Monday Motivator: No Empty Spaces

Art motivational quote

“The cubists arrived at the idea that there is a continuum between something solid and the surrounding space, so to treat the ’empty’ space as though it too were ‘solid’ would open up a new way of seeing.

“…A river, with such presuppositions, connects rather than separates the two banks, and through its quality of reflection it connects the sky and the earth.”
Wolf Kahn, Wolf Kahn’s America, page 128

The ’emptiness’ in the space between the ground and clouds in a landscape contains the oxygen we breathe, pollen particles, insects flittering, leaves dropping, birds hovering on the invisible, and the list goes on. If you’re painting, how inadequate isn’t a single wash of a single blue for the complexity of what’s there in this ’empty space’? How much more enjoyable the challenge of painting a “sky that tastes of rain” (poet Douglas Dunn) than a “clear blue sky”? But how do you know what to include, what colours and mark making to use? There isn’t a simple recipe, it’s something to experiment with, to explore and develop.

Take that the single “sky blue”, but apply it with a brush that leaves marks. Yes, create streaks in your paint. Embrace the overt mark making rather than fight it or blending it into smoothness. Use streaks convey a sense of movement in the air, or flightpath of a bird. Swirl the brush, don’t go side to side. Then you might let it dry and repeat with a different blue to add variation, to suggest rather than tell. Or before it’s dry dab at it with a scrunched up bit of paper towel or rag to remove random bits of paint to create “clouds”. If you think you’ve removed too much paint, then add some more and do it again. All gone horribly wrong, then wipe most of it off or if it’s dry, glaze over with a semi-opaque pale blue (mix in a bit of titanium white or use white gouache for watercolour) and try again.

Monday Motivator: Art Holds the Power to Dissolve & Mend

Monsieur P painting

Art motivational quote

“I believe that all great art holds the power to dissolve things: time, distance, difference, injustice, alienation, despair. I believe that all great art holds the power to mend things: join, comfort, inspire hope in fellowship, reconcile us to our selves. …

“We stand before a work of art and our spirit is lifted by it: amazing that someone is like us! We stand before a work of art and our spirit resists: amazing that someone is different!”

Source: The Question of Light, Tilda Swinton speech at the Rothko Chapel when presented with Visionary Award in 2014

An artist friend and I were talking on the weekend about the inevitability of being influenced by the artwork of others, whether you fight against it or whether you absorb and make it something of your own, and how you might do either of these. We may differ in our approaches, but we agree that nothing lifts the spirit like art, both seeing it and creating it.

Monday Motivator: Jagged or Smooth?

Art motivational quote

“If one were walking along a barren, sandy beach and came upon two objects, a jagged stone and a smooth, water-worn pebble, both about the same size and material, chances are one would pick up the pebble and ignore the rough stone.

“…In addition to being of greater tactile and visual interest than the rough stone, the pebble would represent a form at the end of the process of erosion. It’s ‘life history’ would include having once been a fragment, like the stone…”
Vision and Invention by Calvin Harlan, page 140

Paintings that reveal different parts of themselves as the light changes, that reward looking up close differently to looking from a distance, that don’t tell you everything at once, those are the water-worn pebbles.

Monday Motivator: Originality

Art motivational quote“There is no such thing as absolute originality in painting. Some relation to what has been done before always exists, though to say that an artist is ‘influenced’ by someone else need in no way detract from appreciation of [their] work. On the contrary, the influences …may bring out all the more strikingly the respects in which a painter individually excels and in themselves contribute a new element of beauty and interest…

“The delicate threads of communication with others form a new pattern. The personality of the artist loses nothing of its integrity.”

— Art historian William Gaunt, A Companion to Painting, The World of Art Library, Thames & Hudson 1967, pages 105-6.

Think of influence as an echo, something that happens in the right conditions (which we don’t control) but that doesn’t happen without our input (which we do control). Cultivate the difference between copying with the aim of reproducing the original, and copying with the aim of incorporating it into your artistic toolbox, developing it as part of your own approach, putting your personality onto it. The list of X was influenced by Y is as long as art history, but where too many go awry is that influence needs to be a springboard for development, not the endpoint.

