Art in a time of plague

Wild Orchid (178mm x 127mm acrylic on board 2020)

“When disaster strikes, so does inspiration,” wrote Bryan Appleyard in the (London) Times earlier this month, “Art is what humans do in spite of, often because of, catastrophes.”

I’d been planning a rather grumpy rebuttal of this for the past couple of weeks. Personally, I was finding it difficult to create much of anything at all. My company had asked everyone to work from home so the room I use for drawing and painting now had to be shared with my office computer. After working in there all day, I felt less inclined to spend my evenings and weekends in the same space. But most of all, what was the point of painting fruit or drawing dogs when thousands were dying of Covid-19, and the US and UK governments seemed to be trying to outrank each other in ineptitude? Nobody asks for a story when they’re struggling for breath, as the novelist Sarah Perry said recently.

Then spring arrived. During my officially-sanctioned lockdown daily walks there was birdsong, the smell of fir trees warmed by a strengthening sun, butterflies rising from hidden places underfoot. The climbing rose outside my bedroom window was heavy with buds, the lavender took on a rich green sheen, tulips came and went, bluebells the same, the fruit trees are in blossom.

I started to draw. Then paint – a series of small, stylised flowers: a wild orchid, a rosebud, a sunflower, a poppy. There they all were if I just had eyes to see. An illustration for a friend’s story, a drawing of an old piece of pottery. The blinds were open and the sun was shining in.

It’s easy to feel discouraged. Who knows how long it’ll be until we can hug one another, travel somewhere, sit in a garden with friends and food and wine? And yes, people are dying out there, not surrounded by their family but only by the hissing of ventilators and the beeping of monitors.

I read this quote from writer Olivia Laing on songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter’s Instagram feed at the weekend. Laing is perhaps best known for her study of loneliness, appropriately enough, but this is about the role of creativity in troubled times:

“It’s a feeling of being inducted back into hope, a restoration of faith.  It’s easy to give in to despair.  There’s so much that is frightening, so much that’s wrong. But if this virus shows us anything, it’s that we’re interconnected, just as Dickens said.  We have to keep each other afloat, even when we can’t touch.  Art is a place where that can happen, where ideas and people are made welcome. ⁣It’s a zone of enchantment as well as resistance, and it’s open even now.”⁣

I’m still not sure about the role of small paintings like the one above in the general scheme of things. I just know I have to do them.

Stay safe.

The fire inside

A couple of years ago, my beloved and I were having lunch in Chicago with her parents.

“Susie tells me you’re an artist,” said her father.

“It’s not a word I’d use to describe myself,” I replied.

“And a modest one, I see,” was his answer.

I can’t think what possessed me to give such a pompous answer to a man I was desperately hoping to impress, except that I truly do have a problem with the term, artist.

I’ve always believed that an artist is someone who operates on a sustained level of inspiration. Someone with curiosity, a need to create, and a way to tap into that almost mystical property that makes the thing we call art. Cezanne, certainly; Picasso, of course; but also Maurice Sendak and Wolf Erlbruch. I’m not being elitist here: it’s not to do with the number of your works in the Metropolitan Museum or the Tate Modern but rather how you draw up your inspiration.

Now, I’m sure even Cezanne had times when he couldn’t be bothered: having spent the best part of a week arranging apples and pears on a tablecloth until their positions made perfect sense to him, did he occasionally sit there and think, “I really don’t care” and spend the afternoon in his favourite cafe? But most, if not all, of his still life paintings burn with an inner life – you feel they had to be painted and painted exactly like this.

You know what I’m talking about. Sometimes the urge to create is so strong it almost hurts. There’s something in you that begs to be expressed, and that’s when you’re an artist creating art. When you’re doing it simply because you feel you should you’re drawing or painting, but you’re probably not producing art.

Where does it come from, this urge to create? Some of you will say it comes from God, others from that elevated place in your mind that can only be reached when the stars align. Wherever it comes from it isn’t always on tap, which is what makes it so intriguing and frustrating and rewarding when it finally happens.

