Between Two Points

In geometry we learn that a straight line is the shortest path between two points. It is also sterile, soulless, and uninteresting -- always dull and sometimes ugly.

A Failure to Communicate

Have you ever had trouble pronouncing Chinese city names on a map? You are looking at the transliteration of a visually represented language into a foreign phonetic system.

There are at least four sources for these names. The first is an amateurish one word at a time attempt by a person not trained in a phonetic system. Keelung, Kowlong, etc. These spellings are often heavily influenced by a dialect other than Mandarin, but they are usually trying to be Mandarin.

The oldest phonetic system for Chinese is called the Mathews system. When it is done correctly, it is strewn with apostrophes. Half of the words should have an apostrophe. Before the 1960's this was the most frequently used and produced monstrosities like Peiping and tsingtao.

Next is the Yale system, developed at where else, Yale. It is the closest to American English phonetics. English speakers have about a 25% chance of saying Yale system words correctly, Taibei, Shanghai.

The most common form is a political rather than linguistic solution. China developed the pinyin system. It is remarkably similar to the Yale system with a few substitutions thrown in. Qing instead of Ching.

All of these systems fail spectacularly. They are missing a phonetic dimension. Chinese is a tonal language and none of these systems typically show the tones.

Line Mechanics

We have a similar disadvantages trying to discuss lines. Our vocabulary is not just missing some terms, it is missing a dimension.

As a child, I had access to a poorly printed copy of the Mustard Seed Garden Manual (its about painting, not about gardening). This book has a section that names a shows hundreds of line types. It was commonly used in the nineteenth century as a reference and training for Chinese painting. The names are amazing. It was a shock for me to learn those misty Sung Dynasty landscapes were made with Big Axe Cut and Little Axe Cut lines.

I spent years with totally inadequate materials (kid's brushes, Skrip ink, typing paper) and a badly printed example that lost all detail. When a actually saw high quality Asian art it was like finally getting a drink of water.

Chinese art has a background in mark making that is thousands of years richer than Western art.

Let's say you wanted to make two lines -- one like iron wire and the other like silk. Could you do it? How would you even start? If you did, you would have an individual solution with maybe 5 minutes of history.

Chinese calligraphy is the underlying discipline of both writing and painting. It divides a line into three parts: beginning -- motion -- end. Seems pretty obvious, but try to find a western drawing book with even a hint of this analysis. The beginning is how the brush is applied to the paper. The motion is how the brush is moved including pressure, direction, path, speed, and more. The end is how the brush is removed from the paper. Although this is just mechanics, it is a lot more mechanics that you get in Western training (different tools make different marks)

When I began to learn calligraphy, I drilled in the same few pages of characters day after day, week after week. My frustrated teacher would grab the brush above my grip and drag me through the motions -- like this like this.

Finally I did get the basic mechanics down and I could write a couple of pages with the right mechanics (this took me months of 4 -6 hours a day). I asked my teacher for another example to follow. I thought I had this one down and was ready for a change.

My teacher said, "Before you were just making words. Now you are making calligraphy. It is very, very bad calligraphy. You should keep the same model until you understand that you are making thousands of mistakes in only two pages."


Beth Ames Swartz at Cline Fine Art

"I hope that by exposing people to the beliefs of others and by showing the interconnectedness of one belief system to another, each of us may experience a common compassion."--Beth Ames Swartz

If you are anywhere near Scottsdale, AZ you should get to Cline Fine Art to see the exhibit of Beth Ames Swartz new paintings.

She has had a long and distinguished career as you can see at her website http://bethamesswartz.com , but this latest work looks like it may be the best yet. She combines graceful and lyrical gestures over very rich backgrounds. This exhibit is like an encyclopedia of what acrylic can do. Her surfaces are vigorous and multilayered. She magically paints like a lumberjack and ballerina at the same time.

For an artist several paintings in this show beg the question, "How do you know when a painting is done?" I try to find a state where the picture works for me. To borrow from Chinese principles (ChiYunShengDung), the moment that it has the breath or movement of life. Pretty vague, but when you paint enough you know this moment. A number of works in this show are simpler or stopped sooner than most. And yet, they are as complete as any of the others, showing there is indeed plenty to learn from this master.

In you can not get to the show there are a few images at http://clinefineart.com Follow the Scottsdale branch. Today, it is under upcoming exhibits. I won't put in a direct link because, this will probably change to current exhibit soon and into archives later.


Myopic Vision

" I believe that there is a kind of poetry, even a kind of truth in simple fact." -- Edward Abbey

Vision is the ability to see beyond the visible. It is not enough for an artist to have vision. What works is for the artist to find a way to share a vision, so that the viewers imagination is enriched because she knows the artist's paintings.

On a painting trip to the Grand Canyon I became restless and unhappy with any attempt to render that great vist on a small canvas. In general the more precise perscpective becomes the more monocular it becomes. Obviously photographs satisfy many people that they show the Grand Canyon. I don't understand how anyone who has actually stood at the rim, looked over that great expanse and into the mile deep chasm could think a photograph is the same or even similar.

After hiking a few hundred yards down Bright Angel Trail, I saw a tree stump that contained most of the energy and excitement I felt being at the Grand Canyon.

The general shape and lines of the stump were very close to the many mesas. I painted the stump using the colors of the canyon rather than its local colors. In an early version I had a distant mesa to echo the shape of the stump. This was dropped as being a pale example of the actual distances involved. The final version was cropped to contain only 3/4 of the stump.

So I went to the Grand Canyon and painted a tree stump. I call this myopic vision.

Alone a tree stump might have a hard time being seen as a stand in for the Grand Canyon. Still with a title like "Grand Canyon", "South Rim", or "Bright Angel", the hook is there. A viewer may indeed see marks that bring memories of the vista and her experience of it. It takes more connection on the viewers part and it may miss many viewers. But when it works, it can do more to share experience between artist and viewer than any photo realistic view ever could.

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