Monday Motivator: Embrace Influence

“All artists’ work, if it ever sees the light of public day, enters that public domain to invite the response of a public among which artists themselves are numbered. And all artists are creatures of their time and place, and the art alike of past and present is not to be banished. Bound by no oath of creative isolation, they are entirely free to take from the work of others just what they find useful, or stimulating, or necessary to the work of the moment. The artist who admits no influence, betrays no curiosity, claims the uniqueness of his vision, is hardly an artist at all.”

William Packer, “Tain-Shan Schierenberg”, 2005, page 14

Whether we hate a painting (“what were they thinking?”) or love it (“wish I’d painted that”) or are intimidated by it (“I could never do that”), looking at other people’s art expands our own in ways that are unpredictable. It’s like trying different mediums; the outcome is rarely what you think beforehand and delights can come from unexpected directions.

Creating a copy of a painting has a long tradition in Western art. Besides the technical aspects of paint manipulation, it makes you spend more time looking at a painting that we typically do. If you’re working from a postcard you bought in the gallery shop, you’ll have to extrapolate to create a larger painting because the information isn’t there. If you’re working from a zoomable photo on a museum website, you could stress far too much time trying to replicate every single brushstroke. Be like Goldilocks and find a middle point that sees you painting your own version informed and inspired by the original but not trying to be an art forger.

Claude Monet (1840-1926), Wisteria, 1917-1920, oil on canvas, 150,5 x 200,5 cm, Kunstmuseum Den Haag.

Monday Motivator: Observe but Transform

“When I make a painting, I observe, but I also transform. You’re observing that they are this color, this shape, this size. They look like this, they feel like this, they smell like this. And then you try to put those things together in a painting.

“… You’re always frightened to start—you don’t want to because it’s too difficult. It’s much easier to look out of the window or read a book. But then, when you’re actually in it, you escape from everything.”

Rose Wylie, “Reading Upside Down: A Conversation with Rose Wylie” by Emily Stokes in Paris Review, 7 December 2021

Take a piece of paper and a pencil or pen or some paint and begin. Somewhere, anywhere. The less you feel able to because of world / national / personal events, the more it’s probably time well spent. Start anyway, setting aside the expectation and desire for a worthy result. Give yourself 15 minutes to push through the anguish, then put it aside and start again.

Monday Motivator: Just What Colour is ‘Sky Blue’?

“A serious pitfall when reading thousand-year-old Arabic texts is to assume that colour words then meant the same things then as they do now. This can completely throw off an investigation into art materials.

The most vivid example is ahmar, one of the first words anyone learns in Arabic, meaning red. It has always meant red, but the concept of red has not always been the same. In the 11th century, brown was seen as a shade of red … as for green, akhdar, beware of assuming it necessarily describes colour … because it’s equally likely to signify “fresh” …

“Sky blue” is not necessarily a light blue: in the clear dry air of the Middle-East, where sunlight is intense, the sky can look as dark as lapis lazuli, and the two are often equated. Today’s “blue”, azraq, which describes some ink recipes, may have simply meant they’re “shiny”, not blue at all.

Joumana Medlej, “Inks and Paints of the Middle East“, page 13

Jourmana Medlej is a London-based, Beirut-born artist who specializes in new and historical Kufic calligraphy (the origin of all Arabic calligraphy), and in preparing natural art materials. Her Twitter feed and Instagram are among my favourite reads; a guide into cultural styles, history, art and calligraphy I know so little about. And then there’s her treasure boxes…!

Ploughed Field Painting by Vincent van Gogh

Thinking about this month’s furrows painting project (instructions here), and how Vincent van Gogh might have painted “interesting browns”, led me to searching the Van Gogh Museum website where I came across this painting which I think fits the project rather well:

Ploughed Fields (‘The Furrows’) by Vincent van Gogh 1888, oil on canvas, 72.5 cm x 92.5 cm. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

In his letter to his brother Theo of 25 September 1888, Van Gogh drew a sketch of his painting, describing it as “canvas of ploughed fields.. A blue sky with white clouds. An immense field of an ashy lilac, furrows, innumerable clods of earth, the horizon of blue hills and green bushes and small farmsteads with orange-coloured roofs.

He mentions it again in another letter to Theo written the next day: “the clods of earth were soft in colour, like a pair of clogs … with the forget-me-not sky with its flecks of white cloud.” In a letter a few days later he describes the painting as “calmer than some other canvases.”

On the Van Gogh Museum website you can zoom right in on the painting to really see the colours (click here, then use the icons towards the right of the page). Below is a detail from one area:

The colours are all desaturated (that is muted, not intensely colourful), but look at the variety used to paint the ploughed soil. It’s the variety of colours that makes it visually interesting, along with the brushwork (look at the size of brushstrokes as well as the directions). Browns that lean into yellow, orange, red, and green, plus blue- and green-greys. Individually the colours may not sing a strong tune, but collectively they’re melodious.

Don’t aim to mix one ‘perfect brown’ that you’d then use for all the ploughed earth, but to create a range of ‘nearly brown’. Squint at the photo and you’ll see there’s a limited tonal range; it’s all about the gently variations in colour.

Monday Motivator: Change and Difference

“Each work joins the next in a line that defines the passage of my life, marking and accounting for my time and creating a momentus which gives me a strong sense of anticipation for the future. Each piece is individual, but I also see the line combined as a single work.

“Time and change are connected to place. Real change is best understood by staying in one place. When I travel, I see differences rather than change.”

