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.

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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

Drawing the Boukoleon Portals 15

22 October 2011 2-7 PM

GESTALT

I have a compulsion for accuracy. The real, actual world is so astonishing and beautiful that I want to document it. Accuracy is not simply a matter of everything being exactly in place, it’s also a matter of mood. Gestalt is a term for something where the whole equals more than the sum of the parts. You know how some people are not particularly beautiful, yet they are fired with charm, radiance, charisma– so that they seem stunning in person. But a bad photo can make them look empty. So it is with buildings. This rendering of the actual present Boukoleon is as accurate as I could make it, yet something is missing. That’s what we’re working on today. Here’s the drawing as we left it last time.

Boukoleon Portals 14: Work In Progress ©2011 by Trici Venola

I’m making this work better simply by blackening certain areas and strengthening certain lines, while looking at the actual Boukoleon. It really helps to look at the drawing upside-down, in a mirror, and from across the room. You can immediately spot what needs to be done. 

This piece is really busy because of the accuracy. In line art, you’ve got two choices: lines and no lines. There’s a kind of code that develops: dots mean one sort of surface, hatching another. In this piece I used stippling for mortar. For brick, I used hatching.  And now we’re going to talk about foliage.

Oh, the drawings I’ve ruined from drawing the foliage wrong. OK, it’s ephemeral, but it’s there and must be dealt with. It has to do with the way the Boukoleon looks. It’s green, and nothing else is. So we have to find a code for it. The code for this foliage in this drawing is white, sparsely detailed, with a few forays into black.

The detail is sparse because the drawing is not about the foliage. You have to say “What is this drawing about?” And you have to keep saying it as you work. What the drawing is about determines everything you do: the amount of detail, treatment of surfaces, chiaroscuro– the light and dark. This drawing is about endurance. It’s about the contrast between red brick and white marble and old stone. It’s about splendor that survives decay. It’s about grandeur. And on a personal level, it’s about 40 hours of my life in September and October of 2011.

The Boukoleon tells us a lot by its age and decrepit condition. We can see how the rainwater fountained down by the way it carved troughs in the bricks. The big stones at the bottom record the thrash of waves in storms. The blackened areas tell us of past horrors of destruction. The layers of brick and stone are clues to its construction. The lines of stress and weight tell us how a building 1200 years old can survive earthquakes, fires, explosions, partial demolition by dynamite, and the constant vibration from the trains running through its truncated guts.

I’ve been drawing this during a time of upheaval and change. While I was working on this, Muammar Gaddafi died on the hood of a car. You probably saw it too, how he put up his hand to his bloody head and looked at in amazement and dismay. Like many of the ancients, Gaddafi was a horrible sociopath who bled his people like a spider sucking out the guts of flies. His end was foul, as were those of so many of the ancients. As I draw, trying to bring out the massive bulky shapes made up by thousands of bricks, I’m thinking of Nicephoros Phokas.

Phokas Captures Halep: from a contemporary manuscript

He lived in this palace, although he was not born to the purple. Emperor from 963-969, Nicephoros Phokas was a great general. His nickname from a grateful populace was Pale Death of the Saracens.   He killed so many of them that he made Christian Constantinople safe from what it perceived as the ravening hordes of Infidels. Then the Emperor Romanos died, leaving two little boys, a gorgeous 22-year-old widow, Theophano… and a eunuch in charge of the country. Probably to save her sons, Theophano seduced Nicephorus Phokas. This would not have been easy. He was four feet tall, with no neck and thick rubbery lips, and he undoubtedly stank. He refused all comfort, being one of those Christians who believed in rigid asceticism. He slept in a tiger skin and eschewed women, wine, and good food. Nevertheless, Theophano prevailed. “The people love you,” she said, “if you want, they’ll crown you Emperor.” And so it was done, with a grand processional from the Triple Gate all through the city to Hagia Sophia, where he was coronated on the great dais there.

Six years later he was killed by Theophano, his head displayed on a pike before an angry mob, his body thrown out of a window, likely from this very palace. He had insisted that the people continue to behave as though they were still at war, practicing rigid economies and prayers, and they wanted to enjoy life. He was Oliver Cromwell. He was soon hated. He forced the people to build a wall from the Great Palace, next to the Hippodrome where the Blue Mosque is now, all the way down to the Boukoleon on the sea, ending at the Lighthouse, cutting the people off. The Wall of Nicephorus Phokas still exists in places. It’s hollow, a great enclosed walkway the size of a roofed street, big enough for an unpopular, grandiose upstart to walk with his army. But it didn’t save him. The people would have killed him–one source says they did– If Theophano hadn’t done the job. From those contemporary physical descriptions I wonder that it took her six years. On his tomb was carved “You conquered all but a woman.”

