Tag Archives: illustration

Google Prompt and Metamorphosis

Embarrassingly enough, I’m finally posting this because of Google. I’ve had notes for ages, but I’m not always good at scrunching a complicated life into a handful of lines, so I’ve been procrastinating on writing about Maria Sibylla Merian. I saw one of her books on display at the Library of Congress last week. Then I saw the Google doodle proclaiming her birthday, and was finally shamed into it!

 

I have a lot of unusual reference books on my shelves. Perhaps the one that gets the most second glances is my copy of Metamorphosis of the Insects of Surinam, nestled between my art books.

 

It is by Maria Sibylla Merian, whose work I first saw years ago at a Rembrandt House special exhibit.

 

Merian (1647-1717) was one of the first documenters of insect metamorphosis.

 

She was born into an artistic family–her father was an engraver and publisher, and her stepfather a still life painter who encouraged her talents and taught her along with his (male) students. She was interested in flowers and insects and observed the life cycles of both.

 

She married her stepfather’s apprentice, moved to Nuremburg, had children, continued painting, designed embroidery patterns and took on (female) students of her own. By teaching their children she got access of the gardens of the elite and studied their insects.

 

In her time scholars still held onto spontaneous generation–basically the belief than insects and other ‘lower’ creatures were spontaneously created from mud or other debris. For example, that flies came to life from rotted meat.

 

She illustrated the metamorphosis of insects-showed that caterpillars wove cocoons and turned into butterflies. She painted the stages of these transformations and their host plants. These were collected into her first book in 1675.  The New Book of Flowers ultimately took three volumes to complete. It showed each flower distinctly so that it could be used as a reference for artists and designers of embroidery patterns.

 

She had a second daughter, published a second book and returned home after her stepfather died. After his estate was settled she left her husband to live in a religious commune.

 

There she met the governor of the Dutch colonies in Surinam and was introduced to its flora and fauna.

 

She later moved to Amsterdam, where her work was noticed by the scientific community. She was able to study the collections gathered by the intelligentsia. Her older daughter married a merchant and moved to Surinam, and Merian sold her belongings and was partially sponsored by the city of Amsterdam to travel to Surinam with her younger daughter, Dorthea Maria. They spent two years there studying the local animals and plants–recording the native names and uses–and collecting specimens. She contracted malaria and returned home, publishing books about her experiences and selling the specimens she collected.

 

She suffered a stroke and died in relative obscurity. It was Peter the Great who ultimately saved her for posterity. He had seen her work before, and heard that the then ailing artist had many works in her collection. Dorthea Maria sold 300 of her mother’s remaining paintings to an agent representing Peter the Great.

 

He opened his country’s first museum to exhibit them. He also invited Dorthea Maria and her family to Russia. She designed one of his largest scientific exhibitions and her husband became a court painter. After their first exhibition, most of Maria Sibylla Merian’s paintings were closed away in the libraries of St. Petersburg. This kept the delicate paintings safe from sunlight and abuse until their rediscovery centuries later.

 

It was an adventurous life for a woman of her time. (Anyone, anytime actually.) She traveled long distances to collect information and samples nearly a century before scientific expeditions became the norm. Her studies and use of native names influenced the European terms for some of the creatures, though since she published in the common tongue at a time when science was Latin only, her influence was limited and her observations against spontaneous generation largely ignored. She was a talented outsider rather than part of the scientific community. (If you’d like to read more on her and other early adventure/naturalists, check out Eaten by a Giant Clam, by Joseph Cummins. You’ll probably learn alot about a number of names that sound vaguely familiar.)

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Brecciated Backgrounds

A bit of a bookend for Chatoyant Skies and its ode to Blue Pietersite and El Greco…

The more sharply delineated golden pietersite with its iron oxide shimmers sometimes reminds me of the backgrounds in Gustav Klimt’s paintings.

Klimt was an Austrian symbolist painter. The son of a jeweler, he was born and studied near Vienna and became a successful muralist. In the early 1890s his father and brother both died and Klimt became the head of both families. This newfound responsibility is believed to be part of what caused the significant change in his personal style.

One piece I saw and really liked (and didn’t realize it was his right away) is Two Girls with Oleander. It isn’t as planar, or hammering death and the erotic as his usual work. (Though it is two pretty girls admiring a poisonous plant…) It’s an almost gentle piece. The painting is dated to 1892, so I wonder if it’s before his new style fully took over.

After the turn of the century he entered his Golden phase, where he incorporated gold leaf into the increasingly flat plane of his paintings. (It was these that pietersite sometimes brings to mind.)

His most famous piece, The Kiss, is from this period. It is probably on as many totes, mouse pads, umbrellas, dorm room posters and ‘what-have-you’s as Monet’s water lilies.

Klimt is generally not my style. I can appreciate the work and the impact, but unlike in Egyptian art, for some reason the flatness doesn’t really appeal to me. Or perhaps it’s the way the figures have to fight the background to escape.

