STANDING THE OBELISK

Nicholas in the Arena.Detail ©2011 by Trici Venola

I’m drawing bas-relief marble chariots so old they look melted. I’ve been walking past this obelisk for years and never drawn it. The faces seemed too rounded by time and weather to be interesting. What a fool I was! I didn’t look hard enough. My only excuse is that there is so much else.

The Rain Trough ©2011 by Trici Venola

Here’s my first take, last summer, on the Egyptian Obelisk Pedestal, which I did as a break from drawing The Big Arch. We’re up on the top of the hill in  Sultanahmet, in the center of the Hippodrome. That’s the 10th-Century Column of Constantine in the background. Very different from working down at the Boukoleon; there I saw mostly Turkish people and a few tourists, here I was listening to tour guides address cruise crowds all day. Made a big mistake in the first drawing listening to one blather on utter nonsense about Empress Theodora, who I think of with affection and awe. She was hell on wheels as a performer here in the Hippodrome, and powerfully pious in her afterlife as the Empress who with her consort Justinian built the great monuments we now call High Byzantine.

The carving on the Pedestal of the Egyptian Obelisk is from 390, which means that Theodora herself saw it when the faces were still clear, in 510 or so when she was performing in the Hippodrome. She had an act which became the stuff of legend. She cavorted nearly nude, allowing trained geese to peck corn from various parts of her anatomy. This drove the crowds wild, probably from trying to see, as this Hippodrome is just about the biggest ancient arena in the world, second only to Rome’s Circus Maximus which was built by the same Emperor, Septimus Severus. It probably held 100,000 people.

Egyptian Obelisk

The Egyptian Obelisk was brought to Istanbul from the temple at Luxor by the Byzantine Emperor Constantius in 357. It was raised by Emperor Theodosius in 390, and he made sure we knew it. He had this marble pedestal created, covered with portraits carved in bas-relief. A mystery for me is how these faces survived the Iconoclasts, who spent from around 711 to 843 destroying all pictures in Christian art. So how did the faces withstand this? They couldn’t have been buried or covered, they’re too worn for that. Notice the rain trough in the top illustration, where the water has forced its way through the pipe cut in the marble. That’s 1600 years of wear right there.  Maybe they survived because the carving was commemorative and not religious.  Anyone out there who knows, please tell me, it’s driving me crazy.

Egyptian Obelisk Base, West Face, Hippodrome

Theodosius  and his ministers and family appear on all four sides of the Pedestal. Below them are chariots and dancers, and at the bottom of one side is an instructional illustration of how they stood up the 65-foot, multi-ton, red granite Obelisk, in case you should ever want to try it yourself.

Standing the Obelisk ©2011 by Trici Venola

They attached ropes and winched it up, and the figures are so adorable that I’m putting them here in close-up.

The couple to the left of this first vignette look for all the world to me like a bear fondling a woman, but I am told it’s a man in a hat and they are pulling ropes. A likely story. Think I’m kidding? Look at this photo of the same figures!

Here they are with the winches.  I wonder if the figure to the right is beating time, like in that galley-slave scene from Ben-Hur.

It’s fascinating, how time has worn these figures down to the essentials. A real lesson in anatomical art: everything will be nearly shapeless, but you can still see the set of a haunch, a rounded calf muscle, the swell of a straining back, and that one detail throws the whole thing into focus.

The Egyptian carving up on the granite Obelisk is still crisp, but Theodosius and his ministers were made of softer stuff. They show  as so many globes. Nobody’s got a nose, and lower faces are rounded and pitted into blurs. But the more I look the more I see, and it’s possible to make out lips, hollowed cheeks, curly hair, and on one particularly magisterial figure, Christopher Walken eyes. My mistake with the first take was in outlining too harshly and in trying to ask ink to do what paint does. In other words, I strained the medium. But now I thought I should try many little lines instead of one thick one, so I had to go out there and do it again, on a portrait I did for the Constantinou family of their son Nicholas. I spent forty-five minutes drawing him, with a drafting pen, on a big 35 X 70 sheet of paper. While we worked, I asked him what he was into, for the background. “Sports.” What could I do? Draw Fenerbache and Galatasary? But then I remembered Istanbul’s fine Byzantine heritage of sports riots: the Blues and the Greens. They were chariot teams. Blues were aristocrats, Greens raced for the plebs. In 532 the Blues and the Greens fought so savagely that they destroyed the city. They burned the Palace, the one where the Blue Mosque is now. They burned the old basilica of Hagia Sophia. They rioted for days and planned to burn the Emperor Justinian as well. He had one foot on the boat. He told Theodora to hurry up, or some such. After she’d lost the geese, gotten religion and become Empress, she wore purple robes. She was wearing them then. “Purple makes a fine shroud,” she said, “I will die here with dignity.”

