As an art teacher, it is important to me to meet each student where she or he is in their critical thinking, problem solving, hand-eye-coordination, ideation, and personal vision of style and voice. I don’t think it is helpful to start each student at point “x,” just because that seems to be the first step to most instructors.

It’s boring to be listening to someone talk about something you know nothing about and about which you presume you have no interest in. It’s boring if the speaker is talking way over your head, or if the subject is dumbed-down too much. We each want to be thinking about what WE want to be thinking about.

I remember my sister took great lengths to find a piano teacher who could teach her son piano from the point at which he wanted to start. He didn’t know scales or how to read music, and he was a little lad, but he wanted to start with the theme songs from James Bond movies. Most piano teachers found this idea preposterous. (That’s just not how it’s done!) But she found a gifted insightful teacher who worked with him and now he is a world-renown jazz musician. He wanted to start with what interested him.

An early photograph of mine of some farm kids and their new puppies. Each child is expressing his or her personality by the way she is holding the puppy. We should encourage each person to embrace her voice and core personality and feel free to speak out with it. (C) Jane M. Mason, Minneapolis, MN. 2010.

An early photograph of mine of some farm kids and their new puppies. Each child is expressing his or her personality by the way she or he is holding the puppy. We should encourage each person to embrace her core personality and voice, and feel free to speak out or act as feels natural. We should also create a society that honors these differences. This is acceptance and empathy. (C) Jane M. Mason, Minneapolis, MN. 2010.

Really, isn’t this when learning is the most fun? And the learner is often the most compelled to almost obsessively drive herself to dig deeper, to learn more? Think of kids and their fascination with dinosaurs. Or little tykes and their fixation on trucks and racecars. Or some kids with knowing every tiny detail of a Disney animated movie. We aren’t “forcing” kids to be interested in these things. They love them because they are cool, and maybe because they are massive and powerful, or visually and musically engaging. But it is the child’s own interest (generally) that pushes them to digest every single teeny detail.

And, as a teacher—ask any teacher—and some of the fun and the reward is learning from your students. So if you doggedly start at the proverbial “page 1,” and drag through until “The End” it may not be much fun for your students, and in addition, what have you learned?

Sketching with students at the Cleveland Botanical Garden. Observing the light, shadows and the myriad greens in the garden.

Sketching with students at the Cleveland Botanical Garden. Observing the light, shadows and the myriad greens in the garden.

I ask students many questions. What are you seeing? What color is that? What shape is that? How is that shape different from this one? Did you look at the veins in the leaf? How would you describe them? What does the color of the sky tell you about time of day? What did you learn from today’s lesson?

By asking students to tell me what they are seeing, I can assess where they are. I can help enhance their powers of observation and inch them forward. Plus every time they explain what they are seeing, they challenge themselves to truly look, to find the words to describe what they are seeing, and (since they know I will ask) they compare it to something similar or very different—another tree, another shrub, a lighter color bloom, etc.

Today in the herb garden at the Cleveland Botanical Garden, I said, “This herb reminds me of Thanksgiving. Do you know what it is?” I pulled off a leaf and we each smelled it.

One student said, “This doesn’t smell like turkey.” And she was right. I said, “It’s sage. I love it and I use it for a lot of things, but it always reminds me of Thanksgiving.” She said, “Oh, it reminds me of quiche.” I was so tickled. Of course. We use it on quiche, too. To me that exchange added so much value in our stroll through a section of a garden. Instead of only announcing, “these are herbs,” and moving on, by stopping, pulling a leaf and smelling it, we each could correlate it to something in our memories, our own experiences.

Even the soft velvety feel of the leaf now will be linked for these students to those few moments we spent on a steamy summer day in July thinking about Thanksgiving turkey, sage, and quiche.

Close-up of a sage leaf.

Close-up of a sage leaf.

This really is about being in the moment. Teaching is a rich opportunity to be in the moment as you watch someone else absorb new concepts, new connections between ideas, new techniques, and a potentially different way of looking at things.

Life is about treasuring those moments. The now. Life is about stopping to smell the roses—and the sage!

Students holding their watercolor paintings from their Cleveland Botanical Garden Summer Class, taught by Jane M. Mason.

Students holding their watercolor paintings from their Cleveland Botanical Garden Summer Class, taught by Jane M. Mason.

So I was delighted when I snapped this photo of a few of my students from my summer art class for kids 9-14 years old. Each of their paintings is so different. Each of their paintings is a reflection of their own personality and energy. The differences in the paintings suggest their own styles, their selection of subject matter (although all “trees,” per the assignment).

Plus the energy, and “key” (lightness or darkness of the painting) were so perfectly aligned with each of their personalities. For example, subtly each painting actually matches the color harmony in the clothing that each child was wearing. To me this is a triumphant affirmation that I was allowing each student to speak with her or his own distinctive voice while completing the assignment—and expressing the artist inside themselves. This photo makes me very happy.

Tales from a watercolor painter and teacher while I am watching paint dry.

Jane M. Mason

As an art teacher, I am always delighted that simple art tools, with some encouragement, can have fingers and minds focused for hours at a time, for young and not so young.

Screens for working and playing in the cyber world are great. But we all need relief from the endless screens, alerts, and subliminal sense of being tethered to an appliance that is dictating who and what we should respond to.

