DRAWING LIFE by fred hatt


Books for Artists

Most artists could name a few books that have helped to light the path for them.  Here I’ll share some of those books that have been important to me as an artist, with brief excerpts to give you a little taste of each.  I hope you will be inspired to seek out and read some of these books, or to comment here on books that have been important to you.  Excerpts appear below an image of the cover of each book, in regular type.  My own comments are in italics.

One of Annie Dillard’s great themes is learning how to see – a subject far deeper than it might initially seem.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard (1974)

“When I was six or seven years old, growing up in Pittsburgh, I used to take a precious penny of my own and hide it for someone else to find. It was a curious compulsion; sadly, I’ve never been seized by it since. For some reason I always “hid” the penny along the same stretch of sidewalk up the street. I would cradle it at the roots of a sycamore, say, or in a hole left by a chipped-off piece of sidewalk. Then I would take a piece of chalk, and, starting at either end of the block, draw huge arrows leading up to the penny from both directions. After I learned to write I labeled the arrows: SURPRISE AHEAD or MONEY THIS WAY. I was greatly excited, during all this arrow-drawing, at the thought of the first lucky passer-by who would receive in this way, regardless of merit, a free gift from the universe. But I never lurked about. I would go straight home and not give the matter another thought, until, some months later, I would be gripped again by the impulse to hide another penny.

“It is still the first week in January, and I’ve got great plans. I’ve been thinking about seeing. There are lots of things to see, unwrapped gifts and free surprises. The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand. But—and this is the point—who gets excited by a mere penny? If you follow one arrow, if you crouch motionless on a bank to watch a tremulous ripple thrill on the water and are rewarded by the sight of a muskrat kid paddling from its den, will you count that sight a chip of copper only, and go your rueful way? It is dire poverty indeed when a man is so malnourished and fatigued that he won’t stoop to pick up a penny. But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days. It is that simple. What you see is what you get.”

Kimon Nicolaides writes with great passion about the art of drawing, and his approach is about a method of learning that helps you develop your own way of drawing, rather than about imparting his own tips and tricks, as most drawing instruction books seem to try to do.  Nicolaides would be the second thing I’d recommend to a beginner in life drawing study, after James McMullan’s excellent introduction to learning the art of drawing in “Line by Line“, his recent series of posts on the New York Times website.

The Natural Way to Draw, by Kimon Nicolaides (1941)

“YOU SHOULD DRAW, NOT WHAT THE THING LOOKS LIKE, NOT EVEN WHAT IT IS, BUT WHAT IT IS DOING.  Feel how the figure lifts or droops – pushes forward here – pulls back there – pushes out here – drops down easily there.  Suppose that the model takes the pose of a fighter with fists clenched and jaw thrust forward angrily. Try to draw the actual thrust of the jaw, the clenching of the hand.  A drawing of prize fighters should show the push, from foot to fist, behind their blows that makes them hurt.
. . .
“To be able to see the gesture, you must be able to feel it in your own body.  You should feel that  you are doing whatever the model is doing.  If the model stoops or reaches, pushes or relaxes, you should feel that your own muscles likewise stoop or reach, push or relax.  IF YOU DO NOT RESPOND IN LIKE MANNER TO WHAT THE MODEL IS DOING, YOU CANNOT UNDERSTAND WHAT YOU SEE.  If you do not feel as the model feels, your drawing is only a map or a plan.”

If I had to pick one all time favorite book about the work of the artist, it might be Salvador Dali’s “50 Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship”.  This book is, in part, a hilarious parody of such classic handbooks of master techniques as Cennino Cennini’s “Il Libro dell’ Arte“, but its suggested techniques, while preposterous and described in overblown language by a supremely conceited madman, manage to convey a great deal of real nitty gritty craft knowledge, along with a sense of the odd mixture of discipline and calculated derangement that drives many of the great artists.

50 Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship, by Salvador Dalí (1948)

“The apprentice’s Secret Number 22 is that of the drawing of the geodesic lines of his model.  Nothing will reveal itself more useful for the understanding of the mysteries of the nude figure than the knowledge to be derived from the assiduous practice of this method.  Preferably you must choose a plump model, the curves of whose flesh are as turgescent as possible.  The best poses for this are the recumbent ones.  You need a provision of strings of back cotton which have been previously soaked in lnseed oil to which venetian turpentine has been added, in a proportion of five to three.  these strings should be hung up the day before using them, so that they may drip off the excess oil, but without drying altogether.  Once the model is lying down in the pose which you desire you begin cautiously to lay the strings on the model’s body in the places where you wish a clearer indication of the forms.  the curve which these strings adopt will naturally be the geodesic lines of the surface which you want made clear.  You may then draw your nude, but especially these geodesic lines which, if they are in sufficient quantity, will suffice – even should you efface the nude – to imprint its absent volume.”

