Left Bank

What makes for a good trip or proper travel is not checking off a list of places to see with their associated objects;

The Louvre, Mona Lisa….

It is absorbing the feel of a place, ambience of scents, sounds..In taking time to do this, one notices how others live their lives & what is important to them. It also allows for a deeper memory retention of the entire experience which then adds to the “you”. It is what is actually meant by “Travel broadens the mind”.

For artists there is even more of a potential benefit.

Every artists works & travels differently. I am always “working” regardless of where I am in the world. The only variation is what equipment I am utilizing. Short trips will find me leaving the paints at home, filling my coat pocket with my trusty pocket pads as I like to travel as light as possible and most likely would not have time anyways.

Any give place should effect an artist. Not in the most obvious way such as “I am in London, I painted Big Ben”.

It is ambient light, the lines of architecture, they become further accoutrements to the palette. It does not mean that one enters artistic phases ala Picasso and Cubism et al. Rather, work done in one place  does not look exactly as it appears back home. The artists voice is ever present but there are different components to the fore, mixed in with some of the more familiar.

If you have never been or only as part of a tour group, then every place in France is lumped in together. Despite some commonalities, each area is distinctive with their own cuisine and habits. It is the same with the ambient light.

Aix-en-Provence is all beautiful yellows punctuated by bursts of trees and the sounds of fountains. Lyon is soft pinks as if the buildings are made or at least coated with the delicate charcuterie which they are the masters of making. Paris in itself is diverse. From arrondissement to arrondissement, from the Left Bank to the Right .

People, myself included, proudly proclaim themselves of their side of the river and which number arrondissement.

I like even some of the seemingly “ugly” streets with their time worn dirty gray and fatigued creams. These areas tend to be where some of my artistic heroes lived, cheap rent and every third door a no nonsense bar having been the draw.

I like working with colored pencils on gray or brown paper. I limit my palette intentionally as a challenge to myself. Getting the effects that I want in this way makes it “easier” when using paints. Although I use mainly pinks, it is realistic in that in the real world there are seemingly limitless colors but go out on street  look at buildings and the street. On encounters a fairly limited palette.

These pinks, urban children of Fauvists, remind me of some parts of Paris. Not that this color is found there but it is same effect, translated in my minds eye. This little corner I continue to pass almost daily. It has been there forever and i do not think it ever had any straight lines about it.

I initially encountered it when staying at my first great apartment. It was en route to my groceries and favorite bars. Four floors, impossibly winding stairs that made you drag your shoulder against the wall as you ascended since the light was always broken. The biggest part of the place was the bathroom, with a large old tub, frosted glass windows which opened up onto a shadowy verdant courtyard with its cracked flagstones. I kept the primitive hi fi in the bathroom doorway since it was connected to the bedroom. Only music with a minimal of voices sounded good as it was a mono player. Mostly Zoot Sims duets and Lester Young trios.The neighbors would lean against their window boxes of geraniums smoking and slowly nodding their heads to the music. Dark silhouettes with one wavering orange eye-dot that would flare with inhalation.

Hard work and I was fortunate to be able to trade up apartments. I remained in my neighborhood just moving a few streets down. The building has become one of the visual shorthand for the deep affection that I hold for the every day in Paris and those first exciting years.

W.Wolfson ’19

Left Bank 9×12 colored paper and pencil

 

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New pencil stroll

I had been to one of my favorite art supply stores. It’s one of three oldest remaining in Paris. It is very small. I always like the ones which are tiny but organized.

There is the perfume which excites, a melange of pencils, cardboard and that scent paint gives off which in itself is a marriage of several things. The close quarters gives the feeling of being in a warren similar, with  variations, to what each artist will return to with their treasures.

I stood behind a woman whose slowness made the wait seem interminable but which was indicative of the personal service offered up to each customer.

While waiting I grabbed randomly, a fistful of pencils by a company that I knew to be good but had yet to try.

My turn, the heat had made me drowsy. When I’m old and shrunken, if it’s not busy, I will ask to curl up and sleep atop one of the taboret like a cat. For now though, I went afterwards to Marc’s to wake up with some ice cold sancerre  and good conversation.

