Archive for the ‘life drawing’ Category

Terry Nurmi – Inconceivable

June 4, 2010

Our best art comes from expressing our deepest concerns.  The more heartfelt a subject is, the more intensely involved the artist is, the better the final outcome is likely to be.

Thus, when a young woman’s heart bears the distressing failure to produce a child she so desperately desires and all other avenues have not helped to assuage the inability to conceive, and this same woman after years of putting away her personal pain decides to express it through her art to let it free, a most interesting body of work springs forth.

This woman is Terry Nurmi, who after years of trying various methods to understand and then conquer sterility, decided to explore her voyage through visual expression. Nurmi is rooted in her community and her community became not only the physical place in which she resides, but a larger community of women who share with her the frustration of trying to conceive a child.

Nurmi had spent years going in and out of clinics, being tested for this possibility and that, engaging in trials of Artificial Reproductive Technology treatment then waiting to see if they would bear fruit. Through those years, an idea germinated and grew. Nurmi would find a way to express the feelings of frustration, hope, disappointment, pain, envy, grief, and anger that a woman experiences.

When it came to realizing this exhibition idea, Nurmi called out to her sisters-in-infertility. She called upon the Infertility Awareness of Canada (IAAC), Fraser Chapter,  asking each women who was willing to contribute to the project to provide a collage that expressed their feelings. Those who responded were given a small round petri dish, a round, clear plastic laboratory dish,  in which to  provide a visual expression of their personal story. (Double click on each one to see it larger).

Nurmi then installed a black line on the wall to indicate a temperature chart and then placed these petri dishes at each point of the chart (see first photo, above). The chart takes up almost the full length of the gallery’s north wall.

This part of the collaborative exhibition mixes installation art (the temperature chart) with conceptual art (the petri dishes); and each of the petri dishes is a miniature collage “in vitro”, meaning “under glass”.

The following photos illustrate the diversity of image that resulted. Some are cold, keeping the viewer at a distance; others indicate frustration; still others manage a bit of black humour (the one with Frosty the Snowman). Some are empty (Anger)  awaiting the babies that do not come.

It was a delight at the exhibition to see people pouring over each one of these little, clear disk boxes. Raw sentiment is contained within.

Across  on the South wall of the gallery, are several cross-over drawings-become-watercolour (and some pastel). Each represents a baby in Nurmi’s life – babies belonging to  sisters and sisters-in-law; friends or extended family.

They express that fragile and innocent time a child’s life.  The infants are sleeping or just waking.

Knowing Nurmi, there is bittersweet heartache in these images that does not go away.  Yet these images capture the innocence and beauty of infancy.

From a technical point of view, these drawings are fresh and lively. Each is drawn with strong and sensitive  line, then  enhanced by chalk pastel and watercolour. She is mistress of her medium. The work exhibits a lot of freedom and yet there is nothing gratuitous. Every mark made is necessary to the drawing and the maturity of the hand is delightful to see.

Once again in reference to “in vitro” , each of these mixed media, mostly watercolour paintings is framed between Plexiglas and clips to reinforce the concept of “under glass”.

For more information on Terry Nurmi and the subject of Infertility Awareness, check out the article in the Globe and Mail of May 23rd, 2010

There is quite a bit more information on the web about this recent exhibition, so if you are interested, I’d suggest a Google search.

The exhibition is on until June 6th at the Fort Gallery in Fort Langley.


Studio visit to Simon Andrews

April 16, 2010

Persimmons, Simon Andrews, Oil on canvas 24 x 48 inches

I’ve been living life in the fast lane – it’s a complaint that many retirees make. They don’t know where the time goes. Is it forgetfulness? Or are we just so happy to be doing all the things we had hoped to do while grinding away at a day job – and now that we have time to do our own thing, time goes full tilt forward.

All that, to say that about a month or six weeks ago, I had a blog comment from an upcoming artist, happy to have read my blog about Eri Ishii and expressing a wish for someone to publish a critique for his work.

That piqued my interest and I arranged for a day in Vancouver where I would have enough time to go to his studio and see his work.

We arrived around noon on a day threatening to rain. The  apartment was one of those three story walk-ups from the post-War era, plain, utilitarian, covered with stucco complete with little glass bits in it.  The way up to the apartment was a bit torturous, there being no single staircase, but off shoots. The numbering system was not in the best practices of current way-finding.

When we entered, there was a strong odor of turpentine since his medium is oil on board and oil on canvas.  Every bit of wall space was serving as storage space for his paintings ranging from a small size about 4 inches by 4, up to larger ones worthy of a entry way with 12 foot ceilings.

Women by a river, Simon Andrews, Oil on panel 48 x 48 inches

One bedroom in his apartment was devoted to his studio and he was working at a painting at his easel; but there was another one set up with a painting in progress. There was a drop cloth on the floor to catch the spills, and my impression was that there was good reason to have the cloth there. He seems to work with a generous use of solvents and liquid paint.

This young man, I’m guessing he’s in his thirties,  had given up a prestigious and well-paid job as an art director with an electronic games company, voluntarily taking a demotion to be an artist within the electronic game  industry with the same company, and then finally was frustrated with the interference he got from the new  art director asking him to change his concepts this way and that. He decided to become a painter, full time.

Winter pond, Simon Andrews Oil on panel 16 x 16  inches

By the decoration or lack of, in his apartment you can see his complete devotion to his art. The walls are crammed with paintings, there is little furniture, the kitchen takes up no more room than necessary. His lovely wife  is his muse.

The vast majority of his work is figurative.

I asked him where he had studied, but he replied that he had not taken any courses. He had learned everything from studying books, especially noting what his favourite masters did. Those would be Manet, van Gogh, Gaugin on the French side and Gustav Klimpt and maybe Egon Schiele on an Austrian note. The post-Impressionists of France and Germany – the Nabis, Fauves, and the Blue Riders  – are also strong influences.

His smaller paintings are of landscape and still life, in the genre of the sixty-minute artist or the “painting a day” school. They are very fresh and painterly, often with subjects of mundane living – a collection of jars, a kitchen implement, the corner of a stove with a pot, glass ware, a corner of his studio materials. He finds beauty in the ordinary, the quotidian.

Stove top, Simon Andrews, Oil painting

He has a gutsy way with his paint when tackling landscapes . He’s not afraid to load on the paint, and yet they are controlled, both with regard to his use of colour and his ability to describe a location – and at the same time, there is a liberty of brush stroke to be envied. It’s those paradoxical elements that make for luscious painting.

Sublimation, Simon Andrews, Oil painting

In his figures, he uses strong colours like the post-Impressionists, especially the Nabis and the Fauves.  With these, he uses almost a Cezanne- or Picasso- like cubism to define the rounding of shapes and yet there is a draftsman’s quality that is true to the proportion to the body.  A quality that I like in these is that the forms are sensuous with a tender feeling of wonder at the beauty before him – there is not a drop of prurient disquiet.

