Monday Motivator: Playing

“… this laser focus on getting one particular thing done. This feeling that unless you’re working on it at all times, things are going to be bad. That kind of focus doesn’t set the conditions for insight or discovery.

… When you’re an adult watching a kid playing with a little toy, you just think that kid’s doing that and there’s nothing else to it. But from the kid’s perspective that toy is playing with them. It’s interactive. There’s amnesia about the deepness of that interchange and amnesia about how when you’re making a story”

Lynda Barry, interview by David Marchese: “A Genius Cartoonist Believes Child’s Play Is Anything But Frivolous, The New York Times, 5 September 2022

When playing with art materials, it’s not about controlling what they do, it’s about doing something and seeing what they do back. Exploring where the “what if I …?” leads, rather than having the route all plotted out before you start. It’s a conversation, not a lecture.

Monday Motivation: Never a Perfectly Straight Line

“Drawing, said the artist Paul Klee, is like taking a line for a walk. Try it for yourself. Take a pencil in your hand and let it alight on a sheet of paper. As the tip glides into contact with the paper, a line begins to appear. And it carries on until, with a slight flick of the wrist, you allow the tip to lift off again. What remains on the sheet is the trace of a manual gesture. Depending on how you moved your hand and fingers, it may curve, twist or loop, this way and that. But it will never be perfectly straight. No-one, likewise, ever walks in a straight line, as you can see from the trails of footprints on a sandy beach.”

Tim Ingold, “Lines, Threads & Traces“, Toast Magazine 31 March 2020

When learning to draw, forget about the straight line that so many declare they couldn’t possibly achieve. It’s easily done using an edge such as a ruler, and insisting it has to be achievable freehand falls into the “there are far more interesting things to draw” category. Aim for movement of the pencil across a surface that dances, meanders, explores, jumps over cracks. Then try it with paint or ink.

Lines Shore Black and Orange Ink Drawing
Shoreline drawing. Camus Mor, Isle of Skye

Monday Motivator: Choose What Your Heart Wants

“Without fear of doing something wrong and getting judged … you’d simply make decisions based on the best info you have, and on your gut. You’d choose from the heart, rather than getting caught up in overthinking. You might make mistakes, but you’d learn from them, and make adjustments.

… Fear does come up, of course. And you simply deal with the fear, with breath and love. It doesn’t have to be a blocker.

… When we get caught up in thinking, it’s because we think we can solve the uncertainty by thinking it through. While thinking can be helpful, it will rarely cut through indecision when fear takes over. A different approach is simply to choose from the heart — ask yourself what your heart wants in this situation.”

Leo Babauta, “The Art of Effortless Decision Making“, Zen Habits

The fear of making the first mark on a pristine piece of paper. The fear of ruining a drawing/painting with what you do next. The fear of overworking it. The fear of declaring it finished when it might not be. The fear that you can’t remix that perfect colour you’ve almost used up. The fear that failing to resolve your current painting means that you never will again, ever. The fear of wasting your time because you’re never going to get there.

The joy of making the first mark on a pristine piece of paper, because it means you’ve made a start.

The joy of ruining a drawing/painting with what you do next, because the worst has now happened and you get to find out what you do next. Note: tearing it up is not the solution until several weeks later when you’re able to view it more dispassionately.

The joy of overworking it, because if you always stop at the same point you will never find out what else might happen.

The joy that you can’t remix that perfect colour you’ve almost used up, because it makes you spend time colour mixing and getting to know the personalities of your colours better. After all, it was created with the colours you’ve got to hand, so it’s in there somewhere.

The joy of declaring it finished when it might not be, because it’s a statement of belief in yourself and something you like as it is. “You are perfect just as you are.”

The joy that failing to resolve your current painting means that you never will again, ever, because if it’s an impossible task to achieve, then whatever you do achieve is enough for today. Who knows what might happen artistically tomorrow.

The joy of wasting your time because you’re never going to get there, because it’s your life, you are allowed to choose how you spend your time, and what’s better than something you enjoy doing. Every unsuccessful or unresolved painting is achieving more than the person who’s still stuck merely wishing they could paint and draw.

