The perfectionist

The time traveller propositions his past self © Samantha Groenestyn

The time traveller propositions his past self © Samantha Groenestyn

The apologetic cry, ‘I’m a perfectionist!’ is repulsive to me: a virtuous-sounding excuse for failing to complete a work, or failing even to start because one cannot put something aside and move on to newer projects. I want to contend that perfectionism can be disastrous because it begins at the end, and unjustly weights the final product as more valuable than the process of getting there. This is not to say that the outcome of a work is irrelevant, for ultimately we are hoping to contribute lasting and pleasing things to the world, to the utmost of our abilities. But the artist must keep both the end and the means in mind. Secondly, I want to contend that perfectionism, if it is to have any merit, ought to be a private quest, locked safely in the mind of the artist. She ought to be able to evaluate her own work, to engage in ruthless self-reflection, in order to improve her work rather than stall it in the paralysis of self-doubt. I see no place for this self-critique out in the open, begging for the validation of others.

Flayed Mikes © Samantha Groenestyn

Flayed Mikes

I read a nice little story about students making pottery, where half the class was graded on quantity and the other half on quality. As it transpired, the half that had churned through a large volume of work, evaluated it, reconsidered their approach, discarded previous efforts and tried again, ended up producing the more consistently higher quality work. This isn’t a bald argument for quantity as a guarantee for randomly producing a masterpiece; it illustrates, rather, that time, dedication, risk-taking and self-reflection are necessary to improve. This may happen over the course of many works or in the fearless refinement of one. Perhaps working over many works has only this advantage: One learns to let go, and to not let everything rest on the success or failure of a single piece.

life drawing

An enlightening book by David W Galenson, Old masters and young geniuses, describes the heartless method of the sculptor Giacometti: his unrelenting revision of his sculptures usually took the form of ‘completely destroying and recreating them. He did not feel it necessary to preserve most of his efforts because he considered them failures’ (2006: 119). Jean-Paul Sartre, a friend of Giacometti’s, recalled, ‘I like what he said to me one day about some statues he had just destroyed: “I was satisfied with them but they were made to last only a few hours”. … Never was a matter less eternal, more fragile, nearer to being human’ (p. 119). Despite his harsh self-criticism, Giacometti was not incapable of getting out of bed in the morning and setting to work. This is because despite not achieving his end, he saw the importance of each step toward that end. The creation of each smashed-up sculpture was indelibly imprinted in his brain: the sculpture itself need not continue, for its real value lay in the knowledge gained during the making of it.

life drawing

And so it is with studies of any kind. Drawings that search out anatomy, or rhythms through the body, or that simply train the hand into a steadier hatching technique: these drawings might be pleasant enough to look at, but their real value lies in the marks hatched into the mind of the draughtsperson. Learning art is physical; it is bound up in the making of art, not in the theorising about it. And an outlook that every piece must be finished, polished, perfect, can inhibit the exploration, the risk taking, and perhaps stall the regular habit of simply drawing. It is worthwhile to take pieces as far as you possibly can. It is also invaluable to practice starting, to practice seeing the whole, to rehearse difficult fragments again and again.

portrait

This is how the perfectionist really works: smoothing out those rough patches, actively seeking out gaps in her knowledge, testing herself and starting again. Because privately, she knows her limitations, and confronts them day after day. But publicly, she can be proud of her efforts, and confidently lay out her failures without a hint of self-deprecation: These works are the best she can offer as a result of her dedication and discipline, and her mind is already fixed on new challenges, building on what was gained through these humble but infinitely valuable failures.

life drawing

 

Galensen, David W. 2006. Old masters and young geniuses: The two life cycles of artistic creativity. Princeton University Press: Princeton.

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Home and away

Un regal pour les yeux © Samantha Groenestyn

I frequently itch to travel. Leaving behind all those weights we tie around ourselves, stretching our legs, exercising our brains and our tongues, memorising new maps and trying out new words. Seeing the limitless unseen things, tasting the untasted, pouring all the raw sensations into hurried drawings and writings. Meeting new faces and learning new philosophies, talking it out by rivers or over campfires or over beers in smoky bars.

