Stories in Art- Music and Movement

Q

Illustration of unintended meanings in article
When I made this large monotype about memory, I didn’t realize that some would associate it with environmental concerns.

The next workshop I’ll teach this fall is Monotype Portfolio. It’s intended to go beyond the basic techniques of one of a kind prints and explore harnessing of acquired skills in service to an artist’s creative vision. Less about how to make a competent print, and more about  making one that tells your story. So here’s some speculation about stories in art:  all art tells a story, whether the artist intends an overt narrative or not.

I reviewed Women of Abstract Expression at DAM in 2016 in terms of its inherent drama- Ab Ex is always about drama, with its reliance on gesture and scale- and in the context of its backstory, of women against a repressive art scene in a sexist society.  

Lee Krasner made obvious use of pinks and browns in this show to declare artistic independence and feminine creative power. “No one was surprised more than I when the breasts appeared,” she says of a pink-dominated piece in the catalog. Pink and brown ( as seen in a couple of pieces in that show), not pink and blue, are the colors of feminine sex. In asserting the dominant colors of the flesh of the vulva and the earth with power, gesture and scale, Krasner must have known she was using color in a transgressive way, to break assumptions and conventions. Pink had already been associated strongly at this time with a demeaning view of femininity, whether in the pink triangles for gays in the Nazi camps, or its prevalence in stereotyped domesticity. She returned later to this combination in “Gaea”. Her generative colors wind up being the story of her will to create art .

 Krasner finds a rich, assertive pink and her browns are straightforward and do not recede. There is tension here, and much to ponder no matter what your superficial reactions to the terms ‘brown’ and ‘pink’. Here, they cannot be separated from her suppressed rage, her earthborn desire to create, her need to assert animal power. Her story, in other words, though through its raw aggressive assertion it becomes ours, too, as recognized by the curator of the show. Colors thus can tell a story in the tension between complements, hues, transparent/opaque, light/dark, warm/cool. Colors are a component of light, of course.

And light has its own story to tell.

As it travels across a pictorial plane, light creates an inherent story. It reveals, hides, blasts and suggests. It’s movement, which creates interest, and even in an abstract picture, one is well served to be aware of the source of the light, as viewers will almost certainly do that, and follow its path, whether unconsciously or not. In pictorial arts, eye movement can certainly be analogous to emotional involvement or interest. It’s an obvious source of drama,   Let there be light. The light at the end of the tunnel.  Every picture is a lighted stage-something is about to happen. It is the white space that makes the advertisement more powerful on a page, separating out noise to let the signal through. Chances are, if you are surrounded by black, you are dead, or asleep and dreaming. Surrounded by white, you are in heaven ( blessed , transcendent), or in a blizzard (lost and near death). Black and white are never neutral.

Composition also tells a story even when not attached to a specific literary narrative. Diagonals are important because they imply movement. Molly Bangs in her innovative Picture This speaks of a diagonal as a tree about to fall, and that’s a form of movement, even an implied danger. But even ‘static’ or stable diagonals in perspective  imply movement into space.  A repeating series of simple vertical shapes, especially strokes, imply rhythm or music, and in this, as in physics, distance= rate x time. Every one of these concepts is somewhat synesthetic; they blend sensory information, which does for the interest level in a picture, what eye movement does. 

Along implied diagonal axes in a picture, other dichotomies come into play as dramatic elements. For example, hard edges versus soft edges: soft =mystery, distance. Hard = surety, obstacle. The eye gives us definition up close, and indistinction far away, so it is a natural thing to see hard edged shapes as closer or more important. In realism, these cues get used pretty straightforwardly. In abstract or expressionistic art, they get jumbled, and become part of a picture’s mystery. This too can be manipulated. Too close, and objects become mysteriously indistinct or vaguely threatening. 

The final story a picture tells is not at all under an artist’s control. Not so much in a gallery setting, but in a street fair show, where artists are spending long hours absorbing the diverse reactions from a large sample of viewers, one is struck by how much a viewer’s interpretation can differ from the one intended by the artist. I actually encourage that with schematic, open ended imagery, but you don’t ultimately control what another tells themselves about a scene. I maintain that this is part of the natural narrative process in art.

