Facts and wonder

A Garden in a Grid (A4 collaged painted papers 2014)

What do you do if you feel you’re following the wrong path through life but haven’t the courage or the financial security to retrace your steps to the point where you took the false turning?

If you’re an author or an artist or a musician, how do you react if your writing, paintings or compositions don’t live up to what you see or hear in your mind?

Suppose you were to declare a passion for someone, but that person couldn’t – however much they cared for you – return your feelings to the same extent?

The novelist, Sebastian Barry, asked in The Temporary Gentleman, “Does wonder have any dominion over facts, in the end?” In the context of the novel, these words have a specific meaning. Removed from their context they provide an interesting way to view pedicaments such as the ones described above.

If we take ‘wonder’ to be our ideal – that one-man show at the Gagosian in New York, proud of every piece hanging on those expensive walls, our partner of choice at our side during the private view followed by a quiet dinner for two at Pearl‘s after the event (“Sorry, Larry, we’ve got something lined up for later…”) – what determines the distance between that and the facts of our existence? Is it just talent? Luck, opportunity, chance? Setting aside self-help platitudes, can believing in a desired outcome influence the facts as they stand this morning?

Of all the painters I admire, Cy Twombly is perhaps the one that divides opinion the most. I find much of his work both exciting and moving, yet others see him as a charlatan who fools the gullible into believing they’re looking at something profound. Yet whatever we think, Twombly had faith in his own vision and how it developed over the years; also, influential dealers and collectors – some of whom, you’ll be surprised to hear, are only in it for the money – were prepared to gamble their reputations on a large canvas with two smears of yellow oil paint and a badly-written quote from the Aeneid scrawled across it. Like his work or not, Cy lived the ‘wonder’.

Perhaps the important factor is belief. Had we believed sufficiently in ourselves at that decisive moment we might not have taken an ill-judged turning at the crossroads; perhaps the gap between the music we hear in our heads and the notes on the stave is down to our belief in the piece; perhaps our potential lover turns us down because in our heart of hearts we know that we are unable to provide what he or she needs? Twombly’s teachers, fellow artists and, crucially, he himself believed in what he was doing; he sold those controversial paintings, married the beautiful Luisa Tatiana Franchetti and lived in elegant style in Rome for the rest of his days.

There may always be a distance between the facts and the wonder, between what is and what could be. As I’ve mentioned before, perhaps that’s what drives us on. If we feel we’re on the wrong road the answer may not be to go back, but to find a way forward to where we need to be given where we are now rather than where we were ten years ago. After all, there’s no choice about that: we cannot go back.

I can’t provide answers to the questions posed at the beginning of this post. I’m also aware that this is not the most fully realised piece I’ve posted: I’m still working through it. However I’m fairly certain that belief has a great deal to do with those questions.

What do you think?

A note on the image: As those of you who follow my Instagram feed will already know, the image is made up of pieces cut from a couple of unsuccessful flower paintings and repurposed. I’m grateful to Jacob for the title.

A note on Sebastian Barry: Barry is a beautiful writer, as this will demonstrate: “We are in the great belly of the whale of what happens, we mistook the darkness for a pleasant night-time, and the phosphorescent plankton swimming there for stars.” However, his stories and his plot turns can be desperately sad and I advise caution when reading his novels in public. Last week I found myself on a plane bound for Frankfurt surrounded by international businesspeople. I was approaching the end of The Temporary Gentlemen when something unexpectedly tragic happened to one of the characters. Fighting back my emotions, I became aware of someone standing next to me and I looked up to see a Lufthansa stewardess. “Käse oder Salami?” she asked, a sandwich in each hand.

The big picture

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Gestural drawing (5m x 1.5m mixed media 2017)

Perhaps all art classes should begin with a guided meditation. We have one at the start of the life drawing class I attend and it puts a welcome line between my day of spreadsheets and schedules and an evening of drawing. It certainly put me in the right frame of mind at Katie Sollohub’s Gestural Drawing workshop which I attended earlier this week.

If, like me, you have problems with the blank white page, imagine if that page would be 5 meters by 1.5 meters. That’s what confronted us at the beginning of the workshop: a page of heroic proportions, hanging from the wall and extending out across the floor, which would be filled with marks of one sort or another by the close of the second day. That initial grounding meditation was an essential start, I thought.

I’m sure someone like De Kooning or Joan Mitchell would immediately feel at home with a surface that large, but we were encouraged to explore, to find our way into it. Touching it, sniffing it (that’s as intimate as it got with me), whatever you felt – all with eyes closed. Then, charcoal in hand, starting to make marks on it, again with eyes closed, just using the arc of your arm movements; or dotting, or scratching, rubbing, scribbling, following your instinct wherever that led you.

Detail of the above

It was liberating to work in an intuitive, emotive, unstructured way. A large drawing without preparatory sketches, without an object to look at and interpret on the page, a drawing created purely out of gestures and marks. The resultant piece was surprisingly dark in places, the tiny coloured squares swallowed by the darker tones, the colourful flower-shapes threatening to entangle.

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Detail of the above

As one worked some of the usual creative responses kicked in: balancing the composition, plotting contrasting lines, adding colour on the second day after re-hanging it lengthways along the wall. It was interesting how others reacted and developed over the two days as well: one who had attended art school in the 1990s and now only did small sketches of her travels produced a work of such vibrant magnificence it stopped me in my tracks more than once; someone who experienced a creative block on the second day broke through by hurling a sponge dipped in white paint at his picture, incorporating the spatters into an impressive piece by the end; another unused to abstraction sailed out into those choppy waters to return to a semi-figurative composition where faces and bodies emerged from white washes and black lines.

