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November 27, 2007

The Aging Face of Rembrandt

By way of his many self-portraits, you can see Rembrandt's face aging - the color fading, the muscles collapsing, skin sagging and getting puffy, and his expression changing from eagerness, happiness, and even playful silliness to tiredness and resignation (and, toward the end, sometimes also a look of amusement as if he were thinking "Life didn't turn out at all like I thought it would, but you see I'm having the last laugh").

Seeing him age through these self-portraits must be especially intriguing to people who themselves are getting old, but surely Rembrandt's portraits appeal to people of all ages, no matter that the subjects may not be "beautiful" or "handsome," and it doesn't only have to do with the beautiful job of painting he did -- The very ordinariness of the people he depicted is part of their appeal (to many, not to all).

One realizes that Rembrandt painted and drew his own aging face without vanity and even with relish (though never without compassion, which he apparently felt for everyone he painted including himself), for all to see. Certainly he was interested in beauty - What artist isn't? But "beauty" means something different to different people. To Rembrandt it was the finest presentation possible of the truth.

People who know their pictures are being painted or drawn probably all hope to be depicted in such a way that they conform to society's view of how a person of their circumstances (age, sex, occupation, family role, etc. - or whichever of these things they most identify with) "should" look and I'm assuming that none of them wish to appear actually ugly. Rembrandt had to consider these things when he painted other people's portraits, but still he made them look like "real people," not slicked-up and stylized people (men all looking pretty much the same...and quite handsome, women ditto...and always beautiful). In so doing, he gave them something that a fake presentation can't muster: dignity, whether they liked it or not. He didn't leave out "imperfections" that made each person unique, though he didn't make caricatures out of them, either, nor was his point to make them ugly.

He also was able to bring out something of their character.

It seems to me that what he did was to make his subjects look like authentic, unidealized people who had the courage and dignity to accept the way they were. We are sympathetic toward them because we see them as honest people.

As for his self portraits, he could paint himself any way he wanted. He could have lied about himself, but instead he found his own odd features, and aging face, fascinating.

Apropos these thoughts, below is a relevant quote from a (very fat, very fact-filled and interesting) book I read recently by Simon Schama, called Rembrandt's Eyes:

From page 699:

"[F]or Rembrandt, imperfections are the norm of humanity. Which is why he will always speak across the centuries to those for whom art might be something other than the quest for ideal forms; to the unnumbered legions of damaged humanity who recognize, instinctively and with gratitude, Rembrandt's vision of our fallen race, with all its flaws and infirmities squarely on view, as a proper subject for picturing, and, more important, as worthy of love, of saving grace."

Below is a video that does a good "morphing" job on several of Rembrandt's self-portraits, from when he was quite young until he was an old man. It makes use of both etchings and paintings. Rembrandt starts out quite young in this video, and gets old before your eyes in just a minute or two, so that when he is an old man you still have in mind his youthful looks - This makes the effect of aging particularly poignant. Although you don't get a good look at each individual picture, you get a startling overall effect which makes you realize one reason why his paintings of people are so powerful (they are "real" people that we can identify with).

Time: 2 minutes, 23 seconds

After viewing the video, you may want to look at this page, titled:
Rembrandt and his Self Portraits
which has many very nice reproductions of Rembrandt self-portraits. You can see the pictures clearly and take as long as you want to look at them. When you get to the page, click on a small version of the picture, or else the title of the picture, to see it in larger size. It may take a few seconds for the picture to appear then, but it does show up. There's also an article about his self-portraits, toward the bottom of the page.


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November 25, 2007

More on the Art of Camouflage

In an earlier post on camouflage (a very short history of it, and an explanation of why it is an art) I put several links to articles I had read on the subject at the end of the post. I now have three really good new links, which will lead you to articles (with photos) on camouflage, mostly in World War II, but also in World War I.

THE FIRST ONE is a recent book review (actually, a blog post) though the book was published in 1978 and can be bought used. See it here at Amazon.com for as low as $4.23 or see it here at half.com for as low as $2.99 (as of the time I'm writing this). This is a book I'll be looking for in our local library system. Here is the page where you'll find the article and pictures: Military Deceptions

The blog is called: StrangeHarvest - Architecture, Design, Art and More.

The article (with photographs) was posted November 10, 2007. The photos and descriptions are from a book called Masquerade, The Amazing Camouflage Deceptions of World War II by Seymour Reit.

The examples shown in the post (which include a blow-up rubber tank and a U.S. Army headquarters that appears to be a trash dump, as well as several others) are fascinating, and of course there would be many times more pictures in the book itself. As I'm typing this there are still very few comments on the post, the latest dated November 25th (today), but they're interesting to read.

ANOTHER LINK. I really like this one. It's about "Dazzle" (ship camouflage). If you're interested in ships, you'll definitely want to see these pages which are very nicely laid out, quite interesting, and with lots of fascinating old photographs, including pictures of some of the artists "at work" and, of course, many photos of the ships that were painted with a "Dazzle" design.

Besides a link ("Next") at the bottom of the page to a second page, there are several links to other pages (with photographs) at the upper right - Don't miss those. This article is called DazZLe CaMoUflage: High Difference Camouflage (hodgepodge) and was written by Roy R. Behrens (a book he has written on the subject is advertised). One thing that is explained here is how painting ships in such a highly visible way could "disguise" it (something I wondered about myself).

LAST BUT NOT LEAST is a link to photographs of the USS Leviathan with a Dazzle paint job, in 1918. Besides looking quite "dazzling," this ship has a strange history, but what's important here is its camouflage paint job.

Click here to see several photos of the USS Leviathan. This is on the Naval Historical Center site ("an official U.S. Navy web site").

I've added two of the Leviathan pictures below. The first is of the plan for "Dazzle" camouflage intended for the starboard side c. 1918 (slightly larger pictures are on the site, and if you click on them you get much bigger versions). The actual design that was painted on the ship differed slightly from the plan (see second picture below).

Here is a photograph of the actual ship in 1918 "in harbor, with tubs at attendance at her starboard bow."

I hope you enjoy what you find when you click on these links as much as I did.

NOTE ADDED June 10, 2008: Another post on camouflage - with videos

NOTE ADDED February 29, 2008: Here is an article I just came across today that tells about how warships' vulnerability to being detected "has led the military to develop new stealth technologies that allow ships to be virtually invisible to the human eye, to dodge roaming radars, put heat-seeking missiles off the scent, disguise their own sound vibrations and even reduce the way they distort the Earth's magnetic field ...." The article is on the Science Daily site.


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October 23, 2007

Paths and Roads as Entryways in Artworks

Roads and paths (also rivers, and other routes that people actually walk or ride along on in real life) are very often used metaphorically in art, representing such things as life's journey, a spiritual journey, etc. But whether or not they're used as metaphors, they're often used as "entryways" into the picture. There are many ways to catch the eye and direct it around a picture, but a road or path not only pulls your eye in, it almost makes you feel as though you are walking or riding into and through the scene rather than just observing it from afar.