The famous mosaic of Theodora in Ravenna

Justinian was so moved that he quelled the riot, executing, um, 20,000 people on this very Hippodrome, out on the end where the high school is now. And in 532, he and Theodora started building that great lady of High Byzantine art, the present Hagia Sophia. So for Nick Constantinou’s portrait, I chose the Obelisk Pedestal in the Hippodrome of Constantinople, with chariots and dancers, as a background for this fine young face. But I wanted to show the other Obelisk as well, to establish that this was indeed the Hippodrome. The Pedestal side I wanted has  Standing the Obelisk on it, so at the bottom I switched it for the other, which shows the Chariot Parade with its dancing girls. I spent about a week drawing the background, in the searing summer center of Istanbul’s Hippodrome Ramadan Festival:

Nicholas in the Arena ©2011 by Trici Venola

This got me fascinated with the Chariot Parade, so now I’m drawing again from scratch, just for me and my sketchbook. Here’s the first take, from last week, but as you can see I got distracted by a little girl who has just moved to Arizona.

Leyla and the Chariots ©2011 by Trici Venola

Here’s the second take.

Chariot Parade WIP 1 ©2011 by Trici Venola

The weather is freezing now. I’m working bundled up in layers of wool and leather, but I’m still cold to the bone. I can hold out for about two hours max. Drawing these little guys is tricky. They’re so small, and the changing light of the day can reveal details you didn’t see before, so it’s wise to hold out awhile if a figure doesn’t read. Here’s the next session:

Chariot Parade WIP 2 © by Trici Venola

Yesterday I got out there at around 3 PM. A glove on the non-working hand, bare frozen fingers on the right, crouched on my little borrowed stool swathed in a heavy jacket and a huge cashmere scarf, drawing. The air was pink and blue, and everything sharp as if seen under water. I was meeting a protege there at 4:30. I could hardly stand the cold, but I drew all these figures anyway. I’d be just about to call her to say we’d meet elsewhere, and then the drawing would get good and I’d forget myself.

Chariot Parade WIP 3 © 2011 by Trici Venola

Can you see the giraffe? It’s up on top, towards the left. Yes, the bottom of a giraffe: it couldn’t be anything else. 

So exotic beasts, chariots, dancing girls, acrobats and strong men, jugglers and clowns, all doing tricks for the Empress, who had done them herself.  Procopius tells us that, in her days as a performer, she publicly bemoaned the fact that God had so made her that she could only have intercourse with three men at a time, rather than five like she wanted. At nineteen she became devoutly religious and attracted Justinian, who moved heaven and earth and his uncle to change the law so he could marry her. When she became Empress. Theodora abolished forced prostitution and child prostitution and instituted a death penalty for rape. She quelled that sports riot, which has gone down in history as the Nika Rebellion. She invented the tiara and pointed shoes. She laughed at pompous courtiers. She spoke her mind. She was loathed by contemporary historians, branded a harlot opportunist. Yet not one of them, nor any in all the long years after them, has found a shred of evidence that she ever cheated on Justinian. This has led to wild speculation about their private life.

Justin & Theo At Home CGI ivory ©2008 by Trici Venola for Time-Out Istanbul

Oh, these historians, they will never understand. There’s no mystery. What could be more natural? A girl has a few wild years, gets religion, marries a nice guy and settles down.

Justin & Theo At Home CGI mosaic ©2008 by Trici Venola for Time-Out Istanbul

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THE BIG ARCH

Summer just past: The heat simmered up from the bricks like a radiator you didn’t know was on. The first thing I realized was that I’d have to work looking directly into the sun.

 These days I’m down at the Boukoleon in the horrible ant-infested boiling sunlight, I wrote, drawing the arch from the only accessible side, the one where the only time it’s lit from the front is early in the morning. The rest of the time the light is behind it. So I’m staring into bright sunlight trying to get the gist of the shape, the whole mind-boggling panoply of brickwork, ribs and chunks and shards of brick all fanning out in radiant lines around the arch, and up top, turrets of masonry desiccated into shapes resembling griffins and tombstones, all dark against the white blare of the sky.

