Through Concentrated Breath

the making of images from memory

Narrative, the Past, and Beyond 3

28 January 2018 by Rey Armenteros

A new year was here. I had new thoughts. I could see new possibilities.

These groupings, these concepts, these titles have stewed for a month and more. It was now time to look at them again. A month ago, my wife assured me the card ideas were better, but she was not convinced that each deck of cards should be as large as they were, feeling that there was repetition in the types of images, and that kind of problem could water down the impact.

I counted the cards in each deck. Four of the five decks were exactly 49 cards. I liked the uniformity of it, and I felt it was the perfect size, but now I was also noticing that some of these drawings were just filler, to pump up the deck to the proper number. Again, she was right. I was going to have to cut them down.

But then, as I was looking through the cards and yet again, I was hard-pressed to remember which title and concept belonged to which deck. I was flipping through each stack, and I was wondering if this one was about situations and that one was about thoughts. It gave me an inkling about just how crucial the titles were. Ultimately, the concepts didn’t seem to matter.

But this was not disconcerting. So what if the titles were not essential! They worked for each group regardless, and even more importantly, they didn’t confuse. They did nothing more than provide a single focus. And that was not bad.

It was all about simplicity. You might want to instill one work of art with the entire universe as you can see it, but it won’t help that work at all. Why instill an old body of work with a narrative when it never apprehended one? It was always best to keep it simple.

And if a random viewer could find a narrative between the pictures — some all-encompassing sequential directive with conspiracies and character flaws and everything else — then all the better.

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Narrative, the Past, and Beyond 2

27 December 2017 by Rey Armenteros

I had two distinct groups of work from Shinchon. Even while still living in Shinchon, I already had titles for the two sets of paintings. They were going to be Shinchon Vertical and Shinchon Horizontal — their orientation dictated everything.

For the black and white drawings, I had more to think about. I was planning for them to consist of five decks of cards. They were all vertical. And they were connected in spirit, but I felt each one was separated by ideas.

I can’t recall what my original motives for the drawings used to be; I only had a sense of what I was attempting back then, which I do recall was for the ultimate purpose of narrative possibilities. To bring this art back to life, I was thinking of a story angle, and I was planning to follow a four classical elements thing with the additional element of the Void (which was a common feature in Asian groupings of fire, wind, water, and earth). Each of my five elements was going to be a period of the story. I was naming them Airborne Shinchon, Underwater Shinchon, Hellfire Shinchon, Earthbound Shinchon, and finally Abandoned Shinchon to represent the Void. In my mind, this story was as concrete as Homer’s Odyssey, and each chapter was an element that guided the reader’s journey into all five “underworlds.” The problem was that there was little substance in these settings, as my wife had pointed out to me; a reader would only be confounded if I touted these cards as the molecules of a story.

I had to think of this differently. My wife had given me the simple idea of just making these things into basic concepts of art, like portraits and landscapes. I went back to the cards and looked at them carefully, placing the roles of portraits over this stack and that of landscapes over that stack and perhaps still lifes (for my images that were nothing more than objects) over that stack. But though I had enough portraits for a deck of a decent size, I didn’t have enough for other traditional genres of painting. So, I kept Portraits and thought about other ways in which to group the couple of hundred drawings that were left over. I had some ideas and tossed them back and forth until I got a few things I liked. For the portraits, I called them Shinchon Faces. For the drawings that had a personal text, I came up with Shinchon Thoughts. For those that had a more distanced observation, I called them Shinchon Situations. For the abstract images, I reserved Shinchon Abstractions. And for those ink washes that possessed a certain special quality of light, I titled Shinchon Light.

I wasn’t sure if any of this was gong to work. I was feeling overwhelmed. Maybe revisiting old art was a bad idea after all. The new year was coming. I put it aside for the time being to be contemplated only after it stewed out of sight for a month or so.


