Archive for the ‘About Anne’ Category

Delightful praise from Russian historian Chester Dunning

Saturday, April 13th, 2013

After sending images of my latest Playground of the Autocrats panel, I was delighted to receive the following email (quoted with permission) from Chester Dunning, author of the wonderful Russia’s first Civil War: The Time of Troubles and the Founding of the Romanov Dynasty:

Wow! Thank you for sending me images of your amazing artwork.  I have been teaching Russian history for over thirty years, and your art really captures the sad, crazy quilt of Russian history and culture.  Congratulations on getting it exactly (insanely) right!

Best wishes,
Chester Dunning
Professor of History and
Murray and Celeste Fasken Chair in Distinguished Teaching
Texas A&M University

 

Catherine the Great: a Satirical Visualization of Russian History and Society

Tuesday, June 21st, 2011

My PLAYGROUND OF THE AUTOCRATS triptych’s bag of tricks….

Anne Bobroff-Hajal gallery talk on "Dress It Up in Resplendent Clothes," June 2011.

I don’t usually focus on my own artwork in this blog.  But for the moment, I’m throwing modesty to the monsoons to celebrate completing my latest satirical triptych about Russian culture and history.

My series of icon-like Russia triptychs is collectively called PLAYGROUND OF THE AUTOCRATS.  In them, Peter and Catherine the Greats, Ivan the Terrible and Stalin host viewers on romps through the wild and wooly forces that have shaped Russian history over the centuries since the Mongol invasions to the present day.  It’s a saga of Tsarism and Soviet Communism (more or less the same dictatorship by different names): the past as godparent to the present.

Below is the character I invented for Catherine the Great.  She’s the star of my newest, 7-foot wide visual/historical spectacle titled Dress It Up in Resplendent Clothes.

My character design for Catherine the Great, who takes viewers on a romp through Russian history in my triptych "Dress It Up in Resplendent Clothes." Acrylic paint and digital images on paper . 2010

Dress It Up in Resplendent Clothes took me well over a year to complete (more on my process of creating it is here).  It’s currently being exhibited at the Blue Door Gallery in the Arts District of Yonkers, NY, just north of NYC.  (If you’re in NY and want to check out the exhibit, you can have a bite to eat nearby afterward – walk over to Peter Kelly’s X20 on the Hudson River pier, or to Zuppa the next block over from the gallery.)

(Continue reading below the image for more about Dress It Up.)

"Dress It Up in Resplendent Clothes" . 7' x 6' . Acrylic and digital images on canvas and board . 2011

What do I hope you’ll find in these insanely-elaborate artworks?

My first goal with my triptych’s bag of tricks is to amuse and amaze you.

"Stalin in Sheep's Clothing" . 12" x 15" . Acrylic on paper . 2010 . (Appears in lower left panel of "Dress It Up in Resplendent Clothes")

But if you decide to keep gazing around the pageant I portray, I also want to horrify you, and make you cry, and show you some of the vast historical forces that sweep up hapless human beings in their powerful gales.

So #1, bring you a smile.  After all, Russia has fantastic history, a lush and glorious culture, enchanting and powerful characters.

If you choose to go deeper, I hope to enrich your experience and understanding of the extremes of the human condition.  Tragedy.  Joy.  War.  Deception.  Terror.

You’ll find War and Tragedy in my first triptych, The Most Exposed Terrain on Earth. The second triptych, Home Security at Any Crazy Price, features Terror and Manipulation.

In Dress It Up In Resplendent Clothes, Catherine brings Disguise and Deception.

All in the spirit of fun, mind you!

Catherine the Great, Our Heroine

Many Americans have several associations with Catherine the Great.  Tales of her sexual adventures.  Her fabulous art collections.  Her reputation as a beacon of the French enlightenment in “backward Russia.”

Anne Bobroff-Hajal gallery talk about "Dress It Up in Resplendent Clothes," June, 2011.

She’s famous for having corresponded with the leading European thinkers of her time: Voltaire, Montesquieu, D’Alembert, Diderot (you’ll notice above that I’ve painted her holding letters she’s written to them with that feather pen in her other hand).

Less often noted are some very unenlightened policies Catherine enacted.  Every time she dumped a lover, she’d give him a new estate or two along with thousands of serfs to boost his wounded self-esteem.  She extended serfdom in general.  And she instituted the Jewish Pale of Settlement, which confined Russian Jews to living only in specified territories along the western border of her Empire.

How do I paint Russian history?

My triptychs use a technique common to icons, comic books, and animation story boards: they’re made up of a series of pictures that tell a story.  Below is one of the images I painted of Catherine the Great.  It forms the upper half of the left panel of the triptych.

Left panel detail of "Dress It Up in Resplendent Clothes," by Anne Bobroff-Hajal: Catherine speaks words of the French Enlightenment while the Russian peasants live in serfdom. 18" x 12" . 2011

Below is a detail of Catherine’s captive audience, my depiction of her Russian serfs.

Detail of Russian serfs from "Dress It Up in Resplendent Clothes," by Anne Bobroff-Hajal

There are many more scenes that make up the story I tell in Dress It Up in Resplendent Clothes, many more chapters to my tale.   Stalin is involved, as the inheritor of the tsarist system and the history of serfdom.  Oh, and the story is told in lyrics which I wrote to the well-known, beloved Russian folk tune KALINKA.  The music and lyrics are all in the tryptich, too.  You can see closeups of each panel here.

