Patterns, Prints, Possibilities

•01/30/2012 • 2 Comments

OK… stay with me on this….

Human beings desire order. We look for it and find it, even when it is not present. Looking at the clouds passing overhead we find shapes that are familiar and we assign substance to the ephemeral vapor that it does not possess. “Look, there’s a dog barking. And over there’s a bird.” Referencing familiar shapes seen in the randomness of natural forms is so profoundly a part of being human that our fellows will see the same dog and the same bird, though neither exists.

Gustave Courbet and Edouard Manet opened a door for European artists into a world of painting outside of explicit representation. They allowed and facilitated patterns and meaning in the midst of smudges of paint. Yes, there was the imposed (if inadvertent) order in their application of paint. But they allowed and encouraged the viewer to see much more than they actually painted. They nudged the viewer toward content which exists only in the mind of the audience, not in the way the paint is manipulated. When examined carefully, the paint was just that: Paint. With context, imagination and a little distance, the paint became a forest, a waterspout, a field, a vase, a flower.

The ideas and works of Marcel Duchamp presaged just about every stage of the progression of “modern” art. His ideas picked up at the Post Impressionists and culminated with the idea that art is really all about the idea, not the object. Nevertheless, he was continually compelled to make objects anyway. At times he gave up as much control as he could and sought out randomness and natural patterning in the pursuit of artistic discovery. As early as 1914 Duchamp imposed the label of “art” on the irregular curve created by the trace of a piece of one-metre long string dropped onto a piece of paper. I don’t know if Duchamp saw any barking dogs in the resulting marks but he did choose to see art. And in these exercises in creativity he saw order and meaning where there had previousl been none.

As a curious parallel, let me remind you that physicists tell us that the very act of observing a particle influences the behavior of that particle. In cold, empirical terms alone, our actions directly and measurably affect our environment and, by extension, we affect our universe as our impact ripples out from us.

Which brings me to a series of monoprints I’ve been doing for a few weeks. There is a distinct element of chance and unpredictability within the process of making these prints. But there are also choices and purposeful actions I bring to the process. Some elements I can control. Some are a complete surprise. Like Duchamp, I have chosen a certain set of restrictions (which I seem to stray from occasionally). But the restrictions seem not to limit the results. Each print is completely unique and is the product of my choices combined with the randomness of nature and properties of the materials.

This combination of elements and actions then leads me to my inherent desire to find meaning and impose order (or content) on what would otherwise be the product of randomness and chance. I look for shapes in the clouds and here are some of them I found:

"Arctic Trail" 4" x 7¼" monoprint by William H. Hays

"Aurora" 4" x 6¼" monoprint by William H. Hays

"Forest Night" 4" x 6¼" monoprint by William H. Hays

"Tracks Converge" 4" x 7¼" monoprint by William H. Hays

"Feint" 4" x 6½" monoprint by William H. Hays

"Hillside Forest" 4" x 6" monoprint by William H. Hays

"Rising" monoprint by William H. Hays 4" x 6¼"


Unique Impressions

•01/19/2012 • 2 Comments

I’ve only been printing linoleum block prints for a little less that four years. This week, I did something that I’ve not done in a long time: monoprints.

My linoleum cut prints have been in editions which are pretty small (by printers’ standards). Monoprints and monotypes, as the names would suggest, are unique impressions. Over the years, I’ve not been much of a fan of monoprints. There are very few artists whose monoprints I’ve been attracted to; Deborah Geurtze at Elaine Beckwith Gallery is a very good contemporary printmaker and I’m amazed at her ability to control the medium and create lively, colorful landscapes on paper. Her works are pretty large images for printmaking and they make quite an impression (excuse the pun). William Blake, Edgar Degas, Camille Pisarro and many other artists experimented with single prints with varying degrees of success. But few artists manage to achieve the level of proficiency Deborah exhibits in her work.