Andy Goldsworthy, “Time”, page 7

Sometimes an idea sparks a tangential line as we try something different; sometimes it’s a permanent change in direction.

uig woodland backlit leaves

Monday Motivator: Storms

Monsieur P Artiste Monday Motivator from Marion Boddy-Evans Isle of Skye art Studio
Monsieur P Artiste Monday Motivator from Marion Boddy-Evans Isle of Skye art Studio

“Storms can be seen and drawn in two ways: firstly as a subject and secondly as a gestural storm on the paper. The very nature of both is turmoil and an interweaving of elements, inks, makes, water, and tossed objects.”

Sarah Simblet, The Drawing Book, page 200

Vincent van Gogh might be said to symbolize a third storm, that of the artist’s temperament, our emotional weather.

In 1890 he wrote to his mother about a painting with a stormy sky he’d done: “And while my illness was at its worst, I still painted, among other things a reminiscence of Brabant, cottages with mossy roofs and beech hedges on an autumn evening with a stormy sky, the sun setting red in reddish clouds.

Reminiscence of Brabant” by VIncent van Gogh. 1890, oil on canvas on panel, 29.4 cm x 36.5 cm. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

Monday Motivator: Confirming by Misjudging

“An artist’s early work is inevitably made up of a mixture of tendencies and interests, some of which are compatible and some of which are in conflict with each other. As the artist picks his way, rejecting and accepting as he goes, certain patterns of enquiry emerge. His failures are as valuable as his successes, in that by misjudging one thing he confirms something else, even if at the time he does not know what that something else is.”

Bridget Riley, “Mondrian Perceived, 1997”, in “The Eye’s Mind: Bridget Riley Collected Writings 1965-2019”, page 378

I remember a figure-painting evening class, back when I was living in London, in which you picked three colours and used these for light, medium and dark tones, then chose another three colours to overpaint and refine the tones. My painting went from bad to worse to dire. The tutor tried hard to be encouraging about it, but at the end of the session I could but laugh at my painting and we ended up agreeing it clearly wasn’t an approach that was working for me. Eventually I’d realise my issue was that I get seduced by colour regardless of tone, and start to deliberately add darker tone as a step in creating a painting.

Monday Motivator: Sometimes, Avoid the Vistas

“I sometimes avoid vistas, preferring to study more intimate subjects such as a rocky outcrop or tree trunk. These sketches usually end up being reference material for larger studio paintings.

“… Because I don’t mean to display these sketches, I don’t overly concern myself with design. Rather than worrying about the rule of thirds, for example, I place my marks in an intuitive way; I’m more concerned about studying my subject than placing it neatly within some framework.”

Michael Chelsey Johnson, “Beautiful Landscape Painting Outdoors” page 133

When deciding what to leave out of a painting, the answer is sometimes “nearly everything”.

When deciding how to arrange things in a composition, the answer is sometimes “anywhere, stop procrastinating and get painting”.

And when deciding where to position yourself to paint on location, the answer might be under a bridge.

Michael Chelsey Johnson sketching at Sligachan on Skye
(Photo from June 2018 when I had the joy of painting alongside Michael Chelsey Johnson on his art retreat to Skye. You can see Michael’s painting on his blog here.)

Monday Motivator: Swap Big and Small

“The sea and the sky and the horizon are such big motifs, that they are hard to describe with just pencil and paper. So, take the small details: a pebble, the skeletons of summer weeds, the crannies of rocks … blow them up, and make them the focus of the image. Use them to describe the feeling of the big elements.”

David Mankin, “Remembering in Paint” by Kate Reeve-Edwards, page 18

Sound simple doesn’t it? Follow Mankin’s underlying principle and you’ll produce abstract paintings as intriguing as his. Except it’s merely the underlying grammar; you still have to find the words (colours, shapes, marks) with which you build the poetry. And where do you find these? By trying, and trying again, until your fingers and wrists have vocabulary.

“8 Pebbles”, watercolour on paper.

Monday Motivator: Follow Failure’s Lead

“We hate to fail. It makes us feel like we’ve done something wrong. But by putting yourself in a position to fail … you’ve done something very right.

“The first step down any path is most likely failure. … Failure is a teacher — just not always the kindest teacher. Its lesson is not to quit … to learn from failure, to follow its lead.”

James Victore, “Feck Perfuction”, Chapter Two:12

Tackling subjects or styles that are beyond what you know you can already paint is setting yourself up for failure, but also for discovery, learning, exploration. Acknowledging before you start painting that you probably won’t succeed to your satisfaction start gives you the freedom to try, to see what happens, how close you narrow the gap between what you envisage and achieve.

Give yourself as much credit for what goes right as you do stick for what hasn’t. Speak to yourself with the same encouraging words and humour you’d use for a friend. Don’t shroud yourself in a dark cloud of doom and failure. Watch out for judging with heightened emotions; rather reassess in the relative calm of a new day. Revenge is a dish best served cold, and your revenge on a painting that’s failed is to look at it critically, find what’s worked and not, then try again, not to instantly tear it into tiny pieces.

I made I don’t know how many attempts at painting the double waterfall on the Rha RIver in Uig, Skye, before I got one that delighted me. Both studio paintings and on-location. One on the long horizontal canvas (photo below) was so nearly there, but I lost my courage and stopped whilst it still had potential to end well rather than trying to achieve it.

Painting River Rha Waterfall

The one that ultimately delights me the most came not too long afterwards, and was the biggest painting I’d done to date, 200x100cm (78×39 inches). For me it captures the autumnal colours, the coolness and subdued light, combines brushwork and line, and tells different stories when viewed from a distance or up close.

Never Still, inspired by River Rha near Uig. Diptych 200x100cm (two panels of 100x100cm). In my personal collection