I’ve recently been reading a wonderful book by Ross King called The Judgement of Paris, in which we learn of the early career of Edouard Manet. As we know, his work was repeatedly rejected by the organisers of the Paris Salon, but when he exhibited privately not only did he sell nothing but the public dropped by to actually laugh and jeer at works we now consider masterpieces, such as Olympia or Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe. Yet he continued to paint, and paint the subjects he wanted to in a style he knew was his own.

So how does all this relate to the little picture at the top of this post? Well, I had these tulips on my desk because I thought I should paint some flowers. I did the occasional sketch and tried an acrylic painting but it didn’t work out. The subject didn’t call to me. After a few days the flowers began to wilt, their energy expended, their beauty still intact but in a different way. Now with broad brush strokes I filled in some colour, drew the outlines in ink with a scratchy piece of bamboo, and lashed away at the background to define the shapes. It had to be done. Somehow these flowers, past their best and drooping in their vase became an embodiment of something I felt in my heart. I had thought I might ‘tidy it up’ but in the end this is what it was meant to be. I’d venture to say that this is art and while I was making it I was an artist.

Unfortunately these moments come too infrequently for me to seriously call myself an artist, hence my evasive answer over lunch on that happy day in Chicago. When the fire burns though, oh how warm the inner glow.

The creative everyperson

IMG_20190123_075642_161.jpg

The last rosebuds of autumn (A5 ink and watercolour on Daler Rowney Ivory sketchbook page 2019)

Some years ago I stopped drawing and painting: I wasn’t developing, it took up time I could be spending with my new girlfriend, and it was proving to be more frustrating than rewarding. When I married and had children it was fun to draw with them and make them birthday cards, but it wasn’t until I returned to the UK after nearly 20 years away – my personal life and career in tatters – that I started again, this time seeking out evening courses and workshops to help me progress.

In between I’d tried my hand at photography but the area that best satisfied my need to create was cooking. I’d always cooked – I nearly poisoned myself on instant curries as a student and then I lived alone for some years and, as I enjoyed eating, I thought it would be useful to be able to cook.

It wasn’t until I gave up drawing that I really started to improve. The process of cooking a daube de bouef or a good risotto was not unlike the practice of art: it took time, some knowledge of technique and a certain amount of skill, but in order to cook well one had to develop an instinct for the subtleties of flavour, to know when to stop, to feel a part of the activity itself. In short, I transferred my frustrated creativity from the art of drawing to the art of cooking, with the same intensity.

Recently I came across an article in RA, the magazine of London’s Royal Academy of Art, by Oli Mould, author of a book called Against Creativity, which argued against this concept:

Apparently everyone is creative….No longer is creativity an attribute we associate with skilled artisans and visionaries; every person, every job and every place must be creative to survive…The concept of creativity is now so ubiquitous in modern-day parlance that any semblance of what creativity actually creates has been lost.

Mr Mould gets the bit between his teeth after this, roping in the Uber app, the John Lewis Christmas ad, artisan coffee shops in Shoreditch, and high-rise residential housing for the super-rich to show how ‘creativity’ has been harnessed to profit and destroyed as a meaningful concept.

Personally I see no harm in a wider vision of creativity: isn’t your neighbour’s pleasing arrangement of flowerbeds creative? Isn’t a hairdresser creating a style that pleases her customer creative? I work in the marketing department of a book publishing company and I urge my colleagues to be ‘creative’, to go one step beyond their comfort zone, to think of innovative ways to bring our niche programme of academic monographs to the attention of their potential readership. Are any of those less creative than some of the artists I see on Instagram, churning out variations of their single theme time after time?

Let’s not rebrand creativity as the sole preserve of the professional artist or composer. Not all of us can call ourselves artists but we can all be creative. Frankly, if I had to choose between the perfect risotto and Jeff Koons’ balloon dog I know which I’d choose.

Kick-starting inspiration

20181030_075354.jpg

Horse Chestnut (after Robert Dukes) A5 (coloured pencils, ink and collage on Stillmann & Birn gamma paper) 2018

Do you know that feeling when you’re working on something and suddenly you think, this is so dull? Last week it happened as I was working on a drawing in four panels showing how a quince rotted over time, based on a sequence of paintings by Horst Janssen called Tagebuch der Amaryllis (Diary of an amaryllis).

