Saturday, September 30, 2006

A sense of balance

As the blog goes into its second month I begin to think that drawing and writing are in different orbits and can never quite meet. Sometimes they come close but there’s a final barrier, something to do with the laws of nature, a visual/verbal divide. They can enrich each other but cannot replace or explain each other.

I like this idea. It gives me a sense of a deep natural cause or genesis for all the arts. Most likely it’s an old idea, but to me it’s new and it arises from my own experience, what I have seen and touched and otherwise felt with my senses.

Furthermore, through drawing, I’ve been able to add a sixth sense to the usual list of five, the sixth being a sense of balance. By this I don’t mean the medically well-known “position” sense, whereby when our eyes are closed we can tell which way up we are, and where our limbs are in space. Instead I mean the ability to tell when something outside ourselves is in or out of balance. I don’t know where this “sense” resides anatomically, but I can feel it best by standing well back and wiggling the lower mid-section of my body while looking intently at the thing where I’m doubtful of the balance, e.g. an object or figure in a painting – to study whether it’s in danger of toppling over.

Law-of-gravity balance is one of the first things I notice in art. That’s just the way it is. The last three posts all have balanced figures (Sabrina Charran's nude, my "Man with camera at beach", and Anna Serrao's figure), though I didn’t pick them for that reason, it just happened. And I can’t explain in words what it is about the drawings that gives the figures their balance, only that it is so. Who knows to what extent this undocumented sense of balance feeds into our intuitive response to drawings and paintings, and into the aesthetic response in general?

More Cotton Tree drawings

Part of Sabrina Charran's section at the exhibition of drawings at the Cotton Tree Foundation. Sundiata's section is on the left wall.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Drawings at Cotton Tree Foundation

An approximately life size drawing on brown paper by Anna Serrao at The Bottom Line, an exhibition of drawings by 13 of Trinidad’s top artists. The exhibition runs from Sept 27 to October 3, 2006, at the Cotton Tree Foundation, St Ann’s (opposite Cascadia), 10 am to 6 pm daily except Sunday. I love the feeling of three-dimensional form and the balance and movement in this piece.

Other exhibitors at the show are Akuzuru, Dean Arlen, Beckett, Pat Bishop, Bowen, Sabrina Charran, LeRoy Clarke, Hinkson, Greer Jones Woodham, Makemba and Sundiata.

Monday, September 25, 2006


(Click on the image to see it bigger)

Here is a montage of hands by master artists, but which artists? Is it possible to tell the artist from just one little part of a picture?

Hands are considered to be difficult things to draw and paint. Artists often avoid them, using a variety of devices to keep them out of the picture. However, if the artist has the skill, hands can express character and mood to an amazing extent, as the montage shows. Here are some labels to describe the way I read the types, mixed up, not in the numbered order:

  • No-nonsense hand
  • Shy hands
  • Earnest hands
  • These hands mean business
  • Man-about-town hands
  • Expressive hands
  • Debonair hand
  • Decisive hands

Click here for the artists who painted them and the way I read the types. The pictures are bigger too.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Is it round or is it flat?

Toulouse Lautrec’s posters stand out even today for their modern look, with their broad flat areas of colour. The “flatness” of modern art became a big deal around the middle of the twentieth century, promoted by the influential American critic Clement Greenberg. But the overall effect of Lautrec’s work is not flat at all. On the contrary, he creates a wonderful impression of three-dimensional form, and he does it solely with line, not with darker tone (or “shading”, as it’s often called).

The lines of the red scarf show the roundness of the neck and the bulk of the shoulders and chest. The lines of the cuff/sleeve show the roundness of the wrist. The placement of the cuff and hand tell you the size, shape and movement of the whole arm. And we haven’t even got to the head and hat yet. You can tell just how much space this guy occupies, and roughly what he weighs. Which should be mundane but isn’t in the least.

To me this is drawing at Toulouse Lautrec’s brilliant best, with tone and colour playing secondary roles, although they may have more immediate visual impact.

In 1900-1901, the last year of his life, Lautrec lost the ability to draw. His figures lost their unity and became disjointed and amateurish-looking. For an example see The Art of Toulouse-Lautrec by Nathaniel Harris, republished 1996 by Chancellor Press, ISBN 1 85152 951 9, page 78, where the kneeling figure in Messalina is truly horrible (I was unable to find an example of one of the late awful drawings on the web).

Image from Wikipedia

Monday, September 18, 2006

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Art as language

Prehistoric cave drawing of a bison, c. 10,000 years ago, approx life size, in Altamira, Spain. Public domain image from Wikipedia.

