An Act of Daring

Cracked Bowl (A4 charcoal and acrylic on a sketchbook page 2017)

“You don’t decide to paint. It’s like getting hungry and going to the kitchen to eat. It’s a need, not a choice.”

These are the words of surrealist painter, Leonora Carrington, and they’ll resonate with many of us. When things are going well, of course, creating something from the depths of your own heart is magical. When not, it’s an ache as painful as unrequited love. Hopefully the former more than makes up for the latter, but even if not, you continue regardless: it’s a need, as Carrington said, not a choice.

If my subject is an apple, I just want to discover my way of looking at it and how I interpret that with paint, charcoal or pastel. I don’t really know if I have anything profound to say about the apple, I’ve simply tried to say something about the apple in the manner I wanted to say it. It would be wonderful if you enjoyed looking at it, but really, so long as I’m happy with my apple that, in the end, is what matters. If it somehow lets me down, no amount of your saying how delightful it looks will make up for my own disappointment.

In a new book, my good friend Bálint Varga mentions ‘the loneliness of creative people in the face of their own creativity. They are solely responsible for their decisions, for the choices they have to make – the act of creation is an act of daring.’ He captures the creative impulse so neatly there, I believe. I would never sail the Atlantic in a small boat, or even go up in a hot air balloon on a calm Sunday afternoon, but several times a week I stare at a blank page and risk my peace of mind assembling marks and colour on that sheet, knowing that if the outcome works I’ll be elated, if not, all manner of doubts and uncertainties will crowd in. Sometimes the difference between ‘success’ and ‘failure’ is one ill-judged line.

Some time ago I wrote to Bálint that I was more often dissatisfied with my work than happy with the final result. His reply, which I printed out and taped above the mirror on my wardrobe door, was:

Insecurity and dissatisfaction with one’s work are part and parcel of being an artist. It would be tragic if you were perfectly happy with what you were doing; you would have no incentive to search and experiment further.

Seen in that light, all those crumpled pieces of paper in the recycling bin are steps on the journey, necessary to advance, to move forward. It’s a comforting thought and one I hold on to when I have a whole evening of crumpled pages behind me.

This week’s image is a fairly quick and loose drawing of a cracked bowl, something fairly symbolic of my life during the first six months of this year. I’m fortunate enough to have kind and supportive friends and this creative urge which propels me forward – speeding out of trouble, so to speak!

Next week I’ll be at Katie Sollohub’s Gestural Drawing workshop at Seawhite Studios: rolling around in charcoal for a couple of days is just what I need. The spirit soars.

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The limits of your longing

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Caroline’s Bouquet (21 cms x 29.7 cms pastel on Rembrandt pastel paper 2017)

Last week I heard and read two contrasting attitudes to growing older.

First was an interview with the late Roger Moore’s publisher, Michael O’Mara, talking about a book that the actor had delivered shortly before his death. It was a “humorous meditation on old age”, O’Mara explained, and he read a passage in which Moore goes into a coffee shop and works himself up into a lather because all he wants is a simple black coffee.

Secondly, on the Quaker educationalist and writer’s Facebook page, Parker J Palmer reproduced a poem by Rilke which “urges us to live life to the fullest, fearing no danger and ‘flaring up like flame’.”

“Go to the limits of your longing,” Rilke writes, “Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror./ Just keep going. No feeling is final…Nearby is the country they call life…Give me your hand.”

There’s so much going on in those lines. Essentially, though, the poem urges an engagement, as Palmer says, “to take life-giving risks as opportunity arises”.

For those of us in middle age engaged in creative activity – this is a blog about drawing and painting so I’m afraid all trains will stop at this station – the lessons here are clear. Let’s look again at the Japanese master, Hokusai: both his wives and two of his children predeceased him, he was struck by lightning, suffered a stroke in his 60s which required him to relearn his art, he had scarcely any food when he produced his masterwork Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, and five years before his death a studio fire destroyed all his work. Hokusai lived until he was 89. His last words were “If heaven will afford me five more years of life then I’ll manage to become a true artist.”

So what’s it to be? Pushing on to the “limits of your longing”, feeling your life crackling with “beauty and terror”, forever striving to become “a true artist”, or standing in your beige slacks in Cafe Nero ranting about the names of the coffee?

This week’s image celebrates my dear friend and colleague, Caroline Palmer (no relation to Parker J), who, after 25 years as an editor of medieval history and literature books, is having her achievement honoured by some of the academics she’s published over this time. One sent her a lavish bouquet of flowers of irresistable colour combinations and tonal qualities, which she kindly allowed me to babysit over this holiday weekend. As a woman and an editor very much in her prime, no doubt she’ll continue to publish young scholars and established academics for many years to come. I wish her more beauty than terror along the way.

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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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