Measuring air

The Duchess © Samantha Groenestyn

The Duchess © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on canvas)

Lately, some thinking about edges. The potency of the edge is a recent revelation to me. As Nelson (p. 133) begins his chapter titled Edge control and atmposhere, ‘Edges do not take care of themselves.’ Having worked a lot in gouache—a far more immediate and less forgiving medium than oils—and often from photographs, I’ve usually thought of an edge as no more than the end of one shape of colour and the beginning of another, and the meeting of these two creates a sharp and distinct boundary. I’ve left them to take care of themselves. In my transition to oils, I’ve found that working in this same way, as though my paint has dried almost as soon as I’ve laid it down, and thinking of discrete objects in my paintings, I’ve achieved an undesirably sharp result that tonal similarity cannot soften. So: the edges must be manipulated, but according to what rationale?

Nelson (p. 134) assuages me with the observation that ‘edges are spooky, a part of the painting that artists revere and dread, a zone of high-density intelligence which seems impossible to comprehend with eye and mind, let alone master with the hand.’ Far from being intuitive, or demanding any formulaic response, edges are indeed as difficult as I’ve discovered them to be, and require thought and intention. Blurring all edges indiscriminately creates an atmospheric mush, but introducing this softness and haze intelligently can coax some of this atmospheric quality into an otherwise firmly handled painting. Appealed to just right (like some fickle Greek god), the edge can give a painting the oxygen it needs to breathe.

This metaphor of breathing seems incredibly apt: my reading has led me to conclude that in considering edges one is constantly making reference to air, and the way it flows around subjects, and the way it carries light, the way it picks up leaves and stray locks of hair and the way it caresses and obscures things in the distance. Nelson (p. 139) plainly asserts that ‘all matters of edges relate to atmosphere.’ The edge, far from being the clear intersection of two separate forms, is a matter of space, stuffed full of air, and itself extended in the physical world. Our eyes witness the fluidity of edges in the physical world, the way they drift and roll and change shape with the slightest movement. The painter must not be satisfied with an ‘accurate’ linear representation of an object’s outline, but always have in her mind the three-dimensional extension of the thing, and how it sits in space, or, better, how space encapsulates it.

‘In representational work,’ Nelson (p. 133) elaborates, ‘the edges are intensely pregnant in their references to space. Especially among motives that curve, the edges designate the most complicated parts of the object.’ Information positively bulges at the edges, as vast tracts of physical substance are contracted when transferred to a two-dimensional representation. Rather than solidly ending, a substance approaches its limit—just as Zeno described Atalanta approaching the end of the race but never finishing by halving the distance at each interval, paradoxically creating infinite information at the cusp. Nelson (p. 134), in a feat of writerly brilliance, calls this ‘the perceptual asymptote.’ And one only has to imagine, as he asks us to, an arm as it curves away from sight, where what we see as an edge is in fact another side of the arm with just as much information as the side facing us. Add to this the way that light glances off this edge that is perpendicular to our vision, and into our eye, rather than bouncing in directly with the full gamut of information, and it’s clearer why the edge is so elusive to us.

Fortunately, we can look to the giants of the past to aid our deliberations. Nelson (p. 135) identifies a reasonably consistent approach in the old masters, who vary the edge according to the curvature at this limit. Put simply, if a fold of fabric turns sharply out of view, the edge is correspondingly crisp; if a meaty thigh folds broadly away from our eyes, its edge will be soft. ‘The edge is harbouring maybe 25 centimetres of skin in a seductive argument of concealment and revelation; the edge, which in spatial terms is like nothing, becomes a kind of mysterious synopsis of a much larger stretch of the anatomy; it embodies a kind of immanence for much skin which, in turn, contributes much to the immanence of the paint’ (p. 135).

