The unsayable

Lambert sketches

Copies after George W Lambert, at the Art Gallery of NSW and at the Julian Ashton Art School

An especially excellent thing about spending all my time at the Atelier is that I get to rub shoulders with a host of talented artists who have approached their careers in a variety of ways. The Salisbury Studios are aligned with and located at the school, and on any given day I can wander into someone’s studio and learn something about their work, and their approach to their work. Since I’ve become a part of the furniture there, no one seems to mind my evident curiosity and occasional (invited) snooping.

I recently spent a little time pottering around Kay Kane’s studio, admiring a portrait of an academic she had recently completed, as well as some lush, misty landscapes at various stages of layering. Kay’s work is usually on a large scale, very grounded in drawing from life, and the often multi-panelled works are carefully composed arrangements of enclosing shapes echoing real Queensland landscapes, painted in oils in airy hues. The vastness of the paintings envelope the viewer, drawing you into Kay’s peaceful haven.

Venus

Three panels from The Restoration of Venus © Kay Kane

Kay works at the Queensland College of Art (QCA), where her representational approach to art is, as I understand it, not especially respected. It’s alarming to learn of the battles a representational artist faces in the modern art world, but reassuring to see skilful and established artists like Kay standing their ground and being true to their convictions regardless. Her career, then, has been an academic one as well, which sees her jetting off to California to present papers on misogyny in art, as well as teaching at a university and submitting exegeses of her own. She gave me a copy of her Doctor of Visual Arts exegesis to read, which made for some pleasant breakfast reading in Sydney, and gave me plenty to think about.

Kay's thesis

Titled The restoration of Venus: The nude, beauty and modernist misogyny, her paper largely deals with the place of beauty in art, and whether the modern artist can include the undeniable beauty of the female nude in her visual repertoire to any meaningful end. The project grew out of her ‘persistent interest, not only in pursuing traditional modes of art practice, but in creating works intended to be beautiful. … If I seek beauty in my own work,’ she explains, ‘it is because it is there in the world to be found’ (p. 29)—and, perhaps, to be found for a reason. I would add to her sentiment that of Elaine Scarry (p. 81) in her treatise On beauty and being just: ‘It is as though beautiful things have been placed here and there throughout the world to serve as small wake-up calls to perception, spurring lapsed alertness back to its most acute level. Through its beauty, the world continually recommits us to a rigorous standard of perceptual care: if we do not search it out, it comes and finds us.’

Surrounded by artists who feel similarly about beauty, it’s easy for me to forget that the broader art world is concerned with things it might consider ‘higher’ than beauty, wrapped up as I am in my philosophical ideas on truth, beauty and good. Scarry (p. 58) writes of the fear that beauty distracts from real issues, from political injustices that art could help rectify if we weren’t so busy admiring the world and others, an argument she seeks to knock down. While her reasoning is less than rigorous, her intentions are noble, and align with my view that there is a place for creators of beauty in a world polluted with injustice: ‘It seems almost inconceivable that anyone with affection for human beings could wish on them so harsh an edict, permitting only perceptions that bring discomfort’ (p. 60). We must live towards some end, some beautiful end, not be forever evading an unpleasant present.

Kane recognises that art need not be beautiful to constitute art, but argues that shunning beauty in preference for these harder issues ‘did not succeed in expunging the human desire for and responsiveness to beauty.’ Further, as beauty was pushed aside in fine art, it resurfaced elsewhere, and the female form was carried along with it: becoming ‘more blatantly deployed, often in debased form, in popular culture. … It has never ceased to exert its power and fascination at the level of popular consciousness’ (abstract; p. 24). She seems to imply that were artists not ashamed to embrace the genuine beauty of the world and of people, to present something powerful and moving in a positive sense, to appeal to the visual hunger of the broader public for something delightful to the eyes, though not shallow and not a flashy veneer, that such artists would be responding to something very real and relevant in the human condition. Taking up this mantle might even prevent this desire from falling to cheaper, more vulgar incarnations. In denying something so fundamental to human nature, art has itself contributed to the devaluation of beauty. Art, then, is in a position to restore meaning and worth to beauty, and to bring it again before our eyes in a more intellectual and enduring way than popular culture might.