I remember the helpless feeling of that first day, thinking I’d taken on more than I could handle. But I’d been on the phone with Donna Perkins in Canada, who I’d taken around the Boukoleon back in 2008. She calls occasionally to hear about our parallel universe here in Sultanahmet. I was sharing the glad news that Michael Constantinou had commissioned a big drawing of Hagia Sophia. Donna said, “You mean I could pay you to draw something?”

!!!

Then she said, “So, what would you draw?” I immediately said, “The big arch at the Boukoleon. It’s about to collapse.” But when I got down there and really looked at it, it was one of those times when your soul is dragging the rest of you along by the ear, saying “You know this is what you want.”

The structure of a brick arch requires that the sides of the bricks fan out above the arch. But the Byzantines, never missing a religious beat,  reinforced that imagery with double and triple window arches, left bare to symbolize the Light of the Lord from within. And those double narrow marble columns? Those are Peter and Paul, holding up the church. Are you ready for that? Of course, the Boukoleon is a palace, not a church, and the brick arches show up as radiance by default, having been stripped of their former magnificence by Crusaders, Ottomans, weather and the Republic. I’d sure love to know how that place was finished off. We’ve discussed in earlier blogs how the only CGI recreation shows grey marble because there’s no record of what the finish was. The heap of broken stuff under the arch has marble every color of the rainbow, and I’ll bet that a lot of that was on the outside walls. There were huge lions on the sea balconies. There were probably other statues as well, although the Emperor Theophilos, who built the Boukoleon in the mid-9th century, appears to have been an Iconoclast: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F8pbLPVZWko

After two days in the heat I didn’t like the first piece enough to continue. So I started again. And again. Four or five times. The top of the arch has a toothed ridge of masonry. The one closest the center of the arch looks like a standing lion. I could not get this right. Nobody would ever know but me, since the piles of stone are crumbling so fast you can see it happen. It is possible to preserve a ruin without destroying its surface integrity, but what will happen to this one is anyone’s guess. Around here they’re repairing 10th-century stonework with brand new stone blocks. So God help the Boukoleon, and I’m drawing as fast as I can.

This and all small photos taken by Carmen, and thank you.

This lion has to be correct because one day it may be all that exists of this relic of the high ambition of Theophilos, the keening horror of the Fourth Crusade, the famous pophyry birth chamber, the murder of ascetic despot Nikophorus Phokas, the sorrow of Mehmet the Conqueror when he beheld the burned grandeur over the sea, the many generations who made homes there anyway, the madness of the Sultan who ran the Orient Express through it, which put an end to this vista, drawn in 1853 by Orientalist Eugene Flandin. Do you recognize the Portals? See the big square stones below them where Hulusi wrote his name, right at ground level today. Old people in the neighborhood remember diving into the water from the top of the ruined Palace.

Boukoleon 1853, engraving by Eugene Flandin.

That’s the Blue Mosque behind, but it’s nowhere near as close as this slightly-fanciful rendering shows.  Here’s a picture of the Palace Portals in 1950, warts and all. Notice how the harbor was silting up. See our big square stones now, just to the left of that little shack bottom center.

Two actual Boukoleon Lions survive, a half-mile away in the Archeological Museum. They sat roaring on the balconies toward the sea, and a tall man standing next to them could reach their manes. Their noses and jaws were lost to time but still they roar in the dimness of the museum.

This present lion is more appropriate. Chipped from the bones of the Palace, it has appeared bit by bit over the years as the wall rots from exposure. It’s one of a row of crenellations, those square chunks interspersed with slots for archers, along the tops of old walls. But these crenellations were created by circumstance. As we can see in all these illustrations, the wall was once much taller. Here’s our old friend Tayfun Oner’s CGI of the Palace, showing the big arch and the arrow slots above it, below the topmost windows. Those arrow slots are the spaces around our Crenellation Lion.

Boukoleon Palace CGI Reconstruction © byzantium1200.com. Used by permission

Two years ago a bum moved in and strung his laundry across the Lion and the other crenellations. After that the government moved in, stripping all the fig trees and sandblasting some of the interior walls of the ruin, but the trash quickly came back. Despite the fence, which went up in 2010, people have found a way to dump furniture in there.

