During the current Covid-19 crisis I think we have all been glued to the news each day waiting for the data and the graphs to start showing the curve flattening out in the rates of infection and number of deaths, to have evidence that strategies are working in the world wide fight against corona virus.
Along with that I have been reflecting on my own interesting learning curve over the last couple of months thinking about things like how I react to challenging situations like this, how well I adapt to changing situations, how well I do and don’t look after my own health, how well, or not (as evidence below I think!), I rest, and not least what I have been learning about my preferences in my art.
Art-wise in the last month I have been rather maverick at times trying a few different things with mixed results. I am often inspired by other people’s work and fascinated by their processes, wondering if I can do the same. I do occasionally try a few things out and I am not usually that maverick but the current strange situation seems to be feeding a maverick streak! I have realised a few things in doing this, one being that it is so exhausting going out of your normal comfort zone! Another can be the tang of disappointment when it doesn’t work out. But thinking about it has helped me understand my approach better as an artist, at least for where I am right now.
One of the first interesting little gems I discovered was doing the Saturday Challenge set by the Huddersfield Art Society during lock down instead of meeting. The idea was to use our favourite medium to draw / paint a glass, exploring how best to really get a feel of the shape and surface of the glass itself. Initially I was going to do a pencil drawing to work on the detail, but I decided to use my water miscible oils instead, and felt really surprised how much I enjoyed doing still life in oils, especially in a more impressionistic style. I have been thinking more about taking a more gestural approach and incorporating more loose and energetic marks to make my landscapes really sing, but I noticed the effects more in doing the still life.
I have also been doing another art challenge during the lock down period to ‘Mark This Time’. The full sketch book can be seen under my tab ‘Around My Home’ where I have been doing regular little sketches of ‘vignettes’ that caught my eye on my daily walks near my home. I do a quick, light pencil sketch to place the key elements of the scene and then use an ink pen to complete details, using a lot of quick, loose scribbles and lines. Watercolour is then applied loosely and freely, and I decided early on to add a final touch of a gold pen in places – just because! I love these quick sketches in their simplicity, liveliness and freshness. I plan to do more of this en plein air and other outdoor days.
Another little ‘A-ha’ moment occurred when I was tidying up my studio and I came across a large watercolour painting that I had abandoned a few months ago. I didn’t want to continue with it so I decided to chop it up, and felt inspired as I started to arrange the pieces, producing a couple of collages representing Moorland Rambles. These again feel simple, light, fresh and a little bit different. I am not sure collage is a direction I want to do a lot of at the moment but I was really pleased with this result.
I also had a couple of days experimenting with inktense blocks. Inspired by another artist writing about their work using inks, I dug out a set I had in my cupboard for years and not used them much at all. After doing some pages in a sketch book, testing out the colours, blobbing and splodging, I had a go at this little painting on paper. I started off with a light pencil sketch to establish the composition and placing of key features and then used the ink. I tried to be loose and free with it but I think got a bit carried away in the process. I finished using opaque gouache for final bits of detail and a few scribbles with pen to define focal points. It was good to try something different but I concluded that this is not a way I want to work at the moment.
A couple of blogs ago I shared a painting that I had started as an experimental canvas exploring layering and blending techniques, particularly in a grey sky over Dovestones Reservoir. I really liked the effects of the sky and persevered with the painting (see below) and left it on the wall to ponder over.
Frequently it would catch my eye (I think mainly due to the sky) but any further inspection really irked me about the composition. One thing I have learnt about myself is that I am not so good at just letting things go when they don’t work out – I am a bit of a dog with a bone when I get in that frame of mind! So, during one particularly maverick moment I decide to completely re-work it. What followed were several days of wrestling with it, with the painting going in different directions, the slideshow below indicating some of that journey. A few times I was tempted to bin it, but for some reason I just couldn’t let it go. I wanted to rescue it.
It was during one of my morning walks, looking up into a beautiful blue sky, that I acknowledged a key thing for me in my paintings was brightness, light, and colour; a freshness and liveliness that expresses my joy and enjoyment of those landscapes. Doggedly working on this landscape I fought to get that back. I think this painting might be finished now and we seemed to have made up after the battle. But I really don’t want my painting activity to feel like a battle! For me it needs to be the joy that I experience in those landscapes.
