Experimenting – where are we going, why are we painting

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In the mid Eighties, I worked with Tom Hudson, the Director of Instruction, at Emily Carr College of Art and Design (it’s ECInstitute of Art and Design now) in a Masters Class, prior to his filming of the Drawing portion of the Foundation classes that were to be used for distance education on the Knowledge Network.

There were several of us instructors who would eventually be the tutors for the courses.

I happened to be suffering artists’ block at the time and felt my work was going nowhere. There didn’t seem to be any personality to it, or it felt like I had run my previous work to death and there was no reviving it. Where could I go next?

Other times, when I got in this state of stalled creation, I seemed to follow a pattern that , funny enough, an humanitarian astrologist described to me. She had described a twenty-eight year cycle of four seven year periods. The first one was sowing, the second growing, the third reaping, and the last was laying fallow. It followed a natural earth cycle of birth to death and started all over again with a rebirth of the sowing cycle.

Both my personal and my artistic development related to this concept and I tried to remember it in regard to any contretemps that I came up against. What stage was I in? Was that why I was struggling? If so, what could I do about it?

The sowing or birthing stage relates to the preparation of skills and ideas, the learning side of things. Learning occurs in the other stages, too, but it is a different kind of learning. At this stage, one is filling up the tank, preparing for actual creation. One might be going to museums and looking intensely at work that echos with the soul, or reading about artists’ lives or their intentions. One might be going to school, absorbing new concepts and having a first go at them. One might be wandering the beaches or the local farmlands or back alleys or exploring an industrial setting, according to one’s preferences, looking and absorbing the visual aspects of it all; trying to memorize what one sees and making mental note of how that fits with other elements one is bringing to the final work, such as the artisanal skills that one needs to put the idea into form and function.

In the growing stage, one is working with what has been absorbed in the previous stage. There may be clumsy attempts to put down a new thought. There may result some competent work (damned with faint praise). That which is missing from the panoply of skills and ideas is sought out and added to the mix. There are some minor frustrations as one realizes that there is something indefinable missing; there is something to be improved, but it needs thinking about. There is learning in this stage also, but it is accumulating on a base from the first era.

In the third era, everything comes together. There is no hesitation in one’s skills. They need to be kept up, certainly, but one has a solid hand, a solid understanding of one’s chosen materials, and a clear idea of what the image is.

In this stage, the experimenting finds fruit. The work develops on its own. It starts and grows. At night, or in a restful state, ideas keep building upon the original concept. The outcome is sure and mature. People are awed at how you got there. They remark on the spareness and fluidity of your lines. There is no hesitation. Like a Olympic skater, it looks so easy, but they know that when they try it, it never has the same presence. The work sings!

And then the spring mechanism winds down. It was so easy, but now, one is searching for how it can be expressed one more time. It is becoming like commercial wallpaper. Repetitive. The marks less free; the idea a bit forced.

Then of a sudden, in the fourth stage, one just doesn’t want to do that anymore. It’s all been said. It’s time for something new but the piggy bank is empty. This doesn’t need to be a negative time. It can be a time of taking stock. Remove the things that are not worthwhile. Use them to draw or paint over, leaving something of the underbelly to show. Maybe it will go into another direction. Take the worthwhile ones and see if there is a series that fits together. And just rest.

Like a field that has been left fallow, it is being allowed to recuperate. The field has produced a fine crop for several years. It’s given up its nutrients and strength to produce something different from itself. Now it needs to gain that back. Perhaps it needs a totally different crop to nourish it. It needs time. And so one might start going back to museums. Take a trip.Visit with other artists. Complain a little about one’s lack of progress. Get some well deserved sympathy all the while being open to some ideas someone else may plant in one’s toolbox of ideas and skills.

In this latter state of mind, I was working with Tom Hudson. He spent one session asking the students to work with circle, square and triangle to produce something. Each student chose their drawing materials, all in black and white, and went about working with that idea.

Not much of an idea, you might think, but each student came back at the end of the three hour session, each with completely original works radically different from one another. As I was suffering from a hiatus in my idea making, I took up the challenge. Every day, I drew one or more grids of dots on a blank piece of paper and connected them with a square, a circle or a triangle. I worked small in a sketchbook and did one after another. It was a perfect way to keep me alert in corporate meetings. People chose to sit beside me so they could see what I was doodling at.

At first they were mundane. I didn’t know where I was going with it, but I kept on going regardless. This road had to lead somewhere! At work, I used a disposable technical pen . At home, I could experiment the same kind of thing with willow charcoal or fusain, paint or collage. After a while, I must have gotten bored with doing the same thing over and over. I started to connect them together, to add feet to some, or fill in the blocks with one colour, the triangles with another, the circles with another. I refused to edit my responses. I simply piled them up in a corner and let them percolate. By the time I came back to them months later, I found there were some that I really enjoyed; many more than I had expected to.

I was surprised at the sequence that had developed. I was surprised at the content that I had bit by bit added to the mix. There was a definite progression even though I had rigorously stuck to my original rules of square, triangle, circle. I ended up with some fine abstract work on full sheets of Arches watercolour paper and some representational work that looked like modern housing complexes.

