Week 2 in Italy
2017.01.07 Day 1 Week 2 Today’s adventures included obtaining my temporary residence permit from the Italian Post Office. In March I will receive the permanent card.
I went to the Ai WeiWei show at the Palazzo Strozzi but was underwhelmed. I saw his show in London in 2016 at the Royal Academy. While I appreciate the political nature of his work and respect his fearlessness, I find a certain kitschiness to his appropriations. If it weren’t for the 1,000s of hours by Chinese craftspersons making jade handcuffs, marble rebar and joining wood in time honored traditions to make the map of China, he would not be able to express his outrages. I wonder if these laborers benefit from his largess—and does he pay them a western living wage since, obviously, he is commanding western prices for his work. What the hell does giving the finger to political symbols have to do with art? Why appropriate 1,000s of bicycles to make a geometrically fun piece–why not buy 1,000s of bicycles for kids (like he was) who need one for “freedom”? Not my cup of tea. His sloganeering is trite and plays to the laziness of the western art consumer—too lazy to dig into the politics at the heart of this–and feeling that they have ticked off their “outraged” button by seeing the show. I am done with Ai WeiWei.
On the other hand, I traveled west to Prato, Italy from Florence to the Centro per l’Arte Contemporanea Luigi Pecci to see the “End of the World” show. The museum was founded in 1988 by the industrialist Enrico Pecci in memory of his son Luigi Pecci. It was designed by Italo Gamberini and inspired by the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. In 2016 an extension designed by the Dutch architect Maurice Nio doubled the museum’s floor space. The show was powerful and well curated. The progression from nothingness to emptiness was powerful. At first I was skeptical. I have seen too many philosophizing shows. However, the curators of this show got this one right. While there was nothing traditional about the work—and only a very few paintings that I could relate to—I did feel that I absorbed the message. Humankind is very good at exploitation, appropriation, definition (especially in the Victorian/Colonial age) and alienation. There was a powerful video on the history of classification and demarcation. These elements grew directly out of the colonial period. By “knowing and cataloging” then one can “possess.” I left feeling both drained and contemplative.
I liked Qiu Zhijie’s The Cartography of Humanity (he is one of the main Chinese figure of the world art scene, known for large maps that illustrate the roots of our cultures.) I also was fascinated by End of the World: Head on 2014 by Cai Guo-Qiang. The installation is made up of 99 life-sized replicas of wolves running in a pact which crash spectacularly into a glass wall and then come back and rescue their race. This animal was chosen because it symbolizes bravery and strength coming from a collective action, attempts to demonstrate how this energy can be missed directed leading instead to dangers outcomes for the community. That is what art is supposed to do—move us from the passive to the active.
After getting back to the Central Station in Florence, I walked home. On the way home along there Arno, I witnessed a beautiful late setting sun lighting the west facing façades along the Arno. It was magical. The city is enchanting. I stopped by my favorite corner grocer—getting more veggies for dinner. Dinner was so simple. Pasta with asparagus, spinach, onion, garlic and tomatoes. A very nice Tascante Ghiaia Nera wine (2013) made the pasta concoction even better. Dessert was simple: hazelnut chocolate bar.
2017.01.08 Day 2 Week 2 Today was relatively low key. I spent the morning at the Palazzo Piti seeing the “modern”art (meaning after 1700 and before 1920) as well as the Palintine Rooms. Some of the art was worthwhile. However, the lighting and location of art is not very professional. It is almost impossible to enjoy the art with glare, poor lighting, distant mountings, etc.
I did enjoy learning about Antonio Ciseri’s paintings. The historical rooms were interesting but not the reason I came Florence.
In the afternoon I grocery shopped and cooked. Since I am on a budget, I am mostly cooking my own veggie meals. Two to three days of veggies cost, at the local market, what one or two meals cost in a restaurant (without wine, of course). I am enjoying going to the markets and inventing meals based on what is fresh that day. Today, since it is very cold, I made potato, carrot and fennel soup. After lunch, nap time. Today I only walked 7,175 steps or about 3.6 miles. Tomorrow classes begin.
