“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.”
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.
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.
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.
“I follow no system of brushwork at all; I hit the canvas with irregular strokes which I leave as they are, impastos, uncovered spots of canvas — corners here and there left inevitably unfinished — reworkings, roughnesses; well, I’m inclined to think that the result is sufficiently worrying and annoying not to please people with preconceived ideas about technique.”
A one-half-inch brush stroke on an 8×10″ canvas can cover a section of the study that may require ten brushstrokes to complete on the larger painting, altering the character of that simple mark made outdoors. … no matter how much I tell myself to hurry up and paint with abandon in the studio, in the back of my mind I know that I have all day (or several days) to complete the painting. As a result, those “happy accidents” that occur under plein air time constraints don’t happen as often in the studio.
How to put all those pieces together. Something that resembles what we feel and need to express.
This part takes some doing.
We chip away at this part while we endure the naysayers and the criticisms. The “that’s not for you” crowd. The “you can’t sing and you have no talent” crowd. The “that’s for other people to do” crowd.
And still at our core we are desperate to make music. Unarmed and desperate. No turning back.
After year upon year of slow, arduous growth, something emerges that finally appears to appeal to some other people, even as we ourselves begin to feel like we’re “getting there”.
Fortunately, of course, the naysayers are never far away. Nipping at our heels. Just letting us know we’re one step away from complete failure.
This is more helpful than first imagined. It provides a certain “fuck them” springboard that propels us to the next phase. The “I’m good and they have no idea what they’re talking about” phase.
This euphoria is, of course, extremely short-lived and followed by the tempered phase of “maybe they’re right”. At this point alternative life paths are sometimes considered. This overly long period is usually crushed by our woeful inadequacy at other occupations.
Then one day we realize that none of this matters, and our need to make music outweighs all other concerns. This continues for a time we’ll call “The Forever”, which is visited often by self doubt and longing to do something else again. Anything else. Alas, this is not to be.
And we keep going until, one day, we start to believe in ourselves and realize that the creation is all that matters in the making of music. Or any artistic endeavour. As the songwriter Sam Phillips wryly observes in the song “Animals on Wheels”,
“Famous is fast You don’t have to be talented or do good work or be smart It’s perfect for me But every time I go after it, my ideals run off with my heart”
By the time these ideas appear to us as the truths that they are, we become aware that the whole notion of art-as-a-business was a total distraction. We should have realized this by the number of times the concerns about our age and looks popped up in daily conversation. Helpful, perhaps, yet somewhat distracting.
If reading this you begin to see the writer as a bit thick and naïve, well spotted!
Along the way we meet others on similar journeys of self discovery and doubt. Hopeful creatures with longing in their eyes and courageous, unstoppable spirits. We will see some of these people in other phases and in different states of elation or distress. Mostly moving along as naively as ourselves, believing in some sort of hidden, external purpose.
Anyway, this leads, in a neatly circular way, back to the beginning. After many years of struggle, pain, joy, love, madness, kindnesses, frustrations, disappointments and personal triumphs. We know.
Disappointment happens when the gap between what we hope for and what we achieve is bigger than we think we can leap across. The answer lies not in learning to leap further, but to build ourselves a bridge, bit by bit.
“In order to produce the beautiful framed picture, the artist had to spend time shut up with oils and solvents, staring at glass or wooden surfaces smeared with pigments, trying to smear them onto other surfaces in turn. . … painters have to work in a morass of stubborn substances.
“… Sooner or later every one of a painter’s possessions will get stained. First to go are the studio clothes and the old sneakers that get the full shower of paint every day. Next are the painter’s favorite books, the ones that have to be consulted in the studio. Then come the better clothes, one after another as they are worn just once into the studio and end up with the inevitable stain”
“Play is your artistic fountain of youth. For us old codgers it’s the only way we can stave off falling into forever patterns or becoming stale and the entropy that can come for years of working and being rewarded for a fixed style or approach. It keeps you limber, alive and ready for the new, and play in areas that scare you or make you nervous should never be seen as warnings off of dangerous territory, but reason why you must attack them with all the creative fury you can muster.”
Being playful requires making a commitment to take what you’re doing seriously but without being serious about getting predetermined results. Risk getting muddy (colours). Splash in puddles (let paint drip and run). Colour outside the lines (break rules and habits). Mix without recipes (colours and mediums). If you’re not having fun or exploring (which can be scarey rather than fun), you’re not playing.
“The ‘Splashed-Ink Landscape’ is, among other things, an exercise in the generative capacity of black. Sesshū used this supposed non-colour to produce a rainbow of effects.
There are light black and dark black, warm black and cool blacks, wet blacks and dry blacks, thic blacks and thin blacks, bleeding blacks and blotted blacks. Some stab, some caress, and others are so pale that they appear almost white.”
James Fox, “The World According to Colour: A Cultural History”, page 41
A colour isn’t only its hue (the colour it is), it’s how you apply it too.
“One way I counter [a] tendency to rush is by sketching.
“… sketching is an act of seeing more closely. In choosing to sketch something, you pay attention to details you otherwise may have missed. It forces you to slow down and observe more intently, and engage with your surroundings in a new way.”