Ad Libitum

My roadmap lines for today’s watercolor.

I’m currently taking a painting class that is online. We watch the instructor. We try it on our own, and she likes us to hold up our work to our camera for the class to see. I am not confident at all about my paintings and I am not sharing.

Today she added a brief exercise where she asked us to paint something without any pre-drawing. She said she felt some of us were too concerned with the lines and “getting things right.” She wanted us to feel free. “Just ad-lib,” she said.

I thought about it later and about that term “ad-lib.” On one of my other blogs, I wrote a quick etymology of that term. It is a shortening of the Latin ad libitum, which means “in accordance with one’s wishes,” though today we associate it more with going off-script.

In my brief time on a stage or in front of a camera acting, I thought I was a good improviser and felt no fear about ad-libbing. I think I was willing to do it because I was not very good at learning lines. That works in film where you tend to shoot short bits and can often rehearse lines before a take and have another chance if you fail. Ad-libbing Shakespeare on a stage is quite frowned upon. When I taught, much of what I told students was improvised and ad-libbed, though it was based on a script (lesson plan and notes).

But when I write – anything from a blog post to a poem – I always revise and polish. I’m okay free writing to get a draft down on the page, but I never really go with that as a final version.

And that seems to be my artistic style. I like to do a pre-drawing or work from a photograph. I always draw lines as a roadmap that guides a painting. They might remain or they might get covered over by layers of paint but I rely on them. Even as a kid doing drawings, I liked mechanical kinds of drawings – buildings, cars, objects – and have never been very good at people or animals. I actually took classes in mechanical drawing (that’s what my high school called drafting) and loved the precision, the lines, the perspectives, shading, triangles, French curves, and my T-square. I haven’t shaken it off – at least when it comes to painting.

I have always thought that teachers, lawyers, salespeople, and the clergy should be required to take classes in improvisation. Actually, it’s a good thing for everyone to study a bit. Life is very often an improvisation and being able to ad-lib is a great skill that doesn’t often show up on job ads or resumes – but it should.


XO World

XO Play

I saw on the NYC news this week that a New Jersey artist, Daniel Anderson, installed a 12-foot sculpture at One World Trade in NYC called “XO World.” The installation is a “narrative on equality, unity, peace, and love told from the perspective of a child and future generations of children; the expression of hope for coming together to reach our full potential as a human race.”

He was inspired by the game of jacks which is global. The X is a jack made up of crossed arms, which also means “love” in sign language. The O is the globe.

The other sculpture is in the Oculus station and depicts four children of different races playing jacks. he calls that piece “XO Play.”

Daniel Anderson, born in Pompton Plains, NJ, and currently lives and works in Montclair, NJ, and throughout the New York City area.

Daniel Anderson created XO World Project in 2017 to encourage people to “Share the Love” through sculptures representing the innocence of children and their open acceptance of others. The XO World Project aims to inspire people worldwide to actively seek peace, love, and inclusion by engaging with the play principles of youth when all races, ages, genders, religions, and nationalities are welcomed. To learn more about XO World Project, visit

XO World Project plans to install the XO World and XO Play sculptures in Paris in 2022, and in London, Hong Kong, Moscow, and Dubai thereafter.


The Caves of a Thousand Buddhas

Buddhas in Cave 7
A series of Buddhas in Cave 7of the Western Thousand Buddha Caves, Gansu, China

The Diamond Sutra is the world’s oldest book bearing a specific date of publication –  868 A.D. It was printed on a 16-foot scroll using woodblock and was discovered in 1907 in a series of caves in China among 40,000 books and manuscripts that had been walled up there. They are located outside the town of Dunhuang (also spelled Tunhuang).

Early Buddhist monks had made their way from northwest India to inhabit the Mogao Caves which came to be known as the “Caves of a Thousand Buddhas.”  The location had been a desert outpost along the Silk Road.

The caves were forgotten until the year 1900, when an itinerant Taoist monk named Wang Yuan Lu happened upon them and began to slowly restore the caves. When he eventually unsealed the caves, he found a cache of thousands of texts and paintings. He was unsure of what to do with all of it and was advised to reseal the location.

