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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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Abstract (watercolour sticks)

Abstract (watercolour sticks)

Watercolour sticks are affording me a new freedom. Believe it or not, the drawing/painting above started out as, ‘Beet still life with pomegranate’, you can see the shadow of the open pomegranate in the top right quarter. It was acceptable still life, but is was boring, so I rubbed it all out with water and just worked into some of the shapes that were left.

Next, a magazine photo caught my eye and I did a quick study using the watercolour sticks full strength.

Ceramics (watercolour sticks)

Ceramics (watercolour sticks)

So, the medium can be used to create powerful forms and light and shadow. I refrained from working on this too much.

Next, I drew a loose grid in the way I usually start my oil pastel drawings- filling areas in as I went. The main influences were the books I am reading right now- Robert Mac Farlane’s wonderful, ‘The wild places’, and ‘Women who run with Wolves’, by Pinkola Estes.

Wayfaring (watercolour sticks)

Wayfaring (watercolour sticks)

In the lower left corner, a little fox makes his first appearance. And there is a lighted house in the woods where the old  lady sits near a roaring fire, waiting for the tired wayfarer to come in and be held and healed.

When I was in London in January, staying in my aunt’s flat after her death, I remembered a similar time 13 years earlier, staying in the same fifth floor flat while my mother was in her last days. There were several things that comforted me at that difficult time, one was looking down on a row of garage rooves and sighting a little fox curled up, resting after a night’s hunting in the city. He had made a nest of leaves on the warm roof, under some overhanging branches. I always looked for him after that, and derived an extraordinary sense of peace from seeing him safely ensconced in his little refuge.

I found myself looking for him this time as well, silly after 13 years, of course. No fox.

But one morning a few days before I left, I looked down and there was a fox, sleeping in the same place as his predecessor (well, who knows? How long  do foxes live?). He returned every day, late in the day, secure in his little warm place under the branches, curled up with his soft bushy tail wrapped around him in the weak January sun. So he became a sort of totem for me, and an important part of my time in London. I decided to draw him, and what emerged was a sort of visual journal after the fact.

Visual journal - Fox (watercolour sticks)

Visual journal – Fox (watercolour sticks)

There was already a peacock appearing, (top right) which led me to the next drawing -of the Kyoto Garden in Holland Park. My grandparents, aunt & uncle, and mother all lived very close to this wonderful park. It has been as much part of my psychic inner landscape as anywhere I’ve ever lived. After my mom had died, I stayed in the Holland Park youth hostel, also right in the middle of the park. One more letting go for me- this past trip, I went to visit some of the staff who had become friends by now (hi Sally and Simon), and the hostel had been closed down.

Peacocks run wild all over the park, my mom and I, and later my aunt and I always walked though the gardens, wandered through the formal Kyoto garden, looking at the carp and waterfalls; we smelled the roses in the rose garden, looked in wonder at the gorgeous meters-long mural near the Orangerie,  and stopped for a cup of hot cocoa in the little café.

Visual journal- Holland Park (watercolour sticks)

Visual journal- Holland Park (watercolour sticks)