With the scenes from Eastern and Western literature burned into the side boards, I added three shades of of wood stain. Three tones if you will: gray, green, and dark brown. And a little bit of white oil paint for the moon. Maybe the addition of white paint was too much — a flourish, embellishment. No take backs. What is done is done. Only two more steps remain: wood finish and installation.
I am a little embarrassed by how long it took to build and decorate this no-plan, salvaged-wood bookshelf. And yet, the process was enjoyable, painful, and therapeutic.
In the back of my mind I wanted the artwork on the bookshelf to be imperceptible. To be part of the wood. To appear as if it were coming out from the wood. Something that a casually observer might miss. But an astute observer would cast a second and a third glance and then walk up close to inspect the nearly hidden image.
Instead of painting the scenes on to the bookshelf, I chose woodburning. The results surprised me. And my kidlingers. The long process of transforming the graphite sketches into dramatic burnt dark figures amazed them. And the craft and process of making the art renewed my imagination.
Too often I spend my day in front of a screen reading, researching and replying to emails. It’s knowledge work. It’s spreadsheets, production reports, and project management. These are all important elements in the workflow of art direction and graphic design. But they can become a psychic vampire as one coworker likes to say. And this summer therapy project was part of the remedy.
What is a challenge if it is too easily accomplished? Why not decorate the salvaged-wood, no-plan bookshelf?
Who suggested the idea is forgotten. Whether it was one of the kidlingers, or my wife, or myself is not important. But through the summer week nights and weekends a conversation took place as to decorating the bookshelf.
Since the bookshelf was intended to house schoolbooks, I decided to draw a scene inspired from Eastern literature and a scene inspired from Western literature.
Earlier in the year I had been reading Tu Fu, the autobiography of a Chinese poet, translated by Florence Ayscough. The author records Tu Fu’s reflection of his early years,
“Aged nine, I wrote large characters There were enough to fill a hard-bottomed bag.”
Tu Fu, from “Years of Strength Travel”
I intended on drawing a scene from that book. But decided upon Li Po instead. One poem captured my imagination.
I raise my cup to invite bright moon, . . .
I sing and the moon dances, I dance, and my shadow tumbles Sober, we share the joy we knew…”
from Li Po’s “Drinking Alone under the Moon”
I found a couple paintings of Li Po on the internet. That became the drawing for the Eastern side of the bookshelf.
For the Western side of the bookshelf, I selected the story of Daphne and the laurel tree. Years ago I acquired Myths and Enchantment Tales by Margaret Evens Price. During the first month of the safer-at-home orders from the state I rediscovered the book. The story of Cupid and Apollo caught my eye because of a detail I had overlooked. Peneus, the river god and father of Daphne, turned his daughter in to a tree in the forest to protect her from a love-struck Apollo. Price’s lovely illustration was the source of the inspiration. And gave me an excuse to play the woodgrain of the side boards into the illustration.
It was cold. A political rally mangled traffic downtown. Everything seemed off schedule. I missed the street car to the train station by minutes and had to walk. The winter weather depleted the battery of my smartphone. Commuters waited at the Intermodal. The last train of the night was late.
There was a special one-hour podcast on obscure tunes from the Real Book loaded on my smartphone. I wanted to listen to jazz music. But I didn’t want to run out of battery. In case the train was delayed. And I had to call my wife to pick me up.
The previous weekend I checked out a book of poetry from the public library. A collection of poems, translated into English, of Li Po. Before I knew it I had found a friend. The translator made it inviting to enter the world and work of Li Po.
Soon the train arrived and I boarded. Found a seat. Plugged my phone into the outlet. Opened the book and continued reading. The train passed over the river and had nearly cleared the Third Ward when I caught a glimpsed of the moon over Lake Michigan.
“I raise my cup to invite the bright moon, . . .” wrote Li Po.
Maybe that endured me to Li Po. Or at least inspired me to feature an illustration of Li Po on a bookshelf I built this summer.
There are a couple Li Po illustrations I made during the last year or so. But the one for the new bookshelf is the most ambitious and detailed. Maybe I will share some posts about the bookshelf project with you later. I had considered writing a series of short posts about how it all came together. Sort of a how-to, or how it was done, type of posts. But the story about why I chose to decorate the sides of the bookshelf seems to interest people more than how I built it.