When several people interpreted my large monotype, “Man With Torch”, as an environmental statement, I couldn’t really disagree. An indistinct figure wielding elemental power strides across a denuded plain (top).

However, I intended it clearly in my mind when composing it, as a metaphor for memory. One razes the past in memory, even as one marches confidently toward new experience, oblivious of past failure. 

Both interpretations seem valid now. I don’t argue that some interpretations of an image may seem more valid than others; this sort of visual relativism can go too far. But narrative IS organic, and the oldest story is transformation

Thus, no matter how specific the imagery, ambiguity results, and working to make the image more specific often leads to overworking it, which tells its own story, of obsession or neurosis. Visually, this can be a form of stasis, not necessarily a bad thing if balanced against movement or transformation. 

Movement of light across a plane and suggested movement of diagonals comes under the general heading of transformation: all art is transformation of a sort, and anything that shows an artist’s hand, such as transitions from black into white, or blended colors, bring that idea to the fore. Transformation is already in your process, but preconception can sometimes render it awkward or graceless. Transformation IS the story, and it should be built into your process, your composition, and your colors. A recognition of the transformation that inevitably informs a successful piece as it’s being made makes it easier to deal with the fact that the story of a given work of art often doesn’t end when it goes into a frame and onto a gallery wall.  

Register here for Monotype Portfolio, beginning October 13, Or Mad Science Monoprint in November.

Color in Monotypes

Most printmakers use a somewhat limited color palette. Editions of hand-pulled prints often require a separate plate for each color- which can lead to a fair amount of time and expense. This has lead to a tradition of very strategic and inventive color use in printing, and its growth as an advertising medium since the Industrial Revolution has reinforced this. Advertising’s need for bold, simple visual form and messaging dovetails with this, too, and it’s no accident that printmaking is very often- not always- on the leading edge of modernist visual style.

Monotype prints- not technically printmaking, we are reminded by an educational poster in the Art Students League Denver print room, since there is no repeatable matrix from which to make identical prints- is not technically bound by the problem of multiple plates, but there are other reasons why the impetus towards simple color schemes pertains. The tradition of bold, clean-edged design is only one of them.

Artists encounter special challenges in using color inks, which are formulated to withstand the roller of a press, bond with different kinds of paper, and create vibrant results when dry whether applied with brayer or brush. Different ink formulations are used with screen printing, wiping etching plates or rolling onto litho plates and wood blocks (though most of these are fine for monotypes). And while oils, for example, are fairly consistent in texture (subject to modification) and are usually intended to be applied with brush or knife to canvas, inks tend to vary a lot in stiffness and viscosity, transparency and covering power. This makes predicting how they will interact with the more and less delicate types of paper used a learning process.

In monotype, ink can be mixed right on the plate, but delicate final effects can be hard predict after a ride through the 5K psi pressure a typical press generates. Textures, brush strokes and glazing are wiped out, so planning often becomes essential, even when trying for expressionistic or “spontaneous” effects. But these strategies work well with graphic, hard-edged modernist imagery too.

Layering is a good strategy for putting down a spontaneous effect in one color that will retain its integrity when another color is laid down next. Transparency in inks or modifying mediums allow different textures and hues to shine through while creating new tonalities and blends. A good understating of positive and negative space and how the (often) white paper will interact with these allows for light to shine from within, like glazing in oil, or watercolor. And printmakers will often pick a limited selection of colors and make a given color perform multiple roles, as in “process” color (CMYK).

A fairly simple image that actually stretches every rule of color usage in composition to create a compelling, dramatic visual message.

The example I’ve included here, which I’ve often used in classes, uses not a “somewhat” limited palette, but an extremely limited one. Its visual elements also are simple and separate themselves very straightforwardly into five elements; two in the foreground, two in the middle ground and a background. It’s in the colors assigned to these elements that we get a sense of creative transgression, and a feel for why the image is so arresting to the eye.

