Dust and Shade: Drawings by Charles Ritchie

The Star Map, watercolor and graphite on Fabriano paper, 4 x 6 in

Charles Ritchie is a spritely looking middle-aged man with a twinkle in his eye and a distinctly southern accent, whose graying eyebrows might have been drawn with one of the rapidographs or single-haired brushes he favors using. Ritchie is also the drawing curator for the Washington National Gallery, an experience that must have afforded him a rich education in itself and despite being a substantial position, this does not interfere with his work as an artist in which he has pursued several hours each day for more than twenty years.

Streetlight and Doorway, watercolor-conte crayon-graphite and white pen with ink on Fabriano paper, 7 3/4 x 8 in

 For the past two decades Charles Ritchie has lived with his wife and their now teenage daughter, in a small house on a wooded street in Silver Spring, Maryland. This is also where he creates his art, during hours that some would call the middle of the night but which he considers the morning. Charles wakes at 3:30AM each day, no alarm required. He sits in his tiny office and draws and/or paints what he sees while his family continues to sleep. It is dark outside, in fact, everyone in the neighborhood is still asleep.

And what exactly is it that he sees?

That depends on several things, the time of day, or night as some might call it; the time of year, the room he is sitting in, the window he is looking out of, and lights that are on or off outside or inside his house. He records in exquisite detail, this quiet world around him, a world that only exists in his dreams and in his drawings. Originally, Mr. Ritchie aspired to be an astronaut and even studied astrophysics. Perhaps in his disappointment when he could not explore the universe, he decided to drill deep into the details of it instead. His paintings, many the size of a postcard, can sometimes take him over a decade to complete.

 Graphite Night I, graphite and watercolor on Fabriano paper, 4 3/4 x 9 in

Subject matter evolves, like leaves rotting after too much rain in the autumn. Charles Ritchie’s subject matter is irrevocably transformed in the pass of time, inside his small house, posters of the universe appear and disappear from the walls, light glows from his computer, another time the screen is dark. Outside, trees shed their leaves, then grow new leaves, snow melts, the light shifts, a street lamp is turned on.

Snow: 20 Feburary 2011, 4:40 am, 2011, watercolor-graphite and conte crayon on Fabriano paper, 4 1/8 x 6 in

In these small, perfectly realized canvases, we can see the solitary light of his office window cast outside, the eye of the Cyclops, projected upon a miniscule universe, revealing the hair line tracings of black tree branches, and tiny, jagged shards of snow, fixed within the transient rectangle of light from his window and then reflected back again, into the grey interior of Ritchie’s own, very private, very still, predawn universe, a world of iterative shadows, windows of dark and light, reverberating back and forth, between inside and outside, small and large, everything and nothing. His view imposing distinct boundaries, to which these hidden worlds must conform, and thus become the prisoner of our astonished viewing.

 Reflection: 11 March 2011, 4am, watercolor and graphite on Fabriano paper

There is something melancholy about these hidden worlds that Ritchie has recorded with such determination and care, they are the departed and departing moments of our lives that we will never experience. Moments buried in the middle of the night, unseen, nonexistent, wasted. Time, caught so still, it may as well be memory.

And there is something else. All along, underneath, beside, on top… a miniscule cursive script, yes, I am talking about handwriting – so small it cannot be read, though the artist says he can read it, and I believe him, because he wrote it. He says it is his dreams, written down. This molecular-scale frippery, at times barely visible, at times invisible and at other times forming a luminous web that literally obscures the landscape, is omnipresent in Ritchie’s’ work, forming a delicate suspension bridge of sorts, spanning the void between experience and it’s description, a chasm filled by images and words.

Bright Afternoon, 2009 , watercolor-gouache-graphite and pen with ink on Fabriano paper, 4 x 6 in

Charles Ritchie goes to bed at 9:30PM every night as he needs time to dream images before he rises at 3:30AM to record them in small journals, bound in something like autumn leaves, which are made by his wife. The pages of these postcard-size books overflow with ultra-fine rapidograph script, accompanied by postage stamp-size squares of watercolor washes, detailed with single hair brushstrokes – studies for his art works. There are 135 of these books so far.

Reflection: 23 March 2011, watercolor-conte crayon and graphie on Fabriano paper, 2 5/8 x 4 1/2 in

The artwork of Charles Ritchie provides a rare opportunity to glimpse a dimension of time and reality we might never otherwise have known existed.

Charles Ritchie continued on EIL

Charles Ritchie at BravinLee


Portia Iversen is a Los Angeles eclecticist whose interests include the visual arts and writing, as well as neuroscience. Besides winning an Emmy Award for art direction, she worked as a TV writer, and founded a nonprofit foundation for autism research. Iversen also published a book in 2007, (Strange Son, Riverhead Press). Her latest interest is writing about art.

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