One January day the wordsmith came by bringing me “A Shakespearean Botanical,” a beautiful little volume by Margaret Willes. In it woodcut illustrations from the 1597 herbal by John Gerard accompany quotations from Shakespeare. Willes also includes bits about the medical and cooking uses of plants and gardening in Tudor England. She mentions a new theory that Gerard and Shakespeare were friends, certainly they were contemporaries.
Willes has much respect for Shakespeare’s familiarity with plants, and she’s plucked lines from the plays containing familiar names – rosemary, roses, and rue – and less familiar, long purples and mandrake.
Many criticize Gerard’s illustrations for inaccuracy (they are copies of copies of woodcuts from continental sources), but in this lovely volume they are regular and rhythmic illustrations. Willes uses the copy owned by the Bodelian Library as source material, and notes that perhaps because of copper in the pigments, colors in leaves have sometimes turned from green to turquoise.
Looking at these five hundred year-old woodcuts I think of the flowers that remain the same – violets and the tiny daisies in our scrubby lawn. But also I think about the changed nature of others like primroses, colorful offerings outside the grocery store this time of year.
So Gerard’s illustrations will be my starting point for February days with a line (or more specifically brushstroke). In the tradition of medieval woodcut artists, I’ll copy – not for accuracy but to see where it takes me.
A good way to have a good time? Spend a Saturday at the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art, in a classroom full of sunshine and students eager to try their hands at sumi-e painting.
The instructor, petite and gracious Louise Kikuchi, told us a little sumi-e lore – about the indelible ink and how it is made, about absorbent paper and brush strokes: “the only stroke you can make at this moment.”
On large pieces of newsprint we copied each introduced character, beginning with the symbols for one, two, three, graduating to horse, cat, willow tree. We finished the day with a landscape.
Each time after we did our best effort on a piece of rice paper (often not so interesting as practice marks), Kikuchi would hold up our offerings and gently comment, describing her impressions of our lines: lively, fierce, graceful.
I loved having a brush in hand all day – making me realize yet again how important it is to focus, devote time, and have materials ready. So if I fix these lacks, posting results will bring some color to February.
And I will use color, because luckily I haven’t a sumi-e ink bar, or I would get sidetracked grinding the bar and making ink rich and dark like Kukichi’s.
For years I had a print ad for the venerable Art Students League on my wall. Below a small line drawing was the art school’s motto: “Nulla Dies Sine Linea” – “No Day Without a Line.”
So when I read about the book, “Art Students League of New York On Painting: Lessons and Mediums, Styles, and Methods” by James L. McElhinney and the instructors of the Arts Students League of New York (offered by “Blogging for Books”), I was curious. I spent several days in January reading with pleasure this hefty volume and taking notes.
Written by instructors at the school, the book is divided into three sections with different formats: Lessons and Demos, Advice and Philosophies and Interviews. Two-page spreads titled Lessons in Print give instructions about accomplishing particular paintings. Writings by these different people provide an expansive view of the history of painting, introduce artists (both traditional and innovative), describe techniques, inspirations, and studios, and reveal working and teaching methods.
While they share technical details, much of the pleasure comes from painters’ revelations about the underpinnings of a life in art. They speak of artistic awakenings, (many were struck at a young age by an experience at a museum), paths to becoming an artist, and methods of work. Pages of the artists’ paintings are followed by a gallery of images from accomplished students. The reproduced art, both lavish and beautiful, often fills the page.
Much about art and painting is to be learned from this book, because artists accustomed to communicating describe the making of paintings. With some the artspeak gets thick – but others deliver words of wisdom. Sharon Sprung who paints figures and gorgeous textiles says: “My advice to everyone is to look harder, look more than you paint. Immerse yourself in the visual world. Ask a lot of yourself, but without negativity and self-doubt. You need to risk being wrong if you ever want to be right.”
James L. McElhinney, the author, works in the field and paints in long skinny Moleskine books, making visual journals. Of artists and sketchbooks he writes: “The greatest benefit of journal work may be that it returns painting to a devotional scale – an environment in which painting can be experienced on an individual level where painters and viewers might pursue more intimate conversations.”
Near the end is an interview with Knox Martin, an artist who vehemently distinguishes drawing from sketching. He answers a question this way: “One lovely thing I do: I had a botanical print because it’s descriptive of the plant itself. Every stem and joint is exactly, honestly detailed.” He describes drawing from the print in pen and ink and then enlivening it by extending leaves and pushing stems – “Without making it unrecognizable, the leaves and folds began to rotate this way and that until the whole rectangle was activated.”
Martin is an abstract painter, and no image accompanies his words, but words, descriptions in a good book, can inspire – set one off on a new path!
(Following the example of blogger friends, I signed up for and received this book from the “Blogging For Books” program in exchange for an honest review. More information about the book here.)