2017.01.09 Day 3 Week 2 Class #1 Classes began today. The morning was spent in orientation and gathering supplies. The first drawing exercise today was utilizing the Charles Barque‘s Cours de dessin drawings, from one of the most influential classical drawing courses conceived in collaboration with Jean-Léon Gérôme. My first drawing assignment is of the back of a foot. The technique is simple but very exacting. Using a string and plumb bob one “sights” the most important axis in the drawing and then uses this axis as a referent for finding and demarcating key “points” in the outline. By employing a string, held very tight between two opposing thumbs, one can “measure” key points and check their correct relationship in the contour of the drawing. By triangulating these points one can be assured of accuracy to high level. It sounds deceptively simple but even 1/2 mm mistake throws the whole drawing helter-skelter. I spent 6 hours establishing 10 reference points. One can not use a ruler. All done by sight. Luckily, the school allows you to progress at your own pace. I am hopeful I can accelerate and complete these drawing exercises in less than the three trimesters. The class is structured with the Barque drawings in the morning and live model drawing in the afternoon. I have also signed up for an evening anatomy class and two additional live model classes. It was a good first day. Students in my class are from Japan, Denmark, Australia (2) and Qatar. Now time for a Chianti, some arugula and pasta and John Lee Hooker.
2017.01.10 Day 4 Week 2 Class #2 We finished the outline of our Charles Barque‘s Cours de dessin drawing. Mine was the heel of a foot viewed from the rear. While it looks very simple, it was intense to get every point to triangulate and not be off by more than 1/4 of a millimeter. Tomorrow we will learn about shade, shadow and values by begin the 3-dimensional shading. What did I learn from this exercise? Impatience is not a virtue. Moving slow and looking intently at one spot for several minutes transports you to relationships with other points. Otherwise, I was just trying to create the dots to connect. I literally (so it seemed) slowed down the space-time continuum. I am learning that close proximity is not good enough. This will be an especially important lesson when we start life drawings. Faces can vary as little as 3-5 mm in one dimension between features—yet we “see” the unique person despite these apparently minor variations. This exercise is training my brain to look very carefully and to learn how to place a spot in 2D that is seen in 3D. I kept the lunch simple today–almonds and an apple from the COOP. With water, the lunch was $3.96. My kind of meal.
In the afternoon, we focused on quick, 3 minute gesture drawings. At first, we were asked to trace 3-4 drawings. After these were “traced” we then had to sight draw the same drawings and get the scale perfect. But instead of being literal we had to distill the lines to the simplest organizing gestures. We eliminated all detail and made sure our lines included sweeping curves for the large body movement arcs and straight lines for the details like the feet, hands and head (very simplified). This new level of training is really about “un-training” the mind of its tendency to want to make things “perfect” and “detail correct.” There is also a tendency to seek safety in accuracy. The gesture, however, reveals the grace, spirit and current “state” of a body at rest. This technique reveals the important and essential relationships between the parts. This will be especially important as we begin life drawing and have to capture the essence of the pose. The wonderful thing about this process for me is that I am under no pressure to “perform.” This is not contest, or competition. We are simply learning the fundamentals of drawing and painting that can be used, at some point, to transform our own ideas into works of art. Our teachers do not preach, demand or create anxiety through comparative critic. They cajole and encourage but are clear about the goals and, more importantly, the “why.” This evening I made squash, potato and fennel soup and had a simple salad with tomatoes, radishes and bib lettuce. A 2015 Gentilesco Chianti served to smooth out the day.
2017.01.11 Day 5 Week 2 Class #3 In the morning we finished the outline of our Charles Barque‘s Cours de dessin and began adding the values to the outlined drawing. This exercise began by taking three hours to fill in the darkest element of the shadow form with the 3/4 darkest tone in the image we are copying. The resultant infill had to be exactly uniform—with zero exceptions. This will enable us to darken later and to lighten with the kneaded eraser.
After that was finished we began to “model” the edges to begin “revealing ” the three dimensional form. Both aspects of this work are extremely exacting. While I have done pencil renderings, I have never spent 3 hours on about 6 square inches of surface. It was as close to a zen moment as one can get. The time literally evaporated and the results were better that I expected. We had to fine tune the dark areas by using our specially carved Staedler HB pencils with an extender that were sharpened with the sanding pad to a very fine point. Fine enough to fill in the “pores” of the paper. The edge modeling was done by first using a tiny brush to pull graphite dust into the white paper area. Then, with the kneaded eraser, we softened the hard edge of the shadow in fill. Next we used a 2B pencil to feather the graduation in the direction of the form. This first Barque drawing should be done in a few days. Great exercise. I have a renewed respect for William Blake’s apprenticeship where he spent 12-16 hours a day down fine pointillist infill on etchings (read Peter Ackroyd’s Biography “Blake: A Biography” for the description.)
Each morning’s ritual is the sharpening one’s pencils. We use Staedler pencils from Germany. They are wood clutch pencil of various hardnesses. However, we have to prepare them with very long, denuded, exposed graphite shafts that are then sharpened with a sanding pad. This creates a very sharp, fine point. It also isolates the hand from the tip ensuring that we work in “strokes” and not hold the pencil as if we were writing a letter. We use a very sharp blade to whittle away the wood in a tapered form.
