Tuesday, 26 January 2016

If Music Be the Food of Art, Play On!

Apologies for nicking and butchering this Shakespeare quote for my title, but I wanted to talk about the connection music gives me to my work when I paint. In ‘Twelfth Night’, Orsino may have been trying to ease his obsession and frustration with Olivia by a surfeit of tunes, the way you could possibly cure a chocolate addiction by running rampant in a sweet shop [“If music be the food of love, play on; give me excess of it that, surfeiting, the appetite may sicken, and so die.” Shakespeare, ‘Twelfth Night’], but for me music sets the mood and energy for, and feeds my obsession with painting.

When I am working there is almost always music playing. Even when I am out drawing and painting from life I will often have my headphones on. So another quote: “Turn on, tune in, drop out” [Timothy Leary, 1966] might be more appropriate. Not in the intended sense of the use of psychedelic drugs but in turning on the music, tuning in to my creative world and dropping out of my day to day real life pressures and worldly concerns to put  me in my own little bubble with the rest of the world blocked out. Music helps in ‘dislocating’ my brain, which tends to interfere and make me overwork when I am painting. Music points me towards getting ‘in the zone‘ where the line draws itself, the paint flows, I see the colours to mix without consciously thinking and the painting paints itself. When I am out sketching I sometimes use music through my headphones to create a ‘bubble’ for myself. I become less self-consciousness and just get on with it. I may appear a bit eccentric, but it works for me.

In my studio I also use different songs to get into the atmosphere of the painting. My choice of listening can help me connect to my muse, my subject, the emotions I want to portray and the marks I want to make. I can use it to level or focus myself, change my mood, intensify my mood or just to get my energy and motivation going – often by singing and dancing along, in my own little bubble of course. In ‘I Beg Your Pardon’ from the Soundtrack of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1981 musical, ‘One From The Heart’ Tom Waits wrote the line “you are the landscape of my dreams” and in many ways music is the landscape of my painting.

So what do I listen to? I have quite eclectic tastes! The Punk and post punk of my youth, Motown, Funk, Soul, Torch Songs, Classical, Opera, I even have some 1920s vaudeville on my ipod. I am a big fan of Muse and find their tracks really motivate me. I have played ‘City of Delusion’, ‘Hysteria’,  ‘Thoughts of A Dying Atheist, ‘Explorers’ and more recently ‘The Handler’ so many times now that just hearing them gives me the Pavlovian response of grabbing a charcoal stick or paintbrush. When I am feeling a bit blocked or self-critical, listening to their music: the layers, complexity and work that has gone into the production inspire me to reject the notion of giving up. In 2001 I spent a little time in Portugal riding at a classical dressage training centre. They played music in the manege all the time (often ‘Gregorian’ a German outfit who perform classic pop songs in gregorian chant – not as bad as it sounds!) and one of the instructors used to shout at me ‘dance with your horse!’. I would like to think the same applies in art – dance with your painting!

So here are my top ten studio playlists
1.     Anything by Muse. Seriously, absolutely anything by Muse with the possible exception of 'Survivor’. You already know my favourites
2.     Nick Cave's 'Nocturama' album
3.     Quite a bit of Opera, especially ‘The Duet’ from ‘The Pearl Fishers' and Wilhemenia Fernandez singing 'Ebben? Ne Andro Lontata' from the Opera 'La Wally'
4.     Some Funkadelic, Stevie, or other dance stuff to get me moving
5.     Johnny Cash's 'American' Albums
6.     Ladies seem under represented in this list so far so I will add my 'Lady Sings' playlist featuring, among others:  Adele, Dusty Springfield, Dinah Washington, Edith Piaf and PP Arnold.
7.     'One From the Heart' soundtrack album by Tom Waits featuring Crystal Gayle
8.     Lots of Jeff Buckley, especially his version of 'Lilac Wine'
9.     Butter Beans and Susie's 'I Wanna Hot Dog For My Roll' – recorded in 1929 and has to be heard to be believed!
10.   Pretty much anything sung, written or produced by David Bowie. My favourites are ‘Lady Grinning Soul’, ‘John, I’m Only Dancing’, ‘Boys Keep Swinging’, ‘Rock and Roll Suicide’ ‘Sound and Vision’, ‘All The Young Dudes’ and ‘Starman’.

On a totally personal note: the death of one of my music muses on 10th January helped prompt the topic for this post’s thoughts. I was a young child when David Bowie had his breakthrough hit and only really became aware of him in the mid to late 70s but from then his music formed part of the soundtrack and landscape to my life and career. When I was working at a fast food shop until the early hours three night per week and three weekend shifts to pay my way through my ‘A’ level and foundation course studies I used to listen to ‘Hunky Dory’ to help me get some sleep before getting up and doing it all again the next day. Nights out were going to a gig and afterwards Monroe’s Nightclub where DJ Tilly played the best music to dance to. Bowie featured there alongside early U2, Simple Minds, Gang of Four, Bauhaus, Punk, Post Punk and classic Motown. I sang in a band and alongside our own songs we performed covers including Velvet Underground and Bowie produced Lou Reed tracks. I even managed to see Bowie live, albeit about half a mile back from the stage, on the Serious Moonlight Tour at Milton Keynes Bowl. Listening again (plus singing along and dancing) to my Bowie playlist in studio the past couple of weeks I am struck by the timeless quality of his music. I have only a couple of paintings from 20 years that still stand up with my current work, but he has whole bodies of work from 20, 30, even 40 years ago that sound contemporary in their writing, performance and production and that continue to influence music and musicians today. While the man will be missed, his music, art and films live on for which I am grateful, but my landscape has been subjected to irrevocable changes.