There are countless advantages to encouraging art, and too many to quantify here. But a couple less well-known ones are:

1) Art has been eliminated in many schools, so children may have no opportunity to learn to interpret what they are seeing and represent in on another plane. Nor can they their minds roam at their own natural pace. It is not unusual for a 30-second commercial to have over 50-60 separate edits and separate images in it. That is not a pace established historically for the brain to interpret and respond to disparate images, day-in and day-out. Even doodling is discouraged. One time when I was helping as a Room-Mom in my son’s third-grade classroom, I was criticized for letting a child doodle during free time. I was told that there is no doodling after second grade. That made me sad. To doodle is to dream. It’s the dreamers who are the creators.

A Google doodle showing Pluto in the name. Google is one of the visible supporters of doodling.

A Google doodle showing Pluto in the name. Google is one of the visible supporters of doodling.

2) There is concern that fixing our eyes at the same viewing distance on screens for prolonged periods of time is negatively affecting the muscles in our eyes. When sketching, we find that we constantly need to move our eyes from the paper to the object we are sketching. These back and forth movements, adjusting focus from a short viewing distance to longer viewing distance, are more normal eye movements and helpful for the health of our eye muscles.

Back to the supply kits:

Give each traveler a small collection of pencils (with a few colored pencils), a good quality eraser, and pencil sharpener, in a zippered bag or fabric pencil case. Note: please use pencils, not markers. By sticking with pencils, you don’t have the issues with the missing caps, the random marks where you don’t want them, etc. that you get with markers. And, to me, there seems to be something that taps into our artistic side more naturally when we are given pencils—with a right-sized sharpener, as opposed to being handed a pen or marker.

Almost assembled drawing kit. Yet to add the pencil sharpener. Thinking about keeping some additional drawing options in the "Master" kit of tools.

Almost assembled drawing kit. Yet to add the pencil sharpener. Thinking about keeping some additional drawing options in the “Master” kit of tools.

Clip this pencil case to a standard clipboard. One for each traveler. I prefer the acrylic, colored clipboards. They are more colorful and help each traveler keep track of his or her own gear. Add a pad of medium-to-good quality drawing paper.

Don’t go for the cheapest materials here. Go to an art store, a craft store, or even a Target, and get the mid-to-high student grade materials. Or, if you order online, I frequently use Cheap Joes Art Stuff – really. cheapjoes.com/

Give them a call if you need help making decisions about supplies. The difference in cost is negligible in the big picture. And as an artist, I know it is painful to try to draw with pencils that are so hard you have to break the lead to get a strong color. And, it is frustrating to create something memorable on cheap paper. Spend a couple more bucks and it makes a huge difference.

Encourage everyone to:

  • doodle,
  • journal,
  • write some notes,
  • practice cursive writing,
  • invent one’s own hieroglyphics or symbols for a language,
  • sketch,
  • illustrate a poem or a song,
  • create lyrics,
  • trace leaves or found stuff, like a bolt or button, or
  • play Tic-tac-toe or other paper and pencil games.

You can even provide some coloring books for the clipboards, too. Coloring books for children have always been popular. Coloring books for adults are the new rage. See the coloring book by my friend, Susan Schmitt, featuring her whimsical characters and lots of flowers through beautifully detailed illustrations.

Back to your supply kit:

Add tracing paper or other types of paper, origami sheets for example, to also inspire creative stimulation. Tape and scissors can go in, too. But are not necessary. I’d avoid the glue sticks, again, due to the missing caps and always dried out glue.

A large mailing envelope (even a used one) for each person can help collect completed sketches and other mementoes along the trip. Receipts, tickets from a movie or tourist event, a post card purchased along the way, etc., can all be popped in the envelope.

Alert: for many people these tools will seem primitive and unfamiliar. They will seem almost joke-like in their simplicity, longevity, and versatility. They are simply waiting to be picked up. There is no beeping. No alerts. No recharging. And they are fairly indestructible.

It may take encouragement –and modeling—to get your group involved.

Yes, you need to pick up the pencils, the paper, the clipboard and start doodling yourself to demonstrate how relaxing and contemplative it can be.

Pick up a pencil and a Pink Pearl. A relaxing afternoon awaits!

The iconic "PinkPearl" eraser. Identified with its cursive title and distinctive shape.

The iconic “PinkPearl” eraser. Identified with its cursive title and distinctive shape.

Jane M. Mason

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Ideas are always floating through my head. It seems natural to filter what I see through an artist’s viewfinder. Looking down at a reflection in a puddle or looking up into the canopy of trees, I ponder, what color IS that? Meaning: how would I create that color with watercolor paint?

There is a fluency as an artist when you dream in your art form. I have dreams that consist of various watercolor paints swirling together while I, as the observer, watch and contemplate what color is being created.

These new colors and combinations of paints must be carried in your head, because there are a zillion more colors than we actually have names for. Names wouldn’t actually work, anyway, to convey the nuances of the qualities of the color. The names are a verbal representation of a visual image. They would not be as clear to the artist as remembering the actual visual cue. For example, “red” to me and to you would probably be quite different.

What are the names of all the colors in this painting? Original waterolor by Jane M. Mason. (C) 2009. All rights reserved.

What are the names of all the colors in this painting? Original watercolor by Jane M. Mason. (c) 2009. All rights reserved. Watercolor and watercolor pencil on hot pressed Arches paper.

For a serious artist, though, carrying these colors in one’s mind this isn’t a challenge. It is similar, I think, to remembering a taste or a smell. Think of the difference between a bite of a toasted bagel, or toasted white bread, or a toasted English muffin. A novice might say, “Well, they are all just toast.” But, if you have experienced these very different bread products you know there is a huge difference in the taste, texture, density, and overall flavor among these choices—even though they all have a “toasted” component to them.

The subtleties of the color, the density, the brightness, the opacity, the sedimenting, the luminosity, and ultimately, even the “toasted-ness” so to speak, are some of the categories I carry in my head about the colors or hues in watercolor paint.

