Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Happiness of Pencils

"Art for me is a way of resting and replenishing my mind. As the person who holds the name of Karmapa, I hold so many responsibilities that need to be completed, to be accomplished, but not everything goes according to plan. It can be exhausting sometimes. What I like about painting a picture is that when I sit down to paint, I complete it. Even when I am drawing, there is something about the process of painting that brings peace and relaxation to my mind." -- 17th Karmapa

Among beginning practitioners, there are many who harbor guilt for enjoying life's gentle idle. Diversions such as poetry, art, music, and the like are seen as somehow counterproductive: seductions that take one away from practice.

Not so. 

Art is necessary.

Since Buddhism as practiced in Tibet began to make its way to the West, there have been numerous examples of highly realized beings who managed to combine lively artistic endeavor with the interests of all sentient beings. Trungpa Rinpoche comes immediately to mind. He was a multi-talented artist with considerable skill at calligraphy, painting, photography, flower arranging, and of course, drama and poetry.

I find everything by Tashi Mannox to be inspiring.
People who express Nirmanakaya by means of
artistic works are what,
do you know?

The Seventeenth Karmapa gives us another example. As a child, he came to know the celebrated artist Tashi Mannnox. Tashi's father was a brilliant craftsman patronized by the Sixteenth Karmapa, so it seems there is a strong connection between the Mannox clan and the Karmapas. Tashi showed the young Seventeenth the fundamentals of sketching, and composition, with early collaboration on an embroidered patch design. Other instructors followed, and the Karmapa eventually developed into a gifted watercolorist. That is his painting of a tiger, above, done in the Chinese style.

While not in the same league as those mentioned -- not in any way, shape, or form -- I have nevertheless always enjoyed sketching, pen and ink, photography, thinking with a pencil, and lately -- a new wrinkle on an old medium known as "colored pencil painting."

This technique involves the use of ordinary, wax-based colored pencils, together with odorless mineral spirits. You get a smooth lay-down, and you can then work over it. How this differs from the watercolor pencils I do not know, because I've never used them. Most of the people working in this medium are doing hyper-realism, and the results are astonishing. You can get the flavor of it from Alyona Nickelsen's work. She is a Russian-born artist working down in Orange County, California, and author of the Colored Pencil Painting Bible, which is what I am using to teach myself the methods. I usually don't get very much from "how to" books, but I learned quite a bit from this one.

About the first question everyone has is, "What pencil should I use?" That is a deep subject. Like everything else, pencils are not what they used to be in terms of quality.

Pencils were invented by an Austrian fellow named Hardtmuth, who in 1790 went to Czechoslovakia and started a company named Koh-I-Noor. In 1802, he patented the first pencil lead, made of graphite and clay. You can still buy the "Koh-I-Noor Hardtmuth" pencils to this very day. In around 1848, the firm located some manufacturing operations in Bohemia, and back in Austria, and the lineal descendant of the Austrian facilities is the firm Cretacolor. They have a nice line called Karmina, which is amusing for some reason. Their fine art graphite line is the best you will find anywhere.

Good quality colored pencils today are those of the Swiss firm Caran d'Ache. As an aside, you should know that "caran d'ache" is the French adaptation of the Russian word "karandach," meaning pencil. These pencils are not cheap: the set of 120 pictured below costs around $411. on eBay -- the lowest price you are likely to see anywhere. Their best quality pencils -- the Luminance series -- are even more expensive. 

Because I do not have much money, I make do with Prismacolor pencils. These are made in Mexico, and are of inconsistent quality and "feel." They do have a nice palette though, particularly for desert landscapes, which is what I like to draw.

I have been collecting pencils for use since 1958, which is when my father gave me a small artist's studio complete with paints, drawing board, easel, pencils, pens, etc. For graphite work, I have vintage Staedtler pencils from the 1930s that I bought from an old stationer's basement in the 1960s. I also have some of the original Staedtler pencils my father gave me.

It does not take much to be happy. You can collect a few pencils, erasers, and blending sticks, and get a pad of drawing paper. You can go sit in the park and sketch the trees. It becomes a meditation on emptiness. Try this and see if you enjoy the exercise. It beats sitting around by yourself in some dim room, feeling forlorn, worrying about "being a Buddhist."

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