Of past selves

Breakfast, Edinburgh © Samantha Groenestyn

Until this week, I had the idea that I make two types of art: small and quite stylised illustrations in gouache on paper, and large and quite realistic paintings on canvas. In fact, my large paintings have been neglected this year, unsurprisingly, since I have been fairly prolific in my illustrative output. I pulled out an old unfinished one on the weekend, one that would have been part of a series of pre-illustration pieces depicting breakfasting friends in Europe. I’d started it in acrylics, since I’d never learned to use oils until starting at the atelier, so I dusted off my old acrylic paints and set up on the veranda and worked solidly on the rather sizeable piece—about a metre by a metre and a half.

The trouble, of course, was that this painting existed in some distant, dark-aged past, and while my untrained self had managed to reproduce things like shadows and planes in a near-enough sort of fashion without having any real knowledge about such things, trying to go back to this old painting was just maddening. My past self certainly wasn’t kind to my later selves: my drawing was hasty and inaccurate, the perspective dire and my brushwork (most likely due to the quality of my brushes) abysmal. I tried to repaint sections, neatening up the lines and coverage, paying more attention to planes. When it came to painting an entirely untouched section, I realised what a liability the cheap acrylic paint was, and the (probably cheap) surface: the paint would not stick, it went on patchy and rough. I wrestled with it for two solid hours, and then I stepped back and surveyed my efforts. I felt suddenly at ease: this painting is not to be—not this way, not now. Because I don’t paint this way anymore. Breakfast, Copenhagen might resurface as an oil painting or as a gouache painting: either way, it will rely on sturdy draughtsmanship, careful brushwork, informed anatomy. But this painting can’t be salvaged, and I’m going to feel very relieved to remove the canvas from the frame and dispose of it accordingly.

The most significant thing I’ve had to admit to myself is that illustration has become my main art form. I didn’t feel I thought of it that seriously, despite having thrown myself into it so vigorously, and I felt I always had my other kind of painting, but this isn’t the case. Perhaps I ought to think more deeply about what kind of painting I most want to do, and most want to be recognised for. I enjoy illustration, and love that it can be in people’s lives and is in many ways less intimidating than art gallery art. Perhaps best of all, it has forced me to explore subject matter I wouldn’t have approached otherwise, and to explore qualities not associated with realism: distorted textures, imposed patterns, amplified colours and simplification of forms. Illustration may have just saved me from a creative rut. It brought my imagination to art, something I was always afraid of in my aspirations to be a human photocopier.

I certainly won’t be abandoning illustration anytime soon; I’m throwing myself into it harder than ever. I’m thoroughly enjoying this part of my artistic career. But I’ll be making sure to make time for the type of art that is really what I’m about.

And so: to celebrate art of bygone eras, I’m pleased to share that I’m displaying my Breakfast series for the entire month of November at SOL Breads in West End, Brisbane.

Breakfast, Paris © Samantha Groenestyn

Breakfast, Paris is of two Australian girls, Melinda and Sarah, whom I met in Paris and even spent some time in London with. We shared many a croissant in the sunny window of our Montmartre hostel.

Breakfast, Edinburgh (above) is a portrait of my free-spirited Scottish friend Judy, a wee sprite of a girl. We worked together at a bar, and spent some time in bars in Italy. Her approach to life is so chilled, but so adventurous.

Breakfast, Berlin © Samantha Groenestyn

Breakfast, Berlin is a painting of my favourite friend, quantum physicist Nathan, playing guitar at ‘the guitar café’ in Prenzlauerberg after 2 crepes. I love that his future self seems to be sitting behind him. Closed time-like curves, anyone?

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Crafternoons

I don’t really do downtime. I do craft. I made some stuff. Do you want to see it?

This blouse began life as a test project when I started to worry that I was cutting my glorious Liberty fabric from Paris too small. I popped down to Spotlight and picked up some heavy cotton broadcloth in this colour that makes me think of vintage soap and other wholesome things. I then spent a bizarrely meditative afternoon carving a sleeping cat image into half a potato and laboriously printing it onto a couple of metres of the stuff. I began to doubt my sanity, but I felt soothed and had managed to stop being over-stimulated for several hours. I’m not much good at slowing down my mind.

Instead of catching up on sleep, I spent my day off sewing this fabric into the blouse, pondering over the intricacies of the pattern. This was also very relaxing. My mum always sewed when I was younger, she made herself all her fancy outfits for weddings and such, and she made me custom spin-out skirts to fulfill my ballerina fantasies. I would make doll clothes and hat-shaped pin-cushions with her, copying her or making it up as I went. In high school I found out one could take classes and be shown how to sew, and demanded I be enrolled in such a class at once. I took sewing classes for three weeks, one evening a week, and produced two skirts, learning to set a zip, apply facing and treat seams. I learned that ironing is the key to sewing. Mum pronounced me a certified seamstress and took me out of the classes. I figured out buttonholes from her sewing machine instruction book, and the rest is history.