In another experiment, because I have been following people who do more abstract landscapes, starting off with random marks reflecting their feelings about a landscape and letting the landscape emerge out of that, I thought I would have a go with this approach on a large canvas – another maverick moment of ‘what the heck! Just go for it!’ I really didn’t like my attempt at being abstract – unfortunately I didn’t take any photos of that first stage probably because I just couldn’t make it work. The painting ended up being too dark for me, as I worked it into being more figurative as a starting point. It was another one that sat on the wall for quite a while, frowning at me from the corner!
As I frowned back at it regularly I came to accept that my starting point has to be with a bit of a plan and to focus on the shapes of the landscape that I am so interested in. I have never felt the need for loose mark making on the blank surface – in fact, I love the blank surface with the promise of all the possibilities to come. But now the issue with the painting at that stage was that it was so dark – again! I really struggled with this, like the previous painting – the feedback to my eyes just did not delight me. So I decided to go a bit mad with colour, using scumbling and blending, trying a few random marks etc.
Once that layer was dry I then worked over it again with further daring colour choices (which don’t show up as much on the photo but I am talking of pinks, mauves and turquoise!) building up the detail. This seemed to resolve the painting well and results in a rather different but interesting outcome.
So, to summarise, for myself really, what I have learnt:
To be more fearless and daring in breaking the rules. In learning about using oil paints I have watched, followed, listened to and read about many traditional oil painters. It has been so inspiring and instructive, with those instructions and guides giving me a starting point in learning how to use oils. For example more traditional oil painters start off with a fairly dark ground and work from dark to light. For me I prefer a light ground and might take it even further by going for white. Or I might use different coloured grounds in places within one painting, having done better thinking about the composition of the painting. I also prefer to work quite light initially bringing in the darks more selectively where I need them. I want to explore this idea more with the different techniques I have come to prefer.
Rethinking about layers. In previous, different kinds of art, I have loved the concept of working in layers, and with oils I really value the fact that you can build up in layers. But what I have learned from these experiments that, for the outcome I want now, I need to rely on fewer layers and better, earlier decision making. For this to work I will rethink the planning stage and what I want to get out of that.
Back to front or front to back? Again with traditional oil painting many work from back to front. I think this is a good rule in general, but sometimes within a composition or a particular feature of the composition, it is necessary to work front to back, and this requires that earlier thought and planning.
A gestural conversation rather than a long lecture. The ‘battles’ with the paintings above were invaluable in the lessons they taught me and one of those was the impact of the battle both on the painting but also me as the artist. Constantly re-working a painting resulted, I think, in a loss of some of the light, gestural effects and mark making that I am aiming for. But also I got tired, frustrated and a bit bored with it at times. I liken it to the difference between sitting through a long lecture that is now becoming tedious compared to a lively short conversation that is inspiring and enriching. I want my paintings of the landscape to express the joy I feel in those places and I feel that joy in the ‘battle’ was lost for me as the artist and this will come out in the final painting.
Copying another artist’s techniques, process, or approach is of limited value. I don’t mean this in a negative way about the other artist. And sometimes you have to follow what someone else is doing to see how it works and experience how it sits with you ( as in a previous blog about a workshop I attended). But what I am experiencing is that I may take one small thing away with me that I might incorporate into my own work. The time spent trying things, reflecting on it and learning about how others work is always valuable in a right perspective of the direction you want to go as an artist as it helps you to evaluate more deeply your own work and your own artistic voice.
And finally, trust your own artistic voice. As artists we are our own worst critics, but I feel it is important to trust our own artistic voice and encourage it to flourish without being too distracted by others. My maverick adventures recently were probably in response to lots of things going on around me and on social media. These interesting / challenging things will always be there, but maybe need to be taken in smaller doses with plenty of time to step back, think about their value to you as an artist and to regularly take time to listen to your own artistic voice. I am slowly learning how, after a life time of busy work and being rather driven, to rest more and to rest better and to listen more quietly.
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