Art Swoon Identified!

In my last entry I wrote about how, when I was 17 and in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, I burst into tears upon first seeing Simone Martini’s lovely Annunciation.  I thought I had read somewhere that John Ruskin, the great Victorian art critic, had written about the phenomenon of swooning before great art, but I wasn’t sure.  Well, it wasn’t him —  but there really is an art swoon, and it’s named after the famous 19th century French author Stendhal, the pseudonym of Henri-Marie Beyle, who wrote about it in his book Naples and Florence:  A Journey from Milan to Reggio.

Wikipedia says: “Stendhal syndrome, Stendhal’s syndrome, hyperkulturemia, or Florence syndrome is a psychosomatic illness that causes rapid heartbeat, dizziness, fainting, confusion and even hallucinations when an individual is exposed to art, usually when the art is particularly beautiful or a large amount of art is in a single place. . . Although there are many descriptions of people becoming dizzy and fainting while taking in Florentine art, especially at the Uffizi, dating from the early 19th century on, the syndrome was only named in 1979, when it was described by Italian psychiatrist Graziella Magherini, who observed and described more than 100 similar cases among tourists and visitors in Florence.”   Another source says that victims are usually young, unmarried women who are seeing the original art for the first time.  So apparently I had a textbook case!

While reading up on Stendhal Syndrome, I stumbled across a reference to a movie called The Stendhal Syndrome (La Sindrome de Stendhal), a European cult film written and directed by Dario Argento.  Argento said the film was inspired by his own experience of disorientation while visiting the Parthenon as a child.  It sounded pretty interesting, so I ordered it from Netflix and watched it one Sunday afternoon.  It sucked, not least because it featured my unfavorite thing in movies, prolonged scenes of torture.  The movie was about a woman who is overcome by a bad case of S. S. in Florence, while working as a police investigator on a serial murder case.  She is kidnapped by the killer, a handsome blond man named Alfredo, who rapes and tortures her in a romantically decayed medieval catacomb beneath the city.  She kills him, then becomes possessed by the killer, which causes her to start wearing a blonde wig and kill people.  In between all this, she is swooning over the art in the Uffizi, although what that has to do with the serial killer I forget.

While watching the movie, I remembered my own very short and innocent fling with a handsome blond Italian fellow named Alfredo while I was in Florence in 1969 — although he was an architecture student, not a serial killer as far as I know.  After I came home, he sent me a letter written in his charming Italo-English, which I tossed out of a moving car on Kingston Pike in Knoxville — I distinctly remember hesitating, my eyes on the return address, the wind sucking it out the window, watching it flutter down the highway — while the man who became my first husband sat beside me, never noticing what I had done.  Thus we make our choices.

More Stendhal Syndrome madness

A few weeks ago, in a used bookstore, I came across a book I’d noticed before:  Leap, by Terry Tempest Williams.  I knew it was about Bosch, one of my favorite painters, and I’ve never seen his work in person, as far as I can remember.  I’d opened the book before and scanned a few pages, hoping it would snag me, but decided her writing style was disjointed and overblown.  I like clarity in a memoir.  But something made me buy it this time.  When I got home, I sat down and started reading and was amazed —  although she never calls it by name, right there in chapter one she’s having a major attack of Stendhal Syndrome in Madrid’s Prado Musuem in front of Heironymous Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights triptych!  Her experience goes far beyond mine at the Uffizi. She seems to have had an almost psychotic break, leaves her husband (they are Mormons who have taken a marriage vow for all eternity), and spends months or even years in Madrid, becoming “the woman who stares at Bosch.”


