Category Archives: The creative process

Does it matter what it means?

I visited the Whitechapel at the beginning of my course and did an experiment. I went into an exhibit and didn’t read up on what the artist concerned was trying to ‘say’ with her work. I made my own interpretation which, perhaps inevitably, was wrong. A question that has stuck with me is whether that detracts in anyway from my own enjoyment (it didn’t in that case) of the work and what the artist is trying to achieve (I’d say it does). In the commercial sense, as long as it is a positive reaction then does it matter?

I repeated a variation on this experiment on Facebook last week. I asked any friends who were willing to comment on what they saw and thought my Trip Tych three pastel drawings.

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As an example, this drawing to me was about parenthood and the risk it can go so wrong when a parent with an undeveloped sense of self sees a child as an extension of themselves on which they project all their hopes and fears, through which they live vicariously – the extreme of which is actually a disorder called narcissistic personality disorder. The comments I received from friends included:

  • Two strangers meeting for the first time
  • Reminds me of a flower in the rain on a summers day
  • Seedlings just starting to grow
  • Helpless
  • A woman’s belly and legs
  • Initially sunsets then the more I looked I saw flowers and fire, they’re very relaxing

Although some of the comments are kind of related to what I was thinking about when I drew this, none are spot on. Does it matter? I had some lovely compliments. It’s a bit like my reflections about there not being any new ideas. Does it matter? If I put them on Etsy or some other platform and they started selling like prints, or even if I drew for pleasure and didn’t attempt any commercial success, if what I had in mind is completely different to what people see then as long as either (a) they’re buying and/or (b) I’m enjoying myself and they’re enjoying looking at them then who cares? Their reaction is in no way less valid because they (to borrow from social constructivist theory) bring their own lens to what they see which is unique to them.

Perhaps this is the difference between artists who want to exhibit and say something about the world and hobbyists or those who just want to sell a few bits on craft websites. I don’t know. Would I enjoy it more if people did see what I was trying to say? Again I don’t know. When I think about the surrealist artists I love, they deliberately engaged in producing art the elite would not understand, with all the Freudian symbolism and focus on the sub conscious. It builds on the old question “but is it art?” to say “well if it is, why can there not be multiple possibilities of what xyz piece is about that are all valid”.

There’s no such thing as a new idea

At the beginning of my Foundation course I powered through some of the recommended reading. I find my own ideas come in thick and fast when I’m mentally riffing off what other people are doing. But what do you do if your idea has been ‘done’?

At some point in a gift set I was bought a little bottle of eye and skin firming creme. It is called something like Philosophy and ‘Hope in a bottle’. This struck me as at once absurd and accurate. I am completely immune to being told what to wear by the fashion industry and find following the herd mindless materialism. I rail against it. This silly little bottle of nonsense got me thinking about the ridiculous ways women are expected to primp, pluck and change themselves, particularly the current trend for contouring and strobing to change our face shapes. I fear for the often narcissistic, selfie-obsessed and often vapid world my daughter will grow up in, that prides extroversion and style over substance and introspection.

This gave me the idea of a collage that features words and pictures, like the bottle of hope, that comments on this. Like a medicine cabinet. I began collecting newspaper and magazine snippings and enlisted my Facebook friends in commenting on some of the the things they’d seen that they thought were absurd (anal bleaching – seriously??!).

Then it happened. In one of my recommended reading texts I came across Hirst’s medicine cabinet work. The wind was knocked of my sails. Then another time I was thinking about the popularity of data visualisation and had some ideas about how to use graph type imagery in drawings. I had several train journeys of manically writing down ideas and sketching out concepts which to me were too precious to put into my course sketchbook for fear of someone stealing my idea (not my tutor I might add!!) Then I came across Theaster Gates, started looking into his more recent work and – boom – he’s done it already.

I didn’t know what to do. Should I ignore this because I will have my own slant on things and there is no such thing as a new idea, or do I keep pressing on for my own unique space. After five months of pondering on this I’m still not sure how I feel so I’m posting this to get it out of my system and in the hope my tutor will have some thoughts on this.

Artist profiles: Paul Noble

My tutor suggested I look at Paul Noble (among others), specifically looking at how he uses technique in relation to subject matter. In this short Guardian interview from the series ‘Guide to Drawing’ he talks about using technical drawing with no perspective and  rarely less than a sharp 4H pencil to “shine the sharpest light on the things I depict”. I can see what he means with the cartographic sense you get from his drawings. Weirdly for a style that is so ‘black and white’ there is nothing straightforward about the surreal worlds he creates.

There is so much detail in Nobson Newton and perhaps that’s the point – that we can’t see what is going on in the world with a glance, there’s a huge amount going on, nothing is what it seems and we need to look in detail and think about what it all means. Also ironic as my art tutor at work commented recently that the amount of time people spend looking at single pieces in galleries is ever reducing. Criminal really, when you think about the hours that go in the works. The precision Paul Noble uses is incredible. There’s also quite a vintage tone to his work which I like given he’s commenting often on the new.

