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!

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Painter, Illustrator or Artist

I am an artist. That is a very hard thing for me to say, or type. Like many who paint, draw or sculpt for a living I see the word as an award to be made by others rather than a job description that I can claim for myself, though I have been pushed to do so by my framer, website designer and those advising me on marketing. Social media and the prolific growth of self representation through websites has led to many discussions about the word and many people of amateur status claiming it, in fact amateurs seem to have less hang-ups about it than the rest of us scribblers. The Concise English Dictionary definition of artist reads: “One skilled in the learned arts; one proficient in any art requiring skill”, though many online dictionaries only define the term as one who creates paintings or drawings as a profession or hobby. Some of the arguments use the latter definition to argue that even a small child who draws therefore must be an artist, but then where does that leave us who have worked, trained (including on-going self training) and practiced our art for years? I’m not griping here, I am genuinely asking.

Certainly in Europe in the past it was more clear-cut. To become an artist (or craftsman) you signed on with a master as an apprentice. This was unpaid work, though board and lodgings were provided and you were trained as you worked doing the dogsbody tasks until you achieved proficiency and were fully competent. You then became termed a journeyman artist. Journeymen were paid or allowed to charge a daily rate and continued to work for the master artist, often painting in sections of the master’s work, though only the master could sign a finished painting. They lived apart from the master and often traveled to continue their learning or to work in other areas. To become a master a journeyman had to produce a masterpiece, which was submitted to a guild for evaluation.  That sort of feudal system died out along with the idea of artists having patrons who supported them.

What came in its place was the idea of the artist as the individual, and more, an individual apart. The Feudal system artists were considered artisans: skilled in painting but not necessarily in intellect, they were just other craftsmen, but the lone artist somehow became elevated to a new status as a creative in art and in mind. 

I used to work as an Illustrator and Graphic Designer. I never had any problems calling myself an illustrator. I did my job producing layouts, drawings and paintings, mainly for printed brochures and magazines, following in the tradition that had run alongside art and artists back to, and most likely before the 12th century illuminated manuscripts of the bible and Koran, through heraldry, advertising and right up to the modern website. Most likely illustration and graphics started alongside the beginnings or the formal written word. History calls graphics, illustration and other applied arts ‘commercial art’ and here we get into the wonderful world of words confusing, rather than clarifying, the issue. The use of the term was intended to describe art that communicated, to explain concepts, educate, inform, corroborate or decorate as opposed to ‘Fine Art’ which was purely for aesthetics, but has become contorted to be read as art for money’s sake and therefore inferior to art for art’s sake. In the master/patron system the ‘fine art’ produced often conveyed a message, most often about status or religion, at the commission of the patron and most definitely for money (after all there were all those apprentices and journeymen to pay!). 

I would probably call myself a journeyman (though without a master), although I’m sure someone would object to the ‘man’ part of that as I am female. I think journeywoman or worse journeyperson just sound plain odd. Unfortunately most people don’t recognise the term, whatever gender. I have called myself a painter, but then people tend to think that I could decorate their houses for them. I am not an illustrator anymore apart from the occasional ‘commercial’ commission. So what am I? 

Answer: uncomfortable with and confused by labels.