This is a young man to watch.  He has already had some success with the Federation of Canadian Artists shows. He will find a niche here and maybe abroad if he continues in his search for expression.  It’s good solid craftsmanship married to idea that concerns us all – our common surroundings, the spouse in our life and the environment in our neighbourhood. All these are things to which we can all relate.

The trick will be for him to maintain his deep involvement with subject, for if he ever goes commercial,  it would be a danger for him to slip over the wire into slick craftsmanship as a demand for product arises.

If you would like to see a full gamut of his work, check out his web-site at:

and there is more on

And don’t be shy. If you live in Vancouver area and want a painting at a reasonable price, contact him through his web site. You’ll be encouraging an up-coming artist and doing yourself favour.

Drawing Month in Vancouver

July 26, 2009

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Bruce Pashak, Dionysus in India I, oil and graphite on canvas

I had to be in Vancouver on Tuesday so I invited Mrs. Stepford to come with me as company for the long ride. I had a couple of chores to do.

I had to pick up some photos at the Big Box department store in Coquitlam and, in Vancouver,  mats to frame my entry to the Painting on the Edge exhibition.

Let me do a plug for my favourite framers. They are great people and reasonably priced – Final Touch Frames on Fourth at Quebec Street. While I was there, I looked through the pre-cut mats in search of a bargain and true to form, always I found a few 8-ply acid free ones to take home. I love matting things up in 8 ply.

We had the rest of the day to explore the galleries, a rare treat in itself. This month ,  it was Drawing Month – a celebration of drawing in lieu of paintings – in several of the best commercial galleries in Vancouver. Even the Burnaby Art Gallery had a focus on drawings with an exhibition of B.C. Binning. He was a founding professor of the School of Architecture at UBC. For a biography, B.C. Binning is in Wikipedia and there is a separate site through Google for images, though few are drawings on it.

I’ve seen this latter exhibition three times now, it is so good. It’s just drawings, but such good ones. I took Elizabeth to see that exhibition today and she came away with a new understanding of the excitement of drawings. Binning’s are so direct, curiously incorrect (anatomically, realistically incorrect), but so spot on that they are a delight to inspect.

On Tuesday, though, we had a list of about six galleries to go to.  We started with the Elliott Louis Gallery especially since Mrs. Stepford had studied with Bruce Pashak who figured largely in the  exhibition. I had seen his studio with her at the Parker Street Studios in the Downtown East Side both before and during the Vancouver East Cultural Crawl. I was just as excited as she about seeing his work in a gallery setting.

The Elliott Louis Gallery has moved recently and now can be found a block  east of Main Street below Great Northern Way in a warehouse district. Both the Elliott Louis and the Catriona Jeffries Galleries are here, side by side, with exciting contemporary work.

Bruce Pashak’s drawings are full of things to look at. First of all, he has a stunning sense of draftsmanship. In the largest of his works, a diptych, there were two panels about six feet by four feet. The entire canvas area is prepped with gesso and paint and then Pashak draws in graphite on top of this preparation.

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Bruce Pashak, Equivocal Litanies, Oil on Canvas 64 x 96 inches

In the centre is a female figure, lithe and beautifully formed wearing a diaphanous garment.  At her buttocks is an apparatus that appears to be a bustle, from afar, but on close inspection is a complicated image which I tool to be a bird-wing’s skeletal structure morphing as it descended the picture plane into a network of roads like on a map. Is this bird’s wing an implication of angelic status?

A bird hovers before the woman’s breast, beak perilously close to the nipple, creating a tension, conveying an uncomfortable physical sensation to the viewer of how that might  feel if the two actually made contact.

A third of either end of the two panels is collaged in a rather Rauchenbergian abstract composition incorporating  dribbles of coloured paint, letters and paper cut-outs.  On the right hand panel just left of this abstract statement  are several animals drawn in graphite,  stacked one on top of each other  in a totem pole fashion – rabbits, fish,  salamander, snake, a duck and new born puppies. Each is so fitted together so that it appears to be copulating with the one above.

It’s a bizarre but beautiful collection of images making the viewer somewhat voyeuristic at the latent sexual tension in it and at the same time, there is a tremendous peacefulness in it as if the woman and the bird have been frozen in time forever for our close inspection of natural and youthful beauty.

The piece is full of dichotomies. In the technical execution of the work,  the loose, expressionistic outer edges of the panel opposes the tight realism of the animal totem, the bird and the figure. In the subject matter, the realism of the central images compete with the random-seeming, loose and non-representational ones on the far edges . But the integration of drawing techniques and painting techniques marry seamlessly. The Drawing/painting reads well as an image from afar and provides intricacies and fine detail to be enjoyed when close up.

Pashak’s figure images appear to be drawn from  Greco-Roman or Renaissance imagery. He executes them in graphite directly on the canvas. In other drawing/paintings in this exhibition, the faces seem to be constructed in a grisaille technique with fine layering of a light grey glaze built up to produce a refined, anatomically-accurate image. It looks almost like a pale black and white photograph, but is finely hand crafted.

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Bruce Pashak Dionysus in India II Oil on Canvas, 16 x 12 inches

Several of Pashak’s images were included in this exhibition. Themes run through them, with turbaned heads, skeletal structures, historical referencing and his attention to human anatomy.

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Andrew Tong, Ring-a-ring-a-Rosie,  Pencil on illustration board, 8 x 7 inches

Andrew Tong showed small illustrative drawings that depict nursery rhymes – Ring-a-Ring-a- Rosie, Little Miss Muffet, Humpty Dumpty, and Mary Mary. These are not sweet children’s illustrations. There is a twist of horror just under the surface. In Mary Mary, the figure is gently holding  a fly in her hands as if it were an offering. Her head and torso are correct, but after a minute of inspection, you see that the legs coming out of her skirt are spider’s legs. Humpty Dumpty has a flying fish hovering above his head. In one image there is a broken and dismembered doll tucked discretely at the bottom for a person to discover after they have ingested the primary image in the drawing. In another, there is a hand crawling out of a large sea-snail’s shell. One of the figures is wearing a gas mask.

Tong’s drawings are uniquely drawn in graphite on paper. They are crisply detailed and clean, like exquisite miniatures and reminiscent of Hieronymous Bosch.

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Scott Plumbe, Farm House, pencil on paper, 8 x 10 inches

Scott Plumbe also is drawing minutiae in small perfectly executed graphite drawings. In an eight by ten inch drawing called Farm House,  he has depicted an interior with bushel and woven baskets stored on shelving. The weaving on each basket is described in the finest of detail, as is the wood grain on the end wall.  They are simply amazing, technically, in their hyper-realism but so complete  that there is little dreaming or thinking to be done after first view.

I much enjoyed Carolyn Stockbridge’s series of Blue Cloud drawings. There is a series of about six images on 26 x 20 paper, each containing a blue cloud. Beneath the cloud is a garden.  In one, there is a shower, complete with a bathroom shower head streaming water into the ground, nourishing the plants, and continuing directly down under the ground to become roots. In another there is a rock garden, not in the traditional sense, but with a quirky sense of humour, Stockbridge piles pebbles one on top of the other like plant stems and like Inushuk, the Inuit standing stones. A garden tool, an edger, connects the blue cloud to the soil, acting as a tree trunk so that the cloud is both cloud and tree. There’s a lot of delightful cleverness and visual punning in these drawings.

