I have taken a trip back to my native Tasmania for a few weeks and have been with my old art school mate. He has unearthed some ancient stuff… all done around 1964/5. A mixture of painting, linocuts and chalk sketches. Some of it’s not bad, if I do say so myself!
Somewhat reminiscent of our old chum Bacon? Who was a huge influence on me can you tell?!!
The above sketch was a study for a painting which was acquired by the Dunedin art gallery. (A few years ago!)
Becoming an ‘artist’ is so simple. Get out of bed, down to the art shop, get loads of gear, make some marks, and there you have it. BINGO! Of course you could have called yourself a brain surgeon, an airline captain, a chess grand master, a computer programmer, a Michelin starred chef, a cabinet maker, a concert pianist, a lawyer or an infant teacher. Spot the difference with the latter disciplines. They can take years to develop and master, and in many cases the applicants fall by the wayside. So art arrives in one bound, not only that, the idea is so seductive (an artist, wow!) the illusion takes root. And guess who supplies the nourishment for this little hot house plant? There is gold in them thar hills. The circling online art sites and paying exhibitions are legion, they will get your work seen everywhere, provide loads of collectors itching to get hold of your output.
Believe that and you would believe anything.
Occasionally, of course, by dint of sheer numbers, the quality of work can rise to pedestrian, but that’s about it. To provide some kind of contact from all this stuff, the trick would be to herd them all into some mega compound, set fire to the lot and create the biggest barbie in history. A bonfire of the vanities. Next week you could probably do the same. It’s one abiding virtue? It can be fun and therapeutic, of course. Quite right too.
I used to take adult art classes for many years and thoroughly enjoyed it.…AND, so did my students! We still keep in touch.
The lure of ‘artspeak’ or ‘art bollocks’ is irresistible, the pretentious and obfuscation of the words generally being in an inverse relationship to the threadbare quality of the image. Let’s finish with a little gem I spotted the other day:
‘Her critical eye casts outwards as well, challenging contemporary mores and identity politics through the medium of the ‘old masters.’ She examines ‘otherness’, intimacy and indeed masculinity via the tropes of the Elizabethan court; a metaphor for our own times.’
Working across different disciplines adds an element of confusion to the casual studio visitor, or, in one case it was somebody who wanted to see some work for a local show. Being familiar with the range of my children’s illustrations, the first thing she saw in the studio were several very large non-figurative paintings and lots of smaller ones. Puzzlement and doubt abounded. There was nothing cozy about these things. Had she come to the right place? How to extricate herself?
This was symptomatic of the reaction of many visitors and has led to me providing a brief tutorial in order to clarify this. Let’s start with the ‘abstract’ stuff.
My explanation was, and is, by invitation only otherwise the listeners boredom levels would be severely tested. Their interest was genuine and any hint of a patronising attitude from me would be spotted at once.
The gist of my riveting talk turned on learning the history and the language (or lack of it) of painting. As it is with literacy or numeracy or musical notation or culinary techniques, the study of these things is crucial. Otherwise, without the background knowledge of ‘reading’ paintings then the the lure of conventional pedestrian ‘proper pictures’ in all their tedium prevails.
Does one tackle this with a barrage of words? Heaven forbid. Consider this. After having enjoyed a play, or a novel, or a collection of poems, would you like to see a series of pictures to further increase one’s understanding? Or, conversely, does the visual experience have to be translated into mountains of words? Of course not. I once had a show where the only words were ‘fire exit’, and that was because it was compulsory. As somebody said ‘painting is about painting, everything else is about everything else.’ Quite so. Study it, learn about it, look at it, and even try it. Then forget the words.
As previously mentioned, illustrating childrens books has been quite a successful venture. And along with Ronda’s superior literary skill our Lighthouse Keeper books have kept us both busy for over 40 years. Being published by Scholastic they have been a hit in schools, with hundreds of lighthouses being crafted by kids all over the world!
Some years ago, Ronda and I were doing a school visit in London. For some reason, we worked with the kids in a lecture theatre, at the end of which was a grand piano. It was lunchtime and I was on my own finishing off some session pictures for my young audience. At some point a young man appeared, asked if I minded if he did a rehearsal on the piano. ‘Of course not’, I replied, ‘can I come and see?’ He was doing that wonderful warhorse, the piano part in Beethoven 5, a piece I had known since I was about 4 years old. His concert date was pretty close. He was nervous. He had umpteen goes at the start of the rondo. I approached the piano. ‘Look at this,’ he said, gesturing to the left hand page. He played a bit. ‘Now look at the right,’ he said. ‘You can see the problem! Bloody difficult, fancy a go?’ Of course, I could not see it at all. All I saw was a series of black marks on a piece of white paper. He looked at these marks and his head filled with music. This language was incomprehensible to me. My head filled with nothing. Not a hope. The music of top class painting is the same. It is wordless and deeply affecting.
And of course, the dross of the ordinary in this venture is just as evident and as easy to spot. There is acres of it. This can be very confusing. Online websites are full of the stuff, so much of it is of spellbinding mediocrity. More explanation required….
[A coda: Back to the lecture theatre type experience with the children….
