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

Caroline's Flowers blog

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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Archaeology

Archaeology: Anglo-Saxon Pots (A4 charcoal and watercolour 2015)

Drawing in a museum can be enormously rewarding, if only because you have access to a range of still life objects so very different to those cups and vases you have at home (unless you’re a member of the Getty family).

It’s also interesting to compare the reactions of other museum visitors in different countries.  In the US – New York at least – people will come right up to you and stare at your drawing, sometimes even offering advice and comment. In Europe, they’re more likely to ignore you, at the most letting it be known through complex body language that you’re somewhat in the way.

In England, dear land of perpetual embarrassment where it is customary to apologise for things you haven’t done, your fellow visitors will stand ostentatiously to one side, staring hard at the object, letting you know that in no way are they looking at your drawing because from this angle it would be nigh on impossible to see it. Even if they wanted to. Which they don’t. Not because it isn’t any good, you understand, but because it’s none of their business. You carry on drawing – I’ll stand over here. Sorry.

These pots – don’t you love a grid? – are developed from some Anglo-Saxon objects in Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum. I was able to draw them, unhurried and unmolested, over a number of visits and then assemble them in this minimal yet graphic style.

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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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All these broken pieces

You can only take what you can carry (A4 collaged painted paper 2017)

I am fascinated by, and have enormous respect for, the art of collage. It seems to me that you need to develop a different sort of ‘eye’ than that used in drawing or painting, an ability – perhaps – to have a better sense of the end result when you start than is often the case with a drawing.

This one came together fairly fluently once I’d decided on the sort of shapes I wanted to use. Cut from one of the less successful paintings I competed on my recent Seawhite Studios course – a rather traditional still life with some interesting colour combinations and brushwork but otherwise a bit dull – the arrangement seemed to suggest itself from the painted marks within each shape.

I like to listen to music when I draw or paint, usually modern classical music of a certain type – Morton Feldman, Gavin Bryars, Valentin Silvestrov, John Luther Adams – or ambient jazz such as Eberhard Weber or Jon Hassell. Just lately I’ve tried having pop music in the background, which is where this piece’s evocative title comes from.

I have another – “All these broken pieces fit together to make a perfect picture of us” – which I’m looking forward to using when the image suggests. Well, it’s better than Untitled Collage # 4, isn’t it?

I’m very grateful to Jean Messner for nominating me for a Blogger Recognition Award. I’m always very touched by these awards from other bloggers as they suggest that what one is doing resonates with someone enough for them to want to tell others. Jean’s own blog is an inspiring piece of work that not only describes her own artistic journey but also turns a spotlight onto artists she admires. I’ve listed some favourite blogs fairly recently, so let me direct you there and to the list on the right hand side of this post. Thank you, Jean, your nomination is much appreciated.

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Drenched in orange blossom water

zen-fruits-blog

It was this that captured me (24 cms x 32 cms mixed media on Hanhemuehle Britannia paper 2017)

Writer and artist Deborah Brasket generously compared my painting of Andalusian cherries from last summer to Mu Ch’i Fa-Ch’ang’s Zen painting, Six Persimmons. This inspired me to bring some of the lessons I learned at the recent Seawhite Studios still life course to bear on the subject that I find most meditative to paint: fruit.

This arrangement of Mediterranean fruits started life as a series of painted stripes, little of which is now evident. Building up the layers of colour over this underpainting was immensely pleasurable: teasing rounded shapes out of a linear background, adding and removing colour, pushing it around with my fingertips, using charcoal to produce a delicate shading and finally adding collaged phrases.

The phrases are from a London-based Palestinian chef’s received memories of the produce of her homeland. “Large, plump, tangy and bitter”, “so wild and fresh” and “drenched in orange blossom water” are so evocative of eastern Mediterranean food.

I was reminded of some weeks I spent on the island of Crete as a young man – so cut off from the rest of the world that I had no idea the Falklands War had started until I was told by an old man in a bar; a short visit to Lebanon nearly twenty years ago – such a beautiful, troubled, disorienting, sensuous, wonderful country; more recently, an idyllic holiday in Sicily where my former partner and I lived among lemon groves and avocado trees and a creature of some kind scuttled across our roof at about 10 each evening. In all these places the fruit seemed so much plumper, brighter and tastier than that we could find at home.

Separated by eight centuries and several levels of skill from Mu Ch’i, I nevertheless hope that this painting conveys something of the same Zen calm and brings some sweet Mediterranean sunlight into your February day.

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The pilgrim soul

pilgrim-soul-blog

The Pilgrim Soul (32 cms x 24 cms mixed media 2017)

Here’s a picture which started life as an exercise in combining paint and collage. Taking its cue from the line about ‘the pilgrim soul’, the suggestion of landscape and a path through it was used to imply movement, an emotional journey from one place to another. It isn’t by any means a finished picture, but more a work in progress. I might even, as I learned to do in my Seawhite Studios workshop, paint over the whole thing and start again!

Inspired by a number of fellow bloggers’ art journals,  Claudia McGill’s enigmatic postcards and Cy Twombly’s almost white paintings with words scrawled on them in his unique handwriting, I took lines from a number of different poems in an anthology and reassembled them as follows:

Thus in the winter stands the lonely tree,/ Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,/ Yet knows its boughs more silent than before

One man loved the pilgrim soul in you

 

Rosy lips of such ecstasy

 

Words at once both true and kind

I have not a crumb of comfort, not a grain

Remember, in the eyes gazing at you

Quickened so with grief,

Slow and sweet was the time between us

There could be a whole short story in the inscription, written inside the book (below). Note the date and wonder what happened to these two, and why her gift ended up among the reduced stock of an online book dealer. Let’s at least hope that the time between them was slow – and sweet.

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Poems by Edna St Vincent Millay, W.B. Yeats, C.P. Cavafy, Yehuda Amichai and Robert Graves.

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