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




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