One Artist, Two Worlds

How did I get myself into the years of research, planning, writing of lyrics, and painting it takes to create each PLAYGROUND triptych?

I am an artist.  But for about a decade of my life, I was under the impression that I was an academic historian, so I went to grad school to earn a Ph. D. in Russian history.  The thrilling part was living for a year in the USSR, that great hall of crazy mirrors, doing dissertation research.  My dissertation was later published as a scholarly book, Working Women in Russia Under the Hunger Tsars.

But ultimately I became aware that I was seeing history in pictures that were more compelling to me than were academic debates.  I set off on a long and twisted journey to find a path combining my two worlds, art and history.

The result, finally, has been PLAYGROUND OF THE AUTOCRATS.

Closeups of each “Dress It Up” panel in sequence are here; more on my process of creating it is here.

Extraordinary coincidence in Ryazan: Kull and Bobrova co-workers at Singer Sewing Machine

Friday, June 25th, 2010

This is Chapter 5 of the thread “The World of Jews in Ryazan: Beyond the Pale.” Other chapters can be found here.

____________________________

“It is an odd feeling to correspond with people whose relatives knew yours 150 years ago.”    - Laurie Williamson, a friend doing Civil War research, after discovering some one whose ancestor was in the same Civil war brigade as her great-grandfather.

I now live NY, USA; my grandfather lived in Wisconsin. Leon Kull grew up in Moscow and emigrated with his wife & kids to Israel

I now live in NY, USA; my grandfather lived in Wisconsin. Leon Kull grew up in Moscow and emigrated with his wife & kids to Israel

Leon Kull, great-grandson of Yakov Kull, grew up in Moscow, Russia.   In 1990, Leon emigrated to Israel with his wife and kids.

I grew up 6000 miles away in Sudbury, Massachusetts, a little town outside of Boston.  My Jewish grandfather, Boris (Bornett) Bobroff, had lived in Wisconsin, but died before I was born.

I “met” Leon Kull through the Ryazan subgroup within JewishGen.org as I set forth on an expedition to learn more about my grandfather.  Members of this JewishGen geneology subgroup all have ancestors who lived in Ryazan, Russia, at some point in the 19th or early 20th centuries.

Because Jews were only 2-3% of Ryazan’s population, the JewishGen Ryazan subgroup is tiny, about nine people.  It was easy to email them.  Several responded to me, including Leon Kull.   I began to learn bits of how their Ryazan ancestors had wound up living in a place from which most Jews were excluded by the laws of the Russian Empire.

I became intrigued by this small but very varied group of Jewish ancestors: wealthy, aristocratic members of the Polyakov family; Yakov Kull, who managed a ready-to-wear clothing store; the skilled shingle-maker Avrom Mesigal; and my own grandfather, who worked at Levontin’s agricultural machinery factory around 1904-5.  I began to write a blog thread, “The World of Jews in Ryazan” about this little group of Jews living “Beyond the Pale.”

Kull family in Ryazan in 1910. Yakov is the adult male farthest right. His brother Ber is next to him.

Kull family in Ryazan in 1910. Yakov is the adult male farthest right. His brother Ber is next to him.

Ad for the Russian Singer Sewing Machine Company

Ad for the Russian Singer Sewing Machine Company

Last week, while I was researching my most recent post, Leon at his computer in Israel began emailing me information he was turning up in some files he hadn’t checked in a while.  A number of years ago, Leon had hired an archival researcher in Russia who’d uncovered various pieces of information – including pages from the 1910 Russian Census listing Yakov Kull’s place of residence and work.

This Census showed that by 1910, Yakov had moved on from managing the clothing shop to working as a salesman at the Ryazan branch of the Russian Singer Sewing Machine Company.

As Leon looked through his files last week, he also suddenly began to discover information about a Ryazan Jewish family named Bobrov.  “Bobrov” is the same name as mine, “Bobroff,” just transliterated differently from the Cyrillic alphabet.  Given how small the Jewish population was in Ryazan, it’s almost certain that this Bobrov family was related to my grandfather.  Here are some of the nuggets Leon sent me:

Bobrova Rokhilya Movsheva (daughter of Movsha), bourgeoise, born in 1867 in Minsk province (within the Pale of Jewish Settlement).  She settled in Ryazan in 1887.
Rokhilya Bobrova’s husband was Elya Bobrov, born between 1860-65, died sometime before 1905.

At the time of the 1910 Russian Census, Rokhilya Bobrova was 42 years old.
Her children were:
Iokhim son of Elya  19
Bentsean 12
Moysha 10
Zalman 8
Nakhman 6

My grandfather, Boris L. Bobrov (or Bobroff) had already left Russia by the time of the 1910 Census, so he would not have been included here even though he had lived in Ryazan.

So, the mystery’s tendrils grew:

How was Rokhilya Bobrova related to my grandfather? She was about 16 years older than him.  So she could have been a young aunt or an older cousin.  (It’s unlikely that she was his very young mother, because his middle initial was “L,” meaning that his father’s first name began with that letter, so it was not Rokhilya’s husband Elya.)  Perhaps in future I’ll track down the connection between Boris and Rokhilya by looking back at Minsk, from whence they came.

