Category Archives: Art

Timeout for Art: Mixed Media

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study for ceramic sculpture

Mixed Media is just what it says: a mixture of art-making materials, combined for effect. When combining paint, applied with brushes, with more restrictive drawing tools, it’s impossible to be too rigid in your expectations. When approached with a sense of adventure, it’s a lot of fun, and a good way to loosen up.

Paint, applied roughly, can give texture and “tooth” to the picture plane that will change the way that drawing materials will take to the surface. Some materials – charcoal, graphite and soft pastel, for instance – can be rubbed and smudged to obscure lines. Oil pastels will become liquid when painted over with turpentine or other solvent. Areas that become too dark or dense can be covered with a splash of paint for a fresh start. Marking tools can be used to scratch lines or detail into wet paint. Linens, papers and other collage materials can add another dimension.

The nature of mixed-media presents archival challenges. Oil and water based products do not mix well for the long term. Some papers and other materials break down over time. Those things don’t concern me. Though there are some very good – and very serious – mixed media artists, working in both two and three-dimensional formats, I am not one of them. I enjoy the process of art-making. I appreciate various methods and materials. Mixed Media is a fun way to explore both, in a not-too-serious way!

Timeout for Art: Line

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The New Little Oxford Dictionary defines line first as a “long, narrow mark traced on surface.” It goes on, of course, to mention a wrinkle, a furrow, a line of people, a line in a script…as well as all of the geometric applications of line.

In art, line is the first, most basic component of any image. Children learn early to drag a line in a circle to make the head of a person. Lines radiate from it to indicate arms and legs. A slash for a mouth, dots for eyes. I can hear the voices of my little daughters: “eye…eye…nose…great big happy smile!” Scribbled lines for hair, or whiskers and, before you know it, a two-year-old has created a reasonably identifiable portrait! Every child does this, I think.

Forty years later, that same human (though not my daughters!) will say, to explain their lack of any artistic ability, “I cant even draw a straight line!” What, I ask you, does a straight line have to do with art? That is geometry. Math. Or, perhaps, architecture. That is not art.

We are soft, fluffy humans living on a round planet filled with curvy and sinuous inhabitants, both moving and still. We see our own unique vision of what’s out there through our own eyes. We interpret it with our own mind, filtered with our individual histories and circumstances. We don’t need straight lines!

Give me, instead, the gracefully curved line, the crabbed line, the aggressive, analytical, or whimsical line. I’ll accept the blurred line, the smudged line, and the erased line. An incised line. An implied line. A dotted line.

Drawings are often used simply as businesslike illustrations to expand on the written word, or as preliminary sketches for painting or sculpture, the “real art.” Because of this, the potential of the line, the most important component part of any drawing, is often overlooked.

A good vocabulary of lines can elevate a simple sketch to the realm of fine art. Where is the tension in a drawing? Let the line reflect it. Where is the weight? Where is the movement? Where can an almost weightless line work to define calm, light, or airiness? In a drawing, lines can tell a story. Let them speak!

Timeout for Art: Kitsch

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plastic solar flamingo, with frog, on my kitchen window sill

According to the Oxford Concise Dictionary of Art Terms by Michael Clarke, kitsch “is associated with vulgarity and a lack of taste such as are to be found in many tourist souvenirs and in works of art which exhibit similar qualities.”

We’ve all seen them: little sculptures made of acorns, pinecones or sea shells, mounted on slices of wood and stamped with a location; small, mass-produced painted porcelain figurines; knickknacks and tchotchkes that find their way onto shelves and side tables. Unless you’re much better at editing what comes into your home than I am, you probably own a few. Just a glance around my living space revealed a dozen shameful examples.

Jeff Koons is a modern artist that has taken the idea of “kitsch” and turned it on its head. He chooses his subjects from the tackiest examples of mass produced gewgaws, renders them often in materials usually reserved for the finest modern sculptures…then sometimes mass produces them. His work challenges all old ideas of fine art versus low art.

“Popeye” Granite sculpture by Jeff Koons
“Bob Hope” stainless steel sculpture by Jeff Koons
“Split Rocker” 37′ multi-media sculpture by Jeff Koons that is planted yearly with thousands of flowering annuals
“Michael Jackson and Bubbles” gilded porcelain sculpture by Jeff Koons

“Rabbit” mirror-polished and painted stainless steel sculpture by Jeff Koons
Jeff Koons with his “Balloon Dog” sculpture of mirror-polished and painted stainless steel

According to one Washington Post article,

Jeff Koons [is] perhaps America’s most famous contemporary artist and one of its most polarizing. To some, he is a genius who elevates the banal into work powerful enough to alter our imagination and to rekindle childhood wonderment. Others see him as an artist who skillfully caters to an art market where the hyper-rich go to have fun while investing their money.