As the nights grow longer and colder, the illustrated bookshelf is now installed in the living room.
“What did you do last night?” she asked as we walked through the neighborhood in the pre-dawn moments of the day.
“I worked ’til six. Clocked out. Made supper. And spent a couple hours drawing.”
She did not say anything for a few dozen steps. She took the kidlingers on an adventure the night before. And she was tired.
I continued. “The challenge is that it takes me nearly an hour to set up. Not just gathering tools like pencil, ink, brush, illustration board, and setting up a space to work. But planning. Composing a page. Thumbnail sketches. Reference materials and such.”
She listened. We walked further. In the hour before sunrise, I looked East. I saw Venus. Or maybe Regulus. Possibly both.
“By the time everyone got home,” I said. “I had finished marking out a page and composing three panels.”
She told me about a conversation with the one of the kidlingers as we walked. We exchanged comments about plans for the day. We continued for a quarter mile or so before returning home.
Thoughts of last night’s drawings were pushed into the shadows of a day filled with choses sérieuses.
Inspired by Inktober 2019, I kept working on illustrations throughout November and December. For me, this was intentional art exercise. Keeping up the practice of crafting pencil compositions on illustration board. It was a private affair. No commercial application. Just me, a pencil, and board. But I hit a dry spell entering the new year. Actually, it was not a dry spell, but rather a lack of designated time to practice.
Commuting for two hours a day was part of the daily routine. By train and by street car. Or by automobile. Traveling sapped my energy. But now with state and government safe at home orders, I tried to ease back into evening illustration exercise.
Working from home had its own set of demands. Working from home with a family in an area of less than 1000 square feet presented additional challenges. But these are first world problems.
The first week was difficult. Routines and life patterns merged. A lot of discovery. Kidlingers and spouse realized what I did for work all day. Or at least attempted to do in spite of technological challenges with internet speed and video conferencing.
All evening activities outside the home had been cancelled until further notice. I had more time to catch up on reading and art projects. But resuming the exercise of illustration was difficult.
The first evening all I did was organize and clean the art tools and space. The next night all I did was ink one of the drawings. The plan for the illustrations were simple, clean drawings in the fashion of cartoons and comic books. Another night all I did was tone an illustration with shading and hatching. The direction shifted to a stylized portrait. The results surprised and pleased me.
This encouraged me to continue the practice. And it also encouraged the kidlingers to make art as well.
A 183-word blog post published a few years ago became the most visited blog post I have written. How did this all begin? Part of the story started with a family tradition of creating handmade greeting cards. Part of the story involved a search for good seasonal, Christmas poems. Part of the story was how a father learned about Advent.
Last year I had the ambition to share a poem a day throughout the season of Advent. Newly discovered poems by Czeslaw Milosz, Christian Wiman, Edmund Spenser, and others. Unfortunately, work life became unmanageable due to circumstances beyond my control. Only six poems shared during last year’s 2018 Advent season.
This year the plan was to share twelve poems during the Advent season. But again, work life demands became excessively burdensome. The poems were not released. They remain in the draft category of the content management system. In spite of the hurly-burly of this December, one of the children drew a very nice drawing on the chalkboard. It accompanies the Advent calendar that our family has used each year for more than a decade.
Finally, I wrote a long-ish essay to mark the decade. A story about the handmade greeting cards, the search for good Christmas poems, and how a father learned about Advent. But I decided not to publish it. I doubt anyone is interested in the story. In lieu of that, here are blog links that highlight the last ten years of Advent art, audio recordings, blog posts, and poems.
Tested a couple old brushes using a dozen watercolor half pans on illustration paper. Purchased the art supplies for a book cover illustration project a few years ago. Have not had the occasion to use them since then. Apart from recreational sketches and practice.
Painted some studies of graphic design advertisement posters from the 1960s. Muscle memory atrophied more than expected. How does the aphorism go? Either control the watercolors or they will control the painting. Some clumsy mistakes. A good test of skills. Not ready to paint a book cover illustration. But the exercise warmed up the muscles and mind to consider more opportunities.