As an example of copying and developing, look at Vincent van Gogh’s “Penitentiary” (1890) which was based on an engraving by Gustave Dor?. You’ll find reference to it in Van Gogh’s letter of 12 February 1890 — click on the artworks tab on the page, then scroll down a bit to see photos. Van Gogh copies the composition, but paints the figures in his own style. He could have copied it in pen and ink, or pencil, which would’ve replicated the etched lines, but chose paint. Ask yourself why.

Monday Motivator: Cultivate a Eye

Art motivational quote“Develop deliberate strategies so that you become sensitive to the visual sensations erupting amid the everyday. For example, cultivate an eye for the wonderful. Hone sensory receptivity to the marvelous specificity of things. Give greater expression to the sense of play. Find ways to create a fleeting return to childlike excitement about life.”

— Contemporary Impressionist Jerry Fresia, Why Are Questions About Color Use Problematic?, 7 October 2014

Look at the silvery track of where a snail wandered, not the destruction of the plant it chomped. Look at the way water in a puddle bounces as raindrops fall, rather than worrying about getting your shoes wet. Feel the movement of invisible air against your skin and watch how it ripples and runs through leaves, instead of complaining that it’s windy again.

Watch a rosebud develop and grow, bloom and fade, then leave it to become a rosehip instead of pruning. There’s a sequence of paintings in this waiting to be explored, if you pause to cultivate the eye to see it.

Monday Motivator: Not Have Intentions, But Possibly Regrets

Art motivational quote[The paintings] “deliberately invite viewers to slow their pace and to look closely …meaning is assembled from an unstable but fertile mixture of chance and memory”
— Ernst Vegelin van Claerbergen, Head of The Courtauld Gallery


“Johns seems open to unexpected encounter, and in turn his art often provokes us to unexpected ways of seeing, thinking and feeling. …? Johns has always tried not to have intentions that act as a driving force of his art. Instead he simply begins and carries on working until something happens.”
— Barnaby Wright, curator

Quotes source: Jasper Johns, Regrets catalogue, published by The Courtauld Gallery, pages 5, 7/8

Jasper Johns’ Regrets series developed from a chance encounter he had with a reproduction in a Christie’s auction catalogue of a photo of a young Lucian Freud sitting on a bed in the Francis Bacon’s studio. I chanced upon the exhibition when at the Courtauld Gallery in London to see the Egon Schiele exhibition (more on that later this week). Like most people, I initially merely glanced at the Regrets paintings as I walked through the room where they were, intent on getting to Schiele, but am glad I did come back for a closer, slower look.

There are layers of meaning and symbolism that can be unpacked, on “themes of creativity, memory, reflection and mortality”, which the Courtauld catalogue (and I presume the MoMA catalogue) explains. About how in his process of exploring and transforming the photo in numerous experiments using oil, watercolour, pencil and ink he mirrored and doubled the original image, and in doing so, the form of a skull emerged in the centre of his new composition. This ?apparition? creates a reminder of death or memento mori at the heart of the works.

But I only found that out afterwards when I read the catalogue. What fascinated me was how the photo guided my interpretation of abstract paintings which, without this reference or anchor in reality, I probably wouldn’t have spent as much time look at. My favourite was an ink painting on plastic paper, and impact of this on the mark making which has ‘dissolved’ lines, spread shapes with soft edges. It was mesmerizing, my eyes moving from one shape to another, feeling the hand of the artist and the happy accident of the paper, getting lost in the pattern while simultaneously overlaying the photo in my mind, engaging imagination and intellect in that special way that painting does.

She Sees Trees

Coming back from Gardenstown, there was a stretch (between Fochabers and Cullen, I think; certainly before Elgin) where I felt like I’d driven into one of Klimt’s forest paintings.

Not Klimt's Woodland
Not Klimt’s Woodland

Not that a plain pine plantation can’t be inspiring too; this was taken yesterday along the path from Aros, Portree.

Light and shadow in Plantation Trees, Portree
Plantation Trees, Portree

From there I went into the woodland at Uig, and sketched alongside the river. It’s the location that inspired my “Summer Glow” painting. My fingers are now itching to paint this autumnal tree with the dark reflected trees.