There are various ways to deal with this but my preferred method is to copy something by someone else – not exactly, using it simply as a jumping off point without having to set up a still life or think of a subject. In my reference file I found an oil painting of a conker by Robert Dukes and started to reinterpret it in ink and coloured pencils, the change of medium ensuring a different outcome (not to mention his greater talent!).

Dukes is a London-based painter and teacher who was educated at Grimsby Art College and the Slade under teachers such as Euan Uglow, Lawrence Gowing and Patrick George. Although he also paints landscapes, his expertise in single object still life painting is astonishing. His own problems with inspiration and trying to fit art around the need to make a living will be encouraging for many of us:

I went to the Slade hoping to be inspired and excited but it had the opposite effect. I left in 1988 and did almost no painting for the next ten years or so. I kept drawing the whole time though. Also, I had to earn a living and as a result I had little time to paint. When I did paint I felt that I had no control over the forms I was trying to depict- and that had the effect of making me not want to paint, which of course meant that when I did paint, I was out of practice so it inevitably went badly.

He has also done his share of copying paintings by others (he was fortunate enough to work at the National Gallery in London for many years) so I’m sure he wouldn’t mind my borrowing his horse chestnut to work through my own creative block. It’s an effective way of kick-starting creativity, reinterpreting what someone else has done, observing how they’ve used colour, form and composition, feeling your way around another’s work. What’s more, as Dukes has said, “I do think making copies is a good excuse to spend a long time looking at a painting you admire.”

Season of the Quince

Quinces on a Plate (A5 ink and coloured pencil on Stillman & Birn Gamma paper sample 2018)

This year I didn’t have to drive around the country lanes of Suffolk looking for unwanted quinces, left at garden gates with a sign saying “Help yourself.” This year my own tree – encouraged by the hot summer – had its own bumper crop.

I’ve no idea what it is about them that I find so alluring. Perhaps it’s their irregular shape: sometimes bulbous and knobbly, sometimes like tight yellow apples, sometimes golden pears. It could be their range of colour, from orangey-gold to clear, bright cadmium yellow through pale greens, their bruises turning from a rich reddish-brown to the darkness of old varnished oak.

There is also a certain mystery about the noble quince. Is it ripe yet? Wait for the distinctive scent and the pure yellow colour, my neighbours said. But they rot from the inside out: cut open a fruit that looks perfect on the outside and the flesh is already turning brown.

And that scent: so long absent, then suddenly there. The downy skin and the gentle perfume, like the touch and scent of a baby’s head. It smells, too, of the sun and the south, of shady gardens in places where you’d like to be – far away from your computer and your workload and your deadlines. The scent, in short, of contentment, of joy, of delight.

This year I decided not to risk making my own jelly or marmalade, which always results in several jars of quince syrup. Instead a much more competent friend agreed to make it on my behalf. The first results of this arrangement have been jars of golden jelly, fragrant as the fruit itself, looking like a fairy tale gift when held up to the light.

Do I exaggerate the wonders of quince? I think not. It’s very possible I was put under some spell that holds me in thrall to their beauty, that I’ll admit. I never tire of drawing and painting them, as long-standing readers of this blog will know. I bet that breakfast in Heaven is quince marmalade on Pump Street Bakery sourdough bread, lightly toasted.

Lunch will be Rebecca Charles’ lobster roll.

The Party

20180709_075527.jpg

Quinces (21 cms x 29.7 cms acrylic and collage 2018)

“A painter should be able to see space as a flat plane. The viewer should be able to see a flat plane as space.”

The Czech painter Vladimir Kokolia is also a teacher, one who is generous with his ideas about drawing and painting. His own paintings, now on view at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, are beautiful, shimmering evocations of nature. They’re the sort of pictures that critics and art historians struggle to describe, their clumsy words bumping up against his luminous paintings like moths against a light. They exist in that beautiful space between the figurative and the abstract: a place that is difficult and perhaps even dangerous to reach but once you’re there it’s as radiant as a spring morning.

Laura Cumming, who I think is one of the most evocative writers on art, says of his painting, Looking at Ash Tree, that “while the tree may be present, in the tangle of marks, the emphasis is entirely on the sensation of seeing; specifically, the way that leaves percolate sunshine and breezes shift leaves.”

Seeing.

