More to an Artistic Journey Than the Final Destination

by Alistair Boddy-Evans

Life Drawing (Detail) by Alistair Boddy-Evans
Failing to reach your painting aims? Perhaps it’s not that the destination is wrong. Try changing the starting point.

There’s that story about the tourist who stops for directions in the Scottish Highlands and asks for a famous beauty spot. He is told: “If you wanted to get to there, you shouldn’t have started off from here.”

Budding artists saying they are unable to achieve their desired results in a painting invariably assume the fault is somewhere in their ability to finish. But you should consider that perhaps you have started off from the wrong place, and this is why you’re unable to reach your destination.

So let us look at beginnings, starting points for paintings. A blank canvas is the starkest of all beginnings for a painting. It is a void which is often spoken of as having ‘great potential’, but often it causes consternation and procrastination. If there is no clear start, how do you take the first step. There are several, classic, methods for moving the starting point.

1. Preparing the Ground
Psychologists tell us colours are related to emotions. These relationships need not be the same for everyone, but by simply covering the canvas with a monochrome colour you have taken the first step on the path, created the first signpost, set the emotional quality of your art work in progress.

2. Creating an Ink Blot
Most people know about ink blot tests, those images used by psychologists to spur the imagination and access the deeper parts of your psyche. Well you can do the same with your painting. Smear one or more colours across the blank canvas. Not only does it remove that frightening field of whiteness, but you will start to see things in the abstracted patters of colour and tone. You will be starting your painting with a greater degree of creativity, the colours will act as a muse, getting those ideas sparking. Its easier to get to a destination when you start up high; you’re now rolling down hill and picking up momentum as the destination approaches.

3. Getting the Packing Right
The two ideas above take you forward in the journey, but what about stepping back slightly? If the problem in your final artwork is the composition, then you should take the time to work on thumbnails. Vary the shape and size of the thumbnail; it could be your initial choice of shape for the canvas is wrong, that it should have been an extreme landscape rather than a squat portrait for instance. Or the positioning of major elements in the painting didn’t quite come together, and the thumbnail gives you the opportunity to move things around. A thumbnail gives you the chance to ‘pour over the atlas’ a bit before stepping out on the journey.

4. Taking your Studies Seriously
The first step with any holiday destination is to look at the guide books and holiday brochures, right? So what about a painting? The first step for inspiration is to get out there and paint a few studies. This is not the same as making thumbnails, you are not looking to find the best composition, but at what inspires you to do the painting in the first place.? Studies are about form and colour and tone, capturing what you see and/or what you imagine. They should be done with a free hand, allowing the creative side of the brain to take over, and allow you to discover those little aspects of a painting which will enthral and mesmerise the eventual audience. And remember, once you have your masterpiece, there is also a market for smaller, modestly priced pieces of original work.

Next time you finish a painting and are dissatisfied with the result, think about where you started the process, rather than thinking your artistic skills are at fault.

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Never Moving Beyond Liking the Idea of Being Creative

Liking the Idea of a Creative LifeWhy is it some people are in love with the idea of painting and drawing, of being creative, but only ever talk (with great enthusiasm, and often at great length) about doing so, never taking the first step towards doing so? It’s too easily more comfortable never to try than face the possibility of failure (and success).

Fear your expectations won’t be met, that your paintings or drawings won’t be “good enough” (“What is it?“). Fear others will laugh at the results, or be patronizing (“That’s delightful dearest”). Fear of being perceived as wasting time and money. Fear you’re not as creative you think you could be. Fear you create something wonderful by accident and can’t repeat it.

There will always be a gap between what you’d hoped to create and what you do, something else you could’ve done to a piece. That’s not the same as never achieving paintings you’re really pleased about. It’s an idea/goal for next time.

There will always be people who don’t get it (neither the desire to do it nor the results) as well as the “my cousin thrice removed also paints pretty little pictures without any effort at all” brigade. Smile (in the British stiff-upper-lip tradition, not a manic grin) and move on. Their judgement of what you’re doing is inconsequential. It’s your time and money, you can decide how to use it. Someone criticising is wasting their own time.

Creativity, like most things, needs regular exercise and stimulation. Skills and techniques take time to learn, they’re not going to fall on your head like rain and soak into your brain without effort. Professional artists don’t display unresolved and failed paintings, that’s why it seems everything they produce is of a certain standard. The elephant in the studio is that these fears never go away completely, and new ones come along, you just squash them under a growing pile of artwork.

Be Systematic & Aim Small

“I battle to create a really acceptable picture, I study as much as I can, and never seem to improve. Is it possible there may be a person that can just never learn?”– Jillian P

There are things each of us finds harder to learn, certainly, and things we’ll never master to our satisfaction (not least because the goalposts have a habit of moving as we progress). Sticking at it without getting caught up in frustration can be tough.

Make a list to break down what you mean by “improve”, taking it further and further until you’ve got bite-sized bits to chew on. Pinpoint exactly what you feel your drawings/painting lack, then tackle it systematically and from multiple directions.

For instance, if the top level of your wishlist is “paint more realistically”, take a subject, say landscape. Then take a single element of this, say a tree. What kind of tree? An oak, or jacaranda, or boabab… whatever species you have growing nearby that you can see with your own eyes. What makes a tree: the trunk, branches, leaves, texture of the bark, overall shape. Look at these individually, the components not the whole.

Sit with a sketchbook and pencil, draw a line following the direction of one side of the trunk from ground level up. Look at the tree as much as the page.? Then the other side. Wander the pencil line amongst the branches. Look at the negative space. Contemplate what mark making will convey the sense of the bark (this may take you off on a tangent for a while studying mark-making). Keep colour and light/dark for another day. Do not aim to make good drawings, these are drawings about observation, not about “it looks like an oak tree”.

Make notes about what you see and feel. These help build visual memories and develop observation. Some pages of my sketchbook have more words than sketchlines.

Move from line into drawings with a sense of 3D by adding light/dark. Tree trunks and branches are cylinders, so draw the tree like a series of tubes, and apply tone accordingly. Next day, combine character lines and tubes to convey more realistic branches. Break down the journey to a painted tree in similar small steps: colours seen, mixing these, tones, brushmarks.

Pencil portrait drawing
2B propelling pencil and 8B graphite stick, on A2 paper.

Sometimes it might be a shift in materials that helps. For instance I battle not to go in heavy-handed and dark too early on in a drawing. Starting with a 2H helps as it can’t produce very dark lines, as does using a propelling 2B or 4B pencil as this only produces lines of a certain thickness. Only late in the drawing do I swap to a “normal” pencil.

Be systematic, and aim small to build the bigger picture. Identifying what you’re aiming to achieve is a step along the path of getting there. You may ultimately never get where you want to be, but if you give up now you’ll definitely never getting there.