I did not immediately give any of them a try, nor did I even know exactly what I had grabbed. They were all various “B” (soft lead) pencils.

I greatly enjoy Blackwing Palominos, which i would describe as semi soft with a creamy property. I constantly mix it up with what equipment I use but there is always a Blackwing in my kit too.

The Lyra 669 5 B is made in Germany. It had an easy glide across the paper. I noticed that the first portrait I used it for on 9×12 70lb paper, it had a very graphic look.

I have a thing for pencils which have their own distinctive voice.  It’s great fun to learn when  its specific  properties will best suit collaborating with me on a piece in the same way a musician uses specific instruments for certain type of song.

9×12 quick sketch portrait

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New Companion

I can borrow a pen from a waitress to mark up a paper place mat or the nubbin of a pencil and some scrap paper and be satisfied doing my thing. The results need not be frame worthy or even worth saving (after seven years,  having moved my long term studio, I am now of the mind that i need not save every single foot, hand etc woodshedding sketch that I do). The pay off has become the process.

Although I no longer feel the need to save every bit of visual minutia that I birth, ego does demand it still look good, even knowing that  some of it is mere exercise destined for the barrel.

I like to challenge myself by trading off what equipment i use, even for mere woodshedding, every few days. The (proven to me at least) theory behind this is that, regardless of what equipment I have on hand, I will be able to make something worth while as I am not rigidly dependent upon specific things to create.

Even with my flexibility, I feel out of sorts and naked were I to leave home without at least my trusty pocket pad on hand. I travel with various amounts of equipment and sized paper, the specifics being dictated by location and length of stay.

The constant is always my pocket pad. Called “The Passport” on account of its size, it is from Midori. Before seeing one in person, there had been a huge push on some of the sites i interact with, especially Flicker. There were beautiful photos of these notebooks sitting on a well turned out desk next to some great fountain pens and other accoutrements. Or on a bedside table at the Ritz by a pocket watch, brass Art Deco key chain and cigar cutter.

In each case, the photos made me want not  just the notebook but most of the things in the photo.

I have no idea if they were the first to come up with it but Midori notebooks used The Midori system. They were refillable, and highly customizable. You could get all kinds of extra sleeves, charms, pockets and all kinds of other things not all of which are necessarily practical if, like me you are going to constantly be using it off and on throughout the day.

They come in two sizes, the traveler (6x 4.4x 0.09) and the passport  (3.86x 5.28). I got the passport. Upon initially looking at it, I was far from enamored. The paper it came with was too thin for sketching and was not easy to get at the time nor cheap for someone who could easily go through at least a pad a week sketching.

However, the system itself was clever. It was a leather square folded in half with a slit at the halfway mark. Going down this slit was a thin elastic permanently held in place by a lead disc which has become a recognizable part of the midori aesthetic.  There is also a smaller elastic loop pushed through one side of the cover held in place by a knot. This loops around the book to hold it closed. Midori offers these elastics in all kinds of colors now.

The center elastic slips over the center page of the book where the staples are. You can add as many books as you want by pressing covers back to back and putting standard elastic through the center page.

As much as I thought that the actual notebooks looked far nicer in the photos and the paper was not a good match for me, I did like the system. I made my own booklets to slip into the cover, usually grouping them together in threes.

Midori offered among other things, plastic zipper pouches. They are attached the same way as you would a booklet. I go three booklets with one zipper pouch containing a bunch of pencil blenders and tiny Blackingwing eraser along with one extra elastic in case one ever breaks.

No matter where I have been in the world, at the end of the day my Midori has been in my pocket or resting at night by my bedside table. It gives me an odd comfort but also inspiration.

I have large collection now of pocket pads and while the midori is not the nicest nor any longer the easiest (I have many now where pad slides into covers and also lays far flatter than the midori which forever wants to close even as I use it) I would feel strange not having it on me even were I to have another pad too.