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Narrative, the Past, and Beyond 1

12 December 2017 by Rey Armenteros

I was cooking up reasons why I was even looking at this old work. Actually, the truth was that I didn’t need any reason. I was looking through it and contemplating doing something with it so many years after its creation simply because it had some value. When I first went into an old box and dug out this forgotten art from my days in Shinchon, Korea, I was awed by how adventurous it was, how different it was from my art now. Swept by this excitement, I started showing it on my different social media sites in the hopes of garnering interest in my origins before giving my followers views of my newer art. But then I started thinking about how this was a new forum for this work that never received any venue. My original intentions when I lived in Shinchon were for these tiny drawings to be cards like you would find in a deck of Tarot but with concrete storytelling potentials. I moved from Shinchon before I could fulfill my storytelling plans, but when I started scrutinizing them recently, they were giving me a view at something cohesive.

I was now looking for a reason for this body of work because I was seriously thinking of publishing them as decks of cards. To this end, I was plumbing the depths of old desires and plans, searching for the intentions behind the work, trying to recall where I was in life and what was important to me. It was not easy. I ended up grouping decks according to both the subject matter and to the emotive quality behind the images. I was also comparing the cards that included text with those that didn’t, and in those that had text, I distinguished between the text that was personal and the text that was not. Looking through three hundred drawings, I formed five decks. And suddenly, I did find a latent story between these decks of cards, and I promptly sutured them together as one long narrative worthy of a graphic novel format. I was even entertaining the possibilities of an actual printed book to go along with the cards. To me, there was an actual story flying through the images, even if their connection was tenuous.

Finally, I showed them to my wife, and unfortunately, she found very little connection to the narrative sequences. She thought it was not likely the viewers would find anything there as far as a narrative. And she was right. The story I thought was there relied on much too much abstraction. Many of the images were already abstracted in some way, even if the images were mostly figurative. On top of that, the esoteric text supplied another level of abstraction. And if there was also abstraction in their logical sequence on top of it all, then that would be a third level, which meant that the adhesive I was using to put this alleged narrative together had no sticking power.

It is interesting that even in abstraction, you need something concrete to bind it all or it won’t make any sense. In the old days, an abstract painting had a title, which might not provide much, but at least it grounded the work. My wife suggested a couple things. They were subjects, in a sense; she asked me why I didn’t group them into one deck of portraits, and another of landscapes, and such — and forget about trying too many things at once.

My wife made me realize that I was complicating the issue. I was now going to stick to the basics. Alas.

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Black, A Triptych of Thoughts

30 November 2017 by Rey Armenteros

A student in a color theory class once insinuated that you can make a perfectly good black by mixing brown and blue, which raised the question of why I included a tube of Mars Black in my materials list. My argument was that you can certainly get some profound grays and dark browns but you will never get a true black like the color you see when you wake up in a room full of darkness. So, if you ever have to paint a room full of darkness (or just about any night scene), you can’t get away with merely blue and brown.

The reality is that if you want a true black to paint black objects like a TV set or dress shoes, you would need to buy black at the store, like you would for red, blue, yellow, or any other color. Certain painters frown on black. It is a superfluous color that only serves to shift colors and dominate mixes. The going argument is that the use of complementary colors is better for shades. But complementary colors can only go so far into darkness. Historically, the use of black is in evidence in the cave paintings of thirty thousand years ago, and it was likely in use well before that since it was one of our original four colors, or so the experts say. Leonardo Da Vinci considered it one of the primary colors. It has always been an essential color until about a hundred and fifty years ago when the Impressionists dictated black was not a color to be used. (The Impressionists, alas, never painted night scenes; their thing was outdoor daylight, which might have very little use for black.) Since then, a majority of painters have precluded black from their shopping list. Like everybody else, I used to shun black. Now, not only do I use black, I use three types of black.

Mars Black comes from an iron oxide, and I use it for general mixtures with other colors that I then store in containers to use later. It is not a very special color, but it is a good all around color for such mixtures. For example, if you mix Yellow Oxide with Mars Black, you get a lush olive green.