It often starts at or near the foreground, at the point where the artist wants you to begin your "journey" through the picture, and along the way you "feel" every bump and pothole and dip and curve and so on. If it's flat and smooth and mostly straight and there are no obstacles, you feel you're speeding along; if it's narrow and bumpy or curvy, etc., you proceed slowly. The road or path (of whatever kind) serves as a directional arrow that tells you where to start looking at the picture, and directs your eye toward where you're supposed to look subsequently on your way to the main subject. It can also make a view seem very deep, going far back into space.

On the other hand, a path or road can work against you if you put one in the wrong place. For example, if it's heading out of the picture it can take the viewer's eye right out of the picture, too. Also, a path that's going from one side of the picture to the other (rather than "into" the picture) can stop your eye right at that point as if it were a wall, or at least slow you down considerably, making it difficult for you to get beyond that barrier - sometimes you want that to happen, but often you don't. Another mistake is to include a path that goes directly from front to back and seems to "leave" the scene without having made your eye stop to look around en route, as this can cause the viewer to miss the main subject and, indeed, most of the picture.

A road or path or river, or any other type of route that humans can feel as if they're actually following, or riding along on, is one way to achieve the goal of catching the viewer's eye and moving it through a scene in the way an artist wants you to go through it, and very often this kind of route that makes you feel as though you are participating in the scene is particularly appropriate and useful. Of course there are many other ways to bring your eye into a picture and take it where it should go, and often the artist uses some of these other methods, sometimes with or sometimes without a recognizable human-usable "path" in the picture also.

Below are some pictures I've gathered under which I'm going to add my own comments regarding the use (or non use) of paths or roads in these particular views. They are just my own thoughts, so please don't quote me if you are looking for the opinions of an expert. I have studied and thought a lot about this subject, though, so I believe that my ideas have some validity. As I've written elsewhere in this blog, I write for my own benefit as much as for anyone else, in order to bring things forward from the back of my mind to consciousness, where they can be more useful to me. I don't write as an expert.

Camille Pissarro, Caribbean-born French Painter (1830-1903)
The Jallais Hills, Pontoise, 1867
Picture source: Elibron

In the picture (The Jallais Hills, Pontoise) above, Pissarro painted a wide, rutted path in the foreground, aiming toward the hills. This helps give great depth to the picture, not only providing a path to "walk upon" toward the background, but giving a feeling of quite a lot of space between the edge of the path and the houses and hills beyond. The path quickly curves to our right and out of sight but there is someone walking toward us right at that point, which stops the eye from going too far, and in fact she's wearing a light-colored dress which is the same hue and value as the sides of the houses and some of the fields in the distance, so our eye goes from her back toward the main focus of the painting, following a "path" of light spots. The curve of the path and also its clumps of grass and rutted condition keep us from zipping along too fast toward the distance (how alarming it would seem if it were smooth and straight, with the obvious drop where we might fall over the edge).

Vincent van Gogh, Dutch Painter (1853-1890)
Village Street and Steps in Auvers with Figures (1890)
Picture source: Elibron

In Van Gogh's picture above, there is a wide walkway that leads us from the foreground into the center of the picture. There is nowhere else to go once on this path; it's almost as if we're being sucked into the middle of the painting. This walkway looks rough and undulating, rather difficult to navigate while walking along; that makes our eyes slow down and look around and we can then notice who's on the path (along with us). Although the path veers to the left in the middle distance of the picture, our eye doesn't try to go left with it because our view of the path is abruptly blocked by a wall that it disappears behind, and also there's a long stairway (in a light yellow color as is the path) leading down to just that point coming from the right background and this then catches the eye. The stairway is very curvy and a man in black is making his way down it with a cane, so although our eyes would normally zip right up the stairway after "walking with difficulty" down the foreground path, it seems instead that it takes a long time to find our gaze finally making it up to the top of the stairs and then falling upon the houses in the background, where we reach a complete stop. It seems that no matter where we look from there -- to the right, to the left -- our eyes want to go back to the center of the picture (where the wide entrance path meets the bottom of the stairway). I think that this is probably because there are splashes of light yellow paint in the foliage on both sides of the picture that lead us back to the light yellow (and green) walkway, which then, again, leads us to the center. So the "path" that leads us from the background back to the foreground and center is a path of light yellow colors. The idea behind the route that we follow through this painting (which includes the path and the stairway and also the splashes of light yellow color in the foliage) seems to be to keep us going, slowly, with much to observe and be careful about, around and around in this scene, making the town seem very cozy (or, perhaps, you might say "claustrophobic") and self-contained.

Vincent van Gogh, Dutch painter (1853-1890)
Wheat Field with Crows, 1890
Picture source: Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Page

The painting above is one of Van Gogh's very last paintings. He was soon to kill himself, and so one wonders what was on his mind while painting this. It looks particularly ominous with the swarming crows, and because the tortured-looking trail seems to end, abruptly, and oddly, in the middle of a field. Certainly the trail adds depth to the picture, and that adds to the drama - It seems to drag you into the center, far away from where you're standing. This path is not inviting, as so many roads and paths are. The way it seems to writhe like a snake doesn't exactly make us want to hike out there, and in fact although of course the picture is fascinating to look at, I think that if I were actually in a place like that (in a bad dream, perhaps), I would want to turn around and go quickly in the other direction.

Camille Pissaro, Caribbean-born French painter (1830-1903)
Boulevard Montmartre, Night, 1897
Picture source: Elibron

Camille Pissarro's night scene in Paris, above, shows a busy street with lots of carriages and people. The street narrows quickly as it goes into the distance, like an arrow, and this could lead us right into the background and out of the scene he wants to show (nightlife in the city, I'd say), but it doesn't do that because all the warm and bright colors and detail in the bottom half of the picture - and the large dark tree down the street (and the general grayness and lack of detail back there) - keep us from looking too far into the picture and missing the real subject. Yet the "arrow" effect is still there (provided by the lines of the buildings as well as the street) and it gives depth to the scene.

Camille Pissarro, Caribbean-born French painter (1830-1903)
Steep Way into Ouney, 1883
Picture source: Elibron

The path in the Pissarro painting above is, itself, the subject of the picture, and so the people and the surrounding objects are depicted in a subdued manner, with a lot of texture but very little detail. It's even difficult to tell whether the people are coming toward us or going in the same direction we are. We enter the picture via the left foreground and follow the narrow, curvy, rough, steep path toward the top of the hill. It looks (actually, it "feels") like it's very difficult to walk on and so even though it is very easy to see and follow, you are slowed down by the realization that you are trudging uphill, and it's going to take some time to get to the top. The textures and the lack of recognizable detail also slow you down because you're trying to make out what's there. Although the dirt path stops well before the top of the picture, your eye continues into the sky area which is the same light shade as the path. In other words, you are continuing on a "light path" from the light brown colors of the path to the light bluish colors of the sky, which takes you to the right side of the picture and back down toward the bottom of the hill again, via the only slightly darker blue buildings. (The cloud forms seem to tug your eye toward the right after you've reached the top of the path, too. I personally see in them the shape of a person leaning toward the (our) right and looking directly at the chimney of the top gray building.)

Georges Pierre Seurat, French painter (1859-1891)
Rue St. Vincent, Montmartre, in Spring. (c. 1884)
Picture source: Elibron

In the Seurat picture, above, the walkway is again the subject of the picture, as well as leading the viewer into the scene and giving it depth. To me there is a great feeling of coziness in this painting, because of the enclosed, protected feeling you get from the walls at the sides of the path and from the trees growing overhead. I wish I were there and could stay in that spot for a while.