I also taught myself colourwork knitting. My nanna sees the things I knit and asks me, ‘Where did you learn to do that?’ The truth is that she taught me when I was six, and my oma taught me the purl stitch not long after, and pretty soon the internet came about I suppose, and I could YouTube most anything I cared to learn. It took a little fiddling about to work out how not to get holes when stranding your colours, and, indeed, how to strand them behind the knitting so they sit neatly and don’t get hooked on things, but I think I’ve got the hang of it.

The wool of my Sheep Heid is particularly exciting to me. I ordered it directly from a Victorian mill that goes by the name of The Jolly Jumbuk. Kate Davies designed this tam to be made from the nine natural Shetland sheep shades, but I did a little research to find out if an Australian equivalent existed, given, you know, our extensive sheep population. Jumbuk sell undyed wool in four shades, and several different weights; I’ve used the finest weight (5 ply) and adjusted the pattern to use less shades–a very easy substitution that loses no details, only perhaps has less subtlety in the transitions. The most delightful thing has been that each wool has its own quality–the darker wools are quite course and bristly, and the cream is by far the softest. The slate is especially marled in a way the others are not. All of them are quite irregularly spun, but I suppose this adds to the rustic feel. Now that I’m knitting with fancy wool from some other part of the world again, I realise that the Jumbuk experience is quite unrefined, but I like it for that. One feels closer to the sheep, even if the result is less polished.

And I made a table. I like to paint at it on the veranda now that it’s blisteringly hot again, preferably with iced bubbly water or (non-iced) wine. The wood came from an old bookshelf bedhead that I salvaged on curbside collection week, and the trestles and stools were my first ever Ikea haul.

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Titanium

I’m exceedingly happy to announce that I will be taking part in a group show at The Box in West End next month. The Box is an exciting new venture in Brisbane that, as I understand it, seeks to bring creatives of all different disciplines together in true Brisbane cross-pollination fashion. The space stood for some time as Box Vintage, and has resurfaced as a gallery space, music venue, performance space and all-around party station. You can read up on the motivations behind The Box on The Native Press. I can’t express how excited I am to be a part of it.

I’m also thrilled to be sharing the night with my friend Nadia Raineri, the talented alter ego of Minuscule Designs. We’re working hard on some new works that (if all goes to plan) are a little off-kilter and a little bit surreal. Jonathan Ford will be providing some tunes, and the Mirror Mirror (modelling) Agencies folks will be doing their tall, beautiful thing. (Plus I hear that The Box has recently acquired a grand piano, and this makes me a little weak at the knees.)

Consider this your invitation!

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Art as philosophy, or, I am going to marry Bammes

I am rapidly descending into an all-consuming art obsession. Not content to pass my time in simple painting frenzies, I’m taking more drawing classes and beginning to investigate anatomy. Ryan has introduced me to my new love: Gottfried Bammes. Ryan loaned me his German copy of Bammes’ Gestalt des Menschen for a while, and I declared I would never give it back unless he demanded it back, then was overcome by an all-consuming desire to have a Bammes of my own. Yesterday, my shiny new (English) copy of Bammes arrived by post, after a day of struggling with a painting study of an arm and hand that left me exhausted.

The main difference between my artistic method now and my self-taught method of the past is that I don’t simply copy shapes as I used to. This is difficult to explain, and it was initially difficult for me to grasp that it was possible to draw or paint in any other way. I have painted many a painting convincing enough to the untrained eye which skims unsearchingly over an image, taking in only the overall effect. It’s easy enough to do: one merely looks at the subject or the photo to be painted, carefully imitates the flat shapes in the correct colours, and pieces them together like a patchwork quilt. Some shapes are inexplicable—it’s not at all clear from the photo what they are, but if you are true to their two-dimensional outlines and get the colours and tones near enough, the eye fades out this lack of visual information and the picture simply works.

The day it dawned on me that I was copying flat shapes, ignorant of their meaning, was a big day. My first realisation was that I drew and painted shapes more intuitively than lines, and that I merely used lines to divide up shapes, and was not in fact making linear constructions. This knowledge slowly opened up to the realisation that I was still blind to the object (or subject!) in front of me: Ryan encouraged me to draw contour lines wrapping around the body I was drawing, and I found myself stumped until I picked up a useful tin can lying about the studio. ‘I’ll explain it to you,’ my newly enlightened self announced to Ryan, tilting the tin slowly in the air to mimic the torso, arms and legs of the sculpture in front of us. The sculpture’s limbs tilted away from or towards me, and my eyes either looked down on or up at the tilted forms, changing the direction of the contours accordingly. The scales fell from my eyes—I was looking at a form and no longer at a shape. The body has a depth I could never see in any meaningful way before. ‘The job of artistic anatomy is to clarify the nature of details, which has nothing to do with mindless copying,’ argues Bammes (p. 11), as he deftly injects meaning into those forms.