Sketching the river at Uig, Isle of Skye
Reflections, ripples, autumnal colours…
Sketching at the River in Uig, Skye
My location notes

Sketchbook page from river at Uig, Skye

Art Myths: It Should be Easy

Art Quote: Monet on LandscapeThere are many drawing and painting techniques anyone can learn in a relatively short time, but it takes dedication and effort to move beyond mediocrity. Years of working at it, not mere weeks and certainly not days. It’s a mistake to believe what an artist appears to do effortlessly was easy for them to achieve and ought to be for you too. Skill through practice makes things look deceptively simple.

Think of art techniques as being to an artist what sentences are to a writer: a single, sensible sentence is relatively easy to achieve but putting sentences together to create a story worth reading takes a lot more dedication and practice. And before you have sentences, you have to learn the alphabet, vocabulary and grammar. So be patient with yourself, grant yourself time to learn, time to develop, time to make mistakes. If you start out with the belief that it should all come easily you’re setting yourself up for frustration and disappointment. Celebrate breakthrough moments when they happen, and keep striving determinedly between them.

Compare how Monet painted the sea in his “Regatta at Sainte?Adresse” in 1867 (stiff, flat, static) and in “The Manneporte near ?tretat in 1886 (broken colour with movement). If your aim is to paint sea as in the latter, you’ve the advantage of being able to study what Monet did, but don’t expect to get there in an afternoon. Monet had nearly 20 years’ practice between the two paintings.

Monday Motivator: Turner’s Colour Effects

Art motivational quoteJMW Turner’s “radiant effects, obtained with mere paint, remain unique even after Impressionism. … replaced the old technique of light and dark contrast with the finest gradations of colours, all–or nearly all–very light in value.

“While rejecting traditional chiaroscuro, Turner also rejected representation of solid bodies compactly arranged… he created resplendent effects of colour permeating atmosphere and deep space.

His sketchbooks reveal a background of experimentation with bands and blocks of colours placed side by side in various combination.”
Source: Vision and Invention by Calvin Harlan p85

I’ve often thought of the colours in the view from my studio across the Minch as being part of a colourfield painting by Rothko or a seascape done in greys with a narrow tonal range by Whistler, but there’s also plenty of stormy weather and dramatic atmosphere to relate to Turner. Creating a sense of distant islands, with the sun forcing its way through fast-moving clouds above a wind-whipped sea, that’s what’s on my mind today.

Art Myths: If You Can’t Draw, You Can’t Paint

 Art Myths: If You Can?t Draw, You Can?t PaintNever let the belief that you can’t draw stop you from learning to paint. A painting is not a drawing waiting to be coloured in and, conversely, a drawing isn’t an artwork waiting for paint to be added to it.

While traditionally an artist studied drawing for several years before starting with paint, if you want to get straight into paint, then do. You can always acquire drawing skills at a later stage; in the meantime you won’t have wasted time sitting around wishing you were painting (see: Never Moving Beyond Liking the Idea of Being Creative).

I strongly believe that if you don’t like or are afraid of drawing, for whatever reason, then forget about drawing and jump straight into painting. Ultimately, it’s that you’re doing it that’s important, not the road you take to get there.

Painting involves its own set of skills, which complement but are different to those for drawing. Learning to use tone, perspective,the illusion of depth, etc. can be done while learning to paint. The advantage of doing so while learning to draw is that you don’t have the distraction of colour and pencil is easier to ‘undo’ to fix errors. But if you don’t like graphite or charcoal, don’t let this stop you. Get stuck straight into the wet, colourful stuff! Even if you were an expert at drawing, you’d need to learn how to manipulate paint.

Drawing is a different way of creating art. Having drawing skills will definitely help with your painting, but if you hate pencils and charcoal, this doesn’t mean you can’t learn to paint. Drawing is not merely an initial step in making a painting. You don’t need to do a detailed drawing before you start to paint; while many artists do, many others don’t. I typically do a minimalist drawing of my intended composition before starting to paint (take a look at this step-by-step video demo to see an example).

There is no rule that says you must draw before you paint if you don’t want to and no approval committee checking your process. Never let a belief that you can’t draw a stick figure or even a straight line stop you from discovering the enjoyment that painting can bring. Besides, straight lines are easy…use a ruler!

Painting embraces all the 10 functions of the eye; that is to say, darkness, light, body and color, shape and location, distance and closeness, motion and rest.
— Leonardo da Vinci