Just a few of the over 200 journals I have filled in the last 30+ years.
We are traveling in Peru. Machu Picchu was our main destination and now we are in Cusco. Today we toured the San Pedro Market. We were told that some of the more traditional women did not like to be photographed so I started to sketch in my journal. But the woman I was sketching hissed at me and threatened to throw some herbs at me. I was surprised. I had thought drawing might be okay. Apparently not. And that has me thinking about the power in a likeness.
We talk about “capturing” a picture, a scene, a portrait. I draw to document my experience of a place. I have stronger memories through drawing than I do through my much more casual snapshots. So maybe she was right that my drawing might “capture” something. Although I don’t think that my drawing diminishes what I draw.
I’ve got a great computer guru who keeps me up and running. I don’t fall for that scam coming over the phone where they offer to fix the problem with my computer. Learning to use my technology is challenging for me. I much prefer real paper, my Pelican fountain pen and a bottle of India ink.
Last night was the opening of my show of watercolors and mixed media at the Patricia Ladd Carega Gallery. The weather was soggy, and luckily the brunt of the rain had passed and the threatened hail and high winds did not materialize. I spoke for a few minutes about the different challenges of sketching on the go versus painting “Big Brush Watercolors” in my studio from my sketches.
This show is a combination of my small travel sketches, done on sight, from observations, often in my journals, where they’ll remain, and what I call Big Brush Watercolors, based on my sketches (not photographs) and worked over time, building up layers and layers of paint, sometimes with a charcoal underdrawing.
One of my challenges is scale–in the sketches I use relatively large brushes (my favorite is a 1″ flat brush), and I can drop in a lot of paint in one stroke. The white spaces are left intuitively. I’ve been sketching like this for years and years, learning as I go.
When I go large, in the Big Brush Watercolors, it’s hard to keep the spontaneity. I use quite large brushes, but can’t get the depth of color I want in one stroke. The green in my travel box that looks great in a small sketch looks really dead and flat in a large shape. So I have to mix more, layer ore, work it more. I come back over and over, layering color until the brush strokes start to show up inadvertently. Then it’s a matter of figuring out when to stop, before the transparency is lost. Or of lifting paint with water to get back to more transparency, letting it dry, and then layering again.
Another challenge I’m taking on is working from travel sketches, not from the New Hampshire scenes I love so well and know so well.
I love to sketch when I travel. I very rarely get to stay in one spot for long; usually we are on a tour or a ship, so I can only absorb the scene for a few minutes. I do take photos, but I prefer my sketches overall. So I’m learning to work from sketches of places I don’t really know–very different from working from New Hampshire scenes I’ve studied and contemplated and drawn for almost 60 years.
Here is a photograph and a sketch of the same scene. One reason I don’t paint from photographs is they actually distort the perspective. The mountains drop into the background and practically disappear. The foreground gets enlarged and emphasized and dominates the scene. Everything in the camera’s lens in forced into one-point perspective. When i sketch, my eye shifts its focus from one place to another. I ignore the rules of perspective. I control the emphasis, the focal point, and I edit out unnecessary detail.
I think charcoal may be a good way to work into the travel sketches. When I draw in charcoal I feel as if I can sculpt the shapes, the volume of things. I can wipe out and redraw. I can create detail in some areas and not in others. And I like the way it mutes the watercolor when I come in with paint. Charcoal gives me both value and line, reminiscent of my fountain pen that I use for sketching. It builds up a stronger surface than straight watercolor and is more forgiving in terms of correction. So that is what I am looking to explore now.
This is an excerpt from one of my journals:
Thinking about the Moon Project, my watchful eye, my travels. Covering things up. Layers of the onion.
I was thinking about a lot of different ideas and bringing them together:
And all these ideas–commitment, abstraction, esp. based on information, and observing and recording in a non-literate way–plus a feeling that I wanted, I needed, something that would make me go outside–all these factors and more were buried in my head the morning that I spied a crescent moon rising in the East.
