a journal of my creative efforts, past and present

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Location: Berkeley, California, United States

Monday, June 30, 2008

New film project: Tisnikar

As crazy as it may seem, I have decided to try writing and directing another stop-motion film. I don't have any script or storyboard firmly in place yet but I do have a few loose ideas floating around in my head. The film will be about the painter Joze Tisnikar. There is not a lot of information about him out there on the internet and sadly, not nearly enough images of his paintings. I was fortunate enough to have picked up a copy of the book Tisnikar, Painter of Death many years ago while working at a used book store but the book is now out of print.

A little bit of biographical information about Tisnikar: He was born in a small village in Slovenia on February 28, 1928. He grew up in a poor, one room household with eight siblings and an alcoholic father. His mother worked partly as a servant in order to pay the bills and feed the children while her husband spent much of his income drinking at the local tavern. This is a problem that Tisnikar himself would struggle with later on in life. Following WWII, he worked rebuilding the local mill, then later in a hospital tending to patients with terminal illnesses. After a few years, he took on a full-time job performing autopsies and preparing bodies for burial. It was during the autopsy job that Tisnikar first conceived of the idea of painting the deceased.

Tisnikar died in the late 90s, relatively unknown in the wider art circles, but highly respected as an artist within his own community. He had a few strong proponents of his work during his lifetime, most notably Karel Pecko, the Director of the Municipal Gallery of Slovenj Gradec and Dr. Stane Strnad, the head of the hospital he once worked for. The book Tisnikar, Painter of Death was written by Nebojsa Tomasevic and published in 1978. I imagine it must have brought some publicity and increased interest to his artwork but I was unable to determine just how much from the sparse information available on the net.

Tisnikar's job, philosophy and art were all interrelated. He developed an intimate knowledge of death from his years working in the hospital and morgue. As dark and dismal as this sounds, his paintings express a good variety of human experiences and emotions. Certainly, his images convey feelings of loneliness and despair but there is also evidence of great compassion, kindness and a kind of spiritual hope. He also clearly believed in an afterlife. It is not the idealized carefree existence in the clouds that we have seen depicted in children's Bible illustrations, but more of a collective unification of body and spirit. In several of his paintings, lovers, spouses, mothers and children are seen clutching one another in an eternal embrace. In other works, we see human and animal figures standing together, creating a long chain that twists and winds towards an unknown destination on a deep blue and green horizon. Through this imagery, Tisnikar seems to be suggesting that although the body is weak and temporal, our close relationships and mutual sufferings - indeed, our very mortality, forever binds us to one another.

I admit that as I write this, I am feeling a bit daunted by the idea of trying to convey some of these ideas in a short stop-motion film but I don't want to discourage myself into paralysis just yet. I want to keep the imagery loose and somewhat abstracted/symbolic, more like a visual poem than a straight narrative with a linear plot. For now, I have busied myself with doing some drawings and studies of a few of his paintings. By doing these loose copies, I hope to better understand where he was coming from, both as an artist and as a complicated, troubled personality. This was my first attempt, created in pastel. As usual, click on the image to get a larger view:

The pastel was very messy to work with. I lost control of the details when I got to the feet so I plan on doing the rest in colored pencil or gouache. I am finding his style and colors to be very satisfying to work with. I think I have a feeling for the colors but I have a ways to go with the shape and lines. As you see here, I haven't quite captured the immense feeling of his ravens. Within the world of Tisnikar's iconography, they are supposed to stand as symbolic sentinels to time passing. M remarked that my pastel drawing looked more like a "kid brother" to the original raven in the painting and I immediately saw that he was right. As the project progresses, I'm going to have to keep a vigilant eye out for that and consciously try to resist the cutesy element commonly seen in a lot of stop-motion films.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Emerging Butterfly

This is the first painting of a series that I plan on doing of insects and botanicals. It is also my first completed oil painting in over 8 years. I've been primarily focusing on photography, film and other painting mediums but I love the richness of oils so I decided to go for it. The other reason why it's been so long is that I tend to get frustrated with my skill level and destroy the canvas before it is even completed. As I've told a few friends, this guy is just happy to be in one piece!

The image source for this painting is a photograph by A van den Nieuwenhuizen that I found in an old textbook titled "How Insects Live" published by Phaidon Press Ltd. 1976. The painting diverges in several ways from the true appearance of this insect but the general body position and the cocoon are very much the same. I got a little fanciful about halfway through and gave him some animal-like traits such as the long hair on his body and the eyes, both of which resemble that of a mammal more than an insect. I also more or less made up the ground cover area and the pink blossom branch on the upper right corner. The original photo does include a pink blossom branch but it looks entirely different than this one here. I wanted to go for a more patterned, illuminated manuscript type of look with the branch. I have always loved the borders of illuminated manuscripts with their beautiful decorative patterns of florals and butterflies so those types of illustrations are part of the inspiration for this series - that and the insects themselves!

For the future, obtaining source images of exotic and interesting looking insects will be a challenge though. Last weekend, I was talking about this to a painter who works with undersea imagery. She uses a combination of specimens from the Natural History Museum as well as photos and film footage from friends and colleagues who have donated images to her. She also recommended UC Berkeley. Apparently, they have an extensive collection of insects there. I will have to check that out soon. If any of my blog readers are interested in donating one of their original photographs to be used as an image source for one of these paintings, please write to me at Thank you!