Thursday, 2 June 2016

Romantic Vision, Tie Dye and Reality: Thoughts of an Artist's Admin.

This week I have a guest blogger - Lauren, who shares her thoughts on working alongside an artist:

I’ve been helping Ruth with admin and PR for about 8 months now. In that time my idea of what an artist is and what they do has changed considerably.

I’ve always thought how romantic it would be to be an artist. I imagined it would involve a lot of swanning around a messy studio wearing a tie dye skirt. I imagined a good deal of time would be spent being inspired by your surroundings and coming up with the next masterpiece.  I thought artists were a little zany and out of touch with society. Never had I thought about who would buy these great masterpieces or how anyone would indeed find out about the artists work.  Anyway, reality bites.

For talent alone, is not enough to succeed in the art world. And that is where my romantic vision ends. We have all heard of Dali, van Gogh and Damien Hirst. But how many of us could name the artist who lives down the road and is possibly even making a living out of it. There are thousands of painters, sculptors, photographers, performance artists etc out there, but you just haven’t heard of them. For the media just isn’t that interested in reporting about the arts. The media is only really interested in subjects and stories that are going to appeal to the masses. If an artist has managed to reach celebrity status then the media will quite happily tell you about their new exhibition. But if a relatively unknown artist has just won an international art competition, even the local media are unlikely to run a story. And herein lies the problem.  It is easier to sell your work and achieve a higher price if you are known. But to become known you need to be able to promote yourself and your work. Most artists have no idea how to sell their work and really struggle with sales and marketing.  Business is not something that they teach you about at art college. 
Social media has made it easier to make connections and keep your clientele up to date with your news but this still requires an ability to communicate and the time it takes to monitor and update your status on every site.  I also think it isn’t necessarily easy for artists to communicate in this way. Having a social media profile requires you to give people an insight into your personal life and views, which doesn’t always sit right with the quite often introverted and private artist.
Every artist also needs a website so the ability to create and update a professional looking website is also useful. Ruth is quite good at this thanks to her previous career in graphics.
The professional artist is also self-employed and needs to be their own accountant. You might also need to fill in in-depth forms for submission to an art gallery, exhibition or art association. You might even need to carry out a health and safety risk assessment for an exhibition you are holding.
So you see there are many hurdles that the aspiring artist has to clear to get to the point where they might hope to make a living from selling their work.
The romantic vision I had was definitely not the whole picture. An artist needs to have a business model and be a successful sales person and still retain the passion to create their work. I’ll have to ask Ruth about the tie dye skirt though!

I personally, like my home to look a bit individual. Art doesn’t always cost the earth and it’s nice to be surrounded by things that have a soul and a story. So I think it’s important that we support and encourage all artists. Life (and my walls) would be very dull if it was all Ikea’s pebbles on canvas.

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Every Painting Has A Story

Every painting has a story: Its source; its process; its contribution to my style or learning; its history; its life after it is completed. A few of my clients like me to write down the story for them to keep with the painting through interest or for provenance. When I am manning my tradestand or at a gallery showing my work it is often the stories of the paintings that connect the viewer from simply admiring a painting to remembering it or even wanting to give it a home. Most artists find the ‘selling’ bit of their work very difficult, myself included. Maybe one day I will share that story; of why, and how I forced myself to be able to stand up and speak to people about my work, whether in a selling/marketing/PR form, or as talks and demonstrations. Suffice to say it has been a long, arduous, certainly uncomfortable, sometimes painful process and even, on occasion, physically debilitating, but it is a process that has been ultimately rewarding in some planned and some surprising ways. The easiest way for me to talk to people is for me to tell them my working process or to tell them the story of the painting.

Almost all my paintings start off as sketches and photographs. If I don’t immediately paint them, the photos will sit on my ideas boards around my studios and the sketches will sit both in my sketch-book and in my visual memory (one of the reasons that it is important for me to sketch) until the right time, if, or when that comes. I am a bit of a butterfly with sketchbooks, having several on the go at once, often 6 or 7 of different sizes, plus a small journal for both writing and little ideas drawings. When I sketch I have learned to leave blank pages around sketch pages for later development, but sometimes fill these with further sketches if I start to reach the end of the book without having worked up previous sketches. In this case development work is done in other sketchbooks, on receipts and cigarette packs, in my journal or in layout pads. Development work consists of re-drawing to correct anatomy, thumbnails of composition alternatives, colour notes, overall tonal notes and associated ideas that sit within the work to help convey narrative or atmosphere. Therefore my sketchbooks are not chronological – my journal is a better indicator of timeline.