Girl in a fur detail

My daily personal studies in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Wien, have turned my mind to this question, as I gaze inquiringly at the likes of Titian. Two works I return to again and again are Girl in a fur and Nymph and shepherd, two of his gloriously atmospheric works that stand in marked contrast to the crisper, less arresting portraits. When one sees the gentle amalgam of skin and fur, one knows that the strange rough, fluffiness of edges is right. The fur-clad lady is serenely wrapped; she is an invitation to contemplate beauty, and there is nothing confronting or inelegant about her. After some time of admiring the beautiful interlocking triangles that her bare skin and fur cloak make, one notices her exposed breast, a beautiful plump, round thing whose edge is treated with such finesse that it melts into her arm. No crude outline could impregnate the edge of this globe with so much information, and at the same time install it as a small treasure to be discovered with time in a broader image with more dramatic things to arrest the eyes.


Similarly, Titian’s edges in the Nymph and shepherd are extravagantly hazy. A solid inch of fuzz seems to mark the division between flesh and background, but not obscuringly so. Even the bone-china pale expanse of leg of the nymph dissolves into the tar-black ground with such deftness! Titian has here used edges in conjunction with extreme tones to manipulate space in an alarmingly descriptive way. I looked on in amazement as I saw the sharp turn of the arm from the hip over her expansive lap, and the way her legs twisted over and away so convincingly, like a doona rolling off the far edge of a bed. There is nothing flat about this painting.

Titian nymph detail

Titian gives us some bold suggestions, and my investigations are by no means complete. Nelson keeps this chapter short; more of an introduction to the elusive art of edge control, not offering any firm ideas on where to begin. But he encourages us not to shy away from the practical and intellectual challenge before us. ‘The edge is intensely physical and, by metaphor, intensely intellectual,’ he (p. 142) argues. ‘It makes good sense that the theme is both technical and conceptual, both material based and atmospheric. The zone between matter and ideas is just the kind of edge that you would expect artists to work on.’

And so, perhaps a little hazier, but fortified with ideas, we begin to delve into that infinite, airy chasm between one form and another.

Nelson, Robert. 2010. The visual language of painting: An aesthetic analysis of representational technique. Australian Scholarly Publishing: Melbourne.


Reckless solitude


The world we live in is constructed to support the social creature. Above all others it celebrates the confident, outspoken, public person. It trains us all from our youth to operate in this way, forcing us to be ‘socialised’ in the school, teaching us to perform in front of an audience, preparing us to interact confidently with strangers for the daily transactions our work will demand when we are of age. The reserved, meditative soul is shaken out of its reverie and compelled also to work in this way, despite convincing evidence that such a being might produce more work, and qualitatively better work, in secret, in the privacy of their own room.

The wish for an unthinking, reckless solitude. To be face to face only with myself. Perhaps I shall have it in Riva.

(Kafka, p. 222).

I have been thinking about the solitary life of the painter, and how that faceless entity of ‘society’ warns us against the gruelling hours spent alone in a studio, cut off from human contact. The more time I spend drawing and painting, the more I relish this solitude and the more I crave it. To have autonomy in one’s work is not the only appealing thing. To be so completely immersed in one’s work and undistracted by others is a real gift to the quiet creature, who finds the time alone more attuned to her natural state. Having learned to shed her shyness, she finds it infinitely more conducive to her most fulfilling work to shrink back into it. The painter-animal in the painter-cave, not forcibly shut off from society, but willingly retreating from the inanity of it:

I will write again, but how many doubts have I meanwhile had about my writing? At bottom I am an incapable, ignorant person who, if he had not been compelled—without any effort on his own part and scarcely aware of the compulsion—to go to school, would be fit only to crouch in a kennel, to leap out when food is offered him, and to leap back when he has swallowed it.

(Kafka, p. 237).

Where Kafka considers himself some kind of brute for recognising this trait in himself, I am beginning to believe that this reserve is something to be respected and valued. As one pursues a solitary career and finds oneself submerged in this kennel for days at a time, one achieves a remarkable clarity, a peaceful mental state and a depth of thought not to be found in short snatches of time salvaged here and there around a busy schedule. Creatures like us need time to mull, to ponder, to gestate. Where others intrude, they become a distraction and an imposition:

Everything that is not literature bores me and I hate it, for it disturbs me or delays me, if only because I think it does. I lack all aptitude for family life except, at best, as an observer. I have no family feeling and visitors make me almost feel as though I were maliciously being attacked.

