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Friday, October 31, 2014

Chasing Rainbows

The funny thing about chasing rainbows is that you can never get close enough to actually touch one, without getting wet, and just when you think you have located the rainbow's end, you are too close to see it. Rainbows are a longdistance-only experience. 

Many people embark on the creative life with the hope of making a living from it. They hone their skills and study the market in order to produce a product that will sell. 

Observing the numbers of art school graduates versus those who actually make a viable living with their art, it becomes quickly apparent that those who succeed as professional artists are in the minority. 

Some people study to become artists because the creative life seems attractive, it seems exotic and sexy and cool. They attend gallery openings, they aim to become famous. They intend to become rich. 

This is a trap.

At some point in this sort of creative life of producing art there comes a time when the seduced artist becomes a manufacturer. 

The gallery or the art director says something like "the clients really liked the blue one, can you do more of those?", or "they really liked the blue one but it's too big for their space, can you make a smaller version?", or "they love the blue one, but can you do it in orange to match their sofa?"

The focus of the creative impulse shifts from producing art for your own vision, to producing product to fulfill someone else's vision or needs.

Don't get me wrong, I admit that making a living by making my art is deeply satisfying,  but it is very hard to avoid those traps. 

Art without compromise means taking risks, exploring new and uncharted waters, letting myself be caught up in ever changing and evolving art forms, without fear. 

When I was working for eight years producing my book "Artist Afloat - A Sketch Journal of Britain by Canal" it soon became apparent that in order to make the pages flow with a similarity, a cohesiveness. 

I needed to determine and adhere to a specific palette and style. There had to be unity throughout the hundreds of illustrations for the book.

That proved hard to do, especially as time passed. Each new painting held new revelations for me, and I found it quite difficult to limit my growth to what I had already discovered in the making of the book.

Eventually I made a way to explore my work as an artist and to also keep the book's very many illustrations stylistically consistent.

Before embarking on a new illustration for the book, I made a separate painting just for myself, in a quite different style which reflected my current growth as an artist. 

After this, I went through my ever growing pile of book illustrations, studying them carefully, immersing myself in them. Then I created the next illustration in that style.

By allowing my natural growth as an artist to take form, I satisfied my need for self expression, and then I was free to go back to the familiar styles and techniques of my book. The resulting illustrations had a fresh and vibrant spirit to them without compromising the stylistic integrity of the book as a whole.

In taking the very real risk of being self employed, I was free to grow as an artist, ever trusting that my own creative vision would prove popular with enough souls in the world that I could support myself.

It wasn't always easy. It took about twenty years of struggling and hoping, taking poorly paying jobs on spec, before I finally found that my audience had grown, and commissions for work came with regularity and sufficient remuneration that life was no longer a struggle. 

Never stop chasing your rainbows. Persevere through the hard times, believe in the power of your own vision. Compromise when you must, but to find true happiness as an artist never relegate your work to the mere production of popular sentiment. Follow your own vision. 

Art is not about product, it is about process. That is what sells, the sudden lightening and cracking thunder of inspiration. 

That is the secret which compels customers to buy your work. They perceive in your work something that is ethereal, intangible and immortal.  They want to connect to that. They want to own it.

They too, after all, like all lovers of things that are mysterious, beautiful and true, are also chasing rainbows.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Promises to Keep

Promises to Keep

In my very fortunate life, I have carved out several studio spaces.

1. My big studio in the house is where many different processes take place.

Beginning this tour is an entire wall of white homosote board, a compressed cardboard building material which easily takes pushpins, and when repainted, the holes from the pins magically disappear.

This is my inspiration wall. Postcards, magazine clippings, photos, skeins of hand dyed fiber, strings of beads, small watercolour sketches, almost anything finds a home up here. From time to time I change it, renewing my sources of inspiration. If something remains too long in the same space, I tend to lose sight of it. The juxtaposition of elements on this wall can jumpstart my creative flow.

Next to this is my father's antique oak teacher's desk, with comodious drawers. Try as I may, this surface always becomes cluttered with new additions to the studio that have yet to find their home. Bags of new art supplies, unfiled magazines, random tools, it all lives here for a time before guilt moves me to put them in their proper places in the studio.

To the left of this is a wall of shelves for antique and vintage original sources material: English sketchbooks, scrapbooks and journals from the 17th through 19th centuries, incunabula, Victorian and German die-cut lithographs, calling cards, early photographs, correspondences and ledgers. These are stored in museum quality plastic sleeves and boxes. This space is sacred. Wet media is not allowed here, nor are beverages or food.

Around the corner sturdy shelves hold thousands of fine art and craft magazines, Dover Books and inspirational books on water colour techniques and collage. This counter space is often piled high with resource books and mags that I am currently using. From this space artwork as divergent as t-shirt designs and altered art collage may be created.

