The forest at dusk

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Olivia (A1 charcoal, pastel and graphite 2018) Drawn over an existing charcoal drawing which was partially rubbed out

Can you remember your childhood? Sometimes you’d rush into things – where angels might fear to tread, perhaps – without a second thought about the consequences of your actions. Yet I bet there is no child in the entire world who could be encouraged to enter a dark forest alone as dusk became night.

I feel like that on the morning of Seawhite Studios‘ workshops. Not because there’s anything scary about Katie Sollohub or Emily Ball, but because when you sign up for their courses you know you’re going to be encouraged to stray over boundaries, perhaps into the dark forest of your creative fears, and challenge your own preconceptions.

Earlier this week I was fortunate enough to attend Katie’s one-day workshop on drawing the human head. Katie and Emily work closely together, so anyone who was at all familiar with Emily’s wonderful book, Drawing and Painting People: A Fresh Approach, would know this wasn’t going to include a three-hour portrait session on the precise representation of the model in pencil.

We were guided through some liberating exercises – drawing our own faces with eyes closed, drawing the model without looking at the paper:

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(which resulted in the rather pleasing abstract above) – and producing a drawing by gently spreading crushed charcoal and coloured chalk over paper, completing it with a few lines. I’ve done this before – it’s discussed in Emily Ball’s book – but not with such a light touch, which made all the difference to the finished drawing:

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The image at the top of this post looks reasonably conventional. However it was one of two drawings that we were asked to do over existing ones. It was a pleasure to rub out a very dull drawing I’d done earlier in the day and concentrate on Olivia’s astonishing profile and her remarkable ear-rings. Little of the original drawing remains except for a few faint lines and the tint of the rubbed-out charcoal on the paper.

I’d had a rather difficult January, creatively: the lingering effect of flu over New Year and some demanding issues in my work life left me drained and uninspired. I’d done a bit of messing around with acrylic paint and sat in front of empty sheets of paper thinking, “I haven’t a single idea in my head…” The gentle explorations of Katie Sollohub’s workshop, however, cleared a path through the undergrowth as they have before – especially in that charmed space between the figurative and abstraction, which for me has all the wonder and terrors of the forest at dusk!

 

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The art of bliss

The Park (A5 sketchbook page collage and mixed media 2017)

In January 1946 a fire broke out in Arshile Gorky’s Connecticut studio, destroying two dozen paintings and many drawings. The following month, he was diagnosed with rectal cancer and endured debilitating surgery. A couple of years later, he broke his back and lost the use of his painting arm in a car accident; shortly afterwards, his wife moved out with their children, and so, heart and spirit broken, Gorky hanged himself in his barn after writing the words “Goodbye, my loveds” in chalk letters on a crate.

The tragedy of Gorky’s final years was mirrored by the hardships of his early life. Brought up among the persecuted Armenian community in Turkey, he and his family lived as hunted refugees: his beloved mother died of starvation in his arms before, still a teenager, he was able to escape to the United States.

Yet in between, he produced some of the most joyful art you could wish to see. Something of a father to the abstract expressionists, and an enormous influence on Willem de Kooning, he painted sensuous, organic forms, coloured with crayons or thin washes of oil paint. Titles such as Pastoral or Virginia Summer give some sense of his work’s roots in the natural world, as do the abstracted forms of seed-pods, fungi and bulbs that inhabit his paintings.

I was reminded of Gorky by an article by Holland Cotter in the New York Times, a review of an exhibition of his landscapes at Hauser & Wirth, “an exhibition as manic and tender as a Schubert song cycle.” He looms large in Mark Stevens’ and Annalyn Swan’s magnificent biography of De Kooning and his retrospective at the Tate Gallery some years ago was a revelation.

I wanted to do something in honour of Gorky that wasn’t intended to copy him so, being still engaged with collage as much as drawing or painting, I put together the piece that heads this post. The shapes are hard-edged and angular where Gorky’s are sensuous, their positions in the grid formal where his are abandoned, but the curling shapes owe something to his vision, confined as they are here to the background.

If you don’t know Gorky’s work and you’re lucky enough to live near New York City, I would urge you to visit the current exhibition. For the rest of us, there is an excellent biography by his son-in-law, Matthew Spender, and resources are plentiful online. Once seen as a somewhat derivative painter who put together elements of Cezanne, Picasso and the surrealists, he is now recognised as an important figure in the development of abstract art and a painter of subtle beauty. Once seen, his paintings and drawings, born out of his early suffering, can never be forgotten.

 

A creative thanksgiving

Apples blog

Apples (A4 acrylic 2017)

“At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to thank with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.” Albert Schweitzer

Parker J Palmer opened his Thanksgiving Facebook post with this quotation. We don’t have Thanksgiving in England. We now have Black Friday, of course, another opportunity to acquire stuff we possibly don’t need, but we don’t have a formal occasion to sit and be grateful for what we already have.

Many times during this rather dismal year I’ve had cause to be grateful to friends and family who have helped me keep the flame alight. As I’ve mentioned before, there were times during the first half when that seemed an almost impossible task and I thank all of you who have helped with a well-timed spark. You know who you are.

But this is an art blog so let’s move over to that track.

There are times when you bump up against what might seem like an insurmountable obstacle to creativity. Over the past few months I’ve been struggling to consciously loosen up the way I paint and I have plenty of half-finished monstrosities to prove it. Yesterday evening I took three apples from the bowl, squeezed out some acrylics onto a palette and set about painting a simple still life. My ambition wasn’t to recreate what I saw in front of me but to intrepret those three apples with a complete freedom of execution. The result (above) is no masterpiece, but as with other experiments it got me over that hump.

