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I am UmberDove.

And by that, I mean an artist.  One who hears stories in the wind, who paints because it is what her soul tells her to do, who smiths because the muse moves through her fingertips, who loves nothing more than the promise of an unexplored trail, the sound of the ocean in her ears, and scent of a serious cup of coffee.

Week 3 - Visual Vocabulary

But What Does it ALL Mean?

Kelly Clark

"The job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery.” - Francis Bacon

Happy Friday All!  I wanted to talk a bit today on Symbolism, Meaning, and Do We Need It at All.  And so I did!  

To recap some thoughts on meaning and symbolism:

- There is a great and wide range of "meaning" in art making.  Some art has deep meaning attached to every single element, image, color and mark.  Other art is purely intuitive and abstract in meaning.  When we step into our own art making with this knowledge, we have the ability to pull from both sides.  I like thinking of it as this:  "Meaning" can give a piece its bones, the deep roots, the grounding of knowledge and intention.  "Pure Intuition" can give a piece its air, the freshness of forward exploration and the permission to play.  Neither is better or more worthy than the other; they are simply concepts for us to engage, to try on, to see how they fit on our skin.

- When we actively work with symbolism in our art, we create layers of meaning.  I find it helpful to think in terms of symbols when I want to express a large concept without needing to explain it in great detail - to allow one visual element to stand in for a more complex thought.  These can go deep, full of historical meaning, universally recognizable, or they can be utterly simple, light and invented just for us.  It can be something as easy as "yellow means happy" or as far reaching as "a feather means connection with the higher spiritual realm."  

- The most important thing to remember in this is that symbolism is merely a tool in our artistic tool box - we can use it as we need, we can change it's purpose at any moment (like that moment when a butter knife suddenly becomes a screwdriver), or we can leave it to the side if it does not serve the current pieces we're working on (like that moment you spread butter with your fingers).  When we develop symbols, they become a part of our visual vocabulary - much like the map key - and because they are just part of our tools, we have full agency to invent and shift anytime we need.  Remember! This is your art, your vision, your creation; you have FULL artistic liberty to use your tools any way at any time!

- While I spoke primarily in this video on using Symbols (think marks, shapes, specific images, colors), there is no end to the number of visual elements we can use to represent the concepts and meanings we want to express.  But a great way to begin exploring what symbols we already have is to look back at our individual inspiration explorations.  So many of our big inspirations are rather without a nice, concise picture to explain them, but as we dissect our associations and study them, we can often find symbols that will stand in as representatives.   

Week 3 Home[play]:

I'd like you to spend some time with your sketchbooks continuing to expand on your inspiration explorations from the past two weeks.  However, this time as you look back at your lists and ideas, really begin looking through them for the various visual elements that can stand in as symbols - especially those inspirations that did not have tidy images already attached.  If you had something like "walking in full moonlight" on your list of inspirations, perhaps start asking how you can symbolize the walk (does it look like your toes, a foot print, a dotted trail line, a broad stroke of blue, etc), or how you can symbolize that full moonlight (the shape of the moon, the phases, radiating light patterns, a milky yellow or blue color, or a glittering hunk of moonstone).  Remember, not everything needs (or will ever even have) a symbolism!  This is merely one more way to compile information and inspiration, one more way to authentically tell the story of your hands  Start adding these to your sketchbook as potential ways to develop your art!

If you are in the FaceBook group and would like to share your thoughts on symbolism and ideas for using it in your work, we'd all love to dialogue! 

See you next week ladies!

- K

Modes of Looking

Kelly Clark

“Are we to paint what’s on the face, what’s inside the face, or what’s behind it?” - Picasso

As we really begin laying down our thoughts, ideas and observations in our sketchbooks, building up our visual vocabulary, I'd like to discuss the topic of drawing as a means of recording.  There are as many different ways to draw and sketch as there are hands on the planet, and truly no "right" way to create an image on paper.  Some of us fall into the category of highly detailed renderings, some of us into abstracted forms, and some into the "just don't do a lot of drawing" category.  And each of those is perfectly alright!   