Then while slowly slogging through Leap last night, a strange synchronicity occurred. The book had no illustrations, so I dug up an old article I’d saved about Bosch, from the Smithsonian magazine, which often has informative articles on famous artists with color pictures.  The article detailed the theories of Wilhelm Fraenger, who believed that Bosch had been a member of the Brethren of the Free Spirits, or Adamites.  I read the words, “. . .  a secret, heretical sect that practiced nudity and sexual promiscuity in an attempt to re-create the innocence of the Garden of Eden.”  At the very moment I read the word “innocence,” downstairs I heard someone on television boom “Innocence!!”  followed by something about sexual orgies and witchcraft.  Holy crap.  The coincidence was so striking I went downstairs to see what on earth was on tv.  It turned out my husband was watching old episodes of Blackadder:  Blackadder, Rowen Atkinson’s comic 15th century misfit, is tried for witchcraft and is being interrogated by the Witch-Smeller Persuivant (that made me snort out loud).  I have no idea whatsoever about what such a coincidence could mean, except that the universe is laughing at me.

Bravo’s Work of Art:  The Next Great Artist

The other day while watching during the afternoon after work, I ran across a rerun of the last episode of Bravo’sWork of Art:  The Next Great Artist.  I’d heard about the show before, and had meant to watch, but I never can keep up with what’s on tv anymore, and it slipped my mind.  I was glad Abdi Farah won, not only because of his obvious talent, but because he seemed more positive and upbeat than the others, with a real will to draw and paint which would not be denied.  One of the judges, Jerry Saltz, Senior Art Critic for New York Magazine, sniped at Abdi a bit for his traditionalist approach (a sketchbook of drawings — so art school; figurative paintings on a wall), but thankfully the other judges must have disagreed.

Reading an article on the internet about Peregrine Honig (I had to look on Google to find her last name; the Bravo site refers to all the contestants by their first names only, demeaning I think), she seemed to be pursuing the same conceptual themes that she has for the last several years:  drawings and prints of people vomiting, and an obsession with a pair of stuffed fawn fetuses she found in a shop years ago.  She made wax casts of apparently purchased kitsch toys and figurines, and used her project money to have the fawn fetuses professionallly photographed.  I can’t believe I read that correctly. The judges went wild over the photos of the fawns, which Peregrine said symbolized creativity and birth.  Miles Mendenhall — an art-school golden boy, having won competitions and scholarships — took cell-phone photos of a homeless man who, by happenstance, died soon after the pictures were made.  Then Miles enlarged the photos until they became completely unrecognizable dots and printed the dots super-large-scale to create a series of visually connected but meaningless abstract images.  He said the homeless man’s death moved him emotionally, but his empty images distanced both himself and the viewer from any hint of feeling.

Peregrine and Miles both seemed fairly ordinary art-school submissives — nervous and washed-out.  I was intrigued to read that Peregrine’s inspirations include the underground comic legend, R. Crumb. He’s one of my favorites, too. I wonder when she gave up drawing, or trying to learn to draw. I’m convinced that most people go to art school for a simple reason — because they want to draw — but so many end up having that simple desire put down until they finally give up and go home, or learn to play the Art Game.   Peregrine looked so sad and drawn. Perhaps the dead fawns symbolized something in her that had died. I dunno. I’m probably going over the line here.

Art Swoon! Bouguereau and Moreau at the Frist

Some Victorian writer, I’m not sure who, wrote about the art swoon: It’s when you see a work of art for the first time and are overcome by emotion. I think it happened to Victorian ladies a lot, and it’s happened to me several times in my life (a coincidence, I’m sure). It really is a little like falling in love, and I bet it makes the same areas of the brain light up.

MeSevenI remember my first art swoon quite clearly; I was about eight years old. My mom subscribed to the Metropolitan Seminars in Art, which were hardback magazines, each with an article on art history written by John Canaday, art critic for the New York Times. You can still find copies of the series on I can’t remember which issue it was, because I took it years ago to a used book store, but each of the books had a packet of beautifully printed reproductions, and that’s how I first saw Pierre Cot’s The Storm. Too young to know any better, I was completely entranced. For a long time I had the actual print, until my dog chewed it up in 1990. She also chewed the corner off Ingres’ Jupiter and Thetis. The dog had good taste.