I suppose the reason anyone searches for information about their ancestors is that they’re yearning to find connections with others beyond themselves in time and place.  Early on, I had thought that Robin Pollack Wood and I might have such a time-warp connection, via her great-grandfather who owned an agricultural machinery factory in Ryazan, and my grandfather, who worked in one.  But it turned out the two factories, though similar in name, were actually different.

I had been silly, I thought, to expect such a coincidental connection within the Ryazan subgroup.

So it was with eerie astonishment that, a day or two after Leon’s first finding Rokhilya Bobrova, I read a new email from him.  This one had images attached: of a handwritten, double-spread page of the 1910 Russian Census for Ryazan.  Listed on line #81 was Rokhilya Bobrova.  On the very next next line, #82, was Yakov (Yankel) Kull!

1910 Russian Census pages listing Bobrova and Kull

1910 Russian Census pages listing Bobrova and Kull

“Why,” wrote my fellow detective Leon rhetorically, did the two families appear right next to each other?   For the answer, he turned my attention to the second half of the Census listing, which noted work place and residence.  Happily, Leon provided me an English translation of the faded, scratchy, handwritten Russian.

And there, there was the answer:

“Rokhilya Bobrova works at Singer company (служит в компании Зингер)
Place of residence: Ekaterininskaya Street, Ignatyev’s house (Место
жительства: Екатерининская ул. д.Игнатьева)”

“Yankel Kull is a sales agent of Singer sewing machines (Агент по продаже швейных машин Зингер)
Place of residence: the same (as above) Место жительства: там же”

In other words, as Leon explained, Bobrova and Kull worked in the same company, Singer Sewing Machine.  They also

“lived in the same house (on Ekaterininskaya Street).  And when we look at other addresses on this page, we understand that all 4 families lived on the same street.  Authorities compiled this census document by checking one house after another. That’s the reason why Kull and Bobrova appear one after another.”

Wow!  Leon and I might live 6000 miles apart, but a hundred years ago, our forebears lived in the same house.  And they worked together at Singer’s.  They must have known each other quite well.

I felt like Leon’s and my ancestors were not only coming to life.  Their ghosts were beginning to dance with each other!

*         *         *

But what was the quintessentially American Singer Sewing Machine Company doing in Ryazan, on the endless Russian steppes?  The Singer sewing machine was such a touchstone for 19th and 20th century Americans that when I mentioned Singer on my Sarah Lawrence College email list, it sparked a whole round of memories of our mothers sewing our clothes with the family machine.  To me, envisioning Singer sewing machines in Russia felt like culture clash.  An odd company for my Russian ancestor to be employed by!

But Singer machines were in fact all the rage in Ryazan in the early 20th century!  According to one Russian blogger,

“The first sewing machines appeared in Ryazan … in 1909.  They were sold in a department store at the corner of Astrakhan and Cathedral…. Each machine cost about 30 rubles, the average monthly salary of Ryazan employees.  By a year later, the miracle-machines had become the most popular item in the dowries of wealthy brides.  The machines were bought by parents.  In those days, it was not considered seemly for an unmarried woman to own a sewing machine.”

Another ad for Russian Singer sewing machines.  Note the Art Nouveau influence, then popular in Russian fashion as well.

Another ad for Russian Singer sewing machines. Note the Art Nouveau influence, then popular in Russian fashion as well.

According to another source, Singer sewing machines had come to Russia well before this:  “By the beginning of the 1880s the network of Singer’s sales offices, depots and stores had covered the empire.  The aggregate number of branches was eighty-one.”  Many of the machines were imported from the United States.  In addition, in 1902, a large Singer factory, eventually employing 5000 workers, was built in Podolsk, in Moscow province.

So exactly what kind of work did Kull and Bobrova do for Singer?

Well, we have clues for Kull, because the Census listed him as “an agent for the sale of Singer sewing machines.”  So Kull was part of the Singer sales force which Mona Domosh describes in her wonderful American Commodities in an Age of Empire: a vast, far-flung, highly organized army of Russian sales agents.

In Russia, with the largest territory of any nation on earth – three times the distance east to west as the United States – these agents sold more sewing machines than in anywhere else in the world besides the US.  Sales in Russia went from almost 70,000 in 1895 to nearly ten times that in 1914.  The agents traveled the Russian Empire via trains, wagons, and horseback.  They floated cargoes of sewing machines thousands of miles down Siberian rivers.  There, nomads buying sewing machines paid for them in cattle, pelts and fish (which the sales agents in turn sold for cash).

Back in Ryazan, Kull’s work life was undoubtedly less adventuresome.  But Singer’s local operations in Russia were so intricately organized that Kull likely had a job worthy of its own separate blog post.  In fact, I’m finding so much almost palpable detail about Singer sales arrangements in Russia that I will postpone a fuller picture of Kull’s job to a later chapter.

But what about Rokhilya Bobrova?   What kind of work did she, a woman, do for Singer?

We must remember that, by 1910, Bobrova had been a widow for something over five years.  She had five children ranging in age from 6 to 19.  A lot of mouths to feed.

What jobs did the Russian Singer company hire women for at that time?  Again, Mona Domosh provides clues as how Bobrova may have lived her work days.  In the nearly 4,000 Singer shops in towns throughout Russia,

“potential customers could browse the various machines, examine samples of what could be made on each of them, watch demonstrations of various sewing techniques by employees, and take sewing classes.  Most of the employees who worked the floor in these shops and who demonstrated and gave sewing lessons were ‘natives,’ and many of them were women….  No women were hired at any level above retail sales and sewing instructors.”