(Kafka, p. 231).

Let me elaborate: I have been out landscape painting. I am currently without the ‘room of one’s own’ of Virginia Woolf’s persuasion, though my suitcase contains a few clothes, many books, and my easel and paints, so I am spending my painterly time out in the world. This has the unexpected consequence of transforming me from the humble painter-animal, a shy and single-minded creature by nature, to the performance artist. It is a harrowing demand on someone living so much in her own head. I am grappling with the selection of convincing tones, attempting to create a harmony in the colours I lay down, searching for the contrasts that work towards the hazy vision in my head. I am battling the wind that rattles my canvas about, intermittent rain, and not a little fatigued by the early afternoon sun. I feel an immense uncertainty in my progress: I am not rehearsing a little routine that I perform swiftly and with ease. I am engaged in a mental struggle, trying to enact that mysterious alchemy of transforming my deep and changing three-dimensional surroundings into a small, flat illusion.

And, worse than bugs, prickly grass and sunburn—I am swarmed by spectators, who, unlike bugs, prickly grass and sunburn, are full of questions, observations and opinions. And carrying cameras.

Here are some suggestions, should you ever encounter a painter at her easel in the wild, open world: Don’t ask her how long the thing will take. Time passes her without fanfare: she doesn’t measure her success by such quantitative units. Time ceases to be calculated in minutes and hours and becomes recorded in brushstrokes and layers of paint. It took me pink and green long to make this. I don’t know what you are talking about. Don’t tell her about your painting relatives. Blood-relations don’t afford you any special painting knowledge. And she is trying to work.

On the whole, spectators are a well-meaning bunch; I truly think this. Only I am so involved in the task to hand, that I am extremely irritated to be taken away from it, and extremely stressed to be aware that I am on a stage, under a spotlight. Because my medium is visual, I am somehow obliged to share it. I envy the writer who can hide behind his laptop, or shrink quietly into his notebook.

Surfacing from our private thoughts and rising to these social demands is perhaps a necessary task, but by no means an easy one, once one has rediscovered the comfort of the painter-cave one has been banished from since childhood. Perhaps we do well to avoid them, recognising the destructive power of these demands. Kafka sounds, to ordinary ears, like he is being melodramatic, but something resonates fiercely with me in his uncompromising words:

My job is unbearable to me because it conflicts with my only desire and my only calling, which is literature. Since I am nothing but literature and can and want to be nothing else, my job will never take possession of me, it may, however, shatter me completely, and this is by no means a remote possibility.

(Kafka, p. 230).

And his feelings are more poetically, though no less forcefully, expressed by Virginia Woolf:

But what still remains with me as a worse infliction than either [the hardness of the work or the difficulty of living on the money when it was earned] was the poison of fear and bitterness which those days bred in me. To begin with, always to be doing work that one did not wish to do, and to do it like a slave, flattering and fawning, not always necessarily perhaps, but it seemed necessary and the stakes were too great to run risks; and then the thought of that one gift which it was death to hide—a small one but dear to the possessor—perishing and with it my self, my soul—all this became like a rust eating away the bloom of the spring, destroying the tree at its heart.

(Woolf, p. 39).

All this ‘flattering and fawning,’ this performing for an audience, stands between us and serious work. We painters and writers are not nasty creatures, or unable to empathise, or careless of others. Our shyness might rather belie a more sympathetic and sensitive nature. We are simply concentrated on the task to hand, and only ask for the time and space to attend to it.

The tremendous world I have in my head. But how to free myself and free it without being torn to pieces. And a thousand times rather be torn to pieces than retain it in me or bury it. That, indeed, is why I am here, that is quite clear to me.

(Kafka, p. 222).

Kafka, Franz. 2009 [1959]. Diaries of Franz Kafka. Schocken.
Woolf, Virginia. [1928] 1963. A room of one’s own. Penguin: Mitcham, Victoria.