Qualia, the subjective aspects of experience, have become a major problem in the philosophy of mind.  For example, a physicist can tell you that different colors are simply different wavelengths of light, and that theory can be proven by experiment, but a difference of wavelength does not account for the very different impressions made on us by red and blue.  Wittgenstein was one of the first philosophers to tackle this subject.  This posthumously published book consists mostly of question after question about what we can know and what we should doubt.

Remarks on Colour, by Ludwig Wittgenstein (1978)

“‘The colours’ are not things that have definite properties, so that one could straight off look for or imagine colours that we don’t yet know, or imagine someone who knows different ones than we do.  It is quite possible that, under certain circumstances, we would say that people know colours that we don’t know, but we are not forced to say this, for there is no indication as to what we should regard as adequate analogies to our colours, in order to be able to say it.  This is like the case in which we speak of infra-red ‘light’; there is a good reason for doing it, but we can also call it a misuse.  And something similar is true with my concept ‘having pain in someone else’s body’.”

Josef Albers’ “Interaction of Color” is based on his course for artists, a series of experiments that powerfully demonstrate the relativistic nature of color perception.  There are many books for artists about understanding color, but none are as illuminating as Albers.

Interaction of Color, by Josef Albers (1963)

“Imagine in front of us 3 pots containing water, from left to right:
WARM        LUKEWARM        COLD
When the hands are dipped first into the outer containers, one feels – experiences – perceives – 2 different temperatures:
WARM (at left)                (at right) COLD
Then dipping both hands
into the middle container,
one perceives again
2 different temperatures,
this time, however,
in reversed order
(at left) COLD – WARM (at right)
though the water is neither of these temperatures, but of another, namely
Herewith one experiences a discrepancy between physical fact and psychic effect called, in this case, a haptic illusion – haptic as related to the sense of touch – the haptic sense.
In much the same way as haptic sensations deceive us, so optical illusions deceive.  they lead us to “see” and to “read” other colors than those with which we are confronted physically.”

Here are a pair of classic books of art appreciation.  John Berger’s writings aim to expand the ways we think about the artwork we see.

Ways of Seeing, by John Berger (1972)

“Original paintings are silent and still in a sense that information never is.  Even a reproduction hung on a wall is not comparable in this respect for in the original the silence and stillness permeate the actual material, the paint, in which one follows the traces of the painter’s immediate gestures.  This has the effect of closing the distance in time between the painting of the picture and one’s own act of looking at it.  In this special sense all paintings are contemporary.  Hence the immediacy of their testimony. Their historical moment is literally there before our eyes.  Cézanne made a similar observation from the painter’s point of view.  ‘A minute in the world’s life passes!  To paint it in its reality, and forget everything for that!  To become that minute, to be the sensitive plate . . . give the image of what we see, forgetting everything that has appeared before our time . . . ‘  What we make of that painted moment when it is before our eyes depends upon what we expect of art, and that in turn depends today upon how we have already experienced the meaning of paintings through reproductions.”

About Looking, by John Berger (1980)

(On Grünewald’s Altarpiece)
“. . . the European tradition is full of images of torture and pain, most of them sadistic.  How is it that this, which is one of the harshest and most pain-filled of all, is an exception?  How is it painted?
It is painted inch by inch.  No contour, no cavity, no rise within the contours, reveals a moment’s flickering of the intensity of depiction.  Depiction is pinned to the pain suffered.  Since no part of the body escapes pain, the depiction can nowhere slack its precision.  The cause of the pain is irrelevant; all that matters now is the faithfulness of the depiction.  This faithfulness came from the empathy of love.”

