Thursday, December 11, 2008

Sneak attack

She did not see it coming. Neither she, nor her little girl had a chance. Even the security guard, happily chatting with his colleague, was completely clueless. I doubt he had noticed me, and even if he had, he would never have suspected that I was not just sitting there sipping my mocca. Months ago he had once spotted me, when I was careless, and asked what I was doing there. Just drawing, sir. And I showed him my sketchbook. Just drawing. Right.

I am not sure what made me choose her among the crowd at the Dufferin Mall. Maybe it was her walk, which explicitly involved her hips and shoulders in a rhythmical movement that waved through her body, ending in her beautiful dark brown hair. Or maybe it just was her child, holding her hand, riding the same wave. Two is so much more challenging than just one...

Cat Stevens sang that the first cut is the deepest, and I could not have expressed it better. With a quick confident stroke I made it to her spine, and as soon I felt I tapped her life force, I left her for a while to move to her daughter. Young and playful as she was, she escaped the first few slashes, and it took me three or four more strokes to get that wonderful feeling of life surging through my fingers, hands and upward. Knowing that I had gained control in a few seconds, I moved back to the mother, securing her bouncing hips and, as in one movement, her shoulders, along her arm back to the girl to catch that jumpy curly style of energy. It was over in less than a minute, and the last thing I remember was the soft feeling of her hair and a loosely falling coat. I will keep my trophy.

All that reminds me of that beautiful lady and her daughter is a quick scribble in my sketchbook, or a 'gesture' as it is usually called. Gesture was introduced by Kimon Nicolaides in the 1930s as the primary impulse of subject matter, the emotional response, the unifying element or, more poetic, what the wind is for the trees that it bends. His "The Natural Way to Draw" has been required literature for art students ever since. My instructor Nina teaches to approach the gesture inside out, starting at the core and working from there to the outside, like a sculptor sticking his clay onto a wire frame and I believe there is wisdom in these words.

I still feel myself being distracted by relative details like folds in skin or drapery and other external features, so I really need to urge myself to go for that spine, which gives our brain hands and feet, and to search for the hips and shoulders that make us rock and roll. And yet, I feel this is only the beginning of the story, since the gesture is so much more than just an anatomical skeleton. Years ago, when I first met Nicolaides, I concluded that gesture is that which cannot be drawn, and I still believe this is essential.

As for now, I will keep studying the gesture, through the daily work in my sketchbook. I'm not alone, as this is required practice for all Max the Mutt students. We are with many, lurking from the corners of Toronto malls, subway stations, busses, streets and parks. We want you, your impulse, your energy, your gesture. You will never see it coming, and it is over in a minute. At most. You will never be safe. Nowhere. Your life will never be the same...

Saturday, December 6, 2008

It's magic!

I must admit I giggled too, as my first association was that of Statler and Waldorf from The Muppets, but our Animation Director asked us to show some respect, as the two men in this documentary were Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, two legendary animators who were part of Disney's dream team, dubbed the 'Nine Old Men'. 

Frank and Ollie talked about their working on an impressive range of classics, from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937) till The Fox and the Hound (1981), and the documentary was interspersed with short fragments of these movies. 

And then, there was silence. The audience, a happy bunch of somewhat noisy young people plus yours truly, ready to start their education at the Max the Mutt School of Animation, had fallen silent on seeing Snow White's funeral, with weeping and sobbing dwarves all over the place. 
A fairy tale princess. Dwarves. Silence.

I had come to this place for the quality of its art education, and until then, I did not really have a strong preference for one program over the other. However, at that moment I made up my mind. If a fairy tale princess and seven dwarves, more than 70 years old, can silence a bunch of chips-eating high school kids in the 21st century, then I want to be an animator!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Some things in life are bad

I am a born pessimist, but over the past few years I have experienced how an optimistic view on life can make things a whole lot easier. Incidents over the past month reminded me that the pessimist is still lurking in the shadows.

"You're generally seeing things too dark. Way too dark", said my painting teacher Trudy, followed by the advice to compensate for that. So, I struggled painting things lighter than I actually saw them, and yet, my homework painting of a yellow pepper made Trudy believe it was actually orange (now, the pepper had started to rot while I was painting, which did not really help either).

Every now and then I was surprised to find how light a shadow can be, and although my second painting of a tea pot turned out much better, I still got the comment that I was too dark. Until today, when my teacher Nina complimented me that the charcoal drawing I was working on was 'exactly right'. Not too dark? Not too dark.

The first semester is moving towards its completion, what remains after this week is a final week of evaluations. We'll see what happens. For now, I think I'll stick this one onto the wall above my bed: "And... always look on the bright side of life... Always look on the light side of life..."

Friday, November 21, 2008


I think it was Freud who said that "sometimes an egg is just an egg." Anyway, we were to draw eggs for homework, so I took an egg for breakfast. One of my fellow students here at NHT had forgotten to take one, so he asked the kitchen for an egg. On his explanation that he needed to draw one for homework, the kitchen lady barked: "Don't you know what an egg looks like?" Well, obviously, we did not, which was why we were requested to study the subtleties of the egg. The lady kindly provided the egg, with a final "Well, let me see what comes of it".