It’s hard to feel content at home when so much is waiting, like a word on the tip of a tongue. But then I remember that opposite pull that I feel when I travel—that desire, not to be at (my) home, but to be stationed, based, established. When one is established, one can work. No longer limited to dog-eared sketchbooks and simple pens, one can drag out an easel, spread out paints and turps, plug in the sewing machine and invest in detailed projects, and best of all, read fifteen books at once. Books on philosophy, books on French intellectuals, books on language and books on graphic design. Books on artists, books on colour theory and the science of light, books on history. One can study, and, better, one can apply that new knowledge and create endlessly, on any scale. One can load up one’s car with materials, go to classes on a regular basis. Travel often provides that spark, suggests new avenues to explore, prompts the acquisition of new languages or provides new material for paintings. But home is the place where you can get down and work day after day and really produce something.

As Maira Kalman, renowned illustrator and writer, concludes of life: there is love and there is work. ‘How do you spend this time without perpetually being so brokenhearted about saying the eventual goodbye? I usually say in the end, okay, it’s love and it’s work. What else could there possibly be? What do I want to do?  What is the most wonderful thing I could be doing, and who are the most wonderful people I could be with?’ It’s hard for me to shake the idea that there is also place, and I think place is fundamental to my being—to my work and to my love. Travel lets us explore new places in which to be—perhaps for the long term—and we need to find our physical place as well as what to do and who to do it with.

What overwhelms me most of all is that I consider there to be so many things crucial to living that I cannot find the time for them all. I can’t get by only speaking English! That limits me to particular places. I can’t rely on my untrained artistic ability—I need to learn to use new materials, and to understand the particulars of light and tone. I need to understand people, and ideas. Then I start to feel like Henri Perron in Simone de Beauvoir’s novel The Mandarins, who feels that he can’t continue to edit his newspaper L’Espoir (‘Hope’) unless he has a complete grasp on the world(p. 153-4):

‘Well, I’ll just have to start working at it,’ he said to himself. But if he really wanted to extend his knowledge, it would require years of study. Economics, history, philosophy—he would never be done with it! What a job! And all just to come to terms with Marxism! Writing would be completely out of the question, and he wanted to write. Well? … ‘What I need is time!’

When travelling, we have all the time in the world. Time to wander along the Seine, in and out of bookshops and ice creameries, time to contemplate passers by from benches. But we lack resources. When we have resources, we are battling schedules and weekly events.

I think that all there is to do is to keep on working. Keep pushing ourselves to learn, keep pushing ourselves to produce. Jack White muses that ‘inspiration and work ethic ride right next to each other. … Sometimes, you just get in there and just force yourself to work, and maybe something good will come out.’ And if you go beyond just showing up and really make things a little hard on yourself, the tension that you build can produce that spark and make something happen.

Brain Pickings pointed me in the direction of these interviews with Maira Kalman and Jack White.
‘Un regal pour les yeux’–a feast for the eyes. A Parisian sent me off to explore the labyrinthine flea markets of St Ouen in the north of Paris, and they did not disappoint. I wanted to convey the alluring decayed splendour of the markets. Europe could almost survive solely on selling its old junk to the rest of us!

 

News: I’ve cobbled together a sweet collection of drawings I did in Europe, many of which you may have seen on my website, into the Tour of Europe non-sketcher’s sketchbook. The covers are hand-stitched in three different fabrics and there’s room for your own musings. Grab one from my Etsy shop.

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Narrative

Kichi-Ba Tea House © Samantha Groenestyn

Frank Chimero’s* thoughts on narrative and fiction have been on my mind lately. And not only the melancholy French literature kind of narrative. I’ve been struck by the idea of visual narratives—of pictorial untruths that grasp something within the viewer and beg the viewer to close the circuit, finish the story. An illustration can enhance words, it can be more verbose than words, but it can also leave clues—cues, perhaps, for the intelligent viewer. It has always been important to me to treat people with respect as though they are intelligent and thoughtful beings, whether or not they really are. Sometimes saying all the things is saying too much and ruins the subtlety.

Chimero (p. 81) argues that for a ‘work to resonate and propagate, narrative becomes an essential component to design, because nothing moves as quickly and spreads so far as a good story.’ He illustrates the connections that arise between people through narrative through a particularly illuminating story about his design students. When asked to strip back their designs to simple-coloured geometric shapes expressing specific emotions, the students began to fill the gaps left behind by omitted typography and images with their own stories about what the yellow triangles were doing, what kind of music the blue squares were listening to, and how they felt. ‘After a critique,’ reports Chimero (pp. 84-85), ‘the take-aways were always vague in words, but wonderfully specific in consequence.’ Through the most simple visual media possible, these students had communicated something meaningful in their collective storytelling. While fascinating in a design classroom context, in the conversations between those who know the punchline, how can we bring this narrative element into still pictures that make their way into the world beyond?