As I draw, the traffic roars by on the highway with a sound of crashing waves. A water-hawker bellows his wares out there near the cars. I sit in full pounding sunlight under a huge black hat, my feet wrapped against the sun, slimed with sweat, staring at the arch dark against the glare. Ants swarm in the heat all around me. Occasionally one climbs up into my clothes. Passersby stop and watch the work. Most are decent enough, but yesterday two boys stopped and would not leave. They kept saying “Excuse me,” and continuing in Turkish. Eventually they asked for sex. I got to use some Turkish terms I learned from Nizam, and they took off running. At the end of the day, after four false starts of hours each, I had drawn the lion. Now my concern is that it’s too big for the composition I had in mind.

With this project I hadn’t yet come up with the idea of scanning and blogging every day. So just for fun, for our blog here I color-coded part of a scan of the finished drawing, according to the notes in this letter to patron Donna Perkins:

…Spent last few days working on our drawing. It seems I must draw every brick. Since the arch shows dark against a blank white sky, I don’t want to make a lot of sketchy lines where I think the actual edges are. Instead I’ve been working my way to them, starting with the top lion-like crenellation, measuring off that, and working first down and then over. Everyone always asks “How long did this take?” So while I can, here’s a reconstruction of the schedule:

July 5, 2-5 PM: First drawing started, stopped. Met friends at Kalyon Hotel, talked about project.

July 8: 1-5 PM: RED

July 9: Too hot to go out. Worked portrait in evening for Constantinou family.

July 10, 2-5 PM: GREEN

July 11, 3:30-5 PM: TURQUOISE

July 13, 3-6 PM: BLUE

July 14, 2-5 PM: PURPLE

July 15, 1-5 PM: GOLD

So we are at about 17 hours. Pretty much what I expected. This coming Thursday, I’m renewing my Residence Visa for the next five years, thank you very much, since this commission is helping to make it possible! Big deep breaths quite often now, feeling secure. It’s hot as blazes and my left arm now has to be covered as the sun is painful. But everybody is flipping out over the piece. I don’t think I’ll do another one like this…but I’m really glad I’m doing this one.

The final Plein Air drawing, like the others drafting pen on rag paper, measures 35 X 70 cm and took 30 hours. The last day was a day so humid that walking was like swimming. I got down there very late, but at least the shadows had spread. I was finishing up a section that’s blocked by a tree. I did not want to include the tree, so I was standing up filling in the shapes of the stones. Then I sat down on the wall in my usual place and the ants went crazy. Normally they just run across my feet, but for some reason they were just all OVER…ghah…anyway, I got the last of the hardcore information, packed up and walked down the highway to the cafe in the walls. The sea looked like thick mercury in mist. I could not make myself leave until around 9 PM. Thinking about why they built that palace there. The weather was the same, the views of the sea were the ones I love so much now. How I love it over there, and how I loved the opportunity to do this drawing I wanted to do for so long. I could never, EVER have dedicated this much time to one drawing if Donna hadn’t commissioned it. But now there’s this, with every brick and stone.

Big Boukoleon Arch ©2011 by Trici Venola

There’s a point at which you must stop. After I leave the site, I always spend some time making sure that the drawing makes sense without the site in front of it. So I spent a couple of hours at a table out in front of Kybele Hotel in Sultanahmet, putting in some final touches, and everybody walking up and down the street just gasped. It’s those gasps that let me know I’ve got it right.

FROM PILLAR TO POST 3

EMPRESSES & ABSENT FRIENDS

Wednesday 9 November

Having just watched, on YouTube, the Chinese Old Folks’ Choir cover of Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance, I got curious and watched her original video. All I can say is, Who cares about a crumbling old palace? I feel irrelevant, stuck in a hostile place waving goodbye to friends, angry and lost and gone. Well, what the hell else should I do but draw? There doesn’t seem to be anything else that I’m uniquely qualified to do, so I am doing it. By God. Here’s where we left off last time:

I want to be out drawing right now, but there’s a commercial job I promised someone so I’m here in the apartment in Cihangir, trying to work. It’s making me crazy, because Jeannie and Rhonda are still at their hotel today and maybe won’t be tomorrow, since they have very happily sold it. They’re leaving forever very soon, and I do not know if I’ll ever see them again. They’re remarkable women and I’m glad I got the chance to know them and I’m so happy they are off but OH I will miss—

—– Thursday 10 November

At this point I realized: You moron, you’re mooning about your friends being gone and they’re still here. So I called them, said To Hell With Everything, went over to the hotel and hung out all day, and am I glad I did. That was yesterday. The day before that, I drew. And drew. The sky was so blue it almost seemed like the day was warm.