There are a number of ways to do monoprints. The images of these prints which follow were done in my studio this month using a brayer (a rubber roller) and a glass plate. The ink was very stiff etching ink. I modified the brayer surface with turpentine, paper, scraping, combing, with little bits of stuff and by rolling selectively. The images which result are evocative, despite – or perhaps because of the pure chance which accompanies the process.

In the prints, the surfaces and textures are rich and the tones are deep. I hope you enjoy them.

"Light Pool" monoprint by William H. Hays

"Light Pool" monoprint by William H. Hays 4" x 6.5"

"Murmuration" monoprint by William H. Hays

"Murmuration" monoprint by William H. Hays 4" x 6.5"

"Nocturnal Gathering" monoprint by William H. Hays

"Nocturnal Gathering" monoprint by William H. Hays 4" x 6.5"

"Space, Curved" monoprint by William H. Hays

"Space, Curved" monoprint by William H. Hays 4" x 6.5"

monoprint, "Open Door" by William H. Hays

"Open Door" monoprint by William H. Hays 4" x 6.5"

monoprint "Stone Curve" by William H. Hays

"Stone Curve" monoprint by William H. Hays 11.5" x 8"

The First Artists

•12/30/2011 • Leave a Comment

Pondering the origins of creativity.

Homo Sapien Sapien – wise man, knowing man, the wisest of wise men, modern man. We do think highly of ourselves, don’t we?

Anthropologists say that our species, the modern human being, came into existence about 200,000 years ago. For the first time on earth there was a species which was aware of its own existence. It was even aware that it was aware. It was able to understand a past, present and future, could plan ahead, could plan in groups, had language, could tell stories and could understand existence beyond the visible world. The primal connection between modern man and the world around him became less complete than it had been in the past. Now, man stood apart from other large mammals that shared the wilderness world. Up to the point of becoming “knowing man,” we were animals ourselves.

Some people would question whether we really separated from animals at all. But that’s another subject. I’ve been pondering the origins of creativity lately. At what point did we go from being homo sapien sapien to being homo artifex – creative man? For how long in history has the urge to create beauty and embellishment been a fundamental part of being a human being. Did that uniquely human characteristic begin 200,000 years ago?

Inscribed ochre from 70,000 years ago

Inscribed ochre from 70,000 years ago.

Up until about ten years ago, the oldest artworks we were aware of were about 35,000 years old. They were associated with the people who occupied the famous caves of Spain, France and Germany. Then, in 2002, the age of the initiation of creativity was suddenly doubled. Now our understanding of when modern man first employed art goes back to 70,000 years ago with finds of inscribed ochre in South Africa. Some scientists have said they believe the geometric designs are simply meaningless doodles. And they may well be the case, despite their high degree of organization and the very purposeful workmanship required to make the objects.

Horses in Chauvet cave

Four horses from the cave near Chauvet, France. Approximately 35,000 years old.

But there is no question that 35,000 years after the inscribed ochre was made (and 35,000 years ago) human beings were doing art. I’ve been making art the greater part of my life and I can assure you that such exquisite works of art are not the product of a spontaneous genius. These works are a function of an established tradition, passed down from generation to generation within a stable cultural framework. Can anyone seriously look at this image of the four horses and think that this is a product of leisure time which spontaneously sprung into existence 35,000 years ago? No. That is not possible.

Such an expressive depiction is the result of a stable culture which had been in existence for quite some time. The reason we date the beginning of artistic expression to 35,000 years ago is simply that this one cave (Chauvet) has the oldest evidence we’ve found of true art. But the art surely could not have begun only at that moment in the evolutionary timeline. Such expression requires a well from which to draw such sophisticated creativity. At the time of the Chauvet drawings the well was already rich with the history of a unique category of human endeavor – creativity outside of utility.

Finds in Algeria and in Israel show us that humans were decorating their own bodies with jewelry at least 100,000 years ago. The items found were beads made of shells. But what of objects made of grasses, of earth, of wood and of other less durable (but more easily worked) materials. Surely they go back further than 100,000 years ago. Such objects no longer exist for us to find. Personal decoration could actually extend back to the first homo sapien sapiens. It is possible that ‘knowing man’ and ‘creative man’ were never separated in time.