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Free Your Arse and your Art Will Follow

I am paraphrasing again – this time George Clinton [“Free your ass and your mind will follow”, Funkadelic 1970] but I could have easily titled this “Get up, stand up, stand up for your Art” and (while I am on a roll) misquoted Messrs Marley and Tosh [“Get, stand up, stand up for your right”, The Wailers 1973]. Of course there are no rules. Sometimes I stand, sometimes I sit and sometimes I perch on the edge of a tall stool, but I do mostly work at an easel instead of on my lap or at a desk. [note the easel must be tall enough, or it will make your back ache]. My choice of stance usually depends on what, or what part of, a piece I am working on, and how long I stand or sit may depend on what hangover from age or old injury is troubling me that day, but if I want to make more gestural marks, I stand up. If you want to go all eastern about it, according to Chinese lore sitting depresses your chi [qi] energy, while standing releases that energy and allows it to flow around your body and interact with your creative energy [qigong].  In any case, standing to draw or paint allows me to engage my whole body in the process.

There was a recent craze for standing to do any type of work, which was supposedly healthier though subsequent studies disproved the theory and instead concluded that any stationary position, whether sitting or standing is detrimental. But taking that a stage further, it is easier for me to move freely when I do stand than when my backside is glued to a chair. Standing also facilitates the catwalk or dance of regularly moving back from my artwork and taking an overall view. This in turn allows me to see where the proportions are not quite right in a drawing or to see the tonal and colour values working over a whole painting rather than just the area I am currently focused on. While standing back, half closing your eyes, turning the work sideways, upside down or looking at it in a mirror also helps identify any areas that are ‘off’.

Let me add another element, and this is one that I ‘discovered’ more through riding horses than through art. I say ‘discovered’, but have since read of others saying the same, which only goes to support my theories. Let’s try an experiment. Sit down and hold a pencil up in front of you at shoulder height. Now move it as though you are drawing on a canvas in front of you. You may move just from the wrist or from the elbow, but your shoulder will be bracing to anchor your arm and you can probably feel it in the underside of your upper arm. Now stand and do the same thing. You should feel your shoulder move in the standing position and your waist and hips are now taking on the anchoring role. You may find that you have less of a death grip on the pencil with your fingers and that the movement of the pencil has more flow and grace. In horse riding as a youngster I would constantly hear about people having ‘heavy hands’ as a cardinal sin, but no one ever explained to me how to have light hands. I saw people fixing their hands in an attempt to hold them still and magically make them light. I also saw people with an almost non-existent hold on the (usually sagging) reins in an attempt to find ‘lightness’. I most likely tried these approaches myself too, though as I usually ended up riding the nutters that no-one else wanted to, maybe not so much the second one. What no one explained was that the lightness of the hands comes from the support, strength and flexibility of the hips and the core muscles, not the hand itself. [If you want to read more about the connection of the core to the reins then Thomas Ritter’sArtistic Dressage blog is a good place to learn]. Now think of a ballet dancer. Firstly a class of three year olds standing in first position and raising one curved arm up in front, out to the side and then down. The movement would probably be jerky and the hand and arm held stiffly; then think of a professional ballerina doing the same: the movement would be smooth, elegant and seemingly effortless. Now stand up again and try to replicate both movements. To do the 3 year old version think of only moving your hand or wrist, then repeat ignoring your hand and wrist but using the elbow to initiate the movement, then repeat using your shoulder and if you are finding that easy try the hard one: initiate the movement by using your shoulder blade (it helps if you first allow your shoulder blades to sink down either side of your spine towards your hips and engaging your stomach muscles to support your core - think of pulling up a zip on a tight pair of trousers!). You should find that the closer to your core you initiate and support the movement, the lighter, freer and more gestural the movement: more like the ballerina. In horse riding we are of course ‘sitting’, though in dressage that ‘sitting’ aims to be more like my perch on my tall stool, so that is a skill in itself: to be able do this in a sitting position too. It is not impossible, but harder and less easy to sustain without practice and building of both mental and muscle strength. 

In art if we can master gesture in all three positions (stand, perch and sit) then heigh ho, best of both worlds – the lighter feel and more gestural drawing or painting mark is just easier and more natural if you perch and easier still if you stand. Needless to say, standing is also more convenient for bopping about (another energy enhancer) to Funkadelic or any other favourite music that I have playing on my headphones or in the studio. . . which might just be the subject of next week’s blog.

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Talent, Gift or Aptitude?