So, as a watercolorist, part of my deciding about which ideas to focus on is recognizing that I have favorite hues. These are my “go to” colors. I also have favorite brands of paint. I have favorite brushes and paper. I even have favorite brush strokes. But to focus this discussion, let’s think about the hues.

It seems logical to have favorite colors that tend to appear in a preponderance of my art. Yet, that didn’t register with me until someone at one of my exhibit openings said, “Ugh. You use so much purple.” Then another guest said, “Why do you use so much green?” These seemed like weird observations or critiques. Who cares? I’m painting with the “right” colors to create the painting I want to create.

Who says I use too much purple? Of green? Painting is "Plain Jane Cabbage" by Jane M. Mason, (c) 2010.

Who says I use too much purple? Or green? Painting is “Plain Jane Cabbage” by Jane M. Mason, (c) 2010. Watercolor on #140 lb Cold Pressed Arches paper.

I was sort of stumped by the comments though and kept rolling them around in my head. Why did these visitors mention their observations of the visual dominance of these colors? I knew I was missing a point. To me, superficially, I knew I painted many landscapes and scenes with foliage, so it seemed logical that I’d use a lot of green. And, I guess I paint many scenes that “require” using purple.

After much mental processing, I considered that somehow, instinctively, ideas come to me that are composed of those hues. But truth be told, it really is a “chicken and egg” question. Do I pick scenes to match my favorite colors, or find ways to push my favorite colors into the scenes I pick?

I believe it’s a bit of both. What truly may be happening is that an idea comes to me and I manhandle it to utilize the hues I want—my favorite hues. I then explain it as “intuitive” color, meaning: I painted it that way because I wanted to.

It is the color my intuition told me to use. It doesn’t necessarily reflect how you see it in “real life.” There is nothing wrong with that. My intuition, or instinct, or the favorite color in my “color bank” allows me to introduce you potentially to a color combination that you may not have imagined. And, that is a good thing.

(Part of this discussion about intuitive color and how you see as compared to how I see, or how we talk about what we see, is a fragment of a visual literacy discussion. I will be blogging more on this in another post.)

To the Birds

In one of my more whimsical and silly series, I painted birds in rather preposterous poses. For example, I have my “Bird with Sensible Shoes” and my “Bird with Aspirations.”

I tend to watch birds whenever I can. You could say I am a bit fixated on them. Even on the masthead at the top of this blog, there is one of my favorite photos of birds in an infinity pool in Paris. I feed them, sketch them, photograph them, and paint them. It makes sense that something I am fixated on provides me with ideas to create a series of paintings. I don’t have any data on this, but I bet that is true of most artists. For example, think of Monet and haystacks.

Small bird on a beach. Tail feathers appear to be polka dotted.

A photo of a bird with a “polka dot” tail. I’m sure this will be a future painting. Beach outside Orlando, Florida.

Bird with Sensible Shoes

This was a bird I saw in Amsterdam when I was attending the World Jazz Festival. I was having coffee and a pastry at a bistro and a bird waddled past me. The bird was actually walking with what seemed to be an exhausted gait. (Now perhaps I was exhausted from spending the day at museums and the prior night attending fantastic jazz concerts.)

But, however it popped in my head, it just struck me that she looked like a hard-working middle-class bird who had spent the day on a job on her feet. It seemed she needed some good comfortable shoes rather than her bird feet.

Painting of a bird with colorful feathers and preposterous clunky shoes on her feet.

Painting by Jane M. Mason of a bird in Amsterdam with “sensible shoes.” (c) 2004. Watercolor on Arches #140 Cold Pressed paper. For more images by Jane M. Mason, see www.watchingpaintdry.com 

I know. Crazy, eh?

So, as you can see, the comedy of the painting is in the obviously ill-fitting shoes on the bird. (That’s a bit of a spoof in itself to think of any human-style shoes fitting a bird.)

Yet, to a watercolorist, the mastery of this painting is in the technique itself. To a watercolorist, this is a brilliantly executed painting—if I do say so myself.

Most of the bird was created with a 1.5” Richeson flat brush. Onto the brush I painted bands of color. (Just to be clear that you read that correctly: yes, I took another brush—a round brush—and painted the paint onto the 1.5” flat brush. I have simulated it here in the photo.)

A photo of the left hand of the artist holding a brush as she applies paint to the bristles of a flat brush.

Jane M. Mason is putting paint on the 1.5″ brush with the round brush. Several “bands” of pigment will be put on the flat brush to create the stripes of color as shown in “Bird with Sensible Shoes.”

As I painted curved strokes with the flat brush, for example on her back, I had to have exactly the right amount of paint to create a dry brush effect. That means that I had to leave the white bits of paper without any paint touching the paper in order to have it appear as if the sun was highlighting areas of her back and shoulders. Then I used the same bands of color, only in a much weaker density, to use only one curved stroke to create her head.

The painting is really a story about how much you can suggest with the white of the paper and a minimum number of paint strokes. Now, look at the sidewalk and curb. There is very little there. You are filling in the notion that the sidewalk continues behind her and that something exists behind the bird. This is even though there is no paint there. You don’t see her as walking on a 4” balance beam with a white sheet behind her, right? This “balance beam” concept is what is closer to what is literally painted on the paper, but it is not what you are interpreting. One job of the artist is to create the illusion that she wants to create and propel you to see what she hopes and intends for you to see. Through her skills, she wants to move you beyond being visually constrained by the literal edges of the paint on the paper. She wants to pull you to her point of view and have you not see what is actually before you on the paper, but to see something that may not truly be there. Cool, huh?

