Sketches on a Late Winter’s Eve

In my last post, my remarks were shaped by the late winter storms and rains which dominated my thoughts that late-winter night.  The season continues (as do the rains), as Spring officially begins this month.  Officially, they say my particular part of the country is out of the drought, but dry conditions are predicted to prevail over much of the southern half of the country, and even in parts of the northern US as we move into 2012.

These conditions are reportedly brought on by a cyclic cooling in the Pacific Ocean, referred to as “La Nina”.  This past year, as La Nina was winding down, it started forming again, so much of the country will experience continued drought conditions perhaps well into this year, and possibly even beyond.  In addition, our winter was unusually mild this year due to the action of the jet stream which arched across the country from west to east, moving to the north this past winter, pulling warmer southern air up over most of the US.  Of course, this was balanced by the extreme cold weather in Europe, mentioned in the previous blog post.

In any event, as I mentioned before, the mild winter may bring unusually severe storms as Spring approaches this year, and so my thoughts continue to be focused around thoughts of past work with a weather-related theme.  The Alberta prairie-storm scene discussed and portrayed in the last blog, featured a typical storm scene with grain elevators and railroad cars illuminated by the slanting rays of the sun before sunset, and set against a backdrop of darkening skies and blowing dust ahead of the oncoming storm.

The scene was depicted in a realistic style, with reasonably accurate suggestions of the shapes of the buildings, railroad cars, trucks and other elements of the scene, including even the fallow plowed fields in the foreground (unfortunately the image was probably too small to see much of the detail, but you get the idea).  Such painting is referred to as representational, and even realism, if carried to the extreme.  It was not my intention in that painting to produce a highly finished or polished work at the level of realism, and that is often the case with the work of many artists.  I am often motivated more to capture the essence of a scene and to convey the feeling or an emotion associated with it, than I am in rendering every detail.  The whole issue of how much to include or not to include in a work, and the degree to which it should be finished and even possess photographic-like qualities, could be the subject of many blog posts, indeed.  If you’d like to see examples of extreme realism in painting (photo-realism, hyper-realism), I might refer you to the work of Richard Estes, for example.  Another artist, often credited with being among the first of the modern photo-realists (though he himself did not necessarily agree with the title), and one whom I had the opportunity to know, was John Kacere, known primarily for his realistic figurative works.

Today, many artists are influenced by the ground breaking work of the Impressionist school, and much of our art today is not of the highly polished or finished variety, but rather is more “loosely” rendered, often with some parts more finished than others, and in which what is left unsaid can be as important as what is said (or shown).  After all, the mind delights in challenge, and we sometimes gravitate more to work that leaves something to the imagination, or to be completed in some way in the mind of the viewer.  The Impressionists, in particular, sought ways of conveying the sense of light and color in nature by painting in a way that prompts the mind to reconstruct the visual sensation from what is actually seen in the painting (small adjacent daubs of pure color which blend in the eye to form the desired hues when viewed from a distance, for example).

To continue with our theme, we’ll stay focused on stormy weather and take another look inside the mind and soul of the artist, again.  This time, however, the artist is not going to be working from an actual scene he has witnessed, but is simply inspired to create something related to the abstract idea of a prairie storm.  The real intent is to simply throw away all convention, grab a suitable set of tools, and go to work without a detailed plan, and let creativity roam free to produce whatever will come of it (sometimes good, sometimes not so good, but always a surprise).

In my case, and for the sake of this discussion, I often experience the desire to do just what I have described.  A favorite set of tools for this is a large sheet of paper (typically newsprint, about 18X24 inches in size) and some suitable pieces of charcoal for “painting” on the paper.  Charcoal is a wonderfully expressive medium for artists to work with, enabling everything from fine line work to broad, expressive strokes; and to a virtual spectrum of shades of gray (by smearing), for defining form.  A common expression relating to this kind of work is the word “chiaroscuro”, which according to Webster, refers to a type of art employing only light and shade, omitting colors.  Artist charcoal comes in several useful degrees of hardness, all of which find their place in pictorial rendering.  The charcoal itself, of course, is obtained by burning wood in a relatively oxygen-free environment.  The wood used for artist’s charcoal is often willow, and the charcoal is often compressed (or even mixed with certain clays) to form a more substantial and refined drawing/painting tool.  The paper used must not be too smooth, but must have a “tooth” (a certain degree of roughness), enabling it to hold the charcoal dust within its fibers.  For that purpose, newsprint (which has not been printed on) is one of the least expensive of the suitable media for charcoal drawing, but many very fine hand-made acid-free papers are available for work which is intended to be archival (able to survive for very long periods of time into the future).