A couple of years later I actually read the article, and discovered that, according to Mr. Canaday, The Storm was pretty,but that’s all. I was puzzled: How could The Storm be mediocre, trashy and sentimental when I liked it so much? Why did Canaday disapprove of that wonderful transparent gown? And why did he like the twisted, harsh Expressionist painting in the book? (I believe it was a Kandinsky, but can’t find it on the internet.) Even at that age, I had strong opinions about art! I was sure that John Canaday, whoever he was, was wrong, and that Cot’s painting was wonderful. Later on, as an adult, I decided Canaday was a prude, and that mid-twentieth century modernism’s distrust of beauty in art was really moralistic disapproval, based on a secret dislike of the physical body.

Now I’ve come around a bit and think I overreacted to poor Mr. Canaday: he drew a lot of flack for his criticism of abstract expressionism, and loved many of the same painters I do. And I can appreciate Kandinsky and the Expressionists now, but I still say that particular painting in the book was hideous. The Storm is still entrancing, to me at least, although the actual subject is in doubt. But who can question that the painting is simply about young love? A subject, IMHO, that can be sentimentalized, but is also not to be sneered at by those too sophisticated for their own good.

Of course, that doesn’t explain why I loved it so much when I was eight years old.  Seriously, I wanted to figure out how to paint that dress, but all I had were crayons. When I was about fifteen, I visited New York and the Metropolitan Museum, and finally saw The Storm for real, plus a whole bunch of wonderful Northern Renaissance paintings at the Cloisters too. It was just a continuous swoon.

FlorenceMy next art swoon was also connected with one of Canaday’s Seminar covers which I loved as a child: Simone Martini’s 1333 Annunciation. I was seventeen when I walked into a room in the Uffizi and burst into tears at my first sight of Martini’s Gabriel and almond-eyed Siennese Virgin, the egg tempera and gilding still brilliant after almost 700 years.
While on that same European trip, I also visited the Louvre. Sometime during a long afternoon I stumbled all alone into a series of interconnected rooms, tucked away and ignored, filled to the brim with 19th century French Salon paintings. I was absolutely seduced, and have never turned back in my love for these paintings. It was only many years later that I realized that what appeared to be slick visual confections were created from years of hard work and devotion to craft.


Last week I checked my calendar and suddenly realized that the current show at the Frist Museum in Nashville, The Birth of Impressionism, was about to end on January 23rd.  Snow at Christmas and New Year’s nixed my plans to drive down with my friend Theresa Ivey but I knew I would never forgive myself if I missed it. Kevin Ward, an artist friend on FB, said that there were Bouguereaus and <Moreaus in it! Bouguereau isthe painting God of the 19th century Salon. The whole show was from the Musee d’Orsay in France, and I knew that the d’Orsay was the home of many paintings by Gustave Moreau, another favorite of mine who has inspired me.  Somehow I imagined that the whole show was about them! I wish. At any rate, my husband was on vacation so I talked him into driving with me to Nashville on the spur of the moment.

The-birth-of-venusI saw William Bouguereau’s gigantic Birth of Venusand one of my favorite early Moreaus, Jason, through the glass doors of the main gallery and once again felt myself begin to choke up with emotion. I had to look away for a moment so I wouldn’t burst into tears, just like I did in front of Simone Martini. I circled through the front room and quickly checked out the Bouguereaus, two Moreaus, and two more Salon nudes: Jules LeFebvre’s La Verite and Elie Delauney’s Diana. It was just so much I could hardly absorb it.  There might have been a couple of other pictures in the room but I ignored them, entranced by the ones I liked. I’m still bad that way.

JasonMedeaMoreau’s Jason was especially stupendous. I moved in really close, but stood to the side, so I wouldn’t get in the way of other people, held my hands tightly behind myself, so the guards wouldn’t think I was trying to touch it,  and bent over to look carefully at the brushstrokes. While I stood there a child behind me asked his father, “Which one is the girl?” He was right. Jason and Medea (yes, the girl is Medea, his witch-wife who kills their children, but I think this scene is before the marriage turned sour) look like a pair of beautiful androgynous fifteen-year-old twins with shoulder-length golden hair and skin to match.  Jason’s dark green helmet appeared to be actually built up about a half-inch from the surface with carefully shaped paint, or perhaps some sort of early modeling paste. I love Moreau’s fantastic settings and costumes and weird background landscapes, his mystical Symbolist leanings, his opulence, his glittering, decadent Gothness, and find the slight flatness of his early work interesting and decorative. And I love the way he paints toes like Leonardo da Vinci.

