The blog of Richard Thompson, caricaturist, creator of "Cul de Sac," and winner of the 2011 Reuben Award for Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Brahms Variations, Slightly Updated

I've been trying to draw this guy for 30 years. And all I've got to show for it is piles of drawings that aren't what I want them to look like. I mean, I've got a Beethoven and a Mozart, I've even got a Berlioz. But I like Brahms best, so I need to do one of him too, so I can put it in a frame with every intention of hanging it on the wall but then leave it on the floor instead.  I'm not sure I can explain why I like Brahms so much, except to say go listen to his Second Symphony. Or even better, his Third. It's been my favorite for thirty years. Or his First Piano Quartet! Why can't I draw cartoons like that?

The problem is, all those other drawings were happy accidents, spontaneous and unplanned (except for weeks of planning, doing studies, throwing studies away, etc etc ). That is, after all that preliminary work,  I ended up ignoring it and doing a final piece that bore no resemblance to what I'd started out to do. But each time what ultimately happened on the paper, what I ended up with, was way better than I could plan. Part of the problem is that when I have a drawing in mind, something to put in a frame and look at every day, I inevitably end up building walls for myself to run into. I don't mind my own work that much, but it can be uncomfortable if I'm exposed to one of my pieces on a daily basis. My eye goes right to the bit that doesn't work or the line that's out of place and it drives me crazy. I think that's why I freelanced illustration for so long; other people are easier to draw for. As a client, I'm a jerk. Who needs that kind of aggravation?

Take the caricature of Berlioz. It was originally going to be painted on a gessoed board in egg tempera and oil using mischteknik, which I'd been studying and obsessing over for a while. It's a way of painting that demands careful planning and premeditation. It can't be rushed, which I found attractive after all those short, don't-think-about-it-do-it deadlines. And, after all that careful planning and premeditation, I wanted to have an objet d'art, a marvel of craftsmanship, a little goddam masterpiece that would surprise me every time I saw it.

Well, fat chance of that."Learning to paint by reading a book is like learning to swim on a sofa," says some book on painting I've got. My studio has a five foot shelf of books on, not how to paint, but the history of artist's materials (which is pretty cool, especially pigments), how brushes are made, the toxicity of artist's materials, methods of the renaissance artist, paint chemistry (with charts), etc, etc, each more arcane than the last. Of very little practical use to a deadline cartoonist. Which, as this is a sideline, is as it should be. Oh, and I've got the stuff they talk about in the books too. Jars of raw pigments, binders, glues, oils and resins, each with a label that warns you not to inhale within a city block of the contents. And jars, too, of brushes; filberts, mops, flats, fans, rounds, brights, blenders, quills, overgrainers, mottlers, floggers, daggers, stripers, liners, riggers, deerfoot stipplers cat's tongues; each with its own use and story (like the fabulous Winsor & Newton #7 watercolor round, named in honor or Queen Victoria, who liked to paint and liked the number 7). Made with hair from badgers, mongooses, sables (really weasels), grey- blue- black- and brown squirrels, fitches. polecats, oxen, goats and pigs.

While in the grip of this (fairly benign) obsession, art supply catalogs became my favorite reading matter. The little catalog for Kremer Pigments was filled with inscrutable ingredients, ancient paraphernalia, and other stuff I couldn't afford, didn't need, but wanted really bad. New York Central Art Supply had two, large catalogs, one offering art papers from around the world (the other one had everything else). At the time, Pearl Paint had two stores in the DC area. I've only been to their flagship store in New York once, in the late 80s. Mostly I remember climbing an ancient staircase that listed drunkenly for five stories. Imagine, five stories of art supplies!

Let me interrupt this digression to describe my Tipping Point Theory of Why People Suddenly Like Something a Whole Lot. What started me off on this? Why was I spending so much time and energy at such a fairly useless enterprise? Doesn't it seem like the object of the enterprise got further away the more time I spent on it? Yeah, but that's for another digression. My theory has to do with those passing fancies that suddenly blossom into full fledged life-filling passions, how it's a process of gradual accumulation of latent enthusiasm that needs only a little push. I've got three examples.

In my high school German class we watched these short educational films called "Guten Tag!" Each one told a story that introduced new vocabulary words and they were usually pretty good; half hour slice-of-life, anecdotal things that were better than they could be. One had a bit about Beethoven, gently but humorously comparing him to modern, long-haired youth (this was in '74). And, of course, it used the opening of the Fifth Symphony. I'd heard that opening hundreds of times, like everybody else had. But this time for some reason it hit me square in that part of the brain that regulates enthusiasms and BLAMMO, it pulled together all my previous agreeable encounters with classical music (like when a chamber group came to my elementary school and the horn player devised a perfectly acceptable instrument out of a garden hose and a funnel) into a permanent and consuming love that I still enjoy.

One night about ten or more years ago I was watching a Jackie Chan movie on the late show. He was doing some jaw-dropping stunt, like fighting a series of ever-larger bad guys while suspended on a platform 50 feet in the air. When my wife walked into the room I said, Hey, get a load of this. She watched for a few minutes, then sat and watched more intently till Jackie triumphed and the credits rolled. During that time I swear I heard the ping of new synapses being formed. Within a week she was learning Chinese brush painting, Tai Chi, watching the Mandarin channel, had her own chop made, and that year my daughter had a Lion Dance at her birthday party featuring a home-made lion with Amy and me inside. (You thought I'd say she'd gone to the Chinese opera and been trained in fighting and gymnastics, didn't you? No, but it was close.)

