Just trying to say it right

The struggle (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

There are few people who can both write about art and produce it. I have been cautioned against attempting the superhuman feat of doing both. Undoubtedly, there is a lot of impassioned but mutilated thought that has been scribbled down, and a lot of cleverly strung together ruminations that entirely miss the point of the artwork in question. Regrettably, frenzied vehemence and smooth yet detached theorising tend to be accepted as legitimate encounters between art and writing, as though art ought to infect words with its garbled passions, and as though crystalline categorisations really said the whole of what is to be said about art. An honest, steady, thoughtful middle ground is difficult to attain, but it is this gravity and lucidity that Susan Sontag manages to achieve in her essays on film, theatre and literature. Against Interpretation and Other Essays thrusts us deep into the works in question, considering them, as it were, from the inside. Sontag is both artist and thinker: author and critic; able to love and to measure, to experience and to judge.

The essay. Perhaps, itself, a dying artform. It is easy to dash off an article, a commentary, a review, some quick thoughts, or a summary. But to engage with ideas–whether they emerge from books or paintings or elsewhere–involves something more. It involves a cohesive train of thought, an argument, an insight, a real willingness to enter a zone of intellectual conflict. In the case of writing about art, the essay is a knife, sharpened for the express purpose of permeating the flesh of the artwork to get at what is inside, to taste it, to judge it, to display its qualities for what they are. Perhaps things were ever as dire as they seem to be now: but writing about art, if at all penetrable, is so often vapid promotional cotton candy; sugary teasers that are little more than loosely-clad advertising, slick and professional, treading lightly so as not to crush any toes.

As for myself: Perhaps you have traced my artistic education, observing my first tentative steps into the world of painting, as I respectfully recounted it online. I kept my eyes open, I exposed myself to many things. I thought fiercely and critically about all of it–all of it–I agonised over the disappointments, the ineptitude, the obtuseness, the deception, the sheer ignorance. I think one does not improve unless one learns to discover faults, and can explain why they are faults, and propose ways of addressing them. As an artist, I kept these considerations to myself and applied them in practice. But in writing about art, I maintained a certain reverence. I made a conscious choice to be just, but positive: to focus on the best things.

Copy after Klinger

A curious but probably predictable thing came from this: I was plagiarised. My thoughts found themselves rehashed, sloppily restitched and dimly cited in monstrous word-spaghetti that no longer conveyed the original idea, if any at all. I went to exhibitions where my own words were read back to me, translated into German. It made me consider who has these jobs, and why they don’t know what to say about art. Certainly, artists don’t always know how to write about their work, and that’s why they paint it. But if people who are otherwise proficient writers can’t produce a faithful and insightful piece on a work of art, the problem seems to be deeper. They cannot think about art. They stand before a painting in a distracted panic.

But not all of us do. Some of us approach an artwork attentively, quietly, patiently. We take our time with it, revisit it, think on it. Sontag (1966: 12) is not at all incorrect to say that ‘attention to form in art’ is urgently needed. The formal properties–how colour is used, how strokes are applied, linear rhythms and the balance of shapes–might not be the entirety of a painting, but taking them in is surely the place to start. The little ripples of paint will soon chase away the anxiety, drawing us into a silent and timeless realm, inviting us to reflect. Our thoughts will scurry around with the worries and agitations that we hug to ourselves every waking minute, but these, too, will slow down. A painting is a shy creature, but approached through its form, it might let us near it.

Copy after Claudel

Sontag’s essays, as a collection, make me consider the art I encounter and what is being said about it. I have known highly trained painters, self-taught painters, casual painters, designers, illustrators and conceptual artists across the world. Sontag looked fiercely at the world around her, she wrote about the time in which she lived, about America, about Europe. Her essays are not lighthearted, not necessarily short, not lazy Sunday supplements. They are the product of an active and alert mind wrestling with works that stimulate it or disappoint it and unleash a response. Goodwill is no vice, but the critic, the thinker, has work to do, and goodwill must not cloud the public discussion about art. We came to be impressed, to be stirred, to greet grand ideas–when art fails us, it is not we who should be ashamed, apologetically carrying home our embarrassment at the artist’s deficiency like a tail between our legs. Our critical faculties have not failed us. The art is rubbish.