In addition, employees, especially in more responsible positions, “were recruited from ethnic minorities living in Russia, particularly ethnic Germans and Jews,” due at least in part to the lack of commercial experience among ethnic Russians.

Thus it seems likely that Rokhilya Bobrova demonstrated sewing techniques or taught sewing classes at Singer’s.

We can probably assume that Bobrova had originally received her permit to live outside the Pale due to her husband’s profession (I don’t know yet what it was, but hope to unearth it).  But Jews had to renew their permits to live outside the Pale every five years, traveling all the way back to their place of origin to get the renewal.  Bobrova’s permit came up for renewal in 1909.  And now she was widowed.

However, 1909 was the same year Singer apparently arrived in Ryazan.  At that point, given Singer’s hiring tendencies, the fact that Bobrova was a Jewish woman may suddenly have become a huge asset.  I wonder whether the local Singer store’s management – perhaps even Yakov Kull – played a role in enabling the now-widowed Bobrova to stay on living in Ryazan in her own right.

Detail of 1910 Census page focusing on names Bobrova and Kull

Detail of 1910 Census page focusing on names Bobrova and Kull

Me against Da Vinci? What’s the best way to draw?

Thursday, May 6th, 2010

If you’ve ever taken art classes, you may wonder why I didn’t include information about the structure of the human body in my two life drawing lessons.  Aren’t figure-drawing teachers supposed to start by describing the internal skeleton, segments and joints of the body, standard proportions of head, legs, eyes, arms, mouth?

For example, Rebecca Alzofon began her online figure drawing lessons with wonderful animations of a skeleton, followed by the three ovals of “Head, Ribcage, Pelvis,” the “Pivot points” inside joints, “Long bones,” and so on.

Drawing by Leonardo Da Vinci

Drawing by Leonardo Da Vinci

The early, great champion of the anatomical approach to life drawing was of course Leonardo Da Vinci.  Da Vinci,  one of the greatest artists who ever lived, did minutely detailed dissections of human corpses along with eyewitness drawings of human anatomy.

But the Angle-Abstraction Game I described in my life drawing lessons, on the other hand, is all about angles and shapes.  Isn’t that geometry, not human bone and flesh?  Where is the brilliant Da Vinci in that?

There are different ways to approach drawing.  I’ve linked to Alzofon here because I admire the care and thoroughness she devoted to her tutorial’s very detailed illustrations and text.  If you want to try out the life-drawing method she represents, I recommend working through her multi-paged lessons.  Her presentation is, I think, more helpful than some of the other briefer ones you can find online.  Above all, I love her use of animation.

Da Vinci: Placement of features in the head

Da Vinci: Placement of features in the head

My own earliest drawing classes included anatomical information, standard proportions and focus on the body itself when drawing.  I learned, for example, that the crotch is the halfway point in the length of the human body – which, by the way, is 6-7 heads.  The nose ends halfway between the eyes and the bottom of the chin, and the mouth is one third down that same distance (you can see exactly this noted by Da Vinci in his drawing of the human head).  The pelvis tilts and turns independently of the chest, as do the shoulders, and so on.

But for me personally, it wasn’t until I put all that aside and looked simply at shapes and angles carved into space that I suddenly began to draw fluidly and with assurance.

In current parlance, I began to draw from my right brain instead of my left.  For me, that made all the difference.

But how could that be?  Where did I get off disagreeing with Da Vinci?

Betty Edwards is the pre-eminent teacher of the “right-brained” approach to drawing, made famous through her book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.  I had actually begun using my angle-abstraction game more than a decade before her book came out.  But the book explained to me why forgetting – or at least not focusing on – all that detailed information about the human body worked so well for me.  Edwards made me feel it was OK to diverge from Da Vinci.

In a nutshell, Edwards explains that we often can’t draw because we’re blocked from seeing what’s right in front of us.  What blocks us is our preconceived notions about what a human hand or leg or eye should look like.  We struggle, trying to draw what we assume we’ll see – instead of seeing what’s actually there: how the specific hand in front of us looks, for example, when its fingers point straight at us.

With this in mind, it now seems to me that all the detailed information about the human body’s standard proportions might get smack in the way of our drawing well, rather than helping us draw better.  “Standard proportions” provide more expectations of what we should see, rather than removing expectations so that we can see.  This is especially true when the model isn’t standing upright, but is bent or folded in more complex poses, where “standard” proportions get lost in the twists and turns of the person’s limbs.  And after all, it’s non-standard poses that express the body language of individual people whose personalities we want to capture along with their outward appearance.

Edwards’ great contribution to artists everywhere is that she teaches how to disengage our left brains while we draw, in order to enable us to see what’s actually there.  One very important way of doing this is to focus on “negative space” – the space around the figure, rather than on the figure itself.  Counter-intuitive though this may seem, focusing on the space around your subject is often the best way to capture your subject accurately.  This is because looking at the unexpected negative “turns off” the left brain and allows the right brain to do what it’s good at – drawing.

Da Vinci: Muscles of the neck and arm

Da Vinci: Muscles of the neck and arm

So all the focus on the body itself, and all the analysis of what’s going on inside it, for me at least, engages my analytic left brain and gets in the way of drawing.  Conversely, the more I forget I’m even drawing muscles, hair, and bones, the better I get at drawing muscles, hair, and bones.