I thought it was beautiful, caught in the tree branches. There was a star–probably the planet Venus–close by. It was about 6:30 am and I wondered what the moon was doing, rising at the same time I was. I made an intention to mark it in my journals and to see what I could teach myself, just by looking.
That is how the Moon Project began. November 30, 1994.
I have a collection of poems I really like by other writers. While I was pulling some of them together I noticed a funny coincidence, that I am not sure really is a coincidence. As someone who watches the moon, charts the moon in my journals, and has a major art installation titled The Moon Project, I am naturally drawn to the many haiku written about the moon:
Listening to the moon
gazing at the croaking of frogs
in a field of ripe rice.
Calligraphy of geese
against the sky—
the moon seals it.
The moon tonight—
I even miss
Moon, plum blossoms,
and the day goes.
This haiku has a different subject:
When the winter chrysanthemums go,
there’s nothing to write about
And here’s a poem that makes me both laugh and cry. Do you think Karla Kuskin had read some of these haiku before she wrote this?
Write About a Radish. . .
by Karla Kuskin
Write about a radish
Too many people write about the moon.
The night is black
The stars are small and high
The clock unwinds its ever-ticking tune
Hills gleam dimly
Distant nighthawks cry.
A radish rises in the waiting sky.
PS–I am frustrated with the auto-formatting that I am unable to overcome. When I learn more about how to format these posts, I’ll clean them up to make it easier to read the poetry. And if anyone has suggestions about how to do it, I am all ears. Thanks!
PPS-Thanks to my nephew Jake Lloyd I have been able to format this post in a more sensible way. Still need to learn more about how to control the spacing.
Or what makes a thought a poem?
I’ve begun writing near daily haiku which I think of as “Weather Report.” When I begin my journal entry each day I always make a note about the weather. (Thomas Jefferson did this and I’m basing my practice on his.) Often the words I use to describe the weather strike me as having a poetic quality, and often they have a syllable pattern that fits haiku. Here’s a recent example:
Red House, wrapped in cloud
We are waking in a fog,
Waiting for coffee.
June 30, 2017
Almost a rainbow
Around a not quite full moon–
Rain in the forecast.
July 6, 2017
These haiku adhere to the format of three lines divided into a syllable pattern of 5-7-5. If I did not stick to this pattern, could any short thought be a haiku? What separates poetry from prose?
The highlight of a recent trip to Santa Fe, NM, was a visit to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. There was an excellent video about her life. In Texas Georgia O’Keeffe found her artistic voice, reducing very complex forms to their most basic colors, shapes, and lines. In New Mexico, she found her subject matter.
One of the things I liked best was seeing tiny line drawings–very minimal thumbnails–hung beside finished paintings based on those sketches.
I actually prefer the sketch, which is about 3 x 5 inches or 4 x 6, to the finished painting. Here’s another example–
These six diagonal lines, on a 4 x 6 inch (not sure of the size) piece of paper
became this painting, which is fairly large.
The painting is quite beautiful and one I’d not seen before.
There were also a larger selection of her watercolors than I’d ever seen. She used intense, saturated colors, laid down very wet, but with separations. She tended to use primary colors, straight from the tube. There were at least 3 versions of Evening Star, 1917.
I wonder how many versions she did and whether she trashed any?
Much later in her life, with her eye sight failing, she returned to watercolor and abstraction.
These later abstractions were painted on full-sized sheets of watercolor paper (22″ x 30″).
She traveled a lot in the 1960’s and kept travel boxes of papers gathered in each of the countries she visited.
Here are some of the “take-aways” I left with:
Is this painted from memory?
I left eager to work with my own Southwestern sketches, pencil scrawls made as we floated down the Grand Canyon on a motorized raft. Her colors, her shapes, her compositions all speak to me.
I am taking the free “Blogging 101” course offered on line by WordPress. I am supposed to write a post about the way I learn–what kind of learner am I.