Sontag (1966: 12) demands a kind of criticism that genuinely responds to art, rather than one that ‘usurp[s] its place.’ Words continue to threaten to replace the artwork, but the situation has grown considerably worse: the words are disposable, interchangeable, unilluminating and cheap. Barely able to capture a coherent thought, they could hardly hope to upstage an artwork. The real threat is whether such vacuous feel-good writing blinds us to art entirely, dulling our sensibilities, subduing our objections. The remedy has been around for some fifty years. We need:

‘Acts of criticism which would supply a really accurate, sharp, loving description of the appearance of a work of art. This seems even harder to do than formal analysis.’

(Sontag, 1966: 13)

The conjunction of sharp and loving is surprising but utterly natural. For how can one love a painting without discernment? How can one withhold affection from a painting that satisfies visually and stirs thoughts even in the silent mechanisms of its construction? Sontag (1966: 14) urges us to recover our senses, and that call is no less urgent now. Once we’ve learned to trust our senses, we must also remember to sharpen our judgements of what we perceive: to be fair, incisive and to demonstrate our love for thoughtful, well-crafted art.

Copy after Veronese

Sontag, Susan. 1966. Against Interpretation and Other Essays. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.




One does not find one’s people wherever one goes. Kindred spirits are harder to find, even among those with common interests. The minds that encircle me—those rare few among the many who draw, paint and write—immediately evinced to me a particular harsh quality, a certain incisiveness of thought, a terrible dismembering inquisitiveness, and an undeniable probity in their search for solid principles, for secure footing. These minds apply their powers to questions in ethics, in quantum mechanics, in political theory, in painting, and in every field they shun the mysticism that sparkles around the unstable ground of chance. For as Baudelaire (1972: 65) would have it: ‘There is no such thing as chance in art any more than in mechanics. A happy idea is no more than the consequence of sound reasoning.’

We were thus irresistibly drawn together by a common inquiring impulse. We formed each other in that especially malleable phase of life, reflecting each other’s ideas and words back at each other, finding common concepts and developing consistent vocabulary. Our ideas were strengthened by this validation, deepened by the many viewpoints, tested and stretched out and proven. We constructed our own language, our own way of speaking about these matters, seizing upon terms from those we looked up to, from books, sometimes importing terms from parallel concepts in our complementary fields. And this language is of supreme importance to people like us: because we demand precision. We preference the specific over the mystical and the vague. Our inclination to pull things apart demands a precise vocabulary in order to speak about the patterns we discover, to organise them and to piece them back together. Our approach might well be considered analytic, since we push onwards by first pulling apart and inspecting the parts, carefully piecing them back together. And when I finally found painters who operated this way, I latched onto them fiercely. Painting profits from this near-scientific precision, though most people would prefer to cast art in with magic. Our precision only turns up more profound questions.


For anyone can throw paint around and delight in improbable new constellations of colour. We revelled in this in purest glee in childhood: ‘The child sees everything as a novelty, the child is always “drunk,”’ Baudelaire (1972: 398) observes, and while this vague dizzy delight is essential, it is by no means sufficient. Our compulsion to understand harnesses this childlike drunkenness and directs it wilfully and powerfully. ‘Genius is no more than childhood recaptured at will, childhood equipped now with man’s physical means to express itself, and with the analytical mind that enables it to bring order into the sum of experience, involuntarily amassed’ (Baudelaire 1972: 398).

