Bringing Art Making Into Your Life
When we make a piece of art, we start with an idea. We then combine it with a medium and some techniques. We add in energy and time and we end up with an art work. Sometimes we engage very physically with our art making, sometimes it’s more emotional or intellectual.
Sometimes I have an idea that I don’t have the skills to pull off. My choice is then to leave it until I can gather the skill, forget about it or make it in another way.
In the section of the Making Art website called Choosing the right medium, I talk about the fact that you might have to use a different medium than the one you’d like to, because of various factors, like cost or space. Or maybe you just don’t have the skills.
In the past I have done a bit of oil painting. I love oil paint, the smell, the individual characteristics of the different colours, like the transparency of sap green and the opaque nature of the cerulean blue. But I don’t love the cost or the solvents and the time it takes to dry. So I decided I would have a bit of a play with acrylic paint. I have never been very keen on acrylic paint, finding it flat and a little dead compared to oil or even watercolour. I have a good friend Beck, [who I will do a post about soon], who paints with acrylics and seeing her use them made me more enthusiastic.
I know I rave on a lot about it being ok to make mistakes and if you make something crap don’t worry, just take in what you’ve learnt and move on, but after my first attempts in acrylic I was a bit horrified. It all just looked dreadful: gaudy, flat, dry. After hiding the evidence, I went away and though about it for a while, I realised I was trying to use it in the same way I use watercolour, trying to get a delicate finish, by using more water. Or even like oils blending the layers, which just didn’t work because the paint dries so quickly. I also realised I needed to learn more about the various mediums you can use with acrylics to make them behave in different ways.
Thinking about how Beck worked I remembered that she didn’t completely mix colours before-hand on her palette: she would always allow some of the colour to be mixed on the canvas so it had a bit of life. If she wanted a lot of a certain shade like a skin tone where you need enough for the whole work because it needs to match, she would mix a batch of that colour but not overwork it. She also used drying retardants, and gloss, impasto and glaze mediums.
In other words, I realised I had little skill in that medium. If I wanted to paint my idea I would have to skill up: my painting skills in other mediums were translating in a very limited fashion.
But sometimes our idea is more important than our skill level. It shines through even a lack of skill. Something beautiful or sad or with a clarity. Just getting your idea down can be the most important thing.
Some people believe that an artwork should be in a difficult medium if its going to be any good. Or that only an artist who has been practising art for many years can be capable of making something good.
Above: Nickelodean’s Spongebob Squarepants is getting his first sculpture lesson from Squidward. He gives his block of marble one tap with his hammer and chisel.
Above: Resulting in a magnificent ‘David’ like statue.
Above: Squidward says ‘It’s beautiful’. Then realising he has just complemented a total beginner says ‘I mean, this isn’t a sculpture, a good sculpture takes more time. You can’t just sculpt will nilly, you’ve got to go by the book, the rules’.
Ok we don’t become instant masters like Spongebob, but frankly great art can be made by someone with little skill. If that idea is shining through and suits the medium they used.
Other times a work can be full of skill but it leaves us cold, not engaged. If there was something the artist was trying to say it has been obscured by the technical expertise.
Author Peter Timms says in his book, What’s wrong with contemporary art?
‘We do not seek out art works to have things explained or clarified, but for the opposite reason – to have our world made more mysterious…’
I read that the fashion designer Isabel Marant is always appalled when she sees her work on the catwalk, ‘I feel empty. I feel zero, I feel silly and stupid, I’m a bit disgusted'[September Oz Vogue]. It is only later when she has another unanswered question, something she would like to achieve, that she will feel like creating again. I feel shocked that someone who is so successful and well thought of in her area could feel such loathing for her work. But then don’t we all sometimes over-react when something we make isn’t working?
And occasionally, magically it’s the need to create a certain artwork that brings us the skill. You might not even know how on earth you are going to achieve something but you start anyway. As you make your work, then maybe another and another until you get it right, you learn that skill you need. One day you make a piece of art and you think that’s pretty good.
I had a bit of a passion for ancient chinese bells, huge metal knobbly things full of mystique. I really wanted to make one, so I decided I would make one for myself out of clay, as a garden sculpture. I really had never made anything large before from clay and had only been doing ceramics for about 6 months. But because I really wanted to make it, I gathered the skills as I went along. It weighed a ton and took me hours, but I really do love it. It’s one of my few artworks I wouldn’t like to sell [ give away… whatever].
Above: the bell before it was fired.
Above: My chinese bell fired and glazed. Terracotta paperclay, 40cm high [ 16 inches].
So what’s the answer? Is the idea more important than skill? Well I’m going to let you decide for yourself, but remember if you don’t have an idea to make you can’t make anything, but if you don’t have the skills to make what you want you can always gather them as you go. So start making your art today and before long you too will be thinking, that’s pretty good.