Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Pablo Picasso

Quote of the Day

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Picasso's Dora Maar Au Chat

The artist is a receptacle for emotions, regardless of whether they spring from heaven, from earth, from a scrap of paper, from a passing face, or from a spider’s web. This is why he must not distinguish between things. Quartiers de noblesse do not exist among objects.

Pablo Picasso

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August 2, 2016 at 7:30 am

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Written by nevalalee

May 19, 2016 at 7:30 am

A series of sketches

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Nilo Cruz

I write a series of scenes. Then I look at all the scenes, and then I start sculpting the play. To me, writing is like sketching. You don’t enter the canvas immediately—you do a series of sketches. Picasso did hundreds of sketches before he started Guernica. So I do the same thing, just to find out about my characters. Some of those scenes make it to the play, some of them don’t. So it is a process of search, doing a little bit of research about their lives through actually writing scenes and finding out about them. Again, some of them make it to the play and some of them don’t…

If you think of dramaturgy in North America, which is so realistic and so literal sometimes, sometimes what theaters—especially dramaturgs—ask for is more information, which sometimes can really weigh down a play. There’s only so much information a play can have. If you start putting in so much information, it becomes something completely different, it doesn’t sing…You’re serving this person, but at the same time, you’re not serving the art form. I feel like as a writer, you have to take commentaries with a grain of salt.

Nilo Cruz, to Guernica

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March 5, 2016 at 7:30 am

Picasso until proven otherwise

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August Wilson

I always say that any painter that stands before a canvas is Picasso until proven otherwise. He stands before a blank canvas and he takes his tools. Paint, form, line, mass, color, relationship—those are the tools, and his mastery of those tools is what will enable him to put that painting on canvas. Everybody does the same thing. His turn out like that because he’s mastered the tools. What happens with writers is that they don’t want to learn the craft—that is, your tools. So if you wanna write plays, you can’t write plays without knowing the craft of playwriting. Once you have your tools, then you still gotta create out of that thing, that impulse. Out of necessity, as Bearden says: “Art is born out of necessity.” Most writers ignore the very thing that would get them results, and that’s craft. And how do you learn craft? In the trenches.

August Wilson, to The Believer

Written by nevalalee

February 7, 2016 at 7:30 am

Crayon physics

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Crayon drawings

Note: I’m on vacation until next Tuesday, so I’ll be republishing a few of my favorite posts from earlier in this blog’s run, starting with a series on writing and parenting. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on August 26, 2014.

Until a few months ago, I hadn’t picked up a crayon in years. To be honest, I’d never really been a fan. When we’re young, crayons offer one of our earliest lessons in the gap between expectations and reality. They look so enticing, in the jumbo set with the sharpener built into the back, and the illustrations on the box make it seem like you can draw like a little Degas. In practice, though, crayons always came off as kind of a pain. They were brittle, the colors were hard to combine, and even at their best, the line you got was blunt and unsubtle. For a kid who was determined to draw exactly what he saw, crayons were a severe handicap, like playing the piano with boxing gloves. As a result, I gave them up early on, focusing on pencil and pen, and for a long time, I’d convinced myself that it was color I didn’t like. Oil pastels, colored pencils, and watercolors didn’t seem much better, and it was only with a pencil in hand—with its potential for fine detail, shading, blending, and erasure—that I felt comfortable rendering the world, even if it had to be in shades of black and white.

I was wrong, of course, although you can’t really blame me. When we put crayons into a child’s hands, it isn’t because they’re a great art medium, but because they’re practical: they’re cheap, relatively unmessy, and even when broken, they still lay down a serviceable line. It’s easy to take them for granted, since we buy them for our kids precisely because we won’t need to think about them again. Really, though, they’re just like any other medium, with strengths as well as weaknesses, and they’re capable of lovely things once we’ve adjusted ourselves to their limitations. (Artists from Picasso to John Singer Sargent have done beautiful work in wax crayon, which offers advantages of portability, vividness, and convenience that go a long way toward making up for its shortcomings.) You find, for instance, that going for uniform fields of color or perfect blending only forces crayons to do what they can’t, and you’ll get better results with a loose, overlapping style. It’s fine if the paper shows through. And trying to imitate the effects of other media, as I learned early on, only leads to heartbreak. You’ve got to let crayons be crayons.

Crayon drawings

I learned this, or learned it again, while drawing and coloring with my daughter. When you’re shopping for art supplies for a toddler, it doesn’t help to go for subtlety, so I bought the most basic set of tools imaginable: the eight-crayon set from Crayola, designed for stubby little fingers, and a huge pad of rough newsprint that covers half of the living room rug. Beatrix can’t do much yet but scrawl across the page—which gives her enormous pleasure in itself—so I usually find myself drawing things for her, copying pictures from Richard Scarry or another picture book. And I’ve found that those eight chunky crayons really do present limitless possibilities, once you’ve accommodated yourself to their needs. Their fat lines force you to draw in broad strokes, so you have no choice but put as much energy into it as you can. A bold line drawn with confidence looks good even if the result is less than perfect, and you start to revel in those bold, unmixed colors, which few if any painters would allow on a canvas. And if you don’t like what you’ve done, it’s easy to turn the page and start again.

