One of the hardest things in the making of art is judging improvement in your skills. We talk about the necessary 10,000 hours of practice that make you good at something. We think about that and decide maybe it isn’t 10,000 hours of practice that is needed, but instead, you need 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to make you a master.
I’m old. I’ve had tens of thousands of hours of practice in all manner of things, and I don’t think I’m a master of anything. There are things other than practice that make you a better artist. An intimate familiarity with the things of music are a necessary tool but that knowledge alone doesn’t make art. What is necessary is an openness to experience, and an understanding that experience in one domain has an echo in another. That somehow, curiously, everything is fractal and this is that. This is a hard thing to practice.
So how do you judge? Sometimes you know you’ve reached a point of excellence by the reactions of others in your creative domain. Sometimes you know because one day you find that you, yourself, know that this thing you made is good. And sometimes you have no clue at all. You just keep doing it because there is something more to be said and something more to be proven, or understood.
My son enables my passion for new technologys. In 2001 he gave me a Wacom Graphire II. One of Wacom’s tiny digital drawing tablets. With the use of the included pen and a software that supported the hardware, you could make a painting direct to digital.
I made the painting above with this little Wacom tablet, in a software called GIMP. (I was all about Linux in 2001, and still have one Linux only computer). The lines are wobbly, but, art-wise, this painting is no worse than many I make today. In this case, I have no clue as to whether I’ve improved, so I’ll keep on keeping on until I do. Hmmm, how did I get that watercolour like look…
I read books on creativity all the time. I’m not sure if it’s because I, somehow, want to be assured that I’m creative, or whether I want to understand what goes on in that process. Either way, one thing that comes up time and again, is the admonition not to rely on inspiration. In fact talent and inspiration are two terms that almost everyone disses.
I understand it to an extent. Talents aren’t share equally among everyone, and we don’t want to make anyone feel bad because they were born with a little less of a particular talent than someone else. And there is in the creative community this idea that the talented rely only on their talent and don’t work hard. That’s wrong I think, but I’m going to leave that for another time.
Another thing that books on creativity disparage is inspiration. I’m not saying you should sit on your duff and wait for inspiration before you attempt your creative project, but for heaven sakes if it comes along grab it with both hands and enjoy the blessing.
In my last post I noted that I’d finally painted something I didn’t hate. I made a tiny beginning. Then a day later I had the opportunity to visit Lorenzo Dupuis’s studio. What a wonder! I still feel all melty inside when I think about his luminous work, and I was/am inspired. For months and months I’ve been feeling as though I’m repeating myself or taken what wasn’t mine from others. Now, there is a path, a way to learn, a voice to find and I’m going to follow that inspiration. And surprise, surprise there are hints that I’ve been moving in this direction for some time. Yes, I’m worried that my work will look too much like Lorenzo’s, and guess what, he worries that his work looks too much like someone else’s. Creativity is a funny circular thing. Accept your talent, your inspirations and make something of it!
I’m not thinking of whether you outline, write your thesis sentence first, or how you develop your characters. What I’m considering is the physical process.
It’s interesting to hear about the processes writers employ. Many get up very early in the morning before any other family members are up, and in this early morning solitude they invite their characters to play, blithely typing away as they watch. Some only write late at night. Some write in coffee shops and so on.
It is said that Thomas Wolf wrote with a pencil on paper, using the top of his refridgerator as his desktop. And yes, he was tall, and refridgerators were shorter in those days.
I find that I have a more intimate connection to my story if I write longhand in a lined book. And it is easier on my back to sit in a recliner and write in a notebook than on my laptop. The problem is transcribing drives me crazy. Writing with a pen or pencil isn’t the hard thing. Reading handwritten narratives, is for me the hard thing. Tougher, still if you’re trying to type what you are reading, while you’re reading.
Recently, in a Joanna Penn podcast, her mother, Jacqui Penn, also a writer, described her writing process. She writes her stories longhand in a notebook, reads it into a recorder and let’s Dragon take care of the transcription. She then edits on her computer.
This sounds brilliant to me. Her reasons for working this way, is that she finds sitting at the keyboard for long periods of time very hard on her. Yes! Me too. Sore neck, sore back, sore wrists…
I know that people write longhand less and less often. Times change. Technologies come along and do a brilliant job, but I hear that longhand writing is actually very good for you brain. (Check this, and this) And Google Docs has a facility whereby you can dictate a document on your cellphone without an intervening software like Dragon. There are plenty of issues to be sure. You have to tell dragon your punctuation marks along with the words, and Google only understand things like period and comma, but hey, what’s another learning curve! I’m going to give it a try.