This brings me to the conclusion that there is no firm beginning point for the creation of art. We will not find the first drawing, painting, carving or decoration. Little by little the edifice of human understanding and creativity was built upon until we reached the point of being able to create these, the oldest surviving masterpieces of intentional, undeniable art at 35,000 years ago.

Of the thirty-five millenia between then and now, about six of them have some degree of recording which puts them in the category of history. There is a 6,000 year gap between the last paintings in the caves of Europe and the beginning of recorded history (and the beginning of civilization). These six millenia must have been a dark time, culturally speaking. But prior to this dark interim, there was a span of 20,000 years of consistent, culturally based art which survives in the caves. Twenty thousand years of a consistent cultural foundation…. What an idea!

The image of cave men (and women, of course) takes on a new light when described in the context of a stable culture that lasted more than three times the length of recorded history. Obviously these were not the stupid brutes I grew up thinking they were. Consider, for instance, that some of the cave paintings are done on ceilings that are three times the height of a man. Scaffolding was clearly necessary to do these images.

And what grand images they are! Some individual animal paintings are as much as five meters long. The surfaces they were working on were rough stone which required informed preparation. The groupings of animals are purposeful and fairly consistent in their arrangements and their depiction, despite tens of thousands of years separating the cave of Chauvet from the cave of Lascaux. The artists were working in pitch dark with oil lamps for light and nothing more than charcoal and earth for pigments. The logistics to pull it off even today would be quite a challenge! Thirty five millenia ago, it is an achievement of profound importance on an epochal level.

Cave paintings in Lascaux caves. Approximately 12,000 years old.

I’ve done large paintings and I know that they take not only planning, but some considerable and concerted effort to execute. The cave paintings were not just the efforts of the lone artist. These were endeavors which took a community’s cooperation over a span of time and for a specific purpose. (The span of time is sometimes thousands of years between different drawings on the same wall.) Remember, these folks were still hunter-gatherers. Yet they felt this was so important that they removed themselves from the necessary activities of food gathering, protection and shelter to coordinate their efforts to create pictures of animals on the ceilings of caves – pictures which possess remarkable beauty and power on a grand scale. The level of their artistic achievement is considerable and it humbles an artist such as myself.

It is said that Picasso reacted to the cave paintings by saying something along the lines of, ‘We haven’t learned anything in 12,000 years.’ I have to admit to having a very similar reaction myself. Only now the lament is updated to 35,000 years of creative dormancy.

Our present time is continually being turned over. Our future is quite unknowable in its seemingly perpetual and accelerating state of dramatic change and innovation. We find ourselves in a similar state of affairs as we consider the past. Perpetual renovations from scholarship and discovery dramatically remake our understanding of our past selves with notable frequency. What we thought we knew about paleolithic man is suddenly not so. It could be that the overarching characteristic fueling the exponential blossoming of modern man’s achievements is our innate creativity. It could be that without the admixture of artistic expression, an appreciation for beauty and creative problem solving in human activity, our existence would be little more than comfortable utility. It is a gift from the universe, this creativity. Art is not a luxury for an educated elite. It is a fundamental part of being the wisest of wise men.

William Hays

Some notes:
The caves of Chauvet and Lascaux are well represented online. If you are interested in getting a clearer picture of what these treasures are like, take a look at these sites: Chauvet Cave and Lascaux Cave are both French government sites that provide fabulous virtual tours of these two caves in great detail.

The Cave Painters, by Gregory Curtis, was published in 2006. Although I would not recommend it for its shining literary turn of phrase, it is a very good review of how the European Caves were discovered, percieved, studied and revised up to the present. If you’re interested in the subject, paleolithic art, it is a good read.

The two virtual tours above of Chauvet and Lascaux caves are enough to keep the interested person busy for hours. But Werner Herzog’s documentary of Chauvet cave, Cave of Forgotten Dreams can be truly moving. Herzog’s personality sometimes gets in the way of the stunning cave and its art. The music is often too overpowering. His film sometimes diverges in the most annoying ways from the jaw-dropping spectacle of the cave art. But you must see this. And if you can see it in 3-D, even better. The annoyances will fade in the memory of this astonishing place. I was nearly in tears while watching this film, it is so startlingly beautiful.