None of that could have occurred if I had not let my mind wander freely, unedited, in a new direction not worrying about the outcome.

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I remember some wonderful series of Henry Moore – his sheep. He had a wonderful time drawing these wooly creatures with different textures and materials. David Hockney did a similar thing with multiple photos of the same scene, collaging them together into a unified image that was comprehensible but fractured at the same time.

I liken this “method”, if you will, to a scientist going looking for a lost gene and finding something else entirely.

Do you get stuck in your ideas? Do you have a method of kick starting the creative machine? Please share your thoughtswe-three-small.jpg.

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6 Responses to “Experimenting – where are we going, why are we painting”

  1. sammiam Says:

    Hey thanks for this post. I have only recently been thinking that all my sowing and growing over the past three years has got to collide into something at sometime soon. I get the astrologists four x seven year cycles (a bit akin to the saturn return i think) but do you think we cycle through more regularly. I’m definately close to the third stage (my collision) but I know that it won’t last for seven years. just a thought!
    samm
    sorry if this post is duplicated – i’m a technical wizz and i think i deleted the first one, but may not have….

  2. lookingforbeauty Says:

    Yes, absolutely! I am sure that there are cycles within cycles. It’s like the learning plateaus where you make a big leap in understanding something and then you try with it for a while until you get a working understanding of it.

    I think that there are generalities of the seven year cycles and then more specific, smaller cyclic action going on.

    On another subject,
    I read your blog on making those transfers. It’s an interesting process and might be quite good for putting together some collage ideas, but I’m wondering at the longevity of the work, since transferring is only putting non-art (non-permanent) pigments from one surface to another. Most of the magazine and newspaper printing industry uses cheap pigments as they are considered throw-away publications. Unless you use something like Clear View glass to frame something of this sort in, your image might fade away rather quickly.
    K

  3. suburbanlife Says:

    LFB – thanks for posting the photos of your small essays here – you know, back in 88 when you would come to visit me in the hospital and bring your book of drawings for me to look at you added immense stimulation to what would otherwise be a rather stringent experience. I am thinking of the paintings you started of the views as seen from airplane rides, and my mind segued to the Paintings of John Hartman a book of which I spied at Chapters – it seems to be a book I will have to get for you. Looking forward to your new series – it is so full of potential! G

  4. vyala Says:

    You might be right regarding those cycles but it also might be a coincidence. When I look back I would say my first cycle started in 1998 and I am now in the second – even the length of each period would be right more or less. But I would never take this seriously.
    Doesn’t each individual have its own cycle? I don’t believe in matching a system of numbers to a human life because there are too many variables.

    I am only sometimes pondering about where my work is going to lead me out of curiosity. I do what I feel I have to do no matter whether it is right or wrong. I don’t see any “rights” or “wrongs” in art because each tiny or larger period is a piece of the puzzle in each life. If I started worring about whether my work has arrived at a dead end I could not work any more so I continue to work and move on. I have already lost too much precious time not doing art so why should I worry whether my cycle is arriving at the dead end? And if I knew what to do then?

  5. lookingforbeauty Says:

    Thanks for these comments. In response, I would say that the cycle description is an interesting idea and I, too, would not take it literally. I like the idea of birth, growth, reaping and laying fallow (rather than death) because there is renewal and growth in each stage.
    But I have referred back to the idea from time to time, especially when “stuck” on where to go next. It was quite helpful to me because I could then easily say, “Well, I may be stuck for this moment, but it’s normal to take pause and refresh, to fill back up again and then start off on the same path with vigor, or take an new path and explore.”
    Maybe a “stuck period” is an opportunity to change ones rules – set new parameters, try something different, consciously.
    Do you know the work of the Canadian artist Jean-Paul Riopelle? I saw an exhibition lately of his lithographs, many of which have snow geese imagery. He must draw about six or more layers of various marks before he gets to the geese images and then may layer more textures or series of marks on top. I find them amazing. Each layer is a different colour is soft subtle pastel tones, very subdued, and then the motion and texture occurs from the build up. On it’s own, each layer would not stand up as a work of art.
    You can look up his work on http://www.riopelle.ca and look for the tab “tomes” and then “estampes” to click on.

    I know what you mean about “worrying about whether my work has arrived a dead end”. I’ve done that before and it stopped me from working for some time, but I came to the same conclusion as you, that if you were immobilized by the philosophy of art and the lack of intention, perhaps nothing would happen at all. One needs to get to a point where it is valuable in itself, whether it is “useful” or “purposeful” or not. The simple doing of art is of value in itself.
    K

  6. lookingforbeauty Says:

    My friend, Mrs. Stepford wrote this comment on this blog and then I somehow deleted it. I fortunately was able to recuperate the comment, as copied below, but it now looks like it’s coming from lookingforbeauty.
    I’ll answer it in another post.
    Kay – Mariachristina, see my blogroll, has tagged me to write eight facts about myself, and then to tag someone else to go the same in turn – so you’re “IT”. I’m looking forward to what you write about yourself. 🙂
    Please, will you post some of the marvellous images you made doing this process you have described? I know you are in process of packing and moving, perhaps when you have settled next door, you can unearth these little gems and share them with us all? G

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