Museum Sketchbook: Ancient Egypt

egypt_sketch When I was a kid I really wanted to be an archaeologist. I was inspired by the likes of Indiana Jones, H. Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines, and Aliki's Mummies Made in Egypt. I was fascinated by Egypt, the Mayans, and other ancient cultures. Surely there could be nothing better than digging up mysterious artifacts and exploring (probably haunted) ruins.

At some point I realized I would rather tell stories and draw pictures than kneel for hours in the sun scraping away at shards of pottery. I'm still fascinated by ancient cultures. Here at the museum I can admire the artifacts without having to do the back-breaking labour of digging them up.

Museums always give me the feeling that past and present are separated by a thin veil. I look at a pot made over five thousand years ago, and I wonder about the person whose hands smoothed the clay-- how they lived, and how they died. I wonder how the pot was lost, and why it lay in the sand for so many centuries before someone found it again.

Museum Sketchbook: The Habsburgs

habsburg_journal I've been anticipating the Houston Museum of Fine Art's "Habsburg Splendors" exhibit since it was announce a year ago. One of my favorite paintings is on display: Jupiter and Io by Correggio, along with other treasures collected by the Habsburg monarchy. There are some fascinating pieces of armor, including this red coral-hilted ceremonial sword: utterly impractical, but gorgeous. I hope to visit again before the exhibit leaves in September.

Other news! I now have prints for sale of my recent work at my new Inprnt shop.

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Inprnt has been recommended to me by several other artists, and I'm very happy with the quality of a print I ordered from them. They print in-house, check for color accuracy, and all prints are on 100% cotton rag acid-free paper.

At the moment my puppets and some older prints of children's illustrations are still available on Etsy.

Museum Sketchbook: Bouguereau

bouguereaustudies Several weeks ago I had a free afternoon, so I went to the MFAH to wander around their European art collection. I hadn't visited this part of the museum in over a year. They have two paintings by Bouguereau (deux Bouguereaux?). Bouguereau never fails to inspire me, and at the same time makes me feel as clumsy as a child daubing in finger-paints.

One can learn a lot by looking at a work of art in person. The colors and texture never truly translate in a print. But Bouguereau's brushwork is so smooth I have to get creepy-close to the canvas before I can see his layers of paint. I'm sure I make the guards nervous whenever I put my nose too near a priceless work of art. (Last year I got told off for putting my finger too close to a Sargent watercolor. No, I wasn't trying to touch it! I was pointing out some details to my father.)

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Note: this is not an accurate representation of the size of these paintings. 'The Elder Sister' is about 4' tall, and I estimate that 'Our Lady of the Angels' is over 10' tall.

Both pieces have clouds in the background, and as I sketched the cloud-shapes, I noticed something. Something I would never have realized if I had not been trying to make my pencil follow Bouguereau's shapes and composition, because he does it so subtly and naturally:

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He uses the shape of the clouds to guide the viewer's eye where he wants them to focus: right in the center, on the Most Important Object. James Gurney has written numerous posts on composition on his blog, and my other teachers have tried to drill this "guiding the eye" into my head. I know the theory, but my own attempts feel like I'm hanging blinking neon signs shouting "LOOK HERE! LOOK HERE!" And I still don't do it quite right.

Bouguereau does it so subtly, so gently, that your eyes follow his guidance without ever knowing they are being led.

This is why master copies are important. Some things you can only learn by following in the footsteps of those who knew the dance best.

Zoo Sketching

Yesterday I paid my first visit to the Houston Zoo. I'm always inspired by James Gurney's and Aaron Blaise's animal sketches, and I wanted to do a few of my own. zoo_paint

The longer I watched Smaug, the less repulsive he looked. I noticed the subtle shifts in color on his scales. I will never be a reptile enthusiast, I can appreciate that they have their own unique ferocity and beauty.

(I still hate snakes, though. When my dad pointed out a bronze cobra statue in front of the reptile house, all I saw was a huge serpent shape. I leapt backwards and shrieked. Then I realized it was only a statue, not a giant cobra escaped from its enclosure.)

I knew I'd have to work quickly, because animals move around. I wasn't prepared for two other problems, however:

1) People. I sat at a distance so I wouldn't block anyone's view. But this meant my view was constantly being blocked by kids throwing themselves against the glass or fence, yelling, "HEY MONKEY," or "HEY SMAUG." Or couples taking selfies. Or entire families. Next time I'm taking a spot beside the enclosure and staying there.

2) The sheer discomfort of juggling pencils, brushes, and paint while sweat and sunscreen is trickling down my arms. As I've discovered with museum sketching, supporting a sketchbook, drawing AND holding pencils is uncomfortable and frustrating. Add a watercolor palette and water, and I knew I'd have to work sitting, not standing. Another reason my view was frequently blocked by a parade of people.

Gurney uses watercolor pencils and water brush pens to save on some of the hassle. Before I attempt this again, I ought to buy some. And whenever the Nomad Satchel finally becomes available for order, I'd like to get one. I missed their Kickstarter, but supposedly more will be for sale during the second half of 2015.

In other news, this week I finally got a smart phone and joined Instagram. Come follow me there! I'll be posting in-progress shots.

instagram @paigencarpenter on Instagram.

