Ever searching

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A pilgrimage to Paris, to encounter Delacroix and Manet in the flesh, reaffirmed that we need not be committed to one way of working. A true artist does not bind herself to a ‘style,’ but searches endlessly after some elusive thing—let us call it truth, in an indulgently romantic fashion. Truth may be uncovered and approximated and represented in many ways, and despite the way we put our artists into categories, their work is rarely so easily defined, so one-dimensional.

Delacroix

Delacroix

I saw Delacroix work of a very fine quality with well-defined contours and smoothly-modelled forms, and work of a more thick and fast quality, all the way up to very course, feverish and rough work, near incomprehensible smears of paint dancing upon the canvas. It brought me a devilish pleasure to see his most violent and spattered work hanging on the same wall as Ingres, classed together as ‘academic art,’ though as far removed from each other as imaginable. Ingres, with his linear emphasis; though his meticulously designed (and redesigned) lines are expertly integrated with his finely-modelled paint into eggshell-smooth rolling forms. The edges are airy, working in a magical unity with the forceful and clear lines. An unobservant viewer might be inclined to write off Ingres as formulaic and predictable, but finally encountering him face to face I am amazed at how his work breathes with such variety from within his preferred parameters. Crisp and deeply modelled spherical forms in rich ruby and emerald colours cloak his Joan of Arc in a convincingly medieval air, while a Venus basking in golden southern rays is treated in such a diffuse, hazy way that counters the severe artifice of the arc of her shoulders. Paint is put to such different use as the picture demands, and though he holds fast to his draughtsmanship, even this does not dictate the application of paint. Baudelaire (1972: 51) is quick to point out to the oversimplifying critic that colour and line are not alien to each other: ‘You do not know in what proportions nature has combined in every mind the taste for line and the taste for colour, nor by what mysterious alchemy she produces the fusion between them, the result of which is a picture.’

(Copy after Ingres)

(Copy after Ingres)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is sheer madness to think that there is one way to apply paint, one method that defines us. The French are ever searching. They are testing the limits of paint, not out of ennui, not in a distracted pursuit of novelty, nor out of despair that everything has already been done. They are searching for the manner of expressing what they want to express. They are pushing paint to the very limits of its expressiveness. And perhaps they don’t succeed every time, but they certainly make many surprising breakthroughs.

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Delacroix

Delacroix positively shimmers, in every way. His lines vibrate with urgency and vitality. The drawing alone is joyously bursting with life, exploding with energy. I take out my sketchbook and copy two women, crouched and one clasping the other, hair hanging tossed heavily over the head like an extra limb, extending the arch of the body. A perfectly designed foot curves with a lively flourish. My chunky drawing has found the Rubens in these draped figures, in their interlocking arms and their thick wrists and meaty bodies. Without a doubt, Rubens is flowing through these paintings, however loose Delacroix’s paint becomes—in the drawing and in the colours alike. For Delacroix’s colours vibrate as much as his lines. Hanging among Géricault in this huge hall, Delacroix’s colour is punchy, judiciously applied, not overdone, but strong and resonant. Gold gleams and beads twinkle, hair shimmers like falling water and satin shines in its dampened way. A trembling wrist persuades me that Delacroix is able ‘to express simply by contour man’s gesture, however violent;’ while his glinting fabrics and glowing skin demonstrate his ability ‘to evoke with colour alone what might be called the atmosphere of the human drama, or the spiritual mood of the creator’ (Baudelaire 1972: 361).

Delacroix

Delacroix

Perhaps only a painter could find pictures so unrelentingly brutal to be so abundant with life, because she cares more for the paint than for the subject matter. I reflect that it is almost a paradox to speak of Delacroix’s paintings being alive when his themes are almost exclusively death—though Baudelaire (1972: 359) shares my conviction that ‘he succeeded in translating the spoken word into plastic images, more full of life and more appropriate than those of any other creator of the same profession.’ Perhaps this pulsating energy comes from the realisation that life is but a vicious and frenzied struggle against death, which we are destined to lose.