I am lucky that my painting is character led so the stories are implicit. The stories of why I painted them or what they meant to me are usually less straightforward, but I have seen a progression in my ability to express my thoughts over the years. I have always thought deeply about my work and what I want to convey, and while once I was once content to simply make studies to consolidate my ability to render anatomy, texture, to practise skills within a certain medium, explore a medium and later to handle light-play or to experiment with technique, I am now wanting to push my boundries to expand the narrative and atmosphere of a piece. With hindsight I can see how certain pieces, even from when I first started to work with a painter’s mind-set, fitted into this progression.  With the benefit of my learning from the studies I am now revisiting sketches, ideas and even paintings that have been set aside for years as I now have more capacity to develop them to their potential. This makes the stories even more interesting to me, and hopefully to my audience, who get to see how much work and thought goes into a piece and how that piece lives after it leaves my easel.

Both the paintings I have chosen to illustrate the stories behind my work are side saddle paintings. When I first started as an artist I was heavily influenced by Charles Johnson Payne (Snaffles,1884–1967) and we have two of his prints, one of which is a lady jumping aside on a grey horse. Before I officially started my career as a fine artist I made some side saddle studies (right) and once started, I received a couple of commissions from sidesaddlers,
so using these to illustrate seems fitting.

Case study one: ‘Chuckle’, watercolour (2013). In 2012 and 13 I was looking at a lot of equestrian art that sat centre within a black, white, single or duo-colour background, which I found unsatisfying as the background was just ‘there’ and just a backdrop for, rather than playing a role in, the image. I was playing with the idea of compositional structures and for this I needed a strong subject image so I thought of the sketches and photo reference from a side saddle demonstration that I had seen at Blenheim Horse Trials a few years before. I wanted to work with an off-centre subject and make sense of this by an abstract background of colour washes. For the background to play a part in the painting it needed a structure, so the composition is set up using the Golden Section (also referred to as the Golden Rule, Golden Mean, Golden Ratio) and Nautilus Curve constructed from it.

The palette for the background washes are the colours that I use the most, then all the colours within the painting of the horse and rider are mixed from those four wash colours: Rose madder, Ultramarine, Sap Green and Madder Brown. The Abstract colours echo colour and tonal movements through either the horse or rider and the texture / dapple patterns on the horse’s neck were made using a repel effect with salt.
 ‘Chuckle’ was the first painting that I made using an abstract background, completed in Summer 2013 and first shown in The Art Show at the Great Yorkshire Show in July of that year. It was submitted to the Society of Equestrian Artists’ Horse In Art Exhibition in 2013 but, while being accepted through digital pre-selection process, was unsuccessful in panel selection. It was then successfully shortlisted in the Artists & Illustrators Artist of the Year Award the following year and shown at the Mall Galleries in London in January 2015 as one of 50 shortlisted paintings from over 8,000 submitted.
The painting was posted on social media in July 2013 and seen by Emma Brown, who recognised her horse Pipsqueak (Vintage Port). I had been told that the horse was called Chuck, and as the rider was looking down and laughing, had titled the piece ‘Chuckle’.  Through this contact Emma invited me to the opening meet of the Quorn hunt where 44 riders hunted sideways! From the public’s reception to the painting a Limited Edition of 150 prints were made. The prints are titled ‘Pip’s Party’ (Emma named them) as Pipsqueak is known to attend parties that she holds at her converted barn home. She commented that I had captured not only Pip’s character but also “the whole expression of happiness, measured as being sat on this horse”.
The original of the painting is now in a private collection, but prints from the limited edition are available.

Of course when I talk to people about the paintings it is not as comprehensive as that description, which was a written provenance for the new owner of the painting. I am driven by my work and my purpose, and to write such histories and regurgitate them would not allow people access to that passion.

Case study 2: Buckle Up, Watercolour (2015).

