brain activity

Painting the landscape as it passed by at 65 mph reminded me that I could use more practice painting strictly from memory.

9 am looking East from the side yard.

After glancing at this view (not studying it carefully) I turned my back and attempted to paint an impression of what I remembered.  For me, this uses an entirely different section of my brain.  It is not an eye / hand coordination process nor is it a process in which the painting develops in its own direction with each mark.  It feels disjointed and awkward. Of course ….. that means I need to do it more often until it feels comfortable, until I feel the creative juices flowing during the process.

For this painting I lay down colors in watercolor.  The shapes and colors appeared lifeless.  When a painting is lifeless, I resort to splatters to bring energy onto the paper.  When that fails, I resort to my fountain pen to redefine something …. anything.  When that fails, I take what I’ve learned and move on, knowing I’m one step closer to a more exciting and more successful painting from memory.


Mike had perfect 20 / 20  vision.  However, his eyes didn’t work together as a team.  First Grade was hell, to put it mildly.

Family Treasures No. 27, Colored Glasses

After watching a late night news broadcast featuring the experiments of Dr. Irlen in England, we purchased sunglasses with yellow, red, purple or green lenses. Wearing the glasses, Mike was able to see the letters lined up in the proper order and track from the end of one line to the beginning of the next … for twenty minutes at a time.  It takes only twenty minutes for the brain to reprogram itself.  this is called the Hawthorne Effect. By taking the glasses off and putting them on every twenty minutes he was able to do his schoolwork and to devour the books that he had been unable to read.  The yellow lenses worked best.  Our next bit of fortune was finding a remarkable woman who had developed a system of reprogramming the brain.  Though challenging, it was successful.  The colored glasses found their way to the bottom of his drawer.  They had turned his life around and given him hope that his dream of being an astronaut might still come true.  He now works for Moon Express, with the goal of winning the Google Lunar X Prize.

Drawing: drawn first with fountain pen filled with Noodler’s Rome Burning Ink, followed by watercolor.  I decided not to paint the black ear pieces.  I didn’t want to distract from the colored lenses.

Experiencing a delayed response, or a ghost image in my brain, has happened before, but never poured out onto the paper as clearly as it did last Monday night at The Grisly Pear Blues Jam.

David Bennett Cohen on Keyboard

I had just finished a sketch of Big Ed Sullivan that had not captured his features at all.  I moved on…. there is never time to fuss during a jam.  I grabbed another piece of paper and  sketched David Bennett Cohen sitting beside me playing keyboard.    My brain must have still been holding the image of Ed’s profile because the result was a cross between the two musicians, a bit odd.  If Big Ed wore David’s glasses and sat down at the keyboard, he might look like the painting shown here.

Watercolor / Ink sketch: drawn first with dip pen using Noodler’s Black Swan in English Rose Ink, followed by watercolor.

I imagine that people with photographic memories have mental scrapbooks that are constantly recording entries and that in a short time the individual has an enormous library of shelved, yet accessible volumes.  I, on the other hand, have only one mental scrapbook.

Codington Woods, New Jersey

Somewhere inside my head I have both a black chalkboard and a scrapbook.  I use the chalkboard when asked to spell a word.  I write it out, then read the letters aloud.  Poof…. the word is erased.  I use the chalkboard to write lists that also are immediately erased after re-reading.  I use it to work out perspective, three dimensional images and compositions.  The chalkboard is something I use with intention.  The scrapbook, however, is out of my control.  The entries are made rarely and without my guidance.

The scrapbook began when I was young, perhaps around the age of five.  The first few entries were houses with towers or fascinating roof shapes.  The images from the scrapbook flash into my mind at odd times over the years, perhaps triggered by a smell, a sound, a feeling in the air.  A few of the other entries are:

Rusty pipes against an old brick wall, lit strongly by sunlight.

A dead tree against a strong blue sky on the trail to the base of the Grand and Middle Tetons.

Small yellow butterflies surrounding a large tree in Yosemite.

A thin, elderly man in pajamas and robe smoking a cigarette at the Veterans Hospital.

The pine forest at Watchung Reservation in 1969.

There are less than a hundred entries in this selective, mental scrapbook.  The latest entry is the berries and tree limbs against the blue sky at Codington Woods last Thursday.

Though I rarely work from photographs, I chose to get this image onto paper in more detail than I could by simply viewing my mental scrapbook.  I’m thinking it might be of interest for me to attempt expressing some of the other entries.  The idea of getting those images on paper is a bit frightening to me.  They have been with me for so long and I worry that I won’t do them justice.  I don’t have photographs to use for reference as I did for the trees at Codington Woods.

I’m curious …… Are mental scrapbooks and chalkboards common?  I assumed everyone has them.

Drawing: Drawn first with Waterman Phileas fountain pen filled with black ink, followed by watercolor.

Sitting beside my father, drawing and painting at the Giving Garden after spreading manure …

Watering Can

I’m grateful to have learned about the Peerless Watercolor Papers and the Water Brush.  My father loves adding color to his contour drawings and the Papers and Brush make it easy for him to do so.  Teaching him to draw and paint is a new and rewarding challenge.  Because of his Alzheimers / Dementia, his ability to express himself with words has become more difficult.  Drawing appears to have opened a new door to creative expression.

After working in the community garden on Thursday, we sat together and drew one of the watering cans.  Hmmmmm.  I think I forgot to put it away.

Sketch:  Drawn first with fountain pen filled with black ink.  Followed by watercolor.

“What’s the purpose?” my father asks.

An aloe plant gone wild

My father suffers from Alzheimer’s, a man who read constantly and wrote poetry every day while on the train to New York City, walking through the woods or sipping coffee in his easy chair.  A carefully folded piece of paper and a mechanical pencil were in his shirt pocket ready for the words that needed to escape from his brain, expressing his experience of the world and the beauty surrounding him.  Now his shirt pocket is empty unless I remind him that he may want a pencil handy during our day together.

Up until a month ago Dad was still able to find a few words to write on the carefully folded paper I tucked into my sketchbook for him.  I sketched while he struggled with words.

On a Walk In The Woods

Chris looks to her Dad for poems

Pencil and paper are even on hand

Imaginative phrases would really be grand

The breezes are silent

The shadow from waving leaves do beckon

But the words being sought are oblivious

Nowhere at all to be found.

But wait, did I hear a couple just now?

I had better write them down.

They just might work, somehow.

His poems expressed the difficulty he was having, searching for a part of himself that felt distantly familiar yet unreachable.  As I drove home after our Thursday together I consoled myself with the fact that he was still able to write a few words, he was able to speak, to walk and to know who I am.

The blank page

In mid October, after thirty minutes of searching, Dad’s paper remained blank.  I decided to try something new.

“What’s the purpose, Chris?” he asked as we ate our Bronx Bombers and Chili, pencils in hand, sketchbooks open.

“Why am I doing this?”

“To brush the cobwebs from your brain, Dad.”

“But what’s the goal?”

“To coordinate your eyes and your hand.”

“Why would I want to do that?”

“Maybe it will wake up parts of your brain that are starting to fall asleep.”

“What’s the purpose?”

“To have fun, Dad.”


He smiled, rearranged his lunch, looked me square in the eye and said “I wouldn’t want to try and do anything simple…”

Writing a short poem or just a couple of words on a piece of paper had become too difficult and too frustrating for both of us.  I decided to try tricking his brain by teaching him how to draw.  I thought that if he focused all of his attention on following the light and dark shapes on an object, it might force another part of his brain to kick in.  I learned how successful this technique can be when my son and I did exercises morning and night to reprogram his brain so that the words on the page would align themselves properly and he would be able to read.  Mike is now a rocket scientist.

I am not expecting Dad’s brain to stop shrinking.  He is eighty-eight years old and has lived a life that should have protected him from suffering the horrors of dementia.  He walked five to seven miles a day, danced three to four nights a week,  read constantly, ate relatively healthy food and was an active member of his community.  His body is strong and healthy.  Perhaps it is for myself that I want him to continue communicating with me and with his loved ones.  He appears to be content to sleep all day.  He forgets that he forgets.

“What’s the purpose?”

I forgot the point I originally wanted to make when I started this post which was to say that in searching for answers to Dad’s question, I realized that I had lost track of why I draw daily contour drawings of one sort or another.  I told Dad that by not looking at your paper, you draw what you see rather than what you think you see.

Last night my eyes were tired when I finally got around to my contour drawing.  My subject was the monster aloe plant that lurks beside me now that it’s too cold for it to live on the front porch.  I lost concentration almost immediately and began to draw what I thought I saw rather than what I was really looking at.

“Do you draw like this, too?”

“Every day, Dad.”

“Why?  You already know how to draw.”

“It’s more about learning how to see, Dad.  There is always a new way to see things.”

The memory of the little magnifying glass that my father carried in his pants pocket came to mind.  Each morning before he left for work he would take a walk around the yard exploring leaves, stones and bugs with his tiny magnifying glass.

“There is always something new to explore, Dad.”

Drawings: Drawn first with fountain pen filled with heart of darkness ink, followed by watercolor washes.

After so many years of fine tuning my eye-hand coordination, I still find myself drawing what I think I see, not what is in front of me.

Dragon ink drawing

Perhaps, because it was 4:45 am and the caffeine hadn’t yet kicked in.  Perhaps the lighting was poor and, propped up in bed with a pile of pillows, I was too far from Dragon to see clearly.  Whatever excuse I might have, the truth is that I hadn’t a clue as to which contour to follow to depict the forms of my dragon statue. The more I looked, pretending my fountain pen was actually gliding along the surface of the wing, the face, the neck or the leg, I became confused.  Convex became concave and concave became convex as I became more frustrated.

As I poured my second cup of coffee and made my bed I thought about the chasm between youth and adult thinking.  As a child, I assumed I knew nothing and was open to everything without preconceived notions.  As an adult, I have decades of experience and understanding to rely on.  I assume I know what the world and the objects in the world look like, when in fact, I would benefit by viewing the world as if everything before me is totally new and alien.  I would then draw what I see, not what I think I see.

Dragon drawing:  blocked in first with pencil, then drawn in ink using Preppy Fountain Pen filled with Noodler’s Whaleman Sepia ink.

Next Page »