An archaeologist, Aurel Stein (a Hungarian working for the British)  convinced Wang Yuan Lu to part with a huge amount of manuscripts. Stein left (basically stealing) with 7000 manuscripts and five cases of paintings and relics. He gave Wang just £130 and the promise that he wouldn’t tell anyone about the transaction. The Diamond Sutra was among those manuscripts.

Stein was knighted in England but was rightly hated in China for stealing national treasures. His “discovery” led other scholars to visit the caves and they took more of the treasures, even chipping murals off the walls.

More about the Diamond Sutra

A page from the Diamond Sutra, printed in the 9th year of Xiantong Era of the Tang Dynasty, i.e. 868 CE. Currently located in the British Library, London which says it is “the earliest complete survival of a dated printed book.”

Etchings in the Night

I am an admirer of the paintings of Edward Hopper. Less well known are his etchings. At a glance, some people might think they are drawings or possibly that they are engravings. I had to double-check terminology. The big difference between an etching and an engraving is that making an engraving is a physical process. Etching is a chemical process. An engraver uses sharp tools to cut lines directly into a surface. Hopper and any etcher burn lines into a surface with acid.

I had never heard of the artist Martin Lewis until I read an article about his connection to Edward Hopper. He was a retired art teacher and had some success with his etchings until that form fell out of favor in the later 1930s.

For about 30 years until his death in 1962, he taught other people how to etch. One of those people was Edward Hopper.

by Martin Lewis
by Martin Lewis
by Martin Lewis
by Martin Lewis

You can see similarities in their etchings. Their style and the use of the cityscapes are obvious.

This technique allows for printmaking which can be very profitable.

It seems well established that Lewis was a mentor to Hopper in learning how to do etchings. Unfortunately, the two had a falling out and many years later Hopper disavowed Lewis’ influence on him as an artist or etcher.

Night Shadows - Edward Hopper - 1921 - Etching
Night Shadows by Hopper


Night on El Train - Edward Hopper - 1918 - Etching
Night on the El Train by Hopper


Late, but Lewis’ artwork sells now for significant amounts.

Pamela Colman-Smith’s Tarot

tarot cards
The Rider-Waite tarot deck probably should be known as the Coman-Smith deck

Pamela Colman-Smith created what would become the world’s most popular tarot deck. She was known to friends as “Pixie.” The illustrations were commissioned by occult scholar and author Arthur E. Waite, a fellow member of the British occult society the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, to illustrate a pack of tarot cards.

The deck was and still is often referred to as the Rider-Waite Tarot Deck. Waite included the publisher William Rider & Son in the naming.

Her distinctive gouache illustrations of cards such as The Magician, The Tower, and The Hanged Man helped people grasp the story behind a card spread.

I give her artistic credit and I have also seen the deck sold as the Rider Waite Smith (RWS) or Waite Smith (WS) deck giving Pixie her due.

Colman-Smith did 80 tarot paintings and wrote that it was “a big job for very little cash,” Waite had some specific visual ideas he wanted used concerning the astrological significance of some cards but Smith had a lot of freedom for most designs, especially with the Minor Arcana or pip cards.

If you’re not a tarot card user, here are some basics. These are 56 numbered cards which are divided into suits — wands, cups, swords and pentacles. Colman-Smith’s deck was new in being a fully illustrated set with even the Minor Arcana illustrated. It is thought that she based some designs on the earliest surviving tarot deck. That deck is the Sola Busca which dates to the early 1490s and which she would have seen in the British Museum.

I don’t know if Pixie used her cards but she did not have a happy future. She died in poverty in 1951 and her artwork was auctioned off to cover her debts. Her death certificate listed her occupation not as an artist but as “Spinster of Independent Means.” With no money for a headstone, she was buried in an unmarked grave.

sketch for glass
Sketch for Glass,” watercolor and ink on paper


View some of Colman-Smith’s art at

Moon card
Moon card

Lisa del Giocondo

Lisa by Raphael
Raphael’s drawing (c. 1505) “Portrait of  Woman”, after Leonardo; today in the Louvre along with his painting

June 15 is the birthday of Lisa del Giocondo, born Lisa Gherardini in Florence in 1479.