One of my sketchbook pages from the Quorn opening meet
This painting leads on from the first case study in that it came out of sketches and reference photos from the Quorn Opening meet that Emma Brown invited me to attend.
I have always been fascinated by the background story, the preparation, the communication and reflections between a horse and rider. Ostensibly this is a hunting picture, but actually it is not about that at all, which is why there are no hounds and there are only two horses and riders. In fact the painting is an expression of the feelings and nerves that I had before competing, whether that was eventing, dressage or any other discipline. Though I have never ridden side saddle, that rider is representing my emotions. Outwardly pretty calm, her inner feelings are illustrated by the ominous sky swirled with a sickly yellow. She wears blue to link her to the sky. Her horse too reflects her inner apprehension and anticipation, being tense, above the bit and with swirling marks to denote his restless tail (my horse was particularly sensitive to my feelings and often showed this frame before, but hopefully not during, a dressage test). The swirling marks are then also echoed in the not too realistic rendering of the grass beneath the pair. The composition is left to right depth diagonal, using the ground perspective and the cloud-line to focus the view onto the second rider: the professional, to the right of the first pair as per the convention of western reading from left to right. My hope for my future state of mind, he wears green to link him to the ground (grounded) where the marks are more controlled and uniform. The sky is calmer and clearer behind him, though the cloud line transverses his head so he is not entirely unaffected. His horse is relaxed and focused, echoing his inner calm. Whilst the foreground horse is painted in a range of (symbolic to me) colours, the chestnut horse is uses a more limited palette, emphasising reds for strength and boldness. Both riders buckle up their girths in readiness and anticipation for the day ahead. You can view this painting at face value: two riders preparing for a days hunting, or read deeper. Once my work has left my easel its life and story become its own and that of its conversation with the viewer, but I noticed at its first showing that many people returned to this painting to look again. Like a film that has layers, it stands reviewing even if the ‘true’ meaning is obscure, the fact that there is underlying meaning does seem to resonate with the viewer.
‘Buckle Up’ was again first exhibited in The Art Show at the Great Yorkshire Show but two years later than ‘Chuckle’ in 2015. It was accepted through the International Watercolour Society for the 2016 Fabriano In Acquarello International Watercolour Exhibition in Fabriano, Italy. The painting was also used in an adapted form for my 2015 Christmas card. The printer digitally cropped the image to the foreground rider only and then added snow!
'Buckle Up' and the Christmas card made from it
 The original painting is still in Italy as I write. The altered (Winter) image is planned to be part of a print set of four side saddle paintings set in the four seasons due to be published before the end of 2016.

The idea of the sky reflecting the rider’s feelings came to me many years ago. It is only recently that I have felt my control of the watercolour medium is approaching sufficient to be able to attempt to express that. My month of painting only skies in 2014 was part of that process. Writing my thoughts about a painting in my journal before working on it each day was suggested to me at a workshop with artist Lesley Humprey and is one that I have found very useful for clarifying those thoughts, inspiration and motivation. Dressage trainer Shana Ritter quotes the phrase “the horse is the reflection of the rider” meaning in schooling and dressage that the horse will echo tension or kinetic poise from the rider’s body, and my experience with my horse in particular re-enforced that that applies to state of mind as well as state of body. They are themes that I have only just started to explore and many stories and paintings are yet to come. I would be pleased to share them with you.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

On Attending Artist Workshops . . .

I am not an art workshop expert. So far I have hosted four, attended five and observed at two more.  In preparing to write this blog I looked at other blogs and articles on the subject and was amazed at how many advocated researching the tutor, which is hard and sometimes impossible, to do - and as I cover in my next point, possibly pointless too. Conversely I do have a lot of experience of the horse riding equivalent: clinics. Over the years I have attended many of these both in pure dressage and in eventing. I know from this experience that the tutor-pupil relationship is a complicated and individual one, and the only way to find out if that relationship works is to experience it. In my riding, I experienced many trainers’ attempts to connect with my horse and me, and some who made no effort at all in that respect. More than once I went against my instincts and went to see well respected and well recommended instructors, but gained little from the process and sometimes even losing what little I had by becoming frustrated, confused or disheartened by the trainer’s style.

Art workshops are much the same, but even more so in that I seem to have an expectation of tuition that is standard in riding, but not necessarily present in art. Some take the format of the tutor working on or demonstrating a piece with the delegates following with their own versions step by step. Some use ‘set exercises’ followed by an open working session. Some are just free working with an occasional walk round by the tutor, who may or may not give encouragement, compliments, critique and/or tips. Some don’t comment at all. Add to the mix that drawing and painting are very personal, mostly solitary pastimes and that following these pursuits in the presence of others opens, not just your work, but your working processes to the scrutiny of others and it can make for a very scary, personal and soul baring proposition. For us solitary lot it is also often difficult to get into the ‘brain-switch-off-creativity-forward’ zone that producing our most satisfying work demands. I can very well see why many artists (myself included for many years) are reluctant to subject themselves to that.