There’s a fascinating blog post by artist Christopher Gallego entitled 5 unusual habits to keep you growing artistically that I urge you to read. His second piece of advice is ‘Do the impossible’ (the first, ‘Paint some crap’, is also worth trying): ‘Attack something, anything, that scares you to death’, he advises. So painting these apples with big, bright slabs of colour, buttered on with a square brush, was far from the usual way I paint. It was glorious. After an hour of that I felt exhausted and exhilerated, defeated and victorious in equal measure, and glad that I had just attacked the thing that scares me to death: looseness and spontenaiety. As Lorca described the Andalusian folk lyric, ‘a momentary burst of inspiration, the blush of all that is truly alive…the trembling of the moment’ – that’s what we should be aiming for!

So thank you, Christopher Gallego, for your timely spark. Thank you, Annabel Mednick, for making me look and draw what I see every week in my life drawing course. Thank you, Ingrid Christensen for showing us how to paint beautiful loose still lifes, and to you Stanley Bielen, John Button, Lisa Daria, Jennifer Pochinski, Karolina Gacke and many others who show what can be achieved just this side of abstraction.

That’s my creative Thanksgiving.

Simple Gifts

Autumn Leaf (A3) mixed media

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free…

I sometimes think that the Autumn, knowing what’s coming over the next few months, gives up little gifts as a kind of consolation. Winter’s coming, and where I live it’ll be grey and soupy. Sorry about that, sighs the Autumn, here’s a damaged quince, here’s a leaf containing more shades of red and green than you can name, here’s a late flowering rose.

Last Sunday – after a delightful, celebratory evening with a friend – I walked down to a nearby petrol station to buy a newspaper and a croissant (surprisingly good, believe me). On my way home, the wind blew a dried and twisted leaf in my path. The thing about following most creative journeys is that simple things can mean a great deal: the rotting fruit that I posted last week, for example, and now this leaf – a colour chart of Autumn shades. Almost anything can inspire, it seems.

I took it home and used it as a starting point, painting the colours much brighter than in nature and using broad brush strokes of watercolour. Only after the basic shape of the leaf was laid down did I draw the curling edges of the leaf in ink and add all the rest of the embellishments it now contains.

The leaf – my simple gift from a passing gust of wind – now sits on the table, growing ever more brittle and slowly losing shade after shade. If I had a German-speaking cleaner, no doubt (s)he would ask, “Ist das Kunst oder kann das weg (Is that art or can it be thrown away)?” The inspiration for this remark is said to be the famous incident around the Fettecke (Grease Corner) by Joseph Beuys. It consisted of 5 kg of butter installed in the corner of a room. On the day before a visit from a VIP, a janitor removed and disposed of it. As the result of a court case, the German state of North-Rhine Westphalia had to pay 40,000 DM in compensation to the owner.

So beware what you throw away. It might just be art after all.

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Interlude

Pencils (A4 ink and coloured pencil 2017)

I started this blog to motivate myself to complete a drawing or painting each week, something that I wouldn’t be too ashamed to share with a small group of followers. The ‘small group’ is now around 950 and I’ve managed to sustain the pace despite a demanding full-time job and some turbulent times.

At first, I thought I’d just post the images with the minimum of explanation but I soon found that there were things I wanted to write about – some weeks the images even became secondary to the text. The nature of creativity became a recurring theme along with my particular passions for Henry James, Leonard Nimoy, John Berger, minimalist music, quinces and illustrators.

Send me a dozen long stemmed roses
I’ll tell you what I’ll do:
I’ll bend them into a crown of thorns
Then send them right back to you.

Michelle Shocked, ‘On the Greener Side’

During the past seven months I’ve lived through the scrappy break-up of my 15 year relationship and two deaths, my Mother and a friend of some forty years. Grief has been an almost constant companion, but so, too, has gratitude. I’ve come to treasure the support and kindness of good friends and my family. In a rather surprising way I discovered that it is possible to still feel intensely when I thought all emotion had been numbed by grief.

My departing partner left me a poem by John O’Donahue which advised:

This is the time to be slow,

Lie low to the wall

Until the bitter weather passes.

I did about a week of being slow, lying on the couch watching the shadows of the quince tree on the ceiling wondering where it had all gone wrong. You start to feel yourself dying inside if you do much of that. Far better to climb over the wall and let the bitter winds and cold rain lash you back to life. Perhaps I haven’t given myself time to properly grieve for any of these losses, but I have felt alive throughout it all which is the important thing for me. I wouldn’t wish my recent life on anyone else, but there have been more bright spots than one might imagine.

I’ve also taken part in some stimulating art workshops which have truly kept me going through these dark times, especially gestural drawing at Seawhite Studios and life drawing with Annabel Mednick and model Blue King. Both have caused me to think about the work I’m doing and how to move forward.

So for a while I’ll post less frequently while I attempt to work more slowly and on a larger scale (I’ll continue to post smaller things, older work, photographs and favourite art books on Instagram). I do hope you’ll stick with me during this period of recalibration: it’s been a pleasure to interact with so many generous, creative and inspiring people and I’d hate to lose you! Thank you so much for your support – despite it all I’m blessed in many ways.

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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

Seawhite 1706 blog

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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