“Compare yourself to yourself yesterday, not to younger people who aren’t you. Everyone progresses at a different rate, so don’t let anyone else make you feel behind. You probably don’t even know where exactly you’re going, so feeling behind doesn’t help.”
David Epstein, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World via Austin Kleon
Compare your paintings and drawings to yesterday’s, last month’s, last year’s.
Find the earlier work of an artist and track their progress, don’t unfairly compare a painting of yours to your favourite painting by them without looking at what they did to get to that point. Monet didn’t start with his now-much-loved Impressionist paintings, he started with charicature.
Monet’s lily-pond paintings evolved over the decades he painted them. Nearly 20 years separate the two below. In the second there aren’t elements that give context, no bridge, no horizon line, just abstracted pattern and colour. It’s the first painting with most of it cropped off.
Below is the earliest tree painting I have of mine, from when I was eleven, and my most recent, done this month. It makes me laugh to think how long I’ve been creating inadvertent pattern whilst trying to paint randomly spaced tree trunks. Inbetween there have been quite a few tree paintings.
“Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically. The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, we start to build up new little habitats, to have new little hopes. It is rather hard work: there is now no smooth road into the future: but we go round, or scramble over the obstacles. We’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen.”
D.H, Lawrence, Lady Chatterley’s Lover
Written after the First World War, initially privately published, then in an expurgated version in 1932, the full text of Lady Chatterley’s Lover was published in England only in 1960, a year after the Obscene Publications Act which gave publishers the defence that the work was of literary merit and for the public good. Its publication led to a landmark obscenity trial, which Penguin Books won.
Finding a copy in my local library as a teenager was a surprise, given the censorship in apartheid-era South Africa. How I knew it was controversial, I don’t recall; maybe it said so on the back blurb. Reading it, I wondered what the fuss about it was. I far preferred Solzhenitsyn, though I’m not sure how these were there either, given they’re novels against an oppressive regime.
Access to art, literature, poetry, music is essential for true democracy, an equatable society. Lies and obfuscation are an anathema to democracy.
In a smallish library where new books were few, you do end up reading all sorts, especially as one of the three library cards had to be a non-fiction book. I remember the librarian who would sigh as I came in, again, and the one who’d ask enthusiastically what I’d enjoyed. When my brother went off to university, I suddenly had six library cards. My options doubled.
When I went to university, I soon learnt I couldn’t work in the library because I’d get distracted by the spine of a book on a shelf. The temptation of that undiscovered something, that next previously unknown little thing. The only place in the library I did work was the restricted books section, where there were no such distractions. You had to have permission to request certain books, and to sign for a book at the desk before going to sit at one of the tables to read it. Information forbidden to students not doing that course.
The Weekly Mail newspaper published with black blocks where things were censored, highlighting that there was more to be known, decisions being made about what we shouldn’t know. Little black blocks of hope that there was another story.
Lack of information is a danger. Misinformation is a danger. Lack of access is a danger. Lack of critical consideration of information is a danger.
Lack of hope is a danger.
In the present era of deliberate misinformation and lying without consequence by the Westminster government, as well as events in the USA, it’s hard to have new hopes, little hopes nevermind big. It’s easier to despair than hope. It’s hard to live through history when you have studied enough to recognise it’s a downwards spiral in history. Brexit is a nightmare that has only begun.
We’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen. Learn to recognise the little joys, and let them add up. The tube of paint and blank canvas, the pencil and sketchbook, the painting from yesterday and the one from tomorrow. We fight for the light by creating and sharing our art, in all its forms, encouraging and motivating each other.
Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light. — Dylan Thomas
“A painting consists of a collection of marks, a seemingly chaotic jumble of bits of color. When you study just one section, the marks make no sense on their own, but as you step back and take a wider view, they begin to form an image; those random bits of pigment come together to create a whole. And, just like that, out of chaos comes order and meaning, beauty and comprehension.”
Fear wears many faces. In my studio it wears names such as “you’re kidding yourself”, “just what is it meant to be”, “you’re being over-ambitious”, “who are you to think you can”. Fear drips and erodes, ever present and ever determined, waiting for me to be tired so it can wrap one of its cloak around me.
