Drawing (and painting!) on the Right Side of the Brain

Years ago there was a book published called “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain”.  It posited, no–reported that persons with no artistic bent could replicate an image were they to copy it while viewing it upside down. This process disconnects the over-thinker left brain and engages the right brain. Upside down the brain does not identify the object being copied as a recognized whole, as pictorial, and so the brain switches on its analytic left brain to just copy lines and curves rather than an identifiable image were one looking at the image right-side up.  I use this technique regularly in my painting, usually in the painting of faces.  Any icon painter, or any artist will tell you that faces are the most challenging to complete so that they appear realistic. In the case of icon painting where one works with a prototype that has been condensed to a line drawing, the painter’s task is to then recreate the realistic image from only the spartan lines to giving the data for recreating this complex image.  One can work for days on only the face, to only scrape off one’s work to begin again because something is not quite right. Taking regular breaks from the painting helps one to identify areas needing shadows, larger eyes, a more sculpted mouth.  But when all else fails, I turn the prototype and the painting I am working on upside down.

 Point of view is everything.       .CIMG6593 (2)

Any professor of literature will tell you that.  And eventually a trained artist begins to see that as well.  It is a law of the universe that one must follow; a sort of microcosmic, quantum view of the minutiae that one must get right to remain true to an image.  Einstein said “God is in the details”, and Einstein was right.  Viewing a prototype upside down is now a technique I employ regularly when I paint an icon.

Life teaches us the same lessons again and again.  The laws remain the same, regardless of discipline.  And life follows the same laws as well.  In this case, the law of opposites–the yin and the yang, the male and the female, the logic and the imagination.  All you have to do is welcome a new perspective.

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Artists and Craftspeople and Iconography

When I attended a beginner’s workshop in iconography I was taught that it was imperative to follow the old icons.  We used tracings of icons that have been “copied” hundreds of times across the centuries.  The teacher was an elderly orthodox Christian, almost militantly so.  I loved listening to the theologic metaphors embedded in the process (breathing onto the bole to make the gold adhere was like God breathing life into Adam and bringing light into his clay body).  I loved learning esoteric theology.  In fact, I loved everything about the class except for the rigidity shown toward doing or using anything “new”.  This included modern art materials like acrylic varnishes, or any originality in the painting itself.  This is no problem for a beginner, who, like every art student, learns by copying from the masters.  But, as one proceeds through one’s 10,000 hours necessary to become really good, holes begin to develop in the “emperor’s clothes.”

Most icons which are copied are hundreds if not even more than a thousand years old.  If we adhere to the prototype, we are using only  the technology that was present in that day: a day when there existed no power tools, thermometers, arrays of pigments, copy machines or computers, beautifully crafted paintbrushes and the like.  In other words, if one is to truly adhere to the old ways, one should should be using none of these.

Byzantine icons flourished for over a thousand years very much unchanged, until the orthodox world began to be threatened with western sacred art that was being created in Europe, once transportation and exchange of ideas became commonplace between the two worlds.  It was then that the orthodox church decided to take steps to insure that only its canons were applied to the world of byzantine art.

Canon law is the tradition of canonical legislation, which governs Orthodox Church life. It touches on every area of Church life, including Ecclesiology, Liturgy, and Ethics. Although generally referred to as canon law, it is more correctly referred to in the Orthodox community as the tradition of the holy canons. This law, the canonical tradition, involves persons who are invested with authority (such as bishops) enabled with the means of creating, formulating, interpreting, executing, validating, amending and revoking these laws through synodical or conciliar action.*

In others words, the church took control of what was and was not considered to be byzantine art.  These cannons are upheld to this day.  The artist is not called an icon painter, she is called an icon writer.  This means signing the icon is verboten. You may indicate only on the back that “this icon has been written through the hand of…” Authorship is said to denote pride. Next, originality is strictly prohibited, for most. Following a prototype with fidelity is the order of the day. Craftspeople love control.  Rules for how to draw a straight line.  Following rules is  easy and requires no thought. And, there is a certain satisfaction in believing you are superior to those who color outside the lines.  Preening and pride. An unbecoming smugness.  You can be sure the Holy Spirit does not reside here.

