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Taking risks as a painter

August 20, 2015

Beets from garden - oils 50 X 60 cm

Beets from garden – oils
50 X 60 cm

Have you ever attended a painting workshop and been given a chance to work completely outside of your habitual approach? You’re freed up, you make some pieces that really surprise you during the day, new possibilities suddenly seem endless. You go home on a ‘workshop high’ resolved to start working more freely from now on.

Here you are, back at the studio- there is a blank canvas in front of you, all your materials are there arranged as usual, your workspace is the same. The stimulation of the other people, the instructor, the unfamiliar environment, and above all the uninterrupted time just for you, are in the past. You try to recover that feeling of freedom, but before you know it, you are working as always, wondering how to get out of a rut.

So how does one integrate new insights and experiences into old work patterns and actually begin to let their work change and grow? Many of our habitual ways of working have grown with us and are an important part of making our unique kind of work. But sticking exclusively to one way of working doesn’t lead to the kind of risk taking that is needed for growth and renewal.

I’ll share a recent experience with some visuals which may help.

In my last post on artists needing play time, I spoke of Shaun McNiff’s suggestion to begin working, not out of a concept (the mind), but out of the body- using a movement or gesture and translating that into marks on the canvas. And then using the interaction with the materials to keep taking steps in developing the composition.

I’ve been working in oils commitedly for 4 years this month, completing around 15-20 paintings a year. Mostly I’ve been learning the medium, since in my career I worked mostly in watercolours, drawing and acrylics. I feel constrained by just realistic painting, and have been trying to free myself up to work more loosely, to let go of realistic portrayal and to use colour more intuitively.

The painting of beets opening this post is my most recent one, I liked where it was headed, but it was still too slavish to the photo I was working from. In the weekend, I did as McNiff suggested in his book and used all kinds of media and movement to do a series of free work. Here are the results below.

free expression drawings

free expression drawings

At the time I couldn’t see how to bring what I’d learned into my oil paintings. So I did a series of watercolour stick drawings, but first scribbled and sketched on the paper with white crayons. You can see the white lines showing up through the watercolour sticks since the white wax lines resist the water medium. I liked this effect, and the second one down, I loved for its subtlety and spontaneity.

watercolour sticks and crayon 3

watercolour sticks and crayon 3

watercoloursticks and crayon 2

watercoloursticks and crayon 2

watercolour sticks and wax crayons1

watercolour sticks and wax crayons1

What I wanted to do was bring in that same kind of spontaneous, airy spaciousness into my oil painting. The painting of the beets, by comparison to where I want to go, is very dense and concentrated.I like that but I want to be able to choose that look, not to do it because I can’t do anything else.

I started with a 50x70cm canvas board and began with movements and gestures while listening to music, only having a faint idea of where I might want to go with it (the subject is that Beets revisited). I didn’t do a drawing, just squiggled on some shapes with a brush.
I love the feel of it, I used oils thinned down and let them run. There will be beets and leaves and thicker paint, but it will be very different from the first one. I have no idea where it will end up. This is ‘trusting the process’.

Start of New Beets

Start of New Beets

One more thought to add. What inhibits most professional artists from doing this kind of risky experimentation (it is scary) is the need to stick to the things that sell. I’ll probably be producing substandard work for several months at least while I experiment with this new approach. Another inhibiting factor is your idea of yourself as a ‘good’ artist. Changing your approach is going to produce cr*p for a while. Accept it. It is the only way to move forward and go deeper.

later: I did a little more work on it and decided to just leave it as it is. The qualities it already has are enough for me right now, they remind me of where I’m headed and I didn’t want to overwork it and obscure them. 

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Why artists need to play

August 16, 2015

worktable- the good kind of creative chaos

worktable- the good kind of creative chaos

I’m revisiting Shaun McNiff’s excellent book, ‘Trust the process’, first read 5 years ago. The subtitle says it all, ‘The artist’s guide to letting go’. Last time I read it, I experienced his thoughts as a confirmation that art making is completely separate from business. The posts I wrote on it reflected that. But this time around I am gaining so much from his deep understanding of creative processes, writing as well as painting.

One eye-opener for me was his suggestion to see the creative process as involving all of you. Therefore, you can kick-start visual creativity by, for example, moving your body, and taking cues from those gestures to make marks. I did this today,  starting out by dancing to my favorite Andreas Vollenweider CD. I had some good quality smallish watercolour paper and the dancing led quite naturally, still moving, to making rhythmic strokes on the paper with watercolour crayons. Very quickly the paper and tools became too small to contain the gestures I was making, so I ended up on newspaper sized paper using large crayon blocks and  ecoline inks with big brushes. I liked the wax resist effect, but soon I was combining charcoal, watercolour sticks, crayons and ink.

IT WAS FUN!

McNiff says you need to draw on a different set of evaluation criteria to review this kind of work: look at it for spontaneity, freshnesss, rhythm, whimsy. Work in series, let one image lead you to the next, and look at the whole body of work for signs of certain gestures and forms that you might want to repeat or expand upon.

I think you could do this to blast through blocks in any medium. He suggests starting out with notecards and making series of drawings (poems, writing ideas, dialogues, dance moves) on those. But if you want to work big like I did, you can still move from one to the next fairly quickly. Don’t correct or critique while you are working, just keep going and enjoy the process.

I don’t know where what I did this morning will lead, and I don’t care. It brought me straight back to my creative roots that was very moving. There was a sadness there for how I usually hem in my creativity to fit certain ideas I have about being an artist. Working this way was freeing, and I will revisit it and see where the process leads me.

McNiff’s ‘Trust the process’, is highly recommended for aspiring artists and certainly for art veterans like me, who can always use ways to loosen up, but also practical suggestions for further developing their work.