Drawing for a New Day

I first heard of Nowruz about three years ago, from a classmate who was kind enough to bring some cookies to class in celebration and observance of it. For those of you as yet unaware of Nowruz, it is a 3000+ year-old holiday that, at least as I best understand it, celebrates the arrival of spring, and the renewal not only of nature, but of one’s health and fortunes and such as well. Though it emerged with Zoroastrianism, for which it remains a holy day (as it does for certain other faiths as well), today, it is largely a secular holiday–most notably enjoyed by Iranians worldwide, but by many other peoples from Western Asia and the Middle East as well.

Maybe it was because of my general interest in holidays that I became inspired to draw something in honor of Nowruz (also known as the Iranian New Year or Persian New Year, and alternatively spelled Nowrooz, Nourooz, Nauruz, and so on). Certainly, that I occasionally draw for select holidays played a role, and being so secular and, might I say, universal, perhaps it was simply a natural choice. Throughout the process, I found myself thinking of Nowruz celebrants I once knew as well, including my aforementioned classmate.

Whatever my underlying motivations (and sometimes, with art, one’s motivations remain as special mysteries), “Nowruz” not only took a lot of time to actually draw, but quite some time to fully conceive of as well. I can only hope that it does justice to the holiday; a time that holds such deep, rich meaning for so many people, yet one so widely celebrated and secular as well.

Nowruz, colored pencil drawing by Darren Olsen at The Draw

© 2017 Darren Olsen

Figuring Out What to Draw
… Or, How to Represent Nowruz

Whenever I begin a drawing, I have always thought beforehand about what I plan to draw. Sometimes though, I put a lot more thought into this early part of the process than others (even though nearly always, some aspects of a drawing will only take form once I am actually drawing them). Such was the case for “Nowruz”. Certainly, I wanted something festive, something bright; yet I was not looking to portray Nowruz lightly. As befitting of its ancient origins and deep meanings, I wanted something that spoke to those aspects of it as well. I did not just seek what to draw, but rather, how to represent … at least one suitable way to represent it.

Nowruz Traditions

With holidays, symbols and traditions are always a good starting point, and Nowruz indeed has a rich set of traditions. Though observances vary between locales, in Iran at least, Nowruz lasts 13 days … yet the fun begins long before that. Weeks ahead, everyone begins a deep cleaning of their homes–everything from mess and clutter, down to the tiniest conglomerations of dust and dirt. And in that same spirit of renewal, people typically buy some new clothes as well, plus flowers and such to further adorn their homes.

Cooking and baking may begin weeks ahead as well. From substantial, savory dishes to sweet cookies and confections and even nuts and dried fruits and such, there is intended to be no shortage of good, delicious food. (Indeed, similar to Christmas in the West, it seems that Nowruz is a holiday that spans much more time than its actual duration. I have even seen this brief account of growing up with one’s mother baking cookies in the lead-up, not unlike Christmas cookie baking traditions.)

On the last Wednesday’s eve just prior to Nowruz (Nowruz commences with the spring equinox; between March 20th and 22nd, depending on the year), communities gather and prepare bonfires, over which people leap while singing a special phrase. Indeed, their intentions are for the fire to take away any pallor they may have from the preceding year, exchanging it for the fire’s warmth and liveliness instead.

Then at last comes Nowruz itself, and time spent with family and friends becomes dear. Families prepare Haft Seen tables ahead of time, which is to say, tables set with seven specific symbolic items (among them greenery, garlic, and vinegar), plus, often, additional supplemental items as well (such as a holy book, a goldfish, and coins). Each family gathers around their table to await the precise beginning of the new year, exchanging gifts thereafter.

And then come all the visits. Amongst family, friends, and neighbors, everyone takes a little time to visit one another. Of course, these times often necessarily have to be short, for there are just so many people to visit. And naturally, all these visits merit the bringing or serving of all that delicious food. In this way then, people renew their bonds of friendship and love, just as the new year has begun, and the seasons and the dead of winter have likewise renewed.

The Nowruz festivities culminate on the 13th and final day with picnics. Thus everyone beholds the renewal of spring, and, discarding the symbolic greenery at gatherings’ ends in flowing waters, everyone is, presumably, all set for the year ahead, themselves thoroughly–and joyfully–refreshed.

(There are, of course, additional Nowruz traditions and observances as well–not to mention differences in celebrations between countries. Interestingly, among them are ones that seemingly share a connection with various Western holidays; namely Christmas, Halloween, Easter, and April Fools’ Day. There is a Santa Claus-like figure, Amu Nowruz, who brings children gifts, while his companion, Haji Firuz, cheers people up with singing and dancing in the streets. On the eve of the bonfire night, wearing disguises, people use spoons to hit on plates or bowls outside people’s doors, all to receive snacks in exchange. Of course, decorated eggs, a symbol of Nowruz, are quite a tradition during Easter. And during the 13th day, people even try to convince others of a lie, much like April Fools’ Day. Given that Persian / Farsi is in the same language family as English and such–and languages and cultures are generally closely intertwined–I would presume that Nowruz and these other holidays do indeed share a common cultural connection, however small or distant it may be.)