The swamp and the little animals

Swamp © Brian Deagon

Swamp © Brian Deagon

Brian Deagon graciously hosted Ryan and me at his home and studio a few weekends ago, putting on a fabulous spread for lunch, giving us a tour of his sprawling bungalow and extensive shed studio and—most generous of all—a preview of his upcoming show in July. Both house and studio are set amongst gum trees through which the low light slings, projecting dramatic colours in the sky—oranges and lilacs—as the sun goes down. The shed studio is positively stuffed with paintings and flickering with moths and wasps. The maze-like house is lined with paintings like wallpaper. The dining room where we sat down to a huge crisp salad, a fresh baguette and some haloumi and cured meats has walls lined in gold-framed paintings—this is Brian’s personal joke about ‘art,’ and how one can tell whether the piece in question is art. His beautiful Swamp painting, a large piece, hangs outside on the wall by the front door, mostly sheltered from the weather, and apparently impervious to it. An old cane couch stands opposite it, and lounging about in it one can gaze at Swamp infinitely, wondering why it is that anyone spends their time in front of a television.

Brian has had a fascinating career thus far, and there’s something truly admirable in his approach to art, and plenty to be learned from it. He started out as an abstract painter, layering shapes and filling his paint with grit and sticking things to the canvas. One such painting stands on an easel in the shed, in two parts. Brian can’t remember how it goes together, and spends a few minutes rearranging it. He looks at it solemnly and says, ‘One night I stepped back and looked at this painting and said, “Brian, what are you doing? You’re only painting like this because you can’t draw.”’ So he gave up painting. He retired from his teaching job and took his daughter across the country and onwards to the US to pursue her promising ballet career. He stopped painting and he stopped drawing, because he recognised a crucial gap in his knowledge and could find no way to fill it. It was twenty years later when he heard of Lance Bressow that he returned to it, picking up right where he left off. There’s amazing courage in first giving up the thing that drives you, and then in returning to it and getting on with it. Yet Brian describes it as a straightforward enough thing, and one must simply do what one must do.

The works for Brian’s upcoming show at the RQAS are lush rainforest and swamp scenes, and I think to call them landscapes would be to neglect something important about them. These are not lovely false windows to hang on your wall, decorative pieces to remind one of the natural world beyond. One senses that these large paintings—at least a couple of metres across—are real portraits of real places, capturing the spirit of the places and recording the features. He alters things, certainly, for compositional harmony, but the places are recognisable, especially to his Aboriginal friends who know the places intimately. Brian’s work powerfully respects that sense of place, and it comes across so strongly that he has a profound sense of what it is to be in a place.

His paintings got me thinking about the idea of reverence and awe and a sort of secular experience of the sacred. It’s strange to me that the Western response to an expanse of landscape is that it’s a nice chunk of scenery, and that we can only experience the sacred through our own constructs. A forest is just a forest, possibly good for logging and mining, but a cathedral is the holiest of holies, and you’d better not bare your sinful shoulders that the Good Lord gave you. We worship ourselves rather than things bigger than us, and have no time for the so-called primitivism of the Aboriginal sense of sacred places.

Tackle © Brian Deagon

Tackle © Brian Deagon

‘Little animals’ are beginning to make an appearance in Brian’s work, sprouting amongst the lush riots of greenery—tiny unclothed people wrestling. ‘We’re only little animals!’ he explains, chuckling a little. ‘We fight over food, territory or mates. Nothing else.’ When I return to the Kunsthistorisches in Vienna just a few weeks later I’m struck that Brian’s project echoes a beautiful painting by Paolo Veronese and his workshop, Adam and Eve after the expulsion from Paradise. Veronese’s forest is deep and shadowy, his trees falling to the edges of the painting as if they are at the edge of the earth. The canopy feels impenetrable, and hides all the animals—including some little human ones—in its darkness. There is a real wildness to this painting, a sense of having to tame something so untameable. Brian’s paintings tap into this same sort of wildness. Rather than cloaking his little human animals in the shadow of evil, he grows them out of the frenzy of vital colour. There is nothing shameful or sinful in Brian’s paintings, just a matter-of-fact appreciation of life.