The story reminded me of an old Dutch joke: "Do you know how a Dutch recipe for scrambled eggs starts? Answer: 'borrow one egg'"...

Friday, November 14, 2008

Operation 'Switch' - Prologue

They were not happy with me and I was not happy with them, so we decided in harmony that it was time to part. I would leave somewhere in the autumn of 2007, which would leave us four months to gather all loose ends, and for me to decide what to do next.

I think they expected me to find my sixth computer job. Over the previous 16 years I had done research in Artificial Intelligence, developed software for fashion logistics and smart cards, done research on software engineering and evaluated smart card security. My employers had one thing in common: either they were not happy with me or I was not happy with them. It was not going to happen.

Years earlier I had began to develop myself as an artist. It had started with a basic course on drawing and painting at De Werkschuit in Gouda, followed by courses on Figure Drawing and Portraiture, at this same art centre, and at De Vrije Academie and Tekenstudio Foppe in The Hague; I became a member at the Open Atelier Modeltekenen in Zoetermeer.  I liked it there, and what is more, it had struck a chord in me.

Over the years, the urge to develop my artistic side became stronger and stronger, until it had reached a level where I loved to exploit my skills professionally. However, The Netherlands lack a strong entertainment industry where my skills are needed, while at the same time my skills seemed to be stuck at the level of an enthusiastic amateur. However, going back to school in your forties with no income to keep you going is no triviality, and my lack of enthusiasm about the state of the art at Dutch art academies only made it worse. The frustration grew.

It was not until Spring 2007 that I took what I thought of as a bold step. I asked my teacher Adelbert Foppe for advice: "If I want to be a professional illustrator in four years, what should I do now?" He gave it some thought and, finally, told me to drop this silly idea. Year after year, one hundred or so illustrators graduate from the Dutch art academies, and the vast majority of them fails to get themselves employed. It took me a day or so for my disappointment to wash away, and I had made up my mind: "I will be artist, and I don't care how or what others think about it." Till the present day, I owe thanks to Adelbert for his wise advise.

And yet it took one more year for me to shape my future. It was Maxine Schacker who posed the not-so-rhetorical question of "Why don't you come to Max the Mutt?" and although Maxine had not addressed me personally, it kept me busy for a day or so. As soon as I had concluded I could not answer it, I had made up my mind.

I was going back to school and this school would be somewhere in North America, with its huge entertainment industry, and matching education. While I figured out the details, I would start as a freelance software developer, to have the flexibility to combine making money and working on my artistic future. Operation 'Switch' had started.

Monday, November 10, 2008

My poppy

War is an exciting episode from a history book or a horror story from a newspaper. That is, I am happy to not know about war from first-hand experience. Yes, I am happy.

The Netherlands were hit hard in World War II, but the generation that suffered is slowly passing away. I am happy to know the experiences of my parents, and although my generation feels the responsibility to pass it on to the next generation, experiences will slowly degrade into stories.

The Netherlands were happy to remain neutral in World War I, and the generation that suffered is already gone. My father, born in 1916 close to the Flanders border, had no personal memories to this period, but his mother had told him about the siege and subsequent fall of Antwerp and about the refugees that found shelter in their home. He lived to write these second-hand memories down in 'Kind Achter De Hont', a book about his happy childhood in Zeeuws Vlaanderen, and as such the story is available for future generations.

I must admit I was struck by the poppies that have flowered in the streets of Toronto since November 1. Old and young  are wearing a bright red poppy on their lapel, as a preparation for Remembrance Day, as to explicitly commemorate the sacrifices of war since World War I. None of these has experienced the horrors of the trenches. Most of these have no second-hand memories. And yet, they are happy to wear the poppy.

It does not happen too often, but last week I was happy to join the masses.  We were neutral, but we did not look the other way.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Harry Potter In Toronto

I felt like Harry Potter visiting Diagon Alley when I made my way downtown to a local art store. The school's shopping list showed things like 'sharpies' and 'elephant ear', and while they had brushes instead of brooms, and sketchbooks as spellbooks, the mood was set.

It took my a while to notice the street I was walking was Dufferin, as opposed to Hufflepuff, and the only store that had stuck in my mind was Dervish & Banges, so I decided to pay the school a visit to ask for the name and address of the art store. So, after some more walking I finally found Hogwarts.

"You cannot go there by foot! The First Year Starter Kit weighs more than 100 pounds!" I still believed it could not be that bad, so I walked down the street to Curry's, that's the Art Store, and asked for the 'Max the Mutt First Year Starter Kit'. To summarize, I had them call a cab for me to bring the two heavy boxes, and some smaller stuff, home.

More than two months later, I still feel a bit like Harry Potter at Hogwarts. Some of the stuff taught here is downright magic, I spotted a Professor McGonnagall and we even have a little Malfoy...

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Operation 'Switch'

I don't think anyone had noticed it. The cabin crew of AC849, my fellow passengers, the lady at Immigration at  Pearson International Airport and the taxi driver: they had not had a chance. After I had entered my apartment around 3:00 AM I took a few minutes to look in the mirror. I smiled and knew: "Operation 'Switch' had completed"...