Order! How unromantic! Such a cold and diffident regime to impose upon art! Yet why should it be so? The painters I look up to continually show me that there is a way through the nonsensical mess if one pays attention and works systematically, and their work grows in depth and facility day by day, in embarrassing contrast to the stagnation of those who deny it. Richard Wagner’s musical abilities were mistrusted for ‘the very breadth of his faculties and his high critical intelligence,’ (Baudelaire 1972: 340). ‘“A man who reasons so much about his art cannot produce beautiful works naturally,”’ it was complained (Baudelaire 1972: 340). But it is this blind trust in nature that thwarts the intelligent production of art.


This notion of working ‘naturally’ denies that art, too, is work, that it must be learned, trained, cultivated, challenged and advanced. It longs for the subtle result, the piece lightly breathed into existence, the confident strides of an effortless creator. But these are the very refinements that only come with dedicated and focused work. The untrained hand is clumsy. We should not forget that nature, while she surges on with profuse energy, delights in wild, self-devouring frenzy more than subtlety and harmony. ‘Review,’ challenges Baudelaire (1972: 425), ‘analyse everything that is natural, all the actions and desires of absolutely natural man: you will find nothing that is not horrible. Everything that is beautiful and noble is the product of reason and calculation.’ The artist tames nature, moulds nature imperceptibly, crafts mesmerising variations upon it that captivate us precisely because they are tailored to us, rather than wild. ‘Things seen are born again on the paper, natural and more than natural, beautiful and better than beautiful’ (Baudelaire 1972: 402). A sensitive and intentional distillation of nature takes place as the raw materials of nature ‘are classified, ordered, harmonised, and undergo that deliberate idealisation’ by the skilled artist (Baudelaire 1972: 402).

The order we seek to impose is thus not entirely removed from nature. It is rooted in nature, it grows out of a desire to understand nature, and this understanding breeds knowledgeable work. Understanding of muscles and bones brings greater sensitivity to the supple movements of a living, straining body subject to forces. An artist can grow ever more attuned to motion and action, and can make quicker and more economical decisions of how to represent this, favouring eloquent overlaps of tendons here, underlining a weight-bearing limb there, gently bringing out a swelling muscle in preference to a less critical bump, wrapping folds of compressed flesh in sympathy with the stoop and twist of the figure. Order does not extinguish the life of nature. On the contrary: it seeks out the essential life-breathing elements, it searches for the harmony between them, it emphasises unity that would otherwise be lost in the cacophony of overstimulating nature, it reconstructs the world according to highly attentive hierarchies (form over tone, perhaps, and elegance of line over faithfulness to contours, light secondary to volume, atmosphere over crisp exactitude, grouping of shapes of colour rather than fidelity to the infinitude of colour). These choices are wherein the art lies. An artist contemplates the limitless world, re-forms it and returns it to us in a more pleasing arrangement.


This is not to say that there is one mould of beauty, for each artist structures her work according to a different system. And not only that, but we each grapple with the time in which we live. Baudelaire (1972: 403) writes of the two halves of art. One is ‘the eternal and the immovable,’ an antiquity alive and present in every age, but this eternal element does not give itself up so freely, and it is this that the artist must distill from the world. It is embedded in every present, and so in each age it takes on a different guise, it cloaks itself in ‘the transient, the fleeting, the contingent’—this is the other half of art (Baudelaire 1972: 403). The real artist, then, ought not renounce her time; she is tasked with extracting from it ‘the poetry that resides in its historical envelope, to distill the eternal from the transitory’ (Baudelaire 1972: 402).

And what precedes such skill is a certain penetrating type of mind. One must, from one’s earliest childhood, be ruthlessly critical. ‘For a poet not to have a critic within him is impossible,’ states Baudelaire (1972: 340), pitying poets dependent solely on instinct. For our ability to improve depends on our selectivity, on our Urteilskraft, on our powers of judgement. Our eye is not easily satisfied, not out of misanthropy but because one taste of something grand has forever raised our standards. We know what is within human reach, and cannot be content with less. We must be ‘poet and critic rolled into one’ (Baudelaire 1972: 340), or we will fail to make a true estimate of our own work, and fail to discover how to amend it.