For me, with my ideas, they are frequently a blend of the main point—in this case a silly bird, and some sort of a challenge in the medium to make me stretch beyond the norm to do something I don’t know if I can do. For this painting I contemplated it for over a week. Thinking about it frequently each day and mulling over the technical complexities. Then, on the day I decided to create the painting, I sat looking at the paper for about 15 minutes before I made any stroke. I knew what I was going to do. And I knew each stroke had to be perfect. I didn’t have coffee before I painted that day. (Seriously.) I had gotten a good night’s sleep, and did my Yoga breathing to relax.

This may seem crazy to you. But I knew what I wanted to do and what I had to do to create the illusion I had in my mind’s eye. I knew it took a steady hand with steady, calm breathing. I knew it took the courage to jump in and with exactly the correct pressure on the brush, to swiftly and masterfully, use the fewest strokes needed to tell this story of this silly bird.

Bird with Aspirations

This was another bird that I was watching on the street. This was a bird in Florence, Italy. This bird was in the middle of a flock of birds. This bird, the hero of my painting, seemed extremely haughty with a very upright posture as compared to the other squatty birds groveling on the ground for seeds. I imagined this bird having higher aspirations than “managing” this low-class flock. I imagined he wanted to lead soldiers, to be a captain of industry, and possibly to be saluted in Fortune Magazine.

So, it popped into my head to paint this guy with a briefcase. My visual challenge in this painting was to create an energy and eye movement. Diamonds have sharp angles so they create visual energy. Hence, I figured I would use diamonds on him somehow. So I gave him a vest stretched and distorted as it fit around his torso.

Watercolor painting by Jane M. Mason of a whimsical bird standing upright and carrying a briefcase.

Watercolor painting by Jane M. Mason of a whimsical bird standing upright and carrying a briefcase. (c) 2005. Watercolor on Arches #140 Hot Pressed paper, with watercolor pencil.

Then I knew that creating competing diamonds on the floor would act as a visual counterpoint. The casualness of the tone in this painting meant that the diamonds on the floor had to be “sketchy.” I used a watercolor pencil and wavy lines to convey that.

Even the shadows and his briefcase play to the triangle/diamond shape idea, as does his beak, his wing, and as an outline, even his entire body.

I do think he is funny. And somehow I feel he conveys that haughty attitude I was going for.

Do you care?

Does it matter to me if you have any idea of all the mental processing that goes on in my head as I create these birds? Not really.

The process is the journey for me. The process is connecting to the medium and setting the challenge to see if I can master it. It allows me to lose myself in the paint, the paper, the brushes, my skills, and my creativity. I get in “the zone” and float in the space of collaborating with all these tools and intangible components to solve this creative challenge.

This concept of being in the zone and zooming in on the process, for me, is part of the idea behind my company and website, www.watchingpaintdry.com

You have to be present in the moment. You have to enjoy the journey. Challenge yourself and master those things that are important to you. You won’t know what comes next until it comes.

So for me, losing myself in these silly birds and challenging myself to do something that I don’t know if I can do—even if it just involves putting paint on paper (!) is part of being in the moment and just going for it.

And, I’m tickled if you get a kick out of the paintings whether you care about the technique of not.

Ta-da. That is how I get some of my ideas.

——————–

For another story of how I fixate on birds, see my post “Beauty In the Birds-Eye Mind of the Beholder.”

A small piece of art  featuring a bird rug hooked by Nancy Smith.

A small piece of art featuring a bird rug hooked by Nancy Smith. Nancy is as charmed by birds as I am.

eyelet bird with moon 6 x 6.75

A small piece of art of a bird flying with the moon in the background. Rug hooked by Nancy Smith. See the blog post on rug hooking for more information.

For another story on rug hooking, see my post “Rug Hooking: Fine Craft, Authentically American”

Spring and my thoughts turn to Florence, Italy, my favorite city. I’ll cover a few of my treasured memories of Florence in the next few posts.

Let’s start with Santa Croce (Holy Cross).

This is a church and compound dedicated to St. Francis. Some say, St. Francis of Assisi actually started construction on the original church on the site. This iteration was probably started in 1220-ish. By 1252, it was completed. Franciscan Monks still live at Santa Croce. The robes (and I think I recall, the sandals) of St. Francis are on view in an ornate reliquary in the sacristy, a room off the main sanctuary.

The Cimabue Crucifix

Crucifix by Cimabue. Created in 1280 for the altar. Heavily damaged in the flood of 1966. Now in the first room of the Santa Croce Works Museum.

Crucifix by Cimabue. Created in 1280 for the altar. Heavily damaged in the flood of 1966. Now in the first room of the Santa Croce Works Museum. Cimabue, Crocifisso, 1280, tempera su tavola, 390 cm, basilica di Santa Croce, Firenze.

For me, one of the most powerful pieces of art of all time is the Cimabue cross. I believe it was created for the Pazzi Chapel. The Cimabue piece is a knee-buckling crucifix—my expression for art that brings you to your knees. I am not Catholic, yet there is something so somber, so evocative of this piece that it pulls me to my faith.

In a future post, I’ll discuss the Pazzi family in greater detail. They plotted against the Medici and now the word in Italian for “insane” is: Pazzi. Note to self: don’t cross the Medici.

The Cimabue cross suffered tremendous damage in the flood of Florence in 1966. It was out of the church for years. It has had much attention and repair. It is not restored as the damage from the flood is still evident, but it remains immensely powerful. It is a piece that Graham T. Mason and I have always planned to reproduce—perhaps in full size—to hang in some future home of his or mine. This piece was a turning point for me opening my eyes to the beauty and power of the pre-Renaissance, Byzantine style using the iconic stylized, “scripted” qualities to convey a message universally understood by Christians of the era.

