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USK:MTL : Aztec Archaeology

October 26, 2015

15Oct25_Aztec_Ages of Man
[A small ‘mask’ – part of a broken terracotta vessel. Depicts a man as a youth, aged, and in death].

The other day USK:MTL sketchers met up at the Pointe-à-Callière Museum for an exhibit on Aztec culture.

What a fascinating show! It is closed now – we met for our drawing outing on the last day of the exhibit. We were lucky to get this great collection of work here in Montreal. A miniature version of what can be seen in Mexico City of course – but impressive nonetheless.

I’m always inspired by the imagination and unique sense of design in the ancient South American cultures. I’ve always been more attracted to Mayan art vs. the more decorative Aztec – particularly when it comes to visiting archaeological sites. But in this show, I was exposed to a wider range of sculptural forms than I’d previously seen. This exhibit presented things as a continuum of design, rather than distinct periods.

I admit to spending my whole time looking and drawing – enjoying things in a naive way – rather than actually reading any of the informative panels. (Sorry museum people! You work so hard. I’ll have to do some after-the-fact-research to learn more about what I saw).

15Oct25_Aztec_Montage
[Brush Pen Montage of Sculptural Elements]

Though there were many ‘in the round’ figurative forms on display – statues and clay figurines – I’m more intrigued by the solid shapes of the architectural carving. The designs are cut into cubes or wedge shaped masses of rock, making powerfully planar forms. Everything has such a massive strength.

Like most museum shows of antiquities, the items here were dramatically lit with top-down lights casting deep shadows. I love this presentation visually – it makes for great drawings of the sculpture.

It seemed very natural to sketch entirely with a brush pen – just drawing the negative and positive shapes of light. I came in after with some accents of watercolor – as of course we can’t paint inside the exhibit hall.

But I can’t help but think – as much as I like it – isn’t this an odd practice museums do? Why do they make these things look so moody? Some of these figures are rain-deities or female figures related to fertility and domesticity. Yes, some of them have to do with death and sacrifice – but not all of them. When we see things in this theatrical lighting, everything becomes kind of like telling ghost stories around the campfire. Shining a flashlight under your chin.

When we were in Singapore recently, I noticed how the Hindu temples wreathed the statues in fresh flowers. The Buddhist temples were brightly lit with gold decoration and colorful murals on the walls. If you put one of those statues in the dark under a spotlight – suddenly it’s an angry vengeful god. Put it in a sunny courtyard draped with colorful silk and flowers – and you get a different feeling entirely.

I think it creates a false impression of these cultures. Yes, there was human sacrifice involved at times – but I can’t help thinking everyday life wasn’t as grim as people seem to think it was. I’m not saying it’s a party for the guy getting his heart cut out – but I don’t think they did that every Sunday either. I guess I don’t know for sure – readers who are anthropologists – tell us what this is all about! Write us in the comments :)

15oct25_Aztec_Rain God

BUT – all that being said – I did do a couple of fun watercolors playing up the dramatic lighting.

These are pencil drawings done in the exhibit on Fabriano Artistico, then painted back home. The drawings were fairly well developed, indicating all the shadow shapes.

These were sort of just playtime for me. I felt like using a tube of Payne’s Grey that I normally dislike. I had a bad experience with it and haven’t brought it out since. I’ve been meaning to just squeeze out a big blob of the stuff and use it up!

I paired that with a tube of Tiger’s Eye Genuine. A Daniel Smith Primatek color – which is in their ground-rock series. It seemed appropriate to paint carved stones with ground stone.

The background is painted with clear water and the Payne’s Grey is splattered and dropped with a fully loaded brush. The color floats on the water, and will not leave the wet area – so you get that nice sharp edge with the figure. You can get some nice floating effects if you get in while it’s wet. I actually did this twice – once with a paler tint, and the second time with full strength pigment.

I’m not sure what you’d use this effect for, other than an abstract treatment like this. But it’s fun to watch the color bloom!

15Oct25_Aztec_Man

6 Comments leave one →
  1. October 26, 2015 1:40 PM

    Love those backgrounds, Marc. Wish I could have made it to the sketchcrawl. It’s turning out to be harder than it seems to get to Montreal :-) — Larry

    • October 26, 2015 2:44 PM

      No worries – it took us 4 years to get to Quebec City :)

      • October 26, 2015 5:46 PM

        Good point (grin). I think they light everything that way because it’s easy – spotlight over object. Truthfully, it’s probably best for artists. Our museum lit our Olympus exhibit with multiple lights, seemingly to eliminate shadows. Made it really hard to draw. — Larry

  2. October 26, 2015 2:41 PM

    I love this combo of colours – Payne’s grey is my favourite grey, right now. Gorgeous moody sketches, I don’t know why they do that lighting either, but it is quite thrilling – and fun!

  3. October 26, 2015 7:19 PM

    These are wonderful, Marc! I love the treatment of brown ink and washes in the panorama. As for the Payne’s Gray, I’ve been in a love/hate relationship with it for decades; first with oils, then with watercolor. I relied on it to gray down colors and it became a crutch. I have since banished it from my palette, with the result being much brighter colors–even the mixed grays!

  4. October 28, 2015 12:36 PM

    THanks for the museum tour and fun with watercolor Marc! always something new I’d like to try. I have the same relationship with payne’s gray – better left alone, but beautiful that way.

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