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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A "New" Technique For Accuracy

At the Florence Academy of Art they teach the Sight-Size Method, a technique used in the 15th to 18th Century ateliers that allows artists to capture their subject in the exact size that it appears. Basically you set up your easel at a desired distance (the closer to the model the more life sized it will be) and take several steps back. From this vantage point, where the model and your easel are perceived on the same plane, you can begin to translate your view in a one to one ratio. Many artists use tools, like plumb lines (a piece of string with a weight tied to the end so it hangs perfectly vertical) so they can properly see the proportions of where things lie in relation to eachother. Some even use sticks for measuring and black mirrors to properly gauge shadow and light relationships. Once you have a perfect outline of the form then you can start blocking in shadows.

The process is incredibly tedious, involving an observation from the vantage point (feet squared, back straight, arms locked into the correct position for measuring!), walking up to the paper, placing the mark from memory and then returning to the exact same vantage point to observe again to make sure you made a correct mark. Then returning to your easel to make corrections. Try this back and forth for 3 hours with a live model who inevitably is moving. Just the slightest inch of weight change and your drawing is no longer accurate! Oooof.

Of course all of this painstaking work is only for a prepatory drawing that will then be transferred to canvas so that when the painting process begins all the quarks have been worked out. So it's all about simplicity and clarity of outline and where blocks of shadow fall within the form. You're not making a pretty drawing, just a mechanical rendition for plotting a painting. That has been the hardest part for me to get over.

I've been working from live models for years under a completely different philosophy. In Paris I learned to paint the live figure intuitively, to use every contour line to express the model's interior energy. A hard line that separates form in light and shadow doesn't really exist when the transitions always blur in living movement. Even as a small child I specifically remember the moment when, adhering to coloring within the lines in my cartoon book, I searched in vain for my own outline. 

Needless to say the past two days have been intense. The physical exhaustion of standing and walking back and forth from vantage point to easel is compounded a thousandfold by the mental concentration needed for such an exercise. They say master chess players burn 5,000 calories just thinking. I wonder what an artist burns just looking?! I can probably eat all the gelato my heart desires.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Paint is Liquid Thought

"Paint records the most delicate gesture and the most tense. It tells whether the painter sat or stood or crouched in front of the canvas. Paint is a cast made of the painter's movements, a portrait of the painter's body and thoughts. The muddy moods of oil paints are the painter's muddy humors, and its brilliant transformations are the painter's unexpected discoveries. Painting is an unspoken and largely unrecognized dialogue, where paint speaks silently in masses and colors and the artists responds in moods. All those meanings are intact in the paintings that hang in museums: they preserve the memory of the tired bodies that made them, the quick jabs, the exhausted truces, the careful nourishing gestures. Painters can sense those motions in the paint even before they notice what the paintings are about. Paint is water and stone, and it is also liquid thought. "    ~James Elkins from What Painting Is

Monday, June 28, 2010

First morning in Firenze

Mornings always make me wince. The alarm demands attention and groggy confusion beats routine against the clock of the work day. Even the physical comfort of warm blankets become a source of guilt when lingering there only postpones the inevitable beginning to the day. But not this morning. 

Today I awoke to birds’ song and a pink sunrise over the foggy hills.  Little black angular bodies with their wings sharp and alert, pitched and dived over the terra cotta tiled roofs.  Just lying in bed and observing didn’t even occur to me... with my camera already in hand  I wandered to every window in the apartment I will call home for the next five weeks, 3 cats in tow rubbing against my bare feet. From the kitchen I watched the sun grace the city, catching at the uneven lines of tiling and puckering the peeling plaster. The gardens remained dark in the shadowed courtyards creating beautiful boundaries between morning and night. And just as the sun wrapped the Duomo in a cloth of pale gold, the first bells began.  A perfect morning in Florence.

It’s interesting to me how we become accustomed to a daily routine and how easily we take things for granted. In the absence of a favorite cup or the smell of one’s own in the blankets,  even making breakfast away from home (tea and crackers smothered in ricotta cheese)  becomes something entirely new and exciting. Living in a foreign country is a process of discovery in the smallest of things... from how differently even milk tastes to the unbelievable gratitude that can abound in finding a portable fan tucked away in the back room.