Drawing Session: Tuesday 8 November 2011, 1-5 PM
Here’s a photo that floats around the Internet, taken of the Boukoleon around 1860. It would have to have been from a ship.

This balcony was above the Sea Gate. That’s the round shape at lower right. I’m going to post some fabulous CGI recreations of the Palace, from byzantium1200. Here’s a recreation of this same balcony:

 ©byzantium1200.com. Used by permission.

The lions are the ones in our Archeological Museum. Byzantium 1200 works with facts provided by Byzantine scholars, mostly in Germany, so when there’s no information on texture the building is shown as standard grey marble. It was much more. There’s a lot of this broken grey marble lying around, but equal parts of colored stuff too, and no Byzantine building was left plain, even in the Iconoclastic period. Here’s Mr Oner’s view of the Sea Gate.

 © byzantium1200.com. Used by permission.

It’s the little opening in the middle of the wall, below the balcony and a little to the right. Here’s the Sea Gate in 2008, with the railroad in the background.

The Sea Gate ©2008 by Trici Venola

Those big carved chunks on the grass in the foreground, that’s the long balcony that runs clear across the front of the building, high over the water. The rounded broken opening, taller than a tall man, is the top of the gate, leading to a trash-choked place of butchered fig trees and dumped furniture, up to the wall over the railroad. This in front, while behind you are the cars whooshing along the highway. Back in 2008 when I drew this, I was with my friend Leyla, who makes waiters walk into walls, and the trains gave earsplitting whistles as they roared and rattled around the bend. Back then, I was living in an apartment right behind the Portals, in an airspace that once was Palace. I used to sleep better, knowing that. In this photo of the Portals, through the Right Portal you can see the windows behind the second balcony down on the pink building. That was mine.

All those drawings I’ve posted of the backside of the Portals were done from that little balcony, and a lot of living as well. I stood there in a red sunset over the silver sea one New Year’s Eve, listening to new Robert Plant, crying because the music was as good as the view. Singing hot days of August, the sea like mercury studded with ships clear to the horizon. April when the bushes began to grow again, misted with tiny flowers, October when they rained down red over the arches. In the black night of a December storm I went out there on a nameless impulse, the wind ripping my hair around like a ragged cloak, and suddenly saw myself through my friend Faye’s eyes, clinging on the edge of this ancient city over the ruined palace, over the savage alien seas. Faye, guide to all the wonder of our dawning adulthood, cackling priestess cohort of a thousand magical meanderings, emotional soldier. Later I discovered that was when she slipped into a final coma, I swear I felt her go by. Friends, friends, life is nothing without friends. You friends reading this, how glad I am that we are all still here, still interested.

Here’s the Palace at present. There are the Portals at the left of the photo.  At the upper right, see the pillar sticking out of the wall? That’s the first one of our colonnade.  I’ve indicated with a little white circle where I’m working now.

Here’s the same view “before.” And again, we must thank Byzantium 1200 for this CGI glimpse of the vast scope of the palace rising out of the sea.

© byzantium1200.com. Used by permission.

There are the big square stones where Hulusi painted his name, halfway up the wall. There on the left is Donna’s Big Arch, soon to be blogged about. There’s my little white dot, a rough idea of the present work spot. Sitting there in the snappy breeze I felt quite at home. Here came Hasan the Ghost, lugging a huge bag of cans, giving a friendly wave. From the other direction Ahmet Affable Guy ambled by, “Ah, Madame!” It’s too cold for the Neckers, but one pair wandered by, holding hands and smiling. I’ve never seen their faces, but their hair was familiar. I’ve been sitting down there drawing since June. I’m part of the scenery. Here’s what we got on Tuesday. Sometimes it’s all I’ve got, and increasingly it’s enough.

Boukoleon Pillars 3 WIP ©2011 by Trici Venola

11 11 11, and at 11 11 AM I called Jeannie and Rhonda. They’re dealing with business details, happily counting the days until they can be gone. The numerologists tell us that this day is some kind of convergence of energies. It’s a fine day for a new start. I’ve been so sad about this for what seems like forever but is only about ten days. I love them and I am glad for them. I admire Jeannie’s lack of sentiment. She feels intensely, but she can let go of everything and look to the future. She lives all at once. Rhonda has a gentler aspect but is just as intrepid, in a steel-under-silk kind of way. They are practical, they can do anything. Me, I struggle daily to free myself from my own past. So I immerse myself in a greater past, the thousand-year-ago past, and draw the grizzled, truncated foundations of Western Civilization. It’s all there, all my genesis, imagery as powerful as anything on video and seen by as many people in its day. I can see Lady Gaga parading ephemeral through these halls in her gold brocade shoes and white leather crowns, calling through these windows, over the eternal sea. Past and present converge in my consciousness and give a great comfort. I am present in the world, I draw myself a place in it. There’s the Internet, and there’s Skype, and friendships that bend tend not to break.