‘All stories…are changes over time, so if you pay attention to what changes, you’ll find the point of the story,’ argues Chimero (p. 85). ‘This also implies that if we are looking for ways to use the narrative in our work as a design material, all we need to do is ask where the time passes to find the story’s proper place.’ This is evident in visual media like comics, but sequential imagery isn’t the only way to convey the passage of time. It is this idea of considering time that I’ve been thinking about in terms of my illustrations. It’s one thing to depict a thing, but another to contextualise it. A painting of a vintage teacup on a white background depicts a thing of beauty, a thing with a function and a past. A teacup left behind on a table with a teapot and an empty seat is something else entirely. Has someone just left? Is someone arriving?

These clues invite the viewer to speculate, to construct a narrative and—because it’s their own narrative—invoke empathy with that viewer. Chimero (p. 94) has a lovely line about this shift in control over the piece: ‘the designer and audience are now wed in co-authorship.’ He goes on to describe the designer’s role as that of ‘setting good restrictions that act as suggestions, but [to] then step out of the way to see where the audience takes those purposeful limitations’ (p. 95). This extends to illustration: the illustrator sets the visual framework and provides the clues, and perhaps distils them to very refined clues, but leaves gaps within which the viewer may construct the passage of time.

Further, fiction is a kind of untruth—an invention, be it aspirational, mundane or malicious. ‘Every untruth forks reality and opens up a gap between what is imagined to exist and what actually does. Each fabrication creates a second version of the world where the untruth is true’ (p. 67). This is where ethical questions seep into narrative promptings. But while the ability to deceive is ever at our fingertips, Chimero (p. 66) believes that ‘an alluring, productive untruth is frequently what’s necessary to get things going.’ As illustrators, we need not only describe the world around us, but we also have the tools to stretch the imaginations of others, bringing to life counterfactual worlds.

Regional Flavours Market, Southbank

* Chimero, Frank. 2012. The shape of design. Self-published.

Kichi-Ba Tea House is a memory painting for Michelle, owner of the erstwhile tea house. Full of ideas and guided by her excellent taste, Michelle is no doubt plotting her next venture, but I’m sure she’ll always remember this one fondly.

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What matters and why it matters

Pumpkin-like berries growing outside my window: (a) from life; (b) distilled

 

 

I’ve always viewed money as an enabler. ‘Mum,’ I would reason as a teenager, ‘I want to get a job, so I can buy a guitar and get lessons.’ My mum would tell me to stop worshipping money and that I could start guitar when I ‘finished’ piano (my mum is not a musician). Of course, there are always ways around not having money, and my resourceful younger self managed to borrow a very lovely guitar from my uncle when he went away for a month, and to seek instruction from kids at school. I took it from there. Essentially, lack of money frequently stood in the way of my doing things as a child, and I have thus always viewed having money as the prime means of doing things, if you want to do them properly. Borrowing will only get you so far.

On leaving university rather recently I had the vague notion that I would sell myself in some mildly obnoxious manner to obtain vast quantities of money, perhaps for four years, saving furiously, and that I would then take myself to Europe, rent a sparse inner-city altbau apartment with ceiling-high windows streaming cold sunlight in, and that I would commence my creative career in financial security. I am certainly not the type of artist who thrives on the smell of piss, hates bathing, or prefers graffiti on my walls, and I saw this looming in my future unless I took specific measures to counter it. This plan fell through. I ‘worked for a year’ (this is how I will bracket off this unfortunate period, dusted under the rug to be forgotten like my other year of toil prior to university), but decided I could not sell my time in this manner, no matter how high the salary.

I now buy back my time by working roughly three days a week in my old area of expertise—waitressing. I work harder now and I earn half as much, but that concept doesn’t hurt as much as it used to. It is simply the price that must be paid to keep some precious hours for your own work. No, what’s bothering me now is that I have to keep a part-time job at all, when I have far more important things to do. Two days does not permit much of anything, especially when you take five classes per week and study three languages at home (and are still trying to ‘finish’ piano).

I’ve always admired people that ‘do too much.’ I don’t know many personally, but I read about them from time to time and know that although I must be crazy, I’m bound to be successful through sheer dedication. Maria Popova,* curator of the brilliant site Brain Pickings, manages to pull it off. Working four jobs throughout university, ‘working for a year’ upon being unexpectedly sent home to Bulgaria from America, and finally taking a lousy job to be able to return to America, Maria must have felt frustrated by time-theft and by the need to work to support a basic existence. Now, as the sole curator of her incredibly intelligent and thoughtful blog, her schedule is no less tight—she absorbs enough information to produce three articles daily—but is no longer peppered with dead chunks of sold-off time, never to be recovered and doomed to be spent on below-capacity tasks.