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Carolyn Stockbridge, Blue Cloud and rock garden, mixed media, 26 x 20

Her work is inventive with a keenly personal iconography as is Nancy Boyd’s. It’s supported by excellent drawing skills,  so that where precision is required, both artists  are able to meet this challenge, but where they chose to use loosely described or abstracted marks, there is an equal measure of liberty in the mark making.

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Nancy Boyd Against the cold #9, mixed media on drawing paper,  38 x 25

Nancy Boyd’s series is called Against the Cold. A plant with long sword shaped leaves is wrapped at its base in a blanket to protect the roots from the cold. The drapery of the cloth wrap is described tonally in soft graphite only and then the  plant is line drawn in graphite and coloured with light green watercolour washes. Four of a series of ten drawings are on display,  each approximately 26 x 20 inches.

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Nancy Boyd, After Muybridge: Animals in motion, graphite on paper, 21 x 37

Another of Boyd’s  series, After Muybridge: Animals in motion spins off the work of Eadweard Muybridge, an early photographer fascinated by motion. Muybridge was challenged to prove whether or not a horse ever undertook unsupported motion during his gallop. Muybridge devised a method of making simultaneous photographs as the horse ran, there by providing the first proof that the horse actually did lift all four limbs off the ground as part of its running motion.

In Boyd’s work, she uses two stuffed toys connected by a string and pulls one up while the other one descends. She records five positions as the toy elephant and the toy rabbit rotate through this rotational process. The toys have personality. In the first and second positions, the elephant seems to be helping the rabbit down. In the third the rabbit seems to be helping heft the elephant up and in the fourth the rabbit seems to be worrying about whether or not the elephant will make it. In the fifth, the elephant is now up and rabbit seems to be exhausted from the endeavour.

In After Muybridge No 2, Gibbon turning While Pinned a toy gibbon turns, again in a series of five images.  The drawing is impeccable. The shadows add to the strength of the composition. There is no hesitation in her work. It’s beautiful.

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Teresa Sapergia, Untitled (Deer), graphite on paper, 58×32 inches

Teresa Sapergia draws large. Her magnificent unframed works are of animals, with graphite as the medium.She explains herself thus: ” I am interested in that fleshy body that lifts, falls, hovers and searches for its own likeness, a figuration that wants to find similarity within an image made of marks and dust.   The transient form that is at once animal, magical, fantastical and ordinary.

A reminder of Durer’s famous rabbit, Sapergia’s  rabbit drawing is the only one of her six drawings in the exhibition that is static.  Her drawing, Hawk and Owl, faces one raptor against the other in flight, caught in an angry tension of fight. She is adventurous in her use of her medium, as much drawing with it as with the eraser that takes away what she has already drawn. It gives a lively, dynamic feel, echoing the dynamic spirit of the animals she chooses to portray.

The deer drawing is unusual with only the leaping deer appearing. There is no context to help the viewer “place” the animal. I rather like this elliptical approach where the view is asked to participate in the imagery. What has frightened the deer? The drawing, again full of tension, demands that the viewer contemplate where the feet will land and will the deer find purchase on the ground for the next adrenaline filled leap, because this animal is in flight for it’s life.

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Teresa Sapergia, Three Wolves, detail, graphite on paper, 58 x 96 inches

In Three wolves. again there is no context, no extraneous background; and the drawing is filled with aggressive tension. The mark making is literally pounded onto the surface, then some removed again with eraser to create a dynamic, bristling fur texture. The viewer is face to face with three nasty, hungry wolves at eye level.  Eat or be eaten!

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Derek Dunlop, Palm I, mixed media on paper,  30 x 22

Derek Dunlop draws in a post-modernist elliptical manner, as if traced around an object. He is drawing with subjectivity, borrowing his images from various media including television news and reality programs.  His drawing is the antithesis of Scott Plumbe’s. There is no particularity. In fact, most of the imagery is difficult to read and his artist statement does not seem to be compatible with the imagery.

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Jeremiah Birnbaum, The Irony of Protection II, charcoal on  canvas 24 x 24 inches

Jeremiah Birnbaum also has an artist statement that does little to explain his imagery.  Only in his comparison to passport photos does the statement link to the work. Four large drawings, each with one frontally pose face, drawn on gessoed canvas stare back at the viewer in a lifeless expression. Tonally, the images have a very limited mid-range and compositionally, I found them unengaging.

Lastly, Mandy Boursicot exhibits several drawings in a French Ninteenth Century Academic style of the studio masters’ anatomy lessons. There is no question. Boursicot knows how to draw. She draws with precision and accuracy but for me, idea is missing.  In her artist statement, she speaks of the importance of shadow and things to come.  I see beautifully crafted figures in a Century old style. I think Boursicot has much to offer, but it is, as she says, in things to come.

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Mandy Boursicot,  Valentina seated, graphite on paper, 17 x 10.5 inches

This is an exhibition not to be missed.  It represents several methods of drawing, running the gamut from abstract to hyper-realism and passing by the illustrative, which, by the way, I have no trouble including in Fine Art when it meets the quality evident in this show.  It is on for the most of August.  Try to find time to go there. And if you are a buyer of art, you may just find something within the means of your pocket book. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have one of these in your own home to marvel at?

To see all the artist’s work available at the Elliott Louis Gallery, you can link to:

Art and the fashion of Art

February 6, 2009


Last night Bristol Life Drawing left me a reply to a comment I made some time ago, which restarted a discussion that continued on. I really recommend the Bristol Life Drawing blog, especially as I really like figure drawing. I like the bloggist’s commentary. So have a look if you like.

Specifically, this post was the trigger for discussion and I’m repeating my reply here, because I find the subject interesting, and you might too – and you might otherwise not find it if your are unfamiliar with Bristol Drawing. If you want to get the discussion from the very beginning, look up this post and the ensuing comments.

Modernist still-life? I’ve rescued a few of them from the Salvation Army and other thrift stores lately, along with some other out of fashion originals.

I visit an elderly gentleman, friend of my mothers, in his late nineties who collected art in the period of 1930 to 1970 and collected some good brand names, so as to speak, of the modernist genre – nationally, if not internationally, icons that are largely unrecognized now by other than a few cognoscenti, those in the know.
Some of these paintings really no longer appeal to the current taste. They look childlike and brutally inept. Those modernists, though, opened the door for following generations to allow exploration and creativity, to encourage insolite and eccentric vision. It was a good thing. It engendered a whole lot of positive creativity.

Do you remember all those “chocolate box” and “Pompier” works of art that we were taught to abhor in Art School?

For those who may be following along who are not familiar with these Schools of Art, they were most popular in the 19th Century. The first, in general, had sweet subjects of little girls in pinafores, garden scenes with cottages, mothers with their babies or little children, little boys catching toads or newts. You get the picture – sweet, redolent of happy homes, wild English gardens, play at the seashore – nothing controversial and nothing deeply philosophical nor symbolic.