FROM PILLAR TO POST 2

Sunday, Kurban Bayram, 6 November 2011 1-4 PM

Diffused. It’s diffused light these days, coming through threads of cloud. Today with its diffused light is Kurban Bayram, when Islam celebrates Abraham’s sacrifice of a sheep instead of his son Isaac. All over Turkey, people are sacrificing sheep, goats and cows. This is supposed to be regulated. You buy the best animal you can afford, pay a licensed butcher to slaughter it, and give the leftover meat to charity. But many of the village people in the Old City simply buy an animal and slaughter it in the street, drain the blood down a manhole or whatever. You can smell the blood in the air, you can sometimes see things you’d rather not. The Boukoleon backs onto a traditional neighborhood. There are pens all around where they keep animals to be killed on this day, baaing and mooing, and abattoirs as well, so I walked up from the highway instead and thought about the light. Cool, grey, diffused light of autumn.
It’s amazing how much light affects everything: mood, shapes, light and dark. This Plein Air drawing may look like it’s about line, but it’s also about light. The same lump of rock can look completely different at 9 AM and 3 PM. One of the interesting aspects of this kind of work is that, as slow as it is, you get a completely different overview than you would in a photograph. I try to work around the same time every day, and if there are strong shadows I often wait until the piece is nearly done and do them all at once. I have to pick a time for that. On this Boukoleon Pillars drawing, the time is 3 PM. That’s when the arches are dark on the underside.

I started out as a portrait artist and acquired the ability to draw architecture. I’ve always been good at caricature. All you do is define and exaggerate the primary features that make a person look like themselves. But I couldn’t draw buildings. So back in 1990, I went around Santa Monica with an ancient Instamatic camera– ancient even then– took photos of buildings, came home to my giant Mac hog workstation, and tried to paint caricatures of the buildings. What made the Miramar Hotel look like itself? I exaggerated the bricks, the shapes of the windows, the colors. I had to pay attention to architectural details I’d heretofore ignored. This was in 1991, and it still works. Fun, too. Here’s the Hagia Sophia drawn as a caricature:

Ayasofya ©2008 by Trici Venola

I started with cartoons and toned the method down, and now I can draw architecture. Here at the Boukoleon all these years later, I’m not doing a caricature, but I am doing a portrait. A portrait of the Boukoleon at this point in its existence, taking into account age, mood, and personality in addition to structure. Here’s what we got yesterday:

and here’s the same drawing, expanded on today:

Boukoleon Pillars 2 WIP ©2011 by Trici Venola

I’m doing no preliminary pencil drawing at all on this one. Here’s how I’m continuing the drawing, using what I’ve already drawn.

Here we go again with Units and The Cross…a recap on some lessons in Drawing the Boukoleon Portals, so forgive me if you already know this stuff. Here’s the drawing with the Cross in red. This is how I discover location— where to draw the stuff I’m seeing. It’s one thing to look up and see something in 3D and living color, and quite another to get it in the right place in black lines on flat white paper. See how the points on the left, from the existing drawing, correspond to points on the right, in the new territory. The vertical lines work similarly.

The Cross works fine on finding where to draw the stuff, but it’s only half the battle. The other half is finding a unit from which to measure proportion. It’s really easy to lose track of what size things are, so I’m constantly measuring, comparing. My first unit on this drawing is the shape of the inner arch on the far left. Here, I’ve traced it in blue to show how to use it:

See? That space is exactly the same width as the pillar. It’s the same width as the distance to the pillar. It’s half the width of the space past the pillar, and so on. Find something you’ve already drawn, and measure everything else by that. To measure, I hold up my pen in front of what I’m drawing and indicate with my thumbnail on it how big it is. Then I move the pen and the thumb over to what I need to draw next, and see if it’s bigger or smaller. Works like a charm. Make sure you’re not tilting the pen away from you, or your proportions will be off.

