DRAWING LIFE by fred hatt


Drawing (the Bow) and Releasing (the Arrow)

Archer, 2013, by Fred Hatt

Last week I reread a little book I first read around twenty years ago. This post is a look back at how that book influenced me in my art practice. (The illustrations between paragraphs are details of artwork that has appeared previously in Drawing Life, and clicking on the images will link you to the posts containing uncropped versions of the works.)

Sheen (detail), 2010, by Fred Hatt

Sheen (detail), 2010, by Fred Hatt 

Zen in the Art of Archery is German philosophy professor Eugen Herrigel’s account of his experience studying archery in Japan  in the 1920’s under kyudo master Kenzo Awa. Awa taught the traditional Japanese art of the bowman as a spiritual practice aimed at transcendent mastery. Herrigel’s terse and eloquent account, which can easily be read in an afternoon, was one of the first attempts to make Eastern philosophy accessible to the nonspecialist western audience. His choice to approach the subject through practice rather than theory helps to show the roots of mystical ideas in down-to-earth realities. The accessibility of the writing has made this book a popular and often-imitated classic, though Herrigel’s own reputation has justifiably suffered because he later embraced Nazism. It reveals the limitations of Herrigel’s understanding – he never got to the supreme Buddhist virtue: compassion. The book, though, makes no moral or political claims, remaining simply an account of a particular approach to the learning of a craft.

Centered on the Feet (detail), 2012, by Fred Hatt

Centered on the Feet (detail), 2012, by Fred Hatt

In my youth and young adulthood, I read fairly extensively (for an amateur) in the literature of mysticism and esoteric philosophies. The first book that set me on that path was probably the Tao Te Ching (or Daodejing), a 2500-year-old masterpiece of aphoristic poetry that opened my eyes to a way of being in the world utterly unlike the modern Western consensus reality. Zen in the Art of Archery introduced me to the tradition of teaching these perhaps unintuitive ways of perceiving via the practice of various crafts or artforms. The movies have offered a pop version of this teaching method through their portrayal of Kung Fu masters and Jedi Knights, but the arts need not be martial – the Way is also taught through the bamboo flute, the calligraphy brush, through dance, poetry, yoga, flower arranging, sand painting, or the tea ceremony.

Drawing (detail), 2012, by Fred Hatt

Drawing (detail), 2012, by Fred Hatt

By approaching these ideas through a practice in the physical world, we understand them not as doctrines that must be taken on faith, nor as mysterious metaphysical mumbo-jumbo that relies on awe for its power. We experience them in our own bodies, interacting with tangible objects and the immutable laws of physics. The practice of a craft, no less than the practice of meditation or prayer, cultivates the spirit.

Dance of Hephaestos (detail), 2012, photo by Fred Hatt

Dance of Hephaestos (detail), 2012, photo by Fred Hatt

My early encounter with Zen in the Art of Archery convinced me that I could use the practice of art to transform my own perception of the world, to transcend the illusion of the separateness of ourselves and the things of our world. Science or philosophy can reveal the oneness of reality to our reason, but only the practice of an art can make us feel it in our bones. Herrigel’s book gave me important insights into how that might work. It sets forth a particular idea of what constitutes “mastery”, but one that can apply to various disciplines of art, craft, or athleticism.

Cathexis (detail), 2002, body painting and photo by Fred Hatt

Cathexis (detail), 2002, body painting and photo by Fred Hatt

Herrigel practiced archery over about five years under Master Awa. Mostly, the study involves endless repetitions of drawing the bow and releasing the arrow. The practice of shooting goes on for a very long time before a target is introduced, and even then the Master never looks at the target, but always at the student, at the quality of his attention and breath, at the relaxation of the muscles. He allows the student to struggle and fail to the point of despair before introducing any “zen” approaches to the seemingly insoluble problems the student faces, and even when such ideas have been mentioned it often takes a great deal more practice before the student begins to grasp them.

Claudia Quick Poses (detail), 2012, photo by Fred Hatt

Claudia Quick Poses (detail), 2012, photo by Fred Hatt

“You must hold the drawn bowstring,” says the Master, “like a little child holding the proffered finger. It grips it so firmly that one marvels at the strength of the tiny fist. And when it lets the finger go, there is not the slightest jerk. Do you know why? Because a child doesn’t think: I will now let go of the finger in order to grasp this other thing. Completely unself-consciously, without purpose, it turns from one to the other, and we would say that it was playing with the things, were it not equally true that the things are playing with the child.”

Squat (detail), 2009, by Fred Hatt

Squat (detail), 2009, by Fred Hatt

The goal of the practice is to lose all self-consciousness, to let something act through you rather than to act from the ego. The Western approach to the arts is all about the ego – expressing one’s feelings, proving one’s brilliance, selling one’s brand. Westerners encountering these Eastern ideas about transcending the ego or becoming empty of self often interpret them moralistically, as “the ego is bad”. The real idea is more about getting your “self” out of your own way, getting to that state that musicians call being in the groove, that athletes call being in the zone, that Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi described in his famous book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.