I’ve never felt comfortable with the idea of visual art as a “language” with its own “vocabulary of marks”. “Language” and “vocabulary” are deeply ingrained in my psyche as words referring to speech and writing. However, I’m getting used to it, because in the contemporary art climate there’s no choice. And now I’m even beginning to see that it’s a useful concept. To see painting as a language is to realize that it takes time to learn, both as practitioner and viewer. A painting is more readily comprehensible on the surface than a page of Greek, it is true, and in this sense painting is a more universal language than verbal languages. But it still has its own forms and rules, tradition and history, allusions and illusions, and, yes, vocabulary of marks, that are there to be discovered and delighted in by the informed observer.

On the other hand (as the liberal said), the visual arts may be becoming too verbal, too self-consciously intellectual, thereby losing touch with the wellspring of visual art, which is the desire to make marks, simply and literally; the same impulse that makes a child scribble on your nice clean wall.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Denis Dutton on John Carey

'… but Carey carries a large chip on his shoulder when it comes to his aesthetic interests. Moreover, those interests are rather limited. There is not a single loving description of a painting in this book. It is clear that he cares little for music: the longest passage on music is about how much Hitler enjoyed Bruckner and Wagner. No wonder Carey would cut off all state support for the operas at Covent Garden. Take that, opera snobs!

Considering his personal aesthetic relativism, it is a surprise that Carey ends his book with two chapters defending literature as the best of all the arts. Literature “can criticise itself,” and in fact it can criticize anything. Carey quotes a passage of Tolstoy making fun of opera and helpfully explains that, anyway, music “is the art that has most consistently seemed irrational to poets and writers.”

Not only does the self-conscious rationality of literature demonstrate its aesthetic superiority, it is English literature that is the highest of all: “English literature does no go in much for art worship of the mystical, Hitlerish kind.” Take that, foreigners!

But however preposterous Carey can be, his literary analysis can be acute. His discussion of aesthetic indistinctness in Shakespeare is a pleasure to read. Of a single sentence from The Merchant of Venice, Carey shows how it “manages at once to be both vivid and nebulous. It is brilliantly and unfathomably indistinct, which is why the imagination is gripped by it and cannot leave it alone.”

With some of the aesthetic issues that have gripped John Carey in this book, one might wish he had left them alone. He does push half-understood questions to sometimes absurd conclusions. On the other hand, if any book can be said to provide pleasure along with exasperation in its meanderings, it is What Good Are the Arts?'

Denis Dutton in a Sept 9 2006 review of John Carey’s book What Good Are the Arts?

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Self portrait

There was an intention behind this self-portrait photo which I think could be deciphered from the internal evidence of the photo alone, at least in a general way (with a regretful look back at the unfinished discussion on the artist’s intention).

Solution here.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

A better Mother and Child

Looking in my sketchbooks for something to compare with the last one I found this mother and child, drawn from observation in a waiting-room with a ballpoint pen.

Wednesday, September 6, 2006

A bad drawing

A failed attempt to draw a mother and baby from memory.

To me, bad drawing is like being out of tune in music. It can be very subtle and “minor” and yet it makes all the difference. Maybe the drawn thing is not in balance, meaning literal balance to do with the law of gravity, or maybe it tends to be flat where it should be round, or it might lack unity, or it could be “disjointed”. All of these would be due to failures of observation, as in this memory drawing where there was no model to observe. To me both of the figures lack unity and are disjointed, at the very least.

Sunday, September 3, 2006

David's drawing of Marie Antoinette

Marie Antoinette on her way to the guillotine, October 16 1793, by Jacques Louis David (pen and ink, 15 x 10 cm, approx 6 x 4 inches, Louvre, Paris).

I think knowing the context affects how one interprets the drawing. Yet it’s not only an illustration, it’s an infinitely expressive drawing, oddly sympathetic and universal. And too, in my view it does something that photographs can't do, though I can't put into words what it is.
"She wrote her final letter known as her 'Testament', to her sister-in-law Elisabeth. She expressed her love for her friends and family and begged that her children would not seek to avenge her murder."
Image and quote from

P.S., added September 17, 2006: The reason I put that quote in was because before stumbling on this (famous) drawing, all I knew about Marie Antoinette was, "Let them eat cake". The drawing however showed such an intriguing personality that I went looking up more about her. It turns out that (as no doubt everyone except me knows) she's a highly controversial figure among historians, and very likely was not as bad as she's been painted. In such cases the picture gets murkier with the passage of time until one doesn't know what to believe. But facts are facts, and her last letter was (I assume) a documented fact; and to me, her request that her children not seek revenge shows that she was not all bad.

And the Web Gallery of Art has this to say: "Marie Antoinette was only thirty-seven, but a year's imprisonment had made her look much older. Her hair was prematurely grey and, robbed of her false teeth, wig and corset and seated on a wooden plank on the back of a tumbrel, she looked a pathetic figure. After a brief loss of composure she met her end with great fortitude, dignity and calm, even apologizing to the executioner for having accidentally stepped on his foot."