The Place Maubert market in Paris. There are great kiosks selling all kinds of foods. The scents of spices and meats takes one away to places even further afield than being there. Also to be found are small tables selling everything from typical flea market junk , to shirts and pullovers in  Breton Sailor style. Wedged between tables of cheeses being kept fresh by straw and pastries made from honey and rosewater are artisan tables.

This year I met a man who handmade leather journals. He did it all using old school hand tools. The styles wildly varied, some of it clearly aimed at the tourists. Regardless of size, they all snapped shut and the blank pads slipped into the cover/holder. The paper it came with is surprisingly nice, blank booklets.

We chatted a little. I showed him my little Midori. He pinched the leather cover between thumb and index finger and while he maintained  politeness he also seemed to feel sorry for me. I fought the defensive urge to tell him of my large collection.

One part of his table was full of comparably sized notepad. Being handmade, they were surprisingly inexpensive. He threw an extra blank pad in my bag.

Although it is a different manner of holding the paper than my midori, I was able to use a similar trick, slipping elastic in middle, to have this new pad hold one of midori zipper pouches. Seemingly this gives me the best of both worlds but I do not see myself retiring the midori ever completely as he has been too good a friend, having seen everything without shock nor complaint.

 

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Two

I have a definite methodology to how I work. But on the road there are variations. This is an aspect of how I feel a location should subtly add its flavor to work being done (there). In the states, I do my hour or two of woodshedding at night, the end of my day.

In Paris the lighting is better to do it in the morning with my coffee.

Even in my stateside studio, different times of year present better hours to paint by, as I use natural light to do so. It takes anywhere from three days to a week to really nail down what hours to pick up the brush. I am lucky though, that there are some aspects of a piece that I can do in less than ideal lighting.

I do not go to museums every time I am in France, as I know that I will always be back. Sometimes all I need is the poetry of the streets to inspire.

There is the constant though, of chatting with my peers.

While here, a huge sale by a post-pop artist got us all talking. The question of “Is it art?”

Eventually we all got bored with gnashing our teeth and started discussing nudity in art and the conected social mores in North America.

There is a cyclical debate of what seperates art from eroticism (“dirty” or “porn” labels)

Some say it is merely a matter of intent. This is too simplistic and facilitates filling the room with devil’s advocates and semantics.

Of course,  intent is always important as proven by Duchamp, but a more reliable yardstick which also keeps in mind a modicum of rationality are the components and concept of the work.

A work can seduce or excite but is it doing so because a main componant is titillation? The same question can be asked of shock value. If a work happens to induce heat, then regardless of why, it can’t be “dirty”. Someone setting out first and foremost to excite makes it so that a different label may be appropriate to apply.

Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde comes to mind. It is graphic to some but beautiful, there is no question that it is art.

The first question being asked should never be “Is there nudity?” nor even necessarily “is it art?” but rather, “is it good ?”

Having to ask if it is art is sort of like  guestioning yourself if there has been too many drinks to safely drive home, it becomes almost besides the point.

I used my canson watercolor paper 140 lb. A thing which appeals to me about it is that it’s not temperamental, being effected by wet weather as the French cotton ones that I used to solely use was.

For photos of my work I am just using my phone and as the paper has little tooth, the photos (I never work any digital magic on pics) gives accurate gist of a piece.

Song & Bellissima 5.5 x 8.5 watercolor and paper

 

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Paris Painter

I have said time and again, for me truth is beauty. I am interested in the real, real bodies real emotions. Even and espcially those which seem counter to traditional ideas and portrayal of beauty.

This honesty has  always been the facilitators of the emotional resonance that is my raison d’etre for all my work.

By no means am I doing something new. From Lucien Freud and Jenny Saville back to Tintoretto and courbet, honest portrayal of people has been utilized to create a powerful, real beauty made even more so because of the seeming imperfections.  Proudly, I am merely adding my voice to the chorus.

Traditional beauty bores me except in the smallest doses. It’s akin to the frosting flower off of a cake. I’m not adverse to now and then taking a bite, but it’s sweetness has no true flavor.

The thought of using my work merely to shock or insult is anathema to me. I work too hard on my chops and conveying my philosophy for such things.