I always wanted to be right in the center of things. It seems my fate to be drawing the center of things 1042 years after the fact.  As I put the last stroke on my signature, three people walked up. We started talking and I met Trevor, who is studying archeological preservation of Byzantine antiquities here in Istanbul. He told me some hopeful things about the Boukoleon, such as who has an interest in it and who put the fence up. These are people I’ve some acquaintance with. They do things well here in Turkey and have a great appreciation and understanding of antiquities. Trevor has an impressive amount of information about the Boukoleon and much more access than me since he is working from within the Groves of Academy. I explained that I’m doing this entirely on my own hook, with no organization or funding save the commissions from fascinated clients, and he made some suggestions as to people I might look up, people who would be interested in my Drawing On Istanbul project. So I’m going to do just that, and I’ll let you know what happens.

I am drawing for those who will never see this palace in all its rotting glory. I am hoping that it neither falls apart nor is rendered unrecognizable by Restoration, where one must be told how old it is since it looks brand-new. Why is visual antiquity good? It’s interesting. It tells us things we can’t learn from looking at the same thing new, or made to look new. Today I wore my go-to-hell jeans, which have been with me after a laundry mix-up in West Hollywood in 2001. The original owner was a fairly tall man who wore his 501 jeans until the knees split crossways and the hems were ragged, the backs of them torn clean off. The fronts of the thighs are worn white, and the left one is beginning to fray to white crosswise threads. On either side of the knee splits, the torn threads hang down in an interesting manner. What does this tell us? The wear over the knees tells us he was active. The worn left thigh is a clue as to his behavior, like perhaps he wore a tool belt that rubbed that spot. The ragged bottoms tell us that he was in rough country and wore his boots on the inside. Or perhaps he tucked the jeans in so many times that they tore. Now to buy a pair of jeans like this in LA costs an arm and a leg, because it’s impossible to create a pair of jeans worn out like this from scratch. You can stone-wash jeans, you can artificially distress them, you can put cutesy little tears and frays on them and charge up the yingyang for them and the designers do, but all they are is kitsch. Fake and common. But their pricey existence points up the value of the real deal. The high value of actual worn-out jeans is tribute to the years it takes to make them and the stories that they tell. Tribute to the human experience of those actual jeans, made visual. For this reason they are infinitely more valuable than they were when new. And so it is with antiquities. I can’t preserve them so I draw them.

So we come to the end of the Portals Drawing Experience, and here is what we have to show for it:

Boukoleon Portals 2011 ©2011 by Trici Venola

Gestalt? You decide. Thanks to Donna Perkins, in the Back Of Beyond, Canada, for making this Boukoleon Portals project happen, and I sure hope you and Guy love the original.

Samaver Cafe ©2011 by Trici Venola

Thanks to Samaver Cafe, just on the other side of the parking lot from the Boukoleon. Thanks to that bus driver who gave me a pencil, to Gabrielle for getting me, finally, up on a blog. Finally, thanks to all the people in the park, people who will likely never see this blog, but who have either ignored me so I could work, or looked out for me while I was working, made me welcome, and made it possible.

Drawing the Boukoleon ©2011 by Trici Venola

Ahmet and a few nameless guys and that shy fellow, the Ghost, who I tried to draw from memory. All the neckers, a different pair every day, now gone to warm cafes. It’s all sad and strange now, the weather has turned to winter, and today will be short. My best friends are leaving Istanbul, off to new adventures. I don’t know what I will do without them. But working all day today on this I am comforted. Part of the expatriate experience is that people leave, and it tears your heart right out when they go. But the drawing is always there. I don’t know why it makes me happy, but I’m very glad it does.

photo ©2008 Donna Perkins

Donna took this picture of me back in 2008 down in front of the Lighthouse. I’ve drawn the Window there, but there are some pillars up top on the wall, in front of desiccated arches and partially behind the remains of an Ottoman stone covering. Fascinating. I wonder how long the rain will hold off?

Drawing the Boukoleon Portals 14

21 October 2011 1:30-5PM

PERSPECTIVE THROWS A CURVE

Well, I blew it. Hoo-boy. After all this drudgery, a mistake I can’t fix. But the piece will still work.

It’s the perspective in the top left corner that’s off.

I was an illustrator in the recording industry for years and years. One-point perspective creates drama when you’re drawing something like a recording console or piece of equipment, like this:

and you can easily apply forced one-point perspective in Photoshop with the Transform command, like this.

But of course, it looks like hell. Flat. Fake. Real perspective is much more interesting.

Here’s the piece entire.

Boukoleon Portals.WIP Three & One ©2011 Trici Venola

All this talk about invoking the Cross– well, I should have STARTED with the Cross.

I did, from the left to the right. But at the very beginning, from ancient habit I laid the piece out in forced-perspective. I ran the perspective lines from high up down to a point far to the right of the edge of the page, and I slightly tilted the vertical plane. Why? For drama. Artistic license, if you will. Now some of this is allowable. We are attempting to convey mood and accuracy, and we have jettisoned color, mass and one of the three dimensions. We have black and white and we have line. So there’s got to be some compensation. OK, so now it’s dramatic, but  I forgot something about perspective. I can’t believe it, but I did.