Whichever category Jeff Koons falls into, whether you appreciate his message or not, he has definitely made his mark. The sale of one of his “Balloon Dog” sculptures, for over 53 million dollars, set a record for the most money paid for a work by any living artist.

Ambition

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For writing inspiration, I’ve turned to a book that I have not yet read: Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words by Davis Whyte. It sounded like a book I would thoroughly enjoy. It was recommended by a friend who loves words at least as much as I do. It received excellent reviews.

Elizabeth Gilbert, who did not impress me with Eat, Pray, Love, but who won me over to her engaging writing style with Big Magic, said of Whyte’s book, “Beautiful, elegant, tiny essays on the consoling power of words, written by one of my favorite living poets…” She then suggested, “Keep this book by your bedside forever. I know that I will.” So, I purchased it, and added it to a short stack of similar books that are good for reading before sleep.

Bedside books should not be “page-turners” that will keep me awake and reading to figure out the twists of a heart-pounding plot. They should be thoughtful, but not overly thought-provoking. I try to avoid books, at bedtime, that will keep sleep at bay while I plot revenge, shake in fear, search for solutions, or even just mull things over for hours. What I am reading affects me deeply; I have to be careful. My stack of bedside books often includes art books, memoirs, and poetry.

For several months, now, David Whyte’s book has sat, unread, within the stack. For no reason, other than that my attention was pulled to another book. Last week, I picked it up again, and flipped it open to the table of contents. There, like a gift, was a list of words, in alphabetical order.

I’ve been struggling, lately, for topics to write about. In the nine years that I’ve been regularly writing for this blog, I have published more than eleven hundred essays. I have pulled ideas from books on writing, current events, my family history and my own life. To the point that I can hardly begin to relate a humorous personal anecdote without a hand going up to stop me. “Already know about it,” they’ll explain, “I read your blog!”

I’ve reported on the antics, health and demise of several pets. I have led readers through one household repair, painting project or organizational undertaking after another. I’m sorry (or maybe NOT sorry!) to report that my life is not so exciting as to provide a steady stream of writing material.

So, I was happy to find a whole list of new topics on the Table of Contents page of Whyte’s book. All the better that I have not read his essays. I wouldn’t be intimidated by his brilliance, nor accidentally plagiarize his interpretations. I decided to deliberately avoid reading what he’d written about each word, until I had completed my own writing.

Last week, I started with the first word: Alone. That worked out fine. The next word? Ambition. Ambition has proven to be an unreasonably difficult topic for me. I hear voices, always negative. “…Not showing much ambition,” I hear. And, on the other side of the spectrum, “That’s a little overly ambitious, don’t you think?”

Who spoke to me this way? I have wracked my brain to know. My laziness as a child was well-recognized within my family. I rarely wanted to be involved in household projects, and had to be forced to do my share of regular chores. I had a hundred different ways to get out of work. Still, my father would not use the word “ambition.” “Show a little gumption,” is how he’d put it. My mother would not hesitate to say “lazy.”

As an adult, I’d present elaborate ideas for house plans or home remodels to my husband or others who might be called upon to help. I was often told that my ideas were beyond reach, either because of time or money constraints. Likewise, when I approached professors and mentors with plans for research papers and art projects, I was often encouraged to narrow my scope a little. It’s easy, on paper, to push to extremes, and I often do. Still, I don’t recall being told I was “overly ambitious.”

Clearly, though I don’t know why, this word holds a negative connotation in my mind. I’ve struggled with it all week. I was tempted, but resisted the impulse, to read Whyte’s essay. I consulted the dictionary and the thesaurus. I considered just skipping over the word. Who would know? But, just two words in to my list of topics, that would be a bad precedent to set. I continued to puzzle over it. Ambition. It shouldn’t be so hard!

Yesterday, the election results were called. Like all of the world, I watched the process unfold, and I tuned in last evening to listen to what our newly elected leaders had to say. Within the inspirational, joyful and exuberant speech of Kamala Harris, our history-making, ground-breaking, brand-new vice-president-elect, came this advice: “Dream with Ambition.”