Adam and Eve after the expulsion from paradise © Paolo Veronese

Adam and Eve after the expulsion from paradise © Paolo Veronese

Some paintings Brian begins tonally, laying down a grisaille and introducing the electric colour later—phthaelo greens winning the day. One large canvas (and most of them are a couple of metres across) remains a grisaille, a dramatic, near nocturnal variation. Some of the smaller ones are painted without green paint at all, relying on yellow and black, and even red in places. Brian chuckles about the ability of the human eye to see red as green. He is immensely interested in what sort of trickery the painter can achieve.

Besides this, he is thoroughly playful in following his thought progressions. Another painting he has chopped into squares no bigger than a hand and framed each individually (in gold frames of course) to abstract them. He then repainted them, larger, on canvases that can be rearranged infinitely; an ultimate abstraction. He and Ryan discuss this idea of abstraction emerging from something representational, and of being excited by the abstract design inherent in found things.

Waterhole at Kundulomdulom © Brian Deagon

Waterhole at Kundulomdulom © Brian Deagon

The most profound lesson is perhaps in Brian’s character: he is a man of immense humility, who has never stopped learning. He gladly takes classes with people much his junior, because he wants to learn from them. His extensive website—boasting a beautifully written collection of thoughtful essays—describes this best. He writes admiringly of Ryan, teacher at the Atelier Art Classes, after taking a class with him:

We really need to say more about what I see as Daffurn’s idealism. It’s not the kind where everyone has a “Greek” nose and all female breasts defy gravity in their perfect cones. It goes much deeper philosophically in a Kantian or Heideggerian sense. It comes from a reverence for the constructed body, and a profound understanding of its structure in three dimensions, and the fourth dimension being potential movement in time, and all within a space of light and colour, revealing and concealing the body at the same moment.

Nothing really needs to be invented, just deeply understood.

It’s a proud stance, underpinned by humility. Incidentally, the controlled art studio lighting is not mandatory, it’s just a help to the student. This is all based on a reverence for nature and the body we inhabit. More than that, it presupposes a profound belief in the intelligence of artist and audience, and the visual language they use. We intend to edify our viewer, not shock them. This might not be fashionable, but it’s not “dead” as some post-structuralists might claim. To invoke beauty, hope, intelligence, diligence, persistence, structure, design etc may be idealistic and even naïve, but its not wrong. Drawing of this kind is much more than a skill set or an arcane knowledge. It implies a moral relationship between artist and model.

I keep using the word “profound”. Because it is.

One could reflect this sentiment back on Brian, who, though for many years denied the technical education, is bold and audacious, but a humble student. There is a profound lesson in this.

See Brian’s show at the Royal Queensland Art Society, Petrie Terrace, Brisbane, 20 July to 3 August 2013. Don’t miss the ones in gold frames.


Putting your life on the line

life drawing 7

At some stage in their career, a Brisbane artist must come into contact with the infamous and inimitable David Paulson. Ryan and I signed up to his weekly life drawing class at the Brisbane Institute of Art (BIA, or as the man himself affectionately calls it, the Blind Institute of Art) in February. It’s been a challenging semester, and worth every effort.

Paulson openly divides his class in two: those who can draw and those who can’t. Those who can’t draw, he is uninterested in expending wasted energy on them: rather than teaching them to draw, he teaches them how to manipulate design, how to simplify, how to make interesting pictures. Those who can draw, he isn’t interested in improving their technical abilities: he wants to give them more tools, to give them obstacles to overcome, and to stretch them to be more confident and creative drawers. Paulson doesn’t send his students home with lovely resolved pictures—that is not the role of the classroom. He gives us eyes—he shows us what to look for, and where to find it, and how to coax it out.

life drawing 1

In fact, Paulson’s main task with Ryan and I is that he’s concerned that we are being too academic. Our accuracy is costing us a liveliness, a life in our drawings; it’s interfering with the beautiful design inherent in the soft C-curve of an arm. We’re not taking liberties with the near-verticals in the figure before us, near-verticals begging to be recorded as strong actual verticals. We’re not telling enough lies–we’re letting the boring truth get in the way of a good story. Hiding behind extra details only distracts us from the powerful simplicity available to us, from which we can hang additional information later, if we must.