Finally, recommended for artists’ models, artists that work with models, people that book models for life drawing classes or groups, or students that attend such groups, at this site.  This book is the real deal about the profession of modeling for artists:

The Art Model's Handbook, by Andrew Cahner (2009)


Dawn After the Longest Night

The Winter, 1563, by Giuseppe Arcimboldo


The year’s longest night falls around December 21st in the Northern hemisphere, and the return of the Sun symbolizes rebirth or renewal in cultures around the world.  Italian Renaissance painter Arcimboldo, who anthropomorphized the seasons and elements as grotesque heads composed of bits of flora and fauna, here reveals the face of Winter in gnarly roots and gray bark, with hair of ivy and lips of fungus, but includes a lemon, surely a sign of the sun.  This shows the promise of returning light and life, of which our understanding of the nature of cycles gives us faith.  In the famous “yin/yang”, the Asian emblem of cyclic nature, the yin contains a little seed of yang, and vice versa, telling us that all dualities are cyclic and each extreme contains the potential of its own reversal.The Winter Solstice is the scientific name for the moment of the Earth’s maximum axial tilt away from the Sun.  On Earth we experience it as the shortest daylight and longest night, and the Sun’s lowest path across the sky, the effect the more extreme the farther one is from the equator.  This photograph combines 43 exposures over the course of a day to show the low southern arc of the Winter Solstice sun looking over the Tyrrhenian Sea, the Mediterranean area between the Italian peninsula and the islands of Corsica and Sardinia.  (Of course the Southern Hemisphere’s Winter Solstice is the Northern Hemisphere’s Summer Solstice, and vice versa.) 

Tyrrhenian Sea and Solstice Sky, 2005, photo by Danilo Pivato


The cycles of the heavenly bodies were among the first natural phenomena to be understood with scientific precision.  Artifacts like the Mayan Calendar or the Antikythera Mechanism show that these celestial cycles engaged the most sophisticated minds of ancient times.  While theories of the function of Stonehenge and other megalithic monuments as astronomical observatories are disputed by scholars, new evidence shows that prehistoric peoples conducted ritual sacrifices at these sites around the time of the Winter Solstice. 

Stonehenge Winter Solstice, photographer unknown


Walking a Labyrinth is another ancient ritual that has seen revival in our time.  In walking meditation, the convolutions of the labyrinth provide a physical experience of cycles, of gradual penetration to the depths and re-emergence.  Below is a labyrinth made out of candles, which are themselves symbols of the survival of light through the darkness, set up for a contemporary Winter Solstice festival

Labyrinth of Light, Secret Lantern Society Winter Solstice Lantern Festival, Vancouver, photographer unknown


The most popular holiday of classical Rome was the Saturnalia, a seven-day period around the Winter Solstice when king of the gods Jupiter ceded his throne to Saturn, god of harvest.  It was a time for the reversal of social roles, when servants played at bossing the masters and feasting and revelry replaced work.  We still keep a bit of this spirit alive in Saturn’s day, Saturday, the day to play. 

Saturnus, 1592, by Polidoro Caldara da Caravaggio


In a work of satirist Lucian of Samosata, Saturn says, “Mine is a limited monarchy, you see. To begin with, it only lasts a week; that over, I am a private person, just a man in the street. Secondly, during my week the serious is barred; no business allowed. Drinking and being drunk, noise and games and dice, appointing of kings and feasting of slaves, singing naked, clapping of tremulous hands, an occasional ducking of corked faces in icy water,–such are the functions over which I preside. But the great things, wealth and gold and such, Zeus [Jupiter] distributes as he will.”  (source of quote) 

In the fourth century, when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, authorities knew it was hopeless to stop people celebrating Saturnalia, so they simply changed the name of the holiday – to Christmas

Saturnalia, 1909, by Ernesto Biondi, Jardín Botánico de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires, photo by Daniel Smiriglio


In the Christian era, the central image of the coming of light into the darkness became the Holy Nativity, or birth of Jesus, God made flesh, in a stable for livestock.  Thousands of paintings depict the scene. Giotto’s fresco of the event is stark and simple. 

Nativity, 1304-06, by Giotto di Bondone, Cappella Scrovegni, Padua


Botticelli’s visionary manger scene combines celestial beauty with apocalyptic elements, a version in which the light is on the surface and something darker emerges only on closer inspection. 

Mystic Nativity, 1500, by Sandro Botticelli


By the 17th century, an aesthetic of realism is emerging.  Georges de la Tour, the master of candlelight effects, gives us this intimate grouping around the peaceful sleeping infant. 

Adoration of the Shepherds, 1644, by Georges de la Tour


Proto-psychedelic painter Abdul Mati Klarwein painted this 1960’s “Nativity”, a post-nuclear, pop art, new age vision of a birth of new consciousness.  The yin-yang symbol is there, beneath the legs of the central figure.  (Note that the de la Tour painting is roughly right in the middle between the Giotto and the Klarwein on the art history timeline.) 