Dream with ambition! I wrote it down immediately! It feels exactly right! From now on, when unknown but persistent voices lead me to believe that ambition is a negative idea, always too little or too much, I’ll replace those thoughts with this concept. It’s always okay to dream big! Dream with ambition!

Timeout for Art: Junk Art

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my precious “Flying Pig” garden sculpture, made for me by my son-in-law, Jeremy Clark

The term. “junk art” was first used by the critic, Lawrence Alloway, in reference to the “Combines” created by Robert Rauschenberg, in which the artist affixed rags, torn reproductions, and other waste materials onto his canvasses. It has come to refer to art that is composed of humble, worthless things. It is often also “anti- aesthetic,” meaning that it doesn’t attempt to meet the traditional standards of fine art.

The concept of junk art goes back to Cubist collage, where actual labels, newspaper and other ordinary materials were adhered to the surface.

Cardboard Guitar by Pablo Picasso

The idea was manifest in the work of Kurt Schwitters, produced after the First World War, much of which was made of rubbish.

Cigar by Kurt Schwitters

In the 1950s and 1960s, junk played a prominent role in Earth Art, Happenings, and the Combine art introduced by Rauschenberg.

Monogram by Robert Rauschenberg

Dewey Blocksma is a Michigan artist that has gained international acclaim from his strong, whimsical images created from simple materials.

The River Guardian (Traverse City, Michigan) by Dewey Blocksma

Though often associated with “Outsider Art” and “Tramp Art,” Junk Art has found a solid place of its own in the art world.

Alone

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I never planned to live all alone on Beaver Island. Honestly, having gone, as was expected, straight from the large family I grew up in right on to my own marriage and children, I hadn’t really ever imagined being alone at all. Other than a few hours here and there, solitude wasn’t anything I’d experienced in life.

When I first moved to this island, it was with my husband and two young daughters. We imagined a rural life that would include gardens and animals, art and handicrafts. I had been inspired, at a young age, by reading The Egg and I, an uproarious account of life on a chicken farm. I’d furthered my education as an adult, with Walden, by Henry David Thoreau, and with E.B. White’s stories about life on a salt-water farm in Maine. As we settled into life on Beaver Island, the Little House on the Prairie books, one chapter, read to my daughters each evening before bed, continued to bolster our confidence.

We also imagined a life full of friends and family. We knew just a few people on Beaver Island: Topper, who had worked for my Dad downstate; Russell, the captain of the ferry boat; Stanley, who always met the ferry, joshed with the adults and teased the children; and Barb, who owned the Shamrock Bar, and had already hired me to be the morning server. We’d make friends, though. We were nice people; we had bright, adorable children. People would like us.

Others would come. Of course my family would still make their annual trip; friends would visit, as well. Having experienced this place only through family vacations, I saw it as charming, quaint and wonderful, and expected that everyone else would, too. In between rounds of company, we looked forward to family time. We planned activities with our daughters, and plotted occasional date nights at the bar, playing backgammon while enjoying a cocktail.

My Dad tried to open my eyes to the day-to-day realities of island living. “It’s not an easy life,” he said, “and it gets damn isolated there in the wintertime.” My Mom was the one that called it, though. “Of all my kids, Cindy could live on Beaver Island,” she predicted, “She has always been the most anti-social of all of my children!”

I believe she meant that in the kindest way possible. In fact, I think “asocial” would have been a more correct description. I have never needed to be around people the way some people seem to. Solitary activities, reading, writing, drawing and handicrafts, have always appealed to me. Growing up in a large, noisy family, I often went to great lengths to find a quiet spot, away from the fray.

That tendency has served me well because, despite the future I’d imagined and plotted out so carefully, my life on Beaver Island has been mostly spent alone. Some things proved true. I’ve made friends. The entire island community feels in many ways like a family. I have three dogs; I keep a vegetable garden; I devote a fair amount of time to making art. These things enrich my life tremendously.

Others things, I didn’t plan for. My marriage ended; my daughters grew up. The months stretch out between family visits. Many local friends have moved away; others have died. Amazingly, this place doesn’t have the broad appeal among other friends that I expected it would.

So, I live by myself, and am often alone. And, just as my mother suspected all those years ago, I do just fine with that!