Conceiving the Artwork

But how was I to base an image on all this, and one suitable to go on a variety of product types? I think my earliest ideas were either to simply draw some of the symbols, or else a scene (the two “standard” options, to me, for holiday imagery). But realistic scenes do not lend themselves to a majority of items (unless all the significant features are more or less in the center; naturally, different products can have wildly-differing dimensions), and simply drawing symbols just felt too shallow for the representation that I had been envisioning.

In the meantime, I figured maybe I should check in to see what my fellow Zazzlers had already come up with (especially considering that my knowledge of Nowruz comes from study, essentially, as opposed to personal experience), both to avoid doing something too similar, yet also to get some ideas. I certainly found some beautiful images. There were depictions of Haft Seen settings, of course, and some rather lovely landscapes and other natural imagery and such (lots of flowers, for instance). Naturally, various symbols featured on many items (goldfish and fresh greenery perhaps especially, but occasionally even things like the sun). And some even incorporated what I presumed to be Persian patterns or architecture, as a few did with pets or people.

Happy Nowruz Goldfish Plaque, product at Taiche on Zazzle

“Happy Nowruz Goldfish Plaque”
© Tracey Harrington Simpson
15 February 2011, 13:59:16

Noruz Haft Sin Table Canvas Print, product at Visions & Verses on Zazzle

“Noruz Haft Sin Table Canvas Print”
Used with Permission

Nowruz Mubarak. Persian New Year Gift Chocolates, product at MAIRIN STUDIO on Zazzle

“Nowruz Mubarak. Persian New Year Gift Chocolates”

Nowruz Mubarak. Persian New Year Greeting Cards, product at MAIRIN STUDIO on Zazzle

“Nowruz Mubarak. Persian New Year Greeting Cards”

Nowruz Dancing Man in Red, Haji Firuz iPhone 5C Cover, product at flutterbydesigns on Zazzle

“Nowruz Dancing Man in Red, Haji Firuz iPhone 5C Cover”
Used with Permission

Goldfish Smiling Sun Persian New Year Nowruz Porcelain Serving Platter, product at Mystic Persia on Zazzle

“Goldfish Smiling Sun Persian New Year Nowruz Porcelain Serving Platter”
© Mystic Persia

Spring Tulips Persian New Year Party Paper Plates, product at MAIRIN STUDIO on Zazzle

“Spring Tulips Persian New Year Party Paper Plates”

These wonderful items aside though, I was still left with the issue of what I, personally, should do. Well … I had wanted to fundamentally represent Nowruz somehow, and, after all, what is so fundamental about it? It celebrates the arrival of spring, the renewal of nature and life. And so I began to think, how about a path or passage? One that would begin as bare dirt, but along the way gave rise to fresh and then maturing grass, ultimately becoming a grass-filled field of pretty flowers?

(Actually, back when I was still just considering symbols or a scene, I had become intent on sugar. Not that sugar is a symbol per se, but between all the baking associated with Nowruz–incidentally, my own family has always baked cookies during Christmastime–plus the legend that it was, in fact, a Persian king who first discovered sugar over 3000 years ago, it just felt right to me. Alas, once I began shifting my conceptions to the renewal of spring and life, whereas I began with thinking the path could be one of sugar, I ultimately had to abandon that in favor of greenery. Perhaps it is an idea for a later drawing … ?)

But of course there had to be more than just that. Though I knew that, out of respect, I could not and should not attempt to produce authentic Persian patterns (for drawing in a specific style requires lots and lots of study and practice, and “Persian pattern” can probably refer to numerous styles as it is), I could nonetheless take inspiration, and draw some patterns of my own conception. And so I thought, just as the path would go from bare dirt to grass to pretty flowers, how about a three-part drawing: the first, a rigid, bland pattern suggestive of the worn or dead; the second, a bright, colorful, complex pattern suggestive of potential and transition; and the third, the field of flowers and such, indicating finished renewal? Yes, indeed, that sounded about right.

And by this point–a comparatively long while since I had first thought of even doing a drawing for Nowruz–I felt I was ready to actually begin. The final details and any little additions, I would settle as I actually worked on “Nowruz”.

A Highly Symbolic Drawing

The finished drawing is certainly bright and colorful and, at least per my intentions, highly symbolic. So much so, in fact, that I would hope that, even if someone saw it with no prior knowledge of what it was about, they might nonetheless at least think of Nowruz. (This may be too much to expect, though perhaps the best symbolic art is that which is not immediately clear, in case “Nowruz” is indeed a bit difficult to decipher.)

