Artwork, February Update

Last month I talked about how I had revamped my sketching practice so that I could spend the weekends working on more ambitious projects. Today I’ll share what I’ve been working on so far.

The skull as I initially found it.

One afternoon in November I was walking on one of the many forest trails around my apartment when I found a deer skeleton partially covered with fallen leaves. The bones had become disarticulated but were still intact, including the skull. I left the bones there for the time being, but I pondered different series I could potentially make involving the skull, whether as paintings, prints, or drawings. The next day, I returned to the site, brought home the skull in a bag, and set about cleaning it. Fortunately the elements had already done a thorough job, but I still soaked it in soap and water for a few weeks, followed by a 24-hour session in a hydrogen peroxide mixture, just to be sure. At the start of the new year, I began making regular studies of the skull. drawing it from different angles.

What I’ve been planning is a series of drawings featuring the skull in the four seasons: winter, spring, summer, and fall. The plan is to draw the skull with various local flora and fauna throughout the year. I initially imagined using the same frontal view of the skull for all the drawings, much like the photograph above, but in my latest studies, I have it rotating. Most of these have been drawn in a watercolor sketchbook, but occasionally I’ll challenge myself to use more unconventional materials, as I did with a recent drawing made on scrap fibrous paper I found in the woods.

Since I want to pair the skull with other objects to denote the different seasons, I’ve also been making other studies. A few weeks ago I gathered some dried grasses during a walk and sketched those. A few days after that, I drew some leaves I found on my back patio. And after seeing all the activity at my birdfeeder, I’ve decided to include birds as well to remind viewers that winter isn’t an entirely dormant season.

Most recently I’ve been planning the actual composition. I was originally going to buy new paper, but after finding a stash of unused BFK Rives paper among my supplies, I’ll probably use that, at least initially. Over the next week, I’ll sketch in the composition and add the linework with pen and ink. From there, I’ll continue building up the scene, with layers of ink wash, pen and ink, and paint creating the composition.

The composition I have in mind for the winter scene, synthesizing various studies and sketches into a single scene.

As an artist I converse with art history through my own works, and this project is no exception. The whole concept is essentially a localized version of a vanitas, a genre of still life painting painting from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries reminding viewers of the transience of existence and the omnipresence of death. They were especially popular in the Netherlandish regions, where artists would pair dazzling renditions of flowers and other sumptuous objects with insects, skulls, and other reminders of decay.

20th-century moderns have also influenced my work. Naturally, the compositions of Georgia O’Keeffe come to mind, as her presence is so ubiquitous in the visual culture at this point that it’d be difficult to deny any influence. Most immediately though, I’ve been recalling the egg tempera paintings of Barbara Latham, particularly a group of surrealistic works she did in the 1940s that paired flowers, driftwood, lace, and other objects. These were some of my personal favorites in the Roswell Museum collection (one of them was even called Life and Death), and I spent a lot of time looking at them when I had the chance.

Yet these drawings and sketches aren’t only about engaging art history. About a week ago, I realized they were also about Covid, and more specifically my experiences with it. I consider myself lucky: I haven’t had the virus myself so far, nor have any of my immediate family or close friends had it. Brandon and I are both safe and both still get paid. But we’ve been affected nonetheless. For the past year, I’ve essentially lived my life within a 2-square mile radius. Beyond the grocery store or the W&M Library to drop off books, the only time I usually leave the house is to go for walks along the many forest trails around here. My social life has been restricted to phone calls, Brandon, and the cats. Every morning I’ve read the NYT update and learned about the latest infection rates or death tolls, noting how it ebbed and flowed according to the seasons and human behavior. My anxiety, while not unmanageable, has increased. I have not had the virus, and I don’t want to, but it’s nonetheless affected my life.

For me then, these drawings aren’t just about sketching my local environs but reflecting on this past year. When the pandemic first started, I didn’t have the interest or energy in drawing for several months. And yet it was also the pandemic that got me drawing again, when I started sketching the facemasks in our house. In some ways, I see this series as a continuation of the sketches I started then, but whereas those drawings documented the pandemic’s most immediate effects on my life in a literal way, this series is more allegorical. The year goes by, but death, the pandemic, remains, as dynamic and changing as the seasons themselves.

Now to actually get going with these drawings.

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