Manet

Manet

In Manet I find the same ambitious range. His Olympia consists in such lovely drawing; all the lines lead you irresistibly to her crotch, where the most delicious drawing is concentrated in the expertly foreshortened hand, foreshortened by means of line, tone and colour, so meaningfully and powerfully conveyed in such a short stretch of painting. I think of the controversies Manet sparked, and I can imagine them as unintentional, unwanted controversies, the inescapable consequence of his search after truth. Olympia is certainly striking, but it is no provocative statement that makes her so compelling to a painter. The challenges to the male gaze and other art historical renderings of this picture seem remote and improbable when one stands before the canvas as a humble artist. Baudelaire (1972: 397) would remind us that ‘with two or three exceptions…the majority of artists are, let us face it, very skilled brutes, mere manual labourers, village pub-talkers with the minds of country bumpkins.’ A mere painter would see her task in much simpler terms than the intellectualising public might expect: she would simply be obliged to use all means available to make the image as cohesive and strong as possible. How could it be otherwise than that Manet reserve his best drawing, his soundest use of tone and colour, ‘all the means his craft gives him’ (Baudelaire 1972: 51), for this most fertile region of this modern nude? Formally, she is a strong, arresting, complete unity. Conceptually, she is shocking, because of what strong painting does when it mixes with the present. Can the present abide strong painting? Manet has not let me down.

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Degas

In Degas I discover such variety of mark making, often within the one picture. Degas coaxes a self portrait, a luminous pair of hands, out of the surface, working the delicate transitions by near imperceptible degrees without compromising the overall form. He builds them up with increasing intensity from thin, rubbed-out raw umber, as if extracting them slowly from the mud. The humble raw umber underpainting and its gently undulating quality remains visible in places. Pictures grow out from the earthy and close but precise tones, the chroma gradually increasing with smears of rubbed-out opaque colour, and then a finishing touch of a thick and sure stroke of colour at a yet higher chroma. And likewise, the dark tones are deepened with yet darker blues and blacks and browns. The unity is preserved: the variations stay in their place, ever subordinate to the greater mass.

Degas

Degas

And I enjoy his alternating demands on the paint according to his intentions. The double portrait of himself and the top-hatted gentleman is arresting at a distance; the dark forms of the men come starkly to the fore, but their faces are finely treated, sympathetic to complex and restrained emotions, the creases of the eyes firm and clear but ever so slightly softened. A single, delicious specular highlight adorns one corner of the square end of the gentleman’s nose. His top hat is a perfect, straight extension of his proud head. Paris glimmers behind them, a positive mash of pale pinkish and bluish whites, somewhat abrasive up close, but remarkably effective. The textural contrast should be insulting to the vision, but this brash experiment has succeeded—against all expectations, the discord harmonises: the picture forms a striking unity.

Rodin

Rodin

Rodin’s breadth strikes me just as strongly. Certainly I know of his harried surfaces, the presence of his fingertips in thick smatterings of clay. I know this look of frenzied concentration in his rough man-handling of the surface, this working and reworking that belies his countless reattempts at truth, so poorly imitated by those who equate unthinking sketchiness with ‘expressiveness’ devoid of content. But perhaps more unexpected was that sometimes he can be so slick and precise, that he can introduce the most gentle twist, an understated arc perceptible from all angles, though unbelievably slight. That he can be so anatomically careful, and model so accurately. He can magnify this naturalism to monstrous proportions, and subject the body to fantastic strains and tensions—the compression of a foot firmly planted but screwing into the ground, the push and pull of flexors and extensors in heavily-set legs. Yet he can confine all this physical anguish within a smoothly-modelled exterior. And then he can absolutely let loose and let these taught, herculean, muscular bodies melt into strong but somehow unreal creatures, human but somehow superhuman, more flexible, more arched, more sinewy; deformed by their suffering. In these overbearing figures one feels the lithe energy of the smaller, quickly-sketched maquettes that trickle down the Gate of Hell. They are overgrown mud-men, bent and twisted in the cruel hands of a merciless god.

Rodin

Rodin

‘A good picture,’ opines Baudelaire (1972: 365-6), ‘faithful and worthy of the dreams that gave it birth, must be created like a world. Just as the creation, as we see it, is the result of several creations, the earlier ones always being completed by the later, so a harmonically fashioned picture consists of a series of superimposed pictures, each fresh surface giving added reality to the dream, and raising it by one degree towards perfection.’ And as creators, we must not fall into habit, and thus disengage from our work, but approach each work with fresh eyes. We must bring to it the knowledge that it demands, and ever try to augment that knowledge through our investigations. There is no one way of working, even if we are trying to get at the same truth.