This is my first painting back in my Paris studio. Unintentionally approp as today is mothers day in North America.

It has been overcast. The sun would come out, then retreat like a shy friend, then blaze too bright to see the paper properly.

I had to go slow,  it ate into my record buying time, but I am pleased to the extreme with the results.

5.5x 8.5 watercolor and paper

Michelle

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Pre-Trip Errata

Getting on plane tomorrow so here are some quick sketches and thoughts in between closing up stateside studio:

I just finished the biography on Alexander Calder by Jed Perl. I had not been into Calder beforehand but developed a new appreciation for him after finishing. I have shelves of books on biographies/histories of Paris during different eras which include all the artists that where then on the scene.

For modern art eras, Calder was often featured. He was portrayed in a sort of often parroted shorthand, as an impish figure who artists in all the various movements liked (surrealists, futurists, cubists et al) even though he was never formally a member of anything.

Marcel Duchamp too was embraced by key figures in many movements which he purposely never joined. Duchamp had the glamour of enigma and an obvious influence to varying degrees on many artists who came after him for generations.

After reading this wonderful book the two had more in common than would be apparent from other books. Duchamp’s mien was always sphinx like which lent a sort of gravitas to whatever he was doing.  Calder was serious about his work but had a joyous disposition. If he did not get along with somebody, then he just did not bother with them. He had artistic theories & philosophy but he was reticent and never pontificated about  them. This lent a sort of playful veneer to all that he did to casual gallery & museum goers. There was a joy to what he did, but a serious joy.

This is the second book I have read by Perl on an artist to whom I was initially indifferent. It underscores that no matter how much one knows about art or how well formed their aesthetic sense, there is always room for more exploration and to pull new things into oneself.  And as I have often said, with certain non-fiction authors, it is well worth reading anything that they put out. Jed Perl definitely falls into this category.

 

9×12 quick sketch Calder

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It was just Duke Ellington’s birthday.  To people not well versed in jazz Duke Ellington is “Take the  A Train” or that sort of sludge of sound behind really old cartoons which utilized swing music before Carl Stalling came on the scene with his innovative sonic madness.

There was always forward thinking elements to what Duke & his orchestra were doing. He was constantly evolving and adding to his vision and sonic palette.

He composed in so many forms that it’s bittersweet to think of the years where he was lumped in with other, mere entertainers. Publicly, he never seemed to complain about this. In his final decade or so when he was starting to truly get his due,  in performance he still would often include medleys of the hits as to please the crowd. Remnants of when  this  American Mozart, despite his skill land ambition had to set toes to tapping.

For beginners to his oeuvre the best place to start are his later recordings. These works are more easily acceptable to someone  used to post bop jazz (used to be called “Modern” ). In his final years, Duke seemed to be allowed to record whatever he wanted. It runs the gambit in diversity. From Tone poems to suites, to soundtracks to trios and sacred concerts to teaming up with musicians young and old that he admired but had not worked with in small ensembles (John Coltrane, Coleman Hawkins, Louis Armstrong)

I first got into his work by delving into the later stuff. I enjoyed that so much i started looking backwards. Years ago I would not have been open to it, but now i treasure all Duke.

There is probably at least one of his albums to fit no matter where you are in the world and what you are doing. All around the globe, my pencil in hand and the rich coloration as envisioned by Duke wafting up out of the speakers.

Sir Duke Quick Sketch 9×12

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Equipment

As much as I say & feel that I do not watch much television, being in Europe makes me start to suspect my assessment is a little off. This is reinforced by the amount of books that  I go through away from the states. Halfway through my Parisian residency I always need to restock my bedside pile.

There are certain publishers which one can not go wrong in choosing almost anything by them such as NYRB and Green Intenger. The same goes in non fiction  for certain authors. For art writing & biographies, it does not matter if you know or like the artists, anything by Jed Perl, Richard Ellman, Ross King and John Richardson is worth delving into.

