Friday, 25 March 2011

sketchbook blocks

I've just come to the end of my most recent (lovely, Seawhite of Brighton) sketchbook. It's interesting to review the changes throughout the book, in my use of it, over a period of three months. Like many people, I find sketchbooks hard. That beautiful white paper, and, in this case, so nicely bound in hardback black (although only costing about £ 3 so hardly a big deal) - not only all those fears that you'll mess it up, but somehow there's also this idea that your mess-ups will remain there, for all to see. Which, I gather, is partly the point of a sketchbook - that you can't throw away things you don't like, and you have a record of your learning, and your changes through time. And also, you can come back to things you detested at the time, and learn something from them later.

'For all to see' is telling, isn't it?  Because no-one needs to see your sketchbook, and you ain't doing it for anyone but yourself. In my case it's about 50/50 between disappointing myself, and being shamed when people ask to look.... Anyway, I persevered. The Tombow pens were a great help here. I started with the wonder of lines like those in the image above. With a Tombow you almost don't seem to be able to go 'wrong', in the sense that once you stop worrying about what's going on, everything becomes interesting. I think it's partly because they're so completely water-soluble, which brings in an element of lack of control, which I love. I love only partly knowing what's going to happen. Which is, of course, one of the reasons that I find acrylic and oil painting, and drawing, much harder, because you have to be more deliberate - there's less chance of the unexpected, of accidents taking you off in new directions. Or so it has seemed, up to now.

Sometimes, I got a bit braver, and did try to draw some thing, and then to keep on responding if I didn't like it, to keep on going and see what would happen.

Gradually it got to matter a bit less what happened. Until one day I started being quite messy, still keeping on with the idea that if I didn't like it, I would just keep going, and see what happened....

Which led to quite a dramatic change in direction, that ended up feeding into a whole series of experiments:

So it's quite interesting to see what messing in a sketchbook can lead to. Mostly, I ended up just exploring materials, getting messier and messier, and more and more interested in effects:

The book got bulkier and thicker, as the paper plumped up and warped. I stopped being able to close it. And cared less and and less about what ended up in it.

Right near the end I started layering my experiments, also in a way that had never happened before.

So now I start a new book. And I don't know how that book will be, though I do know that it will have to start all crisp and neat like the last one. Something I've realised, though, is that these hardback bound books only really work at a desk - you can't bend them back on themselves for drawing when you're out and about. And drawing out and about is something that I so want to do. HOWEVER, that raises a whole new load of insecurities, sparking off countless unhelpful, well-established old neurological pathways....

Drawing 'from life'? All those confused voices come back, asking what I think I'm doing. Do I want it 'to look like that thing I'm looking at? Am I trying to 'reproduce' it? Am I using the thing to make something else? etc etc. Which then leads me to a thought I've had in my mind for a long time about 'close work' versus 'making a mess'.

I'm drawn to close work. I like detail. I carried the ghosts of art school teachers around for decades, telling me that I wasn't allowed to do that, that I had to be 'big and messy and free'. But just recently, I've been thinking that the two needn't cancel each other out. And drawing out and about has to be where it's going. I've been photographing out and about like crazy. Learning that even photographs don't have to be about representation, or not about representation.

This morning I was sitting outside in the sun, drinking my tea. As usual, I was looking at everything. I got fixated on a tiny corner of early morning light which was making chrome green blades of grass stand out against a dark background. And I thought, you gotta start now. You gotta start making drawings from these things you look at. Drawings, not drawings of things, just drawings. So I did. In a small sketchbook that folds back on itself, sitting out there in the garden.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

learning at 100

It's perhaps not surprising that someone who researched the idea of 'learning' for more than 15 years should chance to want to write about learning on what happens to be the hundredth posting on this blog. I've been fascinated by learning all of my life, perhaps because my schooling was a complete disaster and I left school at the first opportunity. I thus escaped without the dulling of my curiosity and capacities that institutions seemed in my experience to be so keen on.

I fell into teaching for strategic reasons (it gave me a job that would allow me to work abroad), and then found myself unexpectedly fascinated by the strangeness of adult education classrooms in the private sector. That might have been it, except that my choosing to become a student of Indian Religions in my early thirties suddenly exposed me to the experience of 'learning' in higher education. I loved the subject, but the experience of institutional learning was so bizarre that I ended up making such learning my study for the next fifteen years. I'm not, you'll be relieved to know, going to say any more about that here. Except to say that in my view 'learning' as talked about in institutions is not at all the same thing as the vibrant, exploratory, free, breathtaking kind of thing it can be outside of them...

For my new hero Fred Gettings, learning is actually one of the purposes of artistic activity.