So back to portraits– I had to use the loo, and Semavar Cafe is closed for the Bayram. So I walked down to the next restaurant. The security guy looked familiar. Oh, that guy, who keeps showing up during my sessions at the Boukoleon asking to be drawn. Sigh. I’d like to use that loo again with no hassle, so I made his day. As I’ve mentioned, with most portraits I draw just the basics and finish up later. Several people have asked to see a portrait ‘before,’ so here’s Celal, thrilled and rock-steady.

Walked home along the highway, a translucent gibbous moon in the pale sky over the choppy sea, the great ships lowering on the misty horizon. In 2009 my friend Rayan and I were wandering the City Walls on Thanksgiving day, which that year corresponded exactly with Kurban Bayram. We looked up Mehmet, a fellow from Urfa, Eastern Turkey, who’d been living by the walls for ten years. He and his friend Tommy worked any kind of job, always a struggle. He was thinking of packing it in and going back to Urfa, get married, please the family. So Rayan and I were not expecting to see an entire butchered cow lying there awful and too close to the ground, guys squatting all around it with knives flashing, piles of bones and bloody meat all over hell. Mehmet came running to invite us for Bayram Feast. Now a goat is not cheap, but a cow is princely. Mehmet told us he’d been fooling around in the ruins, found two Byzantine coins and sold them to the museum. He got enough to buy Bayram Feast for every single homeless person in the walls and ruins all up and down the highway, quite a Thanksgiving.

Tommy whizzed up on his bike. He was from Rize, on the Black Sea, in the ancient kingdom of Pontus.  For what it’s worth, Mithridates VI, king there in Roman times, was an enormous man with yellow hair, green eyes, and a large prolific harem…like many people from that part of Turkey Tommy had natural spiky yellow hair. He spoke good English, rode a racing bike and always wore Spandex gloves and biking togs. He never took off his sunglasses. I don’t know what had happened to him, but he had the worst burn scars I’ve ever seen.  His nose looked like it had come off and been stuck back on, and his ears were cauliflowered. Nevertheless he carried himself with elan. He and Mehmet were wildly enthusiastic meeting exotic Rayan with her fluent Turkish. They were equally enthusiastic six months later meeting beautiful blonde CJ from Canada. It was her last day, and we sat in front of this silly little pre-fab house the government had put up on the walls for the snipers to guard Barack Obama’s motorcade. It had a million-dollar view. We watched the boats go by in the stiff March weather, talking to these two experts in survival, and CJ said “When I go back and tell them about Istanbul, this is what I’ll tell them about.”

About a year ago I went looking for Mehmet. The little warped prefab house still perched on its rock over the walls, but it was deserted, huge dusty padlocks on the doors. Not a sound. I walked around to the front. Where we’d sat that day stood a nargile pipe, and on it was a pair of Tommy’s gloves.

Mehmet & Tommy ©2010 by Trici Venola

FROM PILLAR TO POST 1

BREAKING GROUND, WITH GHOSTS  

Saturday 5 November 1-4:30 PM

Ghosts walk at noon, said the ancient Greeks, when the light sears all the colors to white: bleached and bleak, they are paler than pale. But in my present-day Istanbul, ghosts walk in the intense amber light of November. I feel them down in the marble bones of the old city, like scraps of shadow scuttering in the dark of my day. Because my friends are leaving I’ve felt like a ghost myself. Suddenly the lively present is becoming the happy past, and I stalk down the hill to the Boukoleon, the palace site as changed by winter as I am by the prospect of loneliness. Only one thing to do with all this maudlin self-pity and that is to draw.

It was those pillars got me off Facebook and out into the brisk blue day. As you face the Boukoleon site, your back to the sea, the pillars are high up on the wall to the right of the PortaIs, ending at the Lighthouse. They look to have been centered between brick arches, in a colonnade. The two arches I can see are so desiccated as to resemble old twisted combs, but the pillars are still smooth and white. These original Byzantine pillars and arches are partially covered by a stone outer skin, perhaps added to patch the wall after the palace was burned by Crusaders in 1204, perhaps added by Ottomans after 1453. This stone skin is quite old and weathered. I love this visual history lesson and want to preserve it.

