My Spacial Vacation

An illustrator gets to paint real physical objects in space

The end of 2010 marked the end of a year of intense deadlines for me.  When the last of three books I had written and illustrated went to press and the final loose end was neatly tied up, I gave myself an art vacation.  Waiting on approval for sketches before I could begin my next job, I had a three-week gap in which I could paint whatever I want: a rare opportunity for an illustrator.

The freedom to approach the subject of my choice, and to present it purely as my own eye sees it, is like taking off a pair of hiking boots on a hot July day and dipping my feet in a cool mountain stream.  How refreshing . . . I could paint anything I want!  The fine artist in me luxuriated in fantasies of torn paper collages; thick, messy paint; and large, abstract compositions.  Anything to depart from the precise and detailed work I do as an illustrator.  I wanted to have fun!  And I wanted to stretch out and relax.

I also wanted a break from working from photographs.  Illustrators must reference almost everything they do with visual images.  Rare is the subject that may be painted without referring to something else.  Whether it is the skyline of St. Petersburg or the shape of a Navajo basket, I must look at books, films, images and photos in order to render it in a way that is faithful to reality.

I remember one occasion when I was able to paint an illustration directly from life.  It was for a snow scene in a book of nature opposites.  When the day came to begin working on this spread, it snowed!  And outside my studio window was a tree at just the right distance, with suitable branches to model for the tree in the book.  Even the chickadees modeled for me fleetingly.  What pleasure, to see the tree as a fully dimensional object in space rather than an image on a screen.  How much easier to render the texture of the bark; the light and shadow, when the light is visible and the shadows are real.

illustration from EARTH, SKY, WET, DRY: A Book of Nature Opposites (Orchard Books, 2000)

For me, a good art vacation means painting directly from life, from real objects in space – yet choosing for myself, for the painting, how realistically I will work.

What better subject than a still life?  There’s nothing exotic about painting a bowl of fruit or a house plant you see every day – but the value lies precisely there.  There’s nothing clever or conceptual about it.  No specific story to convey.  No symbolism to communicate.  No level of precision to hold.   No type treatment required, no dimensions to work within, no deadline to meet.  No minefield of politically correct considerations to navigate.  No editor, client, parent, teacher, buyer, reviewer or reader to please.  In fact, there is nothing much special about a still life at all.

And yet, there is something both relaxing and challenging about a still life.  That’s why I like it so much – even more than indulging in something big and sloppy.

I started my painting on winter solstice, listening to reports of the lunar eclipse as I laid out my tubes of acrylics.  This particular still life had personal meaning.  It was a lesson in patience from the start.  I had started it an entire year earlier.  I had long wanted to paint two African statues that have quietly carved themselves into my household for many years.  And I was drawn to the flowering of a Christmas cactus that was given to me as a gift by dear friends.  The lovely blossoms hung in fuchsia and salmon clusters from the jointed, arching stems for a month.  Around the previous Christmas, I had placed all of these objects on the same table, and sketched the painting out in pencil, as I always do, before working in paint.  But before I could choose my first color, my impending book deadlines had compelled me to put the painting aside.  The Christmas cactus returned to its place by the window, and the two African figures went back to the shelf where they stand demurely beside an atlas.  By the time enough slack appeared in my schedule to return to the still life, the cactus blossoms had withered and fallen, like the crumpled pink wrappers of Chinese hard candy.

Of course, I could have photographed the cactus in bloom, and worked from the photograph.  But I decided to wait a whole year for the direct experience, rather than paint indirectly.  And sure enough, a whole year passed and winter came again – and once again my patient cactus formed its tiny buds.  This time, as I waited for the pink-tipped points to grow and eventually open, I knew I’d be able to paint the plant in its full glory.  My second chance was flowering!

What better way to look back on a year than while painting a still life?   As I mixed colors and applied paint, I thought about my three new books going off to press.  I felt like a mother whose children have left for college.   I hope they’ll do well out in the world, and I’ll do my best to support them . . . but mostly, they’re on their own now.  New ideas for books are forming which will take me in new directions.

But right in front of me, the objects on my table held still patiently, hour after hour.  The pear ripened quietly, but its appearance didn’t change.  Like a visual meditation on reality, all I had to paint was what is:  A group of objects in spacial interrelation.

There’s no place for an artist to hide in a still life.  In something as simple and ordinary as common objects viewed at arm’s length – the distance from which we view our daily world – the artist’s every choice, every interpretation stands naked and visible.  It is a thing stripped of cleverness and pretense.  If you have a weakness, it is bound to be revealed.  But in trying to paint what is difficult, that weakness may improve.  One risks only growth, with a still life.

When my painting was finally finished, I ate the pear.  That’s another good thing about a still life:  you can eat part of your subject when you’re done.

And now, my Christmas cactus will bloom forever!

What a great art vacation!  And now, it’s back to work for this illustrator.  Next up on my computer screen:  photos of sheep; the faraway Jordan Valley, the ancient hills of Nazareth, and the stone walls of Jerusalem – all for a series of illustrations depicting Biblical times.  How I wish I could paint these scenes in person!

Perhaps, if I wait a year . . .

Happy New Year to my readers, and may 2011 be a creative year for all!

warm winter regards,

Durga’s forthcoming books will be published this spring:  AROUND THE WORLD IN ONE SHABBAT: Jewish People Celebrate the Sabbath Together (Jewish Lights Publishing); WHILE YOU ARE SLEEPING: A Lift-the-Flap Book of Time Around the World (Charlesbridge Publishing); and GREEN BIBLE STORIES: Ecology Lessons from the Bible (Kar Ben Publishing).  Click on “Forthcoming Books” for more information.
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