Bone Black (often mislabeled Ivory Black) is my drawing black. Sometimes I either mix it with other colors or glaze thin coats over an image in order to place shadows after the fact. It is a warm black that can have the curious look of pencil work if used in hatching. The name comes from the bones from birds and other little animals that they burn to extract the particles for this pigment.

Carbon Black is a deep black that has a cool undertone. I use it for inky effects or when I need an absolute black. For contrast, it has the most impact. If I were stranded on a desert island and could only bring one color with me of the thirty or so I use, it would be this one. I have to confess, the greatest joy I have in painting and drawing is when I make lines with this color.

In my work, black has become the color that puts my pictorial elements together. When I am ready to wrap up an image, I use black. On certain days, I only want to use black. I own multiple containers of the three blacks in my repertoire. All in all, I don’t believe I do that many night scenes, but when I do make one, I know I am well-prepared.

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The Rules of Doodling 5

22 November 2017 by Rey Armenteros

And here I’ve come to the end of the line, and I can only conclude that you can play with rules in your doodles, but you can’t shackle yourself to them. The rules themselves are not important. They are there to serve the flow of ideas and to have the images come together in certain ways.

I can’t say how important the doodle is to my art. On the one hand, until recently, I didn’t doodle at all; I hadn’t done so for many years. But in the random ways I arrive at images, you can conclude that I have been doodling in paint for all that time.

In some paintings, I make the doodle show its genealogical imprint through scribbling lines and incomplete drawings. I have a few examples that emulate the look of doodles and scratchy sketches. The problem is they are paintings and not doodles. I like looking at these pieces with their broad similarities to pen and ink, but I don’t number them among my stronger pieces. They feel forced. What is the point of pursuing a meaningless exercise only to take the “plastic paper” it sits on and adhere it to a painted panel and then call it a painting?

There are more natural ways to incorporate the doodle. The general process is to start something with a doodle and finish with something else. There is an idea I’ve been following where I make rows of rudimentary doodles on a large acrylic skin and then only flesh out the doodles that somehow come alive for me. I add colors or darker lines and locate details. The doodles that get this special treatment remind me of the panels on a comic book page. My mind gets busy turning these possibilities around, and a new path appears before me…

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The Rules of Doodling 4

14 November 2017 by Rey Armenteros

How do you transport the characteristics of doodles to a painting? How do you convert the loose dynamics and sharp lines of a pen to the deliberate strokes of paint? Is it even possible? It’s the age old question concerning drawing versus painting, how a drawing is always fresher, how the ideas just roll out in the lines. A drawing is more immediate, or so it has been argued ad infinitum. I believe there are exceptions.

In my world, I don’t need to touch drawing materials to make drawings. My pen and ink drawings of recent years are actually made of brush and paint. I thin my paint to a precise degree, and I employ brush techniques that mirror a certain type of hatching. I work on “plastic paper” (acrylic paint skins that I make). If the image on this synthetic paper is successful, I adhere it to a substrate, and the painting is finished. If not successful, I white it out and start again or keep it until I can make it work later. Working on this plastic paper first in order to later adhere to a panel helps me overcome the psychological factor related to painting. The psychological factor goes like this: If I put all that time in preparing a canvas or panel (either of which happen to be more expensive than a page of a sketchbook), I had better make a worthy picture. When you skip that step for later, you are releasing that feeling of commitment, and you embrace the freedom of doing whatever you want. It gives my drawn and painted work the throwaway attributes of a doodle.

In the end, I am emulating these drawing qualities with paint. Does that mean that it is the same thing? “It is never the same” is a dictum I have carried in my art for years, because as soon as you change something, it can never be the same. In my search for emulating certain things that can look like other things, I have to remind myself, even convince myself, that they can never be the same.

The sharp pen lines I can make with a brush won’t match that inherently scratchy quality of a pen line, no matter who you can fool after scrutiny.

