It’s worth a moment to contemplate the wordplay on phrases like “I’ve got no time to paint.” The word “got” implies inventory — like painting time is something you found in your pocket, or at the rear of the pantry.
… I do feel like painting for a little while in the evenings is akin to posting a flag titled “Mine” into a teeny part of the day that would otherwise get away from me, without any art in it at all.
More days with something creative than not, however small, that for me is the aim. Keeping the definition open, because all sorts of things count. It’s a joy to have a studio space where my art supplies and works in progress are always waiting for me, and I can sit surrounded by it on days I can’t paint because I’m out of spoons. The studio cats are ever encouraging, moving brushes from the table to the floor so I get to enjoy the feel of a brush in my hand as I pick them up.
“What should preoccupy you most is not the grand panorama of the sea environment but the more artistically interesting elements such as the swirling motion of the water, the texture of the bubbles, foam, and spray, the shapes of tumbling white surf … make many drawings, one right after another, until you feel you’ve captured the water movement both in line and wash. … aim for a more ambitious kind of realism, one with higher aspirations and more enduring concerns than a simple description of the scene.”
Edward Betts, “Creative Seascape Painting”, page 60
A painting that “looks like a photograph” is achievement in terms of painting technique, skill, and practice. It’s skill to be aspired to, celebrated through the steps of its aquisition, and enjoyed doing. But it’s only part of the encyclopedia of possibilities in art, there’s still always lots more to learn about and try.
Tactile things to be done with physical materials, in paint, pen, pencil, and by a hand moving the material across a surface. Listen to graphite tickling the paper, feel the squishiness of a paint tube, the bounce in a brush. Convey the swirl of the wind, the rolling of pebbles on a shore, the squelch of wet mud grabbing hold of your feet, the gentle kiss of winter sun in a high latitude.
“From food to philosophy, from medicine to art, most of what keeps us alive, and most of what makes life worthwhile, are things that were invented not by members of my specific nation but by people from across the whole world. … Every human being is heir to the whole of human creation. People who in search of their identity narrow their world to the story of a single nation are turning their back on their humanity. They devalue what they share with all other humans.”
The sharpenable pencil as we know it, a core of graphite mixed with clay and water that’s baked to harden it before being wrapped in wood, goes back to Conte (the person, not the brand). Before this pieces of graphite, and the reasons why we still call the core of a pencil “lead”.
The paper we use a pencil on, once a rare luxury item, but which in this era can be bought in a supermarket by the ream, for not very much at all per sheet, labelled as “printer paper”. Yet also as a specialist item from papermakers still using traditional methods and creating sheet after sheet by hand.
Why lapis lazuli was used so sparingly in Western European painting for so long, then the creation of a synthetic version of ultramarine let it become a blue so many contemporary artists consider indispensable.
Choose joy. Choose it like a child chooses the … crayon to paint a sky. Choose it at first consciously, effortfully, pressing against the weight of a world heavy with reasons for sorrow, restless with need for action. Feel the sorrow, take the action, but keep pressing the weight of joy against it all, until it becomes mindless, automated, like gravity pulling the stream down its course; until it becomes an inner law of nature.
… Joy is not a function of a life free of friction and frustration, but a function of focus — an inner elevation by the fulcrum of choice. So often, it is a matter of attending to … “the little joys”; so often, those are the slender threads of which we weave the lifeline that saves us.
“…negative space is more subtle, beginning wherever positive space ends. It is the peripheral area, the space surrounding the occupied space. …
“When you are composing negative space, remember that negative space is limited by the format of the painting surface. The shapes of the positive space, in contrast, as usually centrally located. Negative space also often needs to be broken up into smaller shapes and then integrated with the balance of the painting.”
Albert Handell and Leslie Trainor Handell, “Intuitive Composition”, page 34
Think of space in a painting the way Monet advised us not to paint objects (tree, house, field) but instead paint shapes of colour (a square of blue, an oblong of pink, a streak of yellow). The composition of a painting is not “important space” — occupied by the subject — surrounded by “empty space”, it’s all crucial to the result. Some parts may take less time to paint, but that’s a measure of time spent not importance to the composition.
When last, when a painting wasn’t working, did you contemplate the negative space in your composition?
“A painting or drawing is an accumulation of marks made over time, a process that the viewer may be able to decipher or that the artist may emphasize. The layering of the image visualizes temporality as unfolding, in process, almost geological.
A monotype, though, is printed at a particular moment in the development of the image on the plate. The artist must work relatively quickly, before the medium dries, and can make wholesale changes right up until the plate goes through the press; as an index of that final instant, the resulting impression is a kind of arrest, a way of freezing the gestures of making in time.”
Delayed gratification: you don’t know what the print will look like until you lift the sheet of paper. Serendipity being part of the result generates excitement and anxiety. Committing to the moment — now I’ll print it — and learning acceptance for whatever results.
With a painting you could work on it further tomorrow and no-one else would be able to tell that you’d stopped and restarted. With a monoprint the dynamic is different. Degas on occasion continued with pastel.
“Prioritize friendships with people who encourage your art, because they know how important it is to you. Let them know, gently but firmly, that encouragement is the nourishment you need, rather than expectation or pressure. Because you already excel at expectation and pressure. It’s the gentle stuff you need help with.”
