Sometimes it would be really excellent to have access to an art education, but sometimes you have to find a way to educate yourself. At times like this, the answer might come from Jack White, via a squirrel. ‘Take all your problems and rip ’em apart’: isolate, master, and finally, integrate.
Taking a class means you have a structure imposed on you, regularity and routine, and are fed ideas in a logical sequence. But in the event that you are not enrolled in a class, you can still find plenty to chew on, and with enough discipline you can create a solid routine. The important things are to be excited, to follow the trail and to be persistent. Travel affords one the perfect opportunity to get outside and work from nature, eyeballs twitching from all the spectacular new stimuli. But nature is hard: full of bugs, dogs, shrieking children, nosy people, trees, changing light and other painterly woes. One works with an urgency that can be shaken in the private peacefulness of the studio, but at the same time one finds the details mounting, crowding out the picture, looking rushed and untended to. I, for one, include too much, and struggle to keep the main design at the fore of my decisions.
George Clausen, whose Stone pickers (1887) I was fortunate enough to encounter in the Laing in Newcastle, expressed similar pains in his lectures to the Royal Academy (published as Six Lectures on Painting; 1904: 45): ‘Everything in nature is moving—not necessarily quickly, but nothing stands still for us; this sense of life and movement must be given in a picture with the measure of detail which may be necessary, and the result reveals the artist’s mind, showing on which qualities, and in what degree, his attention was fixed.’
So I have happened upon an approach that lets me both practice the elements and work at the broader design. Every afternoon I head out into the world with my sketchbook and choose something to devote my attention to. Perhaps a scene will strike me, and I will sit down for an hour, two, as long as it takes, and interrogate this setting from a design perspective. These drawings are fluid, scratchy, built of simplified masses, and usually paying attention to form, reducing trees to bulbous sphere-based monstrosities, and paying careful attention to perspective in the prisms of buildings. In these drawings I’m developing a notation for three-dimensional objects, as well as forcing them into pleasing arrangements. Many of these drawings go nowhere, but some form the basis of paintings. Mostly, they reveal what the smaller problems are, and demonstrate that tackling an entire landscape all at once is too big a bite just now.
Other afternoons I linger in a sunny park or bunker down by a swamp and draw the trunk of a tree. These organic forms produce surprising twists, and let me explore drawing quite fluidly and more freely than when drawing the figure with its predictable anatomy. Plus, they sit still for longer, so you can while away hours investigating in as much detail as you care to, and never run out of variations. As Harold Speed (1913: 106) reminds us, ‘Nature is the great storehouse of variety; even a piece of coal will suggest more interesting rock-forms than you can invent. … And it is never advisable to waste inventive power where it is so unnecessary.’
Mornings, I like to start with a drapery study. My kind friend Elizabeth has let me pillage her scarf drawer which means I have an endless variety of fabrics—stiff, wispy, heavy, floaty, wiry and bunched—at my disposal. It’s a nice reminder that there’s not simply drapery, but that all fabrics have their own manner of drape; that they bunch differently, fall differently and fold differently. I started out with ‘drapery sculptures,’ complex creatures to test my accuracy. But I got more excited about the puzzles of fabric, and began to explore its incarnations: table drapery, hanging drapery, folded and twisted drapery; the little pockets and cones that form in it. And besides wrapping my head around the ‘mechanics’ of this mouldable form, I found these exercises to be an invaluable means of practicing modelling. My earlier drawings are harshly seeking out the cross-contours; my later ones, even after only a few weeks, are finding a more elegant way to express the softness of the surface of my subject.
And here comes the exciting bit. Having broken all my problems down and gnawed away at them, varying and repeating the tasks, following my nose and trying to solve the new puzzles that arise out of them, I see just how connected they are. For a tree is a person is a drape is a composition. The ripples of the surface of the drapery find their way into my trees, and the muscularity and counter rhythms of human limbs translate into those of trees. The design-oriented sweeps through boughs—always planted firmly on the ground—resurface in the capturing of a human pose, feet rooted just as surely. And a thin piece of cloth has forms as full as any living thing, and is not simply a web of shapes dovetailing together.
As ever, trusty old Bammes accompanies me on my explorations, and a little such guidance never goes astray. For it’s nice to work independently, but it’s also nice to receive tested wisdom and gentle reminders: ‘If skull drawing is not practised as if it were architecture, with a perpetual ordering of primary and secondary aspects—if it is not done with awareness—it will degenerate into nothing more than clever copying and will not provide any gain in knowledge or vision’ (2010: 222).
Clausen empathises further (1904: 54): ‘The student’s greatest difficulty is to find himself; what it is that he really wants to express.’ He observes that we are more inclined to seek our place amongst our contemporaries, to stay attuned to current creative trends and market-driven demands. But Clausen urges the student in her ‘search for general principles:’ ‘He should try and arrive at principles, and to that end study also the work of the old artists, who have travelled the whole road; depending on nature for his inspiration, while referring to them for guidance.’ Clausen suggests a delicate balance between personal encounters and struggles with the natural world, with observation and private deduction—just as a mathematician might privately prove axioms to himself as a sure footing for further creative problem solving—and a devoted study of the masters. In this light it is not simply a dreamlike privilege to be in Europe, with daily access to world-class galleries, but a minimum requirement of the student of art. One does oneself no favours by remaining in a cultural backwater, relying only on reproductions in one’s investigations into the great work of the past. Clausen (1904: 54) argues that such study gives us a belt of tools—of insights, ideas and trains of thought—to bring to our own battles of taming nature to the canvas. ‘For we train ourselves to see and understand, by studying the work of the masters, which help us to form our judgement before nature.’
This idea that we distill the principles for ourselves is, to my mind, paramount. No master of any field simply reads the elementary textbooks and gets on with making bold discoveries. Many a physicist has divulged to me that they have returned again and again to the foundational principles, oiled their minds with them, looked at them from every angle, picked them apart and pieced them back together unaided, and, after a number of years working on highly abstracted concepts, have seen these principles in a new light as their specialised understanding deepens. We need the surest, securest foundation for our endeavours, and however elite and respected and coveted our school, it can never simply feed us such a foundation. We must work through the smallest of problems for ourselves, and make each discovery, have each profound epiphany, at our own hand.
And no less than the mighty Leonardo da Vinci will back us up on this. In his notebooks he admits to being no scholar, but to owing all to the mistress of experience. ‘Though I may not, like them, be able to quote other authors, I shall rely on that which is much greater and more worthy:—on experience, the mistress of their Masters. They go about puffed up and pompous, dressed and decorated with [the fruits], not of their own labours, but of those of others. And they will not allow me my own. They will scorn me as an inventor; but how much more might they—who are not inventors but vaunters and declaimers of the works of others—be blamed.’ (1888: 16-17).
In having the humility to search out general principles for ourselves, and becoming familiar with them inside and out, da Vinci argues that we will face our creative problems with clarity of mind. ‘These rules will enable you to have a free and sound judgment; since good judgment is born of clear understanding, and a clear understanding comes of reasons derived from sound rules, and sound rules are the issue of sound experience—the common mother of all the sciences and arts.’ (1888: 19) And so, artist or scientist, let’s not neglect the small puzzles, or rely on others to hand solutions to us. Let’s tear apart and then rebuild our own enduring foundations, one little acorn at a time.
You can snag most of the books cited free online!