In the business of learning about art there are many stumbling blocks and many difficulties, but perhaps the most insidious is one that is common to great artists and beginners alike. It is the tendency to paint or sculpt in order to produce a work of art rather than to learn from the actual attempt to create. Too often one sees an artist, who, after sincere struggle, finally gains recognition suddenly coming to a standstill in his development. His work which was formerly the culmination of a struggle, degenerates into a series of cliches, losing its vitality and becoming fit for nothing but buying and selling. If one has no inclination to learn about art there is little point painting or sculpting. If, however, one wishes to paint or sculpt one must first learn how: one is, therefore, a perpetual student, every attempt to produce a work of art being an attempt to learn something new, and not merely to have something to show (8).

...Our aim in learning about art cannot merely be 'to learn about art'. In an age which takes art - both good and bad - so ridiculously seriously, it is almost heretical to say that the chief aim of art should be enjoyment. Enthusiasm and joy can shine through even a bad painting... A spontaneous joy illuminates every child's painting, and is rooted in every work of genius... So many paintings by established painters which are exhibited nowadays are lacking in the spirit of joy because they have been painted for an audience with one eye on the art dealer and the other on accepted canons of taste. The actual fact of painting, the mystery of participating in an age-old activity, is too often submerged beneath irrelevant considerations (10).

Go Fred!!

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

soliltude and idleness

I learned... that inspiration does not come like a bolt, nor is it kinetic, energetic, striving, but it comes to us slowly, and quietly, and all the time, though we must regularly and every day give it a little chance to start flowing, prime it with a little solitude and idleness....
Brenda Ueland, discovered on a random blog

I don't know about flowing. 'Getting things flowing' still sounds too much like the mystical muse. It makes you think that you somehow have to 'get into' the flow state, whatever that is. As if once you find the appropriate key and learn how to turn it, the stuff just starts like a river, doing its thing, all on its own, in a magical and mysterious way.

I do like the idea of something coming to you, slowly, and all the time. For me, 'inspiration' seems sometimes to be no more, and no less, than simply emptying out my head and starting to pay attention. What moves me to draw, to pick up my creamy green ink, or my torn paper, is something that's potentially there all the time. No magic, no mysterious state. The (visual) world is there, always ready to speak to me, but only if I'm paying attention. Only if I've not filled up my mind with preoccupations and concerns, distractions, edgy anxieties.

This morning I got on the train to go to Glasgow for a workshop. I had articles in my bag that I could have read, that would have extended my ruminations on a topic that's of great interest to my mind; that would have 'passed the time' on the train, and given me even more things to think about. I saw that I was about to fill my attention up with thinking, which I realised would cut me off from my visual experience, my visual feeding. So I left the ideas in my bag, and instead looked out at the world, which happened to be filled with sunlight and glistening with reflected snow.

That's how I lost my looking, and therefore my art, for over twenty years. By letting my mind always be full. By filling solitude with thinking, with never a space for idleness....

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

playing your own game

In relation to my previous post on 'being good', I came across this quote in a discussion about competing. It's Rod Laver, the Australian tennis champion:

You do the best you can. If you don't play your own game, you're going to lose it anyway. If you start to worry about the importance of the win before it happens, you're going to have yourself in a complete panic. You play the shots as you see them. That, and don't start wishing the shots to go in. When you start wishing, you are in trouble.

De Alcantra, P. (1997) Indirect Procedures Claredon Press p4

You play the shots as you see them. Nice.

Saturday, 5 March 2011


This drawing, by a 19th century German artist, says something to me about process. About keeping going. About not being focussed on cleverness or accuracy. You can imagine someone who doesn't draw, but who would like to, looking at this and perhaps thinking, 'Wow, if I could draw like that I wouldn't have spoilt it by drawing faces on top of each other like that'. Or, 'If he could draw like that, why was he bothering to keep practicising the same thing over and over, he's got it'.

The fact that he's drawn multiple faces on top of each other suggests to me that he clearly isn't satisfied in the way those two comments might imagine him to be. Not necessarily because he's obsessive, or so mad that he can't see that he's doing rather well. He's going somewhere. Trying to find something, or fix something, perhaps. He's inside his process in a way that no-one can imagine from the outside. And he's working at it so consistently that he probably doesn't even notice that he's just produced a number of quite skillful drawings, and some lines and marks that go somewhere beyond skill. He doesn't stop to congratulate himself, just keeps going, trying to work it out. Whatever it is.

This makes me think of the following two pictures.

This first one is pretty big on the skill thing, it seems to me. And though it's quite conventional, it also seems to have something a bit more than skill; a bit of a feel to it, an atmosphere or something. It's a painting that most people would feel they could relate to, and have a feeling about. By contrast, this next one some people might find a bit difficult.

