Seeing the forest, oh, and the trees
In The Art Spirit, my pal Bob Henri talks about the importance of that original intention which sparks one to make a drawing or a painting. What caught my interest? And, all critically, how do I hold on to that intention so my art is infused with that interest? It’s not enough to decide to draw a tree, one must feel something about that tree and have that feeling right in front of one’s eyes and one observes. His advice is to work fast and furiously, blocking in the big masses while the flame is still burning.
My usual technique is to move slowly, with a blank mind. I enter a meditative state and let my eyes cruise around the contours, laying down every line with equal weight until I have explored the whole object. I rarely try to feel anything as I do this but I must be. I choose certain subjects over others because I like them or am curious about them. So I decided to be more aware and to explore some other ways of looking at a tree a few blocks from my hotel.
I spent a good long time working in ink first. I was very into the carbuncles and folds of the tree’s skin. As I drew, I became increasingly aware of the tree’s colors: it was quite yellow but cloaked in purple, two complimentary colors. I kept thinking about how these colors inter-played and then I painted over my line with watercolors. I was using my new paper, this Yupo pad I picked up on the weekend. The ink went down very smoothly on it but had a tendency to smear. As I painted I was pretty aware of how unnaturally the paint went down, pooling on the paper instead of soaking in. The colors remained pretty vivid, undimmed by the fibers, but it all felt temporary somehow. I couldn’t really let go, worrying that the whole thing would wipe of the page when I was done. I also felt like I had a long lens on — I was only looking at each square inch of the tree but had little sense of the whole as I drew.
While the pad lay drying in the afternoon sun, I decided to have another go and grabbed my trusty Japanese journal with its 100+lb paper ( intended for drawing but it’ll take watercolor pretty well) and my Faber-Castell PITT bold brown brush marker. In three minutes, I knocked out a sketch, thinking all the while about the flow and energy of the tree. I did a caricature of the yellow and violet and capped my pen.
Next I took a black PITT pen and thought about the tree’s architecture, how it anchored into the ground and how the limbs were bolted onto the spine of the creature. I bore down harder on my pen, drawing firmer lines and painting in more defined shapes of color.
Finally I took my cheap Sheaffer italic pen, loaded with dark brown non-waterproof ink and this time I thought about the movement of the trees, how the carbunckly growth flowed like water or vomit from the trees crotch, how the limbs pulled in different directions and how that tension held the tree together and propelled it into the sky. Now the tree seemed almost serpentine to me, writhing out of the soil, phallic, twisting, alive. The watercolors dulled the lines but it felt okay, as if the fusing the whole thing together.
I look at these four drawings and I’m not sure yet what conclusion to draw about them. I like the earthy energy of my last drawing (as if it was made by a goat or a mole) but there’s still something lovely and light about the first bird-like one. Each has something to say in its way, like the varied members of a string quartet, the ingredients of a cassoulet.
One conclusion is clear: Drawing never fails to amaze me; how it can rip open the doors into your head, how it can transform the world and your place in it. Nobody but me can see this process, this unfolding, as it happens to me. All that’s left for others to see are the pages in my journal, the ass wipings on paper — but never the feast.