Drawing after Isabel Bishop

Copy after Isabel Bishop

Aside from considering the role of beauty in art, Kane describes at great length her actual method of creating her works, an enlightening insight. Much attention is given to composition, with ‘links in chains of bodies’ sweeping through and connecting the landscape and figures. These links ‘may be obvious continuities like linked hands, successions of arms, clusters or groups of forms. They may also be articulated by tonal pathways or continuities or echos of colour from one shape to the next’ (p. 40). Other compositional links are ‘purely notional’ or ‘invisible connectives’: ‘the vector of a pointing finger, or a glance bridging a wide interval, or a particular patterning of feet’ (p. 40). Kane’s deliberations on these connectives recalls to my mind Robert Nelson’s (p. 12) claim that ‘composition is an expressive resource, not a formalist absolute, … it relates not just to the subject matter but to the construction of space and hence drawing.’

Drawing is, for Kane, fundamental to art. ‘It is in drawing above all that one learns to see,’ she asserts, citing Robert Henri: ‘It is harder to see than to express’ (p. 30). There is an intentionality to drawing, in that it forces one to internalise what is seen and to reconstitute it on paper by a series of decisions. Nelson (p. 54) argues that ‘drawing is all about decisions,’ and, further, that it ‘involves authority.’ One draws to elucidate, to describe, to understand, and in so doing one must make decisions about what the crucial elements are that lay before one’s eyes. ‘Your decisions about what is important and your choices to manifest this or that designate your power to stipulate what must be seen’ (p. 54). Kane’s project is grounded in perception of, observation of and representation of the external world and the beauty it continually sets before us, rather than some inward ideas or unbridled expression.

This brings us to the least tangible, but perhaps most profound element of her work: the notion of the unsayable. This idea strikes a chord with me, as well it might with anyone with a deep love of music. Any musician can testify that music is compelling in its capacity to say things without words. It doesn’t say clear or mundane things, like, ‘can you please wash the dishes,’ unless you set such lyrics to it. But notes and timbre and chord progressions speak to a languageless part of us and say those things which we struggle to put into words. Art can have this quality. While some art is intended to represent words or concepts, or to narrate a story (and I am thinking of illustration), some art speaks to us in purely visual ways. Something about a painting can just sing. This is not to say that words are irrelevant or less important, but simply that there are other ways to connect with people. Kane (pp. 29-30) cites Walter Sickert who aptly remarks: ‘If the subject of the picture could be stated in words there would be no need to paint it.’

Kane suggests that an artwork’s meaning, far from resting in a lengthy artist’s statement, might lie solely in this wordless, purely visual resonance. She urges us to accept that some things are simply unsayable and we ought to let art step up and do what only it can do. ‘By trying to reduce what is essentially unsayable to handy formulas of trite categorisations,’ she argues, ‘one risks being untrue to work whose meaning, if it has any, lies wholly within itself and nowhere else’ (p. 1). I think she really wants to say that art is eighty percent science, twenty percent magic—and this captures something very profound and too often disregarded.

Kane, Kay. 2010. The restoration of Venus: The nude, beauty and modernist misogyny. Queensland College of Art, Griffith University (Doctor of Visual Arts exegesis).

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

Scarry, Elaine. 1999. On beauty and being just. Princeton University Press: Princeton.

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Mad drawing-demon

Hungarian

I’ve just returned from the sparkling shores of Sydney Town, where I spent an action-packed week, a week bursting at the seams, getting my fill of all things art at the Julian Ashton Art School. I signed up for an intensive week and went every morning, afternoon and evening and drew like a woman possessed by a mad drawing-demon. I’ll fill you in, as I gather my thoughts.

Ballerina

The nicest thing was feeling so at home at Ashton’s—the teachers are, after all, my artistic grandparents, and it felt right that I should waltz in and claim my place in this revered institution. I had the feeling that the Atelier and Ashton’s are sister schools, striving toward the same end, students and teachers interchangeable; we simply carry on our combined project in the north and in the south respectively. I was welcomed as a country cousin, proving my heritage by my skills and processes.