Finally, I can think of two comments by friends that launched my fascination with outdated painting techniques. I'd done a promo piece for a calendar and used oil paint to color it. John Kascht made an off-hand remark about coloring a goofy drawing using Renaissance colors; about the sober color scheme giving it a false dignity. And Bryan Leister told me a short version of the history of the color ultramarine blue; basically, it was once difficult to produce, greatly expensive and reserved for important passages in a painting until, in a contest sponsored by the French government, an easy method for synthesizing it was discovered. BLAMMO again. I wanted to work with materials that had a pedigree this interesting.

So back to Brahms. First, my deliberative approach to the caricature of Hector Berlioz started out well, then stalled. Like I said, I'd gotten enchanted by the idea of the objet d'art, mostly by reading about one of my favorite paintings, Vermeer's Girl with a Red Hat. It's tiny and perfect, and before he built the National Gallery Paul Mellon kept it on his piano. Which news made my jaw drop a little. He could pick it up, examine the back, hold it up to the light, even spit on his handkerchief to wipe off a schmutz. Heck, he could take it outside and play with it in the sandbox if he was a mind to, and was infantile.

The egg tempera underpainting of Berlioz came out well enough, in a grey-green tone (Verona green) that would contrast with the oil glazes and give it depth. It started to fall apart after 3 or 4 layers of glaze. Each had to be laid on then dabbed till it was evenly distributed using a badger blender. The first few looked great. I made the little piece of sky behind him dark indigo, and when I laid the red of his hair in all the little sculptural coils seemed jump out. But then it started to go awry. Each layer looked labored. I would wipe them off and put them back on. The surface wasn't smooth anymore. I think at one point I wiped the whole thing off, removing all the oil paint, and I realized the obvious that obsessions often blind you to: this way of working wasn't for me. I mean, it was stupid. Who has the time for this kind of nonsense?

A few months later I was doodling, working on something else, and I did this sketch without thinking too hard. There he is! I thought. Watercolor, I thought. And boom, like magic, three months later I had finished the Berlioz caricature, subsequently hated it intensely, and put it in a drawer for 3 years.

Now it's one of my favorite pieces. So much so that I put it in a frame and left it on the floor. I have a frame for the Brahms caricature if I ever draw it. Meanwhile I had drawn a little dinky pencil sketch of Brahms at the piano I liked and I wanted an inked version. These are a few of the attempts, in bister ink on watercolor paper, all about 7" x 10". They've been in the drawer for about 5 years.

They've been in the drawer because after I drew them I hated them intensely. The problem with doing so many versions is that none of them is perfect. You want to pick and choose among little bits and pieces- a foot here, a hand there, an expression there- till you've got an ideal version. It worked for Dr. Frankenstein.

Looking at them now I don't hate them as intensely. In fact I quite like 'em, though among the seven I don't have a clear favorite. Variations were central to Brahms' composing style. Anne Midgette, the Washington Post's music critic and no lover of Brahms' music, wrote,

As soon as Brahms puts an idea on the table, he begins playing with it in a process that Arnold Schoenberg dubbed "developing variation," merging two classical forms in a long process of aural working-out. It is no accident that some of his best and most popular works are variations: the Op. 24 Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, for piano, or the beloved Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Op. 56a, which Mahler called "an enchanted stream."
The harpist and blogger Helen Radice confessed a couple of years ago that she found "something neurotic in his endless development and variation." So maybe I've got my caricature of Brahms, and in a  form he would've appreciated.


Unknown said...

IKB. Fascinating history. Saw a piece of his at Frederick R Weisman Art Foundation (Venus di Milo torso dipped in IKB). Very difficult to look at.

Pagas said...


Alice said...

I think I saw those same German films way back in high school days,too!

Kat Slonaker said...

This puts me in mind of all those books gathering dust on my shelf dealing with early and contemporary techniques and formulas for natural vegetable dyes. They were collected some (mumble) years ago when I was a costume designer (with deadlines unlikely to allow for experimentation of that sort) - and are just waiting for me to have the appropriate space and time (and ventilation)to mess about.

rux said...

more long posts like this please

Sonny Moon said...

The Three Bs: Bach, Beethoven, and Bozart.

Sonny Moon said...

Wonderful post, by the way.

bishopdm said...

Speaking of Schoenberg, have you ever drawn him?

richardcthompson said...

Strange you should ask-

gilda92 said...

Glazing egg tempera with oils is a recipe for disaster! As you found out. It's egg, egg, egg tempera all the way!

Catherine said...

Please sir, may we have more?

I would like to gaze upon those lovely caricatures again. Are they anywhere on line?

All of those mysterious ID choices below confound me. Can't things just be made simpler?

richardcthompson said...

Catherine- use the search window on the upper left of the blog and type in who you want to see, or click on Me on Flickr to see them all.

I don't understand those either.

mike flugennock said...

Frank Zappa was also notorious for this. On his 1969 album Uncle Meat, many of the tracks are variations either on the main theme (for an unreleased film) or on a piece entitled King Kong (and variations)... though Zappa modeled himself more after Edgard Varese.