Bammes has some beautiful ways of describing the powerful experience that is drawing the human form: ‘When we draw people,’ he opens his book Complete guide to life drawing*, ‘we are growing towards others and ourselves and we reveal things that were lost before to our fleeting glances and inaccessible to our experience’ (p. 10). I think to my reflections the other day on Hannah Arendt and her idea of performative action, the kind of tasks that exist in process rather than output, that are ends in themselves. I am so careless with my drawings at the atelier that I have laboured over many an hour—I crumple my pages and smudge them and feel no real pain at this. These drawings, for me, exist in the experience. Their true value is in the doing of them, the intersection of pencil and paper and mind at a point in time. The finished drawing is a sort of record of that experience, but it cannot be recaptured by someone simply viewing it as a nice picture. I have accessed something through the experience of drawing that one cannot access by viewing alone. I am satisfying that practical side of me that wants to devour the world by doing. One can study academically with vigour, but to study with one’s eyes and hands is an entirely different way to come to terms with the world.

Bammes has a beautiful way of wording this, too: he writes of ‘thinking visually’ (p. 11). Graphic design places a lot of emphasis on ‘visual communication,’ and the profound power of imagery as a communication tool. But thinking visually is a deeper, more personal thing. It is like philosophy that transcends words. And (to me at least) philosophy is not about impressing people with outlandish concepts, but about making sense of the world and one’s place in it. In art I have found a purer philosophy.

Bammes, Gottfried. 2010. Complete guide to life drawing [Menschen zeichnen Grundlagen zum Aktzeichnen]. Trans. Cicero Translations. Search: Kent.

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Cigar box show

Venezia © Samantha Groenestyn

This brave little guy is on his way to Melbourne to be a part of the Illustrators Australia annual 9×5 exhibition. He’s a little different to my usual offerings–he’s painted directly onto wood, completely unprimed. I love the way the wood licks up the gouache paint and alters the colour, and sometimes the texture. This show is a throwback to the 1890 cigar box exhibition held in Melbourne by the Heidelberg artists. The theme this year is Carnivale, and I can’t stop painting European street scenes, so I’ve whipped up this vibrant little Venetian one.

If you’re in Melbourne and you’d like to go check up on him, have a few drinks, and see some roving carnivale artists, the opening night is Friday 9 November from 6pm. All paintings go to auction at 8pm. The show is right in the city–Space 39, Level 2, 39 Little Collins Street. You’ll be able to visit the gallery over the weekend between 11am and 4pm as well.

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Art and the human condition

Kleines Cafe © Samantha Groenestyn

I’ve been spending more time at the Atelier of late. I’m taking an extra drawing class with Ryan, and I managed to squeeze in a tutored life drawing class with Scott Breton. The guys also throw a respectable barbeque of a Saturday evening, and invited me to an artist floor talk and exhibition in Noosa the following Friday, and all in all I’ve been avoiding all other social engagements in order to be a giant art nerd, having impassioned discussions about George Lambert and leafing through sizeable John Singer Sargent book collections.

Conversation delved particularly deep at said barbeque. I learned that Scott was in a former life a scientist, and (re)turned to art after realising that one does not become a scientist and cure AIDS, but one becomes a small cog working in a highly specialised area. Art is the inverse of this: perhaps the only career that allows one to indulge oneself, to preside over one’s own work. Which is not to say that Scott abandoned his true calling—his artistic skill is finely tuned and nothing short of incredible.

The view from the top of my street–the jacarandas are blooming

Scott’s adamant claim is that art and science are inherently linked, demanding similar skills and thought process and stimulated by the same experiences. This seems obvious to me. While I didn’t pursue science, I did pursue philosophy, the ‘king of sciences,’ and in large part because I felt it united the two currents running through me. I will likely never be a physicist, but my analytical mind thrived on physics in school, and it was the education system which forced me to narrow my pursuits. In senior high school I could only manage to narrow down my interests to these classes: maths, physics, English, music and art. I only have to look at J, working in quantum physics, who spends most of his time doing some very creative problem-solving acrobatics, staring about himself intensely as he draws new connections and generates idea after idea. These fields are not disconnected.