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Detail of the above

It was an astonishing experience, exhausting and exhilarating, and although my access to 5m sheets is limited – not to mention the lack of space to work on them – I’m sure it will inform what I do from now on. For example, I’m contemplating a pastel drawing of a friend wearing a blue dress: I now plan this at around double the originally-intended size, and much looser in execution.

Sometimes one recognises that the imagination actually is boundless.

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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 refuge of the drawn line

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Blue, clothed I (A3 charcoal 2016)

There is no Chinese curse that goes, ‘May you live in interesting times’, probably because it’s meaningless. We may imagine that the current rise of populist right-wing politicians would qualify, but is it worse than living during World War II, or Stalin’s Russia, or anywhere during the medieval period?

In our own personal sphere, things are always ‘interesting’ in the sense meant by the bogus Chinese curse. Without the lows, as they say, how would we enjoy the highs? We are complex creatures in a world buzzing with activity and sensation – it couldn’t be anything else.

Yesterday I returned to work after a short illness. Inevitably there were the crises, deadlines and demands that pile up while you’re away from your emails. Although I’d had a delightful weekend – lunch with a dear friend on Saturday followed by a visit to the Edward Ardizzone retrospective in London, some therapeutic leaf-raking on Sunday – by the end of the day I felt like my head was full of chattering birds. Two hours of life drawing and a 15 minute meditation at home did the trick: soon the avian throng were quietly sleeping on their perches again!

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Blue, clothed II (A3 pencil 2016)

At the moment life seems to offer me an intriguing opportunity with the right hand and slap me on the back of the head with the left. Through all of this, there is the refuge of the drawn line. As long as there is time to sit, switch on Astral Weeks and draw dogs or quinces or Carly Simon’s imaginary friends, adversity can be defeated. It’s a privilege, I know.

And if the drawing goes wrong or the quinces don’t live up to their promise then I have the advice of my good friend and author, Bálint Varga: ‘Insecurity and dissatisfaction with one’s work is part and parcel of being an artist. It would be tragic if you were perfectly happy with what you are doing: you would have no incentive to search and experiment further.’

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One small step

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Plums on a handmade plate (25cms x 22cms acrylic and pencil on board 2016)

For me, this painting represents a step forward and a loosening of the creative ties that bind. It may not seem that remarkable – three plums on an asymmetrical handmade plate can only say so much! – but it’s not a result I would have been happy with a year ago.

My ambition in still life painting is to achieve certain things: accurately representing what lies before me isn’t one of them. You know what a plum looks like; nothing I can tell you about a plum will make it more profound; however painstakingly I try to reproduce the plum in all its shades and textures and colours it will never look as beautiful as the plum that sits there on that off-white plate.

Instead I offer you my graphic interpretation of a plum. It suggests a certain plum-ness, but like the gages I painted a few weeks ago, you wouldn’t mistake it for the real thing. None of this is new, but what makes it a breakthrough for me is that I didn’t try to tidy it all up.

I thought the red shape behind the plate of plums enhanced the composition, even though it represents nothing concrete in real life. I flattened the perspective of the surface that the plate sits on even though the plate itself is somewhat elliptical. And I painted a line across the top that my art teacher in school would have said was a compositional error had he been interested enough to say anything at all!

So, although this isn’t perfect it is exactly how I wanted it to be, knowing that it wasn’t perfect. When that happens, as the composer Jean Sibelius once said, it’s as if God has thrown down pieces of mosaic from the floor of heaven and asked you to reassemble them on earth. When the hundred small decisions go well in your own small picture, as Felix Scheinberger has it, it’s almost as if you’d discovered the pattern in heaven’s mosaic! I hope you agree.

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Frankfurt in October

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Autumn Leaf (A4 ink and watercolour 2014)

Every year in October I travel to Frankfurt for the book fair. It’s an inspiring time to be in Germany. The days are often warm, as if the summer can’t bear to let go, but the trees are already starting to turn red, gold and brown.

How often have I picked up a particularly beautiful leaf and put it somewhere – intending to draw or paint it later – then forgetten about it, finding a brown and shrivelled thing weeks later. This time of year is transience made visible, when everything changes from day to day, nature drawing down the shutters for winter.

The book fair is an international expression of creativity. The world’s publishers set out their stalls in five or six halls, some with three floors per hall. Those of us who are mainly English-speaking can only feel humbled walking through, say, the Norwegian or Dutch sections, seeing books by writers largely unknown outside of their own languages. There is so much that we can never know.

On the theme of creativity, this morning I read an interview with the conductor, Simon Rattle, in the Sueddeutscher Zeitung magazine. He described how, when conducting, the music is felt in every part of the body. He mentioned a conversation between Leonard Bernstein and Andre Previn. “How are you, Andre?” asked Bernstein. “OK,” Previn replied, “But I have terrible backache.” “Really?” Bernstein gasped, “I had no idea you were so successful!”

 

Storytelling

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The Veteran (2015 charcoal and pastel 40cms x 30cms approx.)

Inspired, no doubt, by Doug Selway’s exhibition, Shelf Lives – which looked movingly at aspects of memory and story-telling – I thought I’d draw someone with a vivid history.

This charcoal and pastel drawing is based on a David Bailey photograph of 103 year old war veteran, Joe Britten, published in the Guardian some months ago. Joe has had a life and a half, serving in A Squadron of the reconnaissance unit during the Second World War alongside actor David Niven. Apparently, Niven asked Joe, “Who do you fancy in Hollywood?” He answered, “Dorothy Lamour.” “I’ll see to it, Joe” said the actor. After the fighting was over, Joe received a 6′ high photograph of Miss Lamour signed “To Joe, love from Dotty.”