A Little Greek Pastel Painting Trip by Michael Newberry

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Years ago I took a pastel painting trip of a lifetime, for three months I traveled from Athens, Greece to many islands, eventually to Istanbul, and slowly back again to Athens. My first island was Tinos, from the harbor I rented a scooter, booked a tiny house outside of town for 15 dollars a night. The porch had a sloping view over gray-green olive groves down to the dark and brilliant ultramarine blue Mediterranean, about 300 ft to the left was a small, room-sized luminous white-plastered Byzantine church. 

My first day I loaded my backpack with my 200 piece pastel set, and packed several sheets of full-size pastel paper in my large portfolio bag, swung the bulky bags over my shoulder. Weighed down, I then swung my right leg over the scooter and the momentum carried me, the bags, and the scooter to crash to pavement. Laying painfully on my side, the pastels scattered on the ground, and with the scooter pinning me down I couldn’t get up. An elderly Greek woman dressed in black tending the church next door witnessed it all. And she kindly helped me get up through my blushing burn of embarrassment. Once I was upright she helped me collect the pastels. Not speaking any English, she took my arm to follow her to her favorite view of the church, and through hand gestures suggested that I draw it. 

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Eye Excitement: Why Ruins?

Rickety Courtyard Gate, Rhodes, pastel on dark paper, private collection
Rickety Courtyard Gate, Rhodes, pastel on dark paper, private collection
Rickety Courtyard Gate, Rhodes, pastel on dark paper, private collection

I have noticed lots of artists including myself are drawn into drawing abandoned places, scruffy landscapes, weathered shacks, and stone ruins. While a manicured lawn or polished mahogany conference table inspire a blau reaction. There is something visually exciting about the chaos of ruins but what is it that is triggering our vision? And why are paintings or drawings so boring when they are of pristine subjects? Vision scientists Jan Koenderink and Andrea van Doorn (a link to their abstract on pictorial space) talked with me over beers in Glasgow pub about how the eye goes blind if it cannot move about and compare and contrast tones and hues. Using my artist’s logic it makes sense that on the opposite end of the spectrum the eye becomes excited when each hue and tone is varied. My pastel of a rickety courtyard gate in Rhodes, Greece illustrates this.

Notice the gate is drawn with all kinds of unrepeated colors. The plastered gold side of the wall has countless hues ochre, and medieval stones are equally varied with its shifts between brown and gray. It seems like a lot to try to do in a 50-minute drawing, but I was helped along by all the setting’s details were all extremely varied. If you are an artist looking for something interesting to draw look for differences in everything. That will keep your eye busy and excited and the viewers’ too.

Michael Newberry