Remember the painting with the little yellow tree on the riverbank that had been in “pondering mode” for some time (see Does This Painting Need More Sunshine)? Well, it stayed in pondering mode until last week. In the end I did very little too it, only adding some extra white to the river. I found that as the days got longer and mid-winter darkness receded, the painting revealed more and more colour, and it was indeed nearly finished.
Now all it needs is a title; I’m hearing “The Little Tree That Could” in my head for not-quite fathomable reasons, but think that something like “Flowing Past” would be a better fit for my “Flow” exhibition. Any suggestions? But please not “A River Flows Through It”; when I worked as sub-editor at Getaway travel magazine photojournalists loved that almost as much as the word “experience” (as in “dining experience”, “bush experience”, “4×4 experience”).
Here’s a photo of the painting overall, and below that a detail that’s about lifesize (click on it to see the photo bigger).
“Chaos in nature is immediately challenging and forces a good artist to impose some type of order on his or her perception of a site. When I find a scene that provides that type of challenge, I return to it over and over again, both physically and mentally in the studio, continually searching for new insights.? — Wolf Kahn Quote source: ?A studio visit with Wolf Kahn?, American Artist, May 1997
The position of the sun on its annual and daily geographical journeys, the density or absence of clouds, whether these are loaded with drizzle, rain, sleet, snow or merely threatening as they are driven along the Minch by wind, how fast the wind changes the patterns of light and shadow… the windows I look through every day may show the same bit of landscape but it is never the same. There are similar conditions and occasions, but never identical. Familiar but different, both in the looking and painting.
New images and emotional responses are added to my memories. My starting inspiration changes. In the icy weather we’ve been having I’ve seen a tantalizing cobalt teal layer on the sea, over dark Prussian blue depths and below clouds that become bottom-heavy with deep greys (Prussian blue + burnt umber + titanium white) then streak down, hiding the sea in a glaze of sleet. As I write this there’s low cloud hiding the horizon, the divide between sea and sky; if I were painting it’d be time to reach for some more titanium white to lighten the grey.
I’ve been painting miniatures, most of which will become brooches and pendants in my Wearable Art range. I had a mishap with the fluorescent orange paint, it coming out the container a little too enthusiastically, resulting in a puddle of it on one brooch, which is why the two polar bears ended up that colour.
In case you were wondering about the surface I’m working on, it’s the back of a canvas still wrapped in plastic. Why is not some great mystery (nor connected to polar bears in some sort of obscure Lost reference); it’s simply that it was within reach when I needed a flat surface. And the polar bears won’t remain orange, they’ll be overpainted with iridescent white so there’s only a hint of it.
There’s one brooch with black that looks like a Rorschach test to me (photo below). It may well get another layer of paint or it may be one I keep, depending on how I feel about it tomorrow when the paint’s dry.
“If one were walking along a barren, sandy beach and came upon two objects, a jagged stone and a smooth, water-worn pebble, both about the same size and material, chances are one would pick up the pebble and ignore the rough stone.
“…In addition to being of greater tactile and visual interest than the rough stone, the pebble would represent a form at the end of the process of erosion. It’s ‘life history’ would include having once been a fragment, like the stone…” Vision and Invention by Calvin Harlan, page 140
Paintings that reveal different parts of themselves as the light changes, that reward looking up close differently to looking from a distance, that don’t tell you everything at once, those are the water-worn pebbles.
Yesterday I painted the edges on some of the paintings that will be in my solo exhibition opening at Skyeworks on the 30th March. I started with the darkest edges, straight-from-the-tube Prussian blue, then mixed up various lighter blues and grey-blues, depending on the subject. It’s frustrating to mix an edge colour and then run out before you’ve finished all four sides, so I wasn’t surprised that I ended up with some left over. I dug out a blank canvas with the thought that I’d use the leftovers as a coloured ground for some future Minch seascape.
My easel being occupied with two paintings dangling on it so their edges could dry, I put the new canvas on the floor. I spread the leftover blue on the canvas, creating a horizon line and working down, then dipped the brush in water to get more paint out of it before washing it. I used a knife to scrape down the palette and spread these last bits of paint on the canvas. Then my brain started saying: “This is rather a lovely blue”, “Those are rather lovely brushmarks”, “What would happen if you used some of those fluid colours that are standing around the base of your easel just to the right?” And before I knew it, I was working wet-on-wet with an array of colours.
It’s unusual for me to work flat because invariably a studio cat comes along to investigate. Sure enough, a curious white face appeared, and had to be dissuaded from walking on the canvas. That done, he tried sitting on my shoulders to watch what was going on. Finally he encouraged to rather be elsewhere, and I looked again at what I’d done. I liked it, could see various ways to develop it, and knew I should resist fiddling. This photo shows what it looked like this morning when it had all dried.