Like many girls, she was married by 15. She was lucky to marry a wealthy silk merchant since she didn’t have a rich dowry. He was nearly twice her age, but the alternative was likely that she would been sent to a convent.

It was her young beauty that attracted Francesco del Giocondo. The marriage arrangement gave him a portion of her father’s farmland. By today’s standards, the marriage seems odd but it appears to have been a happy married life.

Around 1503, Francesco commissioned a local artist named Leonardo da Vinci to paint his wife’s portrait. It may have been to mark their purchase of a home or to commemorate the birth of their second son.

Usually, Leonardo painted aristocrats on commissions but he was between jobs at that time and probably thought Francesco’s political connections might get him bigger commissions.

La Gioconda (La Joconde), as the painting is also known, is painted in oil on a wood (poplar) panel. He chose a closer view of the subject than usual for a portrait of this type. It seems normal to us now but was rather revolutionary. His choice had an immediate influence on other artists of the region.

Leonardo was easily distracted in his many projects and when he received a more lucrative commission to paint The Battle of Anghiari, he set aside Lisa’s portrait. The battle painting was a joint project with Michelangelo to decorate the Palazzo Vecchio.

He took the unfinished Lisa portrait with him when he left Florence. It was never delivered to Francesco and Lisa. We don’t know if he had been paid for it. He eventually finished the portrait and made its way into the court of the French King Francis I.

DaVinci MonaLisa1b.jpg
Comparison to the drawing “Portrait of a Man in Red Chalk” which is often identified as Leonardo’s self-portrait.

One of the many theories about the painting is that it is more of a self-portrait or at least he used himself as a model. The theory has been supported by digital analysis of the facial features of the woman in the painting and those of what is thought to be a Leonardo self-portrait. But notes scribbled into the margins of a book by its owner in October 1503 say that Leonardo is working “on the head of Lisa del Giocondo.”

We don’t know very much about Lisa del Giocondo because women’s lives were rarely recorded in the early 16th century except for their births, marriages, and deaths, and the baptisms of their children.

Dianne Hales’ Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered points out that “Lisa’s life spanned the most tumultuous chapters in the history of Florence, decades of war, rebellion, invasion, siege, and conquest — and of the greatest artistic outpouring the world has ever seen.”

The painting was kept at the Palace of Fontainebleau until Louis XIV moved it to the Palace of Versailles, where it remained until the French Revolution. After the French Revolution, the painting was moved to the Louvre. It did spend a brief period in the bedroom of Napoleon in the Tuileries Palace.

The painting was not really well known outside the art world. In the 1860s, French intelligentsia began to speak and write about it as a masterwork of Renaissance painting, but it really didn’t become well known among the general public until 1911. That summer, the painting was stolen from the Louvre.

After some initial confusion about the painting’s whereabouts, it was confirmed that it had been stolen. Oddly, French poet Guillaume Apollinaire came under suspicion. He was arrested and imprisoned and he implicated his friend Pablo Picasso. Picasso was questioned but both men were exonerated when a Louvre employee, Vincenzo Peruggia, was caught. He rather easily had carried out the theft by entering the building during regular hours, hiding in a broom closet, and walking out with the painting hidden under his coat after the museum had closed.

Lisa is visited by 6 million people a year who visit it at the Louvre. How would the subject and its painter feel about it being inside a temperature and humidity-controlled box of bulletproof glass? Probably very surprised. Possibly, quite honored that it was still of interest after 500 years and that people were so interested in preserving

MonaLisaShield.jpgMona Lisa behind bulletproof glass at the Louvre Museum CC BY-SA 2.0, Link

We believe that Lisa died in 1532. She is thought to have been buried at the convent of Sant’Orsola in Florence Though she was not a nun, her daughter Marietta was a nun there.