If there is one thing Baudelaire has really opened my eyes to, it is this: we must not hold back. While our private critiques have bolstered our position, honed our work and sharpened our faculties, we have worked long and hard enough to stand firmly and speak confidently and clearly. And vigorously. What we say might sting, it might win us enemies, it might ring with insult, we might (like Edgar Allan Poe) become known for ‘a hundred other passages where mockery rains down, thick as shot and shell, and yet remains nonchalant and haughty’ (Baudelaire, 1972: 191). But the strength of our insights demand equally forceful delivery. Baudelaire (1972: 51) spurs us on:

‘Once armed with a reliable criterion, drawn from nature, the critic must do his duty with passion; for critic though he may be, he is a man nonetheless, and passion draws men of like temperaments together and raises reason to new heights.’

So my unapologetic intellectual compatriots subject the world to all manner of analysis, inspect it, dissect it, meditate upon it. They put it back together with fearful insight and dexterity. They bolster their cloudy intuitions with concepts they can name. And, when the occasion demands, they rain down their judgements with precision and conviction. Though mountains and oceans separate us, the common threads of our thoughts stretch like glittering webs across the world, fine but strong, and everywhere we rest we plant the seeds of our ideas. We teach, we challenge, we initiate discussion, we loan books, we drop our words, we work, and small ripples begin to spread across the world.


Baudelaire, Charles-Pierre. 1972 [1842-1860]. Selected writings on art and artists. Trans. P. E. Charvet. Penguin: Harmondsworth, England.


In order of appearance in my orbit:

Thoughtful Wander
Conrad Ohnuki
An Island in Theoryspace
R W Daffurn
Scott Breton



Good art

The October night © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

The October night © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

When one is persistently critical, sometimes people tire of you at parties, and they demand a positive explanation rather than a judgement. I’m in favour of such a broad, visionary task, but it depends on the genuine interest and attention of the questioner, because it is far more demanding and far-reaching than simply dealing with the artwork to hand. Nevertheless, when you are at a party, and someone impatiently drops the question, ‘What is good art, then?’ you feel an immense weight descend on your weary shoulders, and the magnitude of the task makes your beer-soaked brain tremble with fatigue. You scratch around desperately for somewhere to begin, but you are gripped by the certainty that you cannot bring this person to the place where you are— (T. S. Eliot):

And would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
‘That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all.’

Wittgenstein felt the futility of expounding such an explanation. When we talk about the arts, he (1966: 7) says, ‘the word we ought to talk about is “appreciated.” What does appreciation consist in?’ What happens to us when we stand before a painting, and it weaves its spell on us, and the mysterious effects that belong to good art take possession of us? ‘It is not only difficult to describe what appreciation consists in, but impossible,’ Wittgenstein (1966: 7) declares without apology. ‘To describe what it consists in we would have to describe the whole environment.’ He knows that this question is facetious, that the questioner cares little for the totality of the environment, and turns decisively to criticism as a more productive approach. He is correct, of course. But perhaps we can magnanimously respond to the genuine questioner with the beginnings of a broad, positive conception of things that contribute to the ‘goodness’ of art.

Copy after Titian

Copy after Titian

I would propose three categories of ‘goodness’ in painting (my favourite art, you’ll forgive the preference), each of which would demand long treatises to clarify just what their whole environment consists in. But their domains are helpfully distinct. The first is the technical brilliance of the work, the second is its poetic brilliance, and the third is its successful communion with the viewer.

Technical brilliance encompasses an understanding of all the elements of painting: composition, colour, texture, form, line, tone, properties of light, gesture, design, perspective, anatomy—it would be no small task to give an exhaustive list, and to deal with each component in turn. Nathan Goldstein has given much attention to this task, with admirable results. But this colossal body of knowledge is only that which any serious artist applies herself to, and finds that she needs a lifetime to master and to integrate.

