By Ann Arnold
Becoming an artist was a very intentional choice, and a path I followed with all my heart from an early age. I remember selecting the fabric for my first painting smock, a requirement for starting school. On entering the classroom, I saw easels with paint pots and brushes at the ready for when- ever one felt like painting. This was paradise! Many years later, after the death of my parents, I found my first-grade report card with my teacher’s handwritten note under the heading of Art: “Ann enjoys art thoroughly and participates enthusiastically!”
As a student at the Urban School in San Francisco, Robert Quagliata, a favorite art teacher, said to me: “Master black and white, then color will be a breeze.” Following that sound advice, I later delved deeply into etching at college in Santa Cruz. What could be more black-and-white than etching? While in Santa Cruz, I also found a wonderful friend, Ian Jackson, who later became an antiquarian bookseller and my husband. Ian introduced me to Goya’s Caprichos, Rembrandt’s Seashell, Piranesi’s Prisons and the obscure Clerk of Elden’s furry Scottish ruins. We spent hours in the Entomology Library at UC Berkeley, looking at 17th and 18th-century books of insects that had been illustrated by such artists as Madame Maria Sibylla Merian and Jacob L’Admiral.
At first I worked on zinc plates. But, even though I carefully brushed the bubbles of corrosion away with a feather as the plate sat in the acid bath, the lines always came out coarse and jagged. I later found that working with an etching needle directly on a copper plate — a method called dry-point — resulted in the more satisfying effect of a soft burr and delicate line.
As I was leaving University I turned my back on etching and jumped into color-pastel and gouache. But pastels are difficult to protect from rubbing and I realized how fugitive gouache could be when seeing all the rosy colors gone from an earlier painting of shrimps, leaving only a sad grey behind. Time to learn to paint in oils! But canvas, with its fabric texture, held no charms for me. I loved the flat surface of paper and taught myself to re-create it as a painting ground by preparing hardwood panels with rabbit skin glue and true gesso made from marble dust and titanium white.
After our son, Aldo, was born in 1991, I began, quite by chance, to illustrate children’s books. Alice Waters, the chef and owner of the famous Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, could not find anyone who liked to draw people as well as food. I enjoy both, and together we made Fanny at Chez Panisse. Twenty-five years later we collaborated again on Fanny in France.
I paint realistically, but not photo-realistically. Once, when I complained to an uncle about how fast fish decayed when I was painting them, he asked, “Why don’t you just photograph the fish and paint from the photograph?” “But then I would be painting a picture of a photograph of a fish, not the fish itself,” I responded. A very different experience, and a very different painting.
Not long ago, some friends wanted a piece of mine to hang on an exterior wall so that it could be viewed through their kitchen window. I thought of making a composite work depicting Red Winged Blackbirds eating grapes from grape vines, painted in glazes on ceramic tiles, but didn’t want to learn the craft of tile-making itself. Luckily I found a studio in Berkeley where I could buy eight-inch blank tiles, paint them with glazes, and have the firing done at the studio.
Painting with glazes demands a complex two-step process of perception. After firing, the colors look completely different from when they are freshly applied. I took notes, made mistakes, looked at sample tiles and bumbled along until the results began to match my intentions. For me, the subjects of birds, flowers, and fish seem especially suited to tile making. Koi, hummingbirds, hoopoes, and a phoenix have all found their way onto my tiles.
When thinking of why I paint, and draw, and paint tiles — and generally enjoy making things, I am reminded of the dialog in Dorothy L. Sayers’ Strong Poison between Lord Peter Wimsey and Miss Climpson, the head of his faux secretarial outfit:
“Well now,” said Wimsey, “why do people kill people?”. . .
“I don’t know,” she said, apparently taking the problem as a psychological one, “it is so dangerous, as well as so terribly wicked, one wonders that anybody has the effrontery to undertake it. And very often they gain so little by it.”
I could say the same about why I paint.
Ann Arnold grew up in Marin County, California, in the midst of an old orchard, hence her affinity for fruit. She has lived in Berkeley for the past 50 years with her late husband, the antiquarian bookseller Ian Jackson, and their son, Aldo, in a house full of books. She paints ceramic tiles, as well as still lifes on hardwood panels. She has also written and illustrated children’s books. She rarely exhibits. Follow her on [email protected]
This article is an excerpt from Art in the Making: Essays by Artists About What They Do, published by The Fisher Press & The John Stevens Shop, 2022. This collection has been assembled by Christopher W. Benson — painter, author, and the director of The Fisher Press — and co-published with his brother Nicholas, who currently owns and runs the John Stevens Shop.