Years ago at Dragoncon I got a chance to talk with the Brothers Hildebrandt about painting: they told me if the light is cool, the shadow is warm and if the light is warm, the shadow is cool. I kept thinking about that and went back and forth, trying to figure out what colors the painters had used and whether their light was warm or cool. I was almost sure that all the Salon painters used a cool, reflected studio light for their figures, (that was one of the things the Impressionists didn’t like about them) but how could I be sure?  I remembered what another painter told me: look for the cool highlight.

But the Moreau confused me. How do I tell if the light is cool if the whole painting has a golden cast? Or maybe the varnish had yellowed. I decided to look at the highlights on the inanimate objects (and it wasn’t easy because the paintings were so enormous): Jason’s spear, his dark green helmet, and Moreau’s favorite compositional accessory, the decorative antique column.  The hightlights on the helmet looked cool, gray-white, but I realized that even if the highlight paint had been a pale gold it would have looked this way, unless it were painted very thickly, since a sheer layer of warmish light over dark will always cool off.  I backed away and looked closely several times.

GalateaThe other Moreau, Galatea,isn’t my favorite Moreau but it’s still a Moreau. In his later work the figures become paper dolls hanging motionless in an over-decorated, very shallow space. I noticed that the paint even had tiny bits of actual glitter suspended in it, which you can’t see in reproductions. I hadn’t realized he liked to experiment with stuff like the glitter and the sculpted paint on the helmet. It was charming, and there are those toes again.

Then I moved on to Birth of Venus.  It is simply stunning from across the room, and a lot of it depends on the beauty of the models Bouguereau so faithfully renders.  I noticed that Venus and the ocean nymphs all look like they could be the same model, and so help me, I think she might be the same girl who modeled for The Storm.  Cot worked with Bouguereau and Birth of Venus is from 1879 and The Storm is from 1880.  Up close, the backgrounds are simply rendered, almost stylized, and yet from a distance, it all looks perfectly real.  The emphasis is on the stunningly painted figures. I notice that Bouguereau paints a clean, liquid line of warm sienna around the shadowy limbs that are closest to me (and somehow does it without making the line hard), but does that show the shadow temperature or is it a reflected light on the edge of the forms? Not sure. These paintings were so large that most of the details on the heads are too high for me. I would have given anything for a ladder, a bright light, and a magnifying glass.


The other Bouguereau was a religious subject:  A black-clad Madonna of Sorrows, The Virgin of Consolation. A grieving mother bends over on the Virgin’s lap, and her dead baby, its limbs faintly greenish instead of pink, lies at the Virgin’s feet. It’s easy for the 21st century viewer to see this painting as actually silly in its religiosity and sentiment, until you realize how common infant death was in the 19th century. The painting was completed in 1875, only two years before Bouguereau’s own wife and child died (I checked on the dates because I wondered if he painted it afterward as some sort of memorial, but no.) The figure of the Virgin in her black robes appears flat and iconic, but the infant is perfectly foreshortened.


Bouguereau’s work is always impressive, with never a false step technically, although he can be accused of being overly slick, but so what? His technique is absolutely perfect. Is it too perfect? I mean, that’s the worst thing I can say about him: he’s so freaking good I Just. Give. Up. I can never, ever be that good in this lifetime. His skill with the brush intimidates me and flattens my emotional response after a minute, sated as I am by photography, not to mention Photoshop. Perhaps in the end I like Moreau’s stranger, darker world better than Bouguereau’s clean, light-filled paintings. But still, looking at anything by Bouguereau is practically a religious experience for me.