So I’ve found that I like crayons after all, even if it took me twenty years or more to work my way around to it. (The one exception is the white crayon, which still strikes me as a profoundly useless object thrown in only for the sake of making a set.) What I love about them the most is their insistence, like the ukulele’s, on art as part of the fabric of life. Most other art supplies need to be guarded and segregated from common areas; oil paints and watercolors don’t have a place in the living room. Crayons can be kept anywhere, including a purse or diaper bag, and when you’re done, you just stick them back in the box and slide them under the sofa with the drawing pad. They’re aren’t good for everything, or great for anything, and there’s a reason we tend to think of them as kid’s stuff. But there’s a sense in which we lose something as we move on to more sophisticated tools that require more care and preparation. Crayons are the oral poetry of art, a medium that we associate with a period in our lives when we own nothing of our own and have little control over our personal space. The crayons don’t care; they’ll come with us. And they’re still there, as good as always, if we ever want to let them back in.

Written by nevalalee

January 15, 2016 at 9:00 am

Crayon physics

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Crayon drawings

Until a few months ago, I hadn’t picked up a crayon in years. To be honest, I’d never really been a fan. When we’re young, crayons offer one of our earliest lessons in the gap between expectations and reality. They look so enticing, in the jumbo set with the sharpener built into the back, and the illustrations on the box make it seem like you can draw like a little Degas. In practice, though, crayons always came off as kind of a pain. They were brittle, the colors were hard to combine, and even at their best, the line you got was blunt and unsubtle. For a kid who was determined to draw exactly what he saw, crayons were a severe handicap, like playing the piano with boxing gloves. As a result, I gave them up early on, focusing on pencil and pen, and for a long time, I’d convinced myself that it was color I didn’t like. Oil pastels, colored pencils, and watercolors didn’t seem much better, and it was only with a pencil in hand—with its potential for fine detail, shading, blending, and erasure—that I felt comfortable rendering the world, even if it had to be in shades of black and white.

I was wrong, of course, although you can’t really blame me. When we put crayons into a child’s hands, it isn’t because they’re a great art medium, but because they’re practical: they’re cheap, relatively unmessy, and even when broken, they still lay down a serviceable line. It’s easy to take them for granted, since we buy them for our kids precisely because we won’t need to think about them again. Really, though, they’re just like any other medium, with strengths as well as weaknesses, and they’re capable of lovely things once we’ve adjusted ourselves to their limitations. (Artists from Picasso to John Singer Sargent have done beautiful work in wax crayon, which offers advantages of portability, vividness, and convenience that go a long way toward making up for its shortcomings.) You find, for instance, that going for uniform fields of color or perfect blending only forces crayons to do what they can’t, and you’ll get better results with a loose, overlapping style. It’s fine if the paper shows through. And trying to imitate the effects of other media, as I learned early on, only leads to heartbreak. You’ve got to let crayons be crayons.

Crayon drawings

I learned this, or learned it again, while drawing and coloring with my daughter. When you’re shopping for art supplies for a toddler, it doesn’t help to go for subtlety, so I bought the most basic set of tools imaginable: the eight-crayon set from Crayola, designed for stubby little fingers, and a huge pad of rough newsprint that covers half of the living room rug. Beatrix can’t do much yet but scrawl across the page—which gives her enormous pleasure in itself—so I usually find myself drawing things for her, copying pictures from Richard Scarry or another picture book. And I’ve found that those eight chunky crayons really do present limitless possibilities, once you’ve accommodated yourself to their needs. Their fat lines force you to draw in broad strokes, so you have no choice but put as much energy into it as you can. A bold line drawn with confidence looks good even if the result is less than perfect, and you start to revel in those bold, unmixed colors, which few if any painters would allow on a canvas. And if you don’t like what you’ve done, it’s easy to turn the page and start again.

So I’ve found that I like crayons after all, even if it took me twenty years or more to work my way around to it. (The one exception is the white crayon, which still strikes me as a profoundly useless object thrown in only for the sake of making a set.) What I love about them the most is their insistence, like the ukulele’s, on art as part of the fabric of life. Most other art supplies need to be guarded and segregated from common areas; oil paints and watercolors don’t have a place in the living room. Crayons can be kept anywhere, including a purse or diaper bag, and when you’re done, you just stick them back in the box and slide them under the sofa with the drawing pad. They’re aren’t good for everything, or great for anything, and there’s a reason we tend to think of them as kid’s stuff. But there’s a sense in which we lose something as we move on to more sophisticated tools that require more care and preparation. Crayons are the oral poetry of art, a medium that we associate with a period in our lives when we own nothing of our own and have little control over our personal space. The crayons don’t care; they’ll come with us. And they’re still there, as good as always, if we ever want to let them back in.

