I have tried in this blog to share a little of my own confusion as to why we make art and how we should understand it. I even to some degree find some of my own posts made early on naive and too happy to believe in my own unfounded beliefs. So inevitably there are times when I contradict myself. I have read enough about human motivation to know that if we have a cherished holy cow then we will assess opinions that affirm said cow’s holiness differently than any heretical ones that dismiss the cow’s saintliness. Indeed it has been shown that we even rate the trustworthiness and honesty of the person delivering the views according to our unproven and often unconsidered views. There has been research done that shows this quite definitively. Worse, it shows that the more strongly we are challenged the more fiercely we cling to our cosy assumptions. I do my best to be fair but I realise I am doomed to failure. In any case unfairness makes a far better read!
So to this posts topic. Copying. Until recently all artists learning their craft would learn by copying the works of those who had gone before. I may be making one of those terrible assumptions, but I suspect not many abstract expressionists sit down and copy a Rothko or a Pollock. Indeed since the Impressionists artists have rarely copied works from history. Looking back however very few of the great stars in the art constellation didn’t learn from copying. However what would be the point of copying Martin Creed’s light bulb… Wait a minute I shall pause in typing and try it in the kitchen… Well I’m back… but not any wiser, the neighbours may think I am signalling someone. You might conclude that this is because there is nothing there to learn.
It is only in the visual and plastic arts copying is possible. You could not copy a piece of music or a novel or a poem. You can copy a Chippendale chair, or a Bernard Leach pot or a Rembrandt. The other side of copying is emulating the style, so you might do a pastiche in the manner of Mozart or write a poem in the voice of Wordsworth. Here is where it gets interesting. I can see no way I could do a painting that would pass for a good Velasquez. I might make something in the style that he might have knocked out when off colour from a dose of flue, but not anything from when he was firing on all cylinders. However I could do a Jackson Pollock. Indeed I have done several. They are easy. Not only easy almost impossible to tell by eye from Jackson’s own. If I researched the type of house paint and canvas I reckon I could fool even the experts. I have also done pastiches of Giacometti for an advert for Fiat. The Giacometti institute or whatever complained I had copied. However I hadn’t I had just made up some new ones. This made me reassess Giacometti who I had previously admired, later I saw an exhibition of his work in Basel and thought his earlier abstracts better than his later work. I still like them but realise that he is a one trick pony and a simple trick at that.
On the other side of the coin I was asked to do a copy of the Thinker by Rodin. This was very hard I found, even though I had very good reference. The result was pretty convincing, but I could not have made a sculpture in the manner of Rodin that would have fooled anyone. Again for an advert I was asked to paint a section of the Sistine Chapel. Just copying it was monstrously difficult and I had to start again twice. To invent an extra Sybil that would sit happily amongst the others on that oh so famous ceiling would be verging on the impossible. To do a Rothko that would sit happily in the Tate beside the others would however be relativly easy. So what are we to make of this? I am inclined perhaps to rate works by how easy they would be to emulate. This is entirely separate from how I might enjoy artists works, for example I rather enjoy Rothko’s sombre monoliths. My assessment however is of an artist for another artist. I need to do this to judge my own erratic progress, not out of any real desire to topple anyone’s heroes from their pedestals.
I have since I started taking part in online society seen many people try to copy Singer Sargent, none in my opinion have succeeded, but I bet they were all wiser from the experience. I certainly was after battling with Michelangelo for a couple of weeks! So why do we scorn this quite straightforward means of self improvement? Do you know what? I just don’t have any idea. Why do we no longer walk down this rich and easily available avenue of instruction? It is a mystery. I would lay money on no students in Fine Art degree courses doing much or indeed any of it. They would I suspect react with horror or scorn at the thought. It is due to this attitude that I myself have done barely any copying. I did set to and copy Thomas Girtin and a few Turners in my twenties I destroyed the results which says something about how I felt, it was perhaps a shameful activity. Whatever, I do remember I learnt lots from the process. For me it is just more evidence that the state of the fine art world is pretty dire and most of the theories that wrap around it nonsense. It is the words that have doused this once great lamp of human achievement, proving I suppose that though the pen might fail to slay a sword swinging barbarian it has had no trouble dispatching anyone wielding a paint brush.
I have been working hard recently, there is no doubt the more intensively you paint the easier and more fluent the process becomes. I am also trying to carry on refining paintings so many of these pictures in this post have moved on a little.
I have been asked to exhibit some pictures at this years Henley Regatta, I went last year and took lots of reference. I enjoyed painting these far more than I expected to, I had actually been putting off painting any Henley pictures and was considering not exhibiting. Once started though I saw all sorts of possibilities. This one was almost right in the reference, photos tell you too much really. I had lots of other shots to flick through too to give me a feel of the atmosphere of the day. 10in by 12in Oils.
Another Henley one, this has had surgery since so this is a first state. I have since cut the board down but it still probably won’t make the exhibition. 12in by 20in oils.
Another work in progress although nearly done. I liked the split between river and crowd. I am still working on some of the near faces which need to be more painterly. I find it quite a good method to first do the face with too much detail which looks stiff and then use that as guide to overlay simpler brush strokes. A difficult composition as it has no real focus other than the division between land and water. 12in by 24in oils.
This one has had a few touches after this scan. I skimmed a bit off the man’s face and toned down his cuff. I wanted to do one that had the people in it as characters rather than as decorative objects in a scene. Here I have made the painting deliberately uncomfortable by having two people look directly at you. This prevents the eye settling as it ends up shuttling between the two. It also makes you think about yourself in their eyes… I think we can say they don’t think much of you! 10in by 12in oils.
Back to landscape with a bit of a lurch. A morning near Hambledon Hill in Dorset. The light was changing with great rapidity so I had to paint quickly. At the time I was a little disappointed I had not quite captured the drama so I painted a studio version as soon as I was home. Seeing it later I liked it though which was strange as I very nearly wiped it off when I got home. One thing doing the Henley pictures had told me, canvas is far better to paint on than primed MDF, so for this sketch I just taped a bit of off cut canvas to a board. I will have to adapt my plein air kit so I can use canvas in future. 7in by 12in oils.
Here is the studio version, I am quite pleased with both of them really, this one stresses the abstract divisions more, but the plein air captures the feel of the day better. 12in by 20in Oils.
Now for a few life drawings, I cannot stress enough how important this activity is. Drawing directly from the human form is the hardest thing any artist can do. I brings with it a very high chance of abject failure! I would happily myself put a life drawing in a frame on the wall, but few people would so they just stack up and I mercilessly cull them now and again. So here are a few survivors, they may well be for the fire next time!