To almost zero notice John Richardson passed away recently. He had become a gallerist, putting together some amazing Picasso shows, often in conjunction with the artist’s family. He wrote articles for such magazines as vanity fair. His earlier years he had sat at collector Douglas Cooper’s side, moving through (art) history, bearing witness to important events and also the behind the scenes dynamics. He wrote several fantastic books on this which shows the all too human side of great artists without ever lapsing into mere salacious gossip.

Perhaps the most important thing John Richardson did was the massive multi volume set on the life of Picasso. He was working on the fourth, final volume when he died. These volumes get into meticulous detail about the artist’s life, those around him and the times he lived in. Impressively, over the course of all the volumes Richardson manages to write without agenda, neither praising Picasso to the sky nor trying to tear him down. The artist as a talented yet imperfect man is presented.

Picasso is sometimes talked about as a magician for the protean way he seemed to conjure up new genres. He was mercurial in his ability to shift styles, often creating his own new ones before dropping them to birth a new phase. However, a point Richardson goes into and one which has become more public knowledge was that he did not spontaneously create from nothing. Picasso was a bit of a magpie. Direct contemporaries used to tell each other not to have works on display when he came to visit the studio or he would borrow ideas that he liked, making them his own. Many opted to turn unfinished canvas around to face the wall like an ill behaved child.

All artists wear masks out in public. Piccasso’s public persona was that of a sui generous, fully formed at birth. There is no disputing that the talent was there from the get go but like even the most individualized genius, he took from and was inspired by ideas from outside of himself. According to  him, all his then radical ideas which freed up generations of painters were solely of his invention. There seemed to be a feeling that he would be a lesser titan were sources to be cited. Oceanic art, Matisse et al were kept hidden ingredients in his recipe book.   Great trouble was taken on his part to hide or camouflage the sources not his own which he turned to gold.

To me, this always seemed oddly tragic as much time and energy was wasted on trying to cover up that which has become common knowledge. Even some of the poorer written biographies on Picasso now easily trace some of what ideas from others went into radically new and important works.

I am paraphrasing here but towards the end of the third volume it was said that he still possessed a virtuoso’s voice but with very little to say. I think part of this was that he was existing outside of the stream of life. The vitality of being in competition with his peers or if not that then at least among them at cafes, parties and studios serves as stimulation. Being surrounded by a crowd who hangs on your every word and who in one way or another are dependent upon you is not the same.  On the first flush of huge fame it was more important to him that he keep his secrets. After that, that he not be wrong, corrected or not the alpha.

By comparison, artists like Renoir, Matisse, Calder and Giacometti even once famous and older, would make it a point to still put in appearances  at cafes and studios to see what was new with the upcoming generations while chatting of their latest works.

All this inspired me. I would never waste any time nor effort in being secretive. If someone created an effect in one of their works which I do not know how to do, unashamed, I will ask “how?”. If anyone asks me about what equipment I use/used on a piece, i will gladly tel them.  Much to my surprise, not all my peers are like this. Asking a slightly older painter how she achieved an effect, what she had used, I received a curt “watercolors”. When I politely asked for specifics it became clear she did not want to tell me. This is absurd as two people can have same recipe and ingredients yet when the dish is made they will be different from one another.

We should all feel free to ask away as none of us are Picasso.

When back in Europe I always have my painting kit & my sketch kit. Over the years the painting one is largely unchanged. A few colors added, a few taken out of the palette. My sketching kit is ever in flux. The Blackwing pencil & Kuro Toga .5 MM pencil being the two constants.

 

2019 Sketch Kit for the Road:

(Left to right )

Sharpener, .5 MM Kuro Toga, Staedler 2MM Lead Clutch, blender, two writing pen refills Waterman & Parker) Tombow Mono Zero eraser, two sided Faber Castell Lead extender, BlackWing Palomino w/Blackinwing Point Cap, Faber Castell 2B pencil w/Blackwing Point Cap, Faber Castell 7B w/Blackwing Point Cap, Staedler Eraser, two blenders Faber Castell HB Pencil, gum eraser, 2x 5MM Pentel  Lead refills 4B & 2B, Pad of Sandpiper to custom hone Lead Clutch point, Rubber eraser (bottom)

 

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