Figure painting sketch

The teaching has the benefit of being extremely varied—the sheer number of teachers means that there are many methods and preferences and views to absorb. While we speak the same language—talking of tone, form, shadow shapes, space, weight, alignment, measurement—there is no predicting in what manner each teacher will draw these elements together, and what insights will be gained from uniting them in this way. The challenge with each new class was to identify which element is key for each teacher, and to work to extract from them why this element, and why this way. Some think in terms of the distribution of weight through a figure, beginning from the foot and working up in a loose sort of way; others think in terms of points aligned on a grid, connecting a constellation of accurate dots into a precise outline. Others sculpt a face thinking of up-planes and down-planes, front and side, independent of light; others show depth by offsetting tones—some of which adhere to shadows, others to planes. Emphasise planes too much and be accused of being academic; use straight lines too rigidly and be accused of drawing robotically—the only way to proceed is to ask pointed questions and be willing to adapt.

Figure painting

After being stuffed full of new ideas, techniques, anatomical knowledge and ways of considering a drawing, I came to the realisation that a school like Ashton’s is an enabling environment, but that one ought not be too pliant. The vast range of styles and approaches in the students—all extremely talented—is evidence that people come to grow their own abilities, not to have a way imposed upon them. Failing to emulate is no failure at Ashton’s; what is learned goes deeper than a visual mimicry. My own style remained evident in my drawings, but my thinking has changed. I have a few new tools in my belt.

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Adventures in colour space

Praha © Samantha Groenestyn

A huge motivation for my recent sojourn to Sydney was the opportunity to take a five day workshop with David Briggs, a teacher at the Julian Ashton Art School. David kindly ran the workshop at his studio by the beach, meaning I ate my lunch gazing into refreshing seascapes each day, and gorged myself on cakes from the Hungarian bakery below his apartment every afternoon.

David’s workshop, Colour, Light and Vision, is so vast and deep that it is difficult to summarise. I took it because colour has always been of extreme significance to me, since I received my prized 64-box of Crayolas as a tiny person (all carefully arranged according to my own system, and all the names voraciously memorised, from periwinkle to brick red). I also took it because it promised that art could be a scientific, measurable task—rigorous and systematic, not confined to vague feelings and crazy aunts. Pigments have chemical reactions, some paints have higher tinting power than others, some are opaque to varying effect. We perceive colours differently under different lights; and in shadow, absolute change in brightness is greater in light colours. Optical illusions interfere with our perception of colours creating ‘simultaneous contrast,’ a failure of colour constancy that causes the same colour to look darker or lighter depending on the shade bordering it.

David’s studio is lined with books on colour. The man is well read, and his course thoroughly researched, and a continuing project. New books were delivered by post while I was there—old American high school art education books, old German pigment sample books. Books on Newton and Goethe, books by Munsell and Rood—these were spread across the table for our perusal, indicating the knowledge that has been tossed aside if not outright denied the modern artist. David’s mission in life seems to be to reclaim that knowledge, sort the true from the false, and to stuff any willing student full of it, in the most affable manner possible.

We began with Munsell and his A Colour Notation, a no-nonsense book from 1905 that set about giving children of all ages a thorough grasp on colour. Replacing the old red, yellow and blue primaries, Munsell began with five main colours: red, yellow, green blue and purple, shunning colours that drew their names from objects like oranges and violets. Arranging them in a type of tree diagram, some colours branched higher than others, some spanned wider, and, importantly, all branched from the solid trunk—dark at the root and light at the top, by the sun—representing tone, or value. While a tree may be drawn flat, it is really three dimensional, and it is this three-dimensionality of colour which Munsell sought to represent.

