Bricks and clay

I set to build myself anew,
I tore old walls apart to trade
Crumbling brick for moving clay 
And shape honest to the core. 

I shaped myself a shallow bowl,
I erred to craft a solid plate.
I passed success and took 
Such a mangled clump apart. 

I tried to shape one, 
but no better than another,
Oh! to stand tall. 
But now it stands to fall. 

Wicked devils eager work
Lump to cut with string. 
Pieces come apart a brick,
Shapes all to drown in slip. 

But what is worth 
in making after all?

It’s been a while since I felt like writing anything creative. Lately I’ve felt like doing nothing much, I missed direction, occupation and enthusiasm. It’s a terrible state in which I desperately need something to do, but don’t feel like doing anything. It’s a vicious circle with boredom and apathy feeding each other.

Today I am happy to have written this poem. I’m happy with it now, so here it is.

Lady in waiting

What is better suited to this fantastical art style potpourri than a cringy play on words? A lady-in-waiting was the aristocratic version of a lady’s personal assistant. The lady in my painting is waiting, the poem is about waiting, you see where this is going:

A windswept emptiness
Fills my restless body,
Prodding corners of my mind 
For leftovers of peace. 

Nights come early and grow short 
Days are scattered,
Fallen leaves under a barren tree
Waiting for rhythm. 

Waiting casts its spell
Parting patient from impatient. 
Waiting matters more than
What, whom, or why. 

Patience turns children old
And vulgar into virtuous. 
Impatience demands sacrifice
And gives it to the wind. 

Art making-of

The cover image is another painting I’ve put a lot of effort into (~3 days work). The positive with these longer works is that having plenty of time for my mind to wander while painting, I keep changing the idea; alone working on something for more than a day almost guarantees the way I feel about it will change. I call it exploratory painting: first I want to identify what it is I want to paint, then I can think about structuring my study to gain necessary skills.

This way of working shows clearly in this piece in more than just the mistakes, impulse decisions, and leftovers from previous versions: the head of the lady I’ve left in a simplified style resembling Japanese art, mostly because attempts to put detail on that scale got me nowhere. I aimed for a reasonably accurate anatomical construction, I tried to paint the body with some volume, and after all that work I mostly covered it up in an attempt at mythical, entrapping garment design. To add the third piece to this concoction, I constructed the setting with a fairly accurate representation of a reddish sky, a distant darkened landscape, and a foreground affected by the supernatural, rendered with a decent amount of solidity, but perhaps questionable colour matching with the background – I was aiming for supernatural after all.

The joy of waiting

I can thank the Bob Ross shows for title inspiration here.

I am an impatient person. It’s a double-edged sword: it pushes me to do a lot, try new things, cut corners if I have to, but it also works against me: poorly thought out decisions, less than polished work, and just a waste of energy at times. Striving to make some better quality paintings requires patience, dedicating enough time to work on them to achieve decent results. And investing that time apparently pays off, although I’ve previously argued it probably wouldn’t. I think the value in finding this patience is the time it opens up to thought, as mentioned above. The idea evolves, even if the execution is only going to be as good as my ability at this time.

And that’s how I am beginning to find the joy of waiting. Active waiting (in this case meticulously applying paint) seems to be the way forward.

Lady New Year

A thousand times she's threaded
Needle eye on frayed yarn of time.
Now she toasts a flute to sun's
Ludic chase of cousin moon. 

Popes, heads, and states have
Charted her passing in clay,
On hide and beyond the ether
In sand and flame and flow. 

She cares little and hopes
People would once seek
Her company and clink
Not celebrate her passing, blink.

Happy New Year, everyone! I got the idea for this painting only on the 30th of December and it turned out to be more difficult and ambitious than I expected.

I am not a fan of making resolutions, but here is one which seems appropriate to the subject: in 2022 I want to make more of these (distantly) Mucha inspired works.

Alphonse Mucha was a painter, illustrator, and designer (and much more), perhaps best known for his famous Art Nouveau posters he produced at the end of the 19th century in Paris, which helped launch his fruitful career. He is one of the artists I discovered in 2021 and who has impressed me the most with his ability to combine realism with fantastical beauty.

It snowed

Oh, what a shame!
There barely is reason to hope 
For a thick white coat.

If I were young, 
I'd pray there be 
Music without party, 
Drinking and regretting,
Pretending and forgetting. 

If I were young, 
I'd learn to wait 
For nothing that won't come, 
Learning but not winning, 
Caring but not crying.

