A Birthday Gift for a Long Time Student

It’s a battlefield on an ancient plain, with an army encampment at the horizon. A king riding an elephant leads the charge, while, across the stream, dragon cannons are ready to fire. An arrow flies through the sky shot by a warrior on camel-back. Long-haired soldiers charge ahead. A fish jumps out of the stream.

This is the work of 12-year-old, Eli, a student I have known for nearly four years. It’s been a year since Eli began his detailed drawing, working here and there, little by little, and on his birthday I celebrate the accomplishment by framing his work.

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 Last year, completing the drawing, adding the detailed watercolor.

Last year, completing the drawing, adding the detailed watercolor.

His painting was inspired by 13th-16th century Persian miniature paintings. Persian miniatures are small paintings on paper, much like the illuminated manuscripts in the Western and Byzantine empires. Artists were recruited from bazaars and grouped in workshops, the most prestigious being the royal workshop. One master artist drew the outlines, as lesser artists colored sections and created border designs.

The amount of intricate tiny, detail is staggering.

 Detail from an Iranian miniature

Detail from an Iranian miniature

On a similar scale, take a look at the king and his crown in Eli’s painting as he rides in a houdah, the Arabic name for the elaborate seat which protects the rider with a canopy and rail.

 The King and his Elephant

The King and his Elephant

Our artist here might have experienced a tiny bit of what it was like for the Persian and Iranian artists of the workshops, painstakingly filling in the colors. His soldiers armor is carefully drawn, and difficult to paint without losing information. In much of his work (the beards, the braids, the woman warrior?), he could expound where I do not understand. Artist statements, next time?

 Soldier charging; catapult ready to fire.

Soldier charging; catapult ready to fire.

 Detail with flag and arrows.

Detail with flag and arrows.

Meantime, I celebrate the spirit. :)

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"Where the spirit does not work with the hand, there is no art." 

Leonardo da Vinci

 A battlefield in the imagination of a boy, circa 2018

A battlefield in the imagination of a boy, circa 2018

In the Kitchen

As the weather continues to cool, I share a little oil sketch I began back when we were wearing tights and sweaters, of a child practicing her music while her mother finishes up the last of the dishes.

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The pantry is stocked, the dog is waiting for a pat on the head, and the cat is getting paw prints on the laundry. No relation to my life whatsoever. :)


What are paintings made of? Recently I collected some of the sketches I made while sitting in my daughter's violin lesson over the past two years. A few of these are scribble drawings, gestures. I also drew my dog Skip, who wouldn't model for me well, and because he liked to change his position often, I had to be fast. On gesture drawing, Kimon Nicolaïdes, in The Natural Way to Draw, writes, 

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The eye alone is not capable of seeing the whole gesture. It an only see parts at a time. That which puts these parts together in your consciousness is your appreciation of the impulse that created the gesture. If you make a conscious attempt merely to see the gesture, the impulse which caused it is lost to you. But if you use your whole consciousness to grasp the feeling—the impulse behind the immediate picture—you have a far better chance of seeing more truly the various parts. For the truth is that by themselves the parts have no significant identity.

Summer Camp

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This Summer, VAIC Studio partnered with two schools: Veritas Academy in Wylie, lead by Mark and Jenni Hotopp, and New Song School of the Arts in Lantana, to offer week-long arts enrichment camps to the local community.

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 Acrylic paintings on canvas

Acrylic paintings on canvas


As a first-time experience the students, I introduced Chinese brush painting at several camps, working on rice paper. Rice paper is made of strong mulberry fibers, and accepts the Chinese mineral and vegetable colors unlike regular watercolor paper. The ink or color spreads easily, and helps the children learn to use the brush, slowly and gently. It is meditative work. We incorporated Sumi ink with gold pigment, and the effect was glorious!  Because of the lack of sizing in rice paper, each painting must be stretched and mounted. We used homemade rice paste to stretch the paintings for the final show.

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 Wheat paste with Alum for mounting the work,.

Wheat paste with Alum for mounting the work,.

 Applying the paste on plexiglass.

Applying the paste on plexiglass.

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Applying the paste and stretching the work is for me a deeply satisfying task, as the colors become brighter and bolder. The results turned out beautiful. 