God created man in His image.  But we do not all look alike.  We reflect God in all Her glory and variation.  For icons to depict the spiritually transfigured, they must be guided by the Holy Spirit, and she is a reflection of the wisdom, inclusiveness and love of God. The icon shines with that Spirit, the Spirit with which it was made.

 detail of the self-portrait of Ioannes Tohabi front of the Virgin … appealing for  intercession to the  Mother of God HagiosoritissParaklesis). Sinai, Saint Catherine’s Monastery.***

The Orthodox church embraces many sacred arts, including music in its praise of God. Yet, it does not harness any other art the way it does iconography.  To do so would be to  limit the depth and breadth of all the hymns that have been written.  It would be like saying the choir could only perform the few hymns that had been created up until the mid 17th century, when the rules for recreating only existing prototypes were put into place.

Recently, there have been scholarly investigations into the authorship of ancient icons.  A particularly interesting example is that of a monk who added this epigram to the back of one of his icons:

the humble monk Ioannes

painted with desire these holy images

which he gave to the famous church

where he found everlasting grace.

O Child, accept maternal intercession

and grant full redemption from sins

to the pitiable old man who asks it.**

An interesting footnote regarding the epigrams of this monk is that they were written in Greek using dodecasyllabic meter.    This indicates that Ioannes was well-educated  and most probably spent long periods in Constantinople, the seat of Byzantium and the Eastern Orthodox church.  The icon bearing this epigram resides with the Sinai icons, and indicates his practice of “signature” to be contemporaneous in nature.

I have never been one to follow the rules.  God gave me a mind and an intellect with which to live in the world.  I like to use it.  I sign my icons.  I change a color or facial features if I sense the need to.  I plan on painting icons that have never been seen before, using scenes from the New Testament, or even modern day saints.  New does not have to mean wrong. It just means that people worship God in their own times and places with the gifts they are given. Monk Ioannes is fine company.

*Orthodoxwiki.org/canon_law, April 30, 2016

** The cited English translation of this epigram is by N. Trahoulia:”The Truth in Painting”, pp 272-273

***further reading may be found at Academia.edu:  Lidova, Maria.  “The Artist’s Signature in Byzantium.  Six icons by Ioannes Tohabi Sinai Monastery (11th-12th century)”.

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Artists and Art

“The Artist is no other than he who unlearns what he has learned, in order to know himself,” e.e. cummings

Perhaps it is inevitable that artists go through life feeling they are an odd fit in this world. They are rebels– wild, free and on a voyage of self discovery that cummings so eloquently speaks of.  When they are young it is a most painful state, not knowing where you belong, the odd man out; at home, in the schoolyard, in social settings.  But comes a time, usually post high school, when they embrace their difference and celebrate it.  It becomes their nom de plume in the world, so to speak, and it saturates everything.

If one is lucky enough to have parents who believe their children should follow their dreams, you can follow your chosen path and land in a place where your life’s work becomes a kind of playground you never want to leave.  Celebrated or not, a belief on one’s own work becomes cemented into one’s psyche, and you can live a happy life, even though your income is nothing to speak of.  Your work has become an extension of your very self, and you send it into the world to speak for you.

Camille Pisarro was one such person.  “When Pissarro returned to his home in France after the (Franco-Prussian) war, he discovered that of the 1,500 paintings he had done over 20 years, which he was forced to leave behind when he moved to London, only 40 remained. The rest had been damaged or destroyed by the soldiers, who often used them as floor mats outside in the mud to keep their boots clean. It is assumed that many of those lost were done in the Impressionist style he was then developing, thereby “documenting the birth of Impressionism.”*  Pearls before swine.  Still, Pissarro kept painting.  History, both old and new has many such examples of persons who persevered because of their belief both in themselves (the primary cause) and in their own work.

Earlier in his career, in 1863,  his work was rejected for inclusion in the Paris Salon, and done so publicly, by being hung in a separate exhibition hall labelled Salon des Refusés, translation “the reject gallery.” Still he painted, and went on to become the prime mover in a new school of artists known as the Impressionists.  Belief in oneself will take you far.


       Orchard in Bloom,Louveciennes (1872)                   La Récolte des Foins, Eragny (1887)

And so, at this late date I paint.  Only after the age of 60 did I fully embrace my art.  Born with a talent for drawing and a love of color, I was not strong enough to rebel against my parent’s wishes.  Instead of art school, I enrolled in a teacher education program, and later a graduate school to become a librarian.  For 40 years I did what was expected, and was deemed a success.  But my longing for art never died, and I fed it with trips to art museums on every vacation and on free weekends.  I became an expert in art criticism, and my knowledge of art history would qualify for another degree were I tested.  Frida Kahlo became a hero of mine, for her transformation of her pain into art.