WomanwithmirrorI spent more time thinking about color. La Verite (left), supposedly an inspiration for our Statue of Liberty, is icy in her ivory paleness (more so in the gallery than in this reproduction), holding aloft what is supposed to be a mirror, but looks more like a light bulb. But there are those tricky gray shadows on the flesh. How do I tell if gray is warm or cool, anyway? So many flesh tones have grey in the shadows and I always want to read it as cool. Suddenly I think I get it: Verite’s skin is lit by an icy white light, and the shadows on her flesh are a relatively warm gray. It’s all relative, perhaps even an illusion, but I can see it. For a second. And Diana (below, right) seems to be standing in a bright shadow with no direct sunlight, so I’m sure the light is cool there.

ClassicNude1I wandered through the rest of the show in a lackadaisical manner but couldn’t stop thinking about Moreau and Bouguereau.  I had to go back to the front room three times in all, mostly to look at Jason and Birth of Venus.  Finally  I reluctantly dragged myself from the front room and the Bougie Man, walked through the other rooms and did find some magnificent pictures.  There was a huge crowd and all the people except me were obediently listening to their audio tours like little art cows in front of the Impressionists, so I was free to sneak in and look at the stuff I really liked for a long time: for instance, Gustave Dore’s stupendous grisaille Enigma is about the Franco-Prussian War and the burning of Paris; the Sphinx is whispering the secret of peace to the angel of Paris. The actual painting, while dark in tone, is perfectly calibrated in value. Up close Dore’s drawing is free and easy, like he just whipped it out in about a week, and maybe he did. The brushstrokes are loose, sure sign of a really knock-out painter, yet clean and precise. As far as I could tell, it was painted entirely in black and white, although there might have been a trace of yellow ocher. It was huge and beautiful and no one but me was looking at it!


Another exceptional painting that Ken and I both noticed was Henri Regnault’s equestrian portrait of Gen. Juan Prim. Regnault lived in North Africa for a number of years and painted many beautiful pictures of everyday life there which you can check out on the web. But he died in the Franco-Prussian War at an early age. Pierre Cot died young too. General

Carolus-Duran’s Lady with a Glove attracted us too, and I spent a lot of time looking at this painting. But once again, it was huge! These paintings were meant to be seen from across the room, but the artist in me can’t resist trying to stick my nose into the details, which you can’t see any of in the tiny image below, so now you know how I felt:FristPortrait

I have to admit I was a little disappointed when I realized that the show was really all about the Impressionists, whom everyone loves so much, and how they triumphed over the mean picky Salon painters who preceded them. Really, it’s not that I don’t like the Impressionists —  I mean, how could I? — but in the end they are painting reality — pretty girls, not goddesses, baskets of fruit and flowers, people in restaurants —  in a straightforward, even flatfooted manner, and that kind of bores me in the end. At least it did that gray day at the Frist. The Impressionists lack grandeur, in fact they were sick of it, and sometimes their technique looks, well, dauby to me. Go ahead, hate on me. They haven’t been really avante-garde for a hundred years or more, but they’re still around.

Some art makes me cry; some inspires me to go home and paint; some I like but it’s not what I want to do; some I don’t like so much but I respect the work; very little I hate, but some is indifferent to me.   It’s still unfashionable to love the academic painters as much as I do, but I can’t help it, I’ll always love their refined drawing, delicate brushwork, the grandeur and imagination. The Salon painters remind me of my favorite science fiction and fantasy illustrators: They paint a reality that doesn’t really exist so skillfully that the viewer can believe in it without a thought. The only way to do that is years and years of practice. The Salon painters make me cry, I respect the work, I want to go home and paint: The whole Art Swoon package.

Talking to Brian Stelfreeze at Wizard World Atlanta

JMSwizardworld2010Weekend before last, Ken and I drove down to the Cobb Galleria outside Atlanta for Wizard World slash Atlanta Comic Con.  I admit, the trip was mostly for my husband, who is a lifelong comics fan and wanted to go and spend hours and hours rifling through dingy boxes of old comics. I figured I would wander through the convention for a while and then go shopping. Actually, though, when I say I’m not really a comics fan that’s not true. I’ve always been a fan of comic art. I actually used to read a lot of comics, but my mother wouldn’t let me bring them home, so I read them at Standefer’s Drugstore in Pikeville, TN, after school. I loved The Fantastic Four and Archie, and my mom actually let me get a subscription to Creepy and Mad. And I once spent two months in 1992 drawing a 32-page indy comic which never saw the light of day, and to give full credit to my comic-hating mom, she took care of my son Alex while I drew all day long every day.

