Archive for July, 2008

Artist’s block

July 21, 2008

I was reading the latest book review written by on a book by Flaherty on writer’s block. It got me thinking about the philosophy I operate with when this happens to me as an artist.

When I’m in painting mode, that first brush stroke on a blank canvas is sometimes daunting. During a long (and recent) period that has lasted a good 6 years now, with little time to paint, I’ve done what I call “keeping my hand in” or “keeping my skills up”. The images are mundane landscapes, vases of flowers or a singleton, etc. At least my hands keep using the brush and my eye/hand coordination is forced to work.
Even so, when I was working almost full time at my more thoughtful, experimental imagery, I had times when nothing flowed, inspiration had gone on holiday. It’s the time between series – the “what next?” time.
It used to produce a large amount of uncomfortable frustration. Eventually, though, I saw a pattern in my way of working.
It was akin to the seeding/growing/harvesting/laying fallow progression of agriculture; only here the “seeding” was the researching, reading, gathering imagery, and thinking about it all to come by a worthy idea. The “growing” part used that material to explore possibilities, fooling around with sketches and minor works to grapple with the ideas.
The “harvesting” was the period of putting some mature imagery to canvas – a series of valid images that work together and that have some meaningful, coherent shape. This stage usually just hums along; I’m eager to get stuff down on paper or on canvas. I can’t work fast enough for the contingent ideas bombarding me. All the previous stages are bearing fruit. And then whammo! it stops. There is nothing more to be said in that vein, or it reduces to a trickle. A work or two may generate later, but I don’t inhale without exhaling.
I’ve learned to respect the “laying fallow” time of creativity. I still feel the frustration, but I remind myself that, like fields, the mind has to regain the substance that it consumed in the making of the previous spurt of creative activity.
I can change the crop I’m trying to get out of it . For instance, I can switch to writing or music. I can recharge the nutrients with music, reading, gallery going, taking a course from a colleague who will seed a new idea, or go walking on the Eastside, the docks, construction sites or down to the shoreline .
Eventually, one day, the thought processes start focusing on one general area of interest, and then, it’s back to the “Seeding” stage of things.
It works for me. It keeps me off Prozac.

More specifically, when I tackle a new canvas, there is some housekeeping to do that generally gets me over the first difficulties of putting brush to canvas.

Firstly, most pre-stretched canvases come primed, but the priming of these is seldom the thickness of priming I would like for my artwork. Just the fact of having a paintbrush in my hand and globbing it up with a thick swath of gesso to spread around is a good starting point. Swishing this around to make the texture – smooth, filled with purposeful brushing strokes or highly and randomly textured – is a pleasant start to get the springy feel of the canvas and to feel the heft of the brush in my hand. That first act of painting white on white is inspiring in itself.

While this first protective layer is drying and I am washing the fast drying white out of the bristles, I’m already thinking what might be a good undertone to build the image on. For blue skies, I like to put a thin layer of warm yellow cadmium or yellow ochre. It warms up the whole painting, and if, later on, there are spaces between my brush strokes, it is warmth that glows through, not brittle white. Some painters like to start with a drawing in burnt sienna; some swear by red. But I avoid red, ever since I realized that all the pigments that painters use are simply chemicals and some react with others to make a) noxious byproducts in the form of gas or 2) react badly with the next layer of paint. If I want that reddish tone, then I prefer the burnt sienna.

In early times of oil painting, vermillion and other reds reacted badly with other pigments and always had to be separated from touching them with a separating layer of varnish. Vermillion is made of mercuric sulphide and occurs naturally in the mineral called cinnabar. In early times, it was more expensive than gold and therefore used very sparingly in paintings. A painter needed a wealthy patron to be able to afford such a luxury.

Back to the canvas…

I’ve now painted one layer of gesso and one layer of underpainting and I make sure they are good and dry before I go on to the next stage.