In the afternoon we began the journey to do life drawing. We started this journey with “gesture” drawings. This drawing exercise, from existing sketches by famous artists, is about finding the “gesture” of the pose. It is not about drawing the figure. We could not show any anatomy or detail. We located the “plumb line” reference then divided this line
into 1/4s. From this we located, in this strict order, the a) torso, b) feet, c) knees, d) gesture legs, e) hands, f) elbows, g) gesture arms, h) head and then i) neck. It must be done in thiss order. We were drawing an illustration not a person. Of course we all wanted to do a realistic drawing. But this was strictly forbidden! After my first, rather lame, drawing I got the “hang of it” and really enjoyed the exercise. We will do this for a few days until we understand that when we enter the life drawing class we will “finding” the gestures. There are two fundamental reasons for this: 1) the model changes poses, however slightly, during the season and it is, therefore, impossible to “capture” one instance and 2) humans relate to the emotion of movement and the feeling of the person’s relationships. Even though this is a gesture drawing we must adhere strictly to the exact dimensional relationships of all the parts. Humans pick up discrepancy in detail very quickly. I liked the exercise.
I ended day 3 of my instruction exhausted but exhilarated. After class I needed to buy some art supplies (more pencils, a knitting needle for sight drawing and sand pad) then walked home—making sure I got my 5 mile daily minimum walk done. I fixed a nice dinner of pasta with seafood and a squash, potato, fennel and onion soup. A nice Terrelíade Nero D’Avola Syrah from Sicilia rounded out the day.
2017.01.12 Day 6 Week 2 Class #4 Our day began with a demonstration by the founder of the school Michael Angel. As many know, this school is rigorous in teaching traditional, foundational art. Mr Angel began defining realism (a word he confessed to not liking—preferring representational): Realism is not a copy of nature but an image that
looks like a copy. This means, simply, that if your goal is to copy nature you will have a very likable drawing but one without life. The gesture is what establishes the life force in the drawing. It is what is used to render life. He gave us some rudimentary anatomical lessons—including the relative width of the thorax (rib cage) and its relationship to the hip in both male and female. It is crucial to remember that the thorax is not vertically aligned and the axis of the hips is in the opposite direction. In making gestures drawings always start with the torso, then the feet. It is as critical to know the form and to pay close attention to the negative spaces.
After the lecture,we worked on the refinement of the shading values in our Barque drawing. I thought, at 10:30 that I had finished a section—only to be told by our delightful instructor, Ashai, that I was only just at the beginning. He pointed out the extreme subtleties in the deep shadows. So, onward! I spent about 20 minutes per 1/2 inch of shaded area. And did it ever make a difference. Again, I am learning about S L O W I N G down and paying attention to a deeper level. It is both about the big picture (form, gesture, scale) and about the nuances they create the beautiful end result.
In the afternoon we continued with our gestural exercised. Lessons learned: measure, measure, measure. Pay attention to negative space. Watch the relationships between the key elements like the knees, elbows, feet, head, etc, Keep stepping back from the drawing to make sure it looks right. Up close and personal does not enable us to grasp these important relationships.
Dinner was a simple warm-up of the potato, squash and fennel soup with a salad. The evening was rounded out with Notte Rosa Primitive from Salento.
2017.01.13 Day 7 Week 2 Class #5 In the morning I completed the main tonal shading areas of my Barque drawing. It was a laborious and concentrated effort. Getting the overall values of the shades to be uniform was exceptionally hard. The effort was rigorous and demanded such a close scrutiny that at some moments I felt like I was in a trance. Yet what I learned is that detail does make a difference to the whole. Tiny specs of graphite that are too dense must be removed if the overall tonal value would be compromised. What I saw as finished was far from it! After our teacher pointed out the subtleties I finally “got it.” After 3 hours I finally passed mustard and graduated to completing the “light” areas which our teacher described as “much harder than the dark areas.” So, on Saturday I will focus mainly on these subtle and “soft: ares of the drawing. I am hopeful I can finish on Monday.
In the afternoon we continued with gestural drawings but added the “construct” aspect of the work. Gesture is just what it sounds like: to create an impression of the movement, or life, of the model. Detail is not allowed. After three or four gestural drawings we progressed to “construct drawings.” I only had time for one. The goal is to work with the spirit of the gesture but establish the main “turning points” of the contour of the body. Following this exercise, we “mapped” the shadow areas of the pose. This exercise was primarily to learn about how the “bed-bug line” moved across the surface the model. This term of art is simply a way of describing the meandering line for the shadow as it passes over, and thus defines, the physical contour of the model. The shadow can not include reflected light. It is crucial to remember that the fundamental foundation of all great paintings is the relationship between light and shadow. All measuring was visual. We were not allowed to use any measurement device.