'What is it supposed to be?', they might say. 'Is it a pattern, some kind of design? Is it an piece of aboriginal art?' If they don't like it, they might even say, 'For gods sake, my ten year old niece did a better design than that last year', or 'Anyone could do that'.

What interests me about these two paintings is that one was done at the beginning of a painter's career, and the other very near the end. The contrast seems to me to be a brilliant example of how the non-painter's frequent fixation on likeness and technique is based on a set of judgements that are very far away from whatever judgements the artist themselves seems to be making. It's interesting that someone who had the kind of skill and technique that you can see in the first painting, after a long painting life, ended up wanting to paint something that is, indeed, not dissimilar to some kinds of aboriginal or indigenous art. I haven't yet really worked out what I think this means, but it seems to point towards something rather interesting about process, and work, from the point of view of artists themselves (the artist here is Kandinsky). I'm pretty sure it says something about the focus and development of European art, too....

Friday, 4 March 2011

being good or being you

I like photographing my desk from time to time, like to see different elements and images sitting beside each other. It occurs to me looking at this one that it shows some of the places I'm stealing from.

Not related to this thought at all, I seem to have been having a few conversations recently about the idea of 'being good' at creative work. As in, 'I wasn't good enough to go to art college' or, 'when I read a fantastic poem, I think, how could I ever write something, because it could never be really good in the way that this is'.

I sometimes examine my different relationships (or not - my different blockages, perhaps...) with art and with music. I can identify with the 'wanting to be good' thing when it comes to music. Not in the sense of wanting to be patted on the back or garlanded with flowers, but at least in the sense of wanting to 'have more/better technique, so that I can play wild stuff like X'. I managed not to get too hung up on whether I was intrinsically 'good enough', in the sense that people mean when they make judgements about 'talent' or 'natural ability'. But I could hear it in my playing - an intense frustration in every note, in every hurried solo trying to be something beyond its capacity - the desire to 'have' technique, to 'be better' than I was, even if only so that I could actually play the stuff that I was hearing in my head.

I got over it to some extent, in that I eventually did start to play again. I tried to focus on just what I actually could play, to hear the notes, the harmonies, the relationships for what they actually were, instead of what my mind said they weren't. But I never really found a quiet, settled place from which to play. There was always that sense of feeling cheated by the lack of technique. I suspect that this may be some version of what some people feel when they want to draw, or write, or dance, but they believe that just 'aren't good enough'.

This belief seems to be utterly poisonous to me. Hopeless from the start, because, however good you are, there will always be thousands of people much better than you are (however you're making that judgement about good and bad). If you're fixated on being 'good'; or on trying to achieve a standard that you feel exists in the novel you're reading, or the solo you're listening to, there's an almost insuperable mountain to climb even before you begin. A mountain that stands between you and the quiet, sustained, exploratory work over time that you  need to do to find out just how 'good' or 'bad' you might turn out to be.

It occurs to me that some re-framing is required. Forget the idea of talent, of natural ability, of innate capacities. Avoid even the thought that because you're looking at, or listening to, something that seems to to you be fantastically skilled, or moving, you might as well not even think about starting your own inadequate little attempt. Erase the idea of good, and replace it with mine. Because however good you think someone else's work may be, it's the work that came out of them. Talented or not, there's nothing you can to do make their work come out of you.

However good or bad you think your own work is, it's going to be different to the work being produced by anyone else on the planet. That to me seems to be a very liberating idea. What is going to come out of you? Not, how good, but what? What is your thing - your vision, your feeling, your response, your love, your passion, your awe, your pain - with what result? No-one can take that away from you, and no-one can do it better than you. Now that seems to me to be rather a fab idea.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Fred's three stages

My man Fred Gettings is amazingly confident in his views, something I find fascinating in itself. Not because what he says is right, but because there's something I admire about not constantly hedging, not having to put 'arguably' before every view... Here is some food for thought:

There are three stages of artistic development. The first stage is marked by the struggle to acquire technique and an independent attitude towards art. The second stage is one of experiment, in which the artist seeks to find what he must express, endeavouring to refine and intensify his vision of the world in order to improve his art. The third stage demands rare qualities, and it is a stage seldom reached by any but the most gifted. It begins at the point where technical proficiency has been acquired, and the artist knows what he wants to say, seeking only the power to communicate directly what he knows. Few men can honestly say, as Picasso has said, 'I do not seek, I find!'.

Of these three stages only the first can actually be taught. The student can learn about technique and how to modify some of his attitudes to art, but after this is is completely alone, with only the art of the past and his own sensibility as a guide. At this point he can either move on to the second stage of development and start the search for expression in which every new attempt to produce a work of art is a plunge into the dark, or he can settle down comfortably to turning out pictures.

How great is that????


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