If I’m unsure of my drawing, I will sometimes sketch in everything with a thin wash of a contrasting colour to my underpainting. For instance, where I need to mass in the sky, I’ll choose a light wash of cerulean blue diluted with turpentine (or water, if I’m using acrylics) which I’m going to use in greater amounts later for the final colour. It contrasts well with the yellow ground. Or, on the yellow ochre, now is the time that I will use a thin wash of burnt sienna to sketch in a figure and the major parts of the composition.

All of that is just housekeeping. If I don’t like what I’ve done, it’s easy to wipe it away with a lint-free cloth. It’s so thin a layer that if I want to paint over it, it will disappear or become part of the richness of layers of build-up. If, by this time, I’m dissatisfied with what I’ve done, I just walk away. I get a cup of coffee and go read a book, or do some real housekeeping. By the time ten minutes or half an hour has gone by, or even a whole day, the painting takes on a different look. I’ve forgotten the frustration of trying to set out my image. I can see what’s good more clearly and the mistakes are more evident – the arm that is too long or the leg at an impossible angle, or the head that is too small for the body, or one shoulder wider than the other… It’s time to check the flow of the work, the way the eye comes in from the left, the way focal points of colour will draw the eye around the image, the negative spaces, the balance of light and dark.

But the important thing is, I’m no longer dealing with a blank canvas. The work is already started.

And that’s a fine thing for an artist to say, who hasn’t painted a serious painting for two years! I just better get some housekeeping done and get the easel out, don’t you think?


Defending Marcel Duchamp

July 20, 2008

I went visiting some of my regular Blog friends this morning and chanced upon Forestrat once again,

It’s an interesting read about aesthetics of nature and the nature of aesthetics. He’s got this thing, shared by many, I’m sure, about some of the more adventurous art manifestations of modern art. In particular, he mentioned Marcel Duchamp and his Urinal sculpture.

Just to check on the age of Marcel D when he dared to fling an urinal in the face of the art public, I looked up this site which I subsequently got lost in exploring. He was thirty, living in America, when he submitted that lovely sculptural objet d’art to the scrutiny of the public.

By the way, here’s the web-address of the site I explored:

I think I understand why he came to this position or this philosophy in his work and I can illustrate it by a personal anecdote.
When I was younger, I studied piano. I was interested in Classical music from Hayden and Handel, Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, to Chopin, Tchaikovsky and some of the other Romantics. I listened to them constantly. I played them on the piano. I sang them in my sleep. I was familiar with a vast amount of their concerti, their chamber music and piano works. I became drenched in them, saturated with their work and then, oddly enough, crashingly bored with these works. Especially when the Musical Commercial World started publishing boxes of classical music in which snippets of these famous works. The new, growing after-war middle class was eager to become familiar with music which had once been the domain of the elite. Those who could educate their young in these niceties of high society, did.

Knowledge of art and classical music was essential to a young professional fitting into a level of society that they aspired to. In one magic compendium of the world’s greatest music, a person could familiarize themselves with the history of music from Classical through Baroque, Romantic to Modern.
Phonographs became a standard household possession. An orchestra could be piped into your living room through this modern appliance. The Greatest Music of all time sold handsomely well, stoked by the fires of advertising that also was becoming a driving force in the after-war economy.

I had a wise and good piano teacher who pushed me to try playing more modern works of Kodaly, Ibert, Satie, and Debussy. He proposed that I listen to Ravel and Faure, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev and Stravinsky.
He helped me to understand some of the innovations, the changes in musical thought that had provoked these less harmonious works. The music often sounded awkward, dissonant, even raucous. I came to like them more than I did the sure, metronomical measures of the classical composers. Their haunting melodies could not be sung; they were elusive and elliptical, like sprites and ogres running in an out of a forest of orchestration, uncatchable in a single tune. I would liken these, in painting, to the Impressionists and the Post Impressionists where there is still very understandable imagery but the realism is no longer “photographic” or “realist” in nature.
We got used to this music and it became as mainstream as the Classical forms.