This is what most frustrates me about my otherwise happy existence: I see my unimpeded future self working at my most productive every moment of every day, producing high-quality content and thinking deeply about meaningful things and adhering to my schedule in a pleasingly strict fashion. I ought to be an employer’s dream, but employers seem unwilling to demand work of this calibre, a point that makes me certain that I am bound for an autonomous career. Instead, I commit to memory whether a person prefers multigrain or white bread, and how much butter they take. This practical work is undeniably useful in keeping people sustained, and rewarding in being directly connected with the results of my labours, and even pleasant in bringing about cheerful communications with my fellow-beings. But challenging and in my field it is not.

Becoming so precious about one’s time leads to dangerous pastimes like avoiding one’s friends a la Benjamin Franklin (via Maria Popova):**

[Franklin] drew up a list of virtues and wrote a brief goal for each one, like this one for Order: ‘Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.’ … If he promised to spend an evening with his friends but then fell behind his schedule for work, he’d have to make a choice that would violate his virtue of Resolution: ‘Perform without fail what you resolve.

This is where we come back to Maria Popova’s adage for selecting content on Brain Pickings: Maria seeks to distil ‘what matters and why it matters.’* Broadly speaking, to meet all the demands placed on us, both those facilitated by money and those required to obtain money, we need to evaluate the worth of each undertaking—including spending solid time with our friends—and remind ourselves why we have committed so much to them. If each has it’s place, we’ll just have to keep at it, reminding ourselves that we’ve already achieved so much in not electing tv, owning a house and amassing truckloads of money above the things that make us hungry for life.

Brazil Cherry © Samantha Groenestyn

* Listen to an enlightening interview with Maria Popova on Design Matters with Debbie Millman, at Design Observer.

** Popova discusses this quote from the book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by John Tierney and Roy F. Baumeister.

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Routine: optimising life

Table © Samantha Groenestyn

Routine is not only reassuring; for me it’s about optimisation. If we can streamline our days, and work our ‘interruptions’ into the day in productive ways, as rewards or refreshing breaks that use the opposite side of our brain, every moment can be salvaged and directed into something useful. It’s like making scones and using all the dough in one hit, by baking the diamond shapes in between.

I had a great routine for my nine-to-five: Rise when the sun hits my pillow, have a snuggle, get dressed, eat, listen to Dutch mp3s on the walk to the train station, read novels on the train, study German over coffee, and go to work. (I won’t bore you with the rest. Mornings really took the cake). The red-haired girl at my café called me ‘Lady’ and knew my order. These things can be hard to let go.

It’s worth letting go, because—even better—you get to construct a new routine! And I like to think I can perfect it each time.

I spend my early mornings studying German in the sunshine in my antique chair in the bay window, and then I read about illustration to get myself in the right frame of mind. I think it’s a mistake to force yourself to crank out art if you’re not feeling it. And for me, nothing makes me want to crank out art more than reading about it, which gets me excited and fills me with ideas.

A leisurely lunch is always important. Rushing around at lunch trying to get errands done or squeeze in grocery shopping only makes you more frazzled. I give myself a long break, and, after a hearty feed, I play piano. Here comes one of the real benefits of routine: practice. If you can work several of the things into your routine, you simply have to get better at them. If you keep at it for a year, you’re going to improve dramatically. If you live another twenty years and keep at it every day, you’re going to be some sort of Meister! So I just keep chipping away at German, learning new vocabulary lists, struggling through children’s novels, and bashing away at my piano, practising blues riffs and fancy chords.

It gets better: In the afternoon I paint. I just sit down for the next few hours and paint away. If I need a small rest, I knit. Rests are necessary, and don’t have to be wasteful. Imagine how much knitting and painting I’m going to get done with these hours built into my daily routine!

Of course, it’s possible that I’m some sort of workaholic freak, or a timelord, but I believe it’s just called time management. As one of my old workmates hilariously applauded me in my farewell card: ‘Thanks for your help with various tasks. You are good at doing all sorts of work tasks—flexible.’ Admit to yourself that you can’t do one task all day, find your pattern and plan your day around it.

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Reality and Nudity

Today I tried out walking around the house naked. It felt strange at first – then I could almost forget that I had no clothes. I wrote, read, played guitar. Then I got a bit cold so I put my clothes back on.