The comic is still sitting unpublished in an old portfolio. I showed it to an underground comic artist at DragonCon years ago and he said it was really good and original, but the local guy who wrote the script didn’t like the way I drew it. I think he thought he was writing a superhero comic but I drew it as a parody, because the story was silly, and I couldn’t have drawn a superhero comic anyway. And my very first paying publication was in Dave Sim’s Cerebus comic’s Single Page, where he used to highlight up and coming talent and actually paid a pretty decent fee for the time: I got an actual cashable check for $125.00, which I appreciated even more later on when I was often promised big money but ended up paid zilch.

Years later, I actually went out of my way to meet Dave Sim at a convention and say hi and thanks for the cash. What I actually ended up saying was, “But I’m not really a comic artist,” and he looked at me with a puzzled expression on his big, doughy baby face, like I was crazy or stupid, but really, I’d never done any more comics and considered it over. Considering how he finally went off the deep end and started writing misogynistic drivel, he no doubt thought I was stupid. After I read some of the stuff he wrote about women I began to wonder if getting published by him was a curse on my entire career, and I wished I could go back to that con and hand him his $125.00 in cash and flounce away. But it’s too late, that money’s long gone, so it would just be all for show.

Usually at comic cons, I hit the artist’s tables and find someone to talk to, but they were pretty crowded at that point, so I left and wandered down the Galleria. Then I wandered back to the con and headed around to the artist’s tables again, and saw a bunch of prints by Alex Ross.  It turned out that Alex Ross wasn’t there, but the man at the table knew him.  “See that guy down there?” he asked, and I turned to see another artist, a well-built young man in a t-shirt a couple of tables down. “He posed as the Flash,” and then he showed me the finished painting. I could see how Ross had taken what he needed from the guy’s face and physique and added costume and background. Neat. I’ve often taken pics of my husband and son and daughter to use for illustrations; it’s the best way to get the right lighting, although I used to feel guilty about using the dreaded photo reference, otherwise known as “cheating.” My kids used to complain endlessly about the poses I put them in. “Mom, this is impossible, no one can do this,” they would say while I tried to twist them into position to be a zombie.

“I love how Ross manages warm and cool light,” I commented to the man at Alex’s table, and we talked lighting for a few minutes. He told me that Ross always used photo reference for his paintings, in order to get the lighting right, but I had already figured that out. His comic art is a series of exquisitely rendered watercolor portraits. I’m not a watercolorist but I admire his technique a lot. He’s one of those painters who make me want to sit and ponder and figure out how did he do that? Next down the line, I picked up somebody’s indy comic, with an intro by Dave Sim. Pass. Then I talked to a guy named Cory Smith who does excellent superhero portraits.  Maybe he was the guy who posed for Alex Ross. Anyway, he and I talked about pencils, since I draw a lot with pencils and find pencils to be very interesting. Seriously. He did maquettes, too, which are little sculptures of comic characters, to help the artist look at them from all angles.

I did maquettes for my ill-fated indy comic. Years later, I glued the maquettes to the posts of a wooden chair and painted the chair and sold it for about $100.  But now I wish I had the maquettes back, or at least the chair. Later, I checked out one of Cory’s sites and he had some beautiful pencil drawings of nudes, with very lovingly drawn labia, which I find very sweet. My husband has some old comics by some South American dude who draws the most beautiful little naked women, each of them with the most elegant and yet economically drawn labia, a very pretty detail. My only beef with Cory’s nudes would be his use of the Hitler’s mustache style of pubes that’s currently fashionable.