Although the walkway continues beyond the walls and you can see quite far into the distance, your eyes keep coming back to the foreground. The dark blue shadow just past the walls stops your eyes, and when you peer beyond that shadow the steps (or are they shadows that have the appearance of steps; it doesn't matter as the effect is the same) slow you down. Besides that, in the far background it is all very light and looks very open-spaced and impersonal and unwelcoming in comparison with the foreground scene.

Ivan Ivanovich Shishkin, Russian Painter (1832-1898)
Before a Thunderstorm - 1884
Picture source: Elibron

There is a path only in the foreground in the painting by Shishkin, above, not leading further into the picture. It looks like it would bring you down to the water's edge. The path is close, appealing, and noticeable enough (notice the brightly lit "point" of it) so that it is obviously what you're supposed to see, and follow, before anything else. It brings you into the picture, from left to right. I'd like to follow that path. The subject isn't the path, however, so our eye isn't meant to stop there. The subject is "Before a Thunderstorm."

The path happens to be aiming toward a tree on the other side of the water that's leaning at a 45 degree angle and "pointing" toward the middle of the picture, which is quite a distance away. That area is lit up in the same way as the foreground, so you'd see it eventually whether or not you followed the path; however you get there more slowly and in a more interesting way when you take the path route rather than "jumping" directly across the water into the background. Once your eye settles upon the brightly-lit meadow in the middle background, you immediately become very aware of the weather conditions (the subject) due to the contrast of the sunny spot in the meadow with the dark stormy sky and cloud shadows.

Paul Cezanne, French painter (1839-1906)
Maisons au bord d'une route, c. 1881
Picture source: Web Museum http://www.ibiblio.org/wm/paint

In the Cezanne picture, above, the subject is "houses along a road." The road leads you right into the picture, giving it depth, and making you wonder what's around the bend. This looks like an expensive suburban enclave to me, dirt road or no dirt road. However, at the same time it looks "cozy" because of the walls and trees, and houses not far from the road, all of which make it seem like you're in an enclosed area that's safe and comfortable - this is obviously a very primitive response to this kind of scene (maybe you're not as primitive as I am, but that's how I always feel when I look at this picture).
There are no people or vehicles on this road, not even a dog or a cat - That's what makes me think that this is a suburb, not a town where people work or go shopping or to have their shoes repaired or hair cut or go out to be entertained.

The gentle curves in the road help make the picture appealing, at least until you really think about what a sterile-looking neighborhood this is. Believe me, I have always liked this picture, and I still do. Sometimes sterile-looking things make wonderful pictures; it depends on the artist.

Claude Monet, French painter (1840-1926)
Magpie, 1869
Picture source: Elibron

The picture by Claude Monet, above, has an "implied" path in it. One assumes that there must be one under the snow, leading up to the gate. Gates are like magnets for the eyes, as you know there's something beyond them that could be interesting. The shadow of the gate seems to be where the the path is, to make it even more obvious. Because of the "implied" path leading to and away from the gate and because of the contrast of the dark magpie and gate against the snow, there is not the slightest doubt as to what the subject is (a bird on a gate), even if you didn't know the title of the painting. The fact that the gate is closed helps stop the eye there, too; if it were open enough for a person to fit through, in our minds we would fit through, too and "walk right on by" down toward the background - the bird wouldn't be nearly as noticeable on an open gate. After we've looked at the gate and the bird the eye might well go down the path on the other side of the gate to what looks like a frozen lake, and it might wander around the rest of the picture, but shapes in the picture keep leading us back to the point where that path and gate come together so that's what we see first and last, and that's why the magpie, the subject, was put right in that spot.

William Merritt Chase, American (U.S.) painter (1849-1916)
The Common, Central Park c. 1889
Picture source: Elibron

People don't need a path to gain access to a common, coming at it from all around, so of course he didn't paint one into the scene. In fact, though, this picture demonstrates what happens when there is nothing directing your eye around (though there is the line of trees and buildings in the background which serves to stop the eye from going right up and out of the picture). There is just the grass, that's all, and that is the subject, and so it's appropriate that your eyes stay on the grass and aren't distracted. A hungry rabbit might well love this scene. "Ah!! Look at ALL THAT GRASS!" But I myself look at all that grass and think about how awkward it would be to walk across all of it, and how it's such a long, long way to the other side. I, personally, prefer a view that has a more inviting subject, but I know this is considered by many to be a good painting, and what do I know. There is a message in it, to me: It tells me that there is a huge amount of grass in this spot that nobody is using.

Arkhip Ivanovich Kuinji, Russian Painter (1842-1910)
Elbrus - Moonlit Night - 1898-1908
Picture source: Elibron

This painting by Arkhip Kuinji, above, shows no path at all, and from the looks of things you doubt that there is a path (or road or river, etc.) anywhere nearby that leads to the subject, Mount Elbrus. According to Wikipedia, Mount Elbrus is a volcano that has been dormant for about 2,000 years, and it is the highest mountain in Europe ("the west summit stands at 5,642 metres [18,510 ft]" and "the east summit is slightly lower: 5,621 metres [18,442 ft]").

Although the painting has very little contrast of tone, the mountain stands out because of the white snow (the only thing white in the picture) on it. It looks like everything between the bottom of the picture and the mountain lies in a desert, and the air is filled with blowing sand.

The implied "path" in this picture starts in the left foreground and to me it looks like this "lead in" to the mountain was meant to hold us back and keep us from zipping right over to Mount Elbrus. The artist, in my mind, wanted us to take time to compare the barren, windswept, desert-like foreground with the very tall cold mountain loaded with snow, and so he has these rocky outcroppings of different heights, which look like they're made of sandstone, catch our eye first of all. It seems that he's made a kind of "stairway" out of these outcroppings, but instead of stepping toward the mountain, they step down back toward the foreground so that instead of looking immediately toward the background (and distant mountain), you "jump" from one outcropping to another back toward the bottom of the picture. The bottom "step" is quite a lot lower than the others and so you leap from that one down to the floor of the valley. From there we are led, slowly, via horizontal shadows of different shapes and sizes which keep us from speeding toward the background, to the tall mountain. This slow route to the background gives a feeling of great distance between the foreground and the mountain, and it thereby helps make us realize how big Mount Elbrus is, and how remote it is from civilization. Of course their are other factors involved in giving us this feeling of distance and remoteness, but the "pathway" the artist has provided us is as important as any of the others.

NOTE: The eyes don't usually actually follow a path so much as they become "aware" of that path.  The eyes skip around, looking at whatever attracts them.  As they do this, they become aware of "paths" and where they lead.  The effect is the same as if they'd followed the path from beginning to end without looking elsewhere.


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September 15, 2007

Why Artists are Good at Designing Camouflage

A second post on art and camouflage has been added: More on the Art of Camouflage, and now a third post on Camouflage.