Copies after Ryan Daffurn; Titian

Copies after Ryan Daffurn; Titian

It is in this domain that we might speak of a painting as being ‘correct’: ‘A good cutter won’t use any words except words like, “Too long,” “All right.” ’ (Wittgenstein, 1966: 7). And a good painter makes similar corrective remarks at the gallery, consumed as she is by the technical construction of a painting. Thanks to her immense conceit, she can look at any Old Master as a mere human rival, and lament his shortcomings. But we would do well to name her an expert in this domain, since her judgements are based on knowledge of and experience in her craft.

Technical brilliance seems to be in some way evident to non-painters, but perhaps they are unable to explain exactly why. And perhaps, because of this, the real genius of a work will forever elude them. Perhaps they ought to take responsibility for learning something about the building blocks of painting in order to be able to intelligently engage with paintings, and to be able to tell a poorly-constructed painting from a well-constructed painting: ‘We want to be able to distinguish between a person who knows what he is talking about and a person who doesn’t,’ says Wittgenstein (1966: 6) unceremoniously. ‘If a person is to admire English poetry, he must know English.’

Copy after Van Dyck

Copy after Van Dyck

But technical brilliance should be at the service of some loftier aims. Ideally, a painter has such skills at her disposal when she has some profound poetic insight—perhaps in being deeply moved by an observation or an experience. Then she is fully equipped and fully prepared to capture, to notate, to describe that insight. Her work is not simply well-executed, nor merely expressive: like an elegant equation it gracefully and satisfyingly grasps the essence of that insight. It is poetically brilliant for expressing it in an eloquent way. There is nothing forced, or stilted, or lacking; nothing fussy, nothing overstated. All the technical elements that are used weave seamlessly into each other and strengthen each other in a wholly integrated way.

Importantly, as the ever exacting Adrien reminds me, it is not only artists who are capable of such insights. But as he explains his painfully recognised inability to grasp the significance of such moments, of lacking a means of savouring them and perhaps saving them and sharing them, I begin to see that the artist has some responsibility to meditate on these themes on behalf of everyone else. She is no more insightful than anyone else, but perhaps she is particularly attentive to the profound in the mundane, particularly sensitive to the poetic in life, and, as noted, has a means of distilling them into an object, with the aim of planting these insights into souls of others.

Copy after Adriaen de Vries

Copy after Adriaen de Vries

And here is the final measure of ‘goodness:’ the painting’s capacity to work some effect in the viewer. We speak in metaphor: the painting moves us, it touches us. That insight, so poetically captured in the luscious strokes of paint, carried in the marks, is recreated in the mind of the viewer. Wittgenstein is firm in separating the satisfying way something is constructed from the profound way in which reaches into us. He writes (1966: 8):

When we talk of a Symphony of Beethoven we don’t talk of correctness. Entirely different things enter. One wouldn’t talk of appreciating the tremendous things in Art. In certain styles in Architecture a door is correct, and the thing is you appreciate it. But in the case of a Gothic Cathedral what we do is not at all to find it correct. It plays an entirely different role with us. The entire game is different.

Ideally, the good painting, too, transcends its technical proficiency, and does more than record a private contemplation, reaching into the thoughts of the viewer and having an irresistible sway over them, moving the viewer and giving his thoughts a heretofore unrealised expression. And this two-way communion is significant: the painting does not simply implant a thought in the viewer, but merges with the thoughts of the viewer. He needs to close the circuit: he needs to make the connections, be they technical or poetic. He needs to seek out the linear rhythms, acknowledge the deliberate variation of edges, perhaps, or consider the subdued contrast in tone; he needs to recognise with what economy and fluency the picture was created, to read the sure hand of the painter. But he should equally bring his own thoughts to the painting, for it is this private reverie that the painting seeks to connect with.

Copy after Rubens

Copy after Rubens–tracing them connections

We undoubtedly share common mental experiences, and a good painting unites us in savouring the grandeur of these private moments. A good painting speaks for all of us, where ‘es fehlen uns die Worter’—‘our vocabulary is inadequate’ (Wittgenstein 1953: 159). Good paintings constitute a different language for those quiet but shared insights for which ‘we lack the words.’