The first foreground element is the press, done in near silhouette, which provides a deep black field to highlight the second  element, the printer’s address. Clever way to deliver crucial advertising info, yes, but for this discussion the important fact is that we are used to seeing black as a background, as in the prints of Rembrandt, or Castiglione (monotype’s inventor), who use it to convey transcendent mystery, or to highlight bright foregrounds. Here it’s used as a visual tease of sorts, with the darkened foreground obstacle challenging us to peek at what’s going on behind.

The middle ground also has two elements- The printer, done in a simplified chiaroscuro to impart the drama of what he’s doing, ala Rembrandt; and the print he’s inspecting.  This is the most important info in the poster, the printer’s solitary quest for perfection, his attention to detail; and it is substantively done all in white, or to be precise, no color at all, since it is the white of the paper that is generally used by printmakers to get the brightest highlights. There is black, of course, to outline the intensity of the expression on his face, and to set his business-like suit off from the background. We are given to understand, both literally and figuratively, that this print shop owner stands out.

The background is the background, naturally. They often suggest distance, a void, an infinity; restful to the wandering eye, open to contemplation on what has been seen in the fore- and middle ground, but not often a hot, in-your-face foreground-type color like red. It is so insistent that it pushes the middle ground out toward us, adding to the intensity of the message.

Almost every color decision is the opposite of how our instincts tell us color should behave in a realistic image. The foreground is an obstacle to entry into the picture. The most important information is done in no color at all. White is the color most often used to denote negative space, but here used to denote the most positive elements in the composition, printer, press and print.The background is a hot, insistent, almost bludgeoning primary. But these visual transgressions grab us and lock us in instantly to a simple, powerful message (presumably, about printmaking’s power to deliver simple, powerful messages).

Again, bold, graphic, advertising is not necessarily fine art printmaking, which often needs to convey complex messages. But the two have developed hand in hand since the dawn of the printing press, and there is much to learn from it. Thoughtful, unique color use can really make your monotypes stand out.

My next workshop is Monotypes for Advanced Beginners, a studio class for people with some past printmaking experience who want a dialogue about developing their ideas in unique ways. Register by February 21 here:https://asld.modvantage.com/Instructor/Bio/1053/joe-higgins

Source of the picture is The Poster in History, Max Gallo, NAL, 1975. I’ve left the photo credit on the scan, at the top. I could find no further info on the artist, Ming.

 

 

Studio Update

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It’s hard to pick up the thread in the studio after an absence. I’ve been making regular time there since January, but Fall and Summer were mostly a loss as I worked to pay off debt. Glad to be making progress on that, but producing work is the only way to increase sales, which pay debts, too.

I started with some chairs because they are simple enough visually to try new things, yet loaded with enough emotional connotation to make them interesting. I call them my “Place” series as I seek to establish my own place in the studio, and in the wider art world around it. I sometimes use chopped up mylar stencils from older work to create patterns and textures in newer work. It feels regenerative, and doesn’t stink as much as a mulch pile.

My next show will be the Art Students League Summer Art Market, June 11-12, some of these pictures will be available there.

Hue and Cry

This monotype of the snow fences on  Wyoming Route 287 near the Colorado border is headed for a new home in the new COBank office- my first public collection. I loved the color when I made it, though I often wish I'd opted for a quieter sky. My excuse was that the sky is rarely quiet there, but it can be hard to compete with Mother Nature's gory, especially in Wyoming.
This monotype of the snow fences on Wyoming Route 287 near the Colorado border is headed for a home in the new COBank office- my first public collection. I loved the color when I made it, though I often wish I’d opted for a quieter sky. My excuse is that the sky is rarely quiet there- wind-torn clouds, high plains squalls and a spooky propensity for drastic climatic mood shifts as you cross into the northernmost square state are the rule on that trip, which I’ve made many times. But it can be hard to capture Mother Nature’s spacious  glory, especially in Wyoming. The photographer at the time also never got a handle on the colors, the original file is garish and I had to fiddle to get it back to a better match with the original piece. 

It’s a rainy day here, though it can’t really be called dreary. After a fairly spectacular Indian Summer, the trees are in full color, and the grass is still green. The colors tend to play off the silvery sky in surprising ways.

