The Wild Self, Autism and the Kinship of Stories

The wolf

I have been re-reading Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ book “Women Who Run with the Wolves” recently and listening to some of her audio stories. It’s been a really good learning experience in terms of life and art. In honour of this I decided to try to paint a wolf. Again I tried to paint it in a way which could have been printed with a set of woodblocks, using flat washes of colour and simple gradients.

I began with a sketch…

Then covered my whites with masking fluid and ran a variegated wash over it very lightly.

Then I began laying down the flat washes, colour by colour just as a printer might.

This is my final painting…

I wasn’t sure how to imitate the line work of Ukiyo-e prints. Here I just left it with the pencil showing but I think a slightly darker tone would be better. That said I don’t think black would work so well, it might make it look like a cartoon. I might try getting some really thin 0.3 or 0.2 dark sepia pens which could give me the kind of tone I’m after.

A small difficulty I had with this picture is that the paper was marked with oil, probably just from handling, (it was from an older batch) so in places the paint was absorbed more giving darker tones in what was supposed to be a very flat wash. I could handle this by using gouache paint but watercolour looks more similar to the inks in the original Ukiyo-e prints. My other option is to buy some cotton rich paper which has better absorption qualities and then make sure I only use clean untouched sheets for this kind of work. I’ve never worked with a good cotton paper before so that might be fun to try.

Here’s the book which inspired this painting…

The Wild Self, Autism and the Kinship of Stories

I think I have a strong tendency to be too “tame”, to follow rules without thinking and do as I’m told. I think this comes from being Autistic, and having a systems view of the world. I just find out how things work and then follow the pattern, just like a good AI robot. I am really happy being told what to do and then getting on with it. The difficulty I come up against is that this approach only works well when the systems are effective and no-one is giving false or inaccurate information. I find it really difficult when I’ve done what I’ve been told is the right thing to do only to find that I’ve been lied to or accidentally mislead or when I’ve misunderstood. When this happens people rarely allow me to explain and often I can’t because one of the unwritten rules of social functioning is that you mustn’t expose other people’s wrong doing or mistakes. So I get blamed for things which are not my fault really often.

This book, “Women who run with the wolves”, gives me some really good guidance about all of this. It teaches me how to know when to question something and how to go about it in a natural and intelligent way using the archetype of the wild woman. Best of all Estes uses traditional stories from all over the world to teach this wisdom.

Now I have always had a strong kinship with stories. I expect this just comes from being lucky enough to have parents who read to me and encouraged books when I was young. I also had a younger sister who was, and is, a stronger person than me in so many ways. She used to demand that I made up a story for her after we were put to bed. I found sleep very difficult as a child so I was mostly happy to do this although I sometimes tried to refuse (my teddy Rusty was then threatened and she usually got a short and rather unsatisfactory story from me that night). Even nowadays, at work, I still make up stories on the spot for the children, often putting them into the tale or letting them choose various facts in the story. So stories have always been a language I understand. (In fact I often wonder if stories are not a primary programming language for human beings.) Anyway, I think this is why Ms. Estes’ book is so helpful for me. She uses stories to help people.

She also distinguishes between being tame, being feral and being truly wild. Being tame is how I tend to function, following rules and letting others tell me what to do. Being feral is kind of what happens when people are too tame for too long – it’s an inappropriate explosion of the wild nature which isn’t balanced or particularly helpful. It happens when people “go off the rails”. The real wild nature is different. Although it can be savage at times, it is only like that when necessary. Mostly it is balanced, wise and centred, doing whatever is needed for the person and those around them at the time. What I like best is that it gives me a way of managing things which doesn’t leave me so open to difficulties.

I will have to practice this to get it right but I think it will be worth it.

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Shin Hanga – Kawase Tribute in Watercolour

The Shin Hanga, or “New Print” movement in Japanese woodblock printing is something I find to be absolutely stunning.  I especially love the work of Kawase Hasui and Tsuchiya Koitsu.  This week I worked on drawing and painting a tribute to Kawase and then a piece in which I tried to follow these marvellous print makers in spirit.