Nativity, 1961, by Mati Klarwein


In contemporary American culture, Christmas is a complex and contested amalgam of Christian, pagan, and commercial elements.  The central figure is no longer the baby Jesus but the jolly old Santa Claus.  Santa Claus is himself derived from multiple cultural traditions, some surprisingly devilish.  The very name “Santa”, of course, is an anagram for the name of the Prince of Darkness.  David Sedaris has written hilariously about European Christmas legends that may be surprising to Americans. 

Our contemporary image of the jolly old elf can be traced back to Clement Clarke Moore‘s “The Night Before Christmas”, and to the illustrations of the great political cartoonist Thomas Nast, originator of the Republican Elephant and Democratic Donkey. 

Santa Claus, 1881, by Thomas Nast, published in Harper's Weekly


Another icon of the Winter Solstice holiday season is the New Years Baby, popularized by the great illustrator J. C. Leyendecker in annual Saturday Evening Post covers.  For an image of rebirth, I’ll leave you with this awakening infant from an earlier era, troubled like our own.  May you and the 2011 baby face the coming year with innocence and the power of growth!  Blessed Solstice, Io Saturnalia, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all! 

New Year's Baby, 1938, by J. C. Leyendecker for the New York Post


All illustrations in this post were found on the web.  Clicking on the images links to their source.


Forces in Black and White

Biomass, 2010, by Fred Hatt

Drawing with ink and brush is more like ice skating than it is like walking.  The lack of friction frees the movement to express the bliss of bodily momentum, making great looping explorations of space.  Smaller strokes can zigzag or oscillate.  If you think of the large flowing lines as low frequencies and the small vibrating ones as high frequencies, there’s a kind of musical sense of harmony and timbre going on in these ink brush drawings.

Equus, 2010, by Fred Hatt

Because of my regular practice of life drawing, all the lines I make have the curves of organic forms and the energy of living movement.

Leaping, 2010, by Fred Hatt

Sometimes Asian calligraphy shows this kind of loose, dashing, impulsive stroke.  The drawing above is inspired by looking at people dancing.  The simple brush strokes suggest figures but communicate their energy while only suggesting their form.  The drawing below uses the same simplified strokes but is drawn more slowly and composed more consciously.  Here you can make out many figures and fragments of figures.  Some of the brush strokes may belong to more than one figure.

Community, 2010, by Fred Hatt

Combining the musical abstract approach and the calligraphic figurative approach produces more ambiguous images.  I often like to keep the figurative elements of the drawing from getting too specific.  Something that can be read in more than one way is more evocative.

Leda, 2010, by Fred Hatt

Every vertebrate is a snake at its core.  Sometimes in movement we can experience a hint of that slippery freedom.

Sinuosity, 2010, by Fred Hatt

Smooth and constant motion is inertia, the same as stillness.  We experience movement only through changes in direction or through acceleration or deceleration.  As in every aspect of experience, change is fundamental.

Breast Momentum, 2010, by Fred Hatt

All of these ink drawings were made at GreenSpace in Queens, New York, during their Cross Pollination events, open sessions where the studio is made available for free improvised music, dance and art.  The drawings are infused with the energy of the music I’m hearing or the moving bodies I’m watching, or from my own movement, as I tend to alternate dancing and drawing.  The movment is too quick to allow for the kind of figure drawing I practice regularly in timed sessions with models, so these drawings usually go more abstract.

Black Sun, 2010, by Fred Hatt

The energy flows in from the music and dance, and manifests in the movement of the hand and brush.  Another factor, one that becomes increasingly dominant as the page becomes filled with marks, is an intuitive sense of composition, a feel for dynamic asymmetrical balance in the plane of the drawing, balance of light and heavy, simple and complex.

Irrigation, 2010, by Fred Hatt

The elemental forces of the world are constantly moving and changing.  We move to be a part of the process, and we draw to trace its fleeting passage in a lasting form.  Cycles within cycles, changes upon changes, make a world, a life, a body of work.

Sky God, 2010, by Fred Hatt

All of these drawings are ink on paper, 18″ x 24″.  Other drawings from the Cross Pollination sessions can be seen in these posts:  1, 2, 3, 4, 5.


The Portfolio Problem

Artist's Portfolio Pages, 2000, by Fred Hatt (click to enlarge)

I’ve been focused recently on selecting portfolio samples of my work.  Last week I put together the 2011 calendar featured in the previous post, and this week I prepared my regular application for the NYFA (New York Foundation for the Arts) Fellowship, in the “Printmaking/Drawing/Book Arts” category.  Nearly every artist in the State of New York applies for the NYFA Fellowship, since it’s a relatively simple application and if you get it it’s a few thousand bucks you can spend however you see fit.  I’ve applied many times over the years and never gotten it, and the same is true of most of the artists I know.  (One of my friends, figurative artist Susan M. Berkowitz, won the award a couple of years ago.)  The odds are a bit long, but not as long as winning a big Lotto jackpot.

