Friday, May 29, 2009

mangosteens and the brain shift

About once a month I get together with three other etegami artists to spend the morning drawing. We call ourselves the "Yoninkai" (literally: group of four). Each of us is supposed to contribute something to draw. I am often delighted by what the others bring, because so often they are things I have no access to. Whimsically tinted wild grapes. Exotic dragon fruit. Homegrown tomatoes that are too lumpy or oddly colored to show up in the supermarket (so much more interesting to draw than the perfectly round ones). Etegami requires very close-up observation, so the four of us do not draw the same object at the same time. We bring the objects right up to our faces to study them. We spend a lot of time handling them, feeling their texture, smelling them. After drawing one, we pass it around to the others so they can have a chance at it. By the end of the day, the items have been handled so much, they aren't much use for eating. Some really hard-to-find objects are actually hand-me-downs from a different etegami group. The tendency my companions have of not regarding the edible objects as food used to astonish me. I was vaguely uncomfortable with what I considered a "wasteful" treatment of good food. But somewhere along the line, a shift occurred in my brain. Now I can spend a morning drawing fresh fish from the fishmongers, knowing full well that it will no longer be fresh enough to cook for my family when I am finished with it. I can even pay an outrageous price for an exotic, strangely-shaped fruit that I know I will never eat, because I see it as a challenging thing to draw. I have to laugh at myself even as I write about it. I have to laugh at the price I paid for these mangosteens, which I bought for no other reason than the fact that I am fascinated by their color, and hope that, with a lot of practice, I may someday be able to reproduce it.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

expressing fragility in etegami

At the far south end of our yard, snuggled against a wall that offers just a bit of a barrier between our property and the thoroughfare, grows a forsythia tree. I guess I'm supposed to call it a shrub, but this one is taller than I am. It reaches over the wall and spills its willowy yellow-blossomed branches into the airspace over the sidewalk and street. I've used various methods to try to force it to stay on our side of the wall, but it seems to have a mind of its own. I used to worry that pedestrians and cyclists, not to mention cars, would ram right through the branches in their hurry to proceed down the street, but it seems that there is a common instinct that prevents violation of the forsythia's space. Everyone slows down and moves around it. In the earliest days of spring, when the piles of dirty snow along the streets have finally melted, and tulips and daffodils dot our yard at ground level, the forsythia is the first thing at eye level that bursts into color. A yellow so pure and bright, amidst the still drab and leafless maple, cherry, birch, and ash trees, it seems as if all of the sun's light were soaking into that one plant. Of course, I draw it every spring. The flowers soon make way for the leaves, and the greened-over forsythia melts into the background of the other trees, as their leaves too unfold. This year I caught the forsythia as the blossoms were making way for the leaves. The blossoms were already losing their plumpness and the purity of their color. I tried to match this in the thin wobbly writing, which I accomplished by dangling a gel-pen (like a ball point pen) from the tips of my fingers and barely scraping the paper as I formed the letters. The drawing and the writing together give an impression of fragility, don't you think?

Monday, May 18, 2009

the dawning of the age of asparagus

Hokkaido, the northernmost and second-largest of the main islands of Japan, is a prefecture unto itself, unlike the other three main islands which are divvied up into multiple prefectures, or southernmost Okinawa, a prefecture consisting of a chain of hundreds of small islands spread over 1000 kilometers. Hokkaido accounts for 22% of Japan's forests, and nearly one fourth of Japan's total arable land. It ranks first in the domestic production of a staggering number of agricultural products, as well as marine products and aquaculture. More importantly, Hokkaido is my home. So you can believe me when I say we have the best asparagus in the country. One of the many pleasures of spring is the eating and the drawing of fresh asparagus spears. (Actually I draw them first, then I eat them.) My very first asparagus etegami was of a single, very thin spear taking up only a sliver of space across the middle of the card. It was so thin, it was difficult to place any color between the lines. That was when I first discovered that with thin subjects, letting color spread beyond the outline of the drawing can produce pleasing results. Since then, I've drawn all manner of asparagus. Thick ones, straight ones, curved ones, twisted ones, tall ones, short ones. They're all gone now, except for one from last year and the one I drew just this week. I posted them side by side so you could see the differences in technique, style, and concept. The one on the left is from last year. The straight thick spears were drawn with a reed pen (which explains the many inky blotches). The one on the right is this year's attempt. The thick, curved spears were drawn with a writing brush. The friction of the writing brush against the paper, and an unforeseen jerk in my arm muscles, affected the angle at which the spear in the foreground bends, making it look a little surreal. At first I was disappointed, but later, I decided I liked it.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

fireflies and memories of my grandmother

Some days I have loads of things I could be drawing, but no motivation. Other days I have loads of motivation and I can't seem to find anything to draw. It was one of those "other days," and the only subject I could come up with was an empty applesauce jar. I set the jar in front of me and took some time to look at it carefully. Then came one of those telescopic moments when everything around the jar went out of focus, while the jar got bigger and clearer. My mind was flooded with memories of my paternal grandmother's backyard where my cousins and I would catch fireflies and put them into jars.

Having grown up an entire ocean plus half a continent away from where she lived, there were only five occasions--the shortest being one week in duration, and the longest being 9 months-- where I spent time in the vicinity of my grandmother during her lifetime. This sudden recollection of catching fireflies in her backyard (I must have been about 12) was a precious gift, because I have so few memories of her. I googled images of fireflies and drew them into the jar.

By this time my mind had made another leap, this time to a prematurely discontinued American television series called "Firefly." My son had spoken highly of it, so I ordered the DVD set from the US and watched it all the way through in record-breaking time. I was mesmerized by it, and immediately watched it all the way through a second time. The show's theme song contains the words "you can't take the sky from me." I adapted those words to accompany my drawing. The resulting etegami is quite different (maybe disturbingly so) from my usual style, and the references are complicated to explain, so I was dubious about displaying it publicly. But a friend persuaded me to do so anyway, saying it had a certain appeal, even apart from my convoluted explanation. So here it is. In celebration of (grand) Mother's Day.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

etegami and birdwatching

In my early years of etegami, I drew mostly vegetables and fruit. Then, with some trepidation, I graduated to flowers. Those have been traditional subjects of etegami and they were perfect for learning the basic techniques of the art. But as I began to run out of new things to draw, I grabbed whatever was at hand. A tea cup. My cell phone. An old pair of shoes. In a separate, non-etegami-conscious, part of my life, I took the first baby steps towards a new hobby. Bird-watching. I put together makeshift birdfeeders and set them out in my yard near the window so I could watch from inside the house. I observed the birds with binoculars, and I googled to make even closer observations and learn more about them. It wasn't long before I started drawing them. I enjoyed capturing the identifying characteristics of each type of bird without the pressure of complete accuracy or realism. Etegami is cool that way. A friend said to me, "I like how your hobbies have come together." Being a voracious reader, I was already using quotes from favorite books to accompany the drawings. But my friend's comment opened my eyes to a whole new world of possibilities for etegami. I'll be blogging more about this in the future. For today, I've attached my earliest bird etegami. The bird is called Shime in Japanese, and is apparently a kind of Hawfinch. The black band around its eyes, the shape of the beak, and the color of its feathers are the identifying characteristics. Mine turned out plump and fluffy. Not unlike me, actually. The accompanying words are adapted from Job 12:7 "Ask the birds of the air and they will tell you."