Next to this treasure trove are ten feet of cabinets with drawers filled with ephemera, scraps, materials, French ribbons, tools. I try my very best to keep the counter space here clear for the next piece of work. This is where most of the collage art is created. Tiered bakery displays hold the bits and pieces of current projects. Shallow wooden trays are placed in the Elfa basket drawers below so a project can be stored safely in mid-process. Also stored in the drawers are hundreds of rubber stamps, stamp pads, and a wide assortment of papers, from Fabriano watercolour paper to tissue papers. Blocks and reams of decorative papers, blank sketch books, and stacks of loose sheets are kept in these wire drawers.

Around corner are towering paper files. Oversized ephemera, decorative papers, Japanese origami and French tissue paper, almost anything can be found here. There is no organization or sense of order here. I enjoy the random and surprising discoveries I make when sifting through these files. A handy scanner/copier also lives here, so I can use precious antique or vintage images without destroying the originals.

Across the aisle is the bead and jewelry finding storehouse and work bench, where narrow shelves hold open plastic containers of beads. The beads are grouped according to color families and active containers are filled with the parts of specific series of necklaces.

Frequently used findings live in plastic zip lock bags held in place on the shelf edges by glued-on tiny wooden clothespins. Pliers, snips and other tools for this work are stored in ceramic mugs. The work space here is almost always in use. Although it may seem chaotic to visitors, I know exactly where everything is. Small clear plastic drawer units hold my latest finds: jewelry components and beads that have yet to be filed away.

As in the collage station, an office chair mat covers the carpet here so tiny objects which drop to the floor will not become lost in the carpet. I originally wanted to remove the carpet because I adore plain wooden floors, but the cold New England winters persuaded me to keep the carpet for insulation. Elfa drawers under this work space hold trays of works in progress, display trays, and larger tools.

Completing the circuit of the room are ceiling high wall to wall book shelves, Medieval and Renaissance references are on the left and modern craft to the right of the fireplace.

Below almost every work counter, which run around the room on three sides, are my beloved Elfa wire sliding drawer systems, which accommodate paper, materials, tools, and works in progress. This enables me to work on many pieces without taking up valuable work surfaces. It also allows me to quickly locate tools and materials. The wire drawers contain clutter and still permit me to see and be inspired by their contents.

In the center of the room is a large comfy chair and several stacks of books. A cosy lap quilt invites nesting. Next to the chair is a small night stand, where I may safely place a cup of tea without fear of spilling it onto a rare book or painting. A floor lamp with a flexible neck directs bright light over my shoulder for reading. I occasionally change the direction of the chair so I can face new inspirational views around the studio.

Like most artists, I started out on the kitchen table.

Throughout my life, as opportunity and funds permitted, I progressed from studio space to studio space. This current space has been carefully thought out. It is conveniently located in my home, so I am never far from my work, and can respond quickly when inspiration takes me. But it is in a space dedicated to this special use, closed off with a door, so I can feel private and apart, cloistered like a medieval monk, when I am working. No phone, no internet. The mundane exigencies of my daily life need not intrude.

2. My garden studio, a tiny 8x8 garden shed with skylights, a work surface, a comfy love seat and a small book case, is devoted solely to watercolour painting and reading for inspiration. I use a wicker basket to carry my liquid media to and from the studio in the winter. This tiny space is insulated, and in cold weather a tiny electric heater turned on a half hour or so before I settle in here to work keeps me warm.

A miniscule fountain out front provides a peaceful counterpoint to the many songbirds which shelter in the five acre woods behind the studio. This little garden is enclosed on three sides by white picket fences and sheltered on the fourth from the road by the gabled side of the lavender painted garage. A gate keeps out uninvited visitors. This is my quiet place.

3. My narrowboat studio was originally lined out in wood with large windows that leaked, so over the years it was rebuilt with a steel superstructure like the rest of the boat. This, too, is a small space, measuring 6x10. The walls are "tumble home", which means they angle in to a peak at the ceiling starting at about three feet up.

Because this is a boat, care must be taken with open containers, jars and breakers of paint brushes, and anything stacked. Books are tucked into bookcases under the work counters which line both sides of the studio.

Four large portholes and a hatch in the front let in natural light, and there are several lamps for working at night.

This studio is devoted to (surprise!) small works of art, watercolour designs for greetings cards, book illustration, sketchbooks, miniature architectural drawings.

At present I am moored in my permanent central London mooring at Little Venice, in an ad hoc creative colony of other artists, writers, actors, directors, designers, musicians. Each boat is unique and deliciously decorated. Potted plants and tiny garden plots abound making this section of the canal a hidden secret green corridor.

I realize how blessed I am to have these three creative spaces. I have had forty years as a professional artist and writer to build up my work, my reputation, my career.

During these years I have had many studio spaces, in old mill buildings, in art centres which were always open to the public, in spare rooms of my house.

My muse calls to me, and I answer, wherever I may be.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Planned Spontaneity

Spontaneity is best when you prepare for it, when you make it possible to be spontaneous.

If you don't have your art supplies at hand, you can't just pick them up and begin to make art. You must go and look for them, assemble them, pack them. The ensuing search breaks the mood, sometimes irreparably.