Anyway, for the NYFA Fellowship in the visual arts categories you submit eight jpegs that the panel views four at a time, projected on side-by-side digital projectors.   The artist selecting work has to decide what kind of presentation will work with this viewing format, while taking into account that the panelists will be seeing thousands of images in a first-cut round that must be rather grueling.

The standard advice is to show a highly consistent selection of pieces.  Too much variation will probably be seen as “student work”.   Now this is exactly the opposite of the approach I took in selecting pieces for my calendar.  There I selected for diversity.  My idea was that by showing a variety of media and styles together, the underlying approach, the sense of energy that all the pieces have in common, would shine through.  [I took a similar approach in the two-page portfolio and statement from ten years ago, pictured at the top of this post.]

I’ll let you tell me whether you think that strategy worked in the calendar selections.  I’m fairly certain it wouldn’t have worked for the NYFA application.  They segregate by medium, for one thing, so photography and drawing are seen by different panels, and I don’t think body painting really fits into any of their categories.  For NYFA, I selected a coherent and stylistically unified set of large color drawings.  Whether they’ll make a good impression when they come up in the numbing procession of images, and whether the particular panelists will respond positively to them, is anybody’s guess.

Picasso desktop wallpaper from brothersoft.com

Going through these decisions got me thinking about the question of diversity of style and media in an artist’s work.  Many of our most revered artists crossed those lines all the time.  Picasso changed style and medium more often than he changed mistresses.  Cocteau, Warhol, Kiki Smith, and just about every really interesting artist you can think of refused to be boxed in by notions of consistency.  All of them wanted to show that the essence of their work transcended medium and style.

Somehow, though, the institutional art world wants to define things by exactly the same lines these artists insisted on coloring outside of.  Grants, group shows, festivals and arts organizations are nearly always defined by some combination of medium, nationality/ethnicity/identity group, and/or some notion of genre such as “minimalism” or “outsider art”.  An artist who paints, makes films, does installations and writes songs risks being seen as a dilettante or as undisciplined.

Some of this is unavoidable.  “Art” is such a nebulous and ever-expanding field of human experience that you have to draw some lines somewhere if you are going to study it or curate it.  I’m just one of those artists, and there are many of us, who naturally respond to boundaries by wanting to cross them.  Indeed, “blurring the boundaries” has become one of the enduring clichés of contemporary artspeak.

In recent decades high-end contemporary art has been increasingly marketed as an “ultraluxe” fashion statement for the fabulously wealthy, that also happens to be a potentially lucrative investment.  Dealers and collectors of important contemporary artists want something readily identifiable, a clear and unmistakable signature style.  Why pay the big bucks for an original Koons if everyone that walks into your place doesn’t immediately recognize it as such?  And of course the dealers lower down on the art food chain aspire to emulate this approach and tend to discourage broadness and experimentation in the artists they represent.

Michael Jackson and Bubbles, by Jeff Koons, 1988

I just don’t roll that way, and maybe I do lack the discipline and persistence that some of the big name artists bring to their work.  I’m in awe of the amount of work and networking it must have taken Matthew Barney to create the Cremaster Cycle, consisting of five very non-mainstream feature films plus performances and sculptures and an elaborate personal mythology.  He sold his boundary-crossing mega-opus by making it so big and compelling it couldn’t be ignored.

I’ve pretty much done art for my own pleasure and satisfaction.  I’ve never seen a clear path to making big bucks or getting a big name without somehow betraying what I feel is the essence of it.  It’s my path, my exploration of the world.  For me it’s more about asking questions than it is about making big statements.  It’s important to me to keep pushing it in different directions and manifesting it in different forms.

This blog is the best venue I’ve ever found for sharing my work with anyone who might be interested in it.  Here I can show the full diversity of my practice.  I can present it in different ways and highlight different facets of it every week.  I can put drawings, photography, video, and ideas in one place.  Of course it doesn’t make any money, but it doesn’t really cost much either, except for a significant investment of my time.

I appreciate all of you who read this blog, because art can be a solitary pleasure but it gains an absolutely essential dimension when it becomes communication.  Thank you for reading, thank you for commenting, and thank you for sharing my work with others!

The images in this post that are not my own were found on the web.  Clicking on them links to the sites where they were found.

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