  ("Childhood Truths" - work in progress)

 ("Childhood Truths" - work in progress)

There are various modes of looking and translating an object into the drawn/painted/sculpted/etc. form.  Some of the work we've been doing has begun with observing a physical, tangible object.  I had you begin with something you could pick up, hold, look at from different angles and this was no random beginning BUT observing a thing in real life is just one way to LOOK.  

Working from Real Life

When we are in physical proximity to the thing we're drawing, our brains register the three dimensionality of it.  Every time we shift our own position, the exact angles and lines change due to the fact that is IS a dimensional form.  That constant shift can add a huge amount of life to our drawings because we are studying the fullness of a form; we are developing an awareness and knowledge of it's full shape.  This is true even if we don't see it immediately in our drawings, it's true even if our drawings are not meant to be a precise recognizable image.  We still begin seeing in fullness and that fullness informs the way we recreate it.

Working from Photographs

In my own work I often desire to create a recognizable form but do not have access to sit that "thing" down nicely in front of me while I create copious sketches (wild jackrabbits and barn owls don't like to play that way).  Photographs open up a whole world of visual inspirations, from the sights we can not see on our own (like a satellite view of North America), for the things that won't hold still (like a galloping herd of mustangs) to the that which we can not even see with the naked eye (hello mitochondria!).  When we work with photographs, not only do we have an endless plethora of sources to view, we have the ability to find the exact position we wish to study, and really study it in detail.

Working from Memory

While I work extensively with both real life and photographs, I may love working with memory the most.  When we work with an image or a "thing" from memory, there is a fascinating morphing that happens based on the particular details our minds recorded.  We don't have the object in front of us to make small corrections or to record lines too carefully.  Instead, we have the ability to hone in on the parts we remember - and in that there can be a huge amount of freedom from "perfection" and looseness in our hands.  Let's say we were drawing seed pods from memory.  We studied them, looked closely, and and then walked away from the plant to create them in the studio.  The most important parts would stand out: I might remember the funny little collar below the bulb, the starburst pattern above, the rounded ballooning form.  Now this might not correspond with the exact real shape and layout of a seed pod, BUT in drawing what we remember, in drawing how the pieces fit in our minds, we create something that is entirely unique and honest to us.  Memory expands certain details, it lets go of others, it pulls in associations we may not have recognized when studying an object in person or from photographs.  

Each of these modes of looking has strong benefits.  I like to think of drawing from real life as corresponding to the hands (tangible), drawing from photograph as corresponding to the eye (observing) and drawing from memory as corresponding to the heart (intuition).  Each can be utilized completely on their own, but when we recognize how to make each one work for us, they can dance together to create deeply rounded artwork. 

To illustrate how these three different modes of looking can be combined in one piece, I'd like to share with you a painting currently in progress in my studio.


This piece began with an intuitive vision, a spark from a waking dream.   The background became an exercise in working from memory - how the setting sunlight falls through the evergreen trees, how the light forms glowing orbs in the background bokeh of a photograph.  The hand is my own, working from real life, holding it up (I'm left handed, so it had to be my right), turning in the light, looking for the color under my skin, in the folds and shadows.  The butterfly, not surprisingly, is being worked from a photograph - in this case it was important to me that it was a Western Swallowtail and I want to render some correct species details.  And in case you were wondering, that certainly is a halo in encircling the two. ;)  


For today, as we continue to compile new inspirations, revisit old themes and ideas, collect objects from our surroundings, while sketching and taking notes on them all, I'd like for you to keep these three modes of looking at the forefront of your mind.  Try on all three:  Close your eyes and feel out if there is something on your lists or in your mind that you can create from memory, a.k.a. intuition - keeping in mind that memory gives us total freedom to interpret.  Find one thing on your list of inspirations that might not be available for drawing in person and either take or find a photograph that embodies it, a.k.a. observation.  Hold one of your found goodies, a.k.a. the tangible, in hand, study it from various angles and record what you see.  Again, every time we try on these various modes, we're adding to that grand tool chest, deepening and enriching our personal visual vocabulary!  And how exciting is that!