After seeing the Cimabue cross, I expanded my study of Italian art. It had been primarily Florentine, from the 1400s forward. Now my interest includes the art back to the early Roman days. I can understand if you don’t “get it.” I didn’t until I stood in front of the Cimabue crucifix.

Notables Entombed at Santa Croce

Some of the most famous people in the world are buried in the sanctuary of this church. Michelangelo, who died in 1564, is buried here in a magnificent tomb. Allegorical figures representing great artistic endeavors—sculpture, painting, and architecture—surround the site. Giorgio Vasari, the historian and fellow artist of the era, created the tomb. Vasari’s life itself is fascinating. A contractor to the Medici’s, it is astonishing his head didn’t roll by the hand of the most powerful family in Italy. But, I digress…

Others buried in the sanctuary include Galileo Galilee, Niccolò Machiavelli, Lorenzo Ghiberti, and Gioacchino Rossini. Dante is honored there, although I think his remains are elsewhere. Florence Nightingale, named for the city of Florence, is also honored there.

The Giotto Frescoes in the Bardi Chapel

Brothers attending to the death of St. Francis by Giotto approx. 1325.  These frescoes were whitewashed in 1700s, through an order of the Medici, in an effort to modernize and simplify the interior of the great churches in Florence. The whitewash was removed in 1852 and the art was restored. In the 1960s they were repaired from the restoration in 1852. In 1966 the great flood damaged much of the church. That cleaning work lasted at least 10 years.

Brothers attending to the death of St. Francis by Giotto approx. 1325.
These frescoes were whitewashed in 1700s, through an order of the Medici, in an effort to modernize and simplify the interior of the great churches in Florence. The whitewash was removed in 1852 and the art was restored. In the 1960s they were repaired from the restoration in 1852. In 1966 the great flood damaged much of the church. That cleaning work lasted at least 10 years. Source: Scenes from the Life of Saint Francis, Death and Ascension of St Francis, (detail), c. 1325, fresco, 280 x 450 cm, Bardi Chapel, Santa Croce, Florence.

One of the most well-known aspects of Santa Croce is the Bardi Chapel. Glorious expressive frescoes in the chapel are by Giotto di Bondone. This is the artist generally known as Giotto. Unusual for the era, Giotto instilled much emotion in the figures in his work, particularly through the eyes. The eyes of his subjects seem to carry the weight of the drama and storyline in the scene. In the fresco by Giotto of the death and ascension of St. Francis, his fellow friars are distraught and bent over with grief at the suffering of Francis. The scene is compelling and alive with angst

The one-dimensional aspects of the work (the faux patterning on the wall) are realistic, accurate representations of marble or painted plaster on a wall. Three-dimensional aspects still present a challenge at this point in the advancement of Western art, circa 1325. Perspective and conveying a sense of “mass” have not been conquered yet. For example, in addition to the problems with everything seeming to be in the foreground, there are no shadows yet under any people, objects, or buildings. People appear pasted one on top of another. There is a realistic suggestion of color changes as fabric folds around their bodies, but there is neither roundness nor space suggested between the people.

Pondering Halos. Do they move like plates on a plane or hats on a head?

Another notable observation is in the halo of St. Francis. It is a fascination to me to follow the development of the depiction of halos through the history of art. In this era, we see the articulated gold halo with a geometric pattern (radiating lines) sitting it seems on the plane of the painting. If the subject were to move his head, the halo would remain in the same position and the head would move through the halo.

It is sort of like that “invisible plane” at the end zone of a football field, or the plane of the surface of water–no matter your body position as you crash through the “plane,” the plane stays in the same place. Halos painted later began to be fixed on the head and moved as the head moved.

Coronation of the Virgin Mary, Maso di Banc, Bardi di Vernia Chapel.  Note the halo and the Moorish influence in the decorative elements. The missing pieces represent some of the damage from the flood of 1966.

Fresco of the coronation of the Virgin Mary, Maso di Banc, Bardi di Vernia Chapel.
Note the halos. In the lower right edge, the head is turned and the halo maintains its “plane.” Also note the Moorish influence in the decorative elements. The missing pieces represent some of the damage from the flood of 1966.

Yet, presumably we rarely see halos, so I’m not sure if the greater sophistication in painting halos truly represents how halos work. The sophistication reflected the greater realistic representation of the human form and how elements attached to the form, like, let’s say a hat, will move with a head. Hats don’t stay in a fixed plane. They stay attached to the head.

(FYI — let me insert here that whether you believe halos exist or not, there still needs to be a way to depict them in art. To tell the stories, we need a way to convey the image of a unicorn, or the super powers of a hero, or the change that happens to a werewolf.)

The sophistication reflected the greater realistic representation of the human form and how elements attached to the form, like, let’s say a hat, will move with a head. Hats don’t stay in a fixed plane.

But I am quite curious if a halo is like a hat or has a completely different spiritual complexity.  I would think it may have a unique underlying principle to guide its movement and maybe it “breathes” or is more like a sphere (a balloon) encompassing a head. Or radiates in the way a street light shines with soft edges in a foggy night.

These types of decisions, such as how to convey the concept of a halo, are choices artists make. The leading contender of the day is followed and emulated. Thus the creation of “icons” to signify an underlying concept.  We accept a ripping green shirt as Marvel Comic’s Incredible Hulk. In the same way, watching the changing iterations of halos is a way to understand what the culture is awarding at that time in terms of style and interpretation of a spiritual concept.