On the Tate website he says ‘My drawings begin with their title….What was writing on a page becomes a building or place’. At the beginning of the course I was prone to writing down concepts in my sketchbook to explore and develop ideas before I was ready to think about representing them visually. It’s heartening to hear someone else work in a similar fashion.

By coincidence I got a book on Hieronymous Bosch from the library recently and I can see a connect between the styles. I was amazed to read Paul Noble has been working on this drawing project for 16 years. Could I ever love an idea so much to work on it for so long.

The monumental scale obviously works for what he is trying to say. He knows what he wants to say though. I am starting to be drawn to what I want to explore and say as I am very interested in people’s inner emotional lives and how they are hidden or not, on the psychological pressures of modern life, on the capitalist obsession with extroversion. What medium is the best for this? What technique is best for this? I don’t yet know.

Sketchbook: My first serious attempt at abstract art

After experimenting last night, I decided to fill an A3 watercolour page with a wash using a few shades of pastel pigment picked up and applied with cotton wool. I applied the yellow and then a few shades of complementary purples and blue (see second drawing below). I was so pleased with the effect I spent some time staring at it and suddenly felt drawn to return to an idea I had in my first module of drawing a line that represents my relationship with my daughter. Except this time I was reflecting more broadly the nature of ego, identity, the hopes and fears that having children represent and the risk of projecting ourselves onto them or damaging them in some way. My mind then wandered to that first module and experiments with mark marking.

For reasons I do not entirely understand, and without really thinking too much, some ideas formed in my head of feelings I wanted to represent. I  gently used conte carre to create two lines, and then a gentle line flowing away from then. I went over what I see to represent two figures with water to darken the line. Finally I developed the cotton wool technique further and added the hot orange in the bottom right. I found this to be a deeply meaningful experience and was thrilled with the results as a representation of the mind, of hopes, fears, love, damage and everything that goes with familial relationships and the raising of children.

I wanted to continue the story so then moved onto the next drawing (see first drawing below). For me this needed to represent a stage before what I had just drawn, so I chose to separate the two figures with the warm orange to represent a divide, a thought, a hope, and the second figure bending away from that expectation and pressure.

By now I felt very absorbed and wanted to do the final stage in this to represent joy but also fear as a fragile being moves into the world and begins to find their own way – a child perhaps. I was certainly thinking of my daughter when I worked on this. I decided to reverse the colours as this is her own story, and have organic forms moving into a brighter sunset yellow to represent a dawn for her but a sunset for the parent – loss but in a positive way. Finally after pausing I added the final line in conte carre to represent the figure.

If I were to be harsh I’d say this is unlikely to score my points in high art. Who am I but a beginner using hackneyed colours to represent certain emotions with a crude technique. But if I put ego and what the external world values commercially or technically to one side and speak for me personally, then this is probably one of the most moving experiences I have had. When I laid the three drawings alongside I could see the story I wanted to convey,  I actually loved the result, and I feel there is more in this series I wanted to do to continue exploring the ideas I am thinking about at the moment.

I didn’t tell my husband what these drawings are about but asked him what he thought. He is aware I am reading about and thinking about these issues at the moment so perhaps was biased but he said he could see it was about relationships and in particular parenthood. I am going to ask a few friends who don’t know what I’m thinking about at the moment what they think this is about to see how they respond out of curiosity.

This was a strange mix of emotions – I would be interested to know if my tutor thinks this is normal – I felt very at peace afterwards but also very energised. This work suddenly means a lot to me and contains themes which I think I could spend a life time exploring, and with a technique and medium I really love. I wonder if it scales, so my next thought is to look at how I might work in larger format. This is something my tutor has encouraged and I haven’t felt strongly enough about any idea or confident enough with any media to try it yet but I feel driven to do this now.

When I got up this morning I could see even more things in the drawings that I hadn’t seen before. The figures are almost like needles and thread, like the patchwork of our lives that we weave. I have decided to title the three ‘Triptych’ because it both describes the fact it is three but the subject matter too:

“Despite its connection to an art format, the term is sometimes used more generally to connote anything with three parts, particularly if they are integrated into a single unit”. (Dictionary definition)

Exercise: Organic forms

This exercise lead me to have a bit of a creative breakdown then a rather exciting creative breakthrough. On first reading I thought I had to draw some fruit or vegetables in A3 and that was that. I began some preparatory drawings defaulting mindlessly to realism. Then I re-read the exercise and noted the instruction to use creative marks and all of what I had learnt on the course to date. Cue a panic.

Loosening up and not opting for a realism has been a hobby horse of mine since the course started. One part of my drawing was an apple. I didn’t know where to start and the A3 large size was intimidating. After staring at the page for an eternity I realised inspiration would not strike. I remembered from earlier in the course how planning to draw was a bit of a revelation so I decided to go back and research some examples of organic matter drawn expressively.

Eells_pencil_sketch_09098I came across this lovely example from this site and spent some time reflecting on it. It seems simple but there are a deceptively wide range of marks in different directions and weights as well as strong highlights and shadows.