Nowruz, colored pencil drawing by Darren Olsen at The Draw

© 2017 Darren Olsen

A few things should be abundantly clear. Painted eggs are a supplementary symbol for Nowruz, representing fertility, and while my seven (!) are not nearly as intricately patterned as some I have seen in photos, they are nonetheless fancier than, say, the dyed / decorated eggs associated with Easter. Meanwhile, bonfires are a well-known aspect of Nowruz, as is the blossoming of spring. Hopefully the flowers bear at least a satisfactory resemblance to tulips and hyacinths, which, I have read, are two flowers that are particularly popular around Nowruz. (And the two butterflies, while not being particularly associated with Nowruz, simply add to the look of spring.)

Going deeper, of course there is the progression from bare dirt to young greenery to a fully blossomed field of flowers, running throughout the three segments. But as I alluded to previously, the three segments together suggest the renewal of spring, and of life, with each playing its individual part. For the first, once I began drawing, I chose to do a pattern that was much more repetitious horizontally than vertically, and done in dark and drab colors, all to convey a certain rigidity or lack of flexibility. Honestly, the dark-reddish color is even evocative of dried blood, for this whole pattern is about age, wear, death … an end. Yet for the border that separates it from the next segment, the golden-grey appears first, with the dark, drab grey only appearing after. This hints at the renewal, the cycle, the flip that is inevitably going to happen.

Now the third segment is clearly the finished renewal–literally the blossoming of spring, yet more deeply the renewal of life–but perhaps it is the second that is most … fundamental. It is all about the transition; the process between the old and the new, of getting from the worn to the renewed. Once the idea of the three segments had taken form, I always planned for this part to be much more colorful than the first, and I originally intended to do a very complex geometric pattern throughout. Admittedly, as I was drawing, I soon came to feel that I could not do this complex pattern to my own satisfaction, though what I did instead was, I think, even better.

Eggs and seeds and such, the tangible results of fertility, are quite complex in their own ways; full of nutrients, for instance, and the beginnings of very complicated processes that lead to new life. Well, likewise complex are the two structures that I ended up drawing here. Just like seeds and eggs, they seem to pack quite a lot into very little space, promising much, much more to come. (The three little ones are simply smaller-scale instances of this.) And as for the bluish waves, not only do they suggest something emanating from the structures, they are clearly evocative of fresh, pure water as well. Note there is no “hard” border between the second and third segments; it is as if there is simply fresh water, coming up to a field.

And notice, too, where the bonfire and eggs precisely appear, and in general how the path progresses. Throughout the first segment, the path is mostly just bare dirt. In fact, it starts with what are presumably dead blades of grass, and then becomes nothing at all … just until the border with the second segment. It is then here, precisely here, that the bonfire appears. As bonfires are set just as Nowruz is nearly upon everyone, here too, the bonfire lies at the initiation of renewal. For the second segment then, the path goes from fresh, young grass and greenery to increasingly mature forms, and all, of course, with the symbols of fertility, the eggs, along the way.

Lastly, of course the seasons come and go, just as Nowruz itself comes and goes every year. After all, there is only ever a new year insofar as there was a preceding year. Yet in “Nowruz”, the path and the third segment are one and the same. The path literally expands to become all of the right side of the drawing. And not only that, but the border for the field actually curves backwards at the top and bottom, suggesting that, just perhaps, the field itself–outside the view of the image–surrounds and encompasses the old, the worn, the previous and preceding.

This is, in fact, a nod to Zoroastrianism. Along with the fire (which itself happens to be a sacred Zoroastrian symbol), it symbolizes the belief that goodness will one day prevail in all ways–for forever and ever. And while the border between the first and second segments seemingly curves to “confront” the third (and admittedly, at the time, I drew the border in this way purely for decorative purposes), one would simply have to have faith as to which, just out of view, wins out. Simply put, that tiny, minuscule black dot in the bottom-left corner is practically nothing … in comparison to what grows away from it, and to what everything ultimately becomes.

Some Final Thoughts

“Nowruz” was, for me, quite a substantial drawing … especially considering that it is just a drawing, as opposed to a project. It took at least a week to draw, and probably more than a week to sufficiently conceive so as to even begin drawing. And that is not even counting the time when it was all just an idea in my head; a motivation trying to find expression. I do sincerely hope that I did Nowruz justice with it, and while I might humbly suggest that I did, it is not up to me to say.

(And one lingering concern is, well, I always pictured the progression going from left to right. But after I had already begun drawing, it occurred to me that whereas my mother tongue is written left-to-right, Persian, of course, is written right-to-left. So, could it be that the direction of my mother tongue led me to so naturally choose left-to-right for the drawing, whereas going from right to left may have been more appropriate? I did later come across some Persian art that clearly showed bulls or some such animals pulling a cart from left to right, and this assuaged my concerns a bit. Incidentally, I could have flipped the image horizontally after I had scanned it, but, well, without really, really good reason, I always try to keep my images as close to the original drawings as possible …. even if this means leaving in a slight error or mistake.)

In any case, it is certainly a unique representation of Nowruz, and I hope that even if it is ever only a few, some people do indeed find meaning and joyful expression within it.


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