The second, from the same period of art fashion, was a hugely bombastic, emotively dramatic, often glorifying soldiers and war, and was steeped in allegorical imagery. It was favoured by the French Academy of Art. It was sneeringly called  “L’art Pompier” or translated, “Fireman’s Art”. Wikipedia has a good explanation of L’Art pompier, if you want to know more.

I was interested to see, relatively recently, that some renewed interest in these Schools of Art had once again become a lucrative trade on the auction market.  I mention these two schools of art because, without a strong grounding in anatomy, neither one of them would have been remotely interesting.

As a curious aside, I wonder how a comic book artist or caricaturist would handle a take-off on Bougereau’s “The remorse of Orestes” (which is the illustration for the Wikipedia reference I made up above). I can’t imagine it working at all! And yet, just look at that painting! If I had one tenth of the ability to draw those luscious nudes with so much movement, tension and emotion, I could die and go to heaven.

After all these years of painting and drawing, I still only get the best that I can do, but it’s rarely what I see or what I want to do.

So why did I mention all this?

What’s fashionable in art comes and goes. There’s always an “Academy” of thought that imposes its self-made criteria on the peons without influence telling them how they should think, do and produce. Art is influenced by our times and progress, whether that’s the right word for it or not, is characterized by rebellion against what has become normalized through time.

Even the Impressionists have fallen into a slump, if you are an upcoming student of the arts. Yes, they may be making millions at auction, but if you produce them in your art school these days, you are mocked to Perdition.

Installation art is in. I mention it because I remember going through some European countries – mostly France, Germany and England – in my first sabbatical year, going through museum after museum and steeping myself in Northern European Art History. I was awed, quite simply.

I based myself in Rheims where I attended Art School. It was still operating on the classical method of teaching drawing and painting, with Classical plaster statuary, figure drawing and perspective classes that have since been tossed out the window in Art Education, even in Rheims.

I struggled to get a good figure drawing. Despite my degree that allowed me to teach children what art was, I couldn’t draw. It was a year before I could do a decent figure and then, only sporadically.

When I saw Dominque Ingres’ beautiful nudes, they were to die for! – his ability to draw a hand as if it were alive! his beautiful transitions, his ability to express the roundness of his models, the softness of the skin, the absolute draughtsman-like ability to get proportion right. Well, that’s why we consider him a master of his art, n’est pas?

Quite rightly, for me, I fell in love with figure drawings (and paintings) and have wanted to succeed with them ever since; and because I never have, to the best of intentions, I have to keep on going back to it to get the next one right. As a result, I’ve got a basement full of three-quarters-good pastel drawings that will never be seen! I am spared the thought that my mother (unlike Whistler’s) will burn them all when I die, because she has predeceased me; but I shall nevertheless regret some fool executor trashing the bunch of them because they are out of fashion or because they are deemed by that person to be untoward, unChristian or somehow lewd.

I’m out of step with my times. I should be out there creating spare pile-of-rock installations in warehouse sized rooms; or decorating the landscape with a trail of a thousand white umbrellas.

One thing I am mightily thankful though, is that in my era, creativity has become accessible to the masses; and the revolt against the Academic strictures (both then and now) of What is Art have been successful in giving each of us permission to take the avenue that we desire to pursue in expressing ourselves, whether it be through traditional landscape, still life or portrait, or through more experimental modes of expressionism, impressionism, conceptualism, minimalism or any of the other ism you can think of.

The door is wide open. Hooray!

And if the figure is a hard-sell these days, I perceive that all art is a hard-sell. The dollars or Euros or pounds are not the purpose of it. Creativity is. So sell or no sell, I’m very happy to be painting and creating as best I can, because it enriches me and sometimes enriches others when they see it, and because it’s such a positive and satisfying activity to be involved in.

Kai Althoff

January 17, 2009

I’ve had computer problems for the last few days, so I haven’t even had a computer! I finally got it back today, repaired, and I’ve spent the whole day with it.

On Tuesday, I had to be in Vancouver waiting for my car to be fixed, so I spent my time at the Vancouver Art Gallery. The Feminist show was down and the main floor was in process of preparation for another show. The first and second floors were off bounds. On the Fourth Floor, however, I spent most of my time inspecting the Kai Althoff exhibition.

As I walked in the door at ten o’clock, just as it opened, I heard.

“Hey!” called out quite pleasantly, in a surprised tone of voice. I looked around to see who was calling whom and found it was me, the object of interest, and the person coming towards me, a member of my own outlying community in the Fraser Valley. She’s an administrator of one of the services in the Vancouver Art Gallery. I hadn’t expected to see her, either.

We greeted warmly and then she said, “Have you seen the Kai Althoff? I think you will really enjoy it. ” Her eyes were crinkled at the edges in a great big smile. She nodded, waiting to see if I connected.
I’d never heard of him before and said so, but was quite pleased to go have a look.

“When you are done, come back and tell me what you think. I’ll be in my office until eleven.”

That gave me an hour, or a little less, really, since she had to be gone by eleven. At quarter two, I came back down and sat with her for a few minutes. Between interruptions (she’s a very busy administrator) I told her what I had seen and what I thought.

‘I think they are quite wonderful. They are edgy – I don’t know if I could live with some of them, though,” I offered.

She smiled. “It’s exactly what I like about them. I’d love to have one. The edginess doesn’t bother me.”

“I see influences of Gustave Klimpt and Egon Shiele in his work – he sits somewhere in between.” I proposed. “They remind me of that exhibition of the drawings of the Weimar Republic.”

She didn’t quite see the Klimpt connection, but she was quite in agreement over the Weimar Republic connection – similarities to Otto Dix, Georg Grosz, Max Beckmann, Rudolph Schlichter. There is a cynical quality to them.

I was meeting a friend for lunch, so that intervened.

I went back to see the Althoff exhibition after lunch and spent another good half-hour there inspecting his paintings closely. It was really worthwhile.
I remember saying to my friend that he seemed to be influenced by Klimpt and  Egon Shiele, but when I went back I was surprised at that reference, and finally found it in the showcase items  in the third room – the one with the sculptures that he set up for the Biennale. They were minor in influence, after all. The Weimar Republic was far more apt a connection.

“Liking” is perhaps not the right word for how I feel about his work, as a whole. I was fascinated. There were several images that I thought would be wonderful to have.
I was interested in his use of cut-outs to provide texture in some drawings. He seemed to add square pieces of heavy stock paper to his drawings and paintings, lacquering watercolour to board or marouflé-ing paper onto canvas and then using watercolour techniques.

This young man can really draw. He’s experimental and tries many things to accomplish his purposes, but he has the classic drawing skills under his belt. In one ceiling-to-floor painting, he has two entangled figures drawn flat colour – one the background and one for the figures, then all the remaining detail is provided by a fine coloured line. There is no hesitation in the line, no rubbing out, no covering over with paint to hide a change of mind. It has a meticulousness of craft that is simply marvelous.