Three years ago, however, I decided to change my mind-set on that. I rationalised that, while I constantly read books about technique, expression, philosophy and history, both on the art of visual language and the language and conversation of horse-riding, I only went for tuition in the latter. I felt I should at least try to apply the same commitment and openness to my professional that I saw as an integral element of my hobby.

I am still very much finding my way, especially in painting from life (though I have a lot of experience of drawing from life). As a studio painter I am finding that the discipline is very different and I can’t fall back on my tried and tested methods and colour mixes. So far most of my tutors have been oil painters and, apart from the odd gem of a tip, have had little practical help for me as a watercolourist.  I hope that will change at the next workshop that I am attending, being as it is painting architecture en plein air and taught by the American watercolourist and architect Thomas Schaller. I’ll let you know how that one goes in due course!

Those who have read my earlier posts on learning [One For the Earning, One for the Learning, Ever the Learner, Confidence is Key] know my profound belief in the importance of continued study. I am also well aware (my riding tuition taught me this much) that to improve necessitates putting away our egos, stripping away what we ‘know’, stepping out of our comfort zones and relearning basics. So, as dually uncomfortable and enjoyable as the process can be, I will persevere. I will, however leave you with two gems of advice and my personal list of things that I take to a workshop (as a sketcher and watercolourist).

Gem one: This is given to me nearly 30 years ago by my business wiz brother when I was hauling my portfolio around the London tube, in hopes of getting commissioned illustration work by visiting art directors.
He told me to prepare for each meeting by making a list of 3 aims – each lower than the last in terms of positive outcomes, but each having a positive result. You need to be more specific in the aims, these are just the descriptors of what you need to describe.
1)   The ‘power’ outcome, where you achieve everything you want and more.
2)   The ‘practical’ outcome where you get what you went for.
3)   The ‘pragmatic’ outcome where you don’t achieve your main aim, but achieve something else, whether that is experience, a managing of your own reactions, a promise for the future or something else.
This is such a simple thing, but has helped me in many instances and softens the blows of frustration or disappointment.

Gem two:
The old five ‘P’s mantra: Patience, Persistence, Practise, Persistence and Patience.

My Checklist.
A4 and A3 Sketchbooks
Drawing implements (various)
Watercolour paints (I take 3 palettes but am working out colours to take for a single workshop palette)
Brushes (again I am refining a workshop brush set. So far most used are my 22 mop, a chinese calligraphy brush and a 7mm flat.)
Kitchen roll
Water pot (I have a small collapsible pot that hangs off my easel but also take a 9cm diameter plastic pot with lid that was an old sea salt container).
Litre Bottle of painting water
Camera (with charged battery)
Board for easel
Watercolour boards cut to size (quarter sheet)
8” x 16” watercolour pad (great for small studies on single page)
Board clips
Plastic sheet for painting in the rain (mine is a slit open plastic bag from a full sheet watercolour board so is about 60 x 40”) but I may invest in a clip on umbrella at some stage.
Rucksack stool – can be used as a stool or small table as well as holding my sketching materials.
Small plastic bag for rubbish
Water (drinking)
Flask of coffee
Packed lunch (if needed)
Cigarettes and lighter
Straw sun hat
Lip balm
Stock hat for wet weather
Rainproof jacket
Yak jumper (yes it’s made from Yak hair, fleece-lined , warm and windproof)
Gilet/other waistcoat with pockets and/or cargo pants one of which has at least one zip pocket for keys etc.
Thin leather gloves that I can still paint in while wearing. I don’t get on with latex gloves though they are supposed to be better, warmer and waterproof.
Sturdy boots
Change of shoes and socks
Phone (charged of course)
Collapsible rolling crate and/or hours at the gym training to haul all this lot around.
Open attitude

Monday, 11 April 2016

Confidence Is Key

My last few posts have all been getting around to one thing: Confidence. One of my favourite artists, the master watercolourist Joseph Zbukvic is quoted as saying “Trust your watercolour, and trust yourself. Lack of confidence destroys.” I increasingly agree.

Confidence in mark making is key in any medium. The bold stroke, line, mark or curve is a thing of great beauty, and, while seemingly effortless, is the hardest thing to achieve. The marks we make in our work should contribute to the feel, emotion or communication of our drawings and paintings. I refer you again to a quote from Katsushika Hokusai circa 1800 that I cited in my January post Ever the Learner  “. . . by one hundred I shall perhaps truly have reached the level of the marvelous and divine. When I am one hundred and ten, each dot, each line will possess a life of its own."