I will never know what it would be like to draw without first having my early foundation of information about the body.  It’s very possible that this knowledge informs my drawing even though I never think about it consciously.  I also think I happen to be the kind of visually-oriented person who is always sponging in information about everything I see, like how babies’ knuckles look like dimples and how my own knuckles look as I sit here typing.  I think I may more quickly recognize and draw certain shapes because my mind is always noticing them in my everyday life.  So I’m undoubtedly not a pure test case of drawing from abstractions rather than awareness of the body.

I encourage experimentation with all kinds of approaches to drawing.  What works for me may not work for you.  But I’d also encourage you to strongly consider the possibility that emptying your conscious mind of analytic focus on the body may be the best way to draw the body beautifully.

Isn’t an artist some one who can draw?

Monday, April 5th, 2010

Non-artists often admire artists’ ability to draw.  They wish they could learn how.   Many assume being an artist is mainly having the skill to draw realistically.

My sister Ellen

My sister Ellen

It is a lot of fun to be able to draw.  It’s fun to capture the reality of different shapes, textures, surfaces.  I especially love the moment of finally succeeding in capturing some one doing some activity.

But thinking that drawing is the main role of an artist is like assuming that the main role of a professional mathematician is adding and subtracting.   There’s a vast range of other skills that must be built atop the foundation of drawing, along with natural talent and a vision of what you want to create.

Like arithmetic for a mathematician, drawing is my most basic tool, the thing I’ve been doing since I was a little kid.  I grew up drawing all the time.  I used to pester my sisters endlessly to pose for me.  Here’s a drawing of my sister Ellen.  You can see she wouldn’t stay still long enough for me to add shading – I could only do a quick sketch before she’d run off and play outdoors.   

Fancy doll and ragged Raggedy Ann

Fancy doll and ragged Raggedy Ann

So I’d look for inanimate things to draw.  Here are two of my dolls.  They stayed still long enough for me to add detail to the sketch.

I’d set up still lifes using objects with different types of surfaces in order to figure out how to draw a shiny thing so it looked shiny, a furry thing so it looked look furry.  I would puzzle over how you could make a candle flame look as bright in your drawing as it does in reality.  How could I draw a transparent bottle to make it look transparent?

I drew in art classes in school – my ability in portraiture actually first emerged in a portrait I drew of a classmate.  I drew the kids I babysat for.  Their mother, thrilled with the likenesses, bought the portraits for what was for me a huge sum.

Actually, I drew in all my school classes, not just the art ones.  It was a great way to alleviate boredom.  My sketch book is full of drawings of the backs of classmates sitting at their desks, because that was all I could see in front of me.  Though in study hall I could draw them from other angles.  Below are a couple.  Again, these had to be quick sketches before my fellow study hallers shifted position.  I had minimal time for shading.

Two kids in my high school study hall

Two kids in my high school study hall

The most fun of all is life drawing classes.  I got a scholarship to attend a life drawing class when I was about 15 (I was the only kid in the class.  I had to get special permission from my parents because of the nude models).  In life drawing, you’re given varying amounts of time to draw the model in different poses.  Commonly, the amount of time is 5 minutes ranging down to 30 or even 10 seconds.  The idea is to train the artist to be able to capture the essence of a person’s position very quickly, because in reality people don’t hold the same position for very long – as I’d discovered with my sisters and the kids in study halls.

The second classic life drawing challenge is to practice realistically drawing a hand or foot that’s coming straight at you instead of being seen from the side.  Artists need to figure out how to draw people from all kinds of common but difficult angles without ending up with something that looks completely misshapen.

Below is the last drawing of the life drawing class I took in high school.  As a reward at the end of the course, we were given 45 minutes to do this drawing. Next to that is one of my quick crayon sketches of a rare male life model.  (Unfortunately, most life models are women.  I find that sexist.)

A couple of my life drawings

A couple of my life drawings

In short, drawing for me, and for many other artists, is the thing we started doing as far back as we can remember.   We need to keep doing it all our lives, just as mathematicians have to keep adding and subtracting.

But as in any field, there are many skills beyond the basics which the layperson may be unaware of.  In art, these other skills and talents, not just drawing, distinguish great artists from mediocre ones.  Many of my blog posts are about the range of these other skills and talents.  Many involve artistic sensibility as well as knowledge, such as choice of color palette, medium, style, and subject matter; which elements of a scene you will include; the weight of each element compared all the others; lighting issues (the direction of the lighting, whether multiple light sources or one, quality of the light); and countless others.

Here is one example among the infinite number I could give of artistry over and above drawing.  Alexandra Tyng, a highly successful portraitist, has written on the PortraitArtist.com Forum about her  sophisticated method of thinking about and painting backgrounds:

The most important thing to keep in mind about backgrounds is that they are not actually separate from the figure. The background … is actually the air around the figure. It is three-dimensional space! It envelops the figure, surrounds it on all sides, and recedes from the picture plane to varying degrees….

Whether the background is plain or complex, the … figure emerges from the ground….

The key to achieving the illusion of “emergence” is to understand the roundness of the head (or figure) and the colors of the light in relation to the shadow. The side of the face in direct light gives the feeling of solidity and opacity. As the form turns away from the direct light, it picks up the indirect light or ambient light in the atmosphere. This indirect light is slightly redder than direct light. Crossing over the line into the shadow areas, the complement of the indirect light will predominate…..

