Just serotonin?

Silver white light (42 cms x 59 cms charcoal and pastel on Hahnemuehle Nostalgie paper 2017)

Recently, during a difficult period, I took enormous comfort in drawing. In Peter Steinhart’s book, The Undressed Art, I found the following passage:

Artists frequently compare the way they feel when they’re drawing to the sense of heightened awareness reported by practitioners of meditation….Jim Smyth, who has taught drawing for twenty years, says, “I believe the drawing process produces serotonin and endorphins in certain individuals. I see people who are not aware of their arthritis pain when they’re drawing. When they stop drawing, it comes back. Smyth once let someone monitor his brain-wave activity while he drew. “When I was drawing I would get alpha waves,” he said.

Alpha waves are electrical impulses in the brain that are associated with calm and focussed attention, Steinhart reminds us. Similar studies of meditation practitioners have revealed increased alpha, theta (these are associated with imagination and creativity) and beta waves (highly focussed attention).

Smyth believes the chemically induced sensation of pleasure is what keeps many people drawing. “There must be some physical reward for some people,” he says. “Otherwise, they wouldn’t do it.”

Well, it might have been a need for serotonin that urged me to draw when I was feeling low – certainly lack of it can result in depression and insomnia – but I like to feel it’s more than just a neurotransmitter ‘fix’. Isn’t any creative act – whether making lines on paper or following notes on a musical stave – a way of imposing order on the world by creating another world where you are in control (however much it might sometimes feel that the line is controlling you!). The end result, a unique piece made by your own hand, is a bonus: something to remind you of that time when you had your hand on the wheel.

The above drawing is one of the ones I completed during this time. Based on a rough sketch of the excellent model in the life drawing class I attend, I drew the figure in charcoal and dissolved some of the edges into the pastel background. I’m trying to get away from enclosing everything in a black line and this approach, I think, worked well. The addition of white pastel produces – I hope – a mystical feel, as if the figure is conducting some sort of energy. And not just serotonin!

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Jumping over shadows

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Abstract (55 cms x 48 cms acrylics 2017)

Without wanting to revive the debate about whether one needs to be taught or not, taking part in a workshop that inspires certainly works for me.

Last week I was fortunate enough to attend Katie Sollohub‘s still life course at the Seawhite Studios in the south of England. If you look at Katie’s website – or indeed Emily Ball’s, who runs Seawhite – you’ll notice that slavish realism is not their thing – the course was certain to be interesting.

In fact it was an intriguing mixture of formal exercises with the encouragement to go where those exercises led you. For example, we began by mixing a dark colour followed by a light, and juxtaposing them while experimenting with different edges to each block, which led to the abstract above.

For a still life course I came away with relatively few paintings of apples, jugs and flowers. Instead, it was suggested that I could use elements of the still life arrangement to create something more abstract. The picture below, therefore, includes a single small vase, while the wavy line and circles are the pattern on a batik cloth, the windmill shapes stylised versions of a fleshy plant, the magenta cross another motif from a piece of fabric.

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Abstract still life 1 (55 cms x 46 cms acrylics 2017)

I found another exercise – concentrating on negative spaces side-by-side with outlines of objects – led to the sort of straightforward composition that I was hoping to avoid. Katie’s answer was to simply paint over it, using the blue underpainting, as it now was, as an element in the new composition (below). Once again, I took parts of the set up to create a somewhat abstracted still life, rather than painting exactly what I saw on the table.

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Abstract still life 2 (50 cms x 40 cms acrylic 2017)

To say all this was exhilarating, refreshing and provocative is an understatement. I had hoped to have limiting beliefs challenged and they were: what I thought of as still life painting was deconstructed and reassembled into something fresh (for me) and alive.

The Germans have a saying about jumping over your own shadow, meaning to try something new, take a risk, dare greatly. That was certainly what I did last week, and I suspect its effect will be long-lasting.

 

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‘Keep looking, stay curious…’

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St Michael’s Mount, Cornwall (15 x 20 cms coloured pencil on textured paper 2016)

The poem Hokusai Says by Roger Keyes can be found on the web site of almost every mindfulness practitioner. It encapsulates much that is core to mindfulness but it also speaks, I think, to those of us involved in creative things.

“Keep looking, stay curious” is almost the key to everything in life but certainly true if you aspire to any form of creativity. “Get stuck, accept it…keep doing what you love” – it’s all there, isn’t it?

Here are a few excerpts which relate most pertinently to inspiration and creativity (it’s easy to find the entire poem on the web, as I mentioned, including a video where it is read by the excellent Mark Williams, complete with unnecessary music and images of dandelion seeds blowing in the wind, etc):

 Hokusai says Look carefully.

He says pay attention, notice.

He says keep looking, stay curious.

He says there is no end to seeing.

He says Look Forward to getting old.

He says keep changing, you just get more who you really are.

He says get stuck, accept it, repeat yourself as long as it’s interesting.

He says keep doing what you love.

 …

He says it doesn’t matter if you draw, or write books.

It doesn’t matter if you saw wood, or catch fish.

It doesn’t matter if you sit at home and stare at the ants on your verandah

or the shadows of the trees and grasses in your garden.

It matters that you care.

It matters that you feel.

It matters that you notice.

It matters that life lives through you.

He says don’t be afraid.

Don’t be afraid.

Look, feel, let life take you by the hand.

Let life live through you.

More than anything else I could find, this drawing of St Michael’s Mount seems to fit with the sentiments of this poem. A rather mystical place just off the southern coast of Cornwall, it comes into its own when the sun starts to set and the incoming tide cuts it off from the mainland. It’s a place I’ve tried to capture many times, and this small drawing seems to convey a little of its mystery.

This post is dedicated to a dear friend who has done something brave for the sake of furthering her art: ‘Don’t be afraid…let life take you by the hand.’

 

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