My life drawing teacher, growing impatient with my attempts to draw the woman that was in my head instead of the one sitting in front of me, once said, “I pay for the f***ing model – you might want to look at her now and again!” Why don’t we look? Why can’t we see? Why do we struggle to describe what is actually there given that the language that we use is one we have devised ourselves?

That’s why I love to paint fruit. I strive to describe the ‘quinceness’ of the quince, the ‘pomegranteness’ of the pomegranate, as I see them. Not that my way is any better than yours but it’s surely different, and to me it feels somehow important. Kokolia’s way of looking at the ash tree, all shimmering greens against a grey and white background, is (probably) more interesting than a photograph. He invites us into his world: he has transformed this ash tree in rural Moravia into a flat plane of twisting colour and form; we on our side must interpret this plane as a three-dimensional tree in that world between what we see and what we feel, between the figurative and the abstract.

The quote from Kokolia that opens this post stopped me in my tracks as I leafed through the disappointing, over designed catalogue that accompanies the exhibition (which I haven’t seen, by the way). I love the idea of a bargain between artist and viewer, the artist saying “Trust me, this is what I know” and the viewer responding with “Yes, and this is what I understand.”

Many years ago I went to a party in the house of a famous rock guitarist in London. I didn’t know anyone and they didn’t know me. For a while I wandered around with a glass of wine in my hand and even, for a while, hid in one of the bathrooms wondering how I could make a dignified escape. Then, in a distant room in a dimly-lit corner, I came across my two best friends (who had invited me). “Where have you been?” they asked, “We’ve been looking for you everywhere.” Sometimes creativity feels like a you’re a guest at a party where everyone knows each other and you know no-one, then you turn a corner and find that, yes, you do belong here after all.

Precious

Mystery object – see below (pastel and collage 60 cms x 42 cms) 2018

Recently the New York Times printed a photograph (by Nat Farbman) of the young Lawrence Ferlinghetti – one of the leading lights of the Beats – reading his work to a group of onlookers. There he stood, dark and dashing in a tweed jacket and cord trousers, looking every inch the charismatic 1960s poet. At his feet lounged a young man in a similar outfit and a woman in a black sweater and tight skirt. People are drinking wine from tumblers.

As well as being an admired poet, Ferlinghetti was one of the co-founders of the City Lights Bookstore and Publishers. He was the first publisher of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, for example, which – whatever you think of it now – was a tornado blasting its way through the poetry landscape of the time.

San Francisco is a different place than it was when Ferlinghetti first opened the doors of City Lights in 1953. It was never a city associated with business, but with alternative lifestyles, freedom and revolution. Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane called it “49 square miles surrounded by reality.” Now, with the arrival of Google, Apple, Twitter and the – seriously – 5,249 tech start-ups in the city, there’s no place for California Dreaming.

City Lights is not just a bookstore but a vital landmark on the map of modern culture. Ferlinghetti is 99 this year – what’ll happen when the inevitable occurs? I fear poetry isn’t that high on the list of requirements of the twentysomething techies waiting for the WiFi enabled buses to whisk them off to Silicon Valley, so will it just become another artisan coffee shop?

I thought of this recently when I was having dinner with a close friend in Greenwich Village. We’d booked a table at the magnificent Pearl and were enjoying a pre-dinner drink at the Cornelia Street Cafe. The Village is another place where cultural history swirls around you like ghosts in a cartoon film. Think of those writers, artists and jazz musicians who lived, worked and played here. The Bottom Line and the Village Gate –  names familiar from the sleeves of jazz albums of the 1950s and 1960s, are gone – replaced by a pharmacy and university departments.

Shouldn’t places like City Lights be preserved, immune from rent rises and speculation? These are the names that pepper the cultural histories of the 20th century and should be as precious to us as medieval castles or Tudor chimneys. It’s not just architectural excellence that should be preserved but those places that contributed to the spirit of the times, and preferably not turned into tacky museums. Slap them all on the National Register of Historic Places before it’s too late!

So what is that thing that heads this post? Is it Ferlinghetti’s appendix, perhaps? Far from it: it’s a steamed clam, drawn from a photograph of one taken from my dinner companion’s plate. Or should I say it started off as a drawing of a clam, but then I added more and more colour and texture to it and made it into something that is now just an abstract idea of a steamed clam, a variation on a theme of a steamed clam. Don’t worry, chef Rebecca Charles would never serve this to you in Pearl.

