Monday Motivator: The Function of the Majority of Your Artwork

Monday Motivator

“The function of the majority of your artwork is simply to teach you how to make the small fraction of your artwork that soars.”

Art & Fear” by David Bales and Ted Orland, p5

Hang around with me long enough and I will probably quote this long-remembered snippet from “Art & Fear” to you. (According to my pencil note in the front of my copy, I bought it in 2004 after it was recommended on the discussion forum I had for Painting.About.com.)

It came to mind again last week when messaging with someone who said “I’m not very good so I think I avoid but I do enjoy it.” Fortunately for her the conversation headed in another direction before I could get started on my motivational lecture about everyone being a beginner once, how it’s by doing that we learn, and not expecting every piece to work out, leading into the quote above.

This is not to say that on occasion I don’t produce a few paintings in a row that are “good”. That does happen, but I don’t expect it to and thus the frustration when I don’t is less.

I have learnt that regularly a piece I am particularly pleased with is followed by a dubious one. I put these into the category of “trying to hard”, where I am inhibiting what I am doing by mentally comparing it to the previous. I haven’t yet found a way around this, and perhaps there isn’t.

The ink drawing below is a pleinair piece done at the old harbour in Portsoy, with a touch of watercolour. I did several others that day, but this is the one hanging up in my studio. What makes it work for me isn’t the expressive line, much as I am pleased with this, nor the contrast of the b&w and splash of colour, but the white space at the bottom left where I didn’t finish drawing the harbour wall but left it for the viewer to complete in their mind.

Monday Motivator: Brushstrokes

Monday Motivator
Monday Motivator

“The best kind of practice is painting from living subjects in changing light, because the dynamics and risk adds more focus than you’re going to get under controlled studio conditions.

… Think how economical and automatic your movements are when you wash dishes or tie your shoes. That’s the way you want your brushwork to be. Your brushwork should be deliberate and controlled, but occasionally wild and impetuous.”

James Gurney, 10 Tips for Better Brushstrokes

Note that little four-letter word “risk”.

If that’s too scary a word, try “uncertainty”.

It can either stop you from even attempting a painting, or be freeing as you accept that your job is to see what develops.

Learning brushwork requires time, which we’re often reluctant to grant ourselves. It took you how long to learn to control a pencil, to makes squiggles and lines into letters, and these into legible words? Fortunately with brushstrokes we’ve a headstart as we’ve already got the dexterity in our hands from writing. The next step is exploring what marks a brush will produce, and the step after that is doing it so often it becomes ingrained knowledge.

Monday Motivator: A Sketchbook is a Working-Out Space

Monday Motivator

“Knowing that the sketchbook is a ‘working out’ space is super important to me, it allows me to reframe that space as somewhere where the mess, mistakes, and crossing out is allowed, and nothing needs to be finished or fully realised. I can’t imagine the energy I would lose if I looked at the pages as if each needed to be a perfectly articulated rendering of my practice. The beauty of them is that one page might be a bit of a mess and the next page might hold a really great image that inspires a painting.”

Inside the Sketchbook of Katie Eraser
13th June 2024 by Clare McNamara Jackson art blog

I prefer single sheets of paper to a sketchbook for when I’m drawing or painting because there feels like there’s less pressure to “get it right”, that it won’t live amongst the other pages permanently haunting me. Conversely, I like a sketchbook when I’m pursuing something because then all the little bits live together.

Highland cow sketchbook page

If I were more systematic, I could paste pieces done on loose sheets into a sketchbook along with attempts, breakdowns, colour studies, so it puts all the elements together. And photos of any painting that’s developed from these. But that feels like Work with a capital W, so it’s not happened. Yet.

Sketchbook page from river at Uig, Skye

Photos: B&W at Crovie

The sea level path between Gardenstown and Crovie was closed after part of the hillside came down following heavy rain, so it’s been a while since I enjoyed the unfurling of the view as you walk around the corner. Did I keep eyeing the hillside above me even as I reminded myself it hadn’t been raining, not linger as long to admire the colours and bits in the conglomerate rock, walk a little faster? Well, yes, but it was worth it for the reminder of all the paintable possibilities.

Why do I prefer these photos as B&W rather than colour? I’m enjoying how it emphasises shape and pattern without the distraction of colours. The in-house art critic and I both enjoy B&W, though we have wondered if it’s generational because we grew up with B&W photography (and in his case B&W TV) and thus learnt to “see the colour” or “read it”.

Monday Motivator: Cherry-Pick Information

Reference photo tree rings
Monday Motivator

“Wading through the fog of the past to cherry-pick the information you want requires hindsight, knowledge after the fact of what matters. What you need is not a journal, but a time machine.

“On some level, a journal* is a play for control. It is a fight against the fear of loss. The hoarder’s fear, that one will lose anything that might ever be useful. A fear of growing older, losing one’s youth, and forgetting. … If you are not writing it all down, the reasoning goes, constantly creating material so that it may pay dividends in the future, what the hell are you doing?

“Well, living, I suppose, which matters for writing** too.”

Dennis Tang, “Against Journaling“, Literary Hub 11/4/24

* sketchbook
**drawing/painting


Draw every day. Carry a sketchbook with you every where you go. If you’re busy, sketch for 10 minutes before you go to sleep. We’ve all encountered this advice about how you need to draw every single day or you’re doomed to mediocrity. The fear of missing a day, missing an opportunity for lack of a pencil and sketchbook. It builds with every repeat.

So don’t.

I far prefer “more days than not”, and this may be in a week or a month, even a year if you tend to hibernate during winter or life is demanding a lot from you right now.