Many things can knock our confidence but only one thing – continual practice can achieve it. We have to go through stages of training in our work, similar to the Scales of Training in schooling horses, and depending where we are at in those stages may dictate where our focus lies.  Gradually we start to achieve confidence in one area and our focus is free to move on. This is not a straight upward line. It is more a series of steps, plateaus, leaps, set backs and falls but all is experience and experience leads to confidence.

I find that working on my drawing enhances my painting and vice versa. Working in different mediums gives me the confidence to experiment in other mediums. Life drawing, en plein air work (painting outside from life), sketchbook work, learning to look, all contribute to my work's development and my confidence. My life drawing mentor Andres Jaroslavsky described me as “confident”. Well Andres, in some things yes, but there are many strands to art, confidence can be fragile, and that confidence soon disappears if I don’t practice for a few weeks. In art there is LOTS to practice. Always. Drawing, control of various media, colour mixing, tonal balances, proportion, composition, perspective…. The list goes on and it is a mighty task to be confident in all.

And then one day there is suddenly a seed change - a seminal moment, and not one necessarily in the studio. I am more naturally a draftsman than painter. I have had to learn, read and practice at colour and application of paint. One day last summer I was fetching horses in from a summer paddock - a bit of a walk from the yard. I was leading two and following another leading two horses as well. Idly musing about the lovely shadows cast by the trees over the horses’ backs and the track surface, I suddenly realised that I was seeing and thinking of the shadows not as ‘dark’, ‘black’, ‘purple’ or ‘grey’ but ‘oh, that is a mixture of cobalt blue and vermillion’. Like learning a foreign language, you know you are getting there when you start to think in that language and there I was, confidently thinking in the language of colour. You can’t bluster or force that, and there are no shortcuts. That confidence comes from time, experience and practice. Getting it wrong (a lot) but knowing that the leaps forward are worth it in the end.

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Process or Product as Purpose in Art?

At the end of last weeks post I mentioned ‘process not product’ so thought that this week I would expand on what I mean by this. It goes back to my first post One for the Earning One for the Learning. In simple terms it is about painting or drawing and starting out with the intention to produce a finished piece that will be put in a frame and exhibited or painting/drawing to explore a theme, subject, medium style or technique.

The nearest analogy I can give is from my horse riding competition days. Some days, when preparing for an upcoming competition, I would work on specific movements or sequences for a set dressage test. The same would apply for the competition warm up and test riding itself. Other times, I would work more intuitively. I might have a rough idea or plan when I went into the manege but would work on what felt instinctively right to do at that moment, based on my feelings and the feedback or “conversation” I was having with my horse. These were the days when we could get to the next level and hopefully then later translate that to test riding. The ‘product’ was not the purpose and it was the process, the journey, the learning that was more important.  Most (certainly amateur/leisure) riders will bemoan the fact that they never ride as well, or the horse never goes as well in a test situation as they do at home or even in the warm up. In fact, when I changed my attitude to test riding and focused less on winning rosettes and more on where we were together in our training is when we DID start to take home red and blue ribbons. Focusing on the product produced a stilted outcome that tried too hard, often created tension and was nowhere near getting ‘in the zone’ where everything else falls away, every step is felt and the bond and communication between my horse and I became effortless and expressive.

This all goes back to my chorus themes (in horse riding as well as in art) “ever learning” and “practice, patience and persistence” (though it must be said imperfect practice just makes us perfectly imperfect). It is a tricky balance to achieve. As a working artist, I must produce commissions and work that I can sell (product) so that I can live and pay my bills, but conversely my best work, and the paintings that actually tend to sell quickest are usually the ones where I have been focused on process and have been able to lose myself in it.

Some things: life drawing, my sketchbook, plein air and preparatory work are all entirely process for me. I have often been asked if I would sell a sketchbook (I never have). I have offered some life drawing for sale, but only the one or two (out of hundreds) that I am genuinely proud of. I certainly don’t go to life class even vaguely entertaining the idea of producing something to frame and/or exhibit as I find that inhibits my process.

As with schooling horses, to focus purely on product or financial considerations leads to taking shortcuts, rushing the gymnastic development and forcing lines, shapes, movements and paces or working in a formulaic way. That is physically and mentally destructive for the horse, the rider, the artist and the Art.

Thursday, 3 March 2016

Why Do I go to Life Drawing Every Week?