An artist who uses Tyng’s approach to backgrounds will create a very different painting than an artist who approaches backgrounds differently.

The online Portrait Artist forum gives some idea of the many, many elements of artistry beyond simple drawing.  And keep in mind, this forum covers representational portraiture.  There are many other forms of art, and many, many other issues that artists must be skilled at in order to produce terrific art.

So if you’ve always wanted to improve your ability to draw, don’t view it as an end point, but as something to play with and experience.  Play with drawing every chance you get.  Draw different types of things – animate and inanimate, shiny and dull, smooth and rough.  See if your friends or loved ones will pose for you.  Set up your own still lifes to challenge yourself with different types of objects.  Go to a park, beach, sports or music event and practice very quick sketches of people doing different activities.  Take a life drawing class if you can and if it seems appealing.

And view drawing as one fun stepping stone on your path as an artist.

Guest blogging on viz.

Monday, November 16th, 2009

In my Playground of the Autocrats triptychs, I’m painting images about history.  That is, I’m creating right-brained images embracing left-brained content.

In a similar vein, I contributed some guest posts to the University of Texas at Austin’s visual rhetoric website, viz, about art which incorporates ideas from science, history, and other left-brained fields. You can check them out at:

JoJo the Joey by Danie Mellor

JoJo the Joey by Danie Mellor

“Danie Mellor: Environmental and socio-historical ideas in fine art”

“Nina Paley’s THE STORK”

“Julian Voss-Andreae: Science in Fine Art”

“Introduction: Seeking logos in fine art”

While you’re there, take a look around viz. for more fascinating content, especially on science in art.

Playground of the Autocrats

Friday, July 10th, 2009

plygrnd-autocrtshome-pgcaptions

 

Playground of the Autocrats is a series of triptychs that I’ve been quietly working on in my own time, behind the scenes, for the last 4 or 5 years. These mixed media triptychs are influenced by a combination of art animation and Russian history, icons, and folktale illustration. I consider them fine art, but until recently, I wasn’t sure whether anyone else would. However, one of the series, individually titled Home Security at Any Crazy Price, was selected by Nan Rosenthal for a political art exhibit she curated in early 2009, Contemporary Confrontations, at the Katonah Art Museum in Westchester County, just north of New York City. The New York Times review of the show referred to my “Home Security” as an “homage to Joseph Cornell…filled with wonderful goodies.” So I now have Rosenthal’s and the Times’ official stamp that this work is indeed fine art….

Playground of the Autocrats involves a degree of detail that is probably more obsessional than I would like to admit. Each triptych has taken a good two years or so to complete. This is partly because they contain so many figures and other details, each of which is intensively researched. For example, as my models for the peasants I painted in Home Security’s center panel, I used photos of actual 19th century Russian peasants that I found via a lot of searching on the internet and in my old Russian history books. The military figures I painted are based on popular books on Russian military history, whose illustrations have in turn been researched by the authors and artists.

"Home Security At Any Crazy Price," by Anne Bobroff-Hajal . 36" x 40" . Acrylic and digital images on canvas and board . 2009

As for the Playground of the Autocrats characters (Peter the Great, Ivan the Terrible, and next Catherine the Great) who appear in each triptych, I carefully designed and collaged them together from odds and ends reflecting their true historical actions and times. I’ve endlessly worked over each verse of the lyrics they sing with the aid of my beloved Rhyming Dictionary by Rosalind Fergusson (the only rhyming dictionary organized to work the same way my brain does).

Why do all this? one might ask. Sometimes I wonder myself. But the answer is that this is simply who I am as an artist.

Still, preparing to launch this thread, I started searching around the internet trying to figure out which blogging category Playground of the Autocrats fits into best. Is what I’m doing conceptual art? Is it political art? But my goal isn’t to push a particular political agenda. I’m mainly interested in visualizing my ideas about social systems, Russia’s in particular, in a fun, whimsical, and moving way (I’ll make you laugh, I’ll make you cry).

So maybe what I do is more akin to political cartoons? But my highly detailed work, designed to be gazed at for a long time, is different from political cartoons’ brilliant, quickly-readable commentary on single contemporary events. My work is about historical developments over the very long haul – centuries, not days. While I adore clever political cartoons, that’s not really what I’m doing.

Maybe I do something closer to comics or graphic novels? But I don’t have any page-turning! And my work – though it’s quirky and (I hope) humorous – is more academically-minded. So am I into something like information visualization? Hmmm. While I’m captivated by the likes of Edward Tufte, I’m creating art, not social science. Above all, my goal is to evoke emotional and esthetic responses as well as thinking ones.

In short, I don’t seem to fit into any single art or blog category. But I sure touch on a lot of them, many of which I find enthralling. I will refer to all in posts to come.

The engaged portrait subject Part 1: Expression of emotions

Saturday, August 30th, 2008

“The face is the primary signal system for showing the emotions”

Portrait of Mrs. Irondell & granddaughter, by Simmie Knox

Portrait of Mrs. Irondell & granddaughter, by Simmie Knox

portrait

Detail of Mrs. Irondell

This spectacular painting by American portraitist Simmie Knox (most famous for painting the official Presidential portraits of Bill and Hillary Clinton) is, to me, one of the ultimate role models for the creation of profoundly humanistic portraits. The expression of pride and suppressed merriment in Mrs. Irondell’s face conveys so much more than if she had been painted in a traditional pose gazing into the middle distance. Her clothing and surroundings express elegance and wealth as well as any more formal portrait, but the look on her face – and that of her mischievous granddaughter – raises this portrait far above the standard pose.