It’s funny how everything is an anticlimax. Even things that aren’t, are. You think I’m being obtuse, but what I mean is that even when something is amazing and excellent, everything you hoped and dreamed, the actual experience of it is always somehow lessened by its own reality.

When you conceive of it in your mind, you conceive of the act in a pure form, just it, nothing else. When you experience the event, reality imposes on you a myriad of other secondary experiences, little things that you wouldn’t have imagined, things that don’t add to the event but are just there, detracting from the event by distracting from it. Reality is not a single experience but a compound one, and we do not experience a single idea in pure form, but the whole reality of it, the idea dressed in the dirty clothes of practical existence.

Then, long afterwards, our memories lose grip on those unimportant details and preserve only the relevant thing, being the pure event, and we are back to viewing it as an ideal form, although now it is better because it actually happened. A dream makes an event possible, then the event is realized, which makes it ugly, but then it is dressed up again for posterity, by our memories, dressed up in the beautifying shroud of time, like makeup on a corpse.

Oops – isn’t that too morbid a metaphor? No, I’m going to leave it there. Aren’t memories corpses after all? The dream of the event is like the dream of a child in a mother’s mind. The life not yet lived is a pure, ideal, beautiful life. The event itself, experienced in the present moment, is ugly and rough. It happens however it happens. The world accommodates a life, the living of it is approximate to the dream, closer to a comedy of errors, striving to touch perfection but always having the perfect edges splintered off by the restrictions of the truth. Then when time is up, the event shifts into memory, no longer able to exist and change and be imperfect, but preserved in a cloudy amber that becomes more cloudy with time, softening the errors and the splinters until the vague image left in the mind is the same as that which would have been left by the perfect event, and we choose to remember it as such.

Perfection is death, because death is the returning of imperfect life to the void from which it came, and the void is nothing, and nothing is perfect. I thought it would be great to be naked. I got naked, and it was okay, but a bit cold, so I put my clothes on. Now I remember the event with fondness, as a great experience. I recommend it to all of you.

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J: Diary of a Physicist

Wednesday

I slept restlessly. There was a party of Chinamen staying down the hall, and at 3am one of them showed up drunk and hollering outside his friend’s door, taunting him in very loud slurred Chinese until he emerged, making angry sounds, and they left at last so I could finally go back to sleep.

It was still torrential rain outside in the morning, to the point where I actually bought an umbrella just to cross the road to eat breakfast. I could have gone to the café near the hotel, for which they offered a 10% discount, but I asked myself: why would I eat crappy food, just to save money for a person who had expressly said to me `I have too much money, I don’t know what to do with it all’, who, in fact, had offered to pay a taxi to take me from Uni to my hotel the previous day lest I should get wet (the thought!) which I nevertheless declined, being partial to a little light rain – no, I would not eat crappy food to save money for such a person, thank you M.

So I went to a hip little café whose name escapes me, where I ate some pretentious vegan toast (of tofu and spinach) and feeling like a holy twat, pranced on to the Uni with my new blue umbrella at the bright hour of eight in the morning, tutting to myself about how late of an hour it was to be getting up.

Of course, nobody else was at Uni at that hour so I was locked out of my temporary office. Somewhat deflated, I pranced on humbly to the library where I tried to act like I belonged there while reading comics on the internet.

The day progressed with speed, as M seemed to be continuously arriving and then departing again to get yet more coffee and food and then coffee again, dragging me in his wake to talk about esoteric things, only to have to go back and write about them on the whiteboard before going out again for a snack.  This went on well into the night, when we eventually had to leave Uni, so retired to Newtown for some cheap pub food. I washed down two schooners while we were there, because they were cheap, and I needed to soothe the cramps in my stomach that I attributed to some rather fishy Japanese food I’d had for lunch.

I hope that you will forgive my descriptions of these gustatory escapades, but they took up an important part of the day (which was otherwise unremarkable) and it was either that or talk about my research, which is going to be hard enough to do tomorrow to a group of physicists without me having to water it down for you lot. Suffice to say that I am a genius, I have it all figured out, and it’s just a matter of time before they realize this and award me the Nobel prize. Then I will be rich, and doing physics only for fun and not for profit. I will even donate physics to poor people, generous soul that I am, except I doubt they’ll appreciate it.

I’m tired and I’m going to bed again. “It really bugs me,” I said to M over hot chocolate today, “how the time just disappears.” This situation is so bad that I am already becoming a bore to my friends for going on about it so often. If only they realized that it was the persistence of my fascination with time that was itself fascinating (persisting, as it does, through time), they would appreciate my point.

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