In Art, We got used to the Impressionists and Post Impressionists, though they were reviled when they pushed their way onto the art scene. We got used to them and came to love them, folding them into the historical time line of the arts as if it were a natural progression to build on, challenge, reject and then shock the aesthetics of the day with something new and outrageous.

The Dadaist (led by Duchamp) were the next stage of rejecting, challenging, and shocking the Art world. I think I can understand his rebellion against the chocolate box imagery and taste of the vast majority of his generation’s art audience.

Getting more specific:
If you see his “Art Object” urinal as an insult to propriety, I would agree, both then and now, it was. No question.
But I see that, as an artist, how else could he get one’s attention towards something that he was trying to convey as an aesthetic idea? (Or maybe, more precisely, as an anti-aesthetic idea.)
He had started off in the already revolutionary art world of Cezanne’s pre-Cubism, of Matisse’s Fauveism, of Picasso’s and Braques full blown Cubism.
Picasso was only 6 years older than Duchamp, but to Duchamp, Picasso must have seemed like a god of the art world – challenging, exploring, doing what he wanted when he wanted with no thought of other people’s opinions. He was a real force of energy and ideas.
Duchamp tried on Picasso’s style; but he rejected that too.
Steeped as he was in the aesthetic world, growing up in a family that put a high estimation on all the arts; having all of his siblings – three brothers – who also become artists, Marcel, with his lively mind, probably got saturated to the point that he needed to look at his world in a fresh way.
The Cubists were already deconstructing the painterly established way of viewing the world. Duchamp went one giant step further.
He seemed to declare to the world “Art is about seeing! Look at the art in the world about you! It’s not just in pretty pictures. It’s not just about representing soppy family portraits and their pets. It’s not just about glorifying the politicians and elite of the day. It’s not just about painting a souvenir landscape of your favorite holiday place, not recording the pompous acquisition of your grand and expensive house.”
“It’s about seeing.”
“And in this specific, horrendous, challenging example of a urinal on a pedestal, I’m saying : Here is an everyday item you use in your home. It has been designed. Yes. Get that straight. It has been designed by a poor bloke sculptor that had to marry form and function to produce this unspeakable object.
“That poor bloke sculptor made a beautiful, functional form and you, the viewer, are so shocked that we can look at this as an aesthetic object that you shy your eyes away. You twitter and chide that is is not art; that it is immoral; that it is outrageous; that it is improper. And all that good bourgeois thinking prevents you from seeing form and function – a sculpture.
‘Well, I’m putting it under your too prudish nose and declaring it so. So there.”
Of course, that’s a fictitious monologue on the part of Marcel Duchamp, but I can imagine him defending his outrance by such a rant.

It is my way of understanding how Marcel Duchamp started to look at his world. This is not the world of ladies going to tea; picnics in the park, driving out on Sunday afternoon to show off one’s team of horses and latest haberdashery. This is not the pretty, stable Walton family world of propriety.
This is the world of the messy and very tragic First World War. This is a world of war-time rationing and deprivation. This is a time balancing the old world without modern conveniences with that of modern machinery – bicycles, cars, telephones, tanks, moving photography, light bulbs and electricity.
Marcel Duchamp chose to look at some of those newish inventions and to use them in his art work. Nude Descending a Staircase uses the ability of a camera to freeze motion in incremental steps as the subject of his painting.

He uses the bicycle wheel in another work.

He seeks to de-prettify. He seeks an anti-deification of the artist as a pretty picture maker.

He puts the urinal out there and says “See, this stuff is interesting too! It has design. It has aesthetic properties. Look! See! Understand that everything we use has the ability to contain those aesthetic properties of form and shape.”
And Marcel Duchamp has the temerity, the tenacity and the strength to stand behind his convictions of a new vision and display it for the world to see. Maybe they won’t understand what he is getting at to begin with, but given time…..?