"'Camouflage' as stated in Military Intelligence Service Information Bulletin No. 13, 'is any and every means of hiding or disguising yourself from the enemy; misleading him as to your position, strength, and intention; confusing him so that he wastes his blows and falls into your ambush.'"
Above is a quote from the web page called Lone Sentry: Notes on Camouflage (WWII Tactical and Technical Trends, No. 32, August 26, 1943)

Deliberate camouflage (as opposed to what nature provides, for example animal fur that blends in with local colors and textures) has probably been made use of since people became smart enough to figure out that if they didn't want predators or enemies to know where they were (or if they didn't want the animals or people they themselves were stalking to realize they were close by and about to lunge for their necks or their food), a good way to "hide" was to cover oneself in such a way as to blend in with the surroundings or look like something very innocent (a rock, a bush, etc.), or perhaps (this strategy might have come just a little later than the "hide behind stuff" idea) to throw some rocks as far away as possible in order to cause a distraction. I have a feeling that learning about camouflage was one of the very first things taught to young humans from earliest times.

The point of camouflage is, after all, deeply entwined with such basic laws of survival as: Eat; do not let yourself be eaten and Kill (when necessary, even when not for food) and do not let yourself be killed.

As time passed (and lots and lots of time did pass), surely humans continued to develop better and better camouflage that worked where they lived and hunted and considering what their enemies (and prey) were like, and certainly as their brains got bigger and they got smarter they thought of new "tricks" such as adjusting their movements (e.g., if you're pretending you're a rock, do not move at all; if you're pretending you're vegetation, be sure to sway, in the right direction, when the wind blows), making (or not making) certain noises, devising all sorts of distractions, and so on -- A person just sitting on a tree stump cracking nuts with a rock, letting his thoughts wander, could probably come up with dozens of creative camouflage strategies in one lazy afternoon.

So, one might wonder why on earth one sees paintings showing armies in the 1700s and 1800s, say, where they are doing everything seemingly backwards, purposely drawing attention to themselves rather than trying to hide themselves. They wore colorful uniforms, tooted their horns, beat their drums, carried large, fluttering flags, and marched along (or rode their horses) in neat lines, very easy to hear and see and pick off with rifles or arrows or cannonballs (or whatever weapons they were using).

Bataille_de_fontenoy (Battle of Fontenoy) - Painting by Édouard Detaille (1848-1912) - French Academic painter and military artist.

Could it just be that somewhere along the line men got to be so macho that instead of trying to hide themselves in dangerous situations, they took great pains to show themselves in order to demonstrate that they had no fear (to impress each other, and themselves, as much as the enemy, no doubt? Think about those who are hunting for animals rather than fighting with other people; they are more interested in keeping themselves hidden).

Apparently this is the case at least in part* - but some of them finally realized it was a lousy idea to purposely attract attention to themselves (rather than being impressed with their bravado, the enemy thought they were fools and went in for the kill). And this is where artists came in.

At the time of the First World War, when the idea that it was not terribly smart to let the enemy know precisely where you are took hold, artists were employed by the military to create designs that would transform uniforms, tanks, ships, guns, buildings, etc. in such a way as to keep them hidden from enemy eyes. Such artists as Abbot Thayer, Jacques Villon, André Dunoyer de Segonzac, Franz Marc, Oskar Schlemmer, Edward Wadsworth, Arshile Gorky, László Moholy-Nagy, Franz Mark, Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood, and Ellsworth Kelly, among many others, served as camouflage artists during World Wars I and II.

Artists know how to design camouflage because they use the same kinds of techniques in their art, for similar purposes (though in the case of artwork it isn't a life or death matter). Every time they compose a picture they must consider the sorts of things that must be considered when designing camouflage.

They must know such things as how to lead the eye where they want it to go, how to create a focal point that draws attention to itself and away from other things (and how to make sure there is no unintentional focal point that attracts the eye), how to make things that are in plain sight hardly noticed at all or even seem to not be there unless you're looking hard, how to make insignificant things seem important, how to make separate and even unlike items seem to blend together into one whole, how to divide up something that's really big so that it no longer looks like one big massive item, and so on.

In order to accomplish these kinds of objectives artists have a large arsenal of "tools" to work with, just for example: color (hues, intensity), tone, gradation, placement, relative sizes, angles, shapes, quality of edges, distances between things, textures, linear elements, and lighting effects. They can make things look light in weight, heavy and solid, transparent, wet, dry, close, distant, hard, soft, man-made, or organic. They know how to make things look serene or chaotic (or even just plain confusing), and so on and on.

It must be very interesting and challenging to work on camouflage projects, and being under the tremendous pressure of knowing that what they come up with had better work or people - maybe a lot of people - might die would certainly motivate artists to do their very best. Certainly they learned much that they needed to know from non-artists in the military who knew what needed to be done and probably had some excellent ideas of their own that they figured out instinctively, but the artists themselves were necessary because they could come up with all sorts of ideas only they could think of (having had constant experience trying to achieve similar effects in their artwork) in order to accomplish the goals the military had in mind.

NOTE: (This refers to what precedes the * in the paragraph above beginning with "Apparently")

* Yes, men were making a show of their bravado, but to be honest there were also some compelling reasons for this seemingly foolish way of dressing and otherwise drawing attention to themselves (see Wikipedia article called "Red coat (British army)" and also Wikipedia article on Military Uniforms for their reasoning). However, when ammunition became more accurate and deadlier, and "cleaner" (no clouds of dust produced when firing that hid people), and after airplanes were invented, the military became interested in camouflage.


This us a very informative article at Wikipedia called Military Camouflage

This one explains and illustrates Gestalt Theories of Perception. It's called Laws of Camouflage

Here it tells about the use of uniforms beginning with the creation of standing armies: A Brief History of Camouflage Uniforms

This tells about the artists who designed camouflage in wartime, and also how camouflage has been used by artists since then: Art, Culture, and Camouflage

Here's a good article telling about how artists were employed during the first World War to devise ways to camouflage ships, aircraft, etc. It's called Masters of Disguise

Another interesting site is called Camouflage, Concealment and Decoys Study Guide (armystudyguide.com)


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August 10, 2007

You're making a mess of things - Good - Keep going

Erase what you don't like, or scrape it off, or work it into the drawing or the painting. If it still doesn't work out, start over again. The point is: Making lousy drawings doesn't make you a lousy artist. Think of it as a good thing if you mess up something, as long as you realize it - realizing it is key because that shows you're not accepting your present level of expertise (or non-expertise) as the best you'll ever do.

If you're making "mistakes" it means you're still trying to do better, not that you're a flop as an artist. It means that you're going somewhere. Now if you keep making the very same mistakes over and over and over again, perhaps (just perhaps) you might start to wonder if this is the field for you.

I keep wondering if Ingres ever used an eraser or crumpled up any of his pictures and threw them away. I'm sure he did. Surely he wasn't born drawing perfect pictures.

Self-Portrait, 1822
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres
French 1780-1867

Did Rembrandt ever draw a line he wished he hadn't made?

Rembrandt van Rijn
Dutch 1606-1669

Durer? When he was a kid, just learning to draw?

