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:
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:
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.