The Fire Island Lighthouse on Long Island’s south shore looms large in the landscape of my imagination. I grew up on the Island, and we used to swim at Robert Moses, the beach just West of Fire Island, so the figure of this lighthouse runs deep in my psyche, appearing every so often in my dreams. Some of my best childhood memories are of my father taking me out to Fire Island in the winter to let Babe, our family dog, run in the surf with the lighthouse watching over us from a distance like some giant sentinel. Picasso said “I put in my pictures everything I like. So much the worse for the things – they have to get along with one another.” Here I painted what I like: dune grass, boardwalks, and lighthouses, and they get along just fine.
I visited a friend in New York recently, and on our way to a Broadway show, he ducked into a cafe to get a coffee, so I waited outside and did a quick pencil sketch of the street and billboards of Times Square. What a visual orgy! If I had known Sodom and Gomorrah was going to be such a fun place to sketch, I’d have visited much sooner! In this sketch, I knew I didn’t have much time, so I didn’t bother consciously choosing a focal point. I just dove into the drawing process, drawing as much as I could before my friend returned. It wasn’t much, but it was enough for me to want to take a reference photo and finish it up at home. The focal point in the welter of imagery emerged only slowly; naturally, it was the larger than life-sized blonde in the billboard behind the sign. The textbooks and teachers say to choose your focal point carefully, but sometimes it’s better to let it come into focus more deviously, through the backdoor of the mind.
I suppose this little series of pencil and watercolor pictures of the Artist’s Cafe are studies. It has taken me a while to figure out the nature of a “study.” And I suppose that’s one of the characteristics of a beginner; he often mistakes his studies for finished works. But it’s only now, as I am acquiring new skills and realizing just how far I have to go, how much better my work can still be, that I am appreciating the advantage of a value study. I’d like to do this piece again, giving a little more space between the far chair and Nazare himself so that the viewer can see his feet! I’d also like to move the coffee machine to the left, give him a little more air. Still, I like this portrait of Nazare, the Ukrainian busboy at the cafe. The pose was all his idea, but I liked it.
Karina is a waitress at the Artist’s Cafe. She is full-bodied, strong, with a girlishness in her eyes that will probably last into her 80’s. I like to imagine that right here, in a Michigan Ave. diner, some Aztec princess is peeking out from behind those shoulders and the cafe monuments, the rows of glasses, the milk machine, and the cash register, were all erected in her honor. But then I get hold of myself, try to remember she’s just a waitress, a handsome woman with a strong back.
I’ve begun sketching a series of pictures at the Artist’s Cafe on Michigan Avenue. This is a sketch of Irene, the owner, a large, dour woman who doesn’t say much. But she rules the roost at the Cafe. She’s daunting, and all the workers hop to it when she wants something done. She is shown here dug in behind her cash register. She accepts only American Express and cash.
I’ve been trying to figure out why I don’t like a fellow artist’s art, and I’ve decided it’s because he prettifies things too much. Art is not prettification; it is the attention that allows the beauty of objects themselves to shine. Reality is beautiful. That’s a premise of the arts, and I see no reason and a lot of poor taste in trying to amp it up beyond reason. It’s as if, not trusting in things themselves to do the revealing, he rushes in to wash them in pretty colors, cheapening the object, like tinsel on a Christmas tree. Like a 15 year old caking her lashes with mascara, he hides the truer beauty beneath A still life of Chardin and an etchings of Rembrandt teach a different lesson. In protest, or at least as a reminder of what I’m aiming at, I painted my kitchen window on a winter night.
I’ve been working on my sketching skills. During a recent portraiture class, my teacher, Don Yang, told me to stop multiplying my strokes. “The rule in art is that we don’t take ten strokes to do what we can in one.” Later I realized that the sketches I liked best were those that took one stroke at a time, making each one count. In short, even in my sketching I was hesitating, slowly zeroing in on the line instead of decisively putting it down. I worked on that approach this morning, on Valentine’s Day, while enjoying my morning coffee. And now I am falling in love with sketching.
Valentine’s Day is coming up, so hearts it is. I have found that adding a little heart to any sketch is enough to make me love it, just as adding a little love to any heart is enough to make it sketchy. I mean, who knows what dastardly plots the ole black-hatted villain of love has set for you in this life. It is frightfully easy to find oneself tied to the railroad track of love, but who isn’t ready and willing, any day of the week, to be run over by its steamy engine? Hark, is that a damsel in distress I hear?!
This morning I worked again on more winter heads. These little watercolor drawings of the a.m. crowd at Starbucks teach me two things. I’m working with a number 4H pencil, so as not to dirty the watercolor paper before I lay in a wash. The hard pencil teaches me to be quick and simple with the line. Laying in the wash later in the studio teaches me to be equally simple, clean, and even a little expressive with the wash. The simplicity attracts me in both the product and the process. Overworking is a sure sign of doubt, second thoughts, and lack of attention. I believe this is what the Japanese Zen artists practice in Sumi-e, the individual brush stroke reflecting the artist’s inner state. Refining the art refines the artist.
Early in the morning I sketch the customers buying coffee at my local Starbucks. I have a few seconds to capture in pencil the person’s essence. I make a few notes about color, especially when the customer’s personality seems bound up with the color of a coat, a scarf, or a hat. I watercolor them later in my studio. It’s a pleasant way to spend the morning, giving me a record of very momentary impressions. In The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry, Walter Pater wrote: “To such a tremulous wisp constantly re-forming itself on the stream, to a single sharp impression, with a sense in it, a relic more or less fleeting, of such moments gone by, what is real in our life fines itself down.” That’s how I think of sketching, as the practice of fixing the fleeting impressions of our lives, and will-o-the-wisp as they are, it does after all seem like these are the most real part of life.