David thus demonstrates a way to map colour three-dimensionally—not as an organic tree, nor as a perfect globe, but digitally, with different and irregular gamuts for various media. Paint can only ever mix certain colours, and light can mix others. Vertically, in the centre of the colour space, we are looking at the absence of hue, and simply at the tonal scale of black through white. Hues move off in different directions, and their complements are opposite them and draw them through that greyed centre—purple will neutralise yellow, blue will neutralise red, before coming out the other side and becoming blue again. Each hue reaches its maximum chroma in a different place—yellow is at its most ‘yellow’ at a far lighter tone than blue, which fades with very little white added, and red is somewhere in between. Red under extremely bright light will look pink where yellow will still appear yellow, because of where its maximum chroma is mapped in colour space.

Yellow sphere by me

The course wasn’t entirely mind-bending theory (much as I enjoy that sort of thing!), but also a happy amount of paint mixing. We matched paint chips by approaching colour mixing in a systematic way: picking the two nearest colours to the one in question, getting them to the right tone and then mixing them in the right ratios, and neutralising them with the same-toned grey if necessary. We darkened difficult colours like yellow with black, bringing them back to the appropriate chroma by adding in a corrective colour like red. This is done purely by sight, learning to see when a yellow has turned green, but after the exercises we photographed our scales and mapped them in a lovely French colour program to test our judgements. With our colours duly mixed, we painted things: spheres demonstrating the areas of light (diffuse light, highlight, halftones and full light) and shadow. We painted still life thumbnails, correcting for the limitations of our paints: where yellow had to be the brightest, other colours had perhaps to be darkened.

(Did I mention we ate a lot of cakes? And looked at the ocean?)

Yes, a pretty intense week, but an immensely valuable one. I’d recommend David’s course in a heartbeat, and I’d take it again—not having a fixed curriculum, the course adapts to your own knowledge and experience, and if you’ve already painted the sphere, you get to try out the application of the theory on a human model ripe for painting. You can get hold of course dates and information through his website and through Julian Ashton’s. I’m still quietly mulling over the influx of information, and ready to start bringing it to my painting.

Outrageously beautiful cemetery, in which I took long, meditative afternoon walks.

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The gentlewoman

Over the past week, I was privileged to spend some time with the delightful Caitlin Shearer. Caitlin’s inimitable watercolours span pleasant baked delights to confident glamorous ladies to awkwardly beautiful intimate scenes. Her painted characters gaze distantly, lost in worlds of their own, always poised, though letting us in on a quiet, private moment. Her linework is firm and angular, carving out hands, faces and figures with merciless honesty, but in these irregularities of features one sees not disfigurement but personality. As one who has complained about the smoothing over of ‘blemishes’ and the bland rounding-out of the female form, I certainly admire an artist who can explore femininity in a truthful way.

Caitlin is that rare breed of lady—elegant, unassuming, poised and polite. Her lips and nails are painted, her hair is a voluminous flowing mass, and she speaks with a soft trill, as though sentences are melodies. Sydney terrace houses with Juliet balconies have her dreaming up the sorts of fantastical narratives that her paintings depict, full of romance and longing. Painting is, for her, an escape—a means of creating worlds in some ways simpler, in some ways more complex, than the one we really inhabit.

It was a real treat to meet another illustrator and to talk candidly about our hopes and fears and illustrative intentions and aspirations. Illustration is a bizarre sort of career that demands a great deal of work—constant output, clever ideas, maintaining a presence and a little bit of luck getting noticed. And once you’ve put all these things in the pot, given it a good stir and seasoned to taste, people are wont to become attached to the things you are not, and to fail to notice the work that you feel defines you. I suppose all an illustrator can do is make a fresh pot of tea and keep translating her ideas into physical things.

© Caitlin Shearer

 

The tea towel above was a present from Caitlin, and should you need to celebrate your love of cakes too, you can get one through her Etsy shop.

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Pilgrimage

An excellent thing happened to me the other day, which was that I got to visit the hallowed halls of the Julian Ashton Art School, and to attend a class, no less! I dropped in on some life drawing and had a bit of a snoop around at the school where my teachers trained, perched proudly on The Rocks.