Delacroix

Delacroix

 

Baudelaire, Charles-Pierre. 1972 [1842-1860]. Selected writings on art and artists. Trans. P. E. Charvet. Penguin: Harmondsworth, England.

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The vortex of style

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I’ve happened upon one of the best sketch clubs I’ve ever had the good fortune to attend in tough and vibrant Glasgow, tucked away behind an inconspicuous back door in a dive bar perched on the outer skirts of the city centre. All the Young Nudes will be pleased to apply deafening and achingly cool music to your ears and drown out all other tedious distractions or heckling of the (three) models, while giving you the choice of shorter or longer poses depending where you station yourself, and of course you have access to beer on tap. Best of all, the models really are nude, something I’m finding a bit of a luxury of late in costume-oriented groups, allowing me to learn about the body once again.

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Of course, not everyone seems to attend sketch clubs in order to learn about the body. Which makes me wonder why people demand the luxury of a nude in their midst. I’ve found myself unhappily seated beside grown men with greying hair solemnly applying crayons to their paper in a decisive scribble with no correlation to the figure before them, before ceremoniously smearing the pathetic mess in turpentine. Or others who spend as much time invoking magic as they do drawing, waving their hands in spell-casting fashion at the long-suffering model. I pick on the old men because they have no excuse for not being able to draw by now, and worse—they generally feel compelled to offer us younger punters unsolicited instruction.

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I firmly believe that many of my contemporaries have no inkling of what the life class is. Each new pose, in their eyes, offers the opportunity for a new piece of Art. Another chance for the deity of Inspiration to channel something mind-blowing through their pencil. Each attempt is an end in itself. But the life class is simply about hard work, observation and practice. If anatomy is irrelevant, perhaps you’d do better to draw trees. Trees have limbs, too, and sit really still, and I’m sure would inspire similar profusions of confused chalky expression. It’s much cheaper.

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An aimless girl I met at said group confessed she has no knack for hard work, and would rather not put time and effort into drawing. Better to show up once a week, get drunk, and see what happens. She boasted that she was surprised by her own output, especially since it was so consistent. I had asked for no defence of her work, mind, but she was eager to explain to me why my ‘academic’ studies were no more valid than her half-arsed efforts. Consistency is the key, she forged on, for consistency is what she most values in art. If an artist is consistent, then they have a style, and style takes pre-eminence above all facility. What madness that an image can’t stand on its own merit, but requires a context to support it! I began to wonder if this preoccupation with ‘style’ is what drives the insistence on solo exhibitions.

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My contemporaries find my ‘style’ very easy to categorise as straight-up academic. ‘Oh, you draw in an academic style, I see,’ is the disappointed summation of my studies, which, don’t forget, I execute for my own studious purposes, not as works of Art. Others are more flattering: ‘You draw like a sculptor.’ Or, ‘You draw like an animator.’ Sculptors and animators are people who have an understanding of three-dimensional form and motion, of the construction and machinations of the body, and I feel more at home in such company. Oddly, I’m never told, ‘You draw like an artist.’ For artists can’t really draw, can they?

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Nor are they required to—and this is a significant obstacle. As Gombrich (1972: 13) lucidly explains in his fabulously unpretentious book The story of art, art was always produced toward some end: ‘Most of the paintings and statues which are now strung up along the walls of our museums and galleries were not meant to be displayed as Art. They were made for a definite occasion and a definite purpose which were in the artist’s mind when he set to work.’ Endless fretting about originality and expression never clouded the visage of the artists of the distant past. And yet, argues Gombrich (1972: 119), ‘there remained enough scope for him to show whether he was a master or a bungler.’ The unmasked utility of his work did not necessarily constrain him.

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For to be an artist is to be in the possession of a creative and problem-solving mind, and to have the urge to turn this mind towards tasks and problems and devise wholly new configurations. We are inventive creatures, our mental flights stray from the worn paths; our specialty is to approach things in ways that have not yet been considered. And as painters and sculptors we do this in a very physical, sight-dependent way, merging thought with touch.