With butterfly wings dancing above my head, 

- K

With Eyes Wide Open

Kelly Clark

“A piece of art is never a finished work. It answers a question which has been asked, and asks a new question.”  - Robert Engman

I've been using the phrase "Visual Vocabulary" for a great many years now in discussions with other artists, peers, and students.  When I speak about it, I always envision an actual enormous tool chest (mine looks rather pirate-y), filled with a grand plethora of images, shapes, colors, marks, stories, ideas - not to mention a variety of mediums, techniques and tips.  All of these things are the accumulation of my own artistic lifetime and they are all available, at the ready, every time I sit down with a pencil, a paint brush or a saw blade.  They are all the the things I've leaned, the experiments I've tried (with both success and failure), the inspirations that have come, and the pieces I brought forth to full creation.

We all have a visual vocabulary, whether or not you've thought about it in these terms before.  We all have a stock pile of memories, experiences and creations that both inspire and inform the work we make.  I believe the more conscious we are of this "tool chest," the more we are able to utilize it's contents.  


Your sketchbook is the tangible, handheld equivalent of your tool chest:  The more we fill it with lists of ideas, observations and inspirations, the good drawings and the very bad ones, half-baked doodles, abstract colors, detailed sketches, photos, educational notes, even mathematical equations, the richer our visual vocabulary becomes.  It's a way to keep all those thoughts down on paper, to create, as we've said before, a grand reference tool.  Every new thing you learn and see (build those synapses baby!) has the option to go into your personal tool chest - even if you don't use it right now, even if you have no idea how it may manifest in the future.  This also means everything you are playing with in this course has the option to become a permanent part of your own vocabulary - to try it on and see if it fits, and to let it go if it does not.  

We're going to be exploring a variety of facets within this topic for the next two weeks, but before we move forward, I'd like us to glance back at where we're coming from.  I'd like you to begin by thinking back at the work you've made in the past - now this can be just the writings and sketches from the last two weeks or it can be the body of your work spanning the last thirty years.  It can contain drawings, completed paintings, your first jewelry pieces, the textile work you did last year, but it can also contain the favorite photos you've snapped or the writings you've put down in journals.  Spend a little time thinking on all these things, looking at them if you have the sketchbooks, journals, photos and work to do so.  This is purely an objective observation -  we are NOT here to judge anything we've created in the past.  What we're here to do is look for patterns, for the themes that continually crop up, for ideas we loved and may not be "done" with yet, for the things that were Important to us in the past, that may still hold importance now.  

In last week's Q&A session we talked a bit on what it is to draw inspiration from looking at the work of others.  How one way we can do this with integrity is to ask questions: What are the most distilled elements I can find that really speak to me?  What are the visual components that I am drawn to?  What are the implied themes or the unspoken emotive feelings that I respond to?  We're now going to turn those questions upon our own work.  Even if you have a very small body of your own work (or even if you feel it's "old work"), I'd like you too look at it and ask these same questions.  Again, no judgement in any way, we're truly here as researchers, compiling information.  As you look back, notate repetitive patterns and themes that still interest you.  Add a new list into your sketchbooks.  This is one way we build upon our own work, a way we can incorporate what is already in our huge tool chests with the brand spanking new.


As I looked back at my own work, here are a few past items that jumped up at me and how I notated the thoughts that arose as I wrote them down: 

- Halos (taken originally as a loose reference to Renaissance paintings, morphing now into a symbol for anything holy or sacred.  I'm ok with them becoming more literal than they were in my past work)

- Windows (about a decade ago I did a whole series on windows in abandoned buildings, as transitional planes.  Now they feel even more liminal, like passageways or portals between ordinary reality and non-ordinary - even as astral planes) 

- Turquoise (I just still love it.  That's enough of a reason) 

- Venation patterns (A few years back I held a show by that name and wrote a piece on the idea of life force flowing though all those tiny vernacular systems.  I don't know what it is now, I'm just drawn to draw those patterns again)  

- Moths (So much work and writing on moths as light seekers... I don't know if I even still need the moth, but I do need the idea of seeking light, light as a life line and a path)

Observe, ruminate, notate what stands out and add it in to those sketchbooks - your list of current inspirations just might do some growing... 

- K