In any event, on days like the one I am describing, the act of drawing becomes a form of physical exercise, or dance (painting and drawing are often suggestive of dance, as the whole body often becomes involved in the process, and it is for this reason that many artists like to work “large”, with sweeping gestures (on large sheets of paper, canvas, boards, walls, barns, or whatever)).  For the sake of our discussion today, “large” will mean 18X24 inches.  The drawing itself will not be done so much by the actions of the hand or wrist, as by the arm and the whole body moving in a harmonious way, and with little regard to fine detail of any kind.  The whole idea is to simply catch the essence of whatever is in the artist’s mind (if there is anything at all in there) and to have a good time being expressive and creative.

Perhaps a brief aside might be in order here.  If you are overwhelmed by the world of everyday reality, and seek escape, and an alternative to romance novels, action-packed westerns, TV drama, etc, etc, then an alternative that is possibly even more fulfilling might interest you.  Grab a large piece of suitable paper; buy a small assortment of charcoal sticks (sticks, not pencils, for large work) and let yourself go!  You may be amazed at what can happen with a little effort.  By the way, if you do, you’ll want a “kneaded” eraser (very soft, kneadable rubber especially made for the purpose), and something like a small piece of chamois (sheep skin) or anything similar (an old T-shirt, for example), for smearing and creating shades of gray.  The creative possibilities before you are now endless and you will have become an active, rather than a passive participant in your pastime!

Meanwhile, back to the main theme for today.  Having done what I have just described, I simply mounted the paper on an upright board (an easel can be handy), and proceeded to “attack” it with pure abandon and little forethought, with the stick of charcoal.  The result will usually be a bold statement of some sort and with a little pushing and shoving here and there, you can start to mold it into whatever it may suggest to you (in my case, I already had a storm theme in mind).  Well, here is the result of a fairly short, but thoroughly enjoyable session with the charcoal:

Prairie Storm Sketch w/charcoal

Prairie Storm Sketch w/charcoal on paper

Based on my somewhat limited knowledge of weather (I have attended a “storm spotter” class), I constructed what might be recognized as a strong shaft of updraft air, billowing out at the top into the characteristic “anvil” formation.  I then splashed some clouds all around, threw in some kind of foreground (reminiscent perhaps of prairie) and tossed some mounds suggestive of distant mountains on the horizon beneath the whole mess.  I do not claim that I have created a great work of art, but I do claim that I had a good time doing it, and that’s what it’s all about.  Use your imagination, and be creative and expressive!  This is surely one of the most important sides of the artistic creative experience and one that I enjoy engaging in on a regular basis (I’ll show more examples of this in later blogs).  To the musical side of my mind, an image of this sort, intended to be a powerful statement, might be described as “Wagnerian” .  I can even hear the distant thunder and see the flashes of lightning when I think about it, and perhaps even the Valkyries are thundering along somewhere in the distance!  Having said that, the work of another artist whom I knew comes to mind, and  we may pay a visit to him in the next post.

Lest this latest post turn into a short novel, I will quickly bring this to an end with an additional commentary.  Having finished with the charcoal experience, I felt like I’d like to do something very similar with paint and a few colors, just for variety, and so I grabbed a canvas board (in this case not so large) and a very few oil paints, and taking a bristle brush in hand, proceeded to replicate the experience with my new tools.  Here, for your amusement, is the result of that quick and spontaneous effort.  You’ll have to agree that this is not a finished painting by any stretch of the imagination, but it was fun and I sort of like it (which is of no consequence, whatsoever).

Quick oil rendering prompted by charcoal sketch

Prairie Storm from charcoal sketch rendered in oil on canvas

No, this is not the serious side of art, it is the other side, but an important one and one which helps to mold us and our skills as artists.  And whether you see yourself as an artist or not (even though ancient cave and wall paintings attest to the fact that humans have been experimenting with art for many thousands of years), you can have a good time just engaging in this primal instinct which seems to reside in all of us!

I hope I was not too long-winded today, but you are dealing with a former teacher and I think it’s just part of my nature – I’ll probably always have something of the spirit of teaching in me, and it seems that it will come out, whether intended or not.  In any event, this concludes my latest journey into the magnificent and seemingly unlimited world of art, which leaves plenty of material for future excursions!  Thanks for joining me!  I’ll hope to see you again soon.

Until next time….

