The Art of Describing

I like to sketch a bit, paint a bit, mess about with pen and ink, pencils, everything but chalk and charcoal is fair game. And in the grand Dutch tradition of interpreting and showing daily life, as discussed by Svetlana Alpers in The Art of Describing, I’m not afraid to turn my pen to other things than those that exist in my imagination.

In fact, I tend to, nowdays, work from photographs. Either my own — soon in this space, an oil sketch of Leentje, our tortoise-shell cat — or other photographs. One day when I was writing the book that’s languishing on a slush pile, when I opened the newspaper, the protagonist was looking at me. I clipped the picture from the paper, and started sketching, all the while feeling that I was somehow abusing this obviously poor girl from the streets of Jakarta. The sketch now serves me as wallpaper (note that this is a transparent PNG file that can blend with your background colour if you use KDE. Other desktop systems, like OS X cannot blend a background colour with a wallpaper), and she is still looking at me.

My grandfather — my mother’s father — was a better artist than I am, for all that he earned his money as an interior decorator. Maybe that’s too grand a word for what he did: papering walls and marbling concrete or plaster. But he had talent and a very fine eye. One of these days I’ll scan the few sketches and the one drawing in pen and ink I have by him.

Barend Demoed was a soldier in the Dutch army in 1940, a field cook, in fact. And when the Germans invaded the Netherlands he was stationed at the Grebbeberg, together with many other Dutch boys of his age. They were captured, of course, and carried off to a kriegsgefangenenlager. Mühlhausen, in his case. He escaped, and walked back home, to Amsterdam. In the camp he had made quite a lot of sketches, but they are all lost. And he has never done a serious bit of sketching, drawing or painting since the war. A few years before his death, the family presented him with a fine sketch block, pens and ink for his birthday, but he never touched them. I inherited them, being the only one amongst the grandchildren interested in them — the bottles of ink, by now completely unusable, are still here, in the upper right drawer of my desk.

The only times when he would take up a pencil or a pen was when he visited us, me and my sister, my father and his daughter, my mother. He’d draw silly cartoon-like puppets, more doodling than drawing, and I believe my mother has thrown away all those things. But he’d be sitting with us, my sister and me, and we’d sit around the table, drawing, chatting, and he’s taught me a lot.

But after the war, he didn’t like drawing from life — much less from a photograph. And my mother didn’t like it even more. So there I was, imbued with the idea that every sketch ought to have come from my own imagination. It took years before I admitted to myself that drawing from life might be a good idea — in fact, when I met Irina and wanted to sketch her. And now I even dare to use photographs…

As for the tortoise-shell cat painting: Naomi, my eldest, wanted to learn oils, so I restocked my twenty-year old paint box, and she choose a gray cat we met in Greece, and I choose Leentje. I’ll put a scan of her work up, too.

The book by Svetlana Alpers, by the way is quite good, very nicely steers away from the extremes of symbolic interpretation of Dutch C17 paintings, perhaps even too much, but it also very wordy, and the Dutch translation is wooden, and in places silly. I mean — if the author has to translate a paragraph of Dutch into English after quoting it in Dutch, then the Dutch translation doesn’t need a translation into Dutch of the English translation of the Dutch quote that precedes this translation verbatim… And the author is wordy, often too wordy, taking pages to say something that could be said in one paragraph, in equal depth.