Copy after Brueghel

Copy after Brueghel

Eliot, T. S. 1966. Selected poems. Faber & Faber: London.

Goldstein, Nathan. 1989. Design and composition. Pearson: Boston.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 1953. Philosophische Untersuchungen / Philosophical Investigations. Trans. G. E. M. Anscombe. Basil Blackwell: Oxford.

Wittgenstein, L. 1966. Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief. Ed. Cyril Barrett. Basil Blackwell: Oxford.


Positive learning


The pace of Vienna immediately imposes itself on me: after the bustle of travel, of train connections and ever-changing beds, Vienna lures me into Kaffeehäuser and time drifts to a standstill. Vienna invites you to think, to take time, guilt free. Our ideas can’t settle in a frenzy of activity, and to return to Vienna means to luxuriate in slow days—enforced late starts, inattentive waiters and friends hungry for deep conversations late into the night. Overwhelmed at the scheming ahead of me, the plans and hopeful ideas, Vienna has lulled me into an unworried place and whispered, ‘Kein Stress; collect your thoughts.’

Schloß Schönbrunn, Wien

Schloß Schönbrunn, Wien

And yet, I’ve kept my hands and mind well-occupied. Shortly after my return, my painter friend Philip arranged a week-long pose with a model. This was an excellent chance to test some of my recent thoughts on memory. During this week I thought a lot about two contrasting modes of learning, which I came to think of as positive and negative learning. Many of my peers in Vienna lack, and desperately crave, a teacher—as do I. Yet our approaches to commandeering our own learning are like night and day. I sat down in the weeks before and wrote myself a plan. I decided what to investigate, how I would go about it, how I would limit myself, and how I would test myself. I set something clear to aim at, and prepared myself to achieve it. I saw that my studio colleagues, meanwhile, were seeking to improve themselves largely by inviting criticism and adapting their work accordingly. The trouble is that everyone has an opinion and these haphazard offhand comments are unlikely to resolve themselves into a harmonious picture.

Oberes Belvedere, Wien

Oberes Belvedere, Wien

I appreciated anew the generosity of my teachers Scott and Ryan in Brisbane, who teach in a giving, positive way. Rather than waiting for me to fail and knocking me down, they set me a fresh task each class and helped me concentrate on achieving it. And they taught me how to make my way without their instruction; how to set and evaluate my own tasks. Outside criticism might be useful to a point, but largely irrelevant if the bestower of criticism is ignorant of my goal. And, in my experience, willing critics do not consider even asking what you might be trying to achieve.

Schloß Schönbrunn, Wien

Schloß Schönbrunn, Wien

So, this being my second ever full-figure painting from life, I decided to concentrate on three things: translating the fluidity of drawing into paint, consolidating some anatomy, and testing my memory. I did not intend to make a charming finished picture, or a genuine portrait, or to get too lost in colour. While all of these things would be nice, I would at best consider them happy by-products, and not let them carry me away from my focus. If the colour lacked life, so be it. The drawing must have life, and I must find a way to energise the paint with it, and not let the paint stiffen my drawing. Part of this would be to not be afraid of painting over the drawing, but to trust myself to be able to redraw, and redraw better, knowing I was ever more familiar with the subject. And anatomy, of course, is always a challenge to locate under the skin of a real and wholly individual model. Memory would permeate this as well, as I would be forced to recall what I knew as I tried to locate it. And hopefully the finding of it would cement it further in my memory.


To orient myself, I brought in a large pad on the first day and set to work making a detailed drawing. I went slowly and lightly, at first feeling for the gesture of the pose, feeling the cramp through the hunched torso, the stretch through the extended leg. I found myself excellently situated in a spot with almost full-light, able to see every muscle which was turned towards me, and to concentrate on the anatomy and the forms. I spent two days on this drawing, modelling it with fine hatching. In between, at home, I had my anatomy book out and made little practice sketches of the pose, searching out the probable locations of the muscles I had identified in the book, to compare with the model later, or trying to identify unknown lumps I had observed in the surface of the model’s skin.