To capture this kind of expression in a painting is no easy matter. To begin with, it’s impossible for a subject to produce an expression like this on demand while an artist paints. I don’t know how Knox created this portrait, but it’s hard to imagine he didn’t look at photographs to help. (To read my earlier entries on photography, click here.)

In addition to photos, there’s another resource that can help in painting human expression. The human face generates expressions via many different muscles functioning together under the particular flesh of each person. So for an artist to paint expressions, it’s important to have a working knowledge of the basic facial movements that create them.

Because my own central aspiration in portraiture is to learn ever more about how to fully convey human expression, I’ve relied on THE ARTIST’S COMPLETE GUIDE TO FACIAL EXPRESSION, by Gary Faigin. This book analyses the myriad movements of facial muscles which construct the expressions we recognize as joy, fear, anger, disgust, surprise, sadness, and various nuances of these emotions. In a future blog post, I’ll describe the crucial role Faigin’s book played, for example, when I faced the challenge of painting an impish little boy based on a terribly over-exposed family photograph.

In addition to my trusty copy of Faigin, my daughter Nastassia Hajal, a Ph. D. student in Child Clinical Psychology at Penn State, recently introduced me to another book about facial expression: UNMASKING THE FACE, A GUIDE TO RECOGNIZING EMOTIONS FROM FACIAL EXPRESSIONS, by Paul Ekman and Wallace Friesen. It’s used by psychologists researching e. g. mothers’ emotional responses to their babies. (I later discovered that Faigin himself had utilized Ekman and Friesen’s work in his ARTIST’S COMPLETE GUIDE.) Ekman and Friesen’s roughly 45 years of research on human expression have been funded by the National Institute of Mental Health.

But why should portraitists bother studying movements of muscle or flesh or anything else? Isn’t portraiture about stillness? Don’t portraitists almost always paint their subjects in repose, sitting as motionless as humanly possible for the painter? Why not leave facial expression to other kinds of artists who deal with that sort of thing?

My emphasis on human expression in portraiture is not the traditional view, nor is it widely accepted today as the primary goal of portraiture. Much of the accepted “wisdom” about expressionless portrait subjects is based on our collective image of a person posing immobile for hours while an artist paints them – an image which is no longer generally true because most portraitists nowadays work from photographs. But one way or another, there are portraits created which – like the ones we will look at below – capture uniquely wonderful facial expressions.

To me, the most miraculous aspect of the individual human face isn’t its surface appearance, but its capacity to convey true human emotion as nothing else can – not words, not any other part of the body. Ekman and Friesen note that many professionals such as trial lawyers must learn to focus on visual signals from the face because words can lie while faces usually cannot.

Both facial expression and words, wrote Ekman and Friesen, are used for communicating information among people.

“Words are best for most messages, particularly factual ones. If you are trying to tell someone where the museum is, who played the lead in that movie, whether you are hungry, or how much the meal costs, you use words….

“Words can also be used to describe feelings…. Here, however, the advantage is with the visual channel, because the rapid facial signals are the primary system for expression of emotions. It is the face you search to know whether some one is angry, disgusted, afraid, sad, etc. Words cannot always describe the feelings people have…. If some one tells you…he is angry and shows no evidence facially, you are suspicious. If the reverse occurs and he looks angry but doesn’t mention anger feelings in his words, you doubt the words but not the anger.” (18)

If emotion is better expressed visually than through words, how about the rest of the human body? Do we see emotion expressed through movements of the body’s muscles?

Ekman and Friesen’s research shows that emotions “are shown primarily in the face, not in the body. The body instead shows how people are coping with emotion.” The body might be tense, constrained, withdrawn; it may attack physically. But none of these body postures are unique to particular emotions. Ekman and Friesen wrote, “The face is the key for understanding people’s emotional expression, and it is sufficiently important, complicated, and subtle to require a book to itself.” (7)

Well, if facial expression is the primary locus of the most truthful emotional communication among people, shouldn’t it be the territory of portraitists? The human face is our turf! Now that photos help make it possible to paint fleeting expressions, we portraitists can move into this territory and stake our claim to it. The face holds the key to the highest peak of human experience. Why should portraitists – specialists in the face – cede its expression to other artists?

Now that I’ve vented on that subject, let’s see what insights Ekman and Friesen give us into Knox’s portrait. Here is is again:

portrait

What do the body positions of each subject in Knox’s portrait convey about how they will handle the emotion expressed in their faces? As we’ve said, Mrs. Irondell’s face conveys delight and pride, a sense of fulfillment in a life well lived. And what does her body tell us she will do about those emotions? Well, her arms quietly dominate the chair as they rest there. And her completely relaxed, non-erect body posture tells us she’s not going to do – doesn’t have to do – a damn thing but enjoy herself! This relaxed yet dominant body posture conveys a sense of life achievement as much as do her rich surroundings and expensive clothes.