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What we demand, then, are tasks! Ritual masks, cathedrals, portraits, book illustrations (Gombrich, 1972: 473)! Gombrich (1972: 472-3) compares these tasks to the grit around which a pearl can form. ‘If the artist’s feelings for forms and colours are to crystallise in a perfect work,’ he argues, ‘he, too, needs such a hard core—a definite task on which he can bring his gifts to bear.’ The cause is, just quietly, of little concern to the artist, whose problem-solving mind whirs over solving the physical task at hand rather than elusive concepts of beauty and expression (1972: 13). And that’s where her abilities come into their own: ‘The pearl completely covers the core. It is the secret of the artist that he does his work so superlatively well that we all but forget to ask what his work was supposed to be, for sheer admiration of the way he did it’ (1972: 473).

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Gombrich’s book fluidly traces a cultural history in which communities set definite tasks for artists, who, endlessly in need of challenge, performed them with great ingenuity and finesse. Yet there came a point when artists were forced to turn inwards for such challenges. Says Gombrich (1972: 473) sombrely: ‘It was a fateful moment in the Story of Art when people’s attention became so riveted on the way in which artists had developed painting or sculpture into a fine art that they forgot to give artists more definite tasks.’ With attention now firmly fixed on what these inventors would invent next, a string of ‘isms’ succeeded the artists’ own attempts to set themselves puzzles about light, form and colour, but also about meaning.

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Celebrated Glaswegian writer and artist Alasdair Gray (2007: 306-7) perfectly captures this claim in an increasingly impassioned dialogue between art student Duncan Thaw and his fellow hospital inmate, a local minister, in his spectacular novel Lanark:

‘There are very few good jobs for handworkers nowadays,’ said Thaw, ‘so most parents and teachers discourage that kind of talent.’

‘Did your parents encourage you?’

‘No. They allowed me paper and pencil when I was an infant, but apart from that they wanted me to do well in life.’

‘Tell me, just to change the subject, why are modern paintings so hard to understand?’

‘As nobody employs us nowadays we’ve to invent our own reasons for painting. I admit art is in a bad way. Never mind, we’ve some good films. So much money has been put into the film industry that a few worthwhile talents have got work there.’

The minister said slyly, ‘I thought artists didn’t work for money.’

Thaw said nothing. The minister said, ‘I thought they toiled in garrets till they starved or went mad, then their work was discovered and sold for thousands of pounds.’

‘There was once a building boom,’ said Thaw, growing excited, ‘In north Italy. The local governments and bankers of three or four towns, towns the size of Paisley, put so much wealth and thought into decorating public buildings that half Europe’s greatest painters were bred there in a single century. These bosses weren’t unselfish men, no, no. They knew they could only win votes and stay popular by giving spare wealth to their neighbours in the form of fine streets, halls, towers and cathedrals. So the towns became beautiful and famous and have been a joy to visit ever since. But today our bosses don’t live among the folk they employ. They invest surplus profits in scientific research. Public buildings have become straight engineering jobs, our cities get uglier and uglier and our best paintings look like screams of pain. No wonder! The few who buy them, buy them like diamonds or rare postage stamps, as a form of non-taxable banking.’

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Thaw’s claims ring as clear as ever in our own time. Inhabited public places comprise almost exclusively places of commerce: retail and dining. They are fashioned as such, and designed to urge consumption and to foster endless want and desire. Many of our cleverest and most innovative problem-solvers are more likely than ever to find their abilities at the disposal of advertising, which must be produced quickly, must be sharp and forceful, and is by nature throw-away. I’m not sure whether to be grateful to those who see value in and reward creative skills, employing us once again as humble handworkers, or whether to despair at the sorry ends to which such hands and minds have become servile. At any rate, a seemingly insurmountable division has grown between ‘commercial artists’ and ‘fine artists,’ with the latter largely unwilling to accept such tasks. Something more is demanded.

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Gombrich expertly laces together a preoccupation with style and the lack of suitable tasks. ‘Ever since artists had become self-conscious about ‘style’ they felt distrustful of conventions and impatient of mere skill,’ he writes (p. 439), continuing, ‘They longed for an art which did not consist of tricks which can be learned, for a style which was no mere style, but something strong and powerful like human passion.’ In not being required to produce anything specific, art itself became the task: the puzzles became more and more esoteric the less they became about applying art to external problems. Style is what remains when other goals are removed from the picture. Of course, that doesn’t defend laziness or ineptitude, as the indomitable draughtsman Pietro Annigoni fiercely wrote:

The truth is that the deformations of contemporary painters very seldom arise from stylistic requirements forced on the artist by his vision. They merely spring from a confused desire to be controversial, a surprising indifference to the human being and, one might add, a lukewarm commitment to life itself. The result is absolute indifference to form, lack of proper preparation and a heavy dose of sheer ineptitude. This last quality has today, it seems, acquired full rights of citizenship in the realm of art.