Now it snowed while I wait
For the damned season to pass.
I no longer think the next better, 
I still find the longing bitter. 

It snowed. Oh, what a shame! 

Blue

Sun is fallen.
All is blue.
In this world
All is true.

Sun is closer,
Don't forget,
Than you in dream
May ever get.

Making of

I started this work with the title in mind ‘Study in blue’. Having considered what does the colour blue mean to people: ‘cold’, ‘water’, ‘sky’, ‘night’, ‘flame’, I decided to challenge myself to create a painting using only blue to explore whether I could derive other meaning from using this colour. Otherwise said, could I suggest ‘warm’, ‘dry’, or ‘land’, in spite of using only blue?

Having sketched a few versions of this idea, I ended up with the one shown below. It was going to involve a great sphere (the idea having been in my head for a while); the landscape around evolved. In this final version, I couldn’t help but see a fallen sun, and that is how the poem came to be.

Final draft version of ‘Study in blue’; graphite pencil

Have I succeeded with this experiment?

No. It looks like a freezing winter night on another planet. But the painting and poem are good.

How Should Scientists Look at Art?

Ever since the days of me vaguely paying attention in school to literature studies I carried around the simplistic view of scientists being apollonians and artists being dionysians. Not to say that this was expressly taught, but having been presented with an aggrandised view on the virtues of knowledge by the power of metaphor, I proceeded to (mis)understand and retreat into my sand castle of scientific study. The Apollonian and Dionysian are in fact collections of fundamental traits in humans, and therefore found in members residing on either side of the science/art divide, and contrary to what a keen highschool teacher might have suggested, imply in no way one being better than the other.

On my journey of crossing from the science to the art side, I wanted to understand why would the proponent of one be often against, or at least ignorant about, the other? Having highlighted above that one’s nature does not direct one way or the other, I need to find another strategy for analysing this problem.

I would like to reference an analysis carried out by professional musician Adam Neely in his episode on ‘What does music mean?’, where he reviewed relevant historical background and then concluded in his eloquent and dizzying way that, in spite of music not meaning anything, it results from the power of metaphor to transform the physical basis of music.

I am going to take creative writing and the visual arts of painting and drawing to subject them to the same analysis involving the physical basis and the means of eliciting consumer response. I think the issue of message is fundamental to consider for understanding the scientists’ apprehension towards these arts, and I will include it as well. Scientific knowledge values the terse argument, the communication of immediate and comprehensive information on the topic under discussion. Failing to obtain this cognitive gratification, scientists divert attention and worse, sometimes, as the public in general tend to, develop a derogatory attitude towards art.

  1. Creative writing. I don’t think there is a physical basis here. Unlike music, which can be experienced through the recognition of sound, with the exception perhaps of musicians’ ability to hear music while reading sheet music, writing is only a surrogate for speech. It records auditory information in a visual fashion. As far as eliciting response goes, I don’t think creative writing is limited to the use of trope, because unlike scientific writing, it leverages the value of the body of writing. By stripping text of any superfluous content, all possibility for it to contain meaning beyond the explicit is removed and it thus becomes just a ‘skeleton’ of writing. Furthermore, I think well-written text offers the opportunity for vicarious enjoyment of existence: you become immersed in the action and briefly, and in a limited fashion, you live inside the writing. So, next time you are reading a book and are exasperated by the author describing the colour of the sky, remember these two things: you don’t have to try to assign meaning to the colour and if the author had failed to include enough detail to create a world, you would have been reading an instruction manual.
  2. Painting and drawing. The physical basis is the obvious use of colour and tone to record an image, which we can see because of the interaction of light with matter. There is no obligation on the author’s or artwork’s part to convey meaning: art can have purely decorative purpose. What matters is that by making clever use of visual elements, the artist manages to elicit a response from the brain of the viewer and its hardwired image recognition mechanisms: light/dark contrast, bright colours for food, dark colours for the unknown, smooth/ragged shapes for comfort/discomfort, etc. Use of symbols and visual metaphor in an attempt to convey more sophisticated information is optional, and would make use of the image recognition the viewer has learnt, rather than inherited.

Having argued my way through the fact that scientists and artists are people, and that art doesn’t have to have a meaning for it to be appreciated, I can now answer the title question: There is no way for you to look at art. Just look at it! And if you don’t feel anything, don’t believe that no one else will, or that another piece of art will not bring you to feel something.