Following from last week’s no 1 way of thwarting creative block two conversations have made me think more about life drawing this week. As some of you know I maintain a more-or-less-weekly life drawing habit and attend a drop-in class with York based, Argentinian portrait artist Andres Jaroslavsky. The class is an all-level mix from complete beginners to people like me who work as artists full-time and is structured with set exercises in the first half, then a do-what-you-want long pose after a short break. Over a while it has become known in the class that I paint for a living and that I paint horses. Recently another attendee asked me if that was the case and then asked “so why are you here then?” Good question. The other conversation was at an Art Group demonstration where I was showing how to work on a ‘subtractive’ drawing. Subtractive drawing is traditionally a life drawing technique, where the whole paper is covered in (usually) charcoal and then the drawing is made by picking out the lights and highlights with an eraser. I have done several drawings of horses using this technique and was talking as I was working, mentioning life drawing as I seem to be northern sales rep for promoting life drawing classes. One of the group asked me why life drawing was seen as the best form of observational drawing rather than, for example, still life. I don’t think this was her intention, but I have seen the same question before framed with a snigger of smut: why draw a nude when you could equally draw a clothed figure, the implication being that there is something slightly voyeuristic about it. 

I will answer the second conversation first, and this was an answer given off the top of my head, though informed by things told to me in my teens by working artists. The observational drawing of the human form is unique. You are looking at and interpreting three structures in one: the skeletal structure, the musculature and the structural form. The latter’s texture, capture and reflection of light and ultimate form is influenced and shaped by what is underneath. For example, colour (especially when seen in natural light). Where the skeleton comes closest to the skin eg a collarbone, there will be a greyish cast to the skin colour, especially on a caucasian model, or, for example, the wrist where the blood vessels and bones come close to the skin will have a blueish cast. Where there are fat deposits under the skin, eg the belly, there will often be a yellow cast and where there is muscle directly underneath there will be a reddish cast. Similarly the different underlying structures will give different edges. The bone hitting under the skin surface can give a hard edge that might suggest a strong or hard line eg a shoulder, or a lighter line may help describe the softer curve of the belly. The tone of the muscle of the model will also direct the choice of line thoughout the drawing. The same goes for definitions of tones and shadows. This observation and use of different qualities and edges of line and tone gives an expression and movement to the drawing which s good practice to then apply to other subjects.

You might say that is not unique. A horse, dog or other animal may offer those same structures and variations. What is unique though is that the life model can be instructed or hold a certain pose without moving. A talented model can hold that pose for a considerable period of time. Other animals don’t tend to be so biddable or obliging. I will go and draw them from life again too, once I can get outside without my fingers and toes freezing even through fur lined boots. That is another skill in itself: how to draw something that is constantly moving (unless it is asleep).

The question then follows “but surely those same structures can be seen in just the face? Why not just do portraits?” Portrait is another important skill, but there is only so much movement in a head or face (or none if you look at certain actors). The whole body lends itself to drawing with long lines and lines of movement rather than pure outline and a skilled model can create truly amazing shapes . . . and hold them. You could just draw dead bodies – I have done that too: while at University we were sent to draw in the dissection rooms at the teaching hospital, but while a good lesson in observation and anatomy they were, well . . . dead. No muscle tone, not as much colour, no movement and, although Stubbs and Da Vinci did it with horses, I think it would have been frowned on as insensitive to start attaching strings and wires to ‘pose’ the bodies.

As to the suggestion of impropriety or smut. Anyone who seriously attends a Life Drawing class or session will tell you that you that they very quickly get over any inhibition or titillation. You are too busy focusing on seeing and drawing - and in a 3 minute drawing of a full body you certainly don't have time to think about anything else. Life Drawing models are serious about what they do too, and although they are paid a decent hourly rate, a normal class or session is only a couple of hours so they are not raking it in. The attitude is more like any other professional that sees people nude or semi-nude: medical staff, chiropractors, photographers, film camera operators etc. To do a decent drawing or learn from drawing you have to achieve a sense of detachment from, and objectivity toward the subject. Once the robe comes off this is work. A friend told me about a model that insisted on wandering around during breaks without bothering to cover up and how, while they had spent the drawing time looking at the model, out of that time they became embarrassed and didn't know where to look. My partner is a camera operator who has worked on closed-sets and his advice: only look at their eyes and never drop or avert your gaze. Some people find it hard to talk to a model even when they have put the robe back on, but the models are people too, and often very interesting people. I have even found that I draw a model differently once I get to know them as their personality starts to influence how I present them. Life models come in all shapes and sizes and again the serious Life Drawing practitioners that I know tend to say that they prefer to draw 'real people' rather than the 'perfect people' that celebrity, fashion and beauty magazines show us. Almost any famous artist in the past will have nudes featured somewhere in their body of work, but have a look at some of paintings of celebrations of nudes by Lucien Freud, Gustav Klimpt, Edgar Degas, Michael Alford, Sergei Gusev or Saburosuke Okada, to see the beauty in what they see, or the more brutal glory and honesty depicted by Egon Schiele or Kent Williams as opposed to the media's very narrow definition of the 'appealing' nude.