The less fiery Gombrich (p. 474) leaves us with this rebuke: ‘There are certainly painters and sculptors alive today who would have done honour to any age. If we do not ask them to do anything in particular, what right have we to blame them if their work appears to be obscure and aimless?’ I firmly believe we must forge a new chapter in the ‘story of art’ and that obsession with style over ability, along with the solo show and its narcissistic introspection, ought to be abandoned. Perhaps finding the modern task-giver will be crucial to this project.

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Gombrich, E. H. 1972 [1950]. The story of art, twelfth edition. Phaidon: Oxford.

Gray, Alasdair. 2007 [1969, 1981] Lanark. Canongate: Edinburgh.

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Style and epistemological decisions

Downtime, Berlin © Samantha Groenestyn

The question of style is something that I have been giving some thought of late. How does one uncover one’s style, and how does one develop it? Does amassing a collection of work really amount to a ‘body’ of work—will the pieces speak to each other, and somehow stand united? Is style simply what pours out of the end of your brush, or can you train it, and if you imitate the work of someone else, how much can you appropriate into your own style?

Bike riding through the city

The ever provocative Susan Sontag* has some ideas in her essay ‘On Style.’ She argues that when metaphors are concocted to explain style, they inevitably ‘plac[e] matter on the inside, style on the outside. It would be more to the point to reverse the metaphor’ (p. 17). In this she agrees with Cocteau, whom she cites: ‘Decorative style has never existed. Style is the soul, and unfortunately with us the soul assumes the form of the body’ (p. 17).

This is appealing from a practical point of view. In creating something, it can feel as though the thing created is limited in many ways. I might attempt to write a book in the spirit of Thomas Hardy, but find my writing to constantly fall short. This is explained by Cocteau’s position, in that my writing will be restricted by my own facility with words and my particular habits in stringing them together. Rather than falling short of writing in Hardy’s style, my writing will simply exhibit my own style, at its particular stage of development.

The same may be said of illustration: I have particular gouache techniques that allow me to achieve very specific effects, I have a steady hand with a pen, and I have some innate (though nascent) understanding of tone, but my particular experience and practices will not allow me to achieve just any style. My very lack of experience dramatically restricts my art to the point that my right hand feels like it lives in a deterministic universe. It does not yet know what it can achieve, or how to achieve the styles that get me excited, and feels quite set on its course to make the type of art that it does. Ira Glass expressed the sentiment of being a person of taste whose capabilities have not yet met the high standards of one’s taste, which I think equally applicable to style.

Sontag notes the importance of repetition to style, which not only allows us to class it but also aids our memory (p. 34). It is easy to spot the patterns in any artist’s work, and this repetition allows us to explore something more fully, in a meditative way and, further, gives us a means to perfect our craft. Sontag goes so far as to say that being able to spot these repetitions is what makes art intelligible to the viewer (p. 35). Motifs are a powerful way of connecting with and communicating with our audience. Their frequent appearances are little clues to those familiar with our work, an ongoing dialogue, even an inside joke.

What is repeated depends on what it is that we care to emphasise. Sontag refers to the function of ‘insisting on something’ and removing other things—‘ the most potent elements in a work of art are, often, its silences’ (pp. 35, 36). ‘Every style embodies an epistemological decision, an interpretation of how and what we perceive’ (p. 35). Art allows us so many means of distorting the world, narrowing it, making small parts of it larger, creating fantasies within it, glorying in it. We make these decisions every time we arrange a composition, or strike upon a colour combination, or obsessively note down leaf structures. It only remains for us to share our style—our inner experience of the world—in the outward objects we create. To do this, we must repeat what needs repeating, and in repeating develop our technical proficiency to match our style.

* Sontag, Susan. 1994. ‘On style,’ in Against interpretation. Vintage: London.