I found a spot next to a broken place on the low brick wall and set up. This consists of setting out my water bottle and putting down the light cushion I schelp down there in a light sack. Carrying it is a much smaller pain in the ass than the one you get sitting on a brick wall for hours at a stretch. I did a quick-and-dirty rough to figure out how to position it on the page. I was tempted to use a slanted format like so many of the sketchbook drawings, but opted for straight-up-and-down to harmonize with the other two big Boukoleon drawings.  On first glance it seemed like I could fit both the top of that wooden house, upper left, and the top of the Boukoleon Window, lower right, into the drawing.  But after invoking the Cross– you remember the Cross, don’t you? –where we draw a mental straight line from one point on the subject to find where another point is– I realized that the perspective was closer to this:  I didn’t actually re-draw it, this second version of the rough is tweaked in Photoshop  to illustrate my mental picture. What I actually did this afternoon in the cold changed Boukoleon site was to put the rough down on the bricks in front of me and weight it with a couple of rocks so I could look at it. Then I pulled out a clean new sheet, doubly precious as it is now Bayram, the Muslim equivalent of Christmas, and every store is closed for the next several days. I have a very few sheets of this size on hand, so I hope this won’t be a false start. If I run out of paper I can’t continue this project now. If I can’t draw my mood will flood up and choke me. Worse, it’ll poison the time I have left with my friends. So I stared at the site, holding out the pencil in a straight line, seeing that indeed the perspective really is that slanted. Sigh. Something has got to go, and it’s the top of the wooden house, because I’ve got to get that little corner of window down in the lower right.
I did a very few passes with the pencil to this effect, pulled out a #8 Artline drafting pen, turned the point sideways and began to draw. Little light strokes, not taking it too seriously. Heigh-ho, nothing heavy here. Drew for about half an hour, and here’s what we got. It’s the pillar and arch on the far left.

Boukoleon Pillars 1 WIP ©2011 by Trici Venola

An old fellow in a big coat shuffled up. He comes by every day but my old work spot was off his beat. He’s shrunk into his coat, which is new and stiff, and he’s had a bad stroke. He really, really wanted to talk to me, but all that came out was a series of baas. To my horror I realized that he wanted to sit next to me and watch me draw. If the drawing is well started, that’s not a problem, but in the early stages I could cheerfully rip the head off my best friend. Please not now, working hard, come back later, I said in Turkish. I think I said this. He smiled at any rate, two stubs of teeth, and shook my hand. His hand was clean, his handshake firm. Somebody takes good care of him. At last he left, and not a minute too soon. I’m polite, but the Art Demon is a real bitch, and rude to boot. If I didn’t keep a hard lock on that door I’d spend my life in trouble, apologizing or feeling guilty. I encounter and read about surly artists all the time, usually young men. I wonder what that feels like, to give into that desire to scream at people who interrupt you in the creative process. I’m a lone woman in an alien patriarchal society not my own, and being rude is stupid. So the Art Demon Bitch can complain all it wants but we are polite and save our fire for the drawing.

I drew for a little while and the light was more and more intense. The sun was dead on my little bit of wall, clear amber, a searchlight blaring just above the horizon behind me, when the guy I’ve been calling the Ghost walked over to say hello. I asked him to sit for his picture, and here it is. His name is Hasan. Not an old guy at all. Weathered, but young. As I drew him I thought of Boo Radley in To Kill A Mockingbird, that sense of a watchful sad guardian. He guards the Boukoleon. The two cats are his. I hope he is warm enough to sleep.

Then in a second, the light was gone. I see I’m going to have to get out here a whole lot earlier these days. The minute I stopped drawing I felt awful. Dead and grey, trying not to think of those halcyon sessions with Gabrielle, that day Nazan walked with us down to Kumkapi, the sea gold under the dark silver cloud. That was a bare month ago. Now all the leaves are brown, I’m wearing a heavy leather jacket, it’s dark at five. I stomped over past the tour busses to the cafe. Everyone was inside. I sat there smoking nargile and feeling punk, but I finished the drawing of Hasan and called my friends, and later we had a fine dinner together and I felt normal and happy again. But after the cafe I walked along the highway, the sea and sky dark clotted grey, lights across the water, a high silver half-moon. Coming through the Stable Gate I saw the fellow who stands there saluting the cars. He too resembles a ghost, but he can’t be one because he’s aged since I drew him in 2008. Hiking up the hill toward Hagia Sophia I thought of how I love the marble bones of this place, how they comfort me. My fears and cares seem to melt into the fabric of history, like the ghosts, black transparent overlapping wings shifting and changing, ready to swirl up and blind me. But at the bottom is all that Byzantine Roman marble, smooth and cool and blessedly solid under my feet, all the way home.

Gold Cat ©2005 by Trici Venola