In symbols there is a meaning that words cannot define. ~ Ibn Farid
The first lesson you get as a student of tezhip (the art of illumination from the Islamic world) or islimi (also known as biomorphic art, arabesque or nabati) is the art of making a line with nuance; ie. moving the pencil from left to right horizontally or vertically, or through gentle sine curves transitioning from shades of light to dark and dark to light.
1. subtle difference in shades of meaning, expression or sound
2. expression or appreciation of subtle shades of meaning, feeling or tone
The nuance of the line practice sheets. 2015
I have had the opportunity to take foundational classes in Islamic art with four different teachers and each and every one began their lesson by teaching the art of the line. It sounds simple, and with practice it becomes so, but it is easy to forget how fundamental the quality of the line is to the art. The line encompasses character and beauty and when perfected has an ethereal quality that exudes love and grace. My teacher in Toronto, the very talented Unaiza Karim emphasizes the importance of perfecting the line as it makes the motifs and patterns dynamic and ultimately gives the drawing its' soul.
'Yaprak' (leaf) with nuance in pencil. 2016
In the process of learning this craft, you learn how to control the pencil and, as you advance, the brush. If you break down the different components, mastering the nuance of the line involves learning how to apply intensity, pressure and weight to the tool. While, as a formal exercise, there is something quite meditative and satisfying in perfecting the gradation of the line, there is, in my opinion, an esoteric element to this exercise as well. Each of the elements required to perfect the line, when examined at a physiological level affect the body and can be related back to the way one moves in the world. As an artist, I always think about how the art I make or the art that I encounter affects me or what it teaches me.
Practice sheets: nuance in brush and ink. 2016
As I continue to perfect the motifs most commonly found in tezhip or islimi, I cannot help but think about how I can translate the qualities of the perfect line to my own human self. What I seem to be learning is how subtle shifts in intensity, pressure or weight can affect my actions or emotions and consequently help me move or tread on earth more gracefully.
Moreover, the movement of the line from dark to light and light to dark seems to mimic our spiritual journey in this world. It is inherent in our nature to look for light, Divine Light that guides us and takes us to places where we feel a sense of completeness, contentment and rest. In the same manner as achieving wholeness in a yaprak (leaf) depends on the balance between light and dark; achieving harmony in our daily lives might also mean balancing the varying shades of light and intensity that surround us.
Work in progress: adding 'tehrir' (outline) to the motifs with nuance. 2016
Reflecting on Ibn Farid's words quoted at the beginning of this post, symbolism surrounds us everywhere. If we can be alive to the meaning of these symbols and reflect it back in our own actions, I wonder how our lives could significantly improve? There is no doubt that art heals; the nuanced line of Islamic art, if used as a guiding vector, has indeed much to teach us.
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Iznik tile panel found in the Topkapi Palace Museum. Istanbul, Turkey. 2015