Self-Portrait - Age 13
Albrecht Durer
German 1471-1528

Rubens? Were all of the great artists drawing and painting perfect pictures already when they were little kids? I don't suppose they were, at least not when they began and for years after that. They had to be enthusiastic about the subject, and dedicated, and work very, very hard at it for a long, long time. They had a talent for it, surely, but talent is something that needs to be developed. You need to be inspired, in "love" with art, have it become the central focus of your life, have some motivation that keeps you going in spite of the difficulties you will keep running into, and preferably you should be in constant contact, while you're learning, with someone who is already an accomplished artist (one of your parents maybe, or an uncle, or a friend of the family, or someone you're apprenticed to) who will be your earliest instructor and mentor. An artistic genius may produce wonderful pictures when they're, say, twelve years old, but that's because they started very early in life and have been hard at work since they began.

How about Vincent van Gogh, who needless to say had talent and even genius, but who didn't know he even wanted to be an artist until about ten years before he died at age 37. His first drawings and paintings wouldn't have been encouraging to me, but he was completely dedicated to what he was doing and just kept going on and on and on. Here's one of his first pictures, courtesy of the-atheneum.org:

Vincent van Gogh
Dutch - 1853-1890
A Digger - 1881
Pencil, chalk, and watercolor on paper

Less than ten years later, he produced this complex and beautiful painting:

Vincent van Gogh
The Church at Auvers - 1890

Surely no artist has ever been more dedicated and hard-working and persistent, nor have many faced more difficulties than van Gogh.

I'm sure that Picasso must have used an eraser when he was young, unless he just tossed aside his ugly messes and grabbed another piece of paper; since his father was an artist (and art teacher), there must have been a lot of paper available. And certainly the first pictures he painted were not framed and hung on the wall ... Well, maybe they were, who knows, but you know what I mean. I read a Picasso quote once where he claimed that when he was a boy he never drew like other children, but (rather) very perfectly ... however, pictures I've seen of some of his childhood drawings dispute that claim. They look like typical childhood drawings to me. (He may not have been aware that his family was keeping many of his childhood drawings and paintings, which are now available for all to see.) He did paint some beautiful pictures while a teenager, but this was after many years of dedicated hard work. "There is no need to follow the customary line of seeing Picasso as a miraculous infant prodigy. Still, the sheer wealth and quality of his youthful output are staggering." (Quote from book: Pablo Picasso - edited by Ingo F. Walther)

Bullfight - 1892
Pencil and gouache, 13 x 21 cm
Pablo Ruiz y Picasso
Spanish - 1881-1973

It seems to me that art is very seldom meant to be a test of one's ability to do everything "perfectly" the first time we try it, and it shouldn't be. It's the results that count. The idea is to have something in the end that is right for what you want it to do. If you need to start over because you have "ruined" it, then start over. Next time you'll know better, and maybe make some "better" mistakes.

If you're very lucky, you can still do something with the picture that you've "ruined," but it will take a lot longer than you had expected it would when you began. I have read many times about how artists have tried (and this seems like a good idea to me) to make their artwork look fresh and innocent as a newborn baby, as though they had drawn or painted with no difficulty at all; beautifully, intuitively, without hesitation. However, sometimes, in actuality, it has taken them many days (weeks, months) to do a drawing that looks like it was done in 3-5 minutes, or years to finish a painting that looks like it was done in a day. The important thing is that the result looks unlabored. It sometimes takes lots and lots of labor, and endless patience and much thought, to get a result that looks unlabored.

If we don't make a mess of things now and then it's because we're not trying anything new, and so we don't move forward - We get stuck in a rut with our art, doing what we do well over and over again endlessly. This may cause us to turn out an uninterrupted flow of skillful and lovely artwork, but we could never progress from the point at which we are frozen (the point where our fear - and perhaps laziness - takes over) and we could never find out what we could have accomplished if only we hadn't let our egotism and fear keep us from moving ahead.


"Unless you try to do something beyond what you have already mastered, you will never grow." -- Ralph Waldo Emerson

"I tell you, if one wants to be active, one must not be afraid of going wrong, one must not be afraid of making mistakes now and then. Many people think that they will become good just by doing no harm - but that's a lie, and you yourself used to call it that. That way lies stagnation, mediocrity." Vincent van Gogh in a letter to his brother, Theo van Gogh, Oct. 1884

"I have learned throughout my life as a composer chiefly through my mistakes and pursuits of false assumptions, not by my exposure to founts of wisdom and knowledge." -- Igor Stravinsky

"Demand perfection of yourself and you'll seldom attain it. Fear of making a mistake is the biggest single cause of making one. Relax -- pursue excellence, not perfection." Lloyd (Bud) Winter (1909 - 1985) - college and U.S. Olympic track coach

"When I was young I observed that nine out of ten things I did were failures, so I did ten times more work." -- George Bernard Shaw

"Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan, 'Press on,' has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race." -- Calvin Coolidge

"Success is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm." -- Winston Churchill

"Failure is the opportunity to begin again more intelligently." -- Henry Ford

"Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better." -- Samuel Beckett

"I've missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I've lost more than 300 games. Twenty-six times I've been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life . . . . And that is why I succeed." -- Michael Jordan

"I've always made a total effort, even when the odds seemed entirely against me. I never quit trying; I never felt that I didn't have a chance to win." -- Arnold Palmer

"Many of life's failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up." -- Thomas Edison

"I know the price of success: dedication, hard work, and an unremitting devotion to the things you want to see happen." -- Frank Lloyd Wright


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May 28, 2007

Subject Matter in Art

A second and third post have been added on this subject: Subject Matter in Art - Part Two and Subject Matter in Art - Part Three.

"The curse of us all is to do what the world calls beauty - not to look with our own eyes frankly on the world." -- Charles Hawthorne -- American artist and teacher (1872-1930)

Rembrandt van Rijn - Slaughtered Ox - 1655 - oil on wood - Musée du Louvre, Paris

If you've wished you lived in a more picturesque place so that you could draw or paint some really pretty pictures, perhaps you should forget about that idea. You may be luckier than you ever dreamed if you live in the most mind-deadeningly boring place that can be imagined, as so many of us actually do. Tracts of houses with a basketball hoop over the garage door of every one of them (but yours, maybe), narrow, busy streets, or big wide busy streets, your ugly apartment building backed up against a wall that's the back wall of a K-Mart parking lot ... you know, the typical kind of place where "real people" live. There are many of us (believe it or not) who don't spend vacation time painting in the Tuscan countryside, but instead just stick around home, such as it is, hoping the neighbors don't drive us to drink with their loud "music" and lack of ability to keep their dogs in their own yards.

It's not easy to come to the conclusion that you're in just the right place to produce artwork that is fine and certainly distinctive, but your chances of making art in these circumstances, in fact, are probably as good as those of anyone, anywhere, if not better because you absolutely must be inspired in order to do so. Whether or not you can create beautiful artwork is up to you, not your subject. Are you tough enough, and creative enough, to grab onto the opportunity that you didn't know you had living in a very ordinary kind of place - and make it work for you? If so, you can do it.

Just don't trust your family, friends, and neighbors to judge the artwork you produce. Trust yourself and trust those who don't look for "prettiness" in the artwork they admire, but for "truth" and "beauty." And make sure that you truly feel that way, too. Start looking for the subjects you have strong feelings about, even if those feelings include "utter boredom" and a great desire to escape. Look deeper than that, though. You have to see things as an artist does, which means you don't just see things but also feel them deeply. And be aware not only of your feelings and thoughts about the subject but also of the aesthetic challenges and delights in it.

