Having been a commercial artist, illustrator and designer for 35 years or more it was with a certain amount of relief that I gave up most of my paid work. I told myself that I would retire and just paint. I am not hugely wealthy but my career was pretty successful and I am a saver rather than a spender, so painting does not need to bring in large earnings. However as you can see by looking back through this blog I have not exactly settled down to a life of relaxation and leisure.
My question to myself is: Why not?
Not as easy to answer as you might expect. Yes I love painting. Also the connections and society that comes with swimming with the other intriguing fish in the art pond. It is without doubt the pivot around which my life turns. On the other hand it also is the source of most of my feelings of inadequacy and frustration at vainly groping for seemingly unreachable goals. Painting is after all a banquet of repeated failures garnished with a few sprigs of success that all too quickly wilt.
I don’t think I am lured on by success and the possibility of “making it” as a painter. I am a bit old for that I fear! I care not a fig for posterity or whether my work lives on. I have no belief in afterlives so it is only the here and now that matters. I don’t need it as a prop to my identity, indeed I only reluctantly and uncomfortably admit to others I am an artist. It is true a major ingredient in the mixture that comprises and has shaped my “self” has been art and the getting of skills related to it.
Much of it of course comes down the unavoidability of being alive. There is no escape from you own thought processes. They even bubble away when you are mostly unconscious at night. We cannot take a sabbatical from living, existence offers no possibility of respite whatsoever. The river of being might flow slowly, churn into rapids or fling itself in a turmoil over falls, but the movement downstream never ceases until it reaches the sea. You must therefore navigate its currents and eddies in your fleshly canoe desperately paddling to avoid rocks and whirlpools or drifting through gentle backwaters. Whatever course your river takes there is no stopping, if your canoe is grounded or you draw it up on the bank there is no relaunching into the stream.
All of this is obvious I realise and I do not complain. I don’t wish as eastern thinkers do to stop the flow. It is not possible in any case, you might sit still with little or no mental chatter, but pretending to be merely a stone is just that… pretence and perhaps just another form of vanity. Sticking to the now rather stretched river analogy we each perhaps to a greater and lesser extent follow different flows and cross currents in the general flood. Some might drift in quiet waters near the bank while others toss and churn in the white water. So painting perhaps provides me with a means of navigating the wider stream, a discernible course around which the darts and eddies of the rest of my life can form.
In turn this gives me maybe some insight as to the benefits painting brings to the painter. Painting gives you a platform from which you can observe the world. You are looking for pattern and structure both actual and emotional and in looking, breaking down and sorting you gain small insights into more general things. Learning to draw and paint in short supplies the intellect with a glass through which to view things. However once that glass has been put into place all other things are inevitably seen through it.
Any learning has the problem that it cannot be unlearned very easily. Having learned what a cat is you can never view the animal as an unknown thing again. This is why the common artistic aim to “see like a child” is rather foolish. If I try I will not see like a child. I will merely illustrate how an adult imagines it might look if they could possibly once again see like one. I don’t want to pretend any other view point other than the one I have. Just attempting to understand who and what is around me is more than enough.
So, why bother? Well by looking and striving to set down what I see, I become more perceptive in my particular form of study. I hone my abilities to look and distil meaning from the sensed world. Because I have gone through this process I see things, small wonders, that others might miss. By attempting to paint them there is the occasional chance that others can see for a moment through my eyes and share in that beauty. Indeed, now I think of it, that is exactly what I get from the paintings of others that hit the spot.
It also gives me a measure for judging works of so called art. There is a difference from an aesthetically pleasing object to one made with hard won insight and skill. Almost anything can be rewarding to consider and look at. You can look at almost any object and have an aesthetic, educational or meditative experience. These feelings however come from within, the object is just the initial stimulus, a catalyst if you will. A real work of art hopefully lets you see for a moment through another’s eyes, share in another’s perception, stand briefly in a place you could not have arrived at by yourself. The artist has by years of effort mapped the terrain over which they have travelled and set down their findings upon a surface so that others can appreciate and take pleasure in it.
To illustrate the divide, take a work that is hailed as high art that I rather like. Anthony Gormley’s “Field” . I saw this in the flesh and that myriad of little eyes staring blankly at you was very effective. It made his name so a success by most measures. It did however not take any particular skill to make. Once given the instructions another just as effective could be made. It is also a one hit wonder, after the initial surprise you just wonder how many hours the whole thing took to make. You essentially get the whole story in a glance and all the impact is made by your own instinctive reaction to being observed by a horde. If you had a small version in your house it would not move you every time you saw it, nor would it reveal any hidden subtleties.
Then take a painting by Velasquez. “Las Meninas” The making of this in comparison certainly could not be delegated. To do anything comparable would take a lifetime’s effort and even then be almost certainly doomed to failure. If you hung it in your house it would I think fascinate and reveal a different aspect that you had missed before for years if not a life time. An object is only I feel imbued with this quality through the application of many years of acquired skill and insight. The other thing that distinguishes it from Field are its flaws. There are no errors or miscalculations, no lapses of concentration in “Field”. Whereas there are parts of “Las Meninas” where Velasquez plainly falls short. The dog’s head position is unconvincing and the far right figure misjudged and cursory. The lady in waiting to the right of the Infanta has a gaze that is oddly directed. The work has just so many questions it asks but does not answer.
Field on the other hand only asks us a simple question about multiple gazes and our reactions to unwavering attention, after the initial jolt there is not to much to be gained from it. Don’t assume I dismiss or dislike it, on the contrary I thought it very good of its kind. However for a work from the hand of a human to be at the absolute peak of possible achievement all aspects need to be present: skill, understanding, learning, dexterity, perceptiveness, intuition and restraint… to name but a few. Gormley has many of these but Velasquez has all of them which is why in my opinion Las Meninas towers above.
So,why bother? Well, because it is worthwhile of course!
I can only apologise for another dose of art theory… a few pictures to finish off.
This is Al Saints Church in Kington Magna, parts of which date from Norman times. A great position over looking the Oxford plain. I am considering a figure approaching the lych gate but am wavering. Watercolour 9in by 15in.
This is a dutch barge hauled up at Isleworth in the early morning. I did a plein air to the left but as the tide retreated this better view came available. A studio picture from reference but the mood and light was taken from the plein air… which by the way I won’t post as it went pear shaped! Not all due to my incompetence though, I was using paper in an Arches block which is just horrible with all the washes drying dull and dead. This was done on purportedly identical paper from a roll. I would dispute this though. Here I lifted out by scrubbing with a bristle brush, on the block paper I attempted to lift out by gently using a sable and the paper surface broke up. I have complained to Canson but they have not replied as yet. 10in by 15in Watercolour.
I am hooked on the pen drawing at present. This is St Alfege in Greenwich a peaceful spot the tourists never seem to find.
Slightly out of order I did this earlier on the same day. It is great fun to try and get as much information from as few a strokes as possible. It is of the Queen’s House seen from Greenwich park.
Some life work to finish off, I have been chopping and changing which media I use.
One with a very small palette and brushed line. It is interesting how variations in media allow you to home in on different aspects of the pose.
Pastel pencil, so good for expressing the subtle changes of tone.
Nice to draw the clothed figure occasionally. I tried to keep this as simple as possible.
Lovely light on the torso here, I was very much looking for the terminators between light and dark. Many artists love to accentuate these but I don’t like to over state them.
Standing or stretched out poses are always I find the hardest. Due I think to the parts being harder to relate.
Lastly a quickie of 7min. If you catch it right these are always my favourites!