After that I met an interesting guy named Dirk Strangely.  He was friendly and talkative and a lot of fun, a contrast with his art, which was very dark and macabre.   His paintings don’t make me want to figure out how he does it, like Alex Ross’s stuff.  Still it was interesting stylistically, in particular his paintings of women.  I picked up one painting of a nude woman with part of her face scratched out and “mother” written on her belly, and said, “This is really scary.”  The image was weirdly compelling, and if I’d had a few more dollars on me, part of me wanted to have it, while the other part found it repellent.  Maybe it had something to do with the fact that my own mother died a few months ago. Strangely said the painting was about American women’s self hatred and talked about how he wanted women to see their own true beauty. Hmmm. I found his argument somewhat less than convincing, although he seemed like a very nice, sympathetic guy, with his wife and kids hanging around behind the table, helping out. Nope, his work reminded me a little too much of Willem de Kooning, and even more of Walter Sickert, the Victorian English painter who some, including famous crime novelist Patricia Cornwall, think might have been Jack the Ripper. It’s probably best I left the original painting there. I ended up buying one of his indy comics, Graveyard Girl, and a narrative drawing postcard to stick up in my studio with my postcard collection. We talked a bit about crossover into fine art galleries, and he seems to have it down. The edginess of his work probably helps. I’ve found my edgier stuff can cross over easier than stuff that’s too cute.

I checked out the Wizard World schedule and saw that at 4 PM there was a panel of famous comic artists right there in room 4. Bingo, I had something to look forward to, even though none of the names was familiar. Like I’ve said, I’ve been out of the loop for a long time, even though I often look through Ken’s books just to see the pictures. I find a lot of comic writing just unreadable, especially superheroes, even while I often find myself looking at the pictures with awe and wonder. I sat down in the back of the room for the panel, and watched the room fill up and finally the four panelists walk in and sit down. Honestly, I didn’t have a clue who any of them were and I didn’t expect to be terribly interested. After about 5 minutes, I realized that I was really into the panel so I got up and moved closer. These people were really interesting, especially one man, a compactly built African-American man in a yellow knit cap, whose enormous eyes dominated his face, even from twenty paces. I saw the name Brian Stelfreeze on a huge poster behind him, and it rang a bell from my random comics perusals, and since it was over the man in the yellow cap, I figured it was him. (Here’s a link to his cool art blog.) It turned out I was right about who he was, but it could have been a coincidence that the poster was over his head.

I wish I could remember the other men on the panel: one of them was an editor or columnist from Wizard Magazine, I remember that, and there was a very tall blond chap, and another blondish fellow. A woman was listed on the program, but she must not have shown.  They got to talking about dealing with writers and how it could be difficult, and how some they didn’t ever want to work with again. I found myself holding my hand up and asking them if they meant hard to deal with personally or if the writing was the problem. It sounded like it boiled down to the writers’ egos, which  could get in the way. The artists agreed that they prefered a writer who leaves the script “open,’ instead of dictating camera angles. One artist said he told a writer, “I’ll let you dictate camera angles if you let me write dialogue.” Touche. The man who turned out to be Stelfreeze then answered a question about computer art;  he said (and I hope I can remember exactly what)  that too many artists nowadays aren’t learning basic drawing skills, with a pencil or ink on real paper. Instead, they go straight to the computer tablet and stylus, which enables them to wipe out lines too easily, so the young artist never learns to make a real decisive mark. Stelfreeze emphasized that making art involves making mistakes and correcting them and learning from them.  He seemed to be talking about sometimes utilizing the mistakes that happen when the artist is drawing with pencil and ink on paper, painting something out, making a new mark, and sometimes discovering something new in the process.

StelfreezeAtlantaIt made me realize that my own drawing process isn’t as awful as I’ve often worried. I still draw with a pencil, pen, and brush (or sometimes paint) on paper, and only utilize the computer for labelling and a few corrections. My “technique,” if you can call it that, makes use of my many mistakes. I am willing to stay up all night drawing tiny hands, if necessary, doing it over and over and over again which is why I can draw as well as I can. At work, when drawing fossils, I often paint out lines I don’t like and go over them; when I eff it up, I start over having found out what I did wrong, able to make the decisive mark finally. Somehow I thought other artists didn’t do this, but I guess they do. After the panel, I followed them into the convention room to their table, because I wanted to tell Stelfreeze how much I enjoyed listening to them and especially him. But there were numerous hopeful kids with portfolios standing in line waiting to show their art to the panelists. I stood back and listened. A young man brought out his comic art and showed Stelfreeze, who gave him a long and generous critique. The crowd bubbled around me, and I could barely hear what he was saying and bent in closer to listen more carefully. After about five minutes, I realized I was hearing the most astonishing drawing lesson I had ever heard. I wished I had a tape recorder, and only  hoped that my mind would retain some of what I was hearing.