The print I wanted to use to make the tribute to Kawase’s work is his “Nagahama Beach in Mito.  Here is a digital version of Kawase’s original work…

 

I found the initial drawing quite exacting as I wanted to draw the painting as if the image were going to be carved.  Although I’m by no means an expert I have carved a few things before so I have a very basic idea of what I can and can’t be done.  Here’s my initial drawing…

 

 

Then I wanted to paint this picture with watercolours but try to get similar effects to Japanese woodblock printing.  So my washes had to be either smooth gradients or really careful flat washes.  I found this quite demanding but also quite enjoyable because I was dealing with one colour at a time and one section of the painting at a time.  Trying to think like a print artist seemed to give me this sense of focus and quietness which I really enjoyed.

This is the final painting…

 

Next I wanted to paint something local and original but I also wanted to try to use some of what I’d learned in the tribute piece.  I decided on a view of our local common.

Here’s the sketch…

 

I tried to reduce the scene, which was quite complex, to simple layers which could be printed.

Then I went on to paint the picture with watercolours but in a restricted way so that the end result might look as if it could be printed.  Again I had to think about simple sections of colour and smooth gradients.  Mostly I got there but I may have used too many colours in the background row of trees for a woodblock print.  I think it could be done but it would take a lot of blocks.

 

 

 

Japanology, Prints and Paintings

 

Although this post will be published in Mid March, I am actually writing it during the half term holidays in the middle of February.  This half term I have been recovering from an illness which took me to hospital last week and looking after my son who has had an operation a few days ago.  So, rather than being out and about, I have spent a lot of time relaxing indoors and looking after my lad who is doing very well.  While surfing the web I stumbled across a series of Japanese woodblock prints.  I have always loved The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Japanese ukiyo-e artist Katsushika Hokusai.

Here is a link from Wikipedia:

Great Wave of Kangawa by Hokusai

But I have never made a serious study of the art-form – until now!  I have been blown away by the simplicity and beauty of this kind of art.

Woodblock printing originally came to Japan from China in the 8th century CE and for a long time was only used for printing the written word – mainly Buddhist texts.  Then in 1765, right in the middle of the Edo period, a new style of polychromatic woodblock printing was invented called Nishiki-e.  At first they printed beautiful calendars with this method but the technique was soon taken up by ‘Floating World’ artists and so Ukiyo-e was born.  Ukiyo-e is printed art which centres on the fleeting and ephemeral nature of ordinary life.  It began featuring the goings on in the urban pleasure districts during the Edo period – beautiful women, geishas and teahouse mistresses, kabuki theatre, warriors and sumo wrestlers.  Later the subject matter broadened out to include landscapes, travel scenes, scenes involving people doing ordinary jobs, natural scenes of animals and plants and much more.  I have only really touched upon the surface of the subject so far but here are my favourites at this stage:

 

 

 

  • Kawase, a more modern artist, who specialised in landscapes of tranquil and obscure places.  Here is a selection of his work from the Ronin Gallery

 

  • Koitsu, another more modern artist who also does a lot of landscapes.  Here is some of his work.

 

The last two of these artists are from the Shin Hanga movement which began in about 1910.  It was really a revival of the original woodblock printing with some modern influences.  (Shin Hanga means “New Prints”.)

Of course, having been blown away by this artwork I wanted to have a go myself.  My aim was not to make my own woodblock prints but to create watercolour and gouache paintings which have a similar look and feel.  I suspect this is something that I will have to learn as I work on it.

The first painting I had a try at was a natural scene of a bird with some cherry blossom by a late 19th century / early 20th century artist called Ohara Koson…

Orange Bird and Cherry Blossom by Ohara Koson

 

I made this painting as a present for a family member’s birthday…

 

I made a graded wash going from the centre outwards with more cadmium yellow deep as I got towards the edge.  Then I painted the bird and the flowers on with watercolours.  I wasn’t sure from the original what bird species it was so my interpretation is a little fanciful  (sort of a red version of a blue tit).

 

While I was at the hospital waiting for my son to be discharged I made a sketch in pencil of the next subject I wanted to have a go at.  Here’s the original art by Kawase…

Moon at Matsushima by Hasui Kawase

 

Here’s my interpretation as a sketch…

 

And here is my watercolour impression of Kawase’s work…

I used a basic graded wash over my pencil outline and then painted the features on with gouache.  I am pleased with how both of these paintings turned out as initial studies, but I would like to work some more on this to see how far I can take it and what that ends up looking like.

 

 

Rendering Clouds and Rhinos

(N.B. I create and schedule all my posts ahead of time in the school holidays and then just make minor adjustments before they are posted by the WP system. Unfortunately I am quite unwell at the moment and waiting to see if I need surgery so I can’t do this right now. Instead, I’ve decided to just let the system publish my posts automatically without the extra editing I usually do just before they go out. I apologise for any errors and for any problems I have getting back to people who comment while this is going on.)