It is never the same because as soon as you change something in the method, it can no longer have the exact same substance. It’s like changing the main part of a recipe and hoping to get the same flavors.

Nevertheless, though my painting is not a pen and ink drawing, it is still a drawing; it is a drawing I do with paint. And my doodles in acrylics are still doodles, even if I am limited to making them in the studio. I would never haul paint containers, a jar of cleaning water, and several brushes to draw out in public. That is why at a coffeehouse, I scrawl with a marker instead.

     

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The Rules of Doodling 3

05 November 2017 by Rey Armenteros

In as much as I was counting the loops I made in my doodles in the interest of finding a formal system for the practice of doodling, I soon abandoned the whole idea. I really enjoyed the structure it was promising, but it was getting tedious, counting the loops and then second-guessing if I had done it properly according to my own rules. And it was forcing my doodles into a corner, which I should have seen coming since the very act of doodling disregards the idea of rules! And yet, I did learn a couple of things about how to incorporate limitations in your work, which is always a worthy endeavor; artists need to embrace restraints in a work of art. At some point later in my artistic explorations, I can see myself counting loops again as a way to locate some lost wisdom or something.

When looking at the past couple of years, I have gone through various periods in my doodles. There was one stage where I was focused on the many ways people walked. I was concentrating my viewpoint on people walking toward me, so I was drawing people from the front. It is much easier to show a figure walking from the side, so I was attempting to uncover the secrets of frontal strides because I wasn’t sure if I could do it.

Instead of drawing from a photo or other captured image, I was observing people in public. But I was not drawing from observation, not in the strict definition; actually, it was more like I would look and digest what I had just seen, and then I would draw from memory, the moment it was already gone. Of course, when watching someone’s steps, you have no chance at an observational rendering because you find it happens so quickly that you have to try to see the next step to understand what you have just seen the second before. It was a quick process: I would look, grasp the figure in my mind, and bend my head to my sheet to find the walking figure in a few loops.Everybody has a different walk. If words could represent an amble or a march or a fleet-footed shuffle, a few scrawls had the capacity to get at something almost unmentionable but far more sophisticated in expression. There was a personality behind everybody’s walk, it seemed, and I was witnessing the gestural analog of a moving fingerprint.

With each worthless scribble, I was getting at something deeper and more fundamental than just cataloguing an endless stream of idiosyncratic steps, and I knew that when you succeed in something like this, you possess a part of that thing you’re representing (even if with nothing but flimsy lines). I was expanding my collection of such information. This was information I can use. Such a thing can come out again whenever I needed it in some future project. I have been collecting such data for years, growing my personal library to its greatest dimensions yet, hoping to be able to use all this understanding whenever it was needed in a painting or some such ambition.

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The Rules of Doodling 2

30 October 2017 by Rey Armenteros

So, I made up a few rules on doodling tiny things on a scrap piece of paper, and I centered my rules on there being five loops to a single doodle, arguing that this was the perfect number to represent a human, and I could therefore bring out a face with five such interlocking shapes, or bring out a hand or foot, or a whole body.

Yet, I also had variations on this just so that I could play with a little variety. I had the three-loop doodle and the nine-loop doodle, wondering if there were uses for them that had little to do with humans. Since landscapes were more complex than a human figure, I tried nine loops to get a trace of this form of detail. Though a still life could also be complex, I felt that giving one or more objects nothing but three loops was a way of looking for minimalist forms. I also tried other numbers just to try them.

Eventually, I came up with the idea of the multiple doodle. It would have to be on a larger piece of paper. It was a scrawled image that was made up of one main doodle that tied it all together (perhaps with nine loops, although it could be less). And on top of this foundation I would add a five-loop doodle for every person in the composition. If it was an object, it would need a three-loop doodle. And I was looking for evidence that this might have a practical use when constructing sophisticated compositions.

I suppose you can argue that there is no difference between this and making a sketch or a study for the same purpose, but what I like about the doodle is that it has a great freedom that depends less on planning because the method is not front-loaded with a predicted image.

