I was watching a video with a well known artist pondering the ins and outs of painting. There was the usual lone figure wandering the hillsides with sketch book in hand, the piano music swelled as this sensitive soul opened his heart to the underlying whispers of history and usage that imbues our 21st century landscapes. We then followed him to his paint spattered garret where he explained his methods. All well and good, (by the way I happen to like this painters work.) he then explained how he tried to take risks and followed his instincts and gut feelings rather than his head.
At this point my antennae raised, I am sure he is being honest about what he thinks is going on. However we all have to watch that bit of us that self mythologises and tries to woo the world into looking at us with respect and admiration. It was the “gut feeling” comment that set me to thinking. Most artists I know are very keen on “intuitive” painting from the “heart” or the aforementioned “guts”. Indeed it would seem we should paint from everywhere and anywhere but our brains. Firstly even though I know it is obvious we don’t paint by inspiration from any part of our giblets. Our spleens, kidneys and even our sainted pancreases play little part in the process.
Whether you like it or not it is the pathways of the brain that do the business. Yes, yes I know they are just metaphors for instinctual responses. A little look at these responses is maybe called for here. Where did they come from? What was their purpose before we painted or surfed the internet? Also there may be two things being conflated. Firstly there are muscle memory and routines of repeated action that are created by establishing pathways in the brains structure. If you do an action repeatedly, such as drawing then bit by bit certain aspects get automated. Judging angles, distances or tones for example. Just the dexterity needed to wield the brush and lay the paint on the surface. These are bits of your brain that are trained up and can run like a piece of software that does not need conscious control.
The other bit is the function that supplies quick assessment on the fly. There is not time to assess properly many things in life because to do “due diligence” would take too long and an answer is needed now. So our early man didn’t ponder whether that tigerish shaped shadow was actually a tiger he just legged it on receiving the instinctive assessment. We use this method to quickly assess people we meet. We call it first impressions, here we do usually treat them with suspicion and are usually prepared to reassess over time. David Kahneman who got the Nobel prize for his work in this area made several experiments that showed up the flaws in the process.
He sent to two groups of surgeons a description of a patient and asked them to say whether they would operate. The descriptions were identical except for one thing. In the estimate of the likelihood of success one group was told the probability was 30 percent that the patient would die, the other group was told the survival rate was 70 percent. Worryingly the 30 percenters mostly said the operation should not go ahead and the 70 percenters said that it should. The bit of these eminent men’s brains (or maybe their guts) supplying their assessments was of course the same bit of the brain that our painter was relying on to give his work that extra something!
My suspicion of this auto assessment feature of the mind has been with me for a while. Although is is the bit that tells you something might not be quite right, it is also the bit that tells you your drawing is all right or even good when it isn’t. A quick look at a drawing in the mirror will often show this tendency up. When in everyday life the quick response feature lets us down we cheerfully confess to being mistaken, so we do understand its flaws. So why do artists elevate the automatic reaction process to a touchstone of expressiveness and sensitivity?
The answer I fear is superstition and the belief in magic. We still, despite all the evidence to the contrary, believe we have souls. Some higher part of our being that is pure and responds to the inner rightness of things. The important thing of this extra bit of us is that it is incorporeal and thus stands a chance of surviving extinction. An idea we for obvious reasons are quite keen to believe and reluctant to question. We have decided, it would seem, that this higher self is also responsible for imbuing our paintings with extra spirit too, in some mystical, druidical “art mojo” transfer process.
We spend quite a bit of time exhorting each other to log on to this aetheric wi-fi network in order to express ourselves, tap into underlying energies and be spiritually intuitive. To be free, unrestrained by mere logic and sense etc as if our learning and more considered thinking processes were some kind of ball and chain around our creative ankles. I think this idea comes from confusing the two parts of instinctive or intuitive actions. For our hardwired dexterity and spatial assessment functions the conscious mind can put a spanner in the works as any musician will tell you. When we paint or do anything that occupies our grey matter to the exclusion of all else self awareness is often the first casualty. This is why the hours fly by when we are very involved. This does not however mean that our actions are then being directed by any “higher” consciousness we are actually using previous learnt actions and prior experiences to carry out the picture making process.
To return to our lonely painter on the hillside. Why, if he is trying to “take risks”, and follow “gut feeling”, do his paintings all turn out much the same? Could it be like the rest of us he is following well worn and hard learnt pathways? We have all pondered why, however we experiment and push the boat out, our paintings still are recognisably “ours”. At some point we have most of us decided to tear up the rulebook and do it differently this time only to find that the finished article could hang in perfect harmony next to any other examples of our oeuvre.
A bit of a mish-mash of work this time, I decided I had been rather ignoring the watercolours. For most of these paintings my liver was in charge… and kidneys of course, kidneys are very good for watercolours.
I think this was Okeford Hill in the background, I had been driving round the lanes on a damp day looking for a subject and thought this was interesting. However after 15min when I had only blocked in the basics the day decided to mutate into a glorious sunset. Not having any more boards with me I debated wiping off and redoing but took it home and fiddled with it in the end. I tried to go back a few days later only to discover I couldn’t remember which road I was on! I must mark scenes on the map, you always believe you will recall where good scenes are but in reality you just don’t. 16in by 7.5in oils.
This is the ford at Moreton in Dorset. It doesn’t quite work and is rather like a stage set awaiting the actors, I am debating whether just to wipe it or try a rescue operation. In such situations where a painting is not particularly bad but doesn’t quite cut the mustard either I scan it in and mess with it in Photoshop rather than working in paint. This was the second larger 20in by 16in I have tried plein air and neither painting has really worked. Oils
Here is my idea, I am now considering whether to do it in paint! The couple came past as I was painting and I snapped them, there were horses too but they didn’t seem to work as well.
Last one of the day, I only had 20 or so minutes to get this done. Needs to be redone to a wider format but I was pleased with the mood. 14in by 10in Oils.
It has been awhile since I did one of these. Yes folks it is me, self portraits are great fun but hard. You are never quite sure if the result looks like you which is both an advantage and disadvantage. On the one hand you just have to try and be accurate and observe methodically, but on the other the result can be lifeless. I had intended to just paint for an hour, but went on for an extra half in the end. I will try a double mirror one maybe, then you don’t end up gurning at the viewer. 10in by 16in Oils.
This is the road to Twyford from Shaftesbury, a great view and one I will be returning to. It did somewhat try my patience with the drying so I resorted to the cars heater blower! 9in by 6in watercolour.
This is Shaftesbury, the town is quite high so we are actually in a cloud! I just drew this out in pencil and moved on, washes would never have dried in an age. It was actually great fun to watercolour later allowing bits I couldn’t remember to fade into murk and just trying to remember the atmosphere. 9in by 6in Watercolour.
Here I am planning another lino cut. The view is a lane near Bedchester. I am finding the pen and ink drawings very good for planning prints. I must however get some actually printed. I have two sets of blocks ready to go so need to get printing!