When I studied Fine Arts at the University of Saskatchewan we made a sharp distinction between ‘fine art’ and what was often termed as ‘Sunday painting’. This university was very influence by abstract expressonism, especially the works that came out of New York in the 40s and 50s. A Prairie province, like Saskatchewan, coming late to the dominion of Canada (1905) and always tending to feel a little backward, embraced New York and it’s ideas with with a fervor we didn’t give Canadian artists.
As a young sprout I wanted desperately make good art. But I had no idea about this kind of painting at all. What I wanted to do was make drawings and paintings like Rembrandt. But I learned. Iit was exciting to hear the theories of these men of (yeah, mostly men, but my painting above was influenced by Helen Frankenthaler) were exciting and nicely laced with high spiritual thought. Little by little I developed what Mr. Greenberg would have called taste.
And, though not intentionally, I began to looked down on those who could draw realistically and render. I made massive paintings using no method that you might call traditional.
Fishing with My Father, above, was entirely built from bits of paper, glued down on a sheet of plastic, and poured over with acrylic paint washes. Then I added more bits of paper, string and whatever looked interesting, to come up with this final product. The painting is 8 feet tall by 12 feet wide.
Fast forward many years: I still like abstract expressionist art very much, but I’ve found myself yearning to draw and paint recognizable people and things. I long to render and get lost in the minutia of the subject. And guess what I’ve found. There are so very many artists, from Urban Sketchers to Illustrators who do marvellous work, that I in my ignorant pretentiousness never looked at.
So here’s a thing I’ve learned. There are all kinds of taste in art. In fact because I’m a painter, I’m now pretty much a dinosaur because current tastes are for video art, sound art, and compilations of ideas that have nothing to do with the kind of esthetic taste I was taught to cultivate.
So, here’s some advice, younguns, listen to many teachers, stay humble and learn from everyone. Here’s to staying open!
Lac Green Nord in the Province of Quebec, Canada, is an oasis. And doesn’t this fire look relaxing?
The only thing is that I’m not very good at relaxing, and to be honest when you are the playmate of a five-year-old granddaughter you don’t relax much. Little Maya who wakes up at 6:00 am told me earnestly on the evening the day after we arrived, that it would be a very good thing if I woke up earlier like she did.
But sometimes it’s not about relaxation. It’s more about changing the input. If you keep feeding yourself the same mental diet day after day your creativity starves from lack of proper nourishment. Because I’m a head person (someone who lives more in thought than in the physical world), it is a good thing to change things up and try a sensory diet for a while. On this holiday I had every opportunity to add experiences to my mental diet. I plunged into the water, screamed when I was splashed, slapped Horseflies, whirled on a tube being towed by a boat. I went to a parade and visited family in a care home. I did no writing, not even my morning pages, and very little drawing.
At home now I have so many ideas and plans that I have to calm myself down and take a step back. I know from experience that in this stage of the creative process I will not be happy with anything I do, and everything will go too slow, and soon enough I’ll despair.
Therefore, I will pick the peas and shell them. I’ll write this blog. I’ll make a little careless drawing, and I’ll read the next chapter in The Chronos Project, (my time travel novel) and consider how I can improve it. I’ll go slow.
Give yourself the grace of going slow at times. And you don’t have to be brilliant all the time either (she said, though she finds this hard advice to take).
Oh, and I did make these two scribbles, because, hey, creativity is like a drug. It’s not easy to stop and thankfully stopping isn’t necessary.
Now don’t get me wrong. I like birds. I liked them a lot, but I also have a bit of a phobia about them flying near me, and to be honest, to hold a bird in my hand, warm, and frantic with its heart nearly knocking through its chest, well, that freaks me out too. I try not to give in to fears and phobias, but it doesn’t mean that they’re not still there.
Tuesday last, I’d went for my usual early morning walk. Nearing home, I heard a persistent knocking. I stopped and looked around. I saw no one about. Doors were closed, no hum of lawn mowers. Nothing. But there it was again the knocking. I glanced at an elm near by and almost missed it. Man, Spiderman has nothing on the Downy Woodpecker. It walked vertically up the trunk of the tree dispatching bugs as it found them. No, I wasn’t afraid. I was thrilled to see this incredible little bird so close up.