In the morning we are going on holidays!

Downtime, Berlin is a study after Yelena Bryksenkova. Uncertain about how to move away from realism, I attempted to reimagine my own image with some of her motifs and methods that I found appealing. While nothing is directly copied, the spirit of the piece feels too near to hers for my comfort. This has given me much to ponder—does my style approach hers, when I have the techniques needed at my disposal? I sense that I am far too attached to realism—particularly tone—but I did enjoy the opportunity to exploit patterns to such dramatic effect.

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Self-taught

What does it mean to be ‘self-taught’? ‘Taught’ implies a teacher or master who passes on knowledge to a student. There are always aspects of reinforcing what is taught through some form of self-directed homework—be it practicing a piece of music unaided or conjugating verbs between classes—but this does not constitute teaching.

I have taught myself much about languages. This is easy to explain—others with teacherly skills have put together language courses in book form, and I have dutifully worked through these books with some amount of success. The ‘teach yourself’ style books (indeed, Teach Yourself is a series I am currently dabbling in) simply form a papery bridge between me and a distant teacher. The ‘self-taught’ aspect simply hinges on my own dedication to working through the exercises.

I begin to really teach myself, though, when I devise other ways of learning. I supplement these structured exercises with reading novels in German, and with writing little stories in German based on vocabulary lists, and with writing German emails to my German-speaking friends. In these instances, I am the teacher, because I devise the tasks and seek out the things I need to know, rather than accept them directly from someone else. The line blurs when others are involved, and others will always be involved—I may initiate a conversation with a German friend, but they will correct me as we talk, and they will assume the role of teacher, saving me a rummage through my dictionary. But the knowledge we gain from others is not always given to us; it must sometimes be uncovered through extra work on our part.

I am a self-taught illustrator. By this I firstly mean that I have not studied illustration at university or at an arts college, making it a handy and positive response to questions about where I gained my qualifications. But having established that I did not attend SVA or ECA, the phrase warrants a little more explanation.

Yes, I do simply draw and paint all the time. As often as I can, for as long as I can. My ragged sketchbook has been on many adventures, I’ve seen lots of naked people posing for three, five and ten minutes, and I’ve had to replenish my gouache set. In simply doing something repeatedly, there is plenty of opportunity for experiment, refinement of technique and improvement. But I started to ask myself, how will I learn something I don’t already know if I continue to do things the way I always have? Trying a new medium forced me to experiment with techniques, but I worried that I might grow comfortable in this new space and be unable to discover things I would otherwise excel at if I were taught.

Advice I frequently encounter is: ‘don’t look at other illustrators’ work.’ It’s usually nestled in a section on ‘how to get through dark periods.’* In this context, I am sure this is important advice, so long as the reason you are in a dark place is that you think everyone else is better than you. If the dark place was brought on by a lack of ideas, I’d argue the stimulation of the work of others might just be the inspiration needed. The advice generally boils down to: Learn to love your own work and not rank it against the work of others. I think this is a very shallow way to approach the work of others, which is so rich in information.

I say: look, and look critically. This isn’t the shallow kind of ‘hit or shit’ critique, or spot-the-mistake. Sure, if an illustration isn’t working, think about why, dissect it harshly if there is anything to be learned from this. I’m not going to point any fingers, but a brief visit to Illustration Friday will show you a truckload of illustrations that miss the point of the exercise, which is to depict a word (often a complex concept) each week. A cringe-worthy example is the week of the word ‘intention,’ for which I saw many entries that boiled down to: ‘I intended to submit something for this week’s Illustration Friday, but instead I drew a picture of my cat.’ I learned from this that I want my image to convey as much meaning as possible, without needing some convoluted back-story or funny caption to get it over the line. Similarly, I see a lot of complexity in imagery (which can be a very beautiful thing), where many elements are needed to explain the concept. I realised quickly that it’s effective to distil the image to one simple focal point. Learning from the mistakes of others, then, can be very useful, but is ultimately a precautionary kind of learning. It’s like a map that alerts you to potholes but omits the castles and beaches you’d like to visit. (Castles if you’re in Europe; beaches if you’re in Australia).