Coming up with a new idea

•12/21/2011 • 3 Comments

Sometimes ideas for works of art are like cars in the city – there are plenty of them, maybe too many. You have to pick and choose among them in order for them to mean anything at all. The beautiful planet we live on offers more than enough raw material for artistic ideas. The simple act of looking in any direction, any time of day or night, any time of year is enough to invoke feelings of wonder at the beauty of it all. If I could actually paint what I can see, I would be world-famous.

But I can’t paint what I can see. So I have to resign myself to an abstraction within the context of a plane of a piece of paper or a canvas. So my motivation is more the idea of something I’ve seen than a desire for accuracy in depicting something I’ve seen. I wanted to share with you a bit of the process of coming up with the latest idea for one of my multi-color linoleum block prints.

Just north of Brattleboro (Vermont) is the village of Putney. A couple of miles south of Putney is a farm on the eastern side of the road. The barn is quite lovely and the house looks like one of the very early farm houses in this are, maybe circa 1770 or so. It doesn’t appear to be a working farm though the land its on is obviously good farm land. I’ve admired it for many years and thought of doing a piece of art to honor this place.

With things that are manmade, I often use a photograph as a reference. So I began with the photograph below. The only problem is that what I see is not the stuff of a good composition. The idea of the farm is better than the actuality. So I decided to rearrange a few things and see what I could come up with.

Putney Farm 1

Putney Farm - the original photograph

In Photoshop I cut the picture into pieces and rearranged them. I introduced the fence posts in the foreground from another photograph. Now I had an arrangement that was more interesting but also a bit confusing.

Putney Farm 2

Putney Farm - Photoshop composite image

To clarify the idea, I went back to a sketch with pencil on paper. With this I could simplify my ideas and better see the compositional flow.

Putney Farm 3

Putney Farm - pencil sketch

Having worked everything out (almost) I reintroduced the photographic references of the farmhouse and barn. Resizing everything to the format of my block, I printed out a full-sized version of this image and traced it with a ball point pen and carbon paper onto the linoleum block.

Putney Farm 3

Putney Farm - final sketch

So now I’m ready to go. I didn’t mention to you that my idea was to do this composition as a nighttime image. It was three days just to get the image onto the block. Carving and printing was another two weeks and in the end I now have an eight-color (seven impressions) linoleum block print. I don’t know how many prints will be in the edition. They are still wet and I’ve not been able to go through them and eliminate prints with errors. Here’s the resulting 12″ x 9″ print:

Midnight Clear

Midnight Clear 8-color linoleum block print by William H. Hays 12 x 9 inches

I hope you’ve enjoyed this examination of composing an image. If you’d like to see how the print was put together, you should take a look at my monthly newsletter for December of 2011. That will shed some additional light on the process I use to create a linocut work of art. If you’re interested in buying one of these prints, you can take a look at a full selection of my work on my site.

I’ll leave you with this poem, sent to me and written by my friend, Michael McCarthy as a response to the finished print:

Moon beams dance

this icy field tonight

only buried fence posts watch…

William Hays

Thinking about prints… and Bridgette of Sweden

•12/14/2011 • 2 Comments

Prints… You see the word all the time. At one time, a print was a marvelous innovation in public art that allowed almost anyone to own a work of art by an admired artist. The first european prints were woodcuts. They became quite popular with the advent of the printing press. Artists like the German, Albrecht Durer got very good at the techniques and his carved wood blocks were used for many thousands of impressions. They were so durable that sometimes the blocks were used to make prints beyond the death of the artist who carved the block.