life drawing 2

Week one, Paulson took great pleasure in teasing me to loosen up. Stop drawing outlines! You’ve never seen a trapezius! Look at that lumpen, hairy yeti! Edge-copiers beware, you’ll be sent to the Main Roads Department where your map-drawing skills might actually be useful. Hairdressers are likewise in the wrong class. The insults flow thick and fast; Paulson is not a man to praise a bad effort, and not shy of doling out colourful criticism. The end of day one, I came away thoroughly confused, unable to draw in Scott’s class later that evening. Scott trained extensively under Paulson, and consoled me thus: There’s nothing for it—it’s just hard, you’ve just got to keep at it, keep trying to synthesise  all the knowledge and keep looking for your voice. You’ve got to remember what it is you see and what makes you want  to draw, and to get so wrapped up in the looking that you forget about your drawing as a drawing.

life drawing 3

Week two, my lines are facetious, and I’m drawing scones and jellyfish. Paulson implores us to look, teasing us about the beautiful model wasting her time standing in front of a bunch of people who won’t even look at her. I thought I was trying to make a more simplified drawing, but I came to realise that if my drawing was simplified, it was only to keep in line with what I was able to see. In fact, I am only capable of seeing so much, and I have to go easy on myself. Adding details makes for a more demanding visual investigation of our model; I can start more broadly and investigate the overall design elements first.

life drawing 4

Paulson demonstrates this idea thus: ‘This is the most important lesson you’ll learn in your life,’ he says to a couple of us conspiratorially. He draws what appears to be an outline, a knobbly one, and proceeds to explain that lines have beginnings and ends and that you have to look for them. ‘Where does that go? What’s this? Wow!’ He traces muscular lumps through limbs and starts to really flesh out a person. I’m not seeing tone, though tone is a soft guide, and I’m not seeing volumes as such, though I’m hinting at them. I’m seeing the underlying structures. I’m seeing the building blocks of flesh. I’m starting to see, and I’m linearly describing things for which I have no words.

life drawing 6

I’ve thus received an antidote to my lazy drawing: I’ve realised that I’m not lost in my subject and not concerned with what my lines mean. Adequate representations of models or buildings are uninteresting objects, but drawings ought to satisfy curiosity. Beyond being a simple visual note-taking, drawing is an exploration, a private searching, not driven by the preoccupation with making a nice end product. That comes of itself, when there is honesty in the act of drawing. I’m reminded of Nelson* (p. 78):

The reason for painting or drawing from life is to gain skill. For what purpose? For itself? To make the means into the end is uncritical and suspect. The skill acquired by painting or drawing from life is at risk of circularity or even fetishisation.

Where line has always held a special trance over me, and is perhaps more expressively interesting to me than the tonal and form-rendering powers of shading, Paulson also pushed us to work with an idea that spoke powerfully to me: the idea of using line, drawing, as a notation for painting. Some days he would push the idea of ‘shape recognition’—over and over, flattening the world before us into a series of interlocking shapes, triangles between bent arms and torsos, odd shapes between backs of legs and verticals of walls. When you paint, you lay down swathes of colour in such shapes, and you can notate this by line too.

life drawing 5

Week by week, Paulson builds our confidence. His catchcry is, ‘Put your life on the line!’ He quietly implores me to trust myself and to have confidence in my marks. My drawings still lack the organised design of Paulson’s, but I am seeing the right things even if I can’t quite translate them onto the page. I see horizontals, but I still shakily bend them, and I see sweeps but I pock them unnecessarily with pointy bits. The lines on my paper begin to feel connected to me—where at first they didn’t seem to have any correlation to my brain or my hand, a frenzy of thoughtless marks appearing confusingly before me. I resolve to own those marks, and to mean them. I continue to wrestle with them.

My tuition with Paulson has come too quickly to a close. He is increasingly warm and giving as a teacher, the more you struggle and the harder you listen. My drawings are still rubbish and hopelessly uncertain, but I see better.

life drawing 8

* Nelson, Robert. 2010. The visual language of painting: An aesthetic analysis of representational technique. Australian Scholarly Publishing: Melbourne.