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The Rules of Doodles I

21 October 2017 by Rey Armenteros

I am a tireless inventor of useless processes, but I firmly believe that in some such throwaway activities, I will find that mound of treasure that can point to new artistic directions.

Doodling could be one of these activities, but recently, I have been adding a certain twist to the meandering drawing you do when your head is not particularly going in any direction. I have been adding rules to my doodles, so that I can play a game as I explore. I’ve been using something I call loops, and I recall this coming about when I was doing variations of the typical spiral one day, not so long ago (when the spiral by itself was not quite sufficient to pass the time). I distorted my spirals, searching for something else, striving for unpredictable ways to get at a drawing that was not a spiral. My goal was to find forms I could place in an asymmetrical choreography, and the rules were my way of destabilizing expectations. Rules or no rules, I was still looking for ways to come up with images from something that was abstract; this was just a different take on that basic idea.

The loops could be any shape including having rectilinear sides, and they can bend in any direction, but a single loop had to stop when it ran into its own loop line, where I would start another loop. And I would try to adhere to these limitations. As an option, it could also stop when encountering another loop if it happened before touching its own line. A loop line could also intersect another loop line and create new shapes in between two or more loops.

When I doodle, I don’t usually have something in mind, but for weeks, I’ve been counting the loops, after having settled on the number five. Even if I did not designate a subject matter, that number of loops does reference something for me because it is based on human qualities. The number five is the human number because we are limited to five senses, we have five fingers on each hand and foot, and we have five limbs if you count the head. So, I would use five loops for every discrete form I would come up with, trying to find a face, a foot, a hand, or a body.

Sometimes I did have something in mind, and if it were a human, I would count the loops anyway. If I tried to bring back a certain old friend I no longer knew, I would think about this person and doodle the five loops without looking at the page, with my eyes fixed on infinity. And when the five loops were over, I would try to find my old acquaintance in the scribble. Then, I would do another one and another one, until I got it right or gave up.

Recently, I’ve been taking these quick doodles and trying to make something of them with a bit of crosshatching and such. I would see a face and then bring it out of the obscurity by finding details, still trying to surprise myself by distorting forms even as I was bringing them out of the linear mire. I was coming up with things suddenly in the wake of having nothing in mind. And this was even more exciting than placing the finishing details on a little gem of a painting.

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Drawing and Painting: A Personal Definition

14 October 2017 by Rey Armenteros

I draw with paint. Though everyone of my pictures from recent years would be classified as a painting, I feel they are mostly drawings in disguise.

A drawing is immediate with little planning. It is a one-sitting enterprise, and the more you deliberate over it, the closer it comes to becoming a painting. A drawing is linear, and it is monochromatic, but it can evolve from there and still be loyal to its upbringing.
A drawing is done with solid colors; there is little subtlety. Titanium White is corporeal in paint mixtures and Zinc White is not; therefore when I use Titanium White, I am drawing, and when I use Zinc White, I am painting. Drawing is like writing. Painting is the propensity to use the surface to make something of it; the skin of a painted portrait could be an actual skin of paint, and the feel of these surfaces connote to the surfaces of other things.

Nevertheless, painting can be ethereal, and drawing is hardly ever ethereal, unless it is alluding to it in some abstract way.

And that is another thing: drawing is provoking a literal reality using the most abstract of devices (namely line and the lack of color), whereas painting is pure abstraction, even if it represents something and even if it does it convincingly.

So, if I begin with abstract clouds in order to get something out of it eventually, I am painting regardless of the tools I am using. If I know what I want to depict, I am drawing.
A calligraphic mark makes me think of drawing. A haze is beyond question an aspect of painting.

When I sit in the studio and am making one or the other, I am always using acrylic paints, and I don’t think about whether I’m making a drawing or a painting. The distinctions come later when I am analyzing the way I go about doing things, when the act of drawing or painting is over.

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