Brain Food #790: Change your tools
Vija Celmins and her love of pencils
Thoughts of the day
I recently came across the work of artist Vija Celmins, particularly her series of photorealistic drawings of nature, drawn meticulously in graphite pencil. The work verges on the abstract; there is no indication of where it was done, or which part of the world it depicts. The focus of the viewer thus falls more on the technique and the medium, and less so on the subject.
Until the late 1960s, Celmins was mostly painting, but then switched to pencil for more than a decade, until she moved back to oil painting in the 80s.
Her relationship with drawing was one of love for the medium:
“I see drawing as thinking, evidence of getting from one place to another. One draws to define one thing from another ... I tend to take very small increments and steps in changing. An example was that I had been working with the pencil and I began to see that the graphite itself had a certain life to it. So I did a series of images of oceans and deserts using different grades of graphite and pushing each one to its limit. I learned a lot about the possibilities of expressiveness in graphite by doing this. Then I moved into the galaxy drawings. Even though you may think they came from lying under the stars, for me, they came out of loving the blackness of the pencil. It’s almost as if I was exploring the blackness of the pencil along with the image that went with it.”
Her description above of what the pencil meant to her suggests that sometimes, whether we are facing a creative block, or feel in need of a change but do not know what that change needs to be, changing the tools and methods that once worked may be a good place to start.
In a separate interview for the Met, she said, “I don’t think there was ever a point where I said ‘I’m gonna be an artist…’ I was looking for something.”
When an answer or direction is not clear, when you do not exactly know what you are looking for, change your tools, trust the process, and see where it takes you.
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