Timeout for Art: Intaglio

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“In printmaking. intaglio refers to all metal-plate processes, such as “engraving” and “etching,” in which the recessed areas which have been created and then inked are printed from (as opposed to the raised areas of relief printing…).”

Got that? Yeah, I know. Printmaking in all forms is one of the most complicated, confusing and difficult-to-explain of all art processes. There are so many different printmaking techniques! Screen-printing creates images based on a stencil, or a series of stencils. Woodcut, linocut and similar processes print the raised surfaces of the plate, so the areas that are cut away will remain white. It’s necessary, then, to think of the plate like a photographic negative.

Lithography is a process that allows images to be replicated perfectly. A drawing, done originally on a stone or special plate, will print lines, stippling, shading, even erasure marks. It depends on waxy inks and crayons that repel water, and – if this discussion were about the lithographic process – I could attempt to explain it in better detail. Since my topic is intaglio, I’ll just leave it here: lithography is complicated.

There are, of course, many printmaking methods that use non-manual means of duplication, from mass produced copies of paintings to photographs and computer-generated images. They live in a new, gray area: some are considered art, though they are not; some are limited-edition (often signed and numbered) copies of art that are often confused with traditional prints; still others are a brand-new, often misunderstood form of art. Printmakers who work in traditional, time-consuming, hands-on methods often struggle to differentiate their work from machine generated images.

On top of all that, there’s the idea that, in most printmaking processes, the original is not the actual work of art, but only the means to create the artwork. In many instances, including the intaglio process, the image created will be reversed when printed. Today, my goal is to simply make sense of the intaglio process.

Traditionally, an intaglio print is made based on an image created on a metal plate. The simplest engraving process employs tools to carve lines into a copper or zinc plate to create the desired image. Etching is a broader term that includes engraving, but also often refers to lines that are etched into the plate by acid. In that method, the entire plate is covered with a “ground” that the solvent can’t permeate. Lines are drawn through the ground, revealing the surface. The plate is put into an acid solution that etches the exposed areas, creating linear channels in the surface of the plate.

These are the most basic descriptions of the process. There are variations that involve special boxes and air-born grounds to create areas of texture that result in rich, velvet blacks. There are “soft grounds,” that will allow the plate’s surface to pick up delicate patterns of fabric or lace. There are “rockers” that cover the entire plate with texture, that is then painstakingly smoothed out, in areas, to create the desired image. Whether simple or complex, the premise is the same: the textures, cracks and crevices are the areas that hold the ink, and release it onto the paper.

To print, ink is spread over the plate, scraped into all of the textures and crevices, then wiped away from the surface with a series of heavily starched cloths called “tarlatan.” Properly done, and depending on the size of the plate and complexity of the image, this can take an hour or more. The ink remains only in the textures and engraved lines. When dampened paper is placed on the surface, and it is run through the printing press, the paper picks up the ink and results in an image.

To create a second print, the inking, wiping and running-through-the-press process has to be repeated. A good zinc plate can produce a thousand or more identical images…but every single image requires the same inking and wiping process. This hands-on method is certainly far removed from the processes that print hundreds of copies at the press of a button!

Timeout for Art: Hatching Lines

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Hatching lines are lines drawn close together to create areas of shadow in a drawing. They are especially necessary when the drawing medium is hard pencil, marker or ink, where smudging to create shadows and variations in tone is not possible. The process of creating depth and shadow in this way is also called “cross-hatching.”

Hatching lines are usually diagonal to the picture plane and can be sets of parallel lines all going in one direction or sets of lines in opposite directions, laid on top of each other. Curved lines, particularly if they follow the shape of the object being rendered, can be useful in describing mass.

My Favorite Day

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Sundays have lately become my favorite day of the week. I don’t work on Sundays, and since I also have Monday and Tuesday off, there is no urgency to get things done. I have plans, of course, but I approach them slowly. The most important thing on my Sunday agenda is relaxation.

I don’t set the alarm for Sunday. My morning routine stays intact, but it begins when I wake up naturally. I take my time with it, too. Journal-writing can get a little more expansive on a Sunday morning; I put additional time and effort into my drawings. I may spend a few extra minutes in meditation practice, or increase the time spent exercising.

When I open my book to study, I don’t have to watch the clock. On a work day, I may only get through two or three pages, reading and taking notes. Sunday mornings, I can finish a chapter, or complete a topic. I can continue until I’m tired of it.