Ovum (detail), 2011, by Fred Hatt

Ovum (detail), 2011, by Fred Hatt

Those who practice improvisational music or dance with others know that when they are in the groove, changes and reactions happen spontaneously and without any reaction time. Suddenly the whole group modulates to a new key, simultaneously. If you were to ask them, not one of them “decided” to modulate, and no one had to notice the modulation and then react to it. Unconsciously, the “group mind” made a shift, and they were all there, together, instantaneously. Reaction or intention always has a delay, but in the groove there is no delay.

Arcs (detail), 2005, body painting and photo by Fred Hatt

Arcs (detail), 2005, body painting and photo by Fred Hatt

The state of being empty of self, as described in Zen in the Art of Archery is just such a state, except that there is no group. How can there be a group mind without a group? It works when you know that the world itself is the ultimate group mind, with which one can sometimes meld, especially while practicing actions one has repeated and repeated and repeated until they can happen without intention. On the path of mastery, one practices not to gain ultimate control, but to go beyond the need to control, to trust the natural flow of things. One practices endlessly not so that one may be fully conscious of every action one must perform, but to be able to perform the actions unconsciously.

Tropic (detail), 2008, by Fred Hatt

Tropic (detail), 2008, by Fred Hatt

This ideal of mastery as unconscious, effortless, and fully detached from the self is never perfectly attainable, but to keep moving it is important to have a goal that remains always just over the horizon.

Firesprite (detail), 2012, by Fred Hatt

Firesprite (detail), 2012, by Fred Hatt

“Your arrows do not carry,” observed the Master, “because they do not reach far enough spiritually. You must act as if the goal were infinitely far off. For master archers it is a fact of common experience that a good archer can shoot further with a medium-strong bow than an unspiritual archer can with the strongest. It does not depend on the bow, but on the presence of mind, on the vitality and awareness with which you shoot. In order to unleash the full force of this spiritual awareness, you must perform the ceremony differently: rather as a good dancer dances. If you do this, your movements will spring from the center, from the seat of right breathing. Instead of reeling off the ceremony like something learned by heart, it will then be as if you were creating it under the inspiration of the moment, so that dance and dancer are one and the same.”

Liquid Topology (Rereflection) (detail), 2007, photo by Fred Hatt

Rereflection (detail), 2007, photo by Fred Hatt

Zen in the Art of Archery introduced me to this ideal of mastery that has guided my practice of life drawing over the years. I am no master, but I travel on the path of mastery, trying more and more to let go and just let it happen, not to draw, but to be drawn.

Concave (detail), 2009, by Fred hatt

Concave (detail), 2009, by Fred hatt

All the images included in this post, with the exception of the first one, are details of works featured previously on Drawing Life. Click on any photo to be taken to the post where the uncropped version of the image can be found.


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)


A Bolt of Clarity

Filed under: Reviews: Writing — Tags: , , — fred @ 00:38

I’ve recently discovered John Michael Greer’s blog, The Archdruid Report, and while I don’t generally do this kind of post, I simply have to share with my readers my appreciation of his well-written and clearly reasoned economic thought.  He sees the economy as an ecosystem, and shows that ecology and economics cannot be separated.  I think his way of thinking makes a lot of sense out of both recent events and long-term historical trends.  All the articles are fascinating, but I suggest starting with this one.  Greer has been known as a writer on esoteric things like Hermeticism, but the rationality of his thinking on ecological economics makes all the mainstream economic theories look like mystical gobbledygook by comparison.


Art & Fear

Filed under: Reviews: Writing — Tags: , , , — fred @ 20:23

Among artists over the years, I’ve often heard mention of a little book called Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, by David Bayles & Ted Orland (1993, Image Continuum Press).  The title never appealed to me, but the book kept rising to the surface, one of those things artists recommend or pass along to each other, so when it came up again I decided to read it.  It’s only 122 pages long.

The book emerged from years of conversation between Bayles and Orland around the question of why so many artists give up and quit.  The authors are both photographers, but they’ve deliberately chosen to focus on principles applicable to workers in just about any artform, and they are careful to draw their illustrative examples from a wide range of creative fields.

Personally, I’ve been making art for so long that I can’t even imagine giving it up, though, over time, I have experienced all the frustrations and doubts they describe.  As they say, “Making art now means working in the face of uncertainty; it means living with doubt and contradiction, doing something no one much cares whether you do, and for which there may be neither audience nor reward.”  Wow, that sums up the artist’s biggest challenge really well!

I’ve persevered as an artist just because I couldn’t find anything else that satisfied my soul deep down, but if I had had a family making urgent demands of me I can imagine succumbing to the difficulties.  Bayles and Orland have clearly observed and understood what artists go through, and they’ve distilled it into a gem of wisdom in this book.

Art & Fear had me constantly thinking, “Yes, I recognize exactly what you’re talking about.  I’ve seen it again and again.”  I was surprised to see these things expressed so succinctly, and then surprised again to realize that the issues are so common and yet so little addressed in writing on art.

The authors see right through the theoretical and romantic pretensions that cluster so thickly around art, and they go directly to the heart of the matter, from the point of view of the working artist.  And you have to admire the brevity!   Any artist tormented by blocks or doubts should give Art & Fear the small time it takes to make its big points.

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