Kick-starting inspiration

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Horse Chestnut (after Robert Dukes) A5 (coloured pencils, ink and collage on Stillmann & Birn gamma paper) 2018

Do you know that feeling when you’re working on something and suddenly you think, this is so dull? Last week it happened as I was working on a drawing in four panels showing how a quince rotted over time, based on a sequence of paintings by Horst Janssen called Tagebuch der Amaryllis (Diary of an amaryllis).

There are various ways to deal with this but my preferred method is to copy something by someone else – not exactly, using it simply as a jumping off point without having to set up a still life or think of a subject. In my reference file I found an oil painting of a conker by Robert Dukes and started to reinterpret it in ink and coloured pencils, the change of medium ensuring a different outcome (not to mention his greater talent!).

Dukes is a London-based painter and teacher who was educated at Grimsby Art College and the Slade under teachers such as Euan Uglow, Lawrence Gowing and Patrick George. Although he also paints landscapes, his expertise in single object still life painting is astonishing. His own problems with inspiration and trying to fit art around the need to make a living will be encouraging for many of us:

I went to the Slade hoping to be inspired and excited but it had the opposite effect. I left in 1988 and did almost no painting for the next ten years or so. I kept drawing the whole time though. Also, I had to earn a living and as a result I had little time to paint. When I did paint I felt that I had no control over the forms I was trying to depict- and that had the effect of making me not want to paint, which of course meant that when I did paint, I was out of practice so it inevitably went badly.

He has also done his share of copying paintings by others (he was fortunate enough to work at the National Gallery in London for many years) so I’m sure he wouldn’t mind my borrowing his horse chestnut to work through my own creative block. It’s an effective way of kick-starting creativity, reinterpreting what someone else has done, observing how they’ve used colour, form and composition, feeling your way around another’s work. What’s more, as Dukes has said, “I do think making copies is a good excuse to spend a long time looking at a painting you admire.”

26 thoughts on “Kick-starting inspiration

  1. I empathise with your creative block, went through the same thing recently but out the other side now and the creative juices are flowing. That’s an interesting way to deal with creative block, I will remember that for the future, as it will inevitably happen again. I love the drawing, such beautiful colours and so much expressed in such a small and unassuming object.

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  2. We all learn from each other. Well, if we are learning from the Old Masters perhaps it’s a one way process, but hopefully some of us will help inspire those who follow us.

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  3. Pingback: The Perfect Poem – Wind Rush

  4. I’ve finally come to the realisation that half of my creative problems come from the fact that I have always wanted to draw, print and create like someone else instead of accepting my own way. Now I sit with books of patterns, shapes, 1950s fabrics, wallpapers and so on and I’m instantly revived and stimulated. So I’ve learned that if you can find the particular subject that ignites you then you will be up and running. I’m never going to be a ‘real’ painter or artist so I’m just going to put my own spin on some weird and fun images that come from my hands. If I’m the only one who enjoys them then so be it!

    I wonder whether sharing on blogs and the like actually hinders us all as we stop to consider what our audience might think of our good, bad and indifferent artistic endeavors?

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    • Thanks, Claire. Yes, I think it can be very limiting to say to yourself, I want to draw like Maurice Sendak or paint like Paul Cezanne, even though I spent my early life doing just that and still do to an extent. I think the key is to take elements from others, adapt them to one’s own style and fold them into one’s own practice.

      As for blogging, you might be right there too. I tried to blog on a weekly basis but found all my energies were going into that weekly post and that I was putting up some things I wasn’t particularly pleased with simply because something had to be there by 12 noon on a Tuesday or whatever. Creativity is such a delicate construction, open to so many doubts, questions and sudden leaps forward, I sort of feel we all need to let it take its own course, nudge it along now and then by introducing elements from other artists or going on a workshop, and just see where it leads…

      Easier said than done!

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  5. First, the horse chestnut is beautifully done – those colors! So surprising. And the notion of copying, or using another image as a starting point, is a little surprising as well, but you make a very good case for it. (I’m aware it’s historically a tried and true method but I don’t expect to see anyone admitting to it these days). The quote from Robert Dukes was interesting too, because I could resonate with bits of his story. I went to art school and certainly WAS inspired, but could not begin to translate that experience into everyday life afterwards. I had to eat, I had to work, and for years, many years in fact, that’s what I did. Though making art was an uncommon occurrence, I never stopped looking, and that’s what I think carried me through. Now I’m retired and having the best time, going out and taking photos anytime I want, of anything i want, etc. etc.

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  6. Yes! I find “copying” paintings I admire–that is, using them as a way to jumpstart something similar but still my own, and also as a way to learn more about the art and craft of painting–exciting and inspiring! Thank you for that reminder–I’m in a slump, and that may be my way out again.

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