Betts goes on to say how important it is to develop “the finest technique possible” but that this is not the ultimate goal, it’s a means to an end, a point of departure.
There’s a tremendous satisfaction in realism — the close looking, the details, the technical challenges — but for me there also needs to be poetry mixed with the paint — colour, mark making, hand of the artist — and it not stop at “like a photo” real.
I think the ultimate goal is a painting that shows the world filtered through a particular person’s eyes and mind, not one that could have been done by a subset of artists. How do we get distinctive? As always, practise, curiosity, and persistence.
“Orient your shading lines such that they show the path that a raindrop on the rock would take across the surface (down) and horizontal for a flat surface. If the plane is not facing straight toward the viewer, down will not be vertical but at an angle.”
— John Muir Laws, How to Draw Rocks
Another one I know, though I can’t remember from where, is it visualise how your fingers curve if you pick up an object, and make your lines/brushmarks follow that.
“The creative journey is not one in which at the end you wake up in some mythical, happy, foreign land. The creative journey is one in which you wake up every day, like Phil*, with more work to do.” — Austin Kleon, Want to be an artist? Watch Groundhog Day, 13 July 2017
[*in the film “Groundhog Day”]
It’s not that you get a report card on yesterday that says “could do better/could try harder/not living up to potential/not applying yourself fully” but more like a reset button, a “have another go” card. We can’t change what we did or didn’t do yesterday, but we haven’t yet done or not done what we will today.
“Let go of the thing that you’re trying to be (the noun), and focus on the actual work you need to be doing (the verb).”
— Austin Kleon, The Noun and the Verb
This is a quote that’s a strong motivator for me. It’s similar to another long-time favourite: “You can’t cross the sea merely by standing and staring at the water” (poet Rabindranath Tagore).
If you want to be a artist, you have to draw and paint and make, not merely be in love with the idea of being creative.
Do I paint and draw every single day? No, I don’t. Some days days I even have lazy or lazy-ish days, what others might call “weekend”.
But this can lead to guilt of not “being productive”, so I often keep my fingers busy with something, most often wire. Yesterday I made this fish (necklace) while watching the first part of the Lord of the Rings (for the umpteenth time). It’ll join the shaol I am creating for Skyeworks Gallery‘s Fish exhibition opening just before Easter. For some reason I keep hearing Gandalf shouting “swim” when I look at it.
“One has to be receptive but instead of giving in and being a slave to all kinds of influences, one should digest them quietly and sift them, and then, I think, they come out as a new strength in the work.”
— Barbara Hepworth, in “Writing and Conversations“*
For something to have an influence, you must have have noticed it, seen things you like and/or wish you’d done, been intrigued enough to look longer or more closely, and to remember it. Filter, digest, and transform to make it your own.
Remain as curious as a studio cat, perpetually looking and poking at things, interspersed by spells of sleeping on it.
Quote source: ‘Ideas and the Artist: An Interview with Barbara hepworth’, Ideas of To-Day, London, Nov/Dec 1952, vol 2 no 4, quoted on page 73 of “Barbara Hepworth: Writing and Conversations edited by Sophie Bowness
“…in the painting I let my own head, in the sense of idea or imagination, work, which isn’t so much the case with studies, where no creative process may take place, but where one obtains food for one’s imagination from reality so that it becomes right.” Vincent van Gogh, letter to Theo, 28 April 1885
Or put another way: Everything you need to feed your imagination is right in front of you, if you take the time to look.
“Often times my work can look unfinished in a traditional sense, but at the same time feel finished the way it is. This is the area of work I love to explore, this balanced ‘incompleteness.’
“…a work is finished when what I try to capture with the mood, composition, and visual rhythm is there; even if that means the whole surface isn’t covered in paint or fully rendered. Adding more to a work doesn’t always make it better for me…”
— Daniel Segrove Daniel Segrove: Mundanity, interview by Debbie Chessell
Segrove is a contemporary figure painter who leaves areas of a composition “unfinished”. Does it create mystery and intrigue, or does it leave too much unsaid?
If “incomplete” unsettles you, try substituting the word “ambiguous”.
Does “finished” means “tells you the whole story”? Isn’t it more interesting to figure out part of the story yourself rather than be told?
Ultimately, I think, one person’s “finished” is another’s “still more to be done” and yet another’s “overworked”. Your painting, you decide.
Van Gogh first saw impressionist paintings in person in Paris at the eighth Impressionists group exhibition (15 May to 15 June 1886). He wasn’t initially impressed:
“…people have heard of the Impressionists, they have great expectations of them… and when they see them for the first time they’re bitterly, bitterly disappointed and find them careless, ugly, badly painted, badly drawn, bad in colour, everything that’s miserable. That was my first impression, too…” — Vincent van Gogh, writing to his sister Willemien, c20 June 1888.
However, it did make him think about the colours he was using:
“That initial reaction did not prevent him from noticing, however, that his own paintings were very gloomy in colour. A more direct influence from the contemporary art of the impressionists and neo-impressionists would become visible in Van Gogh’s paintings only in 1887”. — Marije Vellekoop,”Van Gogh at Work”, page 115
Influences may not be immediate, nor overt, nor dramatic. Denying influence would be like denying oxygen — we use it without being aware of it most of the time.
What we like, and why, changes. I like Turner’s paintings tremendously now, especially his later ones, whereas when I first wandered through the Turner wing in the Tate Modern I was quickly overloaded and befuddled. Perhaps it was the number of paintings? Now when I get the chance I always walk through the entire wing, stopping in front of a few for a closer contemplation.
Does my current enjoyment of painting in layers come from my looking at Turner or is it painting in layers that has led me to enjoying Turner, or a bit of both? Does it matter?
“… Freshness. Some call it confidence, or boldness, still others call it Courage. … it’s the leading emotion most often communicated from our own heart … through our arm and out to our brushstrokes.
“…The opposite of Freshness in art is a painting that’s been overworked. That is also reflective of the artist, but this unsureness or fear, also shows in the art, ironically it comes out as more work, or the look of busy brushwork. Watch out for this emotion, because it has a way of creeping into every brushstroke.”
So much easier said than done. Be fresh. Be courageous. Be creative. Be bold.
But how? If only we could find a yellow brick road to follow and find it.
Courage is overcoming the doubt, the niggling nag, and you find it in yourself. Others may encourage and support you, but ultimately you have to hold the brush yourself.
The risk of failure never goes away. Instead you learn to realise you’re not a one-trick pony, that a failed painting or drawing doesn’t make you a failure, it’s one failed painting. So you try again. You keep learning, you strive to learn, you endure, you persist.
How many one-time subjects have you painted? Do it once and never again but move onto something new? Even if you were pleased with the result, what else might you have done with it?
If you start with a fresh subject every single time you paint, you’re needing to establish everything from scratch. If you start with a subject that has a little familiarity, you’ve a head start.
People don’t (generally) whinge that Monet painted the same things over and over. Poplar trees. Hay stacks. Rouen cathedral (more than 30). His lily pond, again and again and again some 250 times. Rather we wonder at the different versions of the same thing, his persistent, in-depth study of colour and light in one subject chasing an intangible.
This is not to say you have to do it all at once. Three years separate these paintings of Monet’s:
Don’t let yourself be pressurised into moving on from a subject if you’re not ready to, or stopping you from coming back to it. Your friends, family, art group may question your doing so, and be overly ready with suggestions for other subjects, but those can wait until another day when you’re ready. We may not be Monet, but we can learn from his example and know that we’re not missing out on all those other subjects, we’re allowing ourselves to enjoy a particular one more.