My Quirky Friend

This week I played around a lot more with gouache. When I first tried this medium, a year or so ago, I found it quite tricky but I don’t think it’s actually difficult, it’s just quirky and idiosyncratic. Once you get to know it, it reveals it’s fun side. I guess it’s a bit like having a quirky friend. They might seem a bit odd at times but once you know them you see how lovely they really are. I really love friends like that!

The Joy of Totoro

So I began this week looking again at how different painters render clouds. I should really have gone straight for Monet’s The Seine at Argenteuil but I’ve recently been re-watching a lot of Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli films and I was really caught by the background artwork in My Neighbour Totoro. I wasn’t really doing a serious study but just sketching in my regular sketchbook. I was just full up with the joy and beauty of the film itself. This is what that sketching turned into…

I didn’t really get the cloud colours right, or the shapes for that matter but it was so much fun playing with the paint and re-experiencing the joy of the film through sketching! I worked from back to front in the picture so I could put the next layer I was working on over the edge of the previous layer.

Rhino Studies

Later on in the week I began thinking about Rhino’s and how they’re heading towards extinction. They’re magnificent, strong animals but can be unpredictable and cantankerous. Although I wouldn’t want to go down to the pub with a rhino, I kind of admire their fierce “sod-you” attitude. So I painted a couple.

I began with this one…

Which looked like this painted…

I liked the deep colours. Gouache gives a painter such a range of strong colours it’s tempting to use really saturated hues all the time just because you can. On reflection I thought my rendering here made the skin look more like that of a hippo, sort of rounded and slimy, especially up near the ears. So I had another go and this time I went for more realistic colours so I could concentrate on more subtle shades and hues.

Here’s the sketch…

I used an under-painting on this to get my eyes around the main darks and lights…

Then I went for the final picture…

I was using this study to practice rendering 3D shapes with paint and to learn to use more muted colours and shades. I am happy with some of it and would like to work on other bits a bit more next time. I like the shape just behind and under the animal’s eye, where the face has a concave look because of the bone structure. I was also pleased with the hints here and there in the shadows of the range of violet and blue shadows I was using in addition to the shaded local colour. On the other hand I’m not that keen on the ears or the bottom of the front horn. Neither of these parts of the image scan as well as I had hoped.

Learning Curves (Caution: maths fun ahead)

I’ve been painting for most of my adult life now. I wonder if I will always have things I would like to change next time in the work I produce? I’m aiming to get each picture just how it is in my mind, but they’re always a bit different. Wanting to paint a perfect picture feels a bit like trying to approach the speed of light. It’s fairly easy to make progress when you’re a beginner but the better you get the more energy it takes to improve. It’s like the graph of 1/x. As x goes up, y gets closer and closer to zero but never gets there, like this…

In fact I think with art it’s more like this brilliant graph of a curvilinear asymptote…

How cool is that!

I really hope the learning never stops, I love the ride on this mad slope.

“The Greatest Teacher Failure is”

Yoda says in Star Wars The Last Jedi
“Pass on what you have learned. Strength, mastery. But weakness, folly, failure also. Yes, failure most of all. The greatest teacher, failure is.”

I’ve certainly found this to be true. I have learned a lot more from my failures than I have from my successes. At school, our headteacher has this quotation on her door. We sometimes have children who find the thought of failing at something very, very hard and so would rather avoid trying if they think they might fail. Every other term or so we all walk around to the headteacher’s door and read the quotation and then go back to class and talk about it. In a world where so many people put only their successes on social media and hide their failures it feels really healthy and relaxing to be OK with messing something up.

This week’s painting a portrait of Yoda when he was young (only about 400 years old, rather than 900!)

I began with a reference photograph from one of the films…

Then I used my PC to try out various backgrounds. In the end I settled on this tree sketch behind him…

I painted him in watercolour on A3 hot pressed, 300gsm paper, beginning with the background and then working forwards to the Jedi Master himself. It took me a couple of weeks on and off to get this done. I actually finished it before Christmas but was working on publishing my October Ink drawings at the time so I put it aside until later. Here’s the final picture…

I like his younger look and the shape of the tree behind him. However, if I did this portrait again, I would reduce the saturation and contrast in the tree a little and maybe even paint it more loosely to push Yoda forward and give the picture more depth.