Byzantine and Moorish Influences

View of the Bardi di Vernio Chapel, or the Chapel of St. Silvester,  at Santa Croce.  The frescoes were created by Maso di Banco, 1340.

View of the Bardi di Vernio Chapel, or the Chapel of St. Silvester, at Santa Croce.
The frescoes were created by Maso di Banco, 1340.

Other patterns in the frescoes in various other chapels at Santa Croce, illustrate the Byzantine and Moorish influence of African-based patterning (geometric circles and repeating small patterns). These seem to carry a more traditional style, not appearing as the breakthrough new style Giotto was incorporating at this time into his own work. Perhaps they are included to bridge the visual gap from the traditional to the new. Perhaps it was an easy way to separate the elements in the stories. Or probably it was simply how frescoes and similar murals were “supposed” to be painted.

The Piazza at Santa Croce

Jousting in the piazza in front of Santa Croce, in the 1800s.

Jousting in the piazza in front of Santa Croce, in the 1800s.

The large piazza in front of Santa Croce is also well known. Historically it was the scene of many jousting matches.

Currently the Florentines hold other games and activities in the piazza, including a celebration of flags each year. During the day, many eat lunch, stroll around, sketch, have a coffee or snap selfies.

I lived near Santa Croce when in Florence and found it had a powerful draw for me. I visited on many, many occasions.

The same piazza in front of Santa Croce years earlier, before the facade of the church was updated starting in 1857.  Emilio Burci, View of the Piazza Santa Croce, mid-19th century, copper engraving, 9.9 x 16.6 cm, Kunsthistorisches Institut in Firenza.

The same piazza in front of Santa Croce years earlier, before the facade of the church was updated starting in 1857.
Source: Emilio Burci, mid-19th century, copper engraving, 9.9 x 16.6 cm, Kunsthistorisches Institut in Firenza.

There is so much more to this church and lively community in Florence. My choices highlighted here represent a small collection of the objects I am most drawn to. That’s why I visited it over and over, and I always return whenever in Florence.

Do you have favorite memories or images of Santa Croce to share?


For more reading on Italian art, see my post on the Fibonacci series of numbers and Vitruvian Man, Fibonacci intersecting nature and art.

Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980) coined the phrase “the medium is the message” in 1964 when he published his often-referenced book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. (Read a PDF of the chapter here: mcluhan.mediummessage )

His point is relevant today. Whether we are tweeting, posting selfies, or searching for the closest Starbucks, technology itself has changed the culture. It has changed how we communicate, what we talk about, our attention span, and, weirdly, it has spurred a fascination with cat videos.

The impact on the culture from the emergence of a new medium can be related to the emergence of studio portraits or vignettes on post cards after the Civil War and through the first part of the 20th C. These served the same purpose as early selfies to share a slice of your life with the people in your life.

A post card with an image of two adults seeing their reflection as they kneel by the edge of a pond. From the collection of the Lynn Museum & Historical Society

From the collection of the Lynn Museum & Historical Society, Lynn, MA.

The delight of getting a new radiator and being done with the constant hauling of wood or coal to fireplaces. The couple is sharing their happiness in a post card.

The delight of getting a new radiator and being done with the constant hauling of wood or coal to fireplaces. The couple is sharing their happiness in a post card. From the collection of the Lynn Museum & Historical Society, Lynn, MA.

Another manifestation from the art world of early selfies, were the tiny miniatures painted as a forget-me-not for travelers who were leaving home, hearth, and loved ones behind.

Tiny miniature portraits frequently painted in watercolor or gouache to be cherished by the recipient. they are encapsulated in a gold watch frame.

Tiny miniature portraits frequently painted in watercolor or gouache to be cherished by the recipient. They are encapsulated in a gold watch frame. Photo by Jeff Dykes for the Lynn Museum & Historical Society. From the collection of the Lynn Museum & Historical Society, Lynn, MA.

One of the most remarkable examples of “the medium is the message” is the flow motion video of Dubai, by Rob Whitworth. In the video he flies us through time and space in an almost unimaginable and magical journey into the culture as represented by its human-made spaces, the natural wonders of the desert, and its 21st C citizens with their toys.

 

High sky view of fluffy clouds, brilliontly colors fog around buildings at dusk in Dubai.

Still from the video, Dubai Flow Motion by Rob Whitworth. Click link in the text above to see the Vimeo Video.

More credits for the video, “Dubai Flow Motion” and links to Whitworth’s work are below.

The technique itself is as jaw dropping in some ways as the images. The novelty of this technique is probably as it was originally with photography, miniatures, Polaroids, smart phones, and so on. The first exposure to the new technology is breathtaking and can be life-changing.

Do you remember the first experience with technology that blew you away?

And, with our voracious appetite for the new, we will devour this technique and undoubtedly search out a fresh more exotic medium for our messages tomorrow. But today, it is astonishing.

At every step our culture itself is being impacted by the media, as well as the message. Three-year-old toddlers now touch many surfaces assuming, until proven otherwise, that many surfaces may be a touch screen and by touching it, the child anticipates entertainment.

Is this the quintessential example of the medium is the message?

Curious and rather jaw dropping itself, isn’t it?

To read more about another type of “selfie” read my two-part blog post on Silhouettes: “A Cut of Silhouette History” and “When Shape is the Thing.”