When I returned on day three with my freshly-stretched linen towering above me, the figure was so ingrained in my mind that I quickly and freely drew him up directly in paint in the first session. The rest of the day was spent carefully observing colours and tonal relationships and blocking in as much colour as I could. I decided to keep the contrast softer. I worked simply, with one mix for light and one for shade for each colour.


The next day I went in more firmly with the shadows, and spent some time fitting them within the context. By the fifth day, things were getting serious: making decisions about the flesh, how to colour it, how to model it, and how to make it lively. I was given all sorts of advice about contrast, about whacking in some arbitrary blue bits, about how dull and flat my figure looked. But I persevered. I had a plan, after all. By the end of this day, I was satisfied that my figure felt full and that he expanded into a three-dimensional space, and that I could explain all of the ridges and swellings. No lies here.

‘But this has nothing to do with erratic, ‘skilful’ negligence or any alibi for covering up what has not been resolved. The perception-related attributes of this activity go together with the ability to filter out and select anything not immediately essential to the fundamental realisation of subjects and ideas.’ (Bammes, p. 240).





Having worked very broadly up until this point, and ever keeping the construction of the body at the fore of my mind, I was now at liberty to refine my picture. I only adjusted things in small ways, trusting my earlier and hard-won decisions. Clark (p. 133) would approve: ‘The average student cannot make a success of this procedure because accident is more attractive than substance. He seizes upon tricks of style, and overlooks essential structure.’ I introduced more pink at the extremities, mixed more neutral colours for the furthest limbs, and set a point at which the light fell the strongest on him to work out from.


Suddenly our seven days were up, and I had to cart this guy, still wet, home on the U-Bahn and through the fog, via another life drawing session. I set him up in my own studio and worked a couple more days. Seeing him in natural light was extremely helpful. I was pleased at having thought everything through systematically, for my decisions held up under a different light. At home I worked from my drawing. I had already paid such close attention to the hands, feet and face that the simplified planes I had established in paint were readily transformed into fingers and toes and features.





But then—the test! Not only had I intended to consolidate some anatomy, and translate drawing into paint, I wanted to use this week to push my memory. Ryan had boasted that he could redraw entire drawings from memory if he had been working on them long enough. Incredulous, I was determined to do the same. And so, at my desk, with my painting turned to face the wall and my original drawing tucked away, I set about redrawing him. And really—I had been staring at one man seated in one pose for a week; if I couldn’t recall him then I could not have been so attentive. The pose came out easily, but the more I got into specifics, the more difficult it got. In general terms, I remembered where muscles belonged and where they should go, but not necessarily how limbs overlapped. The gaps that were revealed—the squashed chest, for example—showed up things I could guiltily admit to not understanding so clearly, like how the pectoralis and the deltoid meet.

Drawing from memory

Drawing from memory

It became clear that few of my fellows enter such a scenario with a clear idea of what they will investigate. They are desperate to learn, but not purposefully approaching their learning, or taking charge of it. Their strategy was, rather, to rely on the critique of others, and as such they seemed disproportionately eager to dole out criticism. Their defensive drawing and painting strategy makes for a wholly negative learning experience—draw, fail, and be corrected.

Volksgarten, Wien

Volksgarten, Wien


I realised how fortunate I’ve been to receive a great deal of positive teaching. My teachers have long since instilled in me the approach of dreaming up a challenge, a strategy, and working toward it. It is focused and limited. To muddle me and burden me with anatomy corrections far too advanced for me would only have distracted and discouraged me. Instead, they always kindly directed me towards something, and made their generous corrections in sympathy with this goal. And, perhaps most importantly, they taught me that I didn’t need them to set tasks for me. They taught me how to set my own tasks.