—  Jim

A Late Winter’s Eve

If I wrote the classic line, “it was a dark and stormy night”, it would seem fit for the time at which I write.  We are late in the winter season now and our winter has been unusually mild, balanced in a sense by the extreme cold weather witnessed in this season of the year in Europe and Central Asia.   And when I think of Central Asia, my mind invokes images of the quiet steppes or vast plains of that region of the world.  They are matched in many ways, I suppose, by our own great plains where I have spent much of my life.  If you live on the plains, the steppes, perhaps the outback, and so many other like places on this earth, the vastness of the landscape, and the enormous vault of the sky above affect you and become a part of you.  They leave a permanent impression on the mind and soul.  They evoke in me a thousand memories of days and events gone by, and the thoughts and emotions that accompanied them.  On a night like this, my thoughts returned to the wonder and power of a prairie storm, and all that one senses in being a witness to it and a part of it.   I recall even the scent of the impending storm (and they do come quickly) as the air fills with lightning and its by-product, ozone, and I remember the cool clean smell that comes as the atmosphere is washed clean of the dust of other dry and windy days.

On such a day long ago (in my mind, at least), I experienced such a storm blowing up in the plains of Alberta (and now even Ian Tyson comes to mind with the words “four strong winds…”).

It is of such experiences as this that paintings are born, music and lyrics, and novels are written, and stage plays and movies are conceived,.  Events like this are part of the fabric of our being, perhaps wrapped into our very DNA over hundreds of thousands of years or our existence as human beings.  Our natural response is to seek shelter, warmth, sustenance and protection from whatever nature may bring.  The fact that we had a mild winter in North America will contribute to increasingly severe storms in the late winter and spring seasons this year, I am told, and events, so far, tend to lend credence to those words..

A visual experience of a sudden storm forming over the prairie landscape – from my memories

The painting above, which I created on that singular occasion to which I referred, was my attempt to encapsulate in a permanent record of some kind what to me is the abstraction of that experience.  There is an element of every prairie storm in this image.  The way the strong winds which bring the storm blow up the dust before them from fallow or dormant fields which at another time might be clothed in wheat, barley, rye or canola.  The blowing dust darkens the sky in the distance, but the bright, waning light late on a winter day still illuminates the elevators and waiting train cars on the horizon.

It is this not uncommon but strong contrast of the bright winter light before sunset brilliantly illuminating the vivid colors of the grain elevators and the train cars beside them, against the dark and cold backdrop of the impending storm, that evokes in my artistic spirit a desire to capture and preserve that moment in time.  Those thoughts and memories, which I wished to capture and immortalize (in a very human sense), are perhaps conveyed in this painting.

Every artist, no matter what his medium, works to make a statement of some kind.  In this case, it is the attempt to capture a moment in time or an experience, and to preserve it for posterity in some way.  It is my and every artist’s wish to capture and communicate in his own way what he has experienced and felt.  The painter uses the tools available to him, hue, contrast, lighting, texture, movement, composition, and so on, to capture a unique moment in time and to communicate it in his own way so that others may know something of what he experienced and felt by being there.

This seems to be a common thread in all the arts, the desire to communicate something in a way that speaks to another person’s soul as the experience itself spoke to the artist’s soul.  Whether the medium be music, dance, painting, the written word, sculpture, or whatever medium the artist has chosen, it represents his attempt to bring his experience into the realm or our senses, as a substitute for having witnessed it ourselves.

To the extent that the artist succeeds in his attempt, we are drawn to his work.  If his work evokes something of the emotions that accompanied the original experience in us, or evokes a memory or a vision of another time and place, he has succeeded.  If we seem to fit into the image in some way, even if only that we experience the normal emotions that are evoked if we had been in the situation which is depicted, then the artist has succeeded.  Isn’t this what great novels, great music, great paintings, and great artistic renderings of any kind are all about?

No, I don’t mean to say that this is all they can be about, art has too much power to be restricted to only one explanation, but it is the one that I wanted to focus on today.  We shall have ample time to explore the wider universe of the arts as we go, and we shall surely be doing that here.

A note about my writing is appropriate here.  There are great artists in every artistic field of endeavor without regard to sex or other considerations.  Where I write ‘he’, properly read ‘he/she’, and where I write ‘his’, properly read ‘his/her’, and so on.  We are all human beings regardless of sex, race, ethnicity, etc, and what will be written here must be understood to be addressed to and about all of us without exception.  We are all human beings in the eyes of our Maker, and it is the products of His creation that we will be exploring.  In some sense artists are men/women striving to do something related to what He has already done.  We are simply trying to preserve and to communicate our own response to it and perhaps our unique interpretation of it.

There is perhaps more that can be said to carry this discussion further into the mainstream of current reality, and I will plan a second part to this thread, as a continuation of what has begun here.  After all, it’s getting late and we’ll have more time to talk again very soon.  I’ll blow out the candle and wish you well for now.

On a stormy late winter’s night….

— Jim