Thursday, October 5, 2006

Trade Secrets

Over the past few months of plugging away on this project, the conversation has frequently come up:

"So what are you doing these days?" I am asked.

"Working on a book."


"A tutorial book on how to draw and paint fantasy creatures."

"Oh..." Interest, and something else in the tone. Hesitantly, "But...aren't you concerned?"

My own brows lift questioningly even though I already know what the inevitable next question is.

"Aren't you worried'll reveal all your secrets? Won't everyone be able to do the same thing then?"

I laugh at that point. That's when I try to explain, though I get the feeling my words don't sink very far.

Confusion on the face.

Polite nod, sometimes with genuine interest.

Topic change. “So what are you doing these days?” I ask.

And things go on.

There seems to be the belief that technical explanations can transcend the mere transfer of knowledge. The transfer of inspiration. And there is the heart of it: Where is the kernel of inspiration? My words and images can help guide someone to find that core within themselves, but it has no meaning until it has been internalized and explored and remade.

Drawing and painting is a technical exercise. The eyes have to learn to truly see. The brain must be trained to analyze without preconceptions. And then the hands learn through trial and error to manually create what the brain wants to have materialized. From eye to mind to hand. The disconnect has to be bridged, and there is a mechanical aspect that has to be learned with practice.

This is what can be taught: Tricks to ease the transition from mind to hand. Pointing out ways of looking at the world and seeing color and light, that get ignored by minds and eyes that only need to see the world as a space to move and interact in and not as visual canvas. Shortcuts on paper that simulate reality. The physical behavior of water and pigments on paper. This is how a wing is structured. This is how you can paint it. This is the lore of angels, and examples of the masters of the past who painted like subject matter. Here is how composition works, and how the human mind works to follow the flow of movement.

One can learn all that, master all the techniques and copy imagery flawlessly; but it’s just an architectural layout, graphical manipulation, glossy and flashy until it has a heart.

I am frequently asked, “How do you find inspiration?”

There’s no roadmap with directions I can give. Inspiration begins from an external source, unique to every person. The eye-catching imagery of a favorite artist, a glimpse of breath-taking nature, a song whose melody winds through and will not let itself be forgotten, a story that grips the soul. Something that just burns in your mind until you must create in order to transform that energy into a piece of art wrought by your own hand. It is the process that external source of inspiration undergoes within an individual that marks it inexplicably with an artist’s signature.

I believe that if you just draw and paint what you love, and do it day after day, even if it is just copying direct from another artist – eventually your own style cannot help but start to emerge. Paint what you love, what comes natural, and the pattern of your inspiration will show through.

I don’t claim to be the master of my art, and at times during the past months I have wondered, “What gives me the right to dictate how to draw and paint like this! How arrogant and presumptuous!” I feel I am on a never-ending road of self-improvement, discovery, and evolution.

“Painting is dead,” declared the modernists, thirty years ago, echoing a sentiment that has been proclaimed every half century.

Nothing new to be done. It’s all the same, they say. How dreary.

I’m an optimist.

Here is A Truth: If I were to lay bare all the knowledge and skills I have; if someone were to take those up and emulate it so well that there was no technical difference between mine and hers.... Even then, the soul of the paintings would be different. That core of inspiration would shine through. This, or so I believe, is the reason of every artist to Be.

Wednesday, September 6, 2006

A Drawing of a Tree

“Come visit Kentucky,” Larry says to me, and I laugh and refuse as I have often refused the casual invitation. I’m an urban girl -- born in Manhattan, transplanted to the bay area suburbs of California. Suburban sprawl already edging out the persimmon orchards and ranches as they rapidly became a faded memory of the land.

Even that was not enough for me though. I left for San Francisco as soon as I finished college. San Francisco, jutting out into the bay, with its diversity of ethnic cultures and restaurants and shops and liberals and hills and ocean winds and two seasons (Spring, and Cold) and screaming trolleys (full of screaming tourists) and seven square miles of paved streets and houses crushed together wall to wall, floor to ceiling, endless endless endless.

What keeps it all from being claustrophobic is the sight of the ocean. Stand at the top of Nob Hill and gaze north, out towards the sea and it is like a breath of life to remind of something beyond.

Kentucky? Why would I ever desire to go there? And so I laugh when he suggests it, and he drops the subject.

But a few moments later when he bores of the conversation among the others at the table he turns to me again and with all seriousness asks me, “Have you ever been among the backroads? Have you ever seen wild forests?”

I shake my head no at first. “No I haven’t.” Then I pause and think, “A few times. Yes. I have.”

“How can you not have?” he presses. “You draw it. It’s in your art. It’s in your paintings, but you’ve not ever seen it? I’ve invited other artists and writers to come out and let me show them back country. You forget about it, living in a city. The woods and rivers, and the mist that rises off the fields in the early morning when the sun first rises and the call of whippoorwills. Have you ever seen that, heard that? Or at night, when it’s so dark the Milky Way glows in a path across the sky.

“There’s something in us that knows about that landscape even if you never see it. A woman at a show once looked at a painting of mine rich with the Kentucky landscape in its background. She started crying. She had tears streaming down her face. She told me then that she lived in Manhattan, had done so her whole life. And she told me it just touched her so deep, reminded her.

“When would she have ever seen those forests and fields? She had never seen them. But her soul knew them.”

I’ve never seen his forests and fields, but as he speaks the forests and fields and oceans I have known suddenly well up in my mind. I DO know them, though I’ve seen them only rarely relative to the rest of a scrambling busy life.

I’ve been among the giant redwoods of California. I’ve rowed a scull on a lake on an isolated island upon Lake Heron, gliding like a silent water bug at dusk when the surface of the water was still as glass, and seen loons wing across the horizon with their eerie cry skimming across the waveless waters. I’ve seen that same lake at midnight when the sky was so clear and unpolluted by the wash of city lights that the Milky Way was reflected in the black glass.

In the repertoire of memory, I have images of Japan in the Autumn when the leaves of the maples and gingkos form a flaming carpet of color, and the foliage that still clings to the trees let the sunlight through like cathedral glass.

Kalalau Valley in Kauai – I stood there for what seemed and endless time. The walls of the valley slip down in a jade green cup to a beach. 4000 feet above the sea, and yet in the stillness of the air from that lookout point, you could hear the sound of waves crashing on the distant strand. Enormous dragonflies were my only companions as they defied the dizzying heights to perform acrobatics.

These and other images are the precious bits that flow into my art. Even to just stand at the top of Nob Hill in San Francisco and gaze north to the sea – though it’s a far cry from Kalalau Valley, it has its own spirit, its own terrifying beauty.

Does every artist have these still and silent places that they draw from? We must. I cannot bear the thought of generations of us only knowing what our predecessors have drawn, and reinterpreting their imagery of nature without ever truly internalizing it.

Redrawn, reprocessed, recycled, like the children’s game of Telephone where the first person whispers a phrase a sentence to their neighbor who in turn passes it on to the next and the next and the next, and at the end of the chain the last person announces what they heard the message to be and they all laugh because it has nothing to do with the original.

Is a drawing of a drawing of a drawing of a tree, still a tree?

I reflect then that I do have a yearning to visit Kentucky, to hear the call of, “Whip-por-whill, whip-por-whill!”