Searching for an exotic old fruit

Tomatillos, Rochester NY (A5 ink and coloured pencil 2018)

In this year of rethinking the direction of my painting and drawing – trying to rein in some of the tangents I follow and develop a recognisable style – I’ve more or less decided to follow two paths simultaneously.

First, there is the line drawing path. I do enjoy drawing people wearing animal heads or household items on their noses. I like ‘illustrating’ Carly Simon’s imaginary friends or a woman in love with a fish (a similar idea won several Oscars, let me remind you). It’s fun to draw Benedict Cumberbatch as a vampire, legendary gallery owner Kasmin naked and the lines and folds on the faces of Jasper Johns.

On the other hand, I love painting fruit. My passion for the lovely quince is well known to regular readers of this blog. Occasionally I’ll let my head be turned by a ripe pomegranate or an exotic purple mangosteen, a gaggle of plums or even a delicately-coloured Swede. Fruit favours acrylics or oils, I think: layering on those colours and shades, adding a touch of shocking blue to a red and orange pomegranate or positioning a highlight of purest titanium white – all very satisfying.

This makes shopping in a well-stocked market or a foreign food store even more of an adventure. For me, Borough Market in London is a place to buy overpriced cheese and subjects for painting. That’s where I first discovered the almost comic mangosteen, shaped like a smaller, purple version of those plastic tomatoes that hold ketchup in transport cafes.

My latest hunting ground is Wegmans, a supermarket in Rochester, NY, on my frequent visits to this under-rated American city. For some time I’ve been eyeing the blousy pitaya (dragon fruit), vibrant pink with little green and yellow horns. Only the fact that I’m here without my acrylics has prevented me from dropping a couple into my shopping cart. Then last Saturday, while seeking out herbs for a New York Times recipe which pairs chicken and mushrooms with cognac and madeira sauce, I discovered tomatillos.

Like small green tomatoes wearing diaphanous outer skins over their shiny green bodies, these Mexican fruits are mainly used to make salsa verde. You can gently peel back the delicate husks, allowing them to tear into interesting shapes that describe the arc of the succulent green flesh where they remain joined to the fruit. I drew them in charcoal, in pencil and, at the top of this post, in watercolour pencil and ink. At under 70 cents for three, they’re the cheapest still life models I’ve found.

Now, where can I get a green pomelo?

The transfiguration of the pomegranate

20180411_064014.jpg

Two Pomegranates (acrylic) 2018

Sometimes I look at some of the artists I follow on Instagram and wonder if they ever get bored, painting the same type of thing day after day. If I paint a piece of fruit today, tomorrow I want to start a line drawing of a man wearing a mask in the form of a fox’s head. Variety, as they say, is the spice of life.

So the idea of following a seven day online painting project to produce a series of variations on a theme was a little outside the box for me, but that’s exactly the point of Tara Leaver‘s challenge. I started with a straightforward painting of a pomegranate, just to ease myself into it:

My plan was to move from this towards an abstracted version of the fruit but, switching media to charcoal and pastel, I produced something more conventional on the second day:

A fresh approach was needed, so I put together a collage next, just to see what would happen:

That seemed to do the trick, and by the end of the week I was more relaxed and, after a short detour into a painting of quinces, I finally reached the rather more abstract pomegranates at the top of this post. The full sequence can be found on Instagram. As I wrote to Tara at the end of the seven days, it was an exhilarating experience. Exploring different ways to approach a single subject every day for a week was astonishingly liberating. I felt no compulsion to produce ‘finished’ work even though I was posting it on Instagram. The journey was the key, empowering me to experiment. Others, it seemed, had the same experience. Tara was the perfect companion on this journey: her admission that her own theme had gone somewhat awry but she was going to enjoy it anyway inspired and relaxed many of us, I felt.

If, like me, you like to flit from subject to subject, I can wholeheartedly recommend a short period of concentration on one, using different media, pushing your style in new directions, not worrying about the outcome as much as enjoying the process. If we can do that, it would appear, an ‘end result’ suddenly makes itself apparent.

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.