DRAWING LIFE by fred hatt


Serious Doodling

Filed under: Abstract Art — Tags: , , , , — fred @ 22:03

Talisman, 2011, doodle by Fred Hatt

This is a defense of the practice of doodling.  Doodling has a reputation for being aimless, mindless, pointless and devoid of artistic merit.  As I am an incorrigible doodler, I might be seen as defending my own bad habits, although I would never write in defense of gluttony, bibulousness, lechery, or sloth, to all of which I would be obliged to cop, so clearly I am at least granting doodling an exalted tier among the vices.

Loops & Growers, 2011, doodle by Fred Hatt

The word apparently derives from the German dudeln, meaning to play the bagpipes.  The form dudelkopf was used to mean fool or idiot, and could I think be literally interpreted as “bagpipe-head”, perhaps an early form of our contemporary idiom “airhead”.  “Yankee doodle” was originally the British way of saying “American idiot”.  Doodle in this sense is probably the source of the word “dude“.  Even meaning idiot, the word seems to carry some subtle aura of transcendence.  Spoken with a certain intonation, the word “dude” is an expression of awe, and the indelible character of The Dude in The Big Lebowski has some of the same blessed qualities of the holy fool as Dostoevsky’s The Idiot.   “The Dude abides.”

Ship, 2011, doodle by Fred Hatt

Pictorial marginalia and abstract designs made while other parts of the mind are otherwise engaged have probably always been a part of the human behavioral repertory, but the verb “to doodle” in its contemporary meaning may originate in the 1936 Frank Capra movie Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, staring Gary Cooper.  The screenplay is written by Robert Riskin in snappy American vernacular poetry.  In the film, Mr. Deeds defines doodling as an activity that facilitates thinking.

Incantation, 2010, doodle by Fred Hatt

When I was in high school the instruction usually seemed to be paced for the slowest students in the class, and I doodled because the activity soothed my boredom and frustration.  I went to a good university where the level and speed of the ideas being presented was considerably higher, enough to keep even my quicksilver mind thoroughly engaged, but by that time my habit of doodling in class was set, and so I generally doodled rather than, or in addition to, taking notes.  This habit did no apparent harm to my learning; in fact, I believe it enhanced it.

Predicament, 2010, doodle by Fred Hatt

New research backs up this conclusion.  Doodling seems to improve recall and help keep the mind focused.  I tend to doodle while doing things that involve sustained listening with minimal visual or kinesthetic involvement: long phone calls, for instance, or listening to “This American Life” on the radio.  Doodling isn’t the only activity that works this way.  Some people like knitting or whittling.  For me, distance driving is a nearly perfect accompaniment to listening.  But doodling adds a creative element that is more satisfying.  It engages the part of the mind that wants to move and see, while not distracting the part of the mind that listens, understands, and cogitates.

Terse, 2010, doodle by Fred Hatt

Texting and web-surfing are genuinely distracting, because they engage not the visual and kinesthetic mind, but the verbal and discursive mind, the part that needs to be kept present during a lecture or meeting or conversation.  Having done both, I can attest that doodling helps focus while Googling dissipates focus.  I think the transition from paper notebooks to electronic notebooks in the classroom is bound to diminish the school experience.

Splat, 2011, doodle by Fred Hatt

Last year I saw a retrospective exhibit of Charles E. Burchfield, a painter close to my own spirit.  The exhibit featured a significant collection of Burchfield’s doodles, often made on telephone memo pads or the score sheets for card games.  I don’t recall seeing such casual doodles being featured in a major art exhibit before that, but they were a revealing part of the collection, showing the artist’s obsessive exploration of the visual motifs he used to express the intangible and ineffable aspects of Nature.

Upthrust, 2011, doodle by Fred Hatt

Since seeing Burchfield’s show, I’ve found my own doodles have become more intense, actually interesting for me to look at after the occasion of their making has passed.  Doodles are a way of making patterns by allowing the hand to move freely in response to subtle impulses.  Thus, doodling is a practice of feeling the movements of the life force and manifesting them in line.

Arbre, 2011, doodle by Fred Hatt

Life force may seem a mystical concept.  On a certain philosophical level, it is the Tao, the mover of all things.  But it can also be understood in its most direct bodily manifestations, as the movement of the breath, the flow of blood, the nerve impulses, the direction of growth, and the response of the organism to move towards certain things and away from others.  All of these are things we can directly feel and express through bodily movement.

Folia, 2011, doodle by Fred Hatt

A sensitivity to these different qualities of movement, thrusting and bending, rushing and meandering, the ever-changing weather of emotions and the slow and indomitable determination to grow, gives life to the lines.

Clown, 2011, doodle by Fred Hatt

You don’t need to dedicate your life to art, as I have, to benefit from doodling, or to take doodling more seriously.  Just doodle in your own way, but rather than thinking of it as a compulsive response to extreme boredom, as the pacing of the caged, view it as the movement of the mind making connections.  Sometimes the different parts of the mind are most unified when they are separately engaged.  Above all, choose doodling when it is appropriate.  If you are sitting in a meeting, or listening to a lecture or sermon, or letting someone tell you the story of their life, and if you feel your attention flagging, don’t check your weather widget or BoingBoing – Doodle instead!

Crown, 2011, doodle by Fred Hatt

Most of the doodles shown in this post were made on regular letter-size paper, sometimes folded in half, using Tombow brush-markers.


