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Coloring in the Lines and Other Tales of Gothic Horror

I haven't shown this blog any love for a long time, mostly because I've been in a rigorous Teacher Training Program at Prima Materia. I've been immersed in many styles of painterly expression, art history, the neuropsychology of art, pedagogy, and an amazing journey of self-discovery.

What I haven't been doing is...pretty much, "my own thing." And when I don't DO "my own thing," I certainly don't have time to promote it or write about it.

But since buffing and spiffing dis here website is part of my Teacher Training Program, I thought I would write about a particular formative part of it--Copying Masterworks.

We were each given the challenge of copying three masterworks: a Renaissance or Baroque piece, an Impressionist or Post-Impressionist, and a Contemporary or Abstract painting. They all had to be done in large scale, no smaller than 48 x 60. No sweat. I cleared off a wall in my home studio and went to work.

My first piece, Mantegna's foreshortened Christ (circa 1500) was a challenge, but enjoyable, employing my typical layered application of paint. Here it is:

My second piece, Van Gogh's "Olive Trees," was actually enjoyable to reproduce! I've copied Van Gogh before, but never on this grand scale. I loved trying to decipher how he took his little directional paint jabs and Nike swoops and created large-scale comic book "pixels" that trick us into seeing the colors he wanted us to see. Here is my knock-off:

Finally it came time to tackle my Abstract. With heady confidence, having slain the first two dragons, I accepted the challenge of Kandinsky's 1940 "Various Parts." I was promised that copying this piece would enhance several skills, namely fine drawing, detail precision, and the thin application of paint. Also, I am not normally an abstract painter, so it's very hard for me to get stoked about a subject unless it has meaningful people or places in it. Here is my finished reproduction, so you'll know what I'm whining about:

After cutting the canvas and carefully ruling and taping off the sections, I reproduced Kandinsky's color blocks as closely as possible. Careful inspection revealed a slight "faux finish" on several of the color fields, which I scumbled in confidently with a dry brush.

Then the fun (spelled H-E-L-L) began. I knew that there was no way I could free hand all these little retinal floaters and microbes, I traced a transparency and projected it, transferring the projected lines with charcoal. (Hey, don't judge me! I'll bet some of YOU wear Spanx with evening wear. I don't. So there. Nyahh. We'll talk about CHEATING in a later post.)

After an interminable, mind-numbing eternity of tracing, I began filling in the larger blanks.

"This is just like a coloring book," said my brain. "You've done this before." I turned on the Grateful Dead Channel and went to town. Three hours later, I stood back and looked. To my utter dismay, it didn't appear as if I had done ANYTHING!

There were just so many layers of detail upon detail, that it seemed after a couple of these marathon sessions that I would never be able to complete it. There was no chance of engagement, flow, or transcendence, since I had no emotional attachment to the subject. In fact, this piece is as dry as Mr. Bily's 8th grade algebra class!

I hit bottom on a Saturday afternoon. I had Tom Petty's Buried Treasures blaring and was, perhaps a tad overcaffeinated, because my already spastic right hand was delivering a not-so-helpful intention tremor, reminiscent of Woody Guthrie in the later phases of Huntington's disease. Not only was I blurring all the little lines and shapes, but I couldn't COLOR IN THE LINES any better than I could at the age of 5! Tears welled in my already-strained eyes. Thank God I didn't know some of the words then that I do now. Mrs. Ralston would have sent me to the Principal's office for a good talking to.

The next day, Sunday, I came down with a virus and was legitimately febrile. I thought, "What better time to tackle something that makes me feel awful than when I already feel like death?" So I blitzed it. I got out my not-so-secret weapons: the script liner and the Q-Tip. Sometime during that 8-hour session, I had a breakthrough. When I was straining to see all the microscopic details in black on the raw sienna background, I realized that it's just what we would call today a ZEN DOODLE! So I joyously Zen Doodled that portion, using my photo as a mere guide!

The whole mood had changed! Now it was MY PAINTING!

That breakthrough pulled me into the zone where I could take on the really little stuff in the lightest bar in the middle that I hadn't even bothered to trace, because it was so small. If I couldn't see it in the photo, I just made it up and harmonized the colors with the rest of the piece.

Here are my takeaways from this experience:

1. Even in a frank reproduction, one can never "color in the lines" enough to obscure the hand of the copyist. The result will always be, ultimately, your work.

2. There are always ways of cutting corners. Q-Tips are invaluable when doing detail work.

3. If you can't see it, fake it.

Here's the punchline: I am in love with Midcentury/Eames era decor and have a house full of it. After finishing this reproduction, I was paging through one of my midcentury decorating books and realized that the textiles that inspire me were designed at the Bauhaus (where Kandinsky happened to teach) and look a lot like this painting!

What was I so upset about, anyway?

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