Tuesday, July 31, 2007

I Like Notebooks with Blank Pages

This year, because I wanted to practice drawing, I bought notebooks with blank pages, which has changed the way I write.

All of my pages, even those with no pictures on them, have more of a design quality. I'm much more likely to put things in columns, use white space, outline and embellish.

For instance, here's a scan of the notes I took in my last blog class:

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Spirit Drawing

Draw bamboos for ten years,
Become a bamboo,
Then forget all about bamboos when you are drawing

I first learned about contour drawing in my high school art class. Betty Edwards also describes it in her seminal book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. In blind contour drawing, you put your pen on the page but keep your eyes on the object you are drawing while you trace around its outlines without looking down at the page. It produces mysteriously satisfying results. I used it throughout high school and college classes to capture the likenesses of my teachers, other students in my classes, my shoes and my own hand drawing. Sometimes you get a undecipherable tangle of squiggles. But other times you end up with a lovely sketch that really captures the essence of the person.

Spirit drawing simply takes contour drawing to another level. Jude Siegel in A Pacific Northwest Nature Sketchbook says it's as if “what the eyes sees then travels through the heart (the emotional heart, which can recognize the spirit or essence of an object—something the mind cannot do), then continues down the arm and fingers, and finally through the pen or other tool and is then recorded onto the paper.”

Before beginning to draw, spend time simply taking in the subject as much as possible. Then take your pen (Siegel recommends a pen as it will force you to commit), choose a spot on the subject, and focus your eyes and attention there. Begin drawing, traveling along the lines of the object. If you are drawing a flower, Siegel suggests pretending you are a tiny bug traversing the edges of a petal. Or you can imagine tracing the edges of the object with your fingertip. After tracing the outline, you can being to trace some of the interior edges.

Siegel uses spirit drawing as a warm-up before a more studied attempt and I’ve used it this way. I have to admit that the first sketches are often more lively than the sketches I labor over. As the name implies, they capture more of the spirit of the plant.

For instance, here’s an attempt to analyze the way a plantain plant looks as it bursts into blossom.
And here is a spirit drawing I did of the same plant as it withered and shrunk. I think it has more life (though it’s clearly ebbing away).

Another example of a spirit drawing, this time of a peony, followed by a sketch of the same flower in which I actually looked at what I was doing. Both are appealing and certainly the second one is technically more accurate but there’s a certain peoniness about the spirit drawing.

Although I’ve been practicing spirit drawing on flowers, I’ve also started using it to capture glimpses of my everyday life. I have to admit these are my favorites. For instance, this picture of a dog I saw at Pettirosso one afternoon. It might be hard for you to tell what this is supposed to represent, but for me it vividly recalls that moment when the dog woke up to look at a customer.
If you've never tried contour drawing, try it and let me know what you think.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Can I Draw?

The answer to the question is: I wish.

During my high school years, while hanging out with the other nerdy girls (although we wouldn't have called ourselves that), I secretly longed to be one of the Artists. Those were the cool girls: they were beautiful and talented and oh so sophisticated.

Although I did make friends with a few of the arty girls, and even hung out with them for a few school lunches, I couldn’t fool our art teacher, Miss Gabrielle. I loved all the projects I did for her: a papier mache dog, a mosaic (of a peasant cottage), a tapestry (of a Spanish city). But she knew I wasn’t an artist. She acknowledged my art work with a nod of her head, while heaping praise upon her pets. And, I think she must have had a good aesthetic sense, because all of her favorite students, have gone on to become working artists. And that is amazing, considering how many people make a living as artists. Lisa Leone is an art director. Mary Heebner is a fine artist (also the subject of an entry in Wikipedia. I think this is my new goal!). Jane Bauman teaches art.

Despite Miss Gabrielle’s discouragement, I’ve always dreamed in design. It used to be that when I closed my eyes I would see designs for fabrics, for china, for wrapping paper, flashing behind my eyelids. These went away as I got older. Where did they go? Perhaps they atrophied out of misuse. But even now when I look at the plates from old herbals, the ones I like the most are the ones in which plants are “reduced to decoration” or “stylized beyond recognition” in the words of Wilfrid Blunt in his book The Illustrated Herbal.

William Morris is one of my heroes and my current wall calendar features his amazing floral patterns. Perhaps I was his wife, Janey Morris, in a former life and my visions of designs were simply etched into my brain because of all those hours spent embroidering them into curtains.