Written by nevalalee

August 26, 2014 at 9:57 am

The conspiratorial urge

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Donald Sutherland and Kevin Costner in JFK

Like Kevin Costner in Bull Durham, I believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, but this wasn’t always the case. There was a period of a year or so in my early teens when I must have read a dozen books, in their entirety or in part, on the Kennedy assassination, ranging from the Warren Commission Report itself to works on a sliding scale of lunacy ranging from Case Closed to Appointment in Dallas. This was mostly thanks to Oliver Stone’s JFK, a film that strikes me now as a maddeningly skillful, highly irresponsible work of fiction, as well as, inconveniently, one of the greatest of all American movies. When I first saw it, though, I was prepared to take much of it at face value, partially because I encountered it during a golden age for conspiracy fiction: Foucault’s Pendulum had been released a few years earlier, and The X-Files had premiered that fall. As a result, I was primed to soak up reams of conspiracy literature, and not just on the assassination but on all aspects of history and culture: Holy Blood, Holy Grail, Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince’s books on the Shroud of Turin—which in my weaker moments I still find oddly persuasive—and endless works on the secrets of the Bible, the Masons, and even, yes, the Rosicrucians, spiraling out into the larger subjects of the paranormal and occult. (There comes a point in every kid’s life when he tries to move a salt shaker with his mind, and in some ways, I’ve never entirely left it, although I’d like to think I’ve channeled those energies into more constructive pursuits.)

This was also the year in which I wrote my first novel, typing up three hundred pages of science fiction using WordStar at my parents’ office, and when I look back at it now, I can see how closely those two impulses were entwined. It’s possible that puberty leads to a surge in an obsessive kind of creativity, the kind that results in drawing endless pages of comics or picking up the guitar, and to the extent that I was drawn to conspiracies, both real and imaginary, it wasn’t because I distrusted the government or the official version of history, but because I fell in love with a creative act. Writing a novel and constructing a conspiracy theory seemed like similar pursuits: they both involved sustained intellectual effort, wide reading, and a considerable amount of ingenuity. In retrospect, I wasn’t entirely wrong, at least not at the time. I happened to come of age at an era when conspiracy theories still involved weeks of sleuthing in libraries and piecing together fragments of information from many scattered sources, none of which were easily accessible. It may seem strange to wax nostalgic about an age of paranoia, but I miss the old days. Conspiracy theories have always been weirdly distorted versions of conventional scholarship, both in their methods and in the kinds of personalities they attract, and just as the ease of searching texts leads to a loss in serious academic work—you no longer need to read all the books on a library shelf to get the references you need—even contemporary conspiracy theories are looking a little thin.

The umbrella man's umbrella

Yet even in their modern, increasingly hysterical form, conspiracy theories can best be understood as a literary impulse. An even better analogy might be that of the collage: you’re assembling information into a larger, surprising pattern, and much of the power of the result comes from its resonance with its original form. We remember Picasso welding a bicycle seat and handlebars together to create the head of a bull because it forces us to see its constituent parts in a new light, and we’re drawn to conspiracies about the life of Jesus, say, because of the way it combines familiar elements—the wedding at Cana, the last supper—into something novel. The “best” conspiracy theories are the ones that seem to invent the least: they’re about juxtapositions and recombinations, or laying a new scrim on the lens to bring out unexpected details. That’s why a subject like the Kennedy assassination has turned out to be so fruitful. There’s an overwhelming amount of material available, some of it contradictory and enigmatic, so it feels like a bin of mosaic pieces that can be set together in countless ways. To add yet another analogy to the mix, it’s like a magnet that draws certain personalities who are unconsciously in search of a subject. A writer can weigh and discard various ideas for a long time before finding the one that magically clicks, and I have a feeling that a lot of conspiracy theorists were born looking for an event that would allow them to indulge their existing hunger for interpretation. The urge to create comes first, and its darker companions, like paranoia, emerge as a way of justifying the work itself.

But a line needs to be drawn here. History isn’t fiction; real life isn’t a novel; and while the creative urge in storytelling often leads the author to discover more about himself and how the world works, conspiracies encourage emotional retreat and alienation. When I read Foucault’s Pendulum for the first time, I was seduced by its inventiveness and erudition, and I totally missed its larger point about the pathology of paranoia, or how our urge to connect everything to everything else can distort reality’s irreducible mysteries. In my own fiction, I’ve taken pains, almost to a fault, to have it both ways: The Icon Thief and City of Exiles both end on the revelation that the historical conspiracies they describe are something other than what they seemed. Part of this is my desire to show some residual respect for the real people and events I use—Duchamp wasn’t a Rosicrucian, and I didn’t feel comfortable writing a novel that made that point in earnest, however ingenious the argument might have been. But it had even more to do with a shift in my own priorities. For all the cleverness involved in the construction of a good conspiracy, it pales compared to the intellectual effort required to see the world as a whole, with all its contradictions, its dead ends, and its combination of unfathomable complexity and frustrating simplicity. That’s the real challenge, and it’s work enough for a lifetime. And in the end, we’re all acting alone.

Written by nevalalee

November 21, 2013 at 9:20 am

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