But it you want to see some of what he really said, visit:

You will find that his work was thoughtful and deeply considered. You will find that he had a sense of humour. You will find ideas that are a challenge but worthy of grappling with.

In every age, there are artist who push limits, who challenge the too comfortable aesthetic of the previous generation; who rethink the prevailing parameters and come up with new ones.

I’m not saying that you have to like it. But I challenge you to find out what the artist is thinking. Try to understand the underpinnings of the art dialectic. You will be richer for it. No one is asking you to buy anything you don’t want (in the physical sense of paying money for it). However, the artist is asking you to engage your eyes and your thought processes to understand that they have looked at their surrounding world and found something to comment upon that is an idea worth considering.
And, going back to the music analogy:
In the ‘Sixties when I was attending university, John Cage’s music was becoming known. Later, there was the music of Phillip Glass and of Arvo Part. I had trouble with these when I first heard them, but now I find them haunting. John Cage has taught me something about silence. He has taught me something about the significance of the time between sound. It’s a novel concept. It’s like the importance of negative space, in painting. It’s caused me to rethink my listening, not only to his work, but to previous composers and even, simply, to conversations I participate in or listen in on. The silence, the gap between sounds, has meaning.

Phillip Glass and Arvo Part have very haunting styles of music. They are not harmonic in the common way of understanding it. It was hard to get used to; but when I did, I found both of these composers very peaceful to listen to, very esoterically beautiful.

And so back to the new art that hangs painted plastic rats in a tree, or that fills a rock pool with coloured, dyed water, or that mows a pattern in a wheat field: What is the artist trying to say? What is the object of the imagery? Does the artist have a web-page where you could find out his or her philosophy? The work of art is meant to make you think outside of the proverbial box; to engage with the work and come to some new understanding.

As long as nature is not being destroyed irrevocably; as long as the environment is not being contaminated or animals being harmed is it acceptable to install some foreign, even shocking, element into a natural setting in order to state an idea visually?

Each person has to answer these questions themselves. Before rejecting the idea out of hand, give it a try. You may be enriched by it. And if not, what have you lost but a bit of time in cogitating. It’s not such a risk.

Just a bit of dessert to finish off with:

Think of the art and music that we have reviled by the mainstreamthrough time, and now has become the darling of the mainstream aesthetic:

Chardin (Imagine painting household help and kitchen tools!)

Courbet (why on earth would one want a funeral picture in one’s living room? or a Revolutionary woman with her bare breast?)

Impressionism ( imagine painting prostitute dancers and washerwomen, drunkards and music hall denizens – how disgusting!)

Vincent van Gogh (he can’t even paint realistically!)

Jazz (that awful noise)

Rock and Roll (more noise)

Break dancing.

It’s a funny world. I just try to keep my mind open.


July 16, 2008

I’ve been away from the act of creation for some long time now, fault of many things. My house is not in order and without that, I find it impossible to tackle new works of art creatively.

An invitation arrived in my e-mail this morning from a fellow blogger who, it seems, is having an exhibition of his work.

Now, I haven’t been blogging nor reading blogs either, so I thought I would stroll through his posts and refresh my acquaintance with his work. I found this lively one on sculpture where a professor has taken his students out onto a farm area and had the students create installation type work within the landscape using materials from the landscape or inspired by it. The sheer inventiveness of the art is stunning.

It always amazes me that, given the same instructions and limited by the same parameters of materials and  site, each individual will come up with astoundingly different imagery. “Bravo!” I say. This is what art is meant to be.

Here’s the site address:



July 13, 2008

This lovely flower is called Astrantia. It flowers early summer and continues to bloom until September. The flowers are pinkish and become whiter as they mature. It’s tall, airy and graceful as it sways in the wind. You might expect fairies to live underneath its broad leaves, it’s that delicate and pretty.