Having felt like I’d justified the role of the artist in my own mind, it distressed me to learn that Scott battles with the notion that art might not be a valid pursuit. We talked about footballers, and how, though we can’t empathise with their goals or desires, we can accept their place in society (though perhaps not their financial place in it as somehow far above that of mere mortals). But here is an accomplished artist of great skill doubting his contribution to the world. It’s not because the world doesn’t financially acknowledge his work (though that might be a nice place to start), or even because his work hasn’t resonated strongly with people—rather, it has. It seems that the crux of the matter is that art has no function. A carpenter makes an artefact, but it is a useful one. A painter makes an artefact that does nothing more than bring beauty into the world.

Hannah Arendt writes extensively about different active pursuits of humanity in her book The Human Condition. She calls them labour, work and action. By her scale, art is a measurably higher pursuit than mere practical labours, for just this reason that it is not tied to such functions. The catch, of course, is that the type of work she categorises as labour is in fact more highly prized in the modern world. To describe our society as consumerist says nothing other than that ‘we live in a society of labourers’ (p. 82)*. Labour stems from our physical needs, encompassing all activities we undertake in order to support ourselves as any other earthly creature must:  obtaining food and shelter and so on. Labour’s clear goal is to sustain life, though its products are all consumed in attaining this end. Labour is simply a means, then, and therefore instrumental, and we value its products instrumentally rather than for themselves (pp. 79-84; 110-11). A table is only valuable in so far as it makes a suitable resting place for plates of food or for working at, and the carpenter’s work is thus validated.

Arendt’s second category, work, captures our efforts to create something lasting, and art falls into this category. Rather than being consumed like the products of daily life—clothing made to be worn until worn out, couches made for everyday use, food to be eaten—these artefacts are meant to outlive us and to continue on as something of a legacy (pp. 137-8). Her third category, action, transcends even this—it is rather the process, the performance, the experience, and art can be these things, too (p. 198). The countless life drawings and studies that are repeated for the sheer process and not as final drawings belong to this category.

The point, then, is that Arendt has given a lot of thought as to why things that lack functions, or have less obvious functions, might in fact be more valuable: they are what make the human condition something special. Our culture values physical necessities like any other unenlightened creature, lavishing praise on those who concentrate on ‘making a living.’ It doesn’t respect the place of workers like artists who contribute nothing of necessity. But it ought to: such work sets us apart as human.

Perfect weekends for bike rides and picnics by the lakes

* Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958).

 

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For the Winn

Snowflakes, Paris © Samantha Groenestyn

My friend and fellow illustrator, Nadia Raineri, and I recently banded together to put on a joint exhibition in Winn Lane, Fortitude Valley. I’d been approached to be part of a larger amalgamated big-top affair of fashion, music, design and art, a recent American import to Brisbane that goes by the name of RAW and purports to promote independent artists in an independent manner—but, not having the fortitude to stomach having myself filmed saying, ‘I’m a RAW artist!’ nor to bother my friends and relatives with the prepurchasing of $15 tickets, I passed this up and got on with the actual independent method of organising a show with a small band of friends and acquaintances. Winn Lane puts on a monthly event to showcase local creatives and to attract people to their cute-as-pie neck of the woods, and graciously agreed to host our pop-up show. It doesn’t get much more grassroots than that.

© Kaitlyn Fitzpatrick

Nadia was very secretive about her works, but had nothing to fear: her intricate black and white pen drawings—stippled, lined and washed—were striking and inviting, with slightly offbeat subject matter—authors, messy rooms and vintage cameras and bikes—that exuded a quiet intimacy and a certain solemnness. All framed in black, they were pitched well against my own bright paintings all framed in white, such that we presented a complementary wall of illustration.

© Kaitlyn Fitzpatrick

I held onto many newer, unseen paintings for the show, half of Brisbane and half of Europe, mostly exploring the crevices of cities. Since moving back to Brisbane just over a year ago, I’ve been thoroughly in love with the place, and indulging my passion for it in paintings and drawings. It’s important to me to embrace the place where I am, and to wholly own it—to call it and no other place ‘home.’ When I left Brisbane last year, for a brief and unsuccessful sojourn to Canberra, I was determined to claim Canberra as home, but my efforts were thwarted. Brisbane, Round Two, thus cemented itself in my heart as a true home, neither my birthplace (Sydney) nor the place I grew up (Far North Queensland), but my true stomping ground. I don’t think I’ll ever get it out from under my skin.

© Kaitlyn Fitzpatrick

Painting Europe has been difficult—it is both an escape and a torment, because I cannot be there right now. I slip into my ever-vivid European memories and elaborate on old photographs, injecting my paintings with colours and patterns that recreate the happy dizziness of travel.

© Kaitlyn Fitzpatrick

The Valley—a creative hub of Brisbane—turned out to be a fortuitous place in which to stake one’s artistic claim. I’ve even been noticed by The Weekend Edition: Thank you, Emily Nelson, fellow illustrator and also photographer, for sharing the glittering evening in a local online sheet.

❤ Brisbane

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