He contrasts basic shapes and then provide minute detail for things like fabric stitching, buttons, etc in select areas. It gives an interesting play between the absolutely flat shapes and then the detail.
He seems to draw his figures from memory, that is, his work is not anatomically correct in shape. That’s not a criticism, just an observation. It creates a stronger feeling than if it were; and it sets up an uneasiness which is underscored by the leering quality that he achieves in his figures’ faces. Mouths, teeth and tongues are described in fine detail.
I was interested in some of the contrast of modern situations set in an ancient architecture, like the one where the two young men are face to face in some sort of dispute and the girl looks on, astride her bicycle. There is a Tudor style building with half-timbers infilled with white cementitious material behind them.
Althoff’s themes contain human emotional content of angst, anger, awkwardness and stressful social situations, mostly with men.
I like his restrained colour in the Impulse series. In fact, his palette is restrained in almost all of his work, and there is an austerity in his use of colour. These are both qualities that appeal to me.
There were several large paintings, two of which  – A Man Called Free-  and an Untitled one of a lady with a brief case –  seemed to be done with the same intent and same materials. The materials noted in the lady painting are indicated as Colour sprayed on silk, but I could not really see that. I thought these two paintings looked quite waxy. Their technical execution held mystery for me. I found the composition of Untitled (the lady) perfect for what was being described, although the image defies traditional conventions. So it was quite fascinating to try and figure why it was working .
I thought that the series “From Good Advice to Vice” was excellent – very fine drawings (and what a great title!).  It is unusual lately in contemporary work to honour art that is so illustrative. There were three from this series, very precise, meditated, carefully controlled and accurate in descriptive detail. Quite intentionally, I’m sure, these three drawings had an undercurrent of tension, of awkwardness, perhaps even of foreboding.
The weaving illustrations in the next room, set up with an interactive display where one could use the loom were superb. To work in line drawing on such a large scale – five foot by eight foot, I’m guessing –  is fabulous.
I only saw about 5 minutes of the video and it was good. It reminded me of some of the experimental dance theatre  that I saw in the ’70s in Europe. It has been programmed into a Fringe Festival-type of presentation. I saw quite a number of them in the South of France in Avignon in ’76. They were characterized by almost empty stage and the activities by the actor/dancers was barely connected. There was no narrative, or there were small cameo narratives with little association from one to the other.

In Kai Althoff’s video, the costumes are makeshift with wrapped fabrics; the action was similar to that described just previously and I didn’t find it particularly innovative. It had limited audience in the ’70s and still has a fairly limited audience. I didn’t linger to see the whole thing.

Althoff certainly has a great reputation, for an artist still so young. He was born in 1966 in Cologne, Germany and although he has exhibited internationally in major museums, he remains based in Cologne, according to Wikipedia.

He has an amazing body of work and it’s all good stuff. I have little to refer to in order to give you facts so the following is conjecture. His earlier work establishes his classical grounding in figurative work and then his work has become more experimental, abstract  and innovative (which is in the natural order of an artist taking mastery over his abilities). All of it is very consistent. He has a very strong sense of self oozing out of all his work whether early or late in his production. Certainly he is an artist to keep watching.

If you Google his name, Kai Althoff. There are several references. The Wikipedia one provides some biographical detail and a few pictures I don’t know if I will be allowed to post one of his images, but I’m going to ask, so check back later and hopefully I will be able to show something.

Drawing with Robert Landry

November 24, 2008


Had I left five minutes earlier, I would not have been caught in the hail storm that tumbled out of a rapidly darkening sky.  The hail was followed by a gust of driving rain, pelting, melting the ice crystals on the tarmac. It pounded unmercifully as I packed the car with folding easel, drawing board, a few drawing supplies and my evening garb for the musical concert which came after the drawing workshop. I slammed down the trunk lid, lifted my coat jacket over my head and dashed for the drivers’ seat, then sat and waited until the squall had lost its fury.

It only took ten minutes, but when you don’t know that the force of nature is just teasing, it seems like it will go on forever.  “Ha, ha! Could’ve drowned you with all this if I wanted!” Mother nature seems to say, a little maliciously. But I’m just reminding you. You’d better be good. Remember Noah?”

So I turned on the wipers and drove down a perfectly slick, black road – black like dark evening – but it was early afternoon. The wipers flapping furiously at full speed just managed to provide a driving visibility. The traffic lights ahead shone in the pavement in long streaks of colour, red or green accordingly, but peppered, textured with lighter rain sparkles shooting back up from the road.

When I arrived at destination in the underground parking of the community centre, the rain suddenly stopped – I was inside, after all – and the wipers flapped frenetically with nothing to do until they grimaced with the wiper-on-dry-glass, nail-on-black-board grinding sound and I hastened to shut them off.

My destination was the 2-D studio on the third floor where Robert Landry, a sculptor from Detroit, Michigan was about to deliver a six hour drawing workshop. Kathleen Tonnesen, an artist and actress who lives in our community, organizes art events from time to time to bring established artists to our small community. She has high praises for Landry, so it became our privilege to meet him, discover his work and spend an afternoon being inspired by his drawing and teaching skills.


The participant group was a diverse one – several in the late teen, early twenties age group, a few in their mid adult years and four of us old geezers – active retirees ready to draw. Myself having previously taught, I was curious to see how he would bridge the years of experience sitting expectantly before him; and he did this effortlessly. Art is, after all, eternal, and the infectious quality of it knows no boundaries of age, race or gender. Those who get it are held by it for life.

Landry was a young student on an athletic scholarship when he discovered his affinity for art and sculpture. He studied under a classic Italian master, was mentored by him over a number of years as Landry worked for him and now he is a Master sculptor in his own right. In his home page message, he offers his guiding philosophy this way: ” Ultimately I strive for the point where the physical, the mental, and the emotional converge to project the life of the spirit through the beauty of human anatomy.”

His work is grounded in the Classic discipline of anatomy. He uses his highly developed technical skills, whether in drawing, painting or sculpture, to elicit images of life and beauty. In counter-reaction to the commercially advertised ideal, he seeks beauty in aging and emotive faces, in figures living real-life dramas and in events that challenge the human spirit.
One body of the sculptural work has roots in the manner of Rodin. The portraits and figures in this genre carry the imprint of his hands modelling clay, roughly, directly, energetically into anatomically readable forms. It’s realism with a deep dose of spirit. In a more recent mode, he has turned to semi abstraction. If you take the time to look, you will see that his underpinnings of classical anatomy are still there, but the forms are elongated, polished, shiny. The thumbprint may be gone in these, but the spirit has taken solid form, as if the body is less important now than pure spirit made visible.

robert-l-landry-addressing-the-public-bronze robert-l-landry-strength-of-perserverance-bronze

Addressing the Public; and Strength of Perserverance – two classic bronzes by Robert L. Landry

Immediately below, : The Joy of Selflessness by Robert L. Landry – polished bronze


In this workshop, he demonstrated how he takes a waxen clay mix carved into his desired figure, molds it in a plaster cast and prepares it for the lost wax process of casting in bronze. Then it was our turn to draw. We explored the anatomy of human face, following along in vine charcoal with his method to explain classical proportions. This was not new to me, so I did one to follow on and enjoy the process and then did a second on one fine paper that looked more like some of the psychological characters that I’ve been working on lately.