Making images for children is wonderfully unequivocal and almost totally wordless. The scene is a draughty assembly hall. 200 kids, years 1 and 2 are settled down and expecting a good show. So, get to work and then grab them and hold them, but be quick about it. Do that and the rapport is a kind of silent and magical electricity. The children almost take all the oxygen out of the air. At the end, nobody wants to leave, including me and the teachers. If you are not up to it, death is not lingering, it is immediate and horribly final . Children don’t mess around with platitudes. This activity is not for the faint-hearted. In which case, go and do something else…..]
I first started my studio shows about 1980. Why? Dealers and I have never had a meaningful relationship, indeed, apart for a couple of minor skirmishes, one could say no relationship whatsoever, a state of affairs not likely to change. This isn’t a personality based phenomenon as far as I can tell.
For many years I worked as a jobbing illustrator. At times this could be stressful, to say the least. A phone call on Sunday evening. Who could that be I wonder? The caller, an agent, comes straight to the point.
‘Right, David, we need an A3 4 colour spread of….(take your pic)… a snow scene / children playing / an exotic forest / Greeks / Romans / Victorian slums / a moody sea scene / dogs / ducks or general livestock / portraits of war poets / airships and balloons / a Romanesque basilica / a street scene / a gooey sunset….etc. etc.’
We need it NOW, please, and… if you could courier it over by lunchtime tomorrow that would be terrific. The client will be lobbing in about 2pm. No time for visuals or scamps. Bye’.
Socialising grinds to a halt, back to the studio. Job is done to the accompaniment of an out of tune tawny owl. My motorcycle mate arrives at 10 a.m. to collect. (Wi- Fi has changed all that.) I have breakfast and get on with a bloody great ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ pic which was way overdue. What was good about all this? It paid well. The downside? One develops a pathological dread of forever doing this kind of stuff. If I see a load of this , or similar ilk, at any dealers, (quite right and proper from their point of view). I thank God, with all my heart, that I will never have to knock out these sort of pictures again. EVER .
Besides, there are loads of highly trained seals who are also really good at this, and they enjoy it! Good for them.
Amongst all of this, illustrating children’s books, a totally different discipline and for a much tougher audience, proceeded rather well to say the least, and still does. More of this anon. Finally, the discipline of painting was also prosecuted to a greater or lesser degree. I still want the painter to create a new magical world of their own, not merely illustrate, more or less, the one we just happen to inhabit. Pictures in other words. That’s easy.
Anyway back to the studio shows. These are, and still are my shop front, so to speak. These were/are a happy melange of painting, children’s illustrations, life drawings and cartoons. A lot of fun can be had juxtaposing a 5 metre abstract painting with some little A4/fragments and a load of children’s illustrations.
Audience reaction or lack of it is wonderful. I have invented a ‘shortest viewing time competition’. The current record is 2.4 seconds (viewed from the doorstep) but that will be bettered. The other great obstacle is the husband/wife dynamic. An example:
They appear. Wife sees a 1.5 metre -ish painting to die for. Hubby a slab of indifference. A tape measure was produced, the problem of furniture moving discussed at some length, generating conviction and increasing volume. Then, the matter was decided. The price agreed, a mere snip at 8 grand, a cheque written. Delivery sorted… I immediately thumbed through the en primeur wine lists and told the bailiffs to call off their dogs.
Next morning the cheque was cancelled. Never mind. I have been there, on a lesser scale, many times, and doubtless will do so again.
Thank you so much for your considered response and, more importantly, your kind words about our friendship, an acknowledgement of my modest skills, and the fact that we both share a sense of humour. I accept you advice unconditionally and have returned my ‘reciprocal’ gift to Asprey’s in Bond Street. I was not altogether happy with the emeralds anyway. I am indebted to your discretion in all this.
I note, inter alia, that you mention my friend Mavis and perhaps a slight puzzlement on your behalf as to why I should be looking further afield, so to speak. I first met her when she was a bouncer at a lesbian nightclub. I was doing a reading of Elizabethan Love Poetry. I learnt a lot that night.
Mavis is a quixotic soul to say the least. To note that we are polar opposites is very much the case. Our last meeting demonstrates this. She was wired up with her heavy metal mates (at full blast) and a sprinkling of knuckles on the ground smack heads, seemingly belting the hide out of one another, whilst I was engrossed in the must read ‘History of the Albanian coracle 1214-1216.’ This is the pattern of our relationship. The rocks in her head match the holes in mine. Sadly it is a spasmodic one. Why?
She spends much her life detained at Her Majesty’s Pleasure – abh, dangerous driving, and shoplifting coming up with the magistrates next week. Arundel open prison was not so bad but Holloway is a hell of a trek. AND, I have to look after Crusher, her Rhodesian Ridgeback while she is banged up. God that dog stinks.
Sadly, of late she has had a few anti- social health issues and her halitosis would strip wallpaper. Despite, or maybe because of this, our friendship goes along in a strobe lighting sort of way.
With this background, I felt that a life with a nice quiet little English flower, who had never heard of assertiveness training would be good for my blood pressure…sigh…never mind…..
Just heard the roar of an out of tune Harley- Davidson……or….oh no…!!
Is it MAVIS? AAAAAGGGGHHHH!