Stress and anxiety will harm your creativity far more than not drawing every single day. Aim to enjoy the activity of drawing, not to hoard sketchbooks full of drawings.

Reference photo tree rings

Monday Motivator: A Drawing is Not a Moment in Time

Pebble with lines that make the shape of the letter Y
Monday Motivator

“A drawing, even when made from direct observation, does not capture a moment in time. It is much more creative and powerful than that.

“A drawing encapsulates the totality of all the time spent drawing at a location. The drawn scene is not a moment, but a timelapse video on paper.

“… To paint the Waterloo Bridge in London before dawn, the artist Claude Monet visited the same location dozens of times to capture the light and shadows … His final painting was made in his studio from memory and the information he had ‘recorded’ on location.”

Nishant Jain, “A Drawing is Not a Moment in Time”, The SneakyArt Post 22/5/24

One of the reasons I enjoy visiting a location again and again is noticing what attracts my attention each time, whether I’m walking or drawing.

If I’m wandering along looking at pebbles, what makes me reach to pick up a pebble changes but on a particular occasion is typically dominated by one characteristic though I can’t predict what it might be. Sometimes it’s pebbles with a strip, others pebbles with two areas of contrasting colours or textures. The pebbles with orange and white stripes that I have found at one location only. The ones that have been shapd by the sea into a heart or contain letters of the alphabet.

Pebbles in the shape of a heart
A collection of pebbles and sea pottery in the shape of triangles
Pebble, sea pottery, and brick
Pebble with lines that make the shape of the letter Y
Y

When I paint a seascape in which the pebbles are small, the memories of these individual ones influence the colours I use. From a distance a beach may seem to have a mass of grey pebbles, but up close there’s a whole lot more colour. Especially on a rainy day when the water reveals the colours in the scuffed surfaces.

Monday Motivator: Procrastination

Monday Motivator

“We procrastinate when we think we can’t handle the stress or difficulty of one or more tasks, or we don’t trust ourselves to handle any bad outcomes we fear from doing those tasks … If we trusted ourselves completely, we could just do the task and deal with the stress that comes from it, and deal with whatever comes after.”

Leo Babauta, “Building Trust in Yourself“, Zen Habits

Dealing with the outcome of what we did with a pencil or brush, the gap between what we envisaged doing and actually did. The fear of getting it wrong before we’ve even tried. Rarely permitting ourselves the time and materials and headspace to learn because we expect it to happen faster.

We need a safe, nurturing environment to develop creatively, not a critical, judgemental one. As we’re so often our own harshest critic, turning down the volume of this self-criticism is crucial. Procrastinate with the criticism not the creating.

I don’t often use graphite pencil when drawing or painting the sea, but on this day I was motivated to try by having “pencil drawing homework” to do for an online expressive drawing workshop led by artist Alan McGowan (he’s a figurative artist but we could draw anything). I pleasantly surprised myself and have tried again since. Looking at it today, I feel reminded about the weight of a line (how dark or light as well as the width) and more careful observation/depiction.

Details From My “The Daisies Are Out” Painting

Up close the painting reveals its secrets, tells you more of its story. How the brush moved across the surface, here slow and there fast. Suddenly the brush is turned and the tip of the handle scraped through wet paint for a sense of things seen in shadows. The brush bristles are dipped into water to mix juicier paint to place over paint applied with a scratchier brush. Splatters of pollen fly across.

In a painting every plant can flower at the same time, a memory of all the colours of spring and summer together in sunshine and rain.

“Flower Garden: The Daisies Are Out”, acrylic on wood panel, 84x59cm (33×23″). £695 unframed

Monday Motivator: The Colour of Water

Monday Motivator

“Water … is both transparent and reflective. It is, therefore very susceptible to light, the bearer of color.

… since it mirrors the sky which it faces directly, it absorbs and reflects the blue of the atmosphere. In instances where it is strongly green, there is always a light-colored sand at the shore and under the water which, mixed with blue, no doubt produce green.

… Though water reflects perfectly when it is smooth, a surface broken with ripples and waves changes the reflected parts considerably. Some parts will mirror the sky overhead, others, the places near the horizon, others the sunlight, while still other parts will be in shadow. The effect is not a gradation, but a mosaic of several different tones.”

Nathan Cabot Hale, “Abstraction in Art & Nature”, page 267

The difference in a reflection in still water and ripples water can easily be seen in this photo I took at Portsoy harbour. Where the water is rippled, the reflected mast is zigzagged. Where it’s still, in the calm of the inner harbour, the mast is straight. The former is arguably easier to paint because we can’t compare a squiggly reflection with the object that’s being reflected.

Also notice how the turquoise blue of the boat is echoed by the colour in the water. If you squint (half close your eyes) it becomes more evident, particularly at the end of the harbour wall on the left. Keep squinting and have a look at how much blue you see reflected in the sea towards the bottom right.

Monday Motivator: Don’t Do Too Much Preparation for a Painting

Monday Motivator

“The way that you start a painting can have a tremendous influence on its ultimate success or failure. A common tendency is to do too much preparation, or start with too fixed an objective.

… Rather than aiming to create an exact likeness of the subject matter, I think it is more important that the painting itself is interesting and shows a personal interpretation.”

Mike Bernard, “Collage, Colour, and Texture in Painting”, page 8

What makes a painting interesting besides its subject matter? The colours (which doesn’t necessarily equate to “lots of colour” nor bright, saturated colour), the way the paint is applied (the mark making, the brush strokes, the “hand of the artist”), the difference in what you see as you get closer and closer (“rewards close looking”).

Subject and initial composition are the starting point in a painting, not the end point.

SOLD “View Across the Minch from My Studio” by Marion Boddy-Evans (2018). Diptych 120x80cm.)