These drawings are ones I did in the workshop:

276-small1 275-small

Later on in the session, a live model posed and we had several stances to work on. I’ve not been figure drawing now for over seven years. I must say I was thoroughly rusty, but on the third try,  I got something quite reasonable, but it’s out of proportion and the legs – well, I don’t think anyone could walk on them.  It is good encouragement for me to get back at it. Life drawing is really the “scales”, the technical work-out for artists. I’d just rather not publish the result!

It was a long afternoon for me. I haven’t stood so long for such a long time that I packed up a little early and headed home. The storm had passed. The sky was opening wide and the last light of day was colouring the clouds with a faint warm grey that contrasted with the deep, deep blue of coming night. The streets were still slick with rain, but the sky was promising better weather for tomorrow; which is now today.

It’s brilliant outside my window. Carpe diem. I must go and seize the day –

I encourage you to take a look at Robert L. Landry’s his sculpture on his web-site at

And many thanks to Robert Landry for his willingness to share his vision, to teach and to spread the beauty of art.

Gallery Hopping in Fort Langley

August 19, 2008

My sister, also an artist, is visiting from the Kootenay region. Today we went over to Fort Langley. We saw a Local Artist exhibit of about thirty different amateur artists. It was some collection! Mostly flowers, several paintings of horses and other domesticated animals, pet portraits, a few fashion figures in imitation of Erte. We didn’t stay long.

Sierra, my sister’s collie dog, was with us and very frightened of the rumblings of thunder and lightning. We’ve had extremely hot weather (for us) in the 30s Celsius, and we would welcome some rain – it’s hot and humid to an uncomfortable degree.

We had to pick up some merchandise at Opus Framing Supplies in Langley, so we hurried on in order to get there before closing time. On the way back, we stopped in at the Fort Gallery, a collective of artists, each exhibiting for three weeks in succession so that there are plenty of interesting shows all year round.

Suzanne Northcott is the driving force behind the cooperative and for these three weeks, this is her show. Her current work is all figurative with large paintings on canvas 4 foot by 5 foot, that is, almost life size. Here’s a web address for you to enjoy the paintings too:

I find her craftsmanship excellent. She works with varying points of view – many of them looking straight down on her subjects. There is a compositional boldness and clarity like Egon Shiele’s and a simplicity of background which gives greater force to the figure itself. She has a good handle on textural contrasts and a lovely sense of colouration, shifting through several shades of warm red glazes through cool ones in the skin tones to achieve form and shape.

Her drawing is draftsman-like but not too much so. The hands and feet are well done and anatomically very believable.  She doesn’t avoid doing them, nor does she hide these extremities that are often hard to draw well. In fact, she often makes them a focal point in the composition.

She leaves sufficient to the imagination and asks her viewers to enjoy some of the mysteries that she creates within her paintings. What is the relationship between two figures? What is this person waiting for? Why the melancholy look? The people that stare back at you, that engage you from inside the canvas, they have lives lived; have issues with others; have emotional quotients.

There is a liberty in her drawing, a looseness that speaks volumes about the years of work she has put into figure drawing in a painting medium to arrive at this apparent ease in her imagery.

If you are in the Fort Langley, British Columbia are, try to see this show before it ends. It’s excellent.

Suzanne shared a glass of wine with us, saying that Art and Wine were two things that should always live together. While we chatted, several gallery visitors came through, each staying quite a time to absorb the work before them. This is not work you want to see in the traditional three seconds per image, the museum and gallery average. You will want to focus on each painting and the delicious painterliness therein.

Eventually we had to go. I live on the other side of the river in Maple Ridge, so we parked our car in the Albion Ferry line-up and waited an hour before we got on the ferry. It’s a short ride to the other side once you are on it. It would be lovely if the Provincial Government could keep the ferry going after the new Golden Ears bridge across the Fraser River has been completed. It’s a charming trip, great for tourism.

And so I’m home again. I’ll have these visions of paintings in my mind for a long while.

Drawing, Bristol Life drawing site and Coldstream

May 2, 2008

I checked into this post today and found a lot of good writing on art. I recommend it to you and specifically about Sir William Coldstream. I made this comment on the essay concerning him:

The obsessions of artists are fascinating. I can’t fault Coldstream (who measures everything and spends a huge amount of time on the mathematical aspects of his work) for his desire to get the proportions correctly, but it seems he has gone further than that.

  • It must have been crippling for (his) students learning to draw, feeling that everything had to be measured and “correct”. Yet, I found that when I was learning and frustrated in my own drawings with “getting it right” I took a ruler and measured until it was “right”.
  • Later when I was teaching, I preferred to use a wide variety of examples for teaching students to draw figures. I emphasized the drawings of masters where “mistakes” could be seen underneath the final result so that students could see that even the masters didn’t just automatically “get it right”.
  • There is value in the struggle to observe, to coordinate hand and eye in placing marks upon the support for the drawing by use of the eye alone (without thumb or ruler). Working directly gives the students a more forgiving start in their explorations and helps them build their confidence. If masters could make mistakes, then their own could not be so dire.
    In looking on Coldstream’s works that you have provided (in the blog), there is a curious mix of rigidity and stillness that bespeaks his meditation on measured form. On the other hand, his manner of applying paint is much more freely applied than one might think for a painter whose basic precept is careful and studious measurement. I would rather have thought he might be looking for that licked quality of Dominique Ingres, the French Pompiers or the Classicists.

An artist needs countless hours of figure drawing from a model and countless hours of drawing from observation of landscape and still life. Drawing, in my opinion, is the most important aspect of art – the basis from which we branch out into other aspects of art like painting, pastel, watercolour and other image making. Or one might look at it as if painting is simply drawing with pigments; pastel, drawing with chalks. Cartooning is heavily based in drawing; Ceramics with imagery glazed on its surface requires good drawing.

It is the art of observation that shines through, that provides the grounding for the work of art and makes a work either sing with beauty or fall on its head.

It makes me think of Don Hutchinson, one of British Columbia’s finest potters and educators in ceramics. He has often used the blue heron or the frog as his imagery on his beautifully formed pots.

He told me once that he had drawn the frog hundreds of times before he could draw it without thinking and it was only then that he dared apply the image to his pottery.

Each and every ceramic piece of his carrying either of these symbols looks as if he painted them without hesitation. They are fresh and lively and beautiful – and all because he did so much groundwork in drawing to be able to effortlessly reproduce the image with a few sure flicks of his glaze laden brush.

Even thinking of it makes me want to get out my materials and get to work!

Divine proportions

April 10, 2008

The golden rectangle

I’ve been cruising a few sites to see what I could suggest as good examples of Art using the Golden Mean, or the Golden Rectangle, also known as the Divine Proportion. In my current avoidance and procrastination mood, I’m looking for a way out of drawing a template myself, but I haven’t found what I wanted. There are several rather dry explanations from a mathematical point of view.

