Friday, August 12, 2011

Thinking in Pictures

Have you ever noticed how travel changes the way you see? French writer Marcel Proust got it right when he said "The real magic lies not in seeing new landscapes, but in having new eyes". When I was 10 years old, my architect parents sent me on my first big trip. I left the brightly accented, sprawling concrete of Mexico City for a communal farm in Exeter England where I lived with conceptual and performance artist Felipe Ehrenberg. I found myself immersed in a world of new hues, pale whites, grays and greens with vast open spaces. Visiting London was like a book that had come alive and each time I flipped the page it was thrilling. The opportunity to see things outside my life experience changed me. My senses were completely shook up and I began to explore this new visual landscape. I needed to put it all down in my drawings. With Felipe's guidance I learned to use a printing press and produced a handmade journal that blended my adventures and imagination. On that trip I became aware that everyone regardless of their culture or language, experiences a universal set of emotions like joy, sorrow or passion.

Those early encounters shaped me. When painting I associate emotions with both color and texture because they visually tap into our shared feelings and experiences.

Growing up in Mexico I was exposed at an early age to vibrant hues that reached out and grabbed hold of my senses. I remember my childhood as a vivid swirl of color. Babies wrapped in their mother's deep purple rebozos, the bright rosa mexicano pink of tuna cactus fruit ice cream on a hot day. I find myself searching for colors and textures wherever I go and record them in my subconscious or sometimes with a camera. When I close my eyes I see these colors and textures and over the years have invited them into my work.

It's fascinating that healers at St. Jude's Hospital and the American Red Cross use color to enter the world of young people as it helps them connect to the emotions of children in need. I know how lucky I am to paint for kids and I want my illustrations to inspire and challenge them. That connection between color and feelings is basic and profound so there is no need for watered down colors or realism. They are way too smart and don't need us adults to remind them that a bus is yellow or the grass is green. Unlike adults, children are able to keep information from their senses separate and thus perceive the world differently. As we get older our senses fuse together and we lose the ability to focus on isolated pieces of sensory information.

I have found that the most direct route to the emotions of my young audience is quirky, unpredictable, magical color. Children are more likely to trust their emotions and respond to these gutsy colors with fresh eyes. When making children's books I find myself constantly challenged to spend time trying to think the way they do.

For this reason, the search for color is something I take seriously and get very excited about. This is the humble little tiendita in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico where I buy the essential ingredients for my paintings. For years I wondered why my 75 year old mother would take the time to walk to the mercado every day to buy just what she needed for the upcoming meal. Then I realized that the 20 minute walk to go buy the colors I needed for the day was a chance to think about the direction a painting was going.

In my quest for chroma I look for clues in the visual environment and make mental notes. I'm searching for colors and textures that trigger an intuitive, emotional response. I often file these images on my computer or print them out to use when the time is right. I tape them up on the walls of my studio and they illuminate the path I take when creating a book or illustration.

One day I decided to walk a different route through the countryside and came upon this beautiful old abandoned church. The facade confronted my senses and the colors got inside me. The rich textures, warmth of the reds and pinks eventually found their way into the desert scene below.

I am always amused with the way painters try out colors here in Mexico. This indecisive wall really captured my attention and flooded me with mixed emotions.

When asked to create a poster for the San Diego Blues Festival I was inspired to re-visit those colors and textures to convey a romance gone wrong. I've added a woman's face that is like a tattoo across his heart, he rolls the dice and the passion in his voice becomes a green songbird.

The beauty and pageantry of a street procession during Holy Week left a big impression on me. Our town becomes the backdrop for a celebration of centuries old traditions and authentic spirit.

When contemplating beauty my senses were reminded of how the colors and textures moved me in that unforgettable scene. I synthesized them into this painting called Colibri.

At times even the subject matter of a visual reference will directly inform my work. When traveling in Switzerland I wandered into a graveyard behind a castle and saw this wonderful sculpture that struck a visual nerve.

The subject matter and weathered textures of the stone evoked this personal piece I call the Angel of Reason.

The piece below Cuban Dreams was a direct response to the music, colors and textures I saw on a trip to Havana. I have realized the value of building a visual vocabulary by thinking in pictures. Cultivating the spirit of a traveler as I go through life means opening my senses to the emotional cues, colors and textures of the world around me.

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