Ma, a Japanese aesthetic principle, in my three bird drawings

I’d like to show three paintings in which I have incorporated Ma, a Japanese aesthetic principle. Ma is described as ‘an interval in time and/or space’, thus referring to empty spaces, vagueness or abstraction. Empty spaces, in which nothing seems to happen, are full of possibilities. How do my three birds deal with Ma in their portraits?

Ekster by Paula Kuitenbrouwer

For my portrait of Magpie, Korea’s national bird, I added orange colour to compensate for a magpie’s black and white plumage. To stay close to her Korean habitat, I decided to position Magpie on a colourful and fruit-bearing persimmon branch, heavily laden with pumpkin-shaped kaki. Magpie is content with her portrait, and so am I.

Crow Kraai by Paula Kuitenbrouwer

Setting up a composition for a portrait of Carrion Crow was a little harder. Negotiations with this proud and cheeky bird were tough. I talked him into sitting on a mountain ash branch, but initially he didn’t agree with my decision of pushing him a little to the rear.

‘You are an indigo blue-ivory black bird’, I explained by pointing out that humans don’t like black things. I explained that I could trick humans in loving his plumage by adding the rich palette of colours of an autumn Mountain Ash.

‘This branch has fresh green, bright orange and deep red, and will charm viewers in loving your monotonous black feathers. And if I use a diagonal composition, I can guide the viewer along the branch, climbing up from deep red, through the bright orange to sap green. After such a colourful journey, people don’t mind a bit of solid black. But to do that, I told Carrion Crow, I have to push you a little to one side, but that is okay. Reluctantly, Carrion Crow agreed.

Sparrowhawk by Paula Kuitenbrouwer

My Sparrowhawk demanded to sit high and mighty on the top branch of a proud pine tree. The world of humans doesn’t interest him. He soars above it, looking down on our wars over oil, mass migration and our overheated, overpopulated world.

Sparrowhawk knows he has this intricately textured and awesome coat of feathers, which makes fashion designers drool. Not much is needed next to such an eye-catching bird; two almost evenly-coloured pine cones complete the portrait. Sparrowhawk sat down just long enough for me to make a portrait, and, without so much as a ‘thank-you’, flew off to his own world, soaring high above ours.

Back to Ma.. In all three bird portraits you’ll notice considerable emptiness. My birds seem to look into this emptiness. What do they see? A suitable partner? Prey? Are they guarding their hidden nests? Are they exploring new horizons?

Ma is for you to fill in with your imagination, with your story-telling, your ornithological knowledge or poetry. But Ma can also be left open. We don’t need to fill in empty spaces with projections, trauma, words or sounds. Ma offers a thinking pause or escape from our train of thoughts.

Magpie, Carrion Crow and Sparrowhawk understand Ma naturally. We are enchanted when we see a bird resting on a tree branch and we long to be like them: resting in Ma, accepting the here and now.




Studying Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino) I

Drawing Raphael

Studying ‘Head of an Apostle’ by Raphael, Paula Kuitenbrouwer 2012

I greatly admire this drawing by Raphael. There are many things that have occurred to me when I was copying, free hand, Raphael’s apostle.

I will share two observations. First all the features of this head have dark and light parts. The hair has dark and light areas. The nose is half hidden in the dark, and the same contrast you find in the moustache, the chin (beard), the whole face, the neck, and the ear. This creates beautiful depth and tension: how will the apostle look when we see his face in full light? Had Raphael religious motifs to plan this contrast, as if to say, the apostle is halfway the light, being close to Jesus, but still half in the dark? Or did Raphael just like this baroque effect, which is almost always artistically enchanting?

The other observation is the position of the artist. Raphael seems to look down on the apostle, from a point of height about half a metre above him. This is most unusual. Was Raphael standing on a platform to look down on the model of the apostle? Or on a ladder? What did he mean with this? Again, like the dark-light, that the apostle was enlighten by Jesus but still bound to earth? This could well be because ‘The Head of an Apostle’ is a pre-study of one of the figures for Raphael’s Transfiguration. Notice the apostle right in the middle under Jesus, (left to the man in light green, pointing to the right).

Transfiguration Raphael

Transfiguration, Raphael

Freehand drawing is always an adventure. The artist (me, in this case) allows his or her subconsciousness, genes, or influence or inspiration (or whatever you may call it) to flow into the created copy. Because there is no digital way of blocking this out in the process of free hand drawing, it is always interesting to study the difference between the object of study (Raphael) and, in this case, my copy.

One could say that the Italian apostle of Raphael is looking short and strong, whereas my apostle is skinnier and taller. Dutch genes at work? I bet.

What both drawings, luckily, have in common is that both apostles seem to suffer. Most likely that is the essence Raphael was after. Had my apostle looked happy, I would have missed out the most important aspect of Raphael’s drawing.

Paula Kuitenbrouwer