Actually, the recurrence of the Golden Rectangle and the Golden Ratio in nature is quite frequent as is the Fibonacci series (1 plus 1 is 2, 2 plus 1 is 3, 2 plus 3 is 5, 3 plus 5 is 8, 5 plus 8 is 13; that is 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, ad infinitum . It’s best to look in Wikipedia if you want a good mathematical explanation of it. My eyes glaze over when I see it. I find it amazing, but I don’t want to do the math. (More avoidance?) I can check my grocery bills and balance my cheque book and determine what my change should be in a financial transaction at the supermarket; but further than that, I have little interest in geometric and algebraic calculations.

In my former day job, I managed several millions of dollars per year in a major contract, but I had people who were better at numbers than I, checking where we were with the budget. If I used a computer, I could generally understand what had happened to all the dollars spent and talk about how much was left over; or talk to the purse string holders and explain where we expected to spend all the money in the next year. But Please, Please don’t ask me to explain the mathematical aspects of the Golden Rectangle to you. There are several people much better at it and if you just Google these terms, you will find some mathematical explanations if you should so desire.

The question that is important to me is, how does it apply to art? Why is it important to even think about these complicated mathematical relationships when all we really want to do is draw? Why would we go to a lot of trouble to create a grid underneath our images in order to artificially bend a composition into it?

First of all, it’s been used as a principle of structuring, both in two dimensional and three dimensional art and in architecture, for thousands of years. It behooves us to at least be aware of it and understand that it’s not too bad a way to go about designing things. It has been declared universally pleasing in many different cultures which makes me wonder if it isn’t also a part of our own make up – an archetypal pattern in the Jungian sense of a inherited pattern or thought or symbolic imagery derived from the past collective experience and living in the present unconscious .

Secondly, during the Renaissance in the 14th and 15th Century, Greek geometry texts were rediscovered and using the Golden Mean for proportions became a leading-edge art fad. The heightened interest led to its being used in a formulaic way in the structuring of all paintings. By the Nineteenth Century, it was considered the only way to compose pictures and became a confining, imprisoning idea and all other forms of composition were mocked as primitive or decorative. However, the idea of geometric composition is still taught in Art History to explain Renaissance and Neo-Classic Artist methodology. Some modern day artists are again finding the concept a useful one for compositional balance.

In the photographers’ or artists’ life, most of the standard sizes of photographs (i.e. 4 x 6) and the manufactured canvases, frames, artist’s watercolour blocks and drawing pads conform to the Golden Rectangle proportion. As a result of starting with a Golden Rectangle in photography, it is evident that the Rule of Thirds also complies to the Golden Ratio principle.

If you go back to my post titled “Today’s Offering” I’ve already talked about some of the periods of art where the slavish attention to this principle of composition was rejected by artists who wanted to free their thinking and find new, fresh ways of making images. In the Twentieth Century, there was an enormous upheaval in society engendered chiefly by two horrendous, cataclysmic wars. The forefront of the art world reflected these upheavals by challenging all the rules and eventually, there were Art movements that chose to toss out all the previously cherished formulas for art.

By the time I was studying Art in the late ‘Sixties, our professors were still teaching drawing and painting, but there were lots of forms of Art or trends that didn’t seem like Art at all. Some artists challenged the notion that art was for museums and for homes. Longevity of art was not deemed desirable nor necessary. It was felt that Art should be brought to the streets and the masses.

One of the performances that I remember entailed the artist erecting a platform on which his piano was placed. After a rather wild and agitated performance of some non-harmonic piano bashing and much gyrating and ranting on the part of the artist, he turned from the audience and attacked his piano, beating it into smithereens. A strong sense of Anihilism reigned as the North American populace struggled with the futility of American involvement in Viet Nam. A whole generation of brave and intelligent young men were being conscripted off to a war that few Americans believed in. Art of the time reflected a disaffection with society in some creative and also some destructive manners.

One of Vancouver’s artists took reels and reels of discarded film and knit it into an amorphous pile that surrounded her in the Vancouver Art Gallery. Her artwork was this pile of knitted film. Another built a low wall of bricks that snaked through one room of the the Art Gallery. One installation had lines of various kinds of string and other tangible, touchable items hanging inside a built passageway that the “observer” to the gallery, was invited to walk through, encouraging the gallery’s guest to think of art as a sensation as much as a visual experience. Installation Art, as this mode of expression became named, has not run it’s course still – fifty years after.

In my early years while I was studying at University, we still were taught drawing and painting, basics of design, sculpture and ceramics. Our professors were trained in the first half of the Twentieth Century and many were still products of the Nineteenth century teaching philosophy and training, for which I am eternally grateful. But they were reaching out to understand and incorporate the modern trends that were exploding around us in a maelstrom of creativity and reaction to the political atmosphere of the time. I am equally thankful for that exposure to Found Art, Op Art, Pop Art and other leading edge forms of that time.

Ten years after I finished University and my art teaching degree, I was frustrated with my own abilities to draw and I sold everything I had so that I could go to Art school for a year. It turned into four years, thankfully, because that period of concentrated learning and discovery made the difference in me becoming a good artist instead of a really bad wannabe. Amongst other things, I had time to focus on different means of composition and internalize them.

I got caught up on the principles of the Golden Rectangle which I had only heard of briefly in a Math class in Grade 10 or 11. I thought it might be the magic answer for composing landscapes that people would have an inherent connection to, whether they realized it or not. The compositions would be familiar to them because of the underlying structure. They would then fall in love with my pictures and want to buy them. It was a little naive, and spurious at the same time. Of course, any time I’ve tried to make pictures with make-money-quick as the end goal, I’ve always failed miserably. I still have them all stored in my basement. It may work for some people, but it doesn’t work for me.

Nevertheless, I got quite apt at planning out pictures with this classical method as the underpinning for composition. I gained a much better understanding of all the Renaissance, Classical and Baroque Art. Even the Impressionists were steeped in the use of geometrically designed compositions. While they were breaking away in colour and subject, they just couldn’t shake their early classical training in composition. Once learned, you start noticing it everywhere. It’s hard to dismiss it and it is hard to erase it from your compositions. Certainly, you will begin to realize which artists use it as a formula in their work and those who don’t.

Here’s how it works:

Step One

4 x 6 inch golden rectangleI

I’m using a 4 x 6 watercolour block, the kind one does post cards for this illustration.

You will see that I have divided it into three equal rectangles. The two on the left, combined, make square. The two on the right when combined also make a square.


Now I’ve used a black line to put a large diagonal cross in black on the two left rectangles. The intersecting point halves the common side of these two rectangles. I’ve done the same on the two right-hand rectangles but in red so that you can see the difference. I filled in the resulting square with a pale blue so that you could take special notice of it.

In classic composition, the subject of the painting should be focused in some way in this important square. If someone’s arms come through this space, they should align with one of the side of the square; or if there is a head that is important, it should be placed fitting in this area. If it doesn’t, according to this geometric method of composition, you change your composition so that it does fit. You bend your images to fall on important lines and this square is the key focal point that needs to have something interesting going on in it.