A friend of mine joined an urban sketching group meetup this month for the first time ever, and has found herself thinking about sketching outside during her lunch break. I’d been hoping she might, but hadn’t said anything because going along to your first sketch meeting is stressful enough. I was impressed it only took one meetup; I’d thought it might take a few.
Sketching on location is a combination of so many of the things we both enjoy: being outside, drawing, looking, people/nature watching, tactile interaction with materials, creating something from nothing. But if I’d told her I was thinking of the next step before she’d even done the first, what she might/could/should do, then she’d have felt so pressurised she might have backed out of joining the group’s meetup and how guilty wouldn’t I have felt then.
Now we’re talking about “going for a walk around and looking at the trees with sketching eyes instead of gardening eyes” . About ways to reduce the pressure on herself, such as picking one tree and doing a series of sketches of this. Setting the aim to be not “every lunch”, but “once a week”. Not “sketch the whole scene” but “pick a detail”.
I’m really excited to see where this will take her, but also that it’s already taken her this far knowing what the starting point was. It also reminds me to look anew at trees, and to be gentle on myself when I am trying a new subject (i’ve been putting off sketching fishing boats) or revisiting something I haven’t painted for a while (thinking of figures for the online drawing workshop I’m doing).
“Switching tasks helps reduce something called cognitive fixation, the tendency to get stuck in one particular approach to a problem. Turning to another task gets us out of this rut, seeing different possibilities.”
Applying this idea to painting, don’t change the task (making a painting) but change what you’re using to do the task (the medium you’re using). With oil paint you could use oil sticks or oil pastels. With acrylic paint, you could use ink or acrylic marker pens. With watercolour you could use pencil. With pencil you could add in a wash, or collage. The list goes on and is limited only by what you have to hand (and the fundamental rules about what sticks to what).
The first time I encountered the suggestion of changing medium but to keep working on the same spot in order to solve a problem was in a still life workshop in 2017 in Edinburgh at the Leith Art School led by Kittie Jones. I don’t recall her exact words, but it was along the lines of if you’re struggling to make something work, don’t shift your focus to another part of the painting but change mediums and keep working on that spot.
It’s like changing gears, a fresh start whilst still moving the whole painting forward. It’s become something that’s part of the way I paint, sometimes switching what I’m using to apply paint rather than the medium.
The other thing I remember well from this workshop was tearing a hole in my sheet of paper and solving this by simply sticking another piece behind it and keeping going. What we learn from a workshop often isn’t what we expected!
Next time you’re out somewhere with a friend, ask them what they’re seeing; almost guaranteed they’re not focused on the same things you are. You can play this game by yourself at a location you visit regularly (or even sitting at home) by making a record of what’s caught your eye or by comparing photos you took.
When I walk along a pebble beach I generally find myself noticing one pattern or colour more than anything else on each occasion: wide stripes, pinstripes, single lines, circles, conglomerate, two contrasting types of rock in one pebble, quartz, orange, red, green-grey, blue-grey.
Last time it was the orange striped pebbles I have found only on that beach. I think it’s because I spotted a couple of largish ones early on in my meander, and then my eyes tuned into those colours between everything else. The tide will move and mix them again several times before I walk there again.
“Accepting what your drawings look like now is important. You cannot learn to make more effective drawings if you don’t first draw.
“… The point isn’t to make ‘good’ drawings. The point is to draw. Learn the feel of the pencil against the paper, the different angles you hold your wrist, the motion of your whole arm when you draw from your shoulder.”
Chris Gavaler and Leigh Ann Beavers, “Creating Comics: A Writer’s and Arist’s Guide and Anthology“, page 25
Note the term “effective” in the quote. Isn’t this far more useful for judging a drawing than “good” or “bad”? A drawing I am unhappy about can still be effective in what it teaches me.
Accepting the gap between where our drawing skills are today and what we wish they were is part of how we narrow that gap. Berating yourself for perceived shortcomings is a misdirection of energy, and won’t solve the issue, so keep the pity-party short and try again.
One of the most frustrating things for me is that when I do try again, I frequently end up with a result I am even less pleased about. I know it happens, I recognise it when it happens, and the more desperately I want something to turn out well, the more likely it is to not. I have a category I file these pieces under: Trying Too Hard.
I also know from experience that if I can keep going, I usually get to a satisfactory result. I don’t always try again, sometimes I stop drawing. Other times I change mediums so I can’t make a direct comparison between my next piece and the previous.
That’s what I did on the morning I drew the two plein-air pieces below. I was a bit ambivalent about my pencil drawing and swapped to watercolour for another go at the scene.
I changed the composition too, focusing in closer on a smaller part of the edge of the bay. I got it to a point where I was feeling happy, and stood up to get a photo, having forgotten how windy it was because I’d been so absorbed in my painting.
As I took the photo above, the wind caught the edge of the paper and blew it onto the pebbles. A bit of wild scrabbling and I was able to get hold of it fortunately. If you compare the bottom of the photos above and below, you’ll see the wind’s contribution to the painting, creating drips off the edge. I rather like it.