Patterns—the fabrics I find and incorporate into my paintings—are such a driving force in my work that it’s inevitable that I would eventually gravitate toward inventing my own patterns. I’ve used made-up painted patterns in some of my paintings in the past. For the most part, I’d concentrated most of my attention on the motifs, the individual repeated elements, usually abstracted from things in the paintings. I’m always attracted to novelty motifs in fabric, vintage and otherwise. But pattern’s underlying structure has been a growing fascination for me. The structure and design principles of pattern are closely related to those used in composing a painting, and also have deep connections to sculpture, architecture, the decorative arts, and design of all kinds. It’s surprising how infrequently it’s taught anymore. Many of the best instructional materials I’ve found on the subject are decades out of print. The Bauhaus folks got it: The simplest motif, a circle, say, put through variations of scale, weight, and structure, can yield an infinite number of patterns that you’d be tickled to wear, cover your walls with, screenprint on a card, glaze on a pot, or compose an abstract painting around.
This summer I’ll be offering a four-week class that delves into the elements and underlying structure of pattern. I’ve developed some Bauhaus-inspired experiments that use the basic building blocks of form—there are nine!—and six scaffolds—don’t you love it when you can quantify things?!—to start hacking away at that infinite number. To boil the subject down to its very essence, the exercises will be in black and white (not even gray), and use just ink and cut paper. The goal is to become fluent in the language of pattern, to see it in unexpected places, interpret its structure, and to be able to use that heightened perceptual vocabulary in your own work.
July 13, 20, 27, August 3; Thursdays 1PM – 5PM
at my studio, 110 Cherry Street in Pioneer Square
Register here, or contact me.
In the interim, I’ll be periodically posting some thoughts and observations about patterns I encounter in my wanderings.
The Nucor Steel plant in West Seattle
Time to fess up: I became a painter partly to escape the clutches of an anarchistic theatre collective which had come to resemble the authoritarian structures that it mocked. The idea of spending hours and hours alone in a studio mixing paint seemed preferable to spending hours and hours in meetings arguing about who resembled which authoritarian structure. That was thirty years ago, and I still prefer the alone-in-the-studio scenario. About twenty years after parting ways with the theatre and a cross-country move, I started teaching life drawing to set and costume design students. Neither they nor my colleagues were aware of my shady thespian past (until now!). What makes this teaching gig a delightful one, among other things, is that I get to escape the visual art world, which I find a bit stuffy and to which I’ve never really acclimated. The irony of course is that I’m now hiding out in the theatre department, bringing my creative life, and my habitual contrariness, full circle.
One thing I’ve learned from all this genre-hopping is that visual storytelling is visual storytelling. Sometimes it’s on a stage, and sometimes it’s on a canvas (or maybe just on a napkin in a bar). In both the visual artifact and the live performance you have, basically, characters in some kind of a setting. How they are arranged and posed in their places tells you some, most, or perhaps all, of their story. Playwrights and novelists will undoubtedly quibble, but even words are just a version of a canvas, leaving spaces in between the words for you to fill in from your own imagination.
Every year my drawing class spends most of our first quarter learning how the character, the person part of the story is constructed, how to separate what we think we know about people from how they actually look, studying human anatomy, learning to discern the shapes and forms and lights and darks. After about ten weeks of this we begin to venture out of the studio, plop a person in a setting, and see what stories arise from the collision and collaboration of model, place, artists, and even passersby.
What I’ve also learned from years of teaching this class (and other plein air classes), is how many fabulous underutilized spaces there are in a city, open to the public, with unexpected views and sometimes even tables and chairs. At the Washington State Convention & Trade Center, we had most of two food courts to ourselves, ensconced in majestic corporate modern architecture and interior landscaping, and overlooking freeway interchanges, parks, and city streets. Most people didn’t even notice the model posing perfectly still across the room from us.
Just outside the capitalist Convention Center is a socialist-brutalist-style wonder, the pragmatically-named Freeway Park. A person dwarfed by the massive gray geometry evokes a narrative of isolation, of a cog in the bureaucratic machine, or perhaps a defector.
A few weeks later, it was onward to the toxic monument to Seattle’s industrial past and hippie present, Gasworks Park. Our lovely model chose a floor-length gown for the occasion.
The big open space gave everyone a chance to get really far away from the model, and place her in a sweeping, long view of the big green cartoonish hill and city in the farther distance.
The passersby who do notice that someone in their path is holding perfectly still perhaps ask themselves the same questions we ask as we compose our drawings: Why is this person in a long black dress standing on yonder green hill? Did she walk out of a formal occasion that went bad? Is she coming, going, lost? From the future, from the past?
The colors and compositional and material choices all put different spins on the answer.
There are also large, unnamed objects that frame a figure and the landscape and seem ready-made set pieces for our little plays.
Not all of our model/actors are human. We spent one morning among the creatures of the Woodland Park Zoo, some of whom obliged us by posing out in the open where we could draw them; others lolled like lumps in trees or ponds.
At the Olympic Sculpture Park, Richard Serra’s Wake is more like an opera set. The rusty undulating behemoths dwarf the human subject but also lend her a bit of their monumentality. One could squeeze more narrative out of the situation if the model were able to interact more closely with the piece, i.e., touch it, but the Seattle Art Museum frowns on that. I have it on good authority that the artist would disagree with that policy.
Student drawings of Richard Serra’s Wave
The format, the cropping, the scale, the feeling of air or claustrophobia, even the shade of red can be interpreted in wildly different ways.
