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Intellect and Form

I have been working on the same painting for over a year and it is going slowly; so, the other day I decided to begin a daily practice of doing transient Sumi ink drawings on gessoed canvas: at least three to four in the morning. The purpose is to keep an edge on my creative imagination as I ponderously work my way through the problems in the main paintings.

I create the Sumi paintings by holding an idea in my mind as I draw the piece; when I am satisfied with the piece, I photograph it and then wash it off the canvas; thus, the name Transient Drawings. The sponge and rag I use to clean off the canvas double as drawing tools as well as the Chinese brush; the result is very much like a charcoal drawing.

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I have been stumped over the past three weeks as to how to portray choppy water of a river. I finally decided to base the sign on shallow scrolls and bringing any brush strokes out in the rhythm those scrolls: I did capture the energy of the water; but the result was so far out of my normal painting that I questioned its “truth” or even whether it worked: in my view, it looked too much as though it was made for comics. I had a trusted friend – who is an artist and a theater set builder – come over to look at it yesterday: the glyph did capture the energy; but it was like a comic book rendering; and it failed in terms of regression into space.

This morning, with my failed attempt in the back of my mind, I came across on Facebook a link to the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection of Vincent Van Gogh. I followed the link to the collection’s online catalog and selected Van Gogh’s Wheat Field with Cypresses.

What am I looking at? Van Gogh’s successful attempt at capturing energy in his brushstrokes and painting. He understood that the brushstroke carries the intent of the focused artist: One can perceive the wind blowing through over the wheat field, not just because he bent the image of the wheat, but because he held the form of the wind energy and the resistance of the wheat stalks in his mind as he put down the strokes. The same can be said of the tree in middle of the field. The strokes of cypresses convey their living energy. One can go through the entire painting perceiving his recording of the energy or vitality he perceived.

One has to stay on focus to be able to do this sort of painting: this is proof that he did not paint in a frenzy; rather, he painted slowly, as his pigment laden stroke reveals; and he painted each stroke meticulously as he conscientiously recreated the energy in each stroke.

Examples of how a shape can be created,

Examples of how a shape can be created,


This post is a first installment on this subject.

The power of an artist derives from his intellect and his interaction with form.I learned this concept early; yet it grew in importance over the passing decades.

I first expressed this concept in the above manner in the thesis I wrote as an undergraduate: then it was simply an expression of how one may view an object: as a swelling form, as a collapsing form, or as a static form; this is easily translatable into the academic use of positive and negative space. In graduate school, when I was still doing retinal drawing and painting, I was instructed to feel the movement of a line (parabola) as it moved around the form of the model; as my mentor Peter Agostini was involved in creating a swelling human shape (look up prana).

[An aside: Peter Agostini had been involved with the creation of swelling forms from early in his career: inflated inner tubes (I didn’t see any but he did describe working with them), plaster balloons, and large swollen heads; this consideration of swelling from within carried over into his representation of the human figure and that of the horse. I did not realize Peter had comprehended prana until I spent an overnight in his studio when I drove his “Old Man” sculpture up to NYC: on a shelf over the entrance to his studio, he had displayed a few small figurines of Indian sculptures exhibiting prana. I first learned of this quality of inner swelling from George Weber but had not seen it directly applied until I saw Peter’s work. The figure to the left in the above image illustrates prana.]

Later on, while still in graduate school, I did a quick what if experiment and learned that if I held an objects’ position in relation to its environment in my visual field, the drawing carried the expression or feeling of the objects spacial relationships. The what if experiment was to retinally multiple focus on a column and on the cabinet doors behind it and to include an awareness of the space between them: The few strokes I put down conveyed in their meaning the spacial relationship of the original objects.

[aside two: when I refer to drawing from the retinal image, I mean that I had learned to draw an object while looking at the object and not at the drawing. the image below is an example.]

An example of looking at the object and not the image as I drew.

An example of looking at the object and not the image as I drew.

This manner of drawing continued until the early 1980s when my mind simply stopped wanting to be enslaved to the retinal image. I had to find a way to move inward that would satisfy my imagination.

To be continued.