It’s with excitement and a great deal of trepidation that I began drawing again, using the simple technique of contour drawing I first learned from Miss Gabrielle to try to capture the flowers I’m studying. I’ll tell you more about that tomorrow. And even share a few drawings. If I get my courage up.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Fashions in Landscaping

At the start of the year, our landlord decided to redo the landscaping of our apartment building. In January, he instructed his henchman (that would be the handy man) to cut down the beautiful cherry tree that grew beside the front porch. I tried to rally my neighbors to save it but I was too late. A few months later, all the other plants followed: the tulips and daffodils my upstairs neighbors had planted and the woodruff and iris I planted in the beds next to the building, a strip of useless grass (useless because no one could ever get to it because of the juniper border) and finally the prickly, hideous junipers that lined the sidewalk. I have to say we were all happy to see them go.

But I am not happy with the new landscaping. There are two Italian cypresses, each planted about halfway between the front door and the ends of the building. There are also two Japanese maples close to the porch, one on each side. And then a scattering of rhododendrons, hebes, sweet box and mountain laurel, all drowning in a sea of brown mulch. It’s the kind of soulless landscaping you could find on any block in Seattle.

Just as flowers and architectural styles go in and out of fashion, so does landscaping. In my neighborhood—which has a mix of housing including brick apartment buildings from the turn of the century, apartments from the Fifties and Sixties that look more like motels, a few houses and some brand-new condos—the landscaping is equally diverse. Yet you can always tell which properties are rentals and thus which yards are maintained by gardening services. They tend to have a generic feel.

The popularity of junipers I suspect dates from the Fifties and Sixties, at least that’s when my dad planted them all around our house in Southern California. I believe the mountain laurels. viburnums and rhododendrons were the choice of the Seventies in Seattle. This is probably the same era responsible for the ornamental St. John’s Wort which shows up everywhere as a ground cover. Then there’s the more modern landscaping that uses drought-tolerant, indigenous plants like salal, covering the area with low ground covers. It’s easy to maintain and environmentally sound but not particularly interesting.

I prefer the yards on my block where I can see an individual aesthetic at play. I still call one house the rose lady’s house, though she sold it years ago. Her front yard was completely covered with rose bushes and she kept it free of other plants, except for a few stray violas. The current owner has kept most of the roses but let some other flowers spring up and it looks a bit softer. There’s an apartment building around the corner where someone went crazy with herbs and I can find rue and wormwood, plus the more usual rosemary and lavender. Another householder really loves the little ground-covers. He has all the sedums plus some sea thrift and other tiny plants surrounded by neat white gravel and stepping stones of concrete blocks. I suspect the inside of his house would display the same tendency towards fussy order and clean lines.

A few months ago I visited my brother in Ventura. He lives in a house built in the Fifties, probably around the same time as our childhood home (it has a similar look and feel). The landscaping seems to date from that era as well: the front lawn, the bottlebrush in the front yard, the bougainvillea spilling over the back fence, the citrus tree with its fragrant flowers. It was great to be back in the landscape of my childhood.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Star Jasmine

I wrote about Jasmine on June 14, 2006, when it was the flower of the day in the French Republican calendar. But I’m dreaming of it again this week, as every time I walk up the steps to my apartment building, I am cloaked in the sweet fragrance of jasmine.

A few years ago our upstairs neighbors, Beth and Julie, planted a jasmine that is twining up a pole on the right hand side of the porch of our brick apartment building on Capitol Hill. It's the only plant that survived our landlord's recent demolition of the old landscaping and installation of a new Mediterranean scheme e l(thanks to Beth and Julie’s advocacy). It began blooming a few weeks ago and now the plant is covered with small, white, fragrant stars.

I spent the last few days researching it but still couldn’t identify the flower and was just going to try making a tea out of it (bad idea! Never eat a plant you can’t identify) when I plucked a sprig, noticed the milky sap and tried googling “white fragrant flower milky sap.” That’s when I found out our jasmine is not a true jasmine but a star jasmine, aka Confederate jasmine.

True jasmine is in the olive family. The star jasmine is in the dogbane family (does that give you a clue as to its edibility?). Also in the dogbane family: oleander (the poisonous flower which grew all over Southern California where I grew up—we were always being warned about them with stories of kids who died after roasting hot dogs on oleander twigs) and a plant called the cockroach plant (the sap and/or dried leaves are mixed with molasses and used to kill cockroaches, flies and lice, and as a lotion to repel mosquitoes and fleas).

I’ve been trying to draw a picture of the flower for the same number of days but it’s hard to get right. The five white petals unfurl from around a pale green center into an absolutely symmetrical (there’s that word again) five-pointed star. They’re almost like little pinwheels. This photograph captures it perfectly: