Category Archives: Art

Lucas Cranach the Elder and Speed Painting

This blog is getting rather dusty lately, but I have a good excuse, really I do. I’ve been focused on finishing the rough draft of what will be my first novel. I have two other novels in the drawer. Whether they ever see the light of day is far from certain, but if they do, they won’t be the first out of the gate. That spot is reserved for this puppy.

Speed. I’ve been thinking a lot about it and my own scribbles. It seems that the faster I write, the better I write. Short bursts of creative output are key. I’ve also heard this idea debated with the explosion of ebooks. Writers are about to enter a new golden age of pulp. One where fast writers will be far more likely to make a living than slow writers. The pulp writers of the 30s and 40s produced a lot of less than savory tomes, but they also produced the occasional masterpiece. That’s true for all art. A whole lot of fluff, and the occasional gem.

Then I came across the essay “‘… that you paint with wonderful speed’ Virtuosity and Efficiency of the Artistic Practice of Lucas Cranach the Elder” by Gunnar Heydenreich this weekend. It details a myriad of ways in which the Renaissance master, sped up his process. Things like laying down the total composition in a carefully thought out manner to reduce the drying time needed between sessions. Or tracing outlines of figures that would appear across multiple works. Movement and fluidity were the priority:

It was not only the more expensive pigments but also the more refined and lavish painting techniques that were reserved for commissions of greater importance.

Cranach would often take shortcuts, such as painting fur with a double-tipped brush. This technique was apparently never adopted by Albrecht Durer, his less prolific contemporary. Durer did what Renaissance masters are supposed to have done. He painstakingly reproduced each tuft of fur with a single-tipped brush. I’ve always admired how flat, and almost cartoonlike a lot of Cranach’s paintings are, with solid blue or green monochrome backgrounds. I never thought until this essay that this played a role in how the artist was able to make a living from his art. More paintings produced in less time.

Cranach also dabbled in early publishing. He went so far as to purchase a beechwood forest to increase the profits of his business. His books were bound with beechwood covers, and his paintings were often produced on beechwood of the same size as standard book dimensions of the time. Efficiency of scale. The printing press must have gone a long way to introduce this concept of speed to the early Renaissance. We often hear that we live in fast times now, but the rate at which things acclerate today is nothing compared to how much faster the early part of the 16th century must have felt like compared to all that came before it.


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Limited-Edition Bloody Cricket Book for $75,000

It’s often said that a writer’s job is to bleed on the page, but so-called luxury publisher Kraken Opus seems to have taken that mantra a bit too seriously. As reported in The Wall Street Journal last week, a pint of blood from Indian cricket star Sachin Tendulkar was mixed with paper pulp to produce the signature page for a book about his cricket prowess. The book was limited to an edition of only ten copies, which are offered at the staggering price of $75,000 a pop. Apparently all ten copies are spoken for, so it’s too late for the rest of us.

The article details a number of other luxury collector’s editions that have recently been released:

Earlier this year, Taschen Books sold pieces of the moon with 12 copies of its massive photography book on the lunar landing (one of the lunar-rock editions sold for $112,500). Taschen previously published a $7,500, 800-page book on Muhammad Ali, GOAT (for “greatest of all time”), that comes with four signed photographs of the boxer and a sculpture by Jeff Koons.

“No one says, ‘I want to download the e-edition of this book,’ ” says book analyst Michael Norris of research firm Simba Information. “If it’s a physical object that’s beautifully done, people see the value.”

Is this the traditional publishers answer to the coming e-tsunami? They could offer books bound directly by the author. Or those that feature a few handwritten pages, each slightly unique. Or for writers who also have at least a snippet of artistic talent, the doodle could replace a signature on the title page. All of it, of course, would be available as an extremely limited–and pricey–collector’s edition.

Publishers like Subterranean Press have long been producing higher quality, collector’s editions for well-known science fiction and fantasy authors. But their prices cap out at around $500 and often don’t get much above $50. Are they being too modest? Could they charge a small fortune by producing truly customized editions? Of course, limited-edition, pricey titles will only work for well-established authors. Most of the luxury books mentioned in the article feature celebrities, not writers at all. The rest of us are challenged to even give our words away, gratis.

I’ve often thought that as competition for ebooks heats up, paper books are going to compete by getting nicer. This type of personal touch is a possibility, and could well create a small safe haven for publishers, not the meat-and-potatoes type of safe haven, but maybe a little icing on the cake. I just hope that the blood in wood pulp thing doesn’t catch on as a full-fledged trend.

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Henry VIII and His eBook Psalter

Henry VIIIWe’ve all heard the argument that ebooks are nothing like the real thing. They don’t have the same weight to them. They don’t smell like books. Turning virtual pages isn’t nearly as enjoyable as the paper variety. You can’t take them in the bathtub. All true. But let us not forget that the paper variety of books are fairly new-fangled in their own right. Back in ye goode olde days, books were handwritten on vellum, featuring lavish flourishes around capital letters, if not whole illustrated pages.

The British Library has crossed the paths of some of these treasures with the ebook, though they don’t ask that you buy an ereader. My personal favorite from their virtual collection is a psalter that once belonged to Henry VIII. I’m rather fond of page f.48. What’s not to love about a battle scene in a prayer book? The book is in amazing condition, pretty lightly used, though one wonders what sort of quiet, reflective time it spent with the notorious monarch.

Also check out a 17th century illustrated Ramayana, which flips up from the bottom rather than over from the right.  Or see how Mozart scribbled notes in his diary, the illustrated version of Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, and History of England, an early work by Jane Austen which happens to have a drawing of Henry VIII on page 12.

It’s all around a fascinating site, though the navigation at the top of the main page is a tad annoying. It never seems to want to stop, and only recognizes clicks on the tiny arrow (not the whole “More” link). Also, their Turning the Pages 2.0 app is one of the few things I’ve encountered that seems to run better in Explorer than Firefox.


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Alexander Calder’s Circus, Play Art

While Michelangelo drew me into the Seattle Art Museum last month, their Alexander Calder exhibit (runs through April 11) may well have rivaled the master’s scribbles. The thick black circles on the floor around the bigger mobiles, that you weren’t supposed to step past, were a tad odd, but overall what’s not to like about art that you’re encouraged to blow on? Art that moves. In the back though, there was one of the more entertaining bits. They had a film playing Cirque Calder, which drew a few of the polite chortles that they allow in museums.

Since then I found the videos on YouTube. I love watching this grown man, and not a young man at that, playing with these elaborate dolls that he built himself. He gets really into it, in poor French no less. Calder explains his thoughts around the circus near the start at 1:12, but my favorite part of this clip is the Western stuff at 2:42. And who is that woman at 3:44? Probably his wife wondering what she got herself into.

It’s interesting that Calder worked on and amused himself with toys before he started on the mobiles that have since become synonymous with his name. Isn’t this what art is really about? That thing you do when everything else gets out of the way. Play. I used to have a post-it note stuck to my desk that read: YOU ARE PLAYING! Eventually it felt a bit too stern, so I took it down. Did I really need to shout about it?

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