I have a woodcut print by Durer that is the 16th image (of 16) from a book entitled, “Revelations of Saint Bridgette.” (Sometimes it is spelled Brigitta, Brigid, Birgitta or Bridget.) This particular print depicts Bridgette passing out copies of her revelations to the royalty and church leaders of Europe. Some are not receiving it well and they can be seen in the lower portions of the illustration in the fires of hell and the mouth of the demon.

She has an interesting story, this Saint Bridgette. She was born the daughter of a governor and wealthy land owner who was related to the king of Sweden in the early 1300s. She married, had children and periodically received visions of celestial beings from her childhood. In 1336 she received an extended series of intense visions and messages that she wrote down and sent off to the leaders of Europe and the Roman Catholic Church. The writings were pretty well ignored by the leaders and she was ridiculed by the church for her presumptions regarding how they should clean up their act and cease with the corruptions of the church and state.

In the 1340s, after a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, her husband died. Her children were grown and she decided to devote her life to service and prayer. She moved to Rome in 1350 and established her own order of devotion with the blessings of the Pope. Although the establishment of the day did not look kindly on the revelatory admonitions Bridgette received, wrote down and distributed, the ordinary people of Europe were very receptive. She became a folk hero among the people.

Her vision of the nativity was perhaps the primary source for what we think of as the creche scenes and adoration scenes of art and popular culture from the Renaissance through today. Bridgette died in 1373. It was her received vision of Mary that began the popular idea that Mary was a blond woman. But most of her visions had to do with what constitutes righteous behavior and devotion to the will of God – for the people, but especially for the royal courts of Europe and the hierarchy of the Catholic church.

Though popular, her revelations were slow to be distributed since they had to be copied by hand, one sentence at a time. It was not until the 1440 (almost 70 years after her death) that the printing press with movable type was invented by Guttenberg.

In about 1500, somebody in Germany decided to publish a Latin edition of Bridgette’s revelations. Albrecht Durer was a well-known artist at the time and he was enlisted to do 16 illustrations for the edition. It was a very popular publication and a second edition was published around 1503 in the German language rather than the original Latin. It is this second edition from which the print I own was taken. I’ve framed the print so that the back of it can be seen too. Below is the print, front and back.

I’ve followed the images with the text of the last paragraph of German. I’ve transcribed this as best I can. Remember, this is more than 500 years old, in German black script and a little difficult to read. My German is not good enough to translate this. Maybe someone could help out here?

Albrecht Durer woodcut

Bridgette hands out her revelations to the royalty of Europe and the church leaders

Durer print reverse

Reverse of Durer's print

“Item mann daspuch zu den kunigen eins grossen teils ist aussgezogen von den andern puchern der offenbarungen darub das nit dasselb zwier in dem selben puch gesetzt wurde so werden die capitel also aussgezogen zu frem vrspwng gewisen welhe aber das achtet puch vo den andern in ein befondere puch wollen pangen denen ist not das sy alle Capitel gentzlich vereinen.

Sie endetsich die voired Alphonsi.”

William Hays

Welcome to my blog

•12/08/2011 • 2 Comments

I’ve wondered if starting a blog was a worthwhile endeavor for about ten years now. Seems that it takes me a while to make some decisions. But the decision has been made and here I am.

You might be wondering why it is that I would have thought about such a thing for so long now. Well, the short answer is that I’ve already been doing regular blogging for more than ten years – but on my own website: The Artist’s Loft. The only real difference is that I did not have any way for readers to post their thoughts or comments on my writing and images. With this blog, you are welcome to let ‘er fly! Let me hear from you!

Being an artist is a blessing and a challenge. Creating works of art is a great deal of effort. But the work is good. After that – should one have the burning desire to be a professionalartist – it’s business. In this blog, I choose not to address the business part, just the creative endeavor, the good part.

Brattleboro Moon, linocut print by William H. Hays
Brattleboro Moon, Linoleum Block Print 7″ x 5″

So I’ll leave you in this first post with a recent image showing the view from my studio, overlooking Main Street in Brattleboro, Vermont. This is a linoleum cut print. I’ll be talking quite a bit about linoleum cut printing and the processes that I use to create one-color images like this one and more complicated, multi-color images.