Being mavericks and feeling odd and having pain are all part of an artist’s equation.  I would argue that the best of artists come from profoundly painful backgrounds.  They achieve a depth not found in those who did not face and survive the minotaurs in the hero’s quest which make up their lives.  Carbon transformed to diamond by heat and pressure.  Steel forged in fire.

And so I paint. And paint.  And paint. A gift of beginning at this late date is the urgency I feel in completing what I have come to call my life’s work in only the 20 odd years left to me.  It drives me to accelerate my evolution as an artist.  I wrap my wrists in tape when they begin to ache from hours and days pushing them to paint.  It is a happy pain. I feel so fortunate to at last be where I was meant to be in the universe, to complete what I came to earth to do.  And whether or not I sell my paintings in my own lifetime is not so meaningful to me.  If I don’t, I will join the company of those who left this lifetime knowing what they knew, and free of the encumbrance of pining for fame or money, just doing what they must do, and gifting it to the world.

*Wikipedia. “Camille Pisarro.”  April 27, 2016.

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Gray Gravitas

I have recently decided to stop coloring my hair at the age of 62.  Rather than wanting to look younger…I want to look as I am.  Many within my circle have tried to convince me to stay “blonde.”  They have, perhaps, been conditioned by the media into thinking aging is a negative thing that I should avoid it at all costs. But, in the dawning of my senior years I want to stand in my truth–and be perceived as a mind and a human rather than just a pretty plaything.  I am finding that not coloring my hair has been an empowering experience.  I feel that I am regarded differently, but not in a bad way.  It is almost as if my gray speaks for me, saying “I am not frivolous.  I have valuable life experience. Listen to the wisdom of my life.”  

Perhaps it’s all in my head.  Or on my head, as the case may be.  Although being thought attractive is generally a ne plus ultra priority for many women, I have always regarded my heart and my intellect to be those things I most value about myself.  And now, at this late date, I am finding the appearance of my gray hair to be a valued strength as well.  Its taken a lot of resistance, perhaps obstinance to get to the point where I can feel that if anyone–male or female cannot see the wealth of gravitas in that grey hair, well then, they must be quite vapid; they are valuing something inconsequential and fleeting, something NOT REAL.  In the young this can be forgiven.  My 35 year old daughter is just beginning to discover her own beliefs and replace those that society, the media and even her parents downloaded into her as she was growing up.  But in the, ahem, mature folk–this attitude is quite unflattering. It shouts to me “I am a follower, and I want you to be one as well.  Don’t rock the boat.”  It hints that they may not have an interior life where they have reflected and reckoned, and discovered what it is that is true in the world.  It is easier to follow, and to gang up on those who don’t.  

Fortunately for me, I have never bowed, well…only a few times…and I learned to regret those times I betrayed my inner beliefs.  My trajectory was changed in some ways because of those decisions, not in a way I would have chosen myself.  I love Mitch Albom’s words from “The Five People You Meet in Heaven” because they disclose one of the secrets in the universe: 

“All parents damage their children. It cannot be helped. Youth, like pristine glass, absorbs the prints of its handlers. Some parents smudge, others crack, a few shatter childhoods completely into jagged little pieces, beyond repair.”

I was a shattered child.  But a gift came along with being shattered.  It made me search for relief, and knowledge, and understanding.  Along the way, after many decades I have become the self I’ve re-created myself to be–in my own image.  In God’s image.  I choose who I do and do not wish to be. I’m happy and at peace with this.  I wish it for every child, especially the abused children of the world.  That they can know that if they just hold on, they will be given the chance to undo some of the shattering, that it is the “other” who is wrong, that they will be able to reach for the light.

 In my former life as a librarian and educator, I used Mitch Albom’s words as a way to enter the sadness in the lives of my students.  I shared my story, and oh, they shared their own.  So much pain.  5th graders who poured out their hearts and found solace knowing that they would one day be able to repair themselves. That they had value and worth and were loveable.  That they could partake in the most important gift–a belief in themselves.  

And so perhaps I was gifted with a warrior spirit.  Or perhaps I have learned who I really am as a person.  Who wanted , as Pinnochio said, “be a real boy.” I wear my long, grey hair as a badge of courage.  As a sign of the path I’ve traveled and an emblem of my belief in the real me.  I am proud to be gray. When I look in the mirror, it tells me I’ve arrived.  I’m real.