On days when I have to be at work by eight o’clock, the dogs don’t usually get a morning walk. They often sleep in, and wake up slowly. One by one, they go outside, and come back in. I take all three of them out for a quick turn around the yard before I leave for the day. Most of their exercise happens after I get home in the afternoon. Sunday mornings, though, we set out early.

I bring my little tablet to take pictures, and to listen to whatever book I currently have downloaded. Right now, that is Think Like a Monk by Jay Shetty. Often, the book I’m studying, the one I’m listening to on Audible, and the one on my nightstand for reading before bed are widely disparate. At this time, they are all quite similar in topic and energy. In the morning, I’m taking notes and doing exercises from Meditation & Mindfulness by Andy Puddicombe. Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words by David Whyte is what I turn to before I switch off the light at night.

When we’re back from our walk, the dogs are ready for a nap; I’m ready to turn on the news. Because the programs I like are available on my computer, I’m not tied to their programming schedule. I enjoy CBS Sunday Morning. It’s the news, but more inclusive of personal interest, arts and entertainment as well as the usual headlines. Then I watch Face the Nation, which gives me an in-depth look at the current happenings.

After that, I plot out my day. My blog had moved to Friday, when that was my only day off. Now, I think, it’s better planned for Sunday, when I have the whole day to fit it in. In addition to that, I have a few choices. The weather is cool, but the sun is shining; I could start the mower and finish giving the yard one last good trim. The raspberries need to be pruned before winter, and I’d like to transplant the roses this fall.

I brought movies home from the library yesterday, to entertain me while I worked in the studio. That’s another good possibility; there’s plenty to do there. I also picked up a book review, and haven’t read it yet. I got a new catalog in the mail yesterday, and a magazine the day before that. No need to rush to any decisions. I have this entire wonderful Sunday ahead!

Timeout for Art: Graphite

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Graphite, of course, is what we think of when we think of pencil drawing. The raw material is actually a crystalline form of carbon, and is compressed with fine clay to make the “lead” in pencils. Graphite has long been used for writing and drawing, and is in common use for all types of sketching.

That hasn’t always been the case. Many beautiful old drawings, by artists like Titian, da Vinci and Michelangelo, appear to have red or sepia-toned lines. These were done as preliminary sketches for paintings or sculpture, at a time when drawing was not considered an art form for its own sake. The drawing tool was a soft silver or copper wire, and the image revealed itself only as the material oxidized, causing the reddish hue.

According to John D. Barrow, “the modern pencil was invented in 1795 by Nicholas-Jacques Conte, a scientist serving in the army of Napoleon Bonaparte. The magic material that was so appropriate for the purpose was the form of pure carbon that we call graphite. It was first discovered in Europe, in Bavaria at the start of the fifteenth century; although the Aztecs had used it as a marker several hundred years earlier. Initially it was believed to be a form of lead and was called ‘plumbago’ or black lead (hence the ‘plumbers’ who mend our lead water-carrying pipes), a misnomer that still echoes in our talk of pencil ‘leads’. It was called graphite only in 1789, using the Greek word ‘graphein’ meaning ‘to write’. Pencil is an older word, derived from the Latin ‘pencillus’, meaning ‘little tail’, to describe the small ink brushes used for writing in the Middle Ages.”

Pencils come in various degrees of hardness, and are chosen for their intended use. The range goes from 9H to 12B. H stands for hardness; B indicates blackness. The most commonly used pencil is the #2, found in classrooms around the world. The graphite is soft enough to flow smoothly from the pencil when forming letters or numbers; it can be erased without difficulty, with the proper tool. It is hard enough so it will not brush off, or easily smear across the page.

Harder pencils are chosen for technical drawing: architectural rendering, and medical and scientific illustrations. Left-handers sometimes choose harder leads, as they are less likely to smear.

Softer pencils are often selected for artist’s drawing, for their ability to convey many different tones without getting shiny, or embossing the page. The line a soft pencil makes can change from thin to thick quickly, based on a change in pressure. This can help to convey energy, or weight, or movement in a drawing.

Art History can cite drawings that go back 30,000 years, to the earliest images found in caves. Sketching has always been utilized for preliminary studies. It’s only within the last one hundred years that drawing has been widely recognized as an art form by itself. As it’s gained in popularity, the materials used to create drawing have expanded, too, to include various chalks, crayons, markers and charcoal. Of them all, the graphite pencil is still the most favored.