So back to the first question - why am I there? As a working artist surely I know what I am doing and don’t need to learn how to draw? I refer you back to my first post of 2016 ‘Ever the learner’. I want to improve my observational drawing and my mark-making. Always. I want to experiment and play without it being my ‘job’. I want to push and challenge my ideas, understanding and preconceptions of drawing and painting, and by doing so learn, whether by design or by happy accident. I want to have at least one time in a busy week when I just sit and lose myself in drawing for 2 hours for no more purpose than itself. It has become my meditation and it's just for me. Process not Product.

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

The Terrors of Nightmares, Monsters and Blank Sheets of Paper

I remember from school an art teacher saying that there was nothing as scary as a blank sheet of paper. Nighmares, Zombies, Werewolves and meeting the prospective mother-in-law for the first time aside, they do have a point. Staring at that blank sheet of paper I wonder where to start, in reality staring at my own inability to succeed, and the more I stare, the more my will to begin is sucked into that figurative black hole. Suddenly I must have every pencil super sharp, I need a cup of coffee, then a cigarette, I must check to see if I have had any new emails, tweets or Facebook messages in the past 30 seconds. Even the washing up, housework or the dreaded ironing seem like attractive pastimes. The stark blankness of the sheet leaches all the confidence out of me, and more than proportion or rendering or accuracy, confidence is key to artistic mark-making. 

As artists usually work in isolation there is no one but myself to insist I get on with it as there is in my life drawing class. I do have strategies though, my weekly life drawing habit being one. It is about so much more than an attempt to capture the likeness of a nude. The one to three minute warm up exercises practice more than observational drawing, learning proportion, capturing movement, rendering a likeness, or being able to assess and reproduce tones. They teach me to just get on and draw, making the first mark without questioning, second-guessing or letting the brain interfere. So Strategy number one is:

1. Go to life drawing (or a plein air) class regularly and train yourself to learn to look and to get on with it without questioning the mark before you have even made it.

2. Strategy number two is to stop the paper being blank, even if that is just standing your coffee cup on it. Hell, spill the coffee if you want to. Look at the work of Horst Janssen if you want to see that a coffee cup ring does not exclude your work from exhibition.

3. Put some music on. I mentioned this in a previous post. I have certain pieces of music that inspire or motivate me, and others that get my feet moving (which must be hard wired to the creative bit of my brain as it seems to kick start that too). Some I have played so often that I am now hard-wired to want to draw or paint when I hear them.

4. Take a bus ride. No seriously, something about sitting inactive while the land or cityscape passes by really does lull the critical brain and stir the creative brain – just remember to take a sketch or notebook. (nb another variant of this is taking a bath, but that is hard to do in the sink at my studio and the sketchbook tends to get wet).

5. Throw paint (preferably at paper or canvas). A variant of strategy 2, and you may as well try some abstract art, right?
6. Scribble or doodle – anything to get your hand, creative brain and pencil moving . . .  and a scribble or doodle is throwaway. It doesn’t matter if it is not perfect. Come to think of it, it doesn’t matter if your painting is not perfect either.

7. Look at art. Get the books out (stay off the internet). Collect images in a scrapbook that catch your eye and inspire. They don’t have to (and shouldn’t) inspire you to copy, just inspire you to be creative when you leaf through them.

8. I know I said social media and the internet should not be used as procrastination, but through Facebook in particular I have ‘met’ and made friends with some wonderful artists all over the world. A select few of these have proven themselves firm friends and virtual studio partners offering honest critiques, tips, hints, encouragement, support, friendly ragging and arse-kicking through closed groups or private messaging.  Thanks guys – you know who you are.