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Book Review “Laurus” by Eugene Vodolazkin

*  WARNING …  proceed with caution … SPOILER ALERT *

Several days ago I finished reading the book Laurus* written about a 15th century monk who lived his life as a healer, trying to redeem the life of his young love and her baby, both of whom died in childbirth, without the benefit of confession, and having been living sinfully outside of marriage. The main character  starts life as an orphan named Arseny and has learned the gift of healing from his grandfather, long dead. Because he is ashamed that he has hidden the young woman in his home secretly, he does not want to call for a midwife when her time comes, thinking he will be able to deliver her. But instead, both she and the baby boy die. Arseny, overcome with guilt, vows to live Ustina’s unlived life for her, for it is only in life that we are able to make reparation for our sins. And so he plans to do good for all of his days and to scourge himself , whom he despises in order to gain redemption for Ustina and the baby. Throughout his life, he stays true to his word and endures much hardship and suffering. Sometimes it seems that his life is one long dark night of the soul. He oftens questions himself and his direction in life, never knowing if he is proceeding as he should. Always, he is faithful to Ustina, speaking to her, telling her that he is working to save her soul and asking for her advice. But she never answers, and Arseny takes this as a sign that further, more rigorous effort is required. He does this by giving away all he owns, including any food that is given him and by scourging himself in various, often brutal ways. As his reputation as a healer and a holy man begins to grow, and his works are considered miraculous and works of God, his deep humility never wavers, and he considers himself most unworthy. Nearing the end of his life, he asks the parish priest that his body be dragged through the streets in one last act of humiliation to his body; and so this is religiously performed by a holy trinity including an abbot, a bishop and an archbishop sent to accompany Laurus into his next life:

“They kneel and soundlessly pray. They take the ends of the rope in their hands, kiss them, and stand up straight. Cross themselves in unison. The hems of their robes and the ends of their beards flap in unity….Their gazes are directed above…”

10,000 people who have been touched by the life of this holy man are on their knees in shock and sorrow as he is dragged through the town where he was born one last time. Laurus’ goodness and mercy had transformed this once ordinary man into a saint for the ages.

+ + +

The transformative power of suffering was the major theme of this novel. But suffering without humility is wasted, and so humility assumed an equal role here. In the beginning, Arseny erred, as most young people do, on two fronts: youthful hubris and loss of control to new love/lust. In today’s world, we almost consider these things a rite of passage, but in Arseny’s world with the the resulting outcome, they became the devastation of three lives. I would argue that Arseny took on the Herculean task of reparation for three souls and gave everything, even the mortification of his body beyond death. I wept for him, and I continue to weep.

Laurus suffered silently and without complaint. He did not defend himself when falsely accused. For long periods of time he felt speech unnecessary and lived silently by himself. Time began to shimmer and skip for him. His life unfurled itself in a particular direction, and then returned to where it began. He traveled a spiral path, climbing ever higher to God, yet all the time feeling he was an abject sinner and lost. Perhaps there is hope for us (me) here. If a man such as this can be clothed in the schema** and all his life feel worthless and confused and lost, yet keep doing good and praying then that is all that any of us can do in this life, and perhaps we are not so lost, after all.


*Arseny undergoes several name changes in the novel which is the tradition when one is ordained as a monk. As one is elevated to a new rank or order, one’s name is changed again. The last name he receives, Laurus is one that accompanies his receipt of the schema, the highest degree of asceticism in Eastern Christianity.

**for more information on the process of tonsure and schema, please consult the following: http://www.johnsanidopoulos.com/2010/08/analavos-of-great-schema-explained.html

This novel is loosely based on the life of St Cyril of the White Lake, who did indeed live during that time period. To see images and read about the real St Cyril, or to purchase the book, see the links below:

St Cyril of the White Lake with View of the Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery, http://www.gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo/saint-cyril-of-white-lake-w…

“Venerable Cyril, the Abbot of White Lake”, https://oca.org/saints/lives/2012/06/09/101671-venerable-cyril-the-abbot…

“Laurus” by Eugene Vodolazkin http://www.amazon.com/Laurus-Eugene-Vodolazkin/dp/1780747551

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The Mind of God

Years ago, it may have been as an elementary school librarian, I began to share what I called “secrets of the universe” that I had discovered with my students.  And, it was with much delight that these children began began to see the world with new eyes.  One of my first discoveries was that of the Fibonacci Sequence, a mathematical formula that predicts the spiral patterns in the whorls of a pineapple, a nautilus shell and a galaxy of stars. In fact, as you begin to look, you find this pattern everywhere, and I am always happy to find a new example.    This swirl pattern serves also to illustrate the power of certrifugal force, or the sense that as we age we move further and further away from the familial/societal center.  The patters hold true scientifically, mathematically, artistically, philosophically.  God is nothing, if not constant.  There is great beauty in this.