It’s almost easier to say what kind of learner I am not. I do not learn strictly from books. I do not learn by memorization. I need to see the way things work, the relevance of it, how it is derived. I was a mediocre math student until I took Plane Geometry. When we had to write proofs for basic theorems (I’m not sure I have the terminology right here), I could do it, I could remember all the various steps to get there (i.e. “the shortest distance between two points is a straight line”), and I enjoyed the puzzle-like nature of it. The next year, in Algebra 2, we were learning how to use the Quadratic Equation. Basically, you were expected to memorize what letters stood for what and then plug in the numbers and solve. I had no idea how to do it and really struggled. Two years later I took another year of math. This time we derived the Quadratic Equation. Whenever I needed to use it/apply it, I would just derive it; then I knew which numbers went where, and hopefully I would get the calculations right.
I am a very visual learner and I also learn better if I write things down. Things I compose on the computer are on the computer and not in my head. When I kept a paper calendar, I knew what I had going on every week, let alone every day. Now I keep my calendar on my computer and smart phone and I have to check almost every hour–it just does not get into my head–unless I write it down on a list or in my journal, which I keep by hand.
Where I learn best is through direct, repeated observation. I have an on-going art installation called the Moon Project. Every day I look for the moon and when I see it, I chart it in my journal. Every few years I compile the information into charts, graphs, drawings, and even sheet music. I now know a lot about the phases and movements of the moon and I know when and where to look for it. If I’ve lost track for a few days, I can think it out based on my last observations.
Everything I’m learning about the moon is known. Everything could be looked up on the internet. But what I’d learn then is how to look things up on the internet. I would not have nearly the same knowledge and relationship with the moon. And this practice has taught me to observe other things more closely and to trust my observations.
I feed the birds in my yard and I can now distinguish many species. But I also can see changes in their behavior through the year, as well. I have learned to teach myself to learn.
So I learn by doing better than any other way. I’m a good listener, good notetaker–tell me something interesting and I’ll remember it–IF it pertains to a question I have in my mind, that relates to what I’m working on. I guess it’s the “use it or lose it” principle.
And I like learning when it feels like a game, a puzzle, a challenge. How do you learn?
On Thursday last, my SCBWI local network met for our annual “Creative Orgy,” an evening of eclectic exercises and activities designed to get the creative juices flowing, even in the depths of January cold. As co-rep of the Oak Park/near west Network, I help plan these events. The last activity we did was to make a puppet of our “Inner Critic,” that voice that had been whispering in our ear all evening–indeed, all day almost every day, in my experience. That voice that questions my worthiness, ability, intelligence, authority to write about what I intend to write (even this blog) or to paint and draw the subjects I choose. This is the voice that suggests I abandon projects as the initial excitement wears down and the going gets tough. This is the voice that says my drawings, sketches, watercolors are no good, unimportant, basically worthless.
Since this Inner Critic seems so real to me, I decided to give her substance and shape. My co-rep and I had gathered a bunch of supplies: crayons, markers, colored pencils; tape, glue, glue guns, staplers; and a whole bunch of collage materials including random papers and lots of string and yarn, among other things. We used paint-stirring sticks, paper plates, and coffee filters to form the puppets of our Inner Critics, and then we began to individualize and animate them.
See how she towers over me? She has one bloodshot eye and broken glasses, so her vision is not all that clear. Her hair is wild and full of debris, including a decaying leaf. She has what might have been a prim bow at her chin and one accusatory hand with a pointing finger. Her toothy mouth was cut from a postcard of a Day of the Dead scull. Her teeth are bared and clenched, forbidding communication or expression. As I worked on this puppet I talked to her and asked her questions.
She appears to be pretty gruesome, but she’s not really as powerful as she thinks. I actually really like her. If I listen to her for a little bit, then thank her for sharing, I can put her on a shelf or in a corner and ignore her contribution. She can save her “I told you so’s” for another time.
I got the idea to make a puppet of one’s inner critic from Laura Montenegro. In a class about creating a picture book dummy she showed us her Inner Critic, a puppet she had made. The minute she picked it up it came to life and began to talk. And then, after Laura had let it have it’s say, she put it in a corner.
That is what our puppets are for–they can spout their nay-saying for a little bit, and then we can thank them and put them in a corner and carry on with our work.