9. Ok so the practical strategy: make a plan and timetable for the painting or drawing. Breaking the piece down into parts can make to easier to get going, and writing it down on a calendar or in a diary is like a promise or intention to do it and somehow it gets done almost by itself. eg get the piece drawn up and blocked in/under-painted on Monday, paint in the sky or background on Tuesday, then the (horse’s) muzzle, nose and eye painted on Wednesday etc etc. It is not set in stone and sometimes I change the ‘promises’ as I go along but it is setting out as a start. Be careful with this one though. Set manageable tasks or you will further demoralise yourself. It is better to start off learning how much you are capable of within a certain timeframe by setting too little in the tasks at first. Then you can be pleased or even surprised when you achieve them early. Even now this happens sometimes and I feel like I have been given a mini holiday. When it happens I sometimes choose to have some ‘me-time’. Maybe I will go to the coffee shop to write in my journal, maybe go for a ride on my horse or maybe I will be further inspired by my ‘free-time’ to get out my sketchbook or even carry on working to get ahead for tomorrow’s task. 

10. The final strategy in my ‘top-ten’ comes from a workshop that I attended with talks and demonstrations by a well-known US based equestrian artist. One of her pieces of advice was to spend some time writing before painting or drawing. These blog posts are by-products of this strategy, but I have also started to use a journal to write (and sketch and doodle) about individual pieces and what I am trying to achieve or the feelings I am trying to emote in them. I am addicted to doing this now so thank you to her.

These are not prescriptive practices that you must adhere to. They are just suggestions of some things that have worked for me in the past either on their own or in combination. I am sure you have much better suggestions than mine and please feel free to share them in the comments below.  Let’s take number eight to heart rather than continuing to work in isolation.

Monday, 15 February 2016

Just Keep On Making Art

This week’s butchered quote is from Andy Warhol: “Don't think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it's good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art.”

This week’s blog post comes as a result of a series of recent conversations with a friend and fellow artist and is dedicated to her (you know who you are). She feels totally blocked at the moment, questioning her work and every mark she makes. I totally empathise, as will most other artists, writers, musicians etc, because I have spent the best part of the past three years feeling like this. Sometimes the feeling comes from a disappointment or rejection and is temporary. A submission to an exhibition is unsuccessful, a show that promises to be a triumph produces no sales, worse, no visitors, or completely devastating, watching others sell while our own work is overlooked. It makes us wonder if we are doing the right thing. Are we not commercial enough or too commercial? Are we choosing the wrong subjects, wrong compositions, wrong mediums or techniques? Are we just rubbish at art? Will the beam in the ceiling be strong enough to hang ourselves from? But rejection and self-doubt are part of our chosen professions and to stay an artist/writer/musician etc, we have to cultivate an elephant’s hide . . . then draw it.

The block I am writing about here is more profound than the temporary set-back, but once understood can become a positive thing, though it is hard to see that piece of wood for the trees of frustration, self-flagellation and doubt that can block our paths, sometimes for years. To be ‘successful’ (and by that I mean reaching toward our true potential) we have to change and move forward. In an earlier post I referred to gallery represented artists as not necessarily the ‘lucky few’, and the reason for that qualifier is that galleries, agents and the public find it convenient to freeze and catalogue the artist into a handy box of style, subject or medium. However, as artists, we need to advance, or our work becomes formulaic. The period of change is uncomfortable. An artist can rarely, if ever, truly express what we see in our heads. In a period of profound change, the mind moves even further ahead of what we can physically achieve and paintings feel more like marking the steps of the dance rather than dancing it. Sometimes we are so blocked that we have no ideas, or just not able, we just abandon every painting before completion. To the rest of the world we are being moody or showing artistic temperament, but in our heads we are questioning, shaping, exploring, when we are not self-denigrating. It is all consuming (spare a thought here for those who have to live with us!). It is frightening and frustrating and this is where some lose the will, revert to formula or just give up altogether. To earn the title, to push through to the other side, we have to keep going, keep making art. Even if we see our work as lacking or just plain awful, those not bound by the image in our heads may still see it as desirable or inspirational.

One day suddenly it is as though a stopper has been pulled from a bottle. A shift happens, ideas start to flow, a new technique gels and a new rhythm is found. The first painting is a seminal piece and everything that preceded it were merely studies toward it. We are creative, focused and expressive once more . . . until our next metamorphosis.

At the risk of sounding like an American motivational speaker, I will leave you for this week with another quote from author and cartoonist Steven McCranie: “The master has failed more times than the beginner has even tried”; or you may prefer Albert Einstein: “Failure is success in progress” and “You never fail until you stop trying”. Of course motivational sayings are just that and rarely say HOW to beat the block, so I will suggest some strategies for that in next week’s missive. Watch this space!