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Nightingales

I saw these cards and had to make some pendants out of them. I love the imagery of open cages, capture and freedom and the shadowy escaping birds.

 

It reminded me of the Hans Christian Andersen story. Here, illustrated by the wonderful Edmund Dulac. I suspect that the edition I had as a child edited out some of Andersen’s attitude towards non western culture, because I do not remember the Chinaman this and that…Sometimes rereading children’s stories is an odd experience. (Though I do remember rabidly disliking his treatment of the little mermaid!)

Through thinking of that story, once nightingale is in my head it brings me to John Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale. The main site has images of the original manuscript, complete with some corrections and false starts. I love seeing the progression of things!

 

From Ode to a Nightingale:

 

Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget

  What thou among the leaves hast never known,

The weariness, the fever, and the fret

  Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;

Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last grey hairs,

  Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;

    Where but to think is to be full of sorrow

          And leaden-eyed despairs;

  Where beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,

    Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.

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On Paleoart

play with wire, precious

metals and watercolors

touch of the brush–salt

and paint diffuse in water

dreaming of vast ancient seas

 

I don’t have the widest range of hobbies. I like to play with photography and go for long walks/low impact hikes (I’m not a fan of heights; last time I was on a proper up mountain type of hike to look out over a waterfall my friends had to peel me off of a tree after a panic attack), but I don’t really live in an area where I can do that alone (or at night) safely.

 

So I mostly make things. Neither wire work nor sewing are particularly easy on the wrists. Add to that a job with a lot of time spend on the computer and shelving heavy objects and my wrists are a bit of a disaster.

 

But I get so *bored* when I can’t type or make things, and reading is never as much fun when it’s my only option for entertainment. So awhile a go a friend had suggested painting might be a lower impact kind of creative project.

 

Great idea in theory, didn’t work out in practice. I don’t do abstract so well, but honestly don’t have the patience for proper depth and the degree of detail I want (and detail=still rough on wrists) so I kind of fell into paleoart. I had a nice notebook with watercolor paper and decided that it would be a dig journal for a steampunk character I was creating. For practice I started making artist trading cards with different fossils, or imaginings of what they would have looked like alive. Some are the fossils you’ve seen on here in my jewelry: ammonites and orthoceras.

 

I also tried to play with crinoids (a class of echinoderms–distant cousins of starfish and sand dollars–their name means lily form) and some of the critters from the Burgess Shale. (Go to the website, that’s a hike I’d love to do, and the song cracks me up.) Those animals are actually pretty tough to get a handle on.

 

The Burgess shale is a fossil field dating from the mid Cambrian (much earlier than the ammonites or the brachiopods I was showing before, about 500 million years ago). It is known for having a wide range of fossils of soft bodied bottom dwellers.

 

They were an odd looking lot (to modern eyes at least). It was sort of like life was trying out all these different forms and directions and saw which ones survived and which thrived. But they’re really fun to doodle. Like a combination of dragons and the children of elder gods with a bit of really cranky sea urchin thrown in. One illustrator on deviantart did a fantastic homage to the six classic species of the Cambrian explosion.

 

The Natural History Museum (London) has a really nifty 3-D model of an anomalocaris that you can move around. And see why it’s such a hard critter to figure out! They also have a 3-D model of an ammonite fossil and the inside of a brachiopod on the menu next to the anomalocaris.

I had some small scraps of watercolor paper where I was pleased with the crystal bursts and didn’t want to throw them out, so that led me to making even tinier watercolors to set behind glass cabochons to wire wrap for pendants. (Probably reaching the pinnacle of nonmarketable jewelry, I’m afraid. But I do enjoy making them.)

 

So, vacation for joints was pretty much a fail, and I’m not very good at watercolor. But I fancy I get some good depth in my paintings of shells. And people keep calling my ammonites cute. I’m not sure how to take that…

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Pendants and Papyri

“I arrive as a dweller on earth-I do what is right”

– the coffin of Hor, incense priest of Amun, Late New Kingdom (22nd Dynasty, circa 850 BCE)

 

First, props to the ancient Egyptian scribes. Papyrus is not easy to paint on.

Ancient Egyptian scribes started young, probably around age 9. They had an intricate language to learn!  

Egyptian hieroglyphics consisted of several hundred symbols, most of which could be used phonetically or as more of an ideogram, depending on their context and nearby modifying symbols. Hieroglyphics is used to refer to the most formal written form of their language, the version represented on public buildings and funerary art. It could run right to left, left to right, or top to bottom.

There was a cursive version called hieratic that scribes used for contracts, records and letters. In later times another variant called demotic appeared. It was probably a descendant of the hieratic styles of northern Egypt and became more common once the Greeks conquered Egypt.

So by the late period a scribe would have to know at least three written versions of his native tongue plus Greek. (Hieroglyphics were still used for public buildings and religious regalia.)

A scribe’s basic materials were simple: a wooden palette with a few holes for different colors of ink (made from soot or ground minerals plus beeswax) and reed pens.