Burchfield’s Force Fields

Autumnal Fantasy, 1916-1944, by Charles E. Burchfield

Charles E. Burchfield’s landscape paintings swarm with spirits.  His wild and hairy visions of the alive world are currently on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art, in an exhibit titled Heat Waves in a Swamp.  I knew a little of Burchfield before, mostly through reproductions, but seeing this show, brilliantly curated by sculptor Robert Gober, was like discovering a cache of glittering gems hidden in an old tree stump.

Burchfield grew up in Salem, Ohio and lived most of his life in Gardenville, a rural suburb of Buffalo, New York.  His talent was recognized at a fairly early age, but he had no interest in living in a big city or being part of a movement or scene.  He painted to please himself, and sold paintings to support his wife and five kids.  His life story and his words reveal him as an unassuming and unpretentious man, but so thoroughly an artist that he couldn’t stop thinking as an artist for a moment.  One room of the Whitney show is filled with hundreds of abstract biomorphic doodles that he made while talking on the phone or playing card games with his wife.  Besides doodling he also kept journals throughout his life.  A particular pleasure of the exhibit is that nearly every painting is accompanied by Burchfield’s own eloquent description or reminiscence of its creation.

Charles E. Burchfield painting in his studio in Gardenville, N.Y., 1966, photo by William Doran, Burchfield Penney Art Center

While he did oil paintings and some mixed media, the bulk of Burchfield’s work is done in the medium of “dry brush” watercolor and gouache.  Traditional watercolor technique involves using thin washes of color on absorbent wet paper, and often tries for luminous, saturated colors and a loose, spontaneous style.  Burchfield’s technique is quite different, heavily worked by watercolorist standards, and his colors are often subtle and earthy.  His work achieves a feeling of light not by a light touch, but by a fiery intensity of movement.

His work divides neatly into three periods: the first begins in his breakthrough year of 1917, when he was in his mid-20’s.  He devised a system of visual motifs that embodied different moods and energies, called “conventions for abstract thoughts“.  These forms remind me of the “thought forms” described by Theosophists Annie Besant and C. W. Leadbeater in a 1901 book as shapes of thoughts visualized through clairvoyant synesthesia, though I do not know whether Burchfield was influenced by Theosophical ideas.  In painting from nature Burchfield saw manifestations of these abstractions, and his paintings of this period seem to depict organic forms through drawn lines whose movement expresses their underlying forces.  Those forces sometimes seem dark, ominous, prickly, overwhelming, or explosive, but always beautiful.  The chaos that is there is fertile and creative.

The Insect Chorus, 1917, by Charles E. Burchfield

Burchfield’s description of the image above reads, “It is late Sunday afternoon in August.  A child stands alone in the garden listening to the metallic sounds of insects.  They are all his world, so, to his mind, all things become saturated with their presence – Crickets lurk in the depths of the grass, the shadows of the trees conceal fantastic creatures, and the boy looks with fear at the black interior of the arbor, not knowing what terrible thing might be there.”

In his middle period Burchfield turned to a kind of American regionalism or social realism, often depicting industrial scenes or working-class settings.  The paintings of this period have a great sense of light and space.  The example below has a deep perspective reminiscent of Breughel, with a whole town visible in the far distance.

End of the Day, 1938, by Charles E. Burchfield

Burchfield’s description:  “At the end of a day of hard labor the workmen plod wearily uphill in the eerie twilight of winter, and it seems to the superficial eye that they have little to come home to in those stark, unpainted houses, but, like the houses, they persist and will not give in; and so they attain a rugged dignity that compels our admiration.”

Sun and Rocks, 1918-1950, by Charles E. Burchfield

Burchfield’s late period begins in 1943, when he was fifty.  He had spent decades developing his craft, but felt that his work was “rather prosaic” compared with his youthful, magical approach.  He went back to early works that were not quite successful, but that had the seeds of great ideas he now had the maturity to accomplish.  He attached extra paper around these early paintings, extending them into bold compositions in monumental scale.  The late period expansions were as much as five or six times larger than the early paintings that form their cores.

While many of the middle-period works in the show are oil paintings on loan from major museums, all the late work is watercolor on paper, which can’t be kept on permanent display due to watercolor’s vulnerability to fading, and most of them are from the collection of the Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo, where the artist’s personal archives reside.  I assume this means most of this late work was not sold in Burchfield’s lifetime.  Perhaps in his later years he had achieved enough recognition, his children were grown, and he felt the freedom to paint for himself, for the sheer joy he clearly felt in it.

The Four Seasons, 1949-1960, by Charles E. Burchfield

Though Burchfield was a protestant, his late work expresses a pure pagan spirituality, in which clouds and rain, trees and insects, are living beings in a web of sacred life.  In one painting, the space between trees, through which the bright distant landscape is seen, becomes a golden dancing figure.  Another seems to show, as curator Robert Gober says, “the point of view of a man lying in a field of dandelions on a sleepless night”.  The late works are overwhelming in their size, their magical light and space, and their thorny, buzzing detail.  The reproductions here don’t even begin to do them justice.

Heat Waves in a Swamp:  The Paintings of Charles Burchfield is curated by Robert Gober.  It was first exhibited at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and at the Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo, before moving to the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, where it will remain on view until October 17, 2010.

All illustrations for this post were found on the web.  Clicking on the pictures links to their source pages, which are great places to find more images and information on Burchfield and Heat Waves in a Swamp.

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