I’ve settled into a fall routine centered around my workshop. I’ve tried something different this year, splitting the eight week workshop into two segments, the first tailored to the needs of beginners- basic printroom procedures, paper  tearing, ink mixing, etc. The second I wanted to create a project-oriented studio atmosphere for those who’ve learned the basics, and want to professionalize in some way- building a portfolio, executing a thematic series, entering shows, etc.

I’m very pleased with the mix of artists in the new workshop. They seem exactly the sort of artists I was hoping would join. On the first day, started with color.

I find myself helping people with color. Color is complex and very technical, which is not what people sometimes want from their art classes. They want to open up the tube and have the perfect color come out, as in a computer paint program. But mixing color in a studio is still probably the best way to understand color. And that understanding is necessary to achieve unique, engaging color schemes. So to get people mixing, I need a fairly brief and basic intro that still allows people to get pretty immediate results.

To do this I’ve now settled on a rather drastic condensation of my dimly recalled college design course, and a real time demo that involves mixing colors then printing a monotype using that very limited color palette. I’m not at all sure I qualify as an expert, but I seem to have at least thought about these things more than most beginning or returning artists. I’ve gotten better at it- to the extent that it feels fairly concise and logical when I outline it, and people don’t sit there scratching their heads, and are often able to get some fairly balanced color compositions pretty soon after I present it. The whole thing takes about an hour to explain and demonstrate, and pretty much sums up my teaching “style” or “philosophy” which is to fairly briefly touch on art’s more complex problems (composition, color, value, expressive mark-making, etc) then get out of the way and let the artists wrestle with it on their own (with some more kibbitzing on my part). These more technical, or “plastic” concerns do often provide opportunities to discuss art’s meanings: an image of similar-sized objects in a row may suggest a rhythm, whether uniform and machine-like or staccato and musical, whereas diagonals suggest movement; A palette of cool colors can seem emotionally distant or ambivalent while a mix of warm and cool has a tendency to dance in the eye.

It is eye movement in the viewer, I always maintain, that is analogous to visual interest and emotional engagement. There are no rules for which colors to use to achieve this, as color is almost always understood in the context of other colors, but there are very definitely rules for how to get rich and vibrant colors and balanced color schemes. Good memorable color, to me, is like rare, great beauty- it’s almost always at least slightly transgressive. Sophia Lauren had a rather prominent nose. Peter O’Toole had noticeably thick lips. And Picasso’s early “Blue Period”, sometimes ascribed to a lack of funds for any other pigments, actually continued well into his career, in the form of the cooled down tones of the breakthrough cubist years and the sun bleached palette and cerulean beach scenes of his “classicist” period.

Color gets taken for granted, but compare September’s golden afternoons with a grey October day and see how it rules our moods, our sense of time, memory and well being, and the whole of our relationship with light and dark, the primal psychological spectrum that lurks beneath our dreams and rational thought.

It Kinda Ties the Room Together

Still haven’t found a job, though I’ve been pretty picky, avoiding the sorts of corporate blowhards who advertise their minimum-wage-no-benefits-McJobs as “careers”. I’m holding out hope for something that is compatible with a private, creative life. Time’s running out, as the money crunch typically hits around Thanksgiving. I may have to widen the search and compromise on something temporary.

In the meantime, the weather is wonderful and I’m spending time on a lot of pet art, writing and reading projects, so it is not the worst time to be unscheduled and broke.

Here’s an end-of-day ghost image/ “palette cleaner” from last Fall that I’ve been experimenting on all year. I take leftover “ghost” imagery ( such as inked mylar shapes) from another large piece, arrange it a plate, and print on a new piece of paper.

First, it’s a quick way to clean up. And second, it often provides a nice intriguing first layer for a future print. In this case, it was so fragmented and unfocussed that many new layers of color were required to “tie” it all together, like The Dude’s rug! It is still somewhat fragmented, but the experiments were fun and productive, and I enjoy it more now.

"Untitled" Monotype, 30x22" 2014
“Untitled” Monotype, 30×22″ 2014 

 

Studio Doings

Joe Higgins Monotypes "Superheroine With Burning Boat" Stage 1
Joe Higgins Monotypes “Superheroine With Burning Boat” Stage 1

I’ve been layering Mylar stencils for transparencies, spatial density and complex colors. I hope for rich interactions of negative and positive space, with new visual textures. But a real danger can be overworked, cramped images. Planning becomes an issue.