Dubai Flow Motion by Rob Whitworth:

Sound Design: Slava Pogorelsky
Email: kultenyeuk@walla.com
Facebook: facebook.com/Kultenyeuk

Rob Whitworth
Website: robwhitworth.co.uk/
Facebook: facebook.com/RobWhitworthPhotography
Instagram: instagram.com/robwhitworthphotography


(Second and final part of the “silhouette” post)

A recent article in the Harvard Magazine, November-December 2014, “Shadow Art,” presents the history of the silhouette art form.

Named after Etienne de Silhouette, “a penny-pinching minister of finances under Louis XV, whose tenure was brief because parsimony rarely has a big following… The phrase à la Silhouette came to mean doing things on the cheap.”

The “cheap” concept evolved to become conflated with the economical and growing art form of commissioning portraits cut as silhouettes in lieu of sitting for painted portraits. It became a popular “craze” from the last quarter of the 18th C to the middle of the 19th C. As photography gained popularity—which was another “new” intriguing art form—silhouette work started losing its popularity.

An exhibit “Silhouettes: from Craft to Art,” was mounted during the summer of 2014 at the Houghton Library on the Harvard University campus in Cambridge, MA. The exhibit is reviewed in a blog post linked here, which includes beautiful images from the late 1700s which are held in the collection of the Library.

An example of traditional silhouette technique in which the artist basically traces the outline of the face. The vignette was printed in the second volume of Johann Caspar Lavater’s treatise on physiognomy, Physiognomische Fragmente, zur Beförderung der Menschenkenntniss und Menschenliebe published in Leipzig between 1775 and 1778. From the collection of the Harvard university's Houghton Library.

An example of traditional silhouette technique in which the artist basically traces the outline of the face. The vignette was printed in the second volume of Johann Caspar Lavater’s treatise on physiognomy, Physiognomische Fragmente, zur Beförderung der Menschenkenntniss und Menschenliebe published in Leipzig between 1775 and 1778. From the collection of the Harvard University’s Houghton Library.

Here is the description from the Houghton Library blog post:

A draftsman sat behind a movable standing frame which held a sheet of glass and that leaned against the shoulder of the sitter. The draftsman drew the outline of the sitter’s profile on a piece of translucent, oiled paper placed on the frame. A stick of wood or iron attached to the middle of the frame supported the sheet of glass and could be moved by the draftsman.

A recent exhibit Toulouse-Lautrec and La Vie Moderne: Paris 1880 – 1910 during 2014 at the Columbus Museum of Art exhibited several examples of a variation of a form of silhouettes as “shadow theater art” designed for the cabaret, Le Chat Noir in Paris.

Image of piece of cut-out that would be mounted to a stick for use in the shadow theater performed at Le Chat Noir, Paris. From the collection du Musée d'Orsay, Paris. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia Collection du Musée d'Orsay, Paris. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia -

Image of piece of cut-out that would be mounted to a stick for use in the shadow theater performed at Le Chat Noir, Paris. From the collection du Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Licensed under Fair Use via Wikipedia.

The individual pieces conveyed silhouette-style scenes attached to a stick that would be raised above a screen (as in a puppet theater style) and narrated to convey the story via a “Shadow play.” Henri Rivière was the designer of the shadow theater scenes displayed in the exhibit.

I was profoundly moved at how the silhouettes in the shadow theater pieces dramatically presented a battle as a single cutout “scene.” It was almost a “hair-stand-on-end” moment to imagine the earthy aroma in the tavern, the boisterous crowd, talking and jostling, and then the passion of the French peasants, laborers, and countrymen captivated by the animated storytelling of the narrator. So much is left unsaid and left to the imagination in a shadow play –I presume in a curious way, like sitting on the edge of a seat listening to a radio program.

The shadow theater images in the exhibit (as shown in the image here) are another example of how powerful various art forms can be. Somehow the contrast of the black and white and the detail strangely conveys more emotion and the impending movement than many full-color paintings of the same scene might connote, or even a poorly executed movie with actual moving images of the scene.

For more information on silhouette art and on contemporary artists, see my previous blog post at artinthecenter.wordpress.com

Note: as discussed in the previous post, for Joy Yarbrough and the silhouettes she creates, she cuts them freehand while holding the paper and scissors in the air and looking at her subject. She does not use a traditional set-up as shown in this post.

I’m not going to get us bogged down in a discussion of negative and positive space or whether the artist is a “mark maker” or a “shape maker”—because among artists that can call for more than one bottle of wine to resolve.

But there are times when the shape is the vision. These artists are drawn to the silhouette. They are compelled to capture that edge and what is confined within it or excluded from it, at exactly a moment in time.

Cut out shapes

Cutting paper is something most of us have done from a very young age. I remember fondly the strings of cut-out people holding hands or the “snowflakes” cut from paper in elementary school.

The French artist Henri Matisse (1869–1954) started the “cut-outs” part of his career later in life when his health prevented him from traditional painting. As someone driven to produce (which is a curse or gift of most great artists, I think), he sought an art form that suited his then-physical aptitudes and abilities. He took scissors to paper and created imaginative, colorful cutouts.

The themes were built on ones he was familiar with in other media (nudes, patterns, faces, natural or organic shapes, etc.) But the interpretations were vastly different because the cut outs initially caught the eye through the silhouette—the shape—of the piece of paper. His work is huge and diminutive. Some pieces interpreted into massive tapestries and into the embellishments for churches or giant walls of enormous dancing shapes.

An excellent blog post, “Matisse’s Cut-outs as Environments” discusses a major exhibition of Henri Matisse’s cut-outs which had been at the Tate and is now at the Museum of Modern Art through February, 8, 2015. CBS “Sunday Morning” recently aired a story on the exhibit.