It is important to keep in mind, of course, that you cannot be sloppy, boring, and tasteless (some descriptive terms that popped into my mind immediately when considering typical man-made scenery in the area where I live) in making your pictures, which you might think would be perfectly appropriate for the subject matter. In fact, you must try harder to be careful, thoughtful, high-minded, aesthetically involved ... and so on, and never let boring subject matter cause you to make boring pictures - ever. You must bring your "artistry" to the ghastly sights that you confront, and show something beautiful or wonderful, or at least fascinating, about them. Something that transforms them without lying about them, and in fact incorporates the very ugliness that is so appalling.

1942 Chevy truck in Junkyard - One of my own old-vehicle drawings - Please don't compare it with the Rembrandt painting above!

The "job" of an artist is to show others what he or she has seen that most other people cannot see unless it is pointed out to them in a way that makes them really "feel" it. Everyone can see the beauty in a sunset, or a mass of flowers in a beautifully-manicured garden, or sailboats on a lake, but can they see beauty in what's around them all the time, in everyday things? It certainly would help people stuck in the very same kinds of situations as you are to appreciate their surroundings more (and thus enjoy life more) if they could see even just a hint of beauty in what they had only seen as ugly and even depressing before.

"He [the artist] must show people more - more than they already see, and he must show them with so much human sympathy and understanding that they will recognize it as if they themselves had seen the beauty and the glory. Here is where the artist comes in." -- Charles Hawthorne - American artist and teacher (1972-1930)

The Ash Can school of American artists was conceived of by Robert Henri in Philadelphia around 1891. You can tell by the name given them ("Ash Can Painters") that their pictures were disparaged because of the down-to-earth subjects they preferred.

At http://wwar.com/masters/movements/ash_can_school.html (title of page: Ash Can School Art), there is a good description of the Ash Can School.

On this page: http://www.artcyclopedia.com/history/ashcan-school.html (at the Artcylopedia site, which I visit practically every day, sometimes several times) there are pages for all of the artists associated with the Ash Can school. Just click on their underlined names to get to their pages where there are many links to different websites that show their drawings and paintings.

"Take the ugliest object or subject and make it beautiful. Do not look for pictures in nature, get a problem." -- Charles Hawthorne

William Wray is a contemporary artist who brings out the "beauty" (feeling, understanding, truthfulness, beauty - not "prettiness") in his paintings of "ugly" subjects, such as, just for example, a paper factory, a liquor store at night, a storm drain, and views in a cement factory (there are several other subjects, too).

These paintings are not the slightest bit glamorized. The style is appropriate to the subjects...not fussy, not "pretty." These are so good. Maybe I think so partly because I recognize this kind of scenery, having lived in the general vicinity for many years - but, still, that doesn't disqualify me entirely from judging the effectiveness of these scenes because I know what it's like, and I can tell you that what he says about these things seems like the truth to me. This is what it's like, believe me.

When you get to the first page of his site, click on URBAN LANDSCAPE to see the ones I like best. The regular LANDSCAPES are not generally "pretty" subjects, either - They are good, too. He doesn't leave out the telephone poles, for instance, but the paintings are all the more poignant for these "ugly" realities that are incorporated into them. His "Urban Landscapes" really give an artist hope, and belief, that there are subjects -- unique, interesting, "soulful" subjects, right out there in the drab and dreary "real world" that most of us live in.

Imagine this scene - It would work! And as strange as so many people are, the way they dress and odd things they do these days, they won't even notice you. Imagine yourself sitting (uncomfortably, awkwardly - It adds to your "feeling" of the place) in your car with your paints and little canvasboard (or tablet and pencil or charcoal) at the edge of the chewing-gum-stuck, crippled-starling-visited, hot and miserable (or cold and miserable) BORING and mind-numbing, depressing run-of-the-mill mini-mall parking lot and having a lot of fun. What you find to paint or draw is up to you - A Radio Shack with pigeons sitting on the sign over the door for instance? If you have strong feelings or thoughts about something, show people,via what you paint or draw, just what they are - disgust, delight in little things, appreciation for (or just amazement at) incongruities and clashes of colors, the abandonment of shopping carts in any old place, and thousands of other things - You can find something interesting to say about the ugliest subject that you can imagine. That's where the challenge is, and where you can really show that you are an artist, not a maker of "pretty pictures."

And people will see the truth in your picture; don't make it pretty where it isn't, or it will take that absolutely essential quality away.

"One of the greatest things in the world is to train ourselves to see beauty in the commonplace. Out of a consideration of ugly tones grows a real beauty - a freight car or a wash line of clothes may be as handsome as a sunset. Discover beauty where others have not found it." -- Charles Hawthorne

NOTE ADDED JANUARY 21, 2008: I've added another post on this subject (Subject Matter in Art). Click here to read the new post.

NOTE ADDED APRIL 11, 2008: A third post has been added on the subject. Click here to read the third post.


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March 6, 2007

The Artist's Introductory Portrait - Part 2

This is about artists' introductory portraits, again. I'm including several links to artists' biography pages, along with my comments on the artists' "introductory portraits" on those pages.

The basic conclusion I came to in my last post, Artists' Introductory Portrait, about what kind of an image of themselves artists should have on their biography pages, was that "different artists, and different artwork, have different purposes, and what I have figured out would be good for me would hardly apply to most others - They know what it is they want to feature about themselves and their own art."

This conclusion was reached after giving more thought than I ever had before to whether I should have a picture of myself on my own website's biography page, and, if so, what kind, and also thinking about what I've seen over the years on other artists' (and photographers') biography pages.

After I posted that article, I thought it would be a good idea to look at several current artists' biographies and really think about the pictures of themselves they had on their biography pages, and what effect they had on me, and so I've spent hours doing so in the last couple of days. As I found pictures that seemed especially notable, I wrote comments on them and saved the URLs.

I only noted what I thought were pages with effective pictures, so will not list any that were duds. Perhaps one of my next posts will be about "artists' intro portrait duds," but I won't link to those sites nor will I name anyone. By the way, in my long search, I found far more "duds" than good examples.

Nor did I save any that, although I thought they had good biographies, didn't have any pictures at all; but in fact, I want to say that some of the (to me) best biographies included no pictures of the artist. Indeed, I was convinced by those to have no picture of myself on my biography page, or else to be satisfied with the picture I have of myself as a friendly-looking little girl. This is not because I don't think there should be an "introductory" picture of the artist, but because I don't believe that I'm able to produce one of myself that would be right for the job - Maybe someday.

Myself (left) as a young girl - It's better than no picture at all (I think), but not the best solution

It seems obvious that the choice of a "portrait" (sometimes these are very casual-looking snapshots, but you know what I mean) to represent someone (anyone) on their biography page depends on what kind of impression they want to make (and on whom), and it struck me that when it comes to artists these fall into mainly just a handful of different categories (which I believe I'll write about in a future post).

There are obviously many artists, though, of all types and abilities and quality and quantity of experience, and with many different kinds of goals for themselves and for their artwork, who apparently have never thought much about what their introductory portrait connotes about them.