This past year Fear got two new cloaks — the jingoistic blue, red and white Brexit one, and the invisible, clinging covid one — as well as a name for the one that has been wrapping the in-house art critic more tightly the past few years. At times I’ve been wrapped in all three, unable to paint or draw or even think about doing so. I try to remind myself, as understanding friends remind me, that creativity doesn’t go away, it’s just waiting its turn. As its waited, I’ve rediscovered my love for poetry, writing favourites in a notebook as a personal anthology, and writing snailmail letters.
As the year heads to the end of the calendar and it’s time to start a new count, I realise that slowly over the past few months I’ve somehow gained more space for Fear so it doesn’t grasp quite as tightly. I’ve gotten better at saying “not today’s problem”, and living in the present.
I now have two tables set out in my studio. Fear can sit at the one and Creativity and I will sit in the other. On my blog, I will not share only the colourful and cheerful aspects of my life because Fear says I shouldn’t risk saddening anyone else and you’ll stop reading. I will make a start on the body of work around memory that the in-house art critic and I have been talking about, even though it feels beyond my grasp and abilities at the moment.
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What interests me most changes, from subject to subject as well as with repeat visits to the same subject. It depends on how I’m feeling, the weather, the light, what materials I have to hand.
Pattern then colour or is it colour then pattern? Is it shape or pattern, and when does repeated shape become pattern (visualising a rocky shore)? Soft and lost edges. Lines in landscape, but not as hard edges.
Most of the time I don’t consciously think about it. Sometimes it’s something someone says that makes me realise. Sometimes it’s sitting sorting through a pile of paintings: failed and incomplete paintings can reveal things as much as successful ones.
There’s not a recipe for painting. It’s a whole cookbook’s worth.
“…back when I was teaching art, the hardest thing to get across was convincing students to let go of their preciousness. Either they clung to a preconceived notion of what their piece was going to look like, or they were scared to ‘mess up’ after they’d barely laid-down the groundwork.
“… I would repeatedly remind the class that they wouldn’t know what their work was going to look like (or what it was about) until they’d committed to multiple of layers of paper and paint.
“My own collages often have twenty or thirty such layers, the colours and the content matter in a constant state of change, waiting for the picture’s intent (not mine) to emerge. Then, when the subject, the palette and the atmosphere finally emerged, there was still the fine brush work to be done. That consisted of carefully painting out the tears and cracks so that the image developed continuity and became a single surface. When a piece is complete, it needs to speak with a single voice, and if it doesn’t, then it simply isn’t finished. “
The highway from A to Z is never the interesting road to travel, and a motorway cafe is never going to serve anything but the predictable. It’ll get you to a destination, but is it truly where you want to be?
“The freshness, exuberance, and energy of youth did little for Cézanne. He was a late bloomer—and for some reason in our accounting of genius and creativity we have forgotten to make sense of the Cézannes of the world.”
“Experimentation skips over study and a playful beginning develops courage. … not to imitate, but rather to seek on our own and to learn how to find independently … the result is the student’s own experience and possession, because it has been learned rather than taught.
“Learning is better than teaching because it is more intensive: the more we teach, the less students can learn.
“We know that this emphasis on learning is a longer path, one that leads to detours and dead ends. But beginnings are never straightforward. And learning from one’s mistakes fosters progress. Deliberate detours and allowing oneself to become lost in a controlled fashion sharpen one’s critical faculties, lead by way of mistakes to that which is more intelligent, call forth the will to find the right and better way.”
Going outside your comfort zone without the desire for a good end result but simply to see what happens. Easier said than done but gets easier with repetition, in a safe and encouraging environment, and without other people saying unhelpful things like “what’s that supposed to be?”.
“We come to know in art work that we do not clearly know where we will arrive in our work, although we set the compass, our vision; that we are led, in going along, by material and work process. We have plans and blueprints, but the finished work is still a surprise.
“We learn to listen to voices: to the yes or no of our material, our tools, our time. We come to know that only when we feel guided by them our work takes on form and meaning, that we are misled when we follow only our will. …
“We learn courage from art work … we are responsible for our actions. … We learn to dare to make a choice, to be independent … any decision is our own .”