Step Two

Stage 2i

Now I’ve reinforced the Step One lines in black. For Step Two, using red, I’ve drawn a vertical line between intersecting points and carried them on to top and bottom of the picture surface (the picture plane); then I’ve done this horizontally as well. In yellow, I’ve drawn lines from corner to corner. If you are completely accurate in your drawing, then you have defined dead centre, smack dab in the middle.

Step Three

I have changed all of those Step 2 lines to black so that you will be able to see what happens next.

Step Three defines more diagonals, creating more intersecting points.


In Step Three, I’ve taken diagonals from the midpoints of each side and drawn them down to the corners, shown in red. Then I looked for intersecting points and connected them, continuing the lines out to the sides. There are vertical and horizontal ones. And then more intersections occur and more connections can be made ad infinitum until you have a real (but very geometrical) spider web of lines.

I’ve done this in a variety of colours so that you could distinguish the progression of connections, but in a preparation drawing for composition, this would most likely be done in light pencil, or on a canvas, in sanguine chalk or willow charcoal that would easily erase or blend in with the paint as you start to add in pigments.

Step 4

Next, I’ve drawn a rather primitive drawing on top of the geometric grid. I’ve done this all with the mouse in cyberspace (no pencil or paper), so enjoy the directness of it. It’s rather rough. You’ll wonder what I was doing all those years in art school!

For some reason that I wasn’t willing to spend a lot of time on, the computer wouldn’t let me fill in colours in enclosed shapes today. In order to add colour to this drawing, I ended up doing a lot of switching between Adobe Photoshop and the Accessories program that comes with every PC called Paint. It has made for some interesting textures and colour choices that I found rather interesting.


You can see that I’ve chosen the grid lines to define the couch mattress, I’ve chosen a right hand vertical to prop the pillow against; the breasts lie on either side of one wall of the middle square; the knees are at strategic points as are the hands. The window with trees outside is a rectangle that is bordered on vertical and horizontal lines provided in the grid; I tried to get the centre of the body, the torso, into the important middle square. It didn’t quite fit that way, but with this drawing it was too hard to go back and change it.

Now here’s the same drawing developed a little more. Particularly, I’ve tried to erase the grid lines as much as possible while still leaving a trace of them underneath (for demonstration purposes only).


Despite the inaccuracies of form, despite the roughness of this mouse-drawn sketch, you can see that the composition is pleasant. There is a balance to it. There are sufficient directional changes to make things interesting.

That’s the end of this demonstration on geometric composition using Divine Proportions.

If you would like to explore this further, I suggest that you take a look at some Renaissance paintings – Leonardo da Vinci; Michelangelo; or some from the Neo-Classical period – Jacques-Louis David (The Death of Marat;The oath of the Horatii). Some other artists clearly using geometric compositions are Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, John Constable, Dominique Ingres, Jean-Honore Fragonard and Nicholas Poussin. These are some of the artists who embraced this compositional method during a time when it was still a fresh idea, not an overused and restricting one. The structure of their images is easily seen when you know that this geometric grid is responsible for the placement of figures and objects within them.

You might try printing this grid and making drawings right on it so that you can try fitting compositional elements into it. Or you might photocopy some famous Renaissance and Classical art works, then draw the grid on top to see what objects and figures align with the principle shapes of the grid.

A last word:

I enjoyed working with this type of composition for a long period of time. Later, though I decided to explore many different types of composition, I would often come back to this principle. I no longer had to draw the grid to know good placements for the picture elements of my drawings.

I find that, looking at art, the Divine Proportion pervades all European painting prior to Twentieth Century. Knowing that someone has taken such care over his composition makes me marvel at the final result; and equally, for such a structured method, I’m always awed at how much variety there is in composing with it. It’s much like a musician uses a Sonata form or a Concerto to structure their creations but there are thousands of different ones.

Rules are made to be broken so feel free to go ahead and break rules. The only caveat? You need to know the rules first in order to work with them and then bend them to your will.

Becoming famous

February 26, 2008

I answered a comment on the Napkin post and then thought it might make an interesting discussion in itself which might get missed if readers were not into looking through all comments:
People have an innate ability to create which is crushed early in development by people who have equally have had their natural abilities repressed in their early stages of development. In the past (and even now with amateur teachers of art) we present rules of operation in the teaching of art that are too limiting.

When a child dares to represent a rabbit in the manner in which he is capable of drawing, using his own eyes to determine its form and shape, and an adult comes along and says, “Oh no! That’s not what a rabbit looks like”, and then draws two round circles one on top of another with two elongated triangles for ears, and then says “Here’s how you draw a rabbit,” the child is well on his way to knowing that anything he draws is wrong and he can’t do it. The child, however, knows full well that the two circle, two triangle version of the rabbit doesn’t look like a rabbit either. A far cry from it! How confusing! The poor child reverts to colouring books where he is no longer responsible for making the drawing. His only responsibility is for colouring within the lines.

Colouring within the lines is an excellent exercise for developing fine motor control in children’s hands, but it ain’t art. As a positive way to end this, one of my favourite diatribes, here is a good way to respond to children’s offerings:

“Isn’t that great! Tell me about your drawing.” An open ended question like this will elicit lots of detail and you will be surprised by some of the answers. Do not, please do not, tell the child that he’s wrong. The child will eventually work his way around to getting something more representative as he develops freely. Anyway, representational art isn’t the ultimate goal, necessarily. Lots of art and design is purely abstract and/or non-representational.

When I taught composition, I liked to tell about all of the rules that I knew about and then let the students determine which ones they thought suited them best. Once they had some basis to form their compositional ideas on, I then encouraged them to create their own rules of engagement.
All the artists that we honor today are ones that created their own rules and stepped away from the stultifying, stuffy confines of their era. Examples? Courbet, the realist (a breakaway from the previous movement where all successful artists were doing Greek and Roman mythological paintings; the Impressionists who challenged the chocolate box style Pompiers artists and eventually were considered miles better than those sugary sweet other painters; Gaugin and the Post Impressionist Fauve movements who decided that symbolism and feeling were more important than strict representation; Braque and Picasso with their Cubism movement who codified the world in geometric ways; Piet Mondrian and his Neo-Plasticist movement who simlified even more; et cetera.

Every generation, new ways of thinking emerge. It takes a long time for the population to catch up with the vision of free thinking artists.
Do you know the work of Christo, the artist who wraps whole buildings? he who made art with the landscape as his “canvas”? We had a hard time accepting his vision, and now we still snicker about it as if it were absurdly crazy. It maybe is, but it has been validated and accepted to the point that a major city allowed him (and paid all the costs) to have the Reichstag in Berlin covered in cloth and wrapped with ropes. He’s goofy but famous and his preparatory drawings are worth mega bucks. So it’s worth thinking outside of the norms. It takes vision.

As a person who was reviled and mocked for the ugliness of his work, there is van Gogh. Last time one of his paintings sold, how many millions did you say that went for?