Musikverein, Wien

Musikverein, Wien


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

Clark, Kenneth. 1985 [1956]. The nude: A study of ideal art. Penguin: London.


Master and student

Ugly lamp 2 © Samantha Groenestyn

The perpetual beginner: I have started something new. I’m the newest student of Nick Leavey at the Salisbury Studios’ atelier school. The studios are in an old warehouse just off ‘Industries Road’ (I jest not), and my class takes place in a tin-roofed room stacked to the top with objects: all manner of white mug, salt cellar and bowl, Grecian heads, glass bottles and curvy-necked silverware. Small, muscular statues abound, easels are lined up across the room, individual still-life ‘booths’ constructed of milk crates and black cloth line the walls. Old couches dragged in off the street form the student-share-house-esque tea area.

Not having pursued art education before, I went without expectations. I brought my virgin oil paints and stiff new brushes, ready to at long last be taught something about art. In fact, I didn’t get to paint. The first technique to master is that of proportional drawing, and several measurement techniques. Unprepared, I busted out several charming still-lifes in pen, a little flustered at the easel, unused to working upright. I’m sure this is going to be a moment Nick and I will look back on and laugh.

The experience was something of a mind-fuck that left my head hurting and my hand feeling like a foot. Nick gleefully instructed, ‘Now you will do it my way,’ and demonstrated the angular stance, the positioning of the foot, the stiffened arm, held completely outstretched, the pencil gripped sideways with knuckles against the page. Nick praised the infinite variability of a pencil held in this way, the thickness of stroke to be achieved, the control, the efficiency of transforming the pencil to a measuring instrument. I whimpered, ‘Will I ever be able to make shapes again?’

The two very best things about this class are these: It is challenging. And there is real constructive criticism.

First, one is reduced to a child that doesn’t yet know how to grip a pencil. Can you remember that feeling? It is at once terrifying and liberating—you have no idea what to do or how you are going to approach it, but you are filled with a feeling of absolute potential, that you are on the cusp of something great: you are about to learn to draw. Remember learning to write, when you knew that soon you’d be able to document the fabulous fantasies your child-brain churned out? A class that completely floors you and takes away all of your skills to begin again at the beginning revives that excitement of the possibilities before you. It’s similar to what I experience at my ballet class. The antithesis of a natural dancer, I must do unfamiliar things with my limbs to produce a performance that to me is a foreign language. It is deeply satisfying to approach something completely unknown and to begin to grasp it.

Second, I tire of being the teacher’s pet. Praise has its place, and teachers must build the confidence of their students. The master, however, is not the teacher: the master is the craftsman possessing full knowledge of the craft, and his role is to perfect the technique of the student, not to prop up her ego. In my graphic design class, my teacher says, ‘Wow, you draw really good,’ and doesn’t feel able to offer any more feedback. At the studio, Nick waltzes by your easel and says, ‘this angle isn’t accurate. That’s what’s giving you trouble.’ The feeling in the wake of these words isn’t one of anger or despair at one’s failing, but of relief—the student cannot spot the error, but only has a vague perception that the piece is wrong. The master gently and swiftly gives the student the information needed to progress the drawing.

Somewhat bewildered by ‘Nick’s way,’ I was soothed when he said the magic ‘a-word.’ ‘I know this seems like the opposite of art, and it is a very analytical approach.’ And this is the key. I’ve felt in the dark for long enough, making do with guessing and getting by on people’s praise. But now I will cultivate the skills to approach my craft analytically and will grow a deeper understanding of my trade. Art need not be airy fairy—it can be as academic as any philosophy PhD.

* This is my second ugly lamp, fruit of my perpetual search for light-giving ornamentation of earlier times. (The first can be seen in the banner). I found it when dragging my mum around the antique centres when she and Dad visited a couple of weeks ago. It now illuminates an old chair that is part of a set inherited from my parents, inherited from my dad’s parents, partially recovered in roses by my mum, so it is happily homey and full of personal history.