A comparative study on choosing a painting medium

The ‘triptych’ I’ve used as the cover image presents the three works I’ve made around the idea of ‘Madness’. Besides covering my experience as a beginner artist working with these mediums and discussing the results, I also want to share my thoughts on the meaning and composition of this work. I have touched previously in my article on ‘The Value of Art‘ on the frustration artists feel not having their work understood and appreciated. I want to address this simply by explaining my own art. It seems sensible that the person best equipped to provide such commentary is the author themselves. My feeling is contemporary artists are inclined towards ignoring the issue of explaining, or altogether refuse to comment when asked to. Conversely, all art deserves a bit of attention, and commentary should not be reserved for museum masterpieces having their descriptions written by art historians. It is all about making art accessible.

Before doing any painting, I spent a lot of time working on drawing the linework for a template. I don’t have such great ability with portraits, and I wanted the model to be consistent so I could explore colours and effects. The idea behind the composition is simple. Madness is our mind turned against us, disconnected from ourselves, blown out of proportion and alien. That is why the body is seen from the back, disconnected from the massive head looking down onto it.

‘Madness’ – Ink wash on watercolour paper

For the first version I painted using ink: an ink wash. I am thankful for my art class teacher having taught this. I used black writing ink, which I found worked just fine, and I quite liked the hues developed by the ink separating as it ran in and on the paper. If you want to see more on this, here is a Youtube video of me playing with markers and paper chromatography. Working in black and white was a good way to explore giving the face and body features through the use of light and shadow. I then used this as a further model to develop the series. My scientist training was showing itself off in the experiment design. I left the background white to ensure I had contrast.

‘Madness’ – oil pastels on watercolour paper

I then moved on to using oil pastels (which I had never used before) to explore some colours. I wanted plenty of strong contrasts and intense colours to support the theme of the work. If you want to do some quick exploration on colours, this is the medium, out of the ones I have worked with, that I would recommend. It is so easy, and so bold, and I only used some beginner grade materials. The yellow body gets lost in the sea of orange, which contrasts with the light blue of the upper background, again indicating separation. The peachy, fleshy tone of the head, perhaps not miles away in colour from the body, stands out on the bright blue background. I chose the bright green/brown combination for the eyes, both because mixing these pastels is not easy unless you have a broad space on your support and I didn’t have many colours, and because I wanted to bring the added touch of uncanny to the face of madness.

‘Madness’ – oil paint on paper primed with acrylic gesso

Finally, I moved to using oil paints. Using this medium I was able to return to working on the more intricate construction of shading (failures all mine, not the medium’s), as I had done using the ink wash, and continued exploring colours. A striking, gaudy mix of colours was what I was after. Right now while writing this, I like it. I feel it’s better than the oil pastel version. My opinion varies. Working in oil, I had the option of adding brush marks for texture in the background. The circular ones around the body are an experiment abandoned. I liked them, then changed my mind, but didn’t do anything about it. Boredom installed. They build on the idea of separating self from madness, but not really going places. I found building the face in this dark, intense colour really hard, made more challenging by the sheen of the oils under uneven artificial lighting. I started by applying a coat of the base colour, then added white or black, and did most of the mixing on the painting. Perhaps, this is what caused the trouble; I worked the other way round to how I had done for the ink wash, when I built the colour gradually using mostly heavily diluted ink. I added the extra detail of making the pupils the same yellow as the background under the face to indicate the emptiness of madness: it lies, distorts, appears massive and believable, but there is no substance to it. It is a mask.

What have I learnt? If there is an idea you want to put out, it might be worth exploring different mediums, especially if you are a beginner like me. If you also get easily bored, like I do, it can be a difficult experiment. The only downside I find to using oils, as far as the artwork is concerned, is how long they take to dry. They mostly don’t and you have to work around that. That is why I have separately explored acrylics. I will write about that in the future. I think the ink or the oils could be used to produce finished works even by unskilled hands like mine. The oil pastels however are just too rough for that, they might be limited to making sketches.

And yes, I am aware none of the faces have eyelashes. For the tonal work, I have no excuse really. I could have drawn them in, but assumed they wouldn’t show up in the photo anyway. Lesson learnt. With pastels, I guess I could have scratched them in there, if I had used a coloured paper. With oils, same, or I could have waited for the eyes to dry, and then painted them over. And if you think it’s weird I did all this, just to then cut corners on the details, read my article on “Analysing the ‘It’s good enough‘ mentality” for clarification.