Breakfast done and cleared away I headed to my downstairs studio. I’d started a painting–yeah, me–and it was going well. I couldn’t wait to get back to it.
In a moment I was immersed. I had some podcast going, or perhaps an audio book by Peter Grainger, I can’t remember which. I heard something, but it came to me distantly as sound sometimes does when I’m in the midst of creating.
Again, louder, insistent, a scuffling noise, something banging on metal, Then silence.
My studio is off the family room. In the family room we have a Franklin stove type of fireplace. When we bought this house we were told that the installation of the fireplace was not up to code, meaning that the house insurance company said it’ll cost you big time if you plan to use that fireplace. So we stuffed the stovepipe with that pink fibre glass insulation to keep out the cold of winter and put an electric fireplace insert into the firebox. You know the sort of thing. Fake logs, fake flames created by some kind of light doing some kind of thing, and behind it all a heater to throw some warmth at you.
There is was again. The loud scuffling noise. Some knocking. It was coming from the fireplace stove pipe.
No, no, no! I can’t deal with this. It’s a bird. I know it’s a bird, and I have to get it out, but it’ll fly all over the house and I can’t. I just can’t.
I call my husband at work. He pretty much said, “You’ll have to get it out. Put the dog and the cat into a bedroom. Close the door on them, then open all the outside doors, and remove the fireplace insert.”
Sometimes husbands aren’t as useful as you’d expect. I thought maybe he’d drop everything, rush on home, to take care of things while I cowered in the bedroom with the dog and the cat.
Big breath. I screwed up my courage, did as my husband suggest and pulled out the fireplace insert.
And nothing. No bird. A little pile of dirty pink fibreglas insulation lay at the bottom of the firebox along with–was that bird crap? Maybe it wasn’t a bird. Maybe it was a bat. Ha try again. I knew it was a bird. Somehow, there was a bird in the stove pipe and it was above the fibreglass stuffing. I got a flash light and tried to figure out a way to solve this. maybe I could pull out the insulation, but if I did that, I’d pull the bird down on me. I stuck my head in the firebox and craned to see what I could see. Nothing. I could see nothing at all. Nothing save a black hole. I needed help for this job, and that poor bird would have to wait until my husband came home. He’d put the insulation into the pipes and he surely knew where he’d put it.
I took the dog for a walk. I couldn’t bear to stay in the studio and listen to that it try to knock it’s way out of it’s sheet metal prison.
About mid afternoon, I heard a ruckus downstairs. Not the bird surely, this was more noise even that it could make.
Oh my God! The cat was in a panic. The dog started to bark. A large–I mean not your wren or your sparrow, not even a robin sized bird, but a BIG bird was fluttering around in the firebox, stopping now and then pausing to cling to the mesh firescreen.
I called off the dog, grabbed the cat and put them both into a bedroom, closing the door on them. I ran around closing the doors to every room that had a door. I opened all the outside doors. Then cautiously I went back down the stairs. Yes, it was till there, it’s yellow tail feathers spread, its chest heaving. I took a small blanket from the couch. My intentions were to throw the blanket over the bird, pick it up and put it outside. Cautiously I pulled back the fireplace screen. In flash the bird was past its edge and in the air.
Stupid, stupid me. I should have closed the window shutters. It slammed hard into the window. Its poor beak was seriously bent out of shape. Again I tried with the blanket, and this time I caught it. Darn good thing, because I don’t think either of us could have taken much more.
Holding it as gently as I could, still in the blanket, It carried it outside. My intention was to set it on the lawn. Its feet never touched the ground. Zoom! It was gone.
So okay, I guess it wasn’t a HUGE bird, but it was pretty big. It turned out to be a Hairy Woodpecker and I’m happy to report that before it zoomed away, it’s beak looked okay again. I guess they’re used to hammering it against things.
Phew! Two close encounters in one day. I may yet get over this phobia.
A few weeks ago I wailed about not being able to paint. I’m not going to tell you that it’s all come back to me and I’m flying. But I am painting, and I’ve been completely immersed in it all week long. Everything is different, the medium, the style, the type of painting, but I’m learning, and I’m old enough to know that learning is one of life’s most important things for me. If I’m not learning, I lose interest and everything is washed over in blues.
Above is a digital piece worked in a painterly realistic style.
My whole art education was about abstraction with elements of either the sublime and/or expressionistic. I feel like a traitor to my education, and my mentors, but man, there’s a whole other world of art out there.