Sunflowers, Vincent van Gogh, 1890, pencil on paper, 13.4 cm x 8.5 cm. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

Monday Motivator: Fewer Colours Are Liberating

“Your colour palette is one place you can easily simplify your paintings. The more colours you use, the more complex they are to manage. Every additional colour on your palette introduces a vast range of colour-mixing opportunities. … a reduced or limited palette … forces you to use and manipulate every colour you can”

Mike Bernard, “Experimental Coasts in Mixed Media“, page 30

Painting is one decision after another after another after another. Colour choices, mixing possibilities. Too many colours can lead to indecision, and procrastination as you investigate mixtures. Exploring colour mixing isn’t a bad thing, but might it be the issue that’s in the way of you developing and finishing a painting? Fewer colour choices, and getting to know intimately how these interact with one another, leads to more intuitive, faster colour decisions, more painting.

If you watch the video in my last blog post, you’ll see me painting with two of my favourite colours in my beloved blue + orange combination, putting out just enough paint for what I want to do. Prussian blue I’ve long used; transparent orange I discovered a few years ago. Many people don’t like Prussian blue because it’s such a dominant colour, but through using it often I’ve learnt how much will have what result. If I change blue, I am more likely to have to tweak a mix.

Monday Motivator: Break Up the Sky

Negative space is typically defined as the area in between or around the “positive” elements of a subject. … In landscape, the sky comes closest to behaving in this way, sitting like a vast backdrop behind all the land-based elements. But there are other large spaces … that behave similarly, such as large bodies of water, fields … because they are so large and often uniformly coloured …

Skies can … be activated by using closed negative space. When parts of the subject–such as a tree, a telephone pole, or a rooftop–touch or nearly touch the edge of the painting, it breaks up the negative space into segments. Two or three segments of negative space are visually more interesting than a single space.

Mitchell Albala, “The Landscape Painter’s Workbook“, page 70-72

In the painting by Vincent van Gogh below, “Cypresses and Two Women“, Van Gogh hasn’t one large area of sky. He has used the largest of the trees to cut the sky into two sections of different sizes. Notice how the negative space of the sky on the left echoes the shape of the tree adjacent to it, tall and narrow, whilst on the right the negative space of the sky and the shape of the greenery below it are triangular.

Painting by Vincent van Gogh of tall cyrpress trees with two women standing in front
“Cypresses and Two Women” by Vincent van Gogh, 1890. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

The two areas of sky are in turn broken up by the shapes of the clouds, with a different number of clouds on either side of the tree. Notice too how the clouds are angled towards the top of the tallest tree, adding to its sense of height and leading your eye.

Each shape of “blue sky” between the clouds then has variation in colour, along with Van Gogh’s characteristic strong, directional brushmarks.

Don’t be afraid to let elements go off the edges, leaving the viewer’s mind to fill in what’s “cut off”. How different this painting would be if the sky were a uniform colour, and if it were painted around the top of the tree.

Monday Motivator: Paint the Shape of the Air

The human mind operates automatically in ways that often value identification more than perception. While we look with our eyes, we see with our mind … Our minds tend to make corrections …

If the goal is to paint what your retina sees and not what your mind knows … one useful strategy is to concentrate on painting the negative shapes (the shapes formed by background areas lying between the outlines of painted objects and figures). Because you don’t know the negative shapes conceptually, you will not be as prone to distortion of size or shape. Look and paint the shape of the air under and over the table, rather than painting the table itself.

“Painting as a Language”, by Jean Robertson & Craig McDaniel, page 18

A quick exercise in seeing negative space I like is to use a word as a starting point. Instead of writing the word, draw or paint the space around the letters. Such as this:

Negative and Positive Space in a painting

It’s something that gets easier with practise, but if you’re struggling to get your mind to ‘swap over’ to the negative space, you can ‘cheat’ the first few times by writing the letters down with pencil and then erasing them.

Monday Motivator: The Joy of Handling Paint

“Much of the joy of painting isn’t in matching colors–it’s in the actual handing of the paint, playing a thick area against a stained one, a wide stroke against a thin one, a curving line against an angular one. Remember: you’re a painter and should get pleasure out of the use of your materials.”

Emile Gruppè, Brushwork, page 15

If you don’t like the medium, don’t use it no matter how much you might feel it’s something a “real artist” would do. There are plenty of options, and you’re supposed to enjoy it. Before you’ve even put a brush into it or started applying it to paper. That spark of joy picking up a tube of a paint or bottle of ink, the feel of a particular brush in your hand, the anticipation of a sheet of paper. If you’re not, you’re using the wrong thing.