This photo shows where it was this afternoon, with the sky reworked and a few tweaks made to the sea and foreground. It’s a lot more abstract that my other recent paintings, and the style different, without the long drips of paint because it was created flat. There’s much I’m enjoying about it, and am intrigued to hear what other people think (so do post a comment below!)
Here’s a detail from the painting; if you click on the photo you’ll get a larger version, about actual size.
When artist Marlene Dumas ‘first picks up her brush, she has to work through the kitsch feeling ? the sheer ridiculousness and grandiosity involved in standing in front of a canvas… ?The biggest difficulty for me is to be able to concentrate properly … Every time I start up again, I think: I don?t know if I know how to make a painting. …But the good thing now is I know I will feel all these things [in advance]. Otherwise I would be desperate.’
It’s a form of creative block, feeling you’re repeating yourself, feeling unchallenged or unstimulated by what you’re painting. It doesn’t mean you’ve lost your ability nor that you’re never going to produce a fabulous painting ever again. It means you’re ready to grow artistically, to move your artistic goalposts. Here are four suggestions of ways to do this.
1. Study a New Artist
We all have artists whose work we like, paintings we wish we’d created. Move from admiring mode to emulating: make a close study to unpick what exactly it is you like about it. It might be composition, colour usage, mark making, tone, a repeated element. Make notes in a sketchbook, do thumbnails, analyse, write down thoughts, don’t self-censor. Don’t settle for “I’m not sure” or “Everything” or “I know but can’t put it into words”. Work as if you were going to tell someone else, finding answers and explanations of what you like in that artist’s painting.
Use this info to paint a favourite subject, apply the new approach to what you’ve been doing. Or make a copy of one of their paintings as a personal (private not public) learning exercise. Don’t try a new subject and new style simultaneously because you risk confusing problems that are with the subject and problems with technique.
On my current list for a closer, slow investigation is Turner for his painting of atmosphere, beyond mere clouds, and at some point I still want to investigate C?zanne more, for his approach to composition and viewpoint.
2. Study a Long-Time Favourite Artist Again
Make a list of your favourite artists, arranged chronologically as you discovered them (as best you can remember). Pick one to study again; you’ve developed artistically and will look at their paintings differently, appreciating and learning new things. Vincent van Gogh has long been a favourite of mine, but which paintings I like changes and I still encounter ones I don’t recall seeing, such asStill Life with Vegetables (it helps he was so prolific!).
3. Change Mediums or a Habit
It’s easy to get into habits with a familiar medium, to do things a certain way through muscle memory and because that’s what we have learnt works. Change something, do something differently. Make a list of how you approach a painting, what the steps are in its creation, then select something to change.
For instance, if you always start on a white background, try different coloured grounds. Paint on paper rather than canvas. If you paint from light to dark, start with a dark ground and paint towards light. If you’re a watercolourist, add white gouache to your palette to enable you to add light onto dark. Never used a sword or fan brush, for instance; try one to see what you can do with it.
I typically do a loose sketch, then block in areas of colour, then work towards detail in layers. A change would be to work wet-on-wet, to complete the whole painting in one go rather than letting it dry before adding another layer. The challenge will be to get the level of detail I want with wet-on-wet paint (it’s possible, especially if I remember to wipe my brush regularly to help keep colours purer). Alternatively, I could do a completely monochromatic tonal underpainting in greys, leave it to dry, then glaze in colour.
At worst trying a new technique or material reminds you what you like about what you normally use or do. At best, it introduces new possibilities, ideas and inspiration.
4. Care Less About the Outcome
Creating a painting is certainly an investment in materials and time. But the more we worry about the end result, the more likely it’s going to be a dud because we second-guess what we’re doing and hesitate. If you’re worrying about wasting paint, use a series 1 colours, which are the cheapest, and investigate student brands for using in initial layers (such as to create a coloured ground).
If a painting isn’t going well, do something drastic, don’t tweak it. Spend a little time asking yourself “What if I…?”, and don’t try to protect the “good bits” (or if you really can’t help yourself, put masking tape over them, then paint over this). Add a lot of strong dark; glaze over with a semi-opaque colour; turn it upside down or sideways and continue painting the subject; exaggerate the brightest and darkest tones; loose areas into shadow; soften edges; suggest rather than tell. It isn’t easy to do, but suppress the doubt, ignore the butterflies, and do it anyway. You could make it worse, but it’s already not working so it doesn’t matter if you do.