I did a few preparatory sketches limiting myself to different types of marks. Although I have to literally bully myself to just draw when I do loosen up the experience is always incredibly enjoyable and uplifting.

I would give anything to allow myself the freedom a child lacking self consciousness has. I’ve studied Jonathan Haidt’s ‘Happiness Hypothesis’ and Chip and Dan Heath’s wonderful book on the psychology of change called ‘Switch’ which both use the analogy of the emotional elephant being in control of the rational rider. Although I conceptually understand all of that, even though I’m not consciously being self critical or worrying what others think, I might be at some deep rooted level else I’d be surely picking up the pencil and just drawing?

I can be hard on myself so perhaps this is as much a symptom of where I am on the creative journey. That being the case perhaps I should not be bashful about admitting I had to go and research again about creative mark making because it is new and something I have not yet had enough practice of aside from the need to plan and do preparatory sketches.

After I had done some preparatory sketches, I faintly outlined the main shapes on my final drawing and decided to begin with the apple. It was not easy to get going but once I did, presumably because I’d done a few dry runs in different ways, it became easier. For a short while I seemed to go into some sort of almost zen like state where everything was tuned out except for drawing on the page and studying the apple. For what almost felt like sketching I was drawing the apple for a reasonably long amount of time. When I felt myself coming out of this state, I was actually pleased with the result.

Interestingly when I tried to ‘just draw’ the other items – an avocado and a chilli pepper – without the experimental preparatory sketches, without a break inbetween, the result was very unsatisfying and it almost makes the finished piece look like two separate drawings. 

I’m not sure what happened. I feel sure I can’t will it to happen again. I hope if I follow a similar process of researching what I want to draw, preparatory sketches, outlining my main shapes, a break then quiet time to make my marks then perhaps Csikszentmihalyi’s ‘flow’ will grace my doors again.

The challenge of finding the found object 

Collage, assemblages, found objects as valid art are all new to me since starting this course. The past three weeks I have diligently scoured the pavements as I walk the 6.2 miles every day to and from home, the station and work find papers and small items. This also leads on from my interest in layering – in this sense with items – from module one.

What a disappointing exercise! Nothing but bottles and bottle tops, drinks cans, sweet wrappers and the odd rizla packet down by the allotments where the kids smoke weed. But why? Is it a sign we are cleaner as a society? Hardly, by the volume of food and drink related detritus. I wonder if anything it is a sign we don’t write on paper as much. Brits are known for being heavy smartphone users. On only two occasions did I spot anything interesting and they were items too large to pick up so I photographed them instead – a shoe and a perfume bottle.

Happily this experience has led to an idea for a drawing but I’m still a little frustrated at the lack of interesting litter (although glad also that we are keeping our towns and cities pretty clean). I rarely wander at lunch but this week also had a stroll around London near where I work and found the same i.e. nothing but the odd food / drink wrapper or can. I read this week about Theaster Gates‘ work and how he uses items found in buildings in his locale, investing the profits in social regeneration e.g. through the Rebuild Foundation which is very impressive. This takes the concept on a level and shows beautifully how art can inspire and benefit communities using profit from found items.

Everyday inspiration 

Reflecting again on the first few weeks of my course, I am still surprised how many ideas for drawings come from my daily commute. Sometimes it is interesting juxtapositions I notice, odd things I spot and photograph for reference, or ideas that come from my subconscious in, I suppose, a kind of automatism as I complete the 43 minute overground train journey or the 6.2 miles I walk each day up to the station and then on to work. 

It feels powerful and confusing, like stepping through the wardrobe in The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe crossed with Frodo putting on The Ring for the first time. The ideas are surprisingly autobiographical combined with unexpected features of my local quasi suburban landscape.

Is it because I am noticing more because I am simply looking more, to train my artists eye? Is it pent up frustration at past ills that have befallen me? Or my anger at what I see happening in the world magnified since Brexit, Trump, 2016 (Prince RIP) and some personal matters too sensitive to share here? Perhaps the biggest question is does it even matter? As long as the creative urge is there and the ideas are coming I should be thankful. But what if they stop? Dry up? 

Part of this joy is how something I resent for taking me away from my daughter and husband – my three hour a day commute – is now becoming something I look forward to for being a rich vein of ideas. This BBC article on Crafty Commuters shows I’m not the only one putting the journey to good use and I enjoyed reading what the other commuters get up to.

Last weekend I felt exhausted. A week of late nights as I finalised blog posts, organised my portfolio, finished reading a particular book on contemporary drawing and sent off assignment one. I took a complete break from studying and drawing and decided to conduct an experiment this week – would I still have ideas with no sketchbook on me and if I took a few days off reading course text books. 

So far so good. I dozed yesterday morning on the train and as I woke up a combination of two ideas came to me which I scribbled in the cover of a book in my bag. Walking home another idea for a different drawing this time as a finished picture instead of the words, concepts and feelings that normally signal a new idea. Then today another absurd item left on the pavement which I photographed as part of an ongoing experimental project which may lead to another drawing. I’ll keep this up a few days longer to see what happens.