Many put up the most off-putting pictures that can be imagined, and one wonders what they were thinking (just as I look at some of the artwork I've put on my website and wonder what on earth made me put that up! -- Off it goes!). The impression the picture gives is probably not what the artist was hoping for in many cases. I'm sure many artists were talked into using the pictures they include, not having been able to decide for themselves (just as I've been having a hard time deciding on mine).

It's not the person him- or herself who is offensive or irritating, but how they are portrayed in the picture - What is it saying about them? The pictures speak louder than any words that are on the page, and it would have been better in many cases if they didn't let the picture speak for them, it seems to me.

The fact that many people apparently do not realize what kinds of impressions different pictures can make speaks poorly of their artistic sensitivities. At least this is the impression people might get. It's very difficult to get things right, and that's why I'm opting for the easy way out right now.

It happens that I generally look at people's artwork first, and in fact seldom look at the biographical page at all. If I did look at the bio page first, in many cases I would lose interest in looking at the artwork of some of these people, due to the picture(s) of the artist - not due to the artist him- or herself, but due to the picture of the artist. While it might be a fine, effective portrayal of the person when seen in some other context, it is sometimes just plain "wrong" for the biography page.

Links to biography pages with what I thought were effective artists' pictures on them, are below (click on the artist's name to get to his biography page). I didn't mean for them all to be male artists' pages, but that's how it turned out. In a future post I will tell why I think the female artists' pages that I looked at did not make my list!

Artist: Benjamin Shamback

My notes: On his biography page, he has an unpretentious snapshot in which, fairly close up (with what looks like a brightly-lit dining room and window wall in the background) he gazes directly into the camera with a pleasant expression on his face - It's very welcoming ... Welcoming us into his home, or such is the impression, at least. It looks like there's no one else around. He's waiting for us. Maybe we'll sit over at that table and have some coffee.

Artist: Richard Schmid

My notes: He has a very well-thought-out photo, I think. It's small, in black and white, but it's very interesting, doing an amazing job of communicating a few different things quite thoroughly: 1) that he is a dyed-in-the-wool dedicated artist, 2)that he paints in a natural setting, and 3) that his "natural settings" are not in a neighborhood park or out in the back yard but "way out in the woods" somewhere.

It's a small and very busy picture, but his head is right in the center of it and he's definitely the center of attention, and ... he's wearing a beret! He looks very "artistic" as well as handsome, with a beard, too, and a long (woolen?) scarf around his neck to add to the impression ...There's a pleasant look on his face, too, as if to him the viewer is a wonderful thing to behold, bringing a pot of hot tea and some little cakes perhaps.

There's a lot of "life" in the picture - Implied action. For instance, he's holding his eyeglasses out in one hand as if he's just removed them, to see us more clearly, and there appears to be a pencil between fingers of that hand (which says "artist" again) which of course indicates he had been about to use it. The other hand is up at his easel, holding what appears to be a brush as if he was interrupted while painting.

To help drive home the idea that this is indeed a dedicated artist, not a Sunday painter, in the foreground there is an open, paint-splattered, quite large lid to what probably was holding the easel, paints, etc. And you can just see the crook of a wooden cane, too, which gives you the impression he's been hiking about, and didn't arrive in a car parked nearby.

In the background there are lively-looking (because of the angular lines) branches of a needled tree, right behind the artist (doesn't look like a pine, but something like that - a cypress, maybe), and there's quite a lot of depth back into the scene behind the artist and the tree. Remember this is a tiny picture, but there's a lot going on. Behind that needled tree and the artist is a body of water - a lake, I assume (no boats or other sign of life, so you get the feeling he's far from civilization) - and you can see some of the far shore with needled trees down to the water. I can't believe all the "excitement" and "drama" that's in this little picture, and it looks so much at first like a simple snapshot rather than a carefully-composed picture (but it is carefully composed). I congratulate him, or whomever did the staging. (By the way, I'm sure this is meant to be a parody - a comical exaggeration of all things "artistic.")

Artist: Jeremy Lipking

My notes: Also a good photo - Simple, he's looking directly at the camera as if at the person looking at the page, with a look of interest and if not a smile, it's close to one - It's a pleasant look.

Artist: Frans Koppelaar

My notes: On his "about" page - There are two small photos, one where he's standing, holding palette and brushes, with a painting behind him - wearing a hat - He looks very "artistic" (wearing such a hat inside a room) but not snobby - He deigns to gaze right out at the viewer with a neutral-to friendly look; at least he looks conscious of and patient with the person who's looking at him (us).

The other photograph shows him from the back sitting in a lawn chair out in a field, working on a picture. Both pictures to me are just right, and it's good to have the two of them.

Artist: William Wray

My notes: On his biography page he has what appears to be a photo of himself taken when he was a little boy, drawing with chalk, I think. This reminds me of my own picture, but at least he's drawing - I was just sitting there on a step, looking at the photographer (my mother, no doubt).

Artist: Robert Becket

My notes: A small, color photograph, with his body (mostly not seen) sideways and his head, close up, turned (implying that he had just turned his head) to gaze directly at the viewer, with a slight smile, enough to make you know he's aware there's someone looking at him, and he doesn't seem to mind at all. A nice, simple picture, with dramatic lighting on his head, half in shadow (making him stand out from the background), and "looking at him" is a girl in one of his pictures on a wall behind him, with eyes at the same level. I like this.

Artist: D. Jeffrey Mims

My notes: He has one of his landscape paintings rather than a picture of himself on his biography page. Personally, I like this way of presenting oneself on an artist's site. He knows it's about his artwork, not him ... or he feels it should be.

Artist: James Kasper

My notes: He's a sculptor or potter - I'm not sure what you'd call this kind of artist. The site is called Prairie Dog Pottery, Inc. He makes "woodfired ceramics," most very unique and interesting-looking to me. The picture of him on this page shows him seated in front of one of his large "sculptures" so that he appears to be part of it (to me this is a way to show one has a sense of humor). He's facing the camera directly and although the image is tiny, he looks unintimidating, at least -relaxed and not apparently in a hurry to get out of there.

Artist: Thomas Buechner

My notes: Wait until you see his picture! It's a self-portrait, that's all I'll say. It's a surprise. I like it!


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March 3, 2007

The "Introductory Portrait"

"In all professions each affects a look and an exterior to appear what he wishes the world to believe that he is. Thus we may say that the whole world is made up of appearances." -François de La Rochefoucauld - French writer (1630-1680)

Gustave Courbet - Man with a Pipe (Self-portrait) 1848-49 - Oil on canvas - Musée Fabre, Montpellier

On my website's biography page there is a tiny snapshot of myself taken when I was a very little girl. I simply don't have a better picture of myself to show as an introductory portrait. Maybe I can make a good self-portrait someday that will work for that page, but first I have to master the skills it will take to make a "silk purse out of a sow's ear." Not that I want to portray myself as "someone else, younger and (unlike me) beautiful" in the picture, but I'll have to figure out how to make a picture with me in it that will reveal who I am without frightening people.

I sometimes wonder about the pictures people have on their websites on the "Artist's statement" or "Biography" page. Why do they think it's important for us to know what they look like? And how much of a chance is there that one picture - a tiny slice out of a person's life often out of the usual context of that life - can really tell us much, if anything, about them?