As a person inclined toward the arts, I had been aware that the human eye and mind were somehow programmed to respond to a certain aesthetic.  The Greeks and Romans knew this in the building of their temples, and artists routinely map out their paintings geometrically to align or misalign themselves depending upon which schools they follow.  The 3 to 4 ratio is universally observed to be where our balance of comfort and beauty lie, and this is why most canvasses begin their lives constructed in that proportion.  hand of god

For reasons that are another story, I will tell you that I became a science major in college, even though my heart lay with the arts.  As a result, I am a hybrid, of sorts, able to marry the two…seeing where they walk along in life holding hands.  Or not.  And one of those places is called Newton’s 3rd Law, “every action has an equal or opposite reaction.”  Scientists will prove to you that if you push on a wall, the wall is pushing back on you at the same strength until you push harder and pop, there’s a hole.  When you do the same thing with people, its anger-joy-fill in the blank karma. Punch someone and see what happens.  In art we could equate it to the strength and proximity of color, or even positive-negative space, you get the idea.  

But, I digress.  Before I lose the few of you who have stuck with me thusfar, suffice it to say the mind of God is a beautiful thing.  A multilayered thing full of wonder and metaphor for children of all ages–that’s me and you.  No matter how much we know, or think we know, there will always be more to see.  In all kinds of places.  Just look.  I will leave you with one of my favorite quotes from a children’s book called “Tuck Everlasting” by Natalie Babbitt:

“It’s a wheel, Winnie. Everything’s a wheel, turning and turning, never stopping. The frogs is part of it, and the bugs, and the fish, and the wood thrush, too. And people. But never the same ones. Always coming in new, always growing and changing, and always moving on. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. That’s the way it is.” (12.6)

Another metaphor! This time, life is a wheel. 



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The Smallest Things Make the Biggest Differences; Quantum Physics and Iconography

Pantocrator For some time, it has been quite a marvel to me the tiny amount of pigment which is utilized in the creation of an icon painted with traditional egg tempera.  The pigment powders used in the icon above, for example, could not have exceeded 20 mg or so.  And, because of working with quantities which are so small, it occurred to me that the smallest of errors in mixing or diluting colors could easily ruin a day’s work. Beyond that, the issue of moving a line or shadow a millimeter or two into alignment and suddenly, an effect which had eluded one for days comes into focus.  And so the theories of quantum physics began to “wave” through my mind.  And a match was made in heaven, and the angels sang.  

The word quantum comes from Latin and means “how much.” This in itself would be a lovely thing were one able to pin down all teachers to this task. But teachers are like chefs.  They all have their own recipes, and some are more open than others to quantifying amounts for color mixtures. You may have to resort to some trial and error on your own.  There are other teachers, Gianluca Busi for example, who publish exact formulas which will make your life easier.  

Quantum Iconography depends on  Probability: When you are a student, unless you purchase specific pigment powder from the same source as your instructor, your result may not be the same.  Even if you do use the same pigment, unless you mix it according to the correct proportions of emulsion and water, it can still look different.  Throw in your student brush technique, argggh…have you given up yet? Cinnabar purchased in Russia will not have the same hue which cinnabar purchased from Finland or 5 other sources in the U.S. will have–they will all have their own idiosyncratic cinnabar.  And your cinnabar is not the same as Cennini’s cinnabar was all those hundreds of years ago, get it?  Figure out all the likely permutations, holy cow!  By the time you are done, in a very real way, your icon has ended up being just as unique in the universe as you are.  It behaves as a particle and a wave.  It is stationary and it draws you inside.  The pigments exhibit the forces of electromagnetism when they are being suspended into emulsions. Certain pigments may repel each other when being added into solution, and conversely, are “gobbled up” as it were.  Gravity is evident when heavier portions of a pigment sink to the bottom of the emulsion and we use only the lighter, more transparent color which remains in solution at the top.

Finally, as reflections of light particles and waves, icons do God’s holy work with the assistance of our hands, amen.  

                    see my icons at http://www.frangelicoblueicons.com





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