Good, rich color often involves planning, with transparency and color designs interacting in fresh ways when planning works but becoming muddy or overbearing when it doesn’t. Spontaneity for me, is in the soul of a monotype. Hit it just right, and you get a richness combined with graphic power that people understand as its own unique medium. Overwork it in trying to correct for texture, registration or tonality, and you only make them wonder why you didn’t use paints or colored pencils, anything more controllable.

This image highlights that delicate ballancing act. The first image above, “Superheroine with Burning Boat “ had real potential after one drop, but was fragmentary and lacked real depth. That, along with a tighter, more integrated (meaning less random) blue/orange tonality.

The second, below, I tried to add a unifying, transparent dark blue over the oranges in the waves but succeeded only in confusing the issue with a heavy blue /black. The trees of the ship are better but still lack any real depth or unity. It still has potential, but needs another layer, though it is dangerously close to being overworked. I’ll keep you posted on this one.

However, this is a time for experimentation for me and the overall idea seems good. Perhaps a more open, less claustrophobic composition, and a lighter touch on the colors might be a good thing. Thoughts?

I have another series of “stage” progressions I’ll post later in the week or next week. It’s one that seems to be coming together more successfully.

Joe Higgins Monotypes "Superheroine With Burning Boat" Stage 2
Joe Higgins Monotypes “Superheroine With Burning Boat” Stage 2

Mellow Yellow

Color reappeared in my new work in a large way. I had put increased attention on color in my summer evening monotype class, because I realized that most people at that level of experience anyway, can use a little background in color theory. Most artists at that level don’t have an intellectual program for color. They tend to pick up a bright looking tube, and go for it. But color is complex, and especially when brushed on to a plexi plate, can turn to a muddy mess so easily.

My Summer workshop was a rockstar class. In my 4 years of doing this, I hadn’t seen one so ambitious and engaged. I decided a nice little talk about  color theory was in order, and they responded well. Here’s what I told them:

The three primary colors, Yellow Red and Blue, when mixed, equal secondary colors Orange, Green and Violet, of varying brightness and warmth depending on what ratio of a certain color is used. Red and Yellow make Orange, for example. Red and Blue make Violet.

Each Secondary color when paired with the remaining, complementary Primary not its parent, yields a neutral tone, depending on ratios used. A little Orange mixed with Blue equals a bluish Gray; a little Blue mixed with Orange equals a rich orangey Brown. These are the Complements. Along with the Primaries, they are key to any of the thousands or even millions of  hues available from just the 8-color tin paint set you used to get at Christmas. You may have, like I did, experienced unneccesary jealousy in that each color in the giant sets your well off school friends got could be quickly concocted with your own set.

My new class has started Tuesday. A very experienced class; many of them have returned after taking the class in the past. I hope that means they liked the things I talked about, and I hope it means they’d like to try new things, because I’ve added some.

I’m also leading discussions about the work we produce. This sounds intimidating, but most artists tend to concentrate on their perceived failures in a given work, while most other people tend to notice things that are working well in that same work. So it’s of great value to discuss the work. I’m also giving “ghost” prints” ( second impressions from the ink remaining on the plate after the first run through the press) new emphasis. They can provide a way forward when artists get stuck, and torpedo our natural tendency to be results-oriented.

Everyone, even the instructor, can benefit from pushing through the first iteration of an idea and letting the “ghosts in the machine” take over for a bit.

From my latest gallery show at Zip 37. I had been taken with Emily Dickinson's several poems on the subject, but also saw a contemporary commentary in the reversal of roles: it's the man who wears the Hijab in this scenario.
From my latest gallery show at Zip 37. I had been taken with Emily Dickinson’s several poems on the subject, but also saw a contemporary commentary in the reversal of roles: it’s the man who wears the Hijab in this scenario. The sudden color burst was as much a surprise to me as to anyone. They are mostly secondary colors, as even the bright Yellow has a touch of Green, and most of the darks are actually a dark Violet.