Wouldn't it be better to have no introductory picture at all rather than to risk irritating or offending people, or giving them the wrong impression? What does how they look have to do with their art, anyway? Isn't it the art that's by far most important? Does it matter what we think about how the artist looks?

It seems to me, after having looked at untold dozens of these introductory pictures, that many artists (and "art photographers") actually don't give a darn about what we think about how they look (but why then do they put a picture up at all?).

Often he (this is more usual in the case of men rather than women so I will use the male pronoun) looks bored, and very "serious." He looks as if he's thinking that he isn't going to pretend that life is anything but grim, and you get the impression that he's very busy and that he has neither the time nor the inclination to go out of his way to prepare himself for his "portrait," no matter that it's going to be the first (and maybe only) one that many people will see of him. He looks as if he considers the people who come to look at his artwork of no importance at all. (I'm not referring to those who are busily painting or sculpting or drawing or looking through a viewfinder, but those who appear to have been rudely interrupted and seem anxious to get away from prying eyes.) Is he just affecting the must-have "artistic look" he thinks makes him look like a REAL, SERIOUS ARTIST? Surely he can stop long enough to acknowledge those who will be viewing him, instead of insulting them with his lack of interest.

Louise Breslau - Self-portrait - Oil on Canvas - Private Collection

It's not that I think that the artist should pretend to be a jolly person if they're not, nor, it seems to me, should he (or she) even smile at all in a portrait if when they do it in "real life" it doesn't convey the "real person" but rather is something fleeting and rare that pops out only now and then. I myself hardly ever smile. I'm sure some people think I've never smiled in my life, because they've never seen me do so. I smile inside (I actually do have a good sense of humor). In fact, I am an introvert, but I'm sure I have all the same feelings outgoing people have and you need neither pity nor fear me; I feel at least as much joy, pleasure, interest, delight, and contentment as anyone else, I have no doubt at all, but you probably wouldn't guess it to look at me.

If a serious picture (as opposed to the tiny snapshot of me taken in my early childhood) was to be the introduction to "me" on my website, I would hope it wouldn't make me look thoroughly cheerless and self-centered due to my non-smiling and also otherwise uncharming face ... It would take a lot
of thought and "applied artistry" (applied to the overall picture, that is - not a "makeup job" on my face that makes me look like someone else) to give another impression, I realize, but that's what should be aimed for; after all, one of the most important jobs of an artist is to tell the truth in spite of any superficial so-called "truth" that might get in the way.

I know that sounds comical, what I wrote above. One might think I am going to great lengths to justify hiding myself. This of course is to some extent true, but honestly I strongly believe that it is also true that our looks often lie about who we are; we need to figure out who we are and then work around the physical "reality" in order to show, in the overall picture, the truth about us. It's an interesting challenge.

Getting back to my contemplated "serious" introductory picture of myself, I wouldn't fake a smile, but I would attempt to make sure elements of the picture showed that I had a sense of humor (which I do have - It's just other ways of looking at things than is normal) and that my art is made to share with others and for their benefit as well as mine, not just to satisfy a craving - or need - to make pictures that are meant for me alone to profit from.

In fact, I would want the picture of myself to be a small "gift" to people, just as my other pictures are meant to be (the best ones, the ones that I keep; the others are meant to be "good ones," also, but if they don't measure up, eventually they go into the trash; many go into the trash). The gift-worthiness would result from the way the picture was made - the thought and the care that went into making it. I would hope it would be a picture that would be of interest to people no matter who the subject was.

Also, I think that something in the portrait should suggest respect for and a desire to communicate with the observer. I would want it to imply that I was cognizant of their presence and was not rejecting them, and that I had made something for them (the picture) that (I hope) is enjoyable or interesting to contemplate. I would like my picture to say something like this to the viewer: "Please take a look. I hope you like it. It's for you and is representative of the kind of pictures I draw and the way I look at life ... Come in and see if there's something else on my site you might like to look at."

But, of course, different artists, and different artwork, have different purposes, and what I have figured out would be good for me would hardly apply to most others - They know what it is they want to feature about themselves and their own art.

Actually, I think that probably such a picture of introduction is not needed by people such as myself who are not seeking or expecting to become well-known, but are simply wishing to share their artwork. Yet, some people expect to see one, and it does liven up the biography page, and so the tiny picture of myself as a three-year-old is just fine (at least until I come up with the "silk purse" self-portrait described above).


Note: My thoughts about the "picture of the artist" I have been referring to do not necessarily apply to self-portraits, or photos or paintings or drawings of the artists by others, that are not meant to be the picture that is intended by the artist to give the first and main impression of his or her self to "the public." I'm referring in this article, in fact, to those introductory pictures only. In other portraits of ourselves there are other things to consider.


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February 4, 2007

Mystery in Art

Above is one of my own drawings with a bit of "mystery" to it. I wasn't consciously trying to make it look "mysterious" as I drew it, but I thought of it as an intriguing scene (that's why I decided to draw it in the first place).

As many have pointed out and artists have known probably since the first one started scratching with a stick in the dirt (but, I think, not enough artists realize, or remember), if we can see at once all that's there and everything that's going on in a picture, there is no "mystery" to pull us in and keep us there - We look, we see it all, we may even love it, but then we leave it behind and move on to something else because there's nothing in it we need to look at again in order to understand it. ("Been there, Seen that.")

Artwork that has an element of mystery evokes curiosity and maybe even a little excitement - It makes a viewer pause. That's not all it does, though. A "mystery" unlocks the viewer's imagination, makes him or her want to stick around and try to figure things out.

Mystery is just one element the artist can use, but it can be very important as it is likely to trigger a phase in which the viewer becomes engaged with the artwork - exploring, thinking, making connections, seeing things that aren't seen right away (or that aren't really "seen" at all, but are suggested). If an artist is really trying to "say something" with his or her art, it behooves him/her to keep the viewer's attention and interest and engagement long enough so that substantial communication, on different levels, can take place.

Certainly, something that we can't quite make out startles us, gives us a feeling of excitement (you never know what might be lurking in something you can't see clearly), challenges us to figure it out. There is little left on this planet that hasn't been discovered, displayed under bright lights, dissected, judged, and forever tamed (and made into something to sell); it's delightful to find something that really makes us wonder about it.

But adding an element of mystery isn't just a "trick" to get people's attention. It is a gift to the viewer. Mystery is something we all need in our lives -- it makes us feel alive, as if we are actively in collaboration with the artist (it takes two to do this dance), and aware of our inner selves and some of the odd bits of knowledge and wisdom we didn't know lay within us. Also, there's that "thrill" mentioned earlier (a thrill now and then is fun).

An artist presents a mystery by not making everything that's going on in a picture obvious at first glance (or maybe even after a long search - maybe the viewer has to use their imagination and cannot really "know" even after long contemplation). One thing about a mystery - Every person will come up with his or her own unique version of the "solution" as they do their contemplating (or else will give up and not come up with anything).

"Mystery magnifies danger, as a fog the sun, the hand that warned Belshazzar derived its horrifying effect from the want of a body." -- Charles Caleb Colton (1780 - 1832)

"A day spent without the sight or sound of beauty, the contemplation of mystery, or the search of truth or perfection is a poverty-stricken day; and a succession of such days is fatal to human life." -- Lewis Mumford (1895-1990).


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