"You are so talented". "It must be wonderful to be born with such a gift". "It must be so relaxing to be able to paint all day". I hear these comments or variations of them almost every time I exhibit at a show, and it is lovely that people like my work and want to compliment me. However, I don't really believe in these definitions unless you are one of the minuscule percent of the population termed a ***** savant.
My belief is that we may be born with an aptitude, but are not 'gifted' with 'talent'. My belief is that for most of us talent is hard work and hard won. Apparently there have been studies into the way artists think and see things (good luck with that) which concluded that the biggest factor was the ability to see negative space - simply put, the shapes between objects rather than the shapes of the objects themselves. Some people seem to see hues and colours more clearly, but, unless you have a vision problem these are all skills that can be learned and honed. Likewise some people are drawn to draw (no pun intended), but most of us liked to draw as children and enjoyed it at least while our parents proudly displayed our efforts as masterpieces.
So we all had some aptitude for it. Similarly most children given the chance to sing, play an instrument, ride a pony etc show some aptitude though in varying degrees. There are of course always the aforementioned savants and the corresponding hopelessly inept to balance it all out but again they are the tiny percentage exceptions. Among the majority rest of us it is the ones who 'did it' because we 'enjoyed doing it' that started being referred to as having some talent. So I drew in art class, in maths class, on the bus to and from school, at home. . . I also sang in a choir, played piano, netball, rounders, ran for fun, climbed trees, read, wrote poetry and short stories, did gymnastics, swimming, diving, ballet and was good at all of them, though I was bottom stream in maths. The language of the adults around me re-enforced this: I was 'hopeless' at maths and science BECAUSE I was 'talented' at sports, music Art and English literature, and we all know that if your brain leans toward sport and humanities it must lean away from science, right? Wrong. I enjoyed doing them so I did them, i.e. I practised. Things started to change when expectations were placed on me. I found some of the things I had previously enjoyed started to be less enjoyable. I was bullied in ballet class, increased schoolwork and changes in my home situation meant less time for or access to sports and the performing arts and by doing less I did not improve and started to lag behind my peers. I gave up singing, ballet, piano, athletics, swimming and gymnastics, but I carried on drawing and painting and horses. Wherever I could I rode horses.
On a previous post about balance, fellow artist Judith Farnsworth commented and mentioned the 10,000 hours 'rule'. This was first proposed by a Swedish psychologist and popularised in Malcolm Gladwell's book 'Outliers: The Story of Success'.  The premise is that to achieve excellence in any field you have to practice for 10,000 hours. To put that in perspective, over 5 years, leaving aside 2 weeks per year for holidays/illness, then you would have to put in 40 hours per week. if you find that daunting then you probably don't have an aptitude. If you find it a challenge or are thinking "I can't do 40 hours a week but I could maybe manage 20, so it would take 10 years", then you either do have an aptitude or are just bloody-minded. In fact the original psychologist, Anders Ericsson, has since said that the 10,000 was only an average and that for a classical pianist to achieve world class winning status 25,000 hours of ‘dedicated, solitary practice’ eg 3 hours per day for 20 years, was more likely the minimum case. Still have an aptitude? For me taking that aptitude and running with it, putting in the hours even when it is all going wrong and you are not enjoying it, but want to keep learning and having the drive to do so is where the talent lies. As my old riding mentor used to say “There are four things you need to be a good rider: patience, persistence, persistence and patience.” For rider you can just as easily substitute artist, musician, dancer, gymnast, scientist.
And Maths? A timetable mess at school meant that I had to swap to the top stream class, something ‘clicked’, I found I enjoyed the puzzle and got a grade A at 'O' Level. Must be a gift.

Monday, 4 January 2016

Ever the learner

In my first blog I talked about one for the earning and one for the learning in my work as a painter, but did not talk much about the learning part. As an artist (and horse rider) or really anything in work or pastime that we are passionate about, I believe that we are ever learning. Some quotes have helped me along the way here.

My old riding mentor, Marjorie Collis, used to say "If you think you know all there is to know about horses then you should give up riding and keep goldfish instead" and I think the sentiment is applicable to art too. When we think we know it all our work becomes formula and while there is some merit in having a style and body of work that is recognisable I believe there should be development and progression too. It is also great fun to challenge and learn. To this end I maintain a drawing and life drawing habit, both to 'practice my scales' i.e. the basics and to experiment and challenge how I look, draw and paint.

There are many quotes in the art world about this too. The Japanese master Katsushika Hokusai influenced me primarily with his sketches, the 'Hokusai Manga', but also in his quotes. He produced most of his famous works after the age of 60 and is quoted as stating: "From the age of six, I had a passion for copying the form of things and since the age of fifty I have published many drawings, yet of all I drew by my seventieth year there is nothing worth taking in to account. At seventy-three years I partly understood the structure of animals, birds, insects and fishes, and the life of grasses and plants. And so, at eighty-six I shall progress further; at ninety I shall even further penetrate their secret meaning, and 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." Unfortunately he died before reaching 90 so we will never know if he would have reached his goal, but the sentiment is applicable whatever our age or stage of artistic development.