The enigmatic white masks of Venice

A drawing from my studio

The Venetian mask

Travel transforms us, and Venice more so than most. A group of young Americans studying acting in Venice were working with the white full face masks which renders them completely expressionless and unreadable.

There was one young woman of rare beauty. I never really chatted to her, but I was always aware of her presence. When they put on their masks, she in particular was transmuted into a living mystery.

You read into that expressionless mask what your subconscious projects onto it.

For some it would be hostile or mocking or scary.

To me, this was sexy beyond belief. A projection of pure sensuality.

The smallest movement of the body or even the folds of clothes is magnified, as is its significance. Basic body language.

With this mask in place, all communication comes from the body, the more so as these masks cannot be tied into place. Instead, there is a projection behind the mouth, and the wearer bites down on this button to keep it in place. This means that not only is she unable to use her face to communicate, but that she is also unable to speak. The personality of the wearer is limited to what the body is saying.

There is this mystery in Venice, in the mists and the light and the alleyways, and in the people, even in ourselves as we absorb the sense of unearthliness, the sense of place.

This is part of the beauty and mystery and often, the darkness of the city beyond time.

Still life, what still life?

My friend George was the best painter of still life I had ever come across. But even he struggled with painting flowers.

When we set up a vase with roses or poppies we have the expectation that unlike the figure, they will stay still and “hold their pose”.

Forget about it!

Those roses move around, change their shape, and grow and fade in the vase. The changes are slow but within half an hour they are impossible to miss. They do a wild dance. When I watch demonstrations on the internet, the still life is often shown as an inset  so that we can see what the artist is working from. The demo may take four hours, sometimes over two days, but frustratingly these flowers always keep their shape. No opening of the buds, no sagging of the stems, no wilting of the flowers.

George took about 30 days to paint a still life (for me it is about about 4 days). In that time flowers grow and fade and die. The still life has life.

But “still”? Never. He told me of his struggle with these recalcitrant flowers. He confessed that he tried to keep his still lives in a fridge; that he put formalin in the waater to embalm them; and that once he even tried painting artificial flowers.

It was disaster. “I could not stand that they never moved!”

What George was getting with was not still life, but the rigidity of death, and it was a nightmarish experience.

This is what some internet demos do. Their flowers have a cold perfection – they never change, because what they are being painted from is a photograph.

As seeing, feeling beings we are drawn to life with all its imperfection, and that is what makes George’s paintings so great.

The Tao refers to the universe as “that which changes”.

Saturday demo on 30 May 

On Saturday morning 30th May, at 9:30 at the Saveur Restaurant on the Simonstown waterfront, I shall do an oil painting demo, an alla prima portrait study in oils.

The venue is on the middle level of the Simonstown Waterfront by the jetty.

R60 includes a cup of coffee from Saveur. And you do not have to bring a chair!

When line is our subject 

Line drawing is not a technique so much as it is a subject. Before we can draw a line we first have to see a line (not a figure or a mountain or a profile).

Line is defined as “a point moving” and a point as “a position in space, with no dimensions”. A line drawing is an exploration of the movement of our attention over a field, a figure or a still life or a landscape. The line represents the pathway of our eye, and the result is a line drawing, a map of our visual exploration.

Now if we want to make line the subject of a painting, we have two options. We can draw some lines into the paint as if we were doing a line drawing, or we can take as our subject a line drawing done before.

When we paint from a drawing of, say, a dancer, we have two options. We can paint the dancer using the drawing at a reference of proportion, posture, light and shade and mood; or we can paint the drawing for itself, celebrating the lines and the marks and the blurs and the scratches on the paper for its own intrinsic beauty. This is the way I like to work. The drawing is not a intermediary to another experience, but something to be experience in itself.

Both methods are perfectly valid.

The important thing is for artists to use drawing as the means to capture a moment or a mood, and not a camera. That drawing is a living thing, crackling with electricity and passion. It leads to a heightened awareness of our subject, life itself.

Lose your heart and find your soul.

12 days in Venice.

Limited places left.

19 to 31 October 2015. 12 days painting with Ryno Swart. 

1200 Euro sharing and 1450 Euro for a single room.

Book by emailing Ryno or by phoning 021 786 3975.

Don’t worry about avoiding temptation. As you get older, it will avoid you.

Joey Adams.


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