Of course, no tour of Seattle is complete without the Jetsonian kitsch of the Space Needle. Being just downhill from it, most of us were able to fit the whole thing into our drawings from the low angle. It is itself a character, giving the human character someone to play off of.
Process colors: Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Black. These four dyes are in your home printer, in the printed magazines, flyers, business cards, t-shirts, you name it. Four, just four, colors are distributed on the page in the form of dots which your eye perceives, sending signals to the brain, which mixes the dots into seemingly every color in the visible universe. Which of course they are not, but the agreed-upon fiction in the world of reproduced color is that if CMYK can’t make ’em, we don’t need ’em.
I’m not the first artist to find this fascinating. Most famously, Roy Lichtenstein reproduced the crude benday dots of the Sunday newspaper, but even earlier Georges Seurat referenced them in his paintings. Seurat’s concern, like many of his Impressionist pals, was optical. He liked the idea that your eye (actually your brain) could take these discrete meaningless pieces of color information and extrapolate a whole world: three-dimensional form and even beauty. Lichtenstein blew them up and called our attention to the abstract patterns we were actually looking at when we read an image of a comic book damsel in distress.
Georges Seurat, detail of Trees and Boats
My own interest in them comes from the fact that I’ve been mining old mass-produced color print sources for my work for thirty years. Particularly, I revel in the truly weird and unlifelike photographs of food in cheaply-printed magazines and cookbooks. I sometimes use a photographer’s loupe to see what-all colored dots make up the putty green of midcentury iceberg lettuce or a nuclear cantaloupe.
For years, I looked mainly out of curiosity, then I’d forget about what I’d seen and mix the colors for the painting out of other, more traditionally painterly pigments. Recently I decided I wanted to use the process colors themselves, in the form of their artist-grade oil paint approximations. I think of it as performing the color separations in my brain and putting the pieces together on paper or canvas.
Colored pencils allow for more discreet units of color that mix optically, so I’ve been working with those in life drawing sessions. The first stages of a drawing done this way look really weird, the people all bright yellow with random spots of purple. As the marks accumulate, the drawing starts to resolve itself into something approaching believability.
Watercolors are an intermediate step. They dry faster and can be mixed more loosely and spontaneously than oils, and layered quickly as they dry, maintaining some of their CMYKness. The black (“k”) here is pen & india ink.
Now for the really nerdy part. I do want to paint in these colors in oil. I already tend to work with limited palettes, that is, I mix most every color I need for a painting out of three particular (loosely-defined) primary colors and white. Over the years, I’ve created an extensive reference library of swatches out of many different primary combinations. (That may sound like I have too much time on my hands. Actually, it pays for itself in time spent painting rather than aimlessly mixing.) So why not try the same process with my four new CMYK pals: a bright turquoisely blue, magenta, a cool yellow, and black.
(More about limited palettes in the post about Color Boot Camp.)
I painted my two fake album covers in this palette, which makes sense, because real album covers would be printed with CMYK process colors. The gimmicky scenarios play on the whole idea of printed vs. painted color.
The piece I made for Juan Alonso’s benefit party also utilized these colors. Like the Ersatz Family Singers, it incorporates a xerox transfer.
I’ll be back in a show at Museo Gallery on Whidbey Island for the first time in a few years, as part of NOW: Beauty and Paradox, curated by Nancy Loorem Adams, in collaboration with Museo’s Sandra Jarvis. Ten northwest artists explore contemporary issues through painting, fiber, sculpture, mixed-media and ceramic works with an eye toward beauty and craftsmanship.
The other artists are Danielle Bodine, Maxine Martell, Natalie Olsen, Patricia Resseguie, Inge Roberts, Sande Wascher-James, Dona Anderson, Jill Nordfors Clark, and Nancy Loorem Adams.
Opening reception is Saturday, May 6 from 5-7 PM (I’ll be there). The show continues through May 29th.
More info at Museo’s website.
The fabulous, generous, and always civic-minded Juan Alonso-Rodriguez is planning a benefit for others for his own birthday. And I have a top-secret piece in it.
He and my other pal Paul D. McKee (of Project 106 and Method Gallery) are hosting a fundraising event benefiting the ACLU, Lambda Legal, & Planned Parenthood. For a tax-deductible $100 donation to one of these three fine organizations, attendees get to pick 1 of 100 original paintings to take home.
They have supplied 100 local artists (including yours truly) with 6” x 6” pieces of Masonite and asked us to create an original work on it. All works are signed on the back so guests are choosing the work and not the artist by name. Many of us will be purposely trying to throw people off, or simply taking the opportunity to try something different.
They will have iPads and laptops set up at the entrances to each space, ready to accept donations to one of these three organizations online. (Checks are also accepted.) After you donate, you get a receipt which you take into Juan Alonso Studio or to Method Gallery around the corner and select an original work of art to take home.
The reception (21 & over) will be Friday, April 28, 5-8 pm. $100 minimum donation required at the door guarantees you get to select an original artwork to take home.
Juan Alonso Studio – 306 S Washington St, Seattle, WA 98104
2nd Chance – all ages
Saturday, April 29, 11 am. – 3 pm. – $5 donation requested at the door
Donate a minimum of $100 and you get to take an original artwork home.
On Saturday, Juan Alonso Studio will also donate 25% of sales of original works by Juan Alonso-Rodriguez to whichever one of the three organizations you choose.
Cece n’est pas my piece. These are some collages I did as warm-ups. My actual piece is totally top-secret.