I used to be married to a guy with the best natural perspective sense I’ve ever seen. I remember seeing him lay out the perspective lines for the backgrounds to a comic program we collaborated on. Here’s part of his Main Street background, which he based on Cannery Row and built, as we did back in Paleolithic Mac times, with a mouse in SuperPaint:

Main Street ©1986 by Kurt Wahlner for Comic Strip Factory

You see? The lines aren’t straight. They bulge out when they are close to you, like a fish-eye lens.  Here, I’ve scored them in red:

See? Curved. Just like the eye sees them. And, dammit, when I draw ONLY using the Cross and the Unit, I never make a perspective mistake. That natural fish-eye effect shows up. But no, I had to run those stupid perspective lines straight out and up and off the page like I was drawing an ad for a recording console. Damn!! I should have done it like this, if I was going to do it at all:

All is not lost. You see toward the bottom, that slab of marble below the PopUp Kitten hole? That angles off almost flat. That is correct. Because I was using the Cross. But up above, the white rocks, oh dear, such proportion problems. If I’d stuck to my forced-perspective the bricks would have been taller than they are wide.

So I did what all artists do, and I’m telling you about it: I faked it. That’s pretty much what it looks like, at the top left, but it’s not accurate. There are a whole lot more bricks drawn than are actually there. I had to make up the difference between the forced-perspective left top corner of the Left Portal, and the stuff below it, which I built on the Cross. So if you’re looking to rebuild the Boukoleon as the Byzantines did, don’t look at this part. Look at the rest.

Boukoleon Portals WIP.Three & One ©2011 Trici Venola

The Cross method is a way of creating, exactly, what the eye sees. If you’re trying to draw something that you are seeing in your imagination, one-point won’t do. Back then I didn’t quite understand what my former husband was doing with those bulging lines, but I sure do now. I’ll never forget it. And I hope you don’t either.

Drawing the Boukoleon Portals 13

Wednesday 19 October 2:00-5:20

FINISHING IT RIGHT

Days of rain! Days and days of rain. In the past I’ve actually done an outside Plein Air drawing in pouring rain, sitting under a clear plastic umbrella jammed up under a window ledge, but that was an emergency: the client was hot and the rent was due. Things are much better now, thank you Donna and Guy who commissioned this piece. Now I don’t have to draw in the rain, I just want to.

But today was perfect, high dark blue skies edged with cloud, and almost cold. It took me all day to get there, but it was fun. Pretty Rhonda juggling phones and customers and never missing a hotel beat, Jeannie in jeans with her huge gold hair damp and down her back, tall golden Hasan slicing through Turkish red tape up at the bank, the fast hike lugging boots in a bag up the tramline to the shoe repair store only to hear that the Sole Master is on Hajj in Mecca, Fatma from Bulgaria working on Rhonda’s nails in a tiny lime-green salon, running into Nazan on the way down past the Hippodrome wall and admiring her style– black pashmina fringed with leather, perfect black tailored shalvar, and a diamond in her nose in her diamond-shaped face. And just as I realized I was hungry, the gnarled simit-seller at the corner making cheese simit for me, slicing the round dough-ring and spreading cheese with incongruous young hands.

It was a short day but great. It’s tempting, now that the end is in sight, to just finish it up any old way. I had to force myself to slow down and treat it like this was the only part of the drawing that would survive a disaster, like those surviving parts of Cimabue’s Crucifixion, found floating face-down in the Arno River by volunteer art students in 1966 after the devastating Florentine floods. Or those few bits of mosaic in Chora’s nave that survived the scraping by either Christian Iconoclasts or Muslim Conquerors. Or the Boukoleon Palace itself… Who among the workmen thought about his one carved bit of marble being the only part of the surface to endure for 1200 years? They were probably hanging in slings, thinking about not falling into the sea or getting brained by a swinging bucket of mortar. These people were artisans, building with solid three-dimensional materials, building to last. How I respect them. In this incarnation I’m a line artist creating works on paper and computer data, the most ephemeral of mediums. Still– some of it may well last, as much as, say, silent films. As I work I often think about those artists of old slaving away over one detail that is now so eroded by time and circumstance as to be unrecognizable. What will live? What will get chiseled out by idiots or the march of time? What…potboiler…might be the only surviving bit of my life’s work? EEK! Rip up that potboiler and treat it all as important. And if what I’m working on it isn’t the most important thing I’ve ever done, it’s time to do something else.

So I darkened around the PopUp Kitten in the hole, and something is not right.  What actually shows is a bit of the roof bricks, but it got lost. You can only do so much. At least the kitten lives because I didn’t blacken all the way to his edges. LIving things have a glow, an aura, and they also move. Blackening to the edge can kill something, can make it static and make it disappear. And yeah, I learned this the hard way.

 Here’s today: mostly just drawing the rest of the bricks and blocks. There’s some proportional stuff going on I don’t understand. The Cross is working but that hole seems too small. Hm.

Here’s the whole drawing so far.

Came back in the amber autumn light over the water, alive with flittering white seagulls just over the surface. Cold wind trying to rip off my scarf, coming on winter. One thing from today, I looked over to the corner and saw the guy I’ve wondered was a ghost. He waved, looking alive, and made a universal “whaddaya whaddaya” gesture of camaraderie. I returned it. Whaddaya whaddaya, I’m happy to be recognized, even– or especially– by a ghost, happy to be working. In any incarnation, I’m happy to be here.