Later, after we got back to the hotel, I sat down and tried to write down a little of what Stelfreeze had talked about. “You draw well,” he told one young artist, “twenty years from now you will never draw one bit better.” The kid stood up a little straighter. He told the young man that his job now was to develop a personal style, to convey a particular mood, and to make every single panel he drew serve that style and mood. “Art with a purpose,”  Stelfreeze said several times, “Comics is art with a purpose.” Comics are about conveying emotion and every image should carry that emotion forward. He said that the comic artist should develop a directorial style, like a movie director, and look at the work of famous movie directors with a mind to finding their own style. I remembered when I was drawing my indy comic, an acquaintance who had done comics and was quite good, much more facile than me, lent me a copy of an old classic book on cinematography which he said was key in drawing comics. At the time I didn’t quite know what he was talking about, but I kept the book.  I gotta find that thing. Stelfreeze also said that when you find your directorial style, you can throw out skillsets you don’t need. Wow, I had never thought of that.

Stelfreeze mentioned, I think, Sterenko as someone who decided he didn’t really need deep perspective. That was a real eye-opener for me.  I had struggled for so long to do everything, and perspective is hard for me, maybe because I am very nearsighted. Maybe I should just move on and do what I do well. Hmmm. I could see that Dirk Strangely, for instance, had a  good, clear vision of his own Tim Burtonesque style that hung together quite well, without worrying one bit about perspective. Stelfreeze talked about action too, in a way that made me understand the whole concept better than I had before. I’d always thought that “action” meant big ACTION, big beefy supermen hitting each other, which doesn’t really interest me much, but he talked about small actions, a man hitting a fly, someone sitting down slowly, panel by panel, a look, a twist of the body. I wish I could remember everything he said but I can’t. When he finished talking to the kid, I stepped up and told him how much I had enjoyed listening to him. In fact I said, “That was amazing!” which it was. He was really nice and open, and when I told him that I and my artist friend Pyra (she has done some comics already based on her own Noantri world) had been talking about how much we wanted to do our own indy comic, but we were afraid no one wanted to see comics by middle-aged ladies, he responded enthusiastically. “You have real experience to write about!”  he said. “Too many kids write indy comics before they have lived;  you have lived and have so much to say.”

I stepped back because a young woman had been standing there for quite a while with her portfolio, waiting for a review. I could have talked to him for hours. You can tell how much he enjoys doing what he’s doing, can’t you? I know how he feels.  Talking to other working artists is such an energizer. Now I feel jazzed up and creative again.

I thought a lot about what he said later. I’ve noticed for a long time that many young wanna-be comic artists have gotten a lot of training in basic drawing, but they seem to have had all the originality and style wrung out of them. Some of them seem to think that they are supposed not to have any discernible style and that has always aggravated me. I knew something was wrong with the way they drew: competent, but flat, with no personality. I think they get it from old books on how to draw pencils for Marvel. That’s what all teenage boys want to do: pencils for Marvel. They especially seem to have taken to heart directions on how to sketch in a face, drawing every face the same, the mouth a straight line, no feeling for the underlying muscles. I’ve seen some of my husband’s old pencilled comic drawings. They weren’t bad at all, and he had a better handle on perspective than I did for a long time, but they drove me nuts, because he had taken all his own style out, but I didn’t know how to put it into words before. If you’re a professional artist, however, learn from my example and don’t critique your husband’s amateur drawings.  He didn’t like it when I told him that he drew his hands and feet too small, but he did.