Monday Motivator: Creativity is a Muscle

“Creativity is a muscle. We often don’t look at it in terms of something that can be trained, but it can be trained. And I think that we did it naturally as children because we had to discover our world. Once we felt as if we’d discovered enough, we didn’t really keep working at it … Therein lies the biggest opportunity–to recognize that you’re in life-long learning mode.”

Kevin Carroll, interview in “Caffeine for the Creative Mind” by Stefan Mamaw and Wendy Lee Oldfield, page 56

Painting is a combination of enjoying the things you can do (“comfort zone”), the challenge of things you can’t yet do but know you want to (“stretching yourself”), and exploring the unknown by trying things and seeing what happens (“creative exploration” or entering the “here be dragons” region of the map).

Creativity isn’t all about huge ideas and innovation, it’s the small things too. Small steps into the (to-you) unknown. Adding colour pencil to a watercolour painting for the first time. Choosing a canvas that’s twice the size you’ve ever painted. Using a sketchbook on location. Taking an art workshop. Trying clear gesso.

A step outside whatever is your usual. You might find yourself stepping back. But what if you don’t?

lawn daisies in watercolour and ink

Monday Motivator: Value the Learning Not the Performance

“I do not only grade the end product, but instead, value the process it takes to get there. I ask students to describe how and why they did certain things. I collect the work product that precedes the final document. …

If we assume students want to learn – and I do – we should show our interest in their learning, rather than their performance”

John Warner, “ChatGPT Can’t Kill Anything Worth Preserving

If we want to learn, we should show interest in our learning rather than only our performance.

Give yourself permission to spend time learning, be generous to yourself with how much time you allocate, and with your assessment of what you’ve done. It might be learning how a particular art material behaves, trying different things with it to see what happens. It might be getting more analytical and systematic in learning to paint or draw a subject, figuring out what aspects are eluding you at the moment and how to fill that knowledge gap.

The last couple of days I’ve been seeing what clear gesso does when applied over Derwent Inktense pencil drawn on an unprimed wood panel. Why? Because I like how clear gesso lets the grain of the wood panel show through, rather than obscuring it as white gesso does. It also then seals the wood panel surface and creates a grabby surface for paint. Inktense pencil because I enjoy the strong colours, the lines I can draw rather than paint with a brush, and that it’s water soluble so I can ‘dissolve’ some of the line into painted marks. And Inktense as the first layer because I’m enjoying using line in a painting.

My aim was to see was how much the line would change by brushing over with gesso (changing it from a dry to a wet line) and how much would ‘dissolve’ compared to brushing over it with water (with the intention of it dissolving). As the photo below shows, the Inktense line got that ‘wet’ look, but spread only in areas where the line was thicker. I was using a coarse-hair brush, and it will probably spread less with a softer brush.

Once the gesso had dried overnight, I ran a wet brush over the Inktense to see if it would dissolve, and it didn’t. I drew a bit further with another Inktense colour, and enjoyed how it worked over the gesso, which has a grabbiness to it (I’m using Holbein clear gesso medium grain). I ran a wet brush over this and it dissolved as I expected, without disturbing the sealed layer. So now I know I can work with the Inktense pencil and ‘secure’ it. A clear acrylic medium would probably do similar but I like the grabby roughness of the clear gesso when painting.

Clear gesso over Inktense pencil on wood panel
Clear gesso applied over purple Inktense pencil on wood panel. The white bits of gesso where it’s slightly thicker will clear as it dries.

Monday Motivator: Circular Time

“Gardening situates you in a different kind of time, the antithesis of the agitating present of social media. Time becomes circular, not chronological; minutes stretch into hours; some actions don’t bear fruit for decades. The gardener is not immune to attrition and loss, but is daily confronted by the ongoing good news of fecundity. A peony returns, alien pink shoots thrusting from bare soil. The fennel self-seeds; there is an abundance of cosmos out of nowhere.”

Olivia Laing, extract from “Funny Weather: Derek Jarman’s Paradise”

“Painting and drawing situates you in a different kind of time … Time becomes circular, not chronological; minutes stretch into hours; some actions don’t bear fruit for decades.”

We don’t plant an apple tree thinking it’s going to give us apples every month. We anticipate. Enjoy the blossom for itself and for what it might become. Wait weeks for an apple to ripen. Attempt to eat it too early and you destroy it. One day it all comes together and it’s sweet magic. Then it’s back to anticipating, nurturing what creates the magic.

If only we had the same patience with our art.