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 Violin, by Josh, age 11

Violin, by Josh, age 11

 Flowers, by Shaelee, age 8

Flowers, by Shaelee, age 8

 Snow Leopard by Elise, age 7

Snow Leopard by Elise, age 7

 Watercolor and Ink painting by Noah, age 11

Watercolor and Ink painting by Noah, age 11

 Dragon, by Liam, age 7

Dragon, by Liam, age 7

 Flowers, by Emily, age 8

Flowers, by Emily, age 8

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We did it!

The VAIC Studio student show continues to be on display at the local public library until the end of June. Kudos to all my students who put in their best....I am proud of them! I hope their patience and persistence is evident in the work. 

The vision of the studio since the beginning is to provide the atmosphere and tools for students to create whole, poetic works, born out of their own ideas, sensitivity, and perceptiveness, full of unity and rich design.  The first ten students and I overcame obstacles (cold, heat, mosquitoes) and at the end of the year, we mounted, matted, and "museum-protected" a sampling of their work. 

 Allen Public Library

Allen Public Library

A popular theme among the children has been wolves and dragons. While I offer subjects, exercises, and themes at an earlier level, as they progress, the children best show forth their practiced skills and principals in choosing their own subject matter. The work below took several sessions. Notice the rich coloring in this acrylic painting by this second grade student. The variation in the pattern of the tree branches, the cotton-ball-like leaves, the rocks around the gurgling stream and background mountains all make for a rich and lively composition, with the action drawing us in. If you'll notice, the wolves have jumped a hedge, each one is a different color. If you look very carefully, you'll see they've left a small wolf pup back in the woods. 

 Wolves Chasing a Deer, by Bryce, age eight

Wolves Chasing a Deer, by Bryce, age eight

In drawing practice, the students "built" a wolf head, studying the face structure, layering on the hair. Several students felt inspired to give their wolves names. 

 Tanishka, age eight

Tanishka, age eight

 Bailey, age thirteen

Bailey, age thirteen

 Pranav, age eight

Pranav, age eight

 "Biter." Sanjeev, age seven

"Biter." Sanjeev, age seven

Dragons have been another popular chosen theme. After learning to draw a basic dragon, this student's mother reported finding drawings of dragons multiplied throughout the house. During art camp he also drew a giant dragon and made a dragon sculpture, complete with detailed scales. I rejoiced with him in the completion of this 18X24" acrylic painting below, full of intimidating background angles and dark shapes, the dragon standing out as if he could leap off the page with his bright wings and outstretched claws. I love with the curve of the tail and the black shape it creates with the wing, which is the mouth of a cave. Silas exclaimed when he was finished, "I made my first real painting!"

 Dragon, by Silas, age ten

Dragon, by Silas, age ten

Another student made a colored pencil drawing of a dragon breathing fire. The clouds show distance in the background, and the execution of each spine crest on his back would make any teacher of second-grade cursive handwriting envious. 

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In drawing practice, students studied the sphere and made pencil portraits with a full range of drawing pencils. The sphere below is by a fourth grade student. 

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 Anisha, second grade

Anisha, second grade

 Tanishka, fourth grade

Tanishka, fourth grade

I am inspired by Frank Wachowiak, of whom it is written, that for him, "helping children make beautiful art was almost a religious quest." He writes that teachers of art should learn to listen to children's description of their experiences, both real and imaginary, with sympathetic interest. When students want to express something personally meaningful, they will invest their energies and lose track of time. 

The Selfie and the Self-Portrait

Have we all seen the new iPhone X ads? Stunning selfies of people of different ages and backgrounds adorn the sides of skyscrapers and curved ad boards downtown Dallas, next to hip restaurants and scattered Limebikes. Or perhaps you've seen the commercial, with Muhammed Ali's voice in the background:  "I'm so modest, I can admit my own faults and my only fault is I don't realize how great I really am!"

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The selfie....like ordering dinner, or pretty much whatever you want, it's simply the touch of a button on a glass pane. I remember back in the day, when I took my own photograph (which was rare)... I had to find a tripod, or make-shift a shoddy one, and then borrow my mom's SLR with a self-timer. A Polaroid camera or a little 110-film camera held at arm's length and aimed at your face would most likely produce a portrait of the nose. (The "nosie" never took off.) Not only that, but I had to wait a week for the film to be developed, especially when we couldn't afford 1-hr film developing. The photographs, once excitedly picked up, or received in the mail, if disliked, had to be physically, frustratingly, torn up and thrown in the trash or---if truly angered---burned. (Actually, I've only burned paintings.) Today, however, our image is created and destroyed in an instant, minimal neurons (and emotions) fired. It's lightening fast image creation, a pose-snap-post-and-watch-the-likes-roll-in-(or not)-world. 