While I’ve done loads of life drawing, I’ve learned a bunch of things about drawing in more recent times, and was bursting to try them out on a real live model instead of a cast. I propped up a board with some paper on a delightful little ‘donkey’ stool, perfectly positioned to study a nose in profile, and set to work.

I’ve never been interested in shading, because I found it tedious, washed-out and it made me think of high school. All those kids smudging pencil to get those hideous bubbly-smooth effects. All of this has changed. Under the patient and precise guidance of the skillful Ryan Daffurn, I’m learning to mold form with intentional pencil strokes, each carefully and powerfully descriptive of form and of shadow. After sketching the broad figure and refining the accuracy of proportions and placement, we block in the shadow (making sure not to include any of the halftones—the darkest parts of what is really still in the light) and create an instantly dramatic drawing. The shading in the light follows the contours of the body, conveying fullness and perspective, and paying attention to the amount of light and the way it falls on different shapes. The shadows get touched up later, without giving too much detail that distracts the eye from the real information.

This particular drawing, then, is my solitary effort, unfinished, unguided and performed in a single session, in my artistic Holy Land, and I’m a little bit pleased with it! And a little bit pleased at getting to walk around the Harbour by night, inspecting the soft glow of the sails of the Opera House and perusing books at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

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Letter lovin’

It turns out I am not very good at holidays. Rather, I am very good at them, and do all the things that I want to do—but I don’t rest and recuperate, or stop working! I’ve temporarily shifted my action-packed life to Sydney, where I have taken up several other classes instead of the ones I regularly take in Brisbane, and where I am still painting, inventing a knitted item, attending life drawing and going out with excellent people.

Saturday I attended a light-hearted and thoroughly enjoyable workshop called Type by Hand, run by Wayne Thompson of the Australian Type Foundry, and his accomplished accomplice Gemma O’Brien. Gemma gave an excellent talk at last year’s Semi-Permanent, and I’ve been a fan of her elaborate scripts and general enthusiasm for letters ever since—it was a real treat to meet her and watch her in action.

The workshop walked a nice line between theory and practice, and the emphasis was firmly on practice. Our tables were lined in paper, stacked with paper, and extra wide-nibbed Copic markers were placed in our hungry vicinities to complement our Artlines and other pens and pencils. So much paper! So many pens!

Wayne led with some ‘letter life drawing,’ where we warmed up by copying some old favourites. He then asked us to draw specific letters and, after giving it a shot, gave us simple explanations of very specific type ‘rules’—or perhaps more accurately ‘precedents.’ These established letter constructions are reliable ways to ensure legibility and to compensate for optical illusions. Most notably, the X is not a simple overlay of two lines—if one line is thicker, it must be broken, meeting the other bar at different points, or it will appear refracted. After drawing a sans serif P and R, we looked at ‘real’ Ps and Rs and saw with our own eyes that typographers have historically shifted the middle bar of the P slightly lower, to account for that unwieldy empty space.

Yuck! Terrible phone photos! My apologies.

 

The rest of the day was really about experiment—trying new media, copying fancy text, getting a feel for where letterforms came from by giving calligraphic lettering a go. A little prompting to try adding embellishments, or ligatures, or to think about how words might intersect, and we were transforming our simple lettering into Things of Beauty.

I didn’t feel stretched or overwhelmed at any point, but I felt like I’d received a shiny new box of tools—a bunch of exercises to loosen up and imagine lettering in new ways. I grasped the letters, shaped their forms with my hands, carved them from the inside out and watched them emerge from negative space. I’m discovering that I think spatially far more intuitively, and that my drawing—of letters or otherwise—need not be constrained to lines.

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Out and about

Just chillaxing with my Nanna and Pa in Sydney Town! (Yes, I was on a boat, and yes, I was full of vanilla ice cream.)

I had the great fortune to go to the Hotel Hollywood tonight and see the very talented Rainbow Chan play her last gig for a while before recording an album. This lady has a golden voice, an incredible ear for harmony and pleasing dissonance, and is going to add the harp to her formidable repertoire as of tomorrow!

I’ve been meeting a few other personal heroes this weekend; more on that after some well-earned rest.

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