A spread from 'Fairytale Food' illustrated by Yelena Bryksenkova.**

No, you can look critically in another, more edifying, sense, and here I return to a method of self-teaching I previously referred to as analysis and imitation. The work of Baltimore-based, Russian-born illustrator Yelena Bryksenkova is pure magic to me. There’s something soothing and gentle about it, yet it is bold and self-assured, and though it seems a simplification of life, it explodes with detail—of everyday objects, wildlife, plants, astronomy and fashion. Here is what I realised: it is possible to look at something, and look at it often, and not be able to articulate why you like it, or what makes it so fascinating, or how it was constructed. And so, I set out to determine these things by doing. I chose a favourite piece—Peaches—pencilled it out (this took some time) and began to paint it.

Some concrete, practical things I have learned about Yelena’s method are that she defines three distinct dimensions in her work, and each plane receives a flat but distinct colour treatment. White borders edge many objects, like rugs or pictures. Unifying tones are crucial—the same brown applies to all wooden furniture, the same pink features in textiles and wallpaper. A limited colour palette–here, pink, red, green and brown–is stylish and effective. It flattens the image, when the world is a very colourful place, but also stops the image overwhelming the eye with disconnected details. And it takes a very long time to draw each and every book, tile and floral pattern.

Part of me felt a little shady undertaking this exercise, and then I came across this advice from Austin Kleon: ‘Steal like an artist.’ Maria Popova cites him when discussing her idea of combinatorial creativity. In attempting to achieve what Yelena has already achieved, I am unpacking the knowledge and skills and thought processes she has put into creating the piece. In doing so, I gain some of these skills and can apply them in new ways to my own work. I gain a deeper appreciation of how Yelena works, and I learn a new way of approaching my work. I will not adopt her style as my own, but will cite her as an influence on my own artistic path. As Maria Popova argues, ‘Imitation is the sincerest form of ideation.’

 

* Holly DeWolf, for example, makes this suggestion in Breaking into freelance illustration. (2009; How Books: Cincinnati).

** Cash, Lucie. 2012. Fairytale Food. Preface: London.

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Style

Phoning Mum © Samantha Groenestyn

I am experimenting with style. Thus far my output has been the natural result of my putting paint to paper. I like strong colours, strong lines and textures that don’t quite conform to perspective. I like reflections on shiny objects, and take infinite delight in recreating a view realistically. The expressiveness of realistic painting is much like that of photography—the suggestion of composition. I can frame a view that you could certainly see for yourself, but might not have seen in the way I have. I can draw your eyes to a new centre, where in the world you would see an unfocused panorama. Remember when everyone was stitching their photos together to take panoramic shots of their holidays? It’s because they wanted to capture the view as they saw it, with peripheral vision. I want to show you little worlds that are self-contained, with a person or an object to ponder, at the centre of its own little universe. There is meaning in this that there isn’t in 180-degree vision.

Painting allows for greater manipulation than (unshopped) photography in that the colours can be tweaked—muted, brightened, monochromed and so forth. New moods can be overlaid perfectly realistic images simply by use of colour. By which I mean, through composition and conscious colour manipulation, photo-real paintings can really tell a story without relying on pictorial symbolism or stitching together conceptual motifs. These latter are certainly not my strong point (enter: high school art projects and gut-wrenching memories of candle wax and denim), but I have found other ways to communicate visually, which is, after all, what illustration is about.

Nonetheless, there is something unsatisfying about simply putting brush to paper and accepting the inevitable result. I am at war: the desire to paint accurately is so strong, though more imaginative work is around the corner if I can rein this desire in.

Being self-taught, I have no directed assignments to jolt me into trying new things. What I do have is lots of time to practice what I want to practice. To this end, I have devised a method of analysis and imitation to develop artistically. This does not mean blind mimicry of my idols, but, rather, careful consideration of the elements of their work and the way they differ from mine. I have always collected—vowel sounds, letterforms, haircuts, dress sense—I have compiled a style out of taking small bites of others’ pies and piecing them into my own. My accent is a pleasing amalgam of broad Australian a’s, soft South African e’s, and educated pronounced (rather than clipped) t’s and d’s at the ends of words. My handwriting was carefully appropriated from curled, connected letters penned by others, made fuller and shorter, and looped for optimal speed of writing. While I have the dress-sense of a four-year-old collided with Amy Winehouse, I can quote my sources. The key is to be selective and to be thoughtful. So will I approach my illustration style.

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