I wrote this piece about 15 years ago. It fits so well between what I wrote last week and what I am working on for the next few weeks, that I wanted to share it.
Under the canopy of trees that cover the walkway I spy, violets in the flower bed unexpectedly. It causes me to recall this week’s class assignment, left on your own, what would you draw? Left on my own, I am sure I would draw plants. I never meet a plant I didn’t love and some plants bring back fond memories, like the violets in the terrace garden. Our assignment is to make four to six doodle type drawings, project them on a 22 x 30 inch piece of paper and work out a design paying attention to line. The emphasis on this drawing assignment is line.
In class, when it is finally my time for a personal evaluation of the progress of my drawing, I begin, “Let me tell you what I’m trying to do. I’ve taken my drawing and blown it up, like the assignment asks. I understand it is all about line. But I’m approaching it backwards. Because I started from a contour drawing there is a lot of blank space and I am planning to fill it in using invention. I’m considering morphing some of the objects.”
After listening, my instructor lays his head on my drawing table and then looks up and says, “Oh dear, you have created some real problems for yourself. I’m not sure you’ll be able to work them through. Let me think what I would do.”
Surveying the situation he points out the how the weight of the two objects that I began the execution of the assignment with are over powering and disconnected. Referring to the original drawing he explains, that by ignoring the background and concerning myself with only the plant I am rendering, I lose all the depth I had created. “The flat white background becomes an object in and of its self,” he explains,” moving it forward on the paper. You, need to think through the background. Study the etchings of Albrecht Durer and you will see what I mean.” Taking my pencil in hand, he put the graphite to the surface of my drawing and begins to demonstrate what he means.
A true teacher I believe is someone who is willing to make a mark upon their students. A student is wise who will listen to not only the experience of their instructor, but take into account their criticism and consider the direction they are pointing us in.
I wasn’t concerned about the direction I was taking with the assignment until I saw the perplexity across his brow as he studied my work. Maybe I am overconfident or unafraid to venture out of bounds. I had been taught in my early training that in art there are no mistakes, and pushing through a problem forces you to try what you would never have tried. Often the solution to the problem yields your very best and becomes the most interesting part of the finished work. This new teacher believes that art is a language and that each drawing in a conversation, a working out of a relationship. And I have a lot of communicating to do.
At home I set the drawing aside. The next day is a testing of my inner strength, a continuation of internal conflict heightened by encounters with various people. I am trying to make sense of my struggle. In the evening before I sit down to work on the drawing, I realize emotionally I am near the edge of myself, but exhilaratingly close to the crux of the conflict.
I draw for six straight hours, trying to follow my instructor’s process, “Work all over the paper. That will help you bring it all together.” But I am of the mind to ask questions, “if I do this, what will happen?” I work slowly across the paper from one view point to the next, seeking reconciliation between those large objects that dominate the paper. I can see only one or two steps at a time, but I anticipate a point where the drawing will come together. I will know it, when it happens. Maybe it’s akin to faith, not having to know what the final work will be. Trusting I will see what needs to happen, when it needs to happen.
As I labor, I am slowly drawn into the work. Amused I remember how Jackson Pollack puts himself into his paintings. I get up and step back, keeping my promise to step away from the drawing more often and view my progress from across the room. There is hope. I can see “something” happening. It has a tropical feel; there is moonlight, mystery and a tangle of plant. The thirteen years in Florida where I first studied art find their way to the surface of my drawing. It was in Florida where I began the process of recovery.
Studying the etchings of Durer gives me insight into the shortsightedness my professors had warned me about. I have been ignoring the background in which the object sits. “The background is essential to the overall success of a piece,” he instructs. I agree, without it the drawing doesn’t visually makes sense. It doesn’t speak truth, but seems to float in a void, confusing the eyes, which seeks to make sense of what it sees.
Drawing like this relaxes me and I begin to see that the background of the drawing is like my past; for good or bad, it frames my life. Even in repentance it gives me a texture, like a part of the drawing when erased leaves it’s presence behind and needs to be reworked into the design. The erased parts of this drawing has become the most beautiful and unexpected part of the art.
A Life Lesson
My inner conflict reveals to me that I am in need of reworking my past experiences, using them as a reference, integrating them into my life, not treated them as something to be ignored, but as something to enrich and challenge me. Without discovering the lessons behind those experiences, I lose depth. I weaken my ability to communicate and leave a mark on others, speaking words that don’t ring true.
There are episodes from my past that I regret, even to the point of grief. There are people in my path who teeter precariously close to destruction. Left alone to draw I create problems for myself, left alone to struggle people lose faith and become entangled in life and are tempted to give up. Do I remain silent ignoring the connection between my past and their struggles, my experience and their need, could I really fail to touch their lives?
Pansies brighten our gardens winter through spring in the South. The Pansy Watercolor Collection was painted in the Summer and Fall of 2020. The Collection consists of series of eight small 7 x 10-inch watercolor paintings, plus a 10 x 10 and 18 x 24-inch painting. Fascinated by the array of color and design in these lovely garden flower, I purposefully documented their variety in photographs from which the pansy paintings were created.