The ancient Egyptians were the first to write on paper. They created theirs from the papyrus plant, a tall reed with a thick triangular body. The outer layers were peeled off, then the pith was cut into strips. Those strips would be placed in two layers, one horizontal and the other vertical. They’d be covered in linen and pressed. The fibers would adhere together with their own sap to form a durable paper.

My papyrus was in the form of a notebook I was given as a gift years ago. (Ah, modern comforts!)

This piece is, oddly enough, based on one of my favorite t-shirts. I bought it at the British Museum when I was there years ago. I loved the saying, but almost never wear t-shirts anymore. So somewhere along the line of sealing images behind glass to wire wrap, my brain went well you have that papyrus that you never used…

I made a few attempts to scale down the hieroglyphics. Based on a t-shirt. Based on the painting on a coffin. So it’s at least once again removed from the original. If anyone has a proper image of this inscription I’d love to see it! I found the exhibit information listed on the British Museum’s website, but they didn’t have images of the right portion of the coffin.

(I’m sure it’s somewhere along the perimeter of the wooden coffin, that’s where the styles match up…)

I wasn’t sure what colors to use. The shirt wasn’t terribly close to the original colors and the coffin was paint on wood rather than ink on papyrus. So I chose copper, green, blue and brown metallic paints since those colors crop up in Ancient Egyptian art fairly often, and I thought the metallic colors were pretty and might be a nod to their jewelry. I outline the hieroglyphs in black to try to preserve their shape.

(Given the texture of the papyrus I’m thinking a stiffer brush might be worth trying the next time, though I suspect paint texture has a lot to do with how well it would flow.)

Then I sealed the papyrus behind glass and waterproofed the papyrus from behind as well. I usually paint the back before sealing it, but I wanted to keep the texture of the papyrus. You can see the two directions of the stems and I was afraid that painting the back would lessen that effect.

Once it was dry I wrapped it in silver coated copper, bronze and blue colored copper. I topped it off with a blue lapis bead, because, really, it was that or carnelian for classic Egyptian jewelry gems, and carnelian didn’t match!

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In what distant deeps or skies…

I had that whole poetry stuck in my head problem again while working with tiger’s eye. It’s such a vibrant stone. (This particular one was very lively. And irascible. It kept trying to escape on me!)

So, besides bickering a little with the stone, I can never play with tiger’s eye without Blake running through my head.

 

The Tyger

by William Blake

 
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?


In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?


And what shoulder, and what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? and what dread feet?


What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?


When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?


Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

 The Tyger is another piece I enjoy simply for the words themselves. Its symbolism doesn’t really do anything for me (for that I tend more towards John Keats) but I like the rhythm. You can almost feel the powerful beast padding through the forests of the night.

William Blake (1757- 1827) was another denizen of the Romantic era. He was a poet, painter and printer. I generally prefer his poetry to his other work. When I read the line “burnt the fire of thine eyes” it isn’t Blake’s own blocky and marginally striped tiger that comes to mind, but instead the work of another era. Henri Rousseau‘s 1891 painting Suprise! leaps up immediately to take it’s place.

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Lord, what fools these mortals be! Or Happy Maximum Tilt Day…

The image that first got me hooked on Arthur Rackham and his Shakespeare illustrations.

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.

And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
if you pardon, we will mend:
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call;
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends
.

 

Puck’s speech from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 5, scene i

 

In honor of the summer solstice (and to pair with my previous Tempest post) I decided to be a little bit brave and post an old poem I wrote in college in response to A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

I don’t remember what the assignment was, but I chose to play with Titania’s character. I always felt kind of bad for her at the end of a Midsummer Night’s Dream. All she was trying to do was take charge of the child of an old retainer and yet her husband chose to make an absolute fool of her.

 

Titania’s Promise

(a response to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream)

Malicious sprite, darkly dancing,

shadow cast under a quicksilver moon.

Oh yes, these shadows have offended.

Spiky foxgloves stand and hiss.

Whispering falsehood and deceit

from full, rainbow-spotted throats.

Beware, beware. Capricious Robin

plays with truth, and breaks his toys.

He knows his herbs and potions—

houndstongue and hellebore,

wolfsbane and rosemary,

the bitter bite of wormwood—

He serves his lord and master well.

He made me a fool before my court,

My ladies laughed behind their hands.

He bathed my eyes in purple poison—

made me love unwillingly

and waste my favors on a hairy beast.

My eyes were cleansed,

I see truly now.

Do they?

I can wait, I shall bide my time.

I can counterfeit a proper wife.

In their arrogance they believe,

that I, like some green willow,

would bend my will so easily.

Playful Puck, Oberon’s steward,

Robin not-so-Goodfellow,

though it take me centuries,

I will be avenged.

Like The Tempest, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is believed to have been written to celebrate an important wedding and is a mostly original story. (The play within a play is based on Greek mythology, as are the names of the rulers.) The super short version of the story is “Mix-and-match couples in the woods near Athens.” as Shakespeare for Dummies puts it! It’s a play about many things but basically all the ways love messes with people’s heads.

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