I understand it's rather late to enter the conversation. One of my favorite museums, The Getty, in Los Angeles, published an article defining the difference between the terms in 2015. Selfie was word of the year for Oxford English dictionary in 2013. Scientists, educators and sociologist are already waist-deep in assessing the implications of these changes, while less than a year ago, I skipped around rather oblivious in my flip phone world. Bear with me. I now peer through the window with guiding thoughts toward children creating art today. 

What does the readily accessible visual vocabulary of the selfie imply for these growing creators? I ruminate how the word 'awe' and 'awesome' once contained within it not just the viewpoint of a mountaintop, but the sights, sounds, fragrances, pains, sweats, and repeating footsteps of the long and strenuous climb to the peak. Yesterday the young man wearing a reflector vest in the Chick-fil-A take-out line used the word as a verbal cue that he heard my order correctly. 

Let's back up a few centuries. 


 Miyamoto Musashi,   Self-portrait ,   Samurai , writer and artist, c. 1640

Miyamoto Musashi, Self-portrait, Samurai, writer and artist, c. 1640

I wonder.... if it were possible to map the brain, the intuition, and the heart during portrait painting, how much would light up with activity during the creation of a self-portrait of, say, 15th century Japan. In the above painting, the artist is a Samurai, philosopher, author. What is involved in the creation of such a portrait? The life of the work began with the turning the ink stick  ( mò) round and round in the water on the inkstone---a meditative process, during which the artist empties the mind and envisions the work. He stands on two feet, with balanced weight; he breathes deeply; he has a reverence for his brush and the perfection with which it is held. 

 The inkstone: one of the 文房四宝 "Four Treasures of the Study."

The inkstone: one of the 文房四宝 "Four Treasures of the Study."

In Musashi's work above, the lines exude grace, confidence, and beauty of movement. His flow and mode of creation is one of harmony and wholeness.....no eraser, no tearing up, no deleting. 


Or shall we consider Flemish painter Caterina van Hemessen's self portrait? She began, most likely, with a careful drawing, possibly a measured grid, and after that, a preparation of the board, the preliminary sketch, the initial imprimatura (transparent stain of color painted on a ground), followed by the use of mortar and pestle, the mixing of the mediums and paint, and following that---the painstakingly careful slow-building of layer upon layer of paint. Imagine the time and space, the hours of calm and quiet! At such lengths of patient sustained activity, the reward is in the work itself.

 Caterina van Hemessen,  Self Portrait , 1548

Caterina van Hemessen, Self Portrait, 1548

Rembrandt, the Master, lived a career punctuated by a moving array of self-portraits. He created nearly one hundred self-portraits over his lifetime, in drawing, painting, and etching. Introspective, meditative work was his way of being. In the following work, the groves of his brow he formed with his own hand, just as love, sorrow and strain over time formed him.

He presents himself to us unfiltered. 

 Rembrandt,  Self Portrait , 1659

Rembrandt, Self Portrait, 1659

These processes in mind, I share simple artworks created by my students, working over over several sessions, with pastel on newsprint. I compare their beautiful work to the self-portraits of great artists of our past. The famous portraits below were not shown to the children, nor did I have the masterworks in mind beforehand. The students were given: charcoal, pastels, a mirror,  guiding instructions, and the space and freedom to work at a steady, slow pace. I believe this is one place to bridge the gap between our rapid-fire world and slowing down to contemplate: to be oneself, seeing oneself. 

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 Edgar Degas , Degas in a Green Jacket , 1855 

Edgar Degas, Degas in a Green Jacket, 1855 

 Artwork by male student, age 12

Artwork by male student, age 12

 Frida Kahlo,  Self-portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird , 1940

Frida Kahlo, Self-portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, 1940

 Artwork by female student, age 10

Artwork by female student, age 10

 Paul Gaguin,  Self-Portrait-Dedicated-to-Carriere , 1889

Paul Gaguin, Self-Portrait-Dedicated-to-Carriere, 1889

 10-yr-old boy

10-yr-old boy

 Fayum Mummy Portrait (not a self-portrait)

Fayum Mummy Portrait (not a self-portrait)

 Male student, age 11

Male student, age 11

 Angelica Kauffmann,  Self-Portrait,  1780-1785

Angelica Kauffmann, Self-Portrait, 1780-1785

 Artwork by female student, age 14

Artwork by female student, age 14