Monthly Archives: March 2012

Imperfectionism

Last Friday Margaret wrote about the richness that comes from limitations  and the happy accidents that occur in printmaking: the beauty of imperfection.

I looked around my studio. I have lots of postcards and posters and other images pinned up and so many of them could be described as imperfect. I am drawn to those images; they have vitality.

This is the computer corner in my studio.

Eve is pinned to the left of  my computer. (We are both tempted by Apples). I love her huge arms and little head. She was drawn by John H. Coates in 1916.
When I draw people I go to great pains to get them to look accurate in some way. But accuracy is rarely what I love.
This image by anonymous is pinned to the side of a bookshelf.
When the artist got tired of painting the sky she or he just stopped. There is still plenty of sky.
This lubok (Russian folk print) tells the story of a cat and many mice. The limited palette, the crammed in text, the pattern, and the peculiar mice all add to the allure of this picture.
Above my painting table I have this image by Hiroshige torn from a magazine. Here the strangeness and beauty of the image are strengthened by the absolute perfection of the drawing.
Cantering in the opposite direction is this festive horse is by Yuri Vasnetsov.
And this startled horse was painted by Bill Traylor. The tiny ankles of this horse are elegant. Blue is just the right color.
Years ago I read Electricity by Victoria Glendinning. I am still haunted by the line that I remember as: ” The roses on the wallpaper were painted by someone who had never looked very closely at a rose.”
I want to look closely at roses (or turtles) and I want to draw as well as I can. I also want to have the joy of imperfection in my work.
Here is a horse I painted last winter.
And one from a few years ago that seemed on point for this post.
…Are you drawn to imperfection, perfection or both?

Beauty In Limitations: A Printmaker’s Perspective

Denslow’s Mother Goose, W W Denslow, 1901

I have been thinking about limitations lately.

Like illustrations from old picture books before four-color photo-processing became the norm. The ones I’ve accumulated are mostly from the 40s and 60s and they seem have been printed that way to keep production costs down. An economy of expense leading to an economy of style.

Those images have a particular quality that I’ve always loved. The simplicity of an image made by building layers of color. The opposite of slick. Perhaps that is why I was drawn to printmaking. Printmakers are inordinately fond of process and tools you have to sharpen by hand. We think in layers. We are to painters what typesetting is to Microsoft Word.

Kees & Kleintje, Elizabeth Enright, 1938

Kees &Kleintje, Elizabeth Enright, 1938

Not that images like these were simple to produce. Each color had to be created on a separate overlay in black (or the photo equivalent). Often the print run was limited to two or three colors so overlapping was used to create more.

When you have to do the color separation yourself with specified colors, you have to create the mechanicals whilst thinking ahead to what the image might look like. You won’t know for sure till the finished page comes off the press.

Kees, Elizabeth Enright, 1937

The above images were printed with red, yellow, blue and black inks. The oranges and greens and other tones come from overlapping the transparent inks and using screen tones of those four colors. I know it sounds like CMYK, but the difference is that the color separations were all done by hand. There was no full-color image to start with ahead of time.

Rather than confuse you further by describing what I’m talking about, I will show you an example. The spread below demonstrates how three separate images overlap to produce a multicolor picture.

Woodcuts & Woodengravings: How I Make Them, Hans Alexander Mueller, 1939

When artists work under these limitations, I think a kind of magic can occur. I like the happy accidents that happen when colors overlap and registration gets a bit off. Some people would argue that you can get the same effect more easily using a computer, but there is too much control — down to the pixel — with digital media. There is no room for chance or Happy Accidents. The only accidents I can think of involving computers involve spilled liquids, and they are NOT happy.

Pierre Pidgeon, Arnold Edwin Bare, 1943

Ilenka, Arnold Edwin Bare, 1945

Mrs. McGarrity’s Peppermint Sweater, Abner Graboff, 1966

Josefina February, Evaline Ness, 1963

James and the Giant Peach, Nancy Eckholm Burkert, 1961

So how does all this inform my work?

“Daphne’s Hand”, Margaret Chodos-Irvine

Well, like I said, I’m a printmaker, and printmaking isn’t the most practical illustration technique in which to work. Nonetheless, it is worth it to still leave room for chance in my work. Images like these remind me that working within limits can have positive, even beautiful, results that could not be achieved in any other way.

My Book Bag

From time to time, I want to share books from my own book bag with you here –  “around the table.”  This is what I have in my book bag today:

FAVORITE POETRY BOOKS FOR CHILDREN – 2011

 

I’ve read so many “Best Books of 2011″ lists since January – and discovered so many titles I might otherwise have missed – that I’d like to share my list of nine favorite poetry books for children in 2011.  I chose them based on the craftsmanship behind the poems themselves, the beauty and delight of their illustrations, and the kid appeal (or, sometimes, teacher appeal – though hopefully both) of the whole package. Above are cover images – just click on those for larger images.  And click on titles in the list below to read more about them at Goodreads.com – I hope you enjoy them as much as I have.

If you’re interested in these books – either as a reader or a writer –  be sure to follow Sylvia Vardell’s wonderful blog, Poetry for Children as well as Librarians’ Choices, the blog project headed up by Ms. Vardell, where you’ll find a Master List of worthy poetry titles for kids, put together by librarians around the country. And visit blogs of people who participate in Poetry Friday from week to week – you’ll find a list of people who host the Poetry Friday Round-Up through June over at A Year of Reading.

Illustration by Mark A. Hicks

Responding With Wonder

On Margaret’s other blog, Pebbles in the Jar, the January 18 post is about the state of arts education in America. (http://pebblesinthejar.org/) She writes how recent studies show that arts education nurtures certain Habits of Mind. The list includes problem solving, critical and creative thinking, dealing with ambiguity and complexity, integration of multiple skill sets and working with others. But my favorite is in a further breakdown of these Habits of Mind, and that’s what I want to put on the table today: Responding with Wonderment and Awe.

My picture book, FRANK AND IZZY SET SAIL, comes right from that place of wonder. But it started when I was messing around with paint. I drew this big egg shape, blue above/green below, and thought it looked like earth and sky, so I added a moon and then two little creatures running beneath.

The moon reminded me of a time my husband, John, and I took ballroom dancing lessons at the local community center – which is up on a hill above Lake Washington. On the last night of the class, a full moon was shining down the lake. So at the end of the class, the instructor threw open the doors and turned up the music and we waltzed out into the parking lot. A moonlight waltz. It was one of those times when life expands. When our ordinary life became, for a moment, extraordinary. A time of wonder.

So I looked at this little painting and thought how I might make a picture book that included moonlight and music and my husband and myself. I started by drawing the characters. I gave the bear John’s lanky body and expressions. I decided, like John, he’d be cautious and helpful – and that also, like John, he wouldn’t like playing his ukulele in public. The rabbit, would be impulsive and prone to exaggeration — and would enjoy playing her ukulele in public. Opposites, almost.

If you have a chance to read FRANK AND IZZY SET SAIL, you’ll see how through a harrowing sailing and camping adventure they remain good friends to each other. And that the key moment involves music and moonlight:

Frank and Izzy sang to the stars.

The poet Andre Gide once said that, “The whole of a person’s artistic expression is to try to recapture those moments when your soul first opened.” (though he said it in French.)

Sometimes I wonder about wonder. What survival-of-the-fittest need evolved our keen relish for the beauty of the world, for its quirkiness and incredible detail?

And, getting back to arts education, I can’t help but hope there’s a time – oh, maybe as part of the fourth grade and seventh grade assessments – when this habit of mind, Responding with Wonder, is on the test.