Her granddaughter doesn’t yet dominate the piece of furniture she rests her arm on – it’s almost bigger than she is. But her mischievousness as she hides behind her grandmother clearly dominates Mrs. Irondell’s heart. The smile on the little girl’s face tells us she’s having fun sneaking up behind her grandmother. Mrs. Irondell is having a ball knowing perfectly well she’s there. The two people are fully aware of each other, able to relate intensely even though they aren’t facing, because they know each other so well. (Their close relationship is conveyed also by their hats, identical except for color.)

In this painting, Knox has captured expressions that may be fleeting, but in so doing, he has expressed the profound essence of the relationship between Mrs. Irondell and her granddaughter.

Let’s look at another portrait, this one by Colorado portraitist Judith Dickinson, which also captures a delightful facial expression combined with unique body posture.

Portrait by Judith Dickinson

Portrait of Olivia, by Judith Dickinson

Detail of Olivia by Judith Dickinson

Detail of Olivia by Judith Dickinson

This is one of the most charming portraits I’ve ever seen of a child. It captures something deeply true about childhood. The little girl’s eyes are somehow both dreamy and alert. Her chin is tilted up with gentle expectation and an unassuming sense that good things are ahead in her life.

What can we read in Olivia’s body about what she will do about the emotional expectations we see in her face? The very specific position of her arms, hands, and body gives me the sense that she has just sighed with contentment before settling into this pose. She is very relaxed, suggesting that she will move at her own pace and in her own time toward life’s pleasures. She is oblivious to the fact that her pretty dress is slightly twisted, in the way all children’s clothing is. Her feet don’t reach the ground, but she’s not wriggling to get them there.

(And harking back to my earlier post, Portrait Composition: Old World vs. New? – click here – the use of empty space above and beside the little girl adds tremendously to the feeling both of her smallness in the world, and of her sense that good things will come in their own time. They aren’t here yet – the space is empty for now – but her relaxed expectation tells us she feels they will come and make her life good.)

Portrait of Dean of Women Students, University College Dublin, by Conor Walton

Even official portraits can have wonderful facial expression. In this portrait of Carmel O’Sullivan, Dean of Women Students at University College Dublin, the face radiates intelligent warmth. The twinkle in O’Sullivan’s eyes makes me feel she’s the adult I’d want turn to if I were a student with a problem. One could imagine no better quality than this in a portrait of a college dean.

What is O’Sullivan’s body showing about how she will deal with the emotion her face exudes? She is opening the door into her office, welcoming us in. Facing us all the while in her cheery outfit, she’s alert and ready to help. She’s holding a couple of books in her hand, including one about Rembrandt, conveying the sense that she will bring intellect and culture to bear.

To me, this painting expresses so much more about the relationships this Dean has with her students and peers than would a formal portrait in a traditional official pose.

Below are several more portraits that accomplish beautifully the portrayal of unique personal facial expression. You can click on any image to see a larger version on the artist’s website. I’ll leave the fun of analyzing these to you!

For myself, I hope that looking at these unusual and very special examples will help me learn to portray ever more complex and singular expressions in my own paintings.

Note: Please see Postscript for a wonderful interchange I had with Judith Dickenson on her painting of Olivia (above) after completing this post.

© Richard Whitney, Buster Navins.

Portrait of Buster Navins, by Richard Whitney

Ann, Countess of Yarborough, by John Ward

Portrait of Jordan, by Susan Strauss

Portrait of Olivia and Oscar, by Paul Brason, Royal Society of Portrait Painters

 

You have to find something to say before you can say it

Monday, June 2nd, 2008

It’s not easy to figure out what might give readers a sense of knowing a bit about the person behind the blog, but here’s a start: I grew up in what was then a relatively rural town of 13,000 people, Sudbury, Massachusetts. I’ve been drawing and painting constantly since I could hold a pencil, and always got great pleasure from it.

I went to Sarah Lawrence College, studying art and history, and then on to graduate school in Russian history at the University of Michigan (in what? What’s an artist doing getting a Ph. D. in history? – more on that another time). I lived in the Soviet Union – St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) and Moscow – for a year doing research for my degree.

I married a man from Lebanon and had two children. Traveling to Lebanon to visit family has been one of the most enriching experiences of my life.

Through everything, I continued painting. I became very interested in art that moves, and got involved with film and animation (click on “About the Artist” for specifics).

To me, there’s nothing more captivating than the human face and the myriad expressions by which it communicates with other people. Not surprisingly, then, portraiture is among my passions.

That’s the skeletal outline. Here’s a more philosophical point:

For me – as for many artists – painting isn’t a purely visual experience. Yes, we want to create canvases that are beautiful in some way, to rivet and pleasure the eye. But we also want to engage thought, and to create emotional communication among our subjects, ourselves, and anyone who looks at the artwork.

As I was growing up, my father was proud of my artistic accomplishments and supported my artistic development in every way. While I was still too young to get into art classes, he arranged watercolor lessons for me with a local artist. Later he and my mother sent me to life drawing and other classes.

But when it came time to apply to college, my father advised me not to go to art school. “You have to find something to say before you can say it,” he said. He didn’t believe that by focusing purely on learning art techniques could I become an artist with something of value to communicate. He felt I’d more likely find something important to say through a wider knowledge of human experience.

There are, of course, many paths to creating wonderful art. Many great artists do go to art school. This blog will describe my own path, to begin with in the field of portraiture.