I have been diligently attempting to bring with me only my most essential and basic art supplies:

  • My favorite antique Waterman fountain pen, newly filled with ink,

  • My vintage Cadbury candy tin full of watercolor paints in half pans,

  • My favorite brushes and a selection of Japanese water filled brushes,

  • Some pencils and erasers, 

  • My most treasured Victorian miniature wooden t-square,

  • A really nice sketch book or two,

  • A bottle of water, and a small container for the water,

  • Paper towels,

  • A horizontal surface on which to place my paints and water,

  • A sturdy and waterproof bag to hold it all.

Being an art tool and materials addict, it is all too easy for me to accumulate lots and lots of art supplies, but when I am painting outside the studio, I must seriously limit what I pack.

Not only must my supplies be the very ones I need, I must have it all in readiness. My paint containers must be full. My brushes must be clean and ready for their task. My water bottle must be full. I must have a small but varied selection of sketchbooks, different sizes, shapes and orientations, and the paper absolutely must be the finest. An adequate painting on mediocre paper is a struggle, but the same labour on good paper practically paints itself.

So there I was this week, on one of my favorite narrow lanes in London, sitting in a tiny restaurant at a window table looking out on some sweet little antique and vintage clothing shops, and the ever present lovely quintessential English flower shop. It was a scene that cried out for the loving caress of my paint brush.

I glanced at the menu, placed my order, and cleared the table for my work to begin. I reached into my leather satchel for my watercolour sketch book, my tin of paints, and my favorite pen and brushes. It was all there, ready and waiting for me.

I made two paintings, one with the pen sketch laid down first and then I painted over it, allowing the water soluble ink to bleed and run in a delightful controlled chaos, and the second painting with the watercolor applied first, and the pen lines delicately and judiciously applied after the paint dried.

I ate giant green olives and half a hamburger. I drank several glasses of sparkling water. I was there for perhaps two hours for each painting. I generously tipped the waiststaff for their time.

Bliss. Pure bliss.

Planned Spontaneity means grasping the opportunity at hand. I mindfully make room in my day, everyday, for Art. And inevitably a subject will present itself.

I am an Artist, and this is how I do what I do.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Power of the Deadline

We've all been there. We have a piece of artwork that needs to be done, project that needs to be completed, a commission with a specific delivery date, and that date is tomorrow.

There's that strange metallic taste in fear in the back of your mouth when you look at the blank canvas in front of you. There is a sense of desperation as you examine the colors in your palette. There's a feeling of void, a tangible feeling of nothingness, as you reach for something deep inside of yourself and there's not much there.

It really doesn't matter whether it's a paying job with thousands of dollars on the line or merely a promise to a friend, you know that you've got to produce something and yet in front of you there is a big pile of nothing.

I believe in the power of the deadline.

I believe that I know more than I think I know.

I believe that I can do more than I think I can do.

I believe that there is something deep inside of me that can only come out when the deadline approaches.

Yes, I believe. It is a matter of faith.  I believe in me. I believe that all the time, energy and money which I have invested over the years in the development of my talents and skills will pay off at the deadline.

No, I can't explain how this works. I can't tell you how I do it. All I can tell you is that as the deadline approaches and the time crunch begins to crackle, something happens inside of me. Where a month before, a week before, even the day before, I would have frozen in my tracks, now with only a few hours to spare, I suddenly I pick up my brush, and with the merest of glances at my palette, Art Happens. The amazing magic of Art occurs.

I know, I've tried to explain this before. I am constantly trying to understand how this works. But I cannot. Is it some some subconscious percolation of my thoughts and my memories? In all the days that I've been procrastinating and putting off this job until the very last minute, have I really been on some deep level considering how to make this art a reality?

I don't know.

I am asking you to take it on faith. Believe that all you can do as an artist, in fact, the best that you can do as an artist, will happen, just the time when you when need it to happen the most. The urgency of the now forces a creative crisis in which the Art wins.

Maybe I should have posted this is the beginning of the holiday season when we all needed to hear the most. Or maybe I was too busy doing those last minute deadline desperate jobs to write these words down.

Trust your inner artist, and believe in the power of the deadline to make that artist shine.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Yes, It's Three in the Morning.

Yes, it's Three in the morning.

As I slept, a dream unfolded. I was in a quiet garden, reading a book.

It was a book that doesn't exist.

It was unlike any other book. It was a new book, and in my dream I turned each page, savored every picture.

They were photographs, of places and things I have seen. Not the big tourist objects, these were the tiny hidden and overlooked details that are scattered, like little blessings, all about the City.

Most people don't even notice these minutiae, but in my dream book there they were, photographed simply and unpretentiously, several to a page,  and occasionally a full page, so that every miniscule detail could be appreciated.

They were grouped, not by location, nor by subject. They were grouped into ten chapters, each was about a different colour.

As I reached the end of the book and closed the cover, I woke, suddenly. And I knew that this Book did, in fact, exist. It is tucked away in my mind, long dormant but now beginning to rouse. It is My book, and I will commit the next couple of months to bring it into the world. I am gravid with the Idea of a Book.

Yes, it is Three in the morning. And this is, occasionally, the way inspiration comes to me.

Now, I will leave my studio daily and camera in hand, I will search for the contents of My Book.

I am an Artist, and this is how I make my Art.