Museum Sketchbook: Mysteries of Sanxingdui

This past Sunday my sister-in-law gave birth to her first child. While she was in labor, I paced the halls of the Houston Museum of Natural Science waiting for news. I felt like I had to keep moving-- as if that would speed my sister-in-law's labor along. I'd already planned to visit the museum that day, since a new exhibit, The Mysteries of Sanxingdui: China's Lost Civilization, had just opened.

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I walked and sketched and prayed for the baby's safe delivery in the company of some of the oddest works of art I have ever encountered. I have never seen anything like these bizarre bronze statues. Apparently the archaeologists haven't seen anything like them either, because the information for each piece was very vague: "We think this is a religious artifact," or "this wheel might symbolize the sun."

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On the upper left is one of my favorites, a smiling head the size of a boulder with two pillars jutting out of its eyes. Perhaps the pillars symbolized a gimlet gaze, or all-seeing eyes. My father suggested maybe this was a torture victim with spikes driven through his skull. If so, this head is the happiest torture victim ever, because it's definitely smiling.

I was also struck by the consistency of design. The ears had the same curls, the eyes and jaws the same lines and geometric angles. I'm no archaeologist, but these pieces look as if they were designed by the same artist, or at least came from the same "design studio", or the ancient Chinese equivalent. The muppets created by the Jim Henson Company all have a family resemblance. Tim Burton's films all have that creepy Burtonesque flavor. These bronze oddities have that same feeling.

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All in all, a great exhibit. And my niece, Henrietta Mae, was welcomed into the world at 2:39PM EST:

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Month of Love - Forbidden Fruit

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Forbidden Fruit. Pencil, graphite & white charcoal. 7.5" x 11.5".

My very belated drawing for the last Month of Love challenge: "forbidden fruit". I wanted to take my time with this piece because the myth of Hades and Persephone is one of the most heart-wrenching in all of Greek myth.

Persephone was the gentle goddess of spring leaves and new birth, had many suitors, but her stern mother, Demeter, refused them all.  She hid her daughter far away from the other gods.

Hades, god of the dead, passionately loved Persephone, but had no hope that Demeter would ever give her to him.  But Zeus told Hades that if he could find a way to take her, he could keep her.

Apart from Demeter, lady of the golden sword and glorious fruits, [Persephone] was playing with the deep-bosomed daughters of Okeanos and gathering flowers over a soft meadow, roses and crocuses and beautiful violets, irises also and hyacinths and the narcissus…a snare for the bloom-like girl…

[Hades] caught her up reluctant…and bore her away lamenting. Then she cried out shrilly with her voice, calling upon her father, [Zeus] the Son of Kronos, who is most high and excellent. But no one, either of the deathless gods or mortal men, heard her voice…

So Hades took her, and when Demeter discovered her daughter was missing:

Bitter pain seized Demeter’s heart, and she tore the covering upon her divine hair.  She sped, like a wild-bird, over land and sea, seeking her child. But no one would tell her the truth, neither god nor mortal man; and of the birds of omen none came with true news for her.

Then for nine days she wandered over the earth with flaming torches in her hands, so grieved that she never ate nor drank.  Then she came to Helios, the sun, who is watchman of both gods and men, and enquired of him:

`Helios, if ever I have cheered your heart and spirit, answer me.  With your beams you look down from the bright upper air over all the earth and sea.  Tell me truly of my dear child, if you have seen her anywhere, what god or mortal man has seized her against her will and mine.'

So said she. And Helios answered her: `Queen Demeter, I will tell you the truth; for I greatly reverence and pity you in your grief for your daughter. None other of the deathless gods is to blame, but only cloud-gathering Zeus who gave her to Hades, to be his wife. And Hades seized her and took her loudly crying in his chariot down to his realm of mist and gloom.’

Grief yet more terrible and savage came into the heart of Demeter, and thereafter she was so angered with Zeus that she vowed that she would never let fruit spring out of the ground until she beheld with her eyes her own fair-faced daughter.

And so the earth knew its first winter.

I'm in the process of turning this drawing into a painting, and I will post the conclusion of the myth along with the finished painting.

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The text of the myth is adapted & abridged from the Homeric Hymns, based on the translation by Hugh Gerard Evelyn-White.

Month of Love - Love is All Around

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Plein air sketches, Mercer Botanical Gardens. Watercolor & pencil. 6" x 9".

The Month of Love challenge for this week was slightly different from the others: "Get outside your studio and your comfort zone. Go somewhere you’ve never been and look for “love”...The possibilities are endless if you go out with eyes (and sketchbook) open."

Sounds like a plein air assignment to me, so I went to the Mercer Arboretum & Botanical Gardens, which I've been meaning to visit for over a year. On the way I took a wrong turn and found myself on a toll road with no way off, and no cash to pay the toll. The lady at the tollbooth gave me a card announcing "THIS IS A NOTICE OF A TOLL VIOLATION EVENT." I was terrified I'd have to play several hundred dollars in fines for taking a wrong turn-- but since I was a first offender, in the end I only had to pay the cost of the toll.

Never doing that again. Ever.

The Botanical Gardens were beautiful. I can't believe I waited this long to visit. Even though the flower beds were still mostly brown and dead, the gardens were still beautiful. Daffodils were blooming, the grass was green, and there were lots of white flowers that resembled lilies-of-the-valley. I also made the acquaintance of one of the gardeners, who happens to be a one-eyed cat.