Charles Kessler, a former art historian and critic and the blog post author, says, “Until fairly recently, this late work of Matisse’s… was wrongly belittled as the frivolous art of an old man. I’ve long believed, however, that Matisse’s innovations are similar to, and at least as radical as, what the Abstract Expressionists were doing at the time; and that Matisse’s cut-outs should be considered among the greatest work of the twentieth century. They certainly are among the most joyful art ever made.”

I agree. They are unique, experimental brilliant, joyful, and appear spontaneous. To clarify—the cutting of them appears spontaneous. When you see pieces in person, the speed at which things were cut is apparent through the rough edges, the clunky curves or uneven “zigzags.”

Large piece of contemporary art with stylized images of flowers and a line drawing of a face.

From the National Gallery, Matisse’s “Large composition with Masks.” Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia. No alterations to the image. https://www.flickr.com/photos/shifted/4662154402/in/photostream/

Yet, as the master he was, there was great precision and mulling over the exact way the pieces should be mounted or amassed to create the effect he was striving for in the ultimate composition. On some of the pieces, there are often many if not hundreds of pinholes indicating a repositioning of the piece as a part of embodying Matisse’s vision.

A collage of cut-out shapes in various colors and pasted on a white background.

A Matisse Cut-out. Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia. No alteration to the image. https://www.flickr.com/photos/minneapolisinstituteofarts/

In the blog post, Kessler continues, “Matisse described his new medium in a 1952 interview with André Verdet (Pretiges de Matisse): ‘… drawing with scissors on sheets of paper colored in advance, one movement linking line with color, contour with surface.’ Cut-outs are simultaneously drawing and painting.”

For most of us to really “see” the silhouette, the outside shape, is challenging. Things are always moving. The color of the world is distracting to “reading” the edge. We cannot separate the foreground from middle ground and background. So I am constantly astonished by the exacting and stunning work of a good friend of mine, Joy Yarbrough, who among other things, is a silhouette artist.

She describes how she sees her vision to work on a silhouette of a person, “I block out details and see the basic outline of the person’s profile…much like a person’s shadow. When I am cutting a silhouette of someone, I am trying to capture a bit of their personality, like how a shy child holds its head, or a proud lady.”

“My paper art is chiaroscuro …a study of light and dark contrasts. Technically my ‘drawing’ with scissors is creating a ‘contour’ drawing by cutting freehand a shape with scissors of black paper, and mounting it on white. Whether cutting a portrait of paper or cutting a delicate feather, the outline shape is the beginning of the silhouette.”

Black silhouette of large bird's nest atop telephone wires.

Cut-out silhouette (c) Joy Yarbrough, http://www.joyceayarbrough.com

And, just so we are all clear here…. she doesn’t draw anything, and doesn’t use a traditional set-up we may have in mind of a strong light to cast a shadow. She “freehands” cuts by holding the paper and the scissors in the air while looking at her subject. She cuts the silhouette with very sharp surgical “iris” scissors and archival black silhouette paper.

Standing violin player in silhouette (c) Joy Yarbrough.

Standing violin player in silhouette (c) Joy Yarbrough.

Even with wiggly children, she cuts freehand. And, she has cut “en plein air,” which means outside in the atmosphere, the wind, mist, blazing sun, and deep shadow. With a smile she says, “I’ve cut en plein air unless the wind is really strong, and even in the rain (under a tent) but that isn’t ideal either!”

Cut-out of a feather (c) Joy Yarbrough.

Cut-out of a feather (c) Joy Yarbrough.

Papercutters around the world

Joy describes meeting other artists who use paper as an artistic medium, “Belonging to the Guild of American Papercutters, I have met artists from many countries. Americans are most familiar with German or Swiss Scherenschnitte, but many cultures do some form of paper cutting:

An example of Polish papercutting from the collection of the Lynn Museum & Historical Society, Lynn, MA.

An example of Polish papercutting from the collection of the Lynn Museum & Historical Society, Lynn, MA.

 

An example of Polish papercutting from the collection of the Lynn Museum & Historical Society, Lynn, MA.

An example of Polish papercutting from the collection of the Lynn Museum & Historical Society, Lynn, MA.

 

 

 

 

 

Polish Wycinanki, Japanese Kiri-e, Spanish Papel Picado, Danish Papirsklip (the link is a YouTube video with a song in Danish about papercutting!), Chinese Jianzhi and the Jewish paper cuttings of Mishrahs and ketubot.

 

 

 

 

 

“Visiting China and Poland, I tried their techniques and tools firsthand, using scissors from China which can cut many layers of tissue thin paper, and cutting with sheep shears in Poland!”

Another contemporary American artist who uses silhouette is Kara Walker. Her graphic images boldly present her comment on social injustices.” (The link is from a 2007 exhibit at the Walker, Minneapolis, one of my favorite art centers.)

In her YouTube video, “Silhouettes and Pastels” Yarbrough demonstrates her technique and presents examples of her exquisite silhouettes. On her website, Joy Yarbrough Fine Art, she features a portfolio of her work. Her art has been exhibited throughout the US, including the Pittsburgh Center for Contemporary Craft, PA; St Louis Artist Guild, MO; Highfield Hall & Garden in Falmouth, MA; and the GAP National Museum in Somerset, PA; Worldwide, she has had her work exhibited in Germany and China and it is held in private collections all over the world.

(See LeftBankArtBlog.blogspot.com for more art posts. Also, read the intro to the exhibit on the respective museum landing pages for more about the exhibit. To contact Ms. Yarbrough about a commission, contact her via her website: joyceayarbrough.com)

I am dividing this blog on Silhouettes into two parts. The second will follow in a few days.

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