mail!) La vita è buona!

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Water(color) Water(color) Everywhere!

hu•bris (noun) excessive pride or self confidence • (in Greek tragedy) excessive pride toward or defiance of the gods, leading to nemesis. ORIGIN Greek.

As a youthful art student I was, I think it's fair to say, quite full of myself. I knew just what I wanted (to paint big canvases, murals, and frescoes) and thought I knew what I didn't want. I had the good fortune to attend a school with a mural program and an outstanding drawing program (with instructors who, among other things, really could teach human anatomy.) But the painting program had one requirement that I had no use for. (Or at least so I thought.) All painting majors were required to complete at least one semester of watercolor!

Well, being the arrogant young know-it-all that I was, I had no use for the medium. In fact, I was of the opinion that no serious artist had any use for it either. Obviously watercolor was for Sunday painters. Right? And, so, not wanting to waste my time when I could be producing "more serious works" in oils, I petitioned the senior faculty for a waiver of the watercolor requirement, was granted the dispensation, and went blissfully (or should I say, "blithely"?)  on my way.

Fast forward a few years. I've graduated and am set up in a new studio in a new state and have just come up with an idea for a new series of paintings when it strikes me: (This is the "Ah, hay!" moment. The ancient Greeks knew it. Where there is hubris, sooner or later there's gonna be a blind date with a goddess named Nemesis.) "This series is going to be about water." And, "Wouldn't it be great if I did it in watercolor?" Oops!

So, I spent the next two summers struggling, teaching myself the rudimentaries of what I was to learn was a marvelously expressive (and challenging) medium.... And, when I eventually returned to my alma mater for a reunion, I made it a point to look up my dear old faculty mentor and a good laugh at my expense. (I've also shared it with students in every watercolor, sketching, and journaling class I've taught since.)

To paraphrase Douglas Adams's Holistic Detective, Dirk Gently: "We don't always end up where we want to be. But we usually end up where we need to be." (And, if we're luck, we'll get to have a little fun along the way! ;-D) 

How about you? Have you ever had an opportunity to grow as an artist, perhaps despite your own hubris or "better" judgement?

Please join me again next week when I will have a new posting to share with you. In the meantime I'll wish you "Happy trails and fun sketching!"