Making Art

Bringing Art Making Into Your Life

Ideas for making art are hard to talk about.

It’s hard to talk about ideas for making art. Why? because you are trying to put something in the language of the eyeballs and the language of the form into our verbal language. The language of beauty, or anger or a way of re-seeing something  into a language  that reduces it.

When people talk about art they are usually talking about their reaction to something they saw at the gallery. Talking about how the art affects them. Or what that art is ‘about’. What the artist was ‘trying to say’. Sometimes they even talk to the artists. But at that point while the artist might be able to explain what she or he was trying to do, that original idea is a fading memory, fast getting lost amongst the desire to explain it to others. I can hear it happening to me whan someone asks me about something I have made. Sometimes I must confess I  dumb down my explanation so I don’t have to go into the uncomfortable territory of explaining some truly weird idea of mine. And if you say this version enough, it’s not so much that you start to believe it but that it makes you forget what your original idea actually was. Our ideas can be so super personal that you don’t actually want to tell people what you were doing or why. And sometimes we don’t even know. All we know is that we need do this painting or make this object.

Some artists work on a particular schtick for most of their lives. They are working through something, a bit like going to see the therapist for twenty years. Other artists are just fascinated with a particular problem, more like a scientist, exploring and  trying to find the solution to a problem. But that problem may be something that the artist never fully expresses to her/hisself in words. The mind is talking in pictures and memories. And yes I always encourage you to jot down your ideas, in words, but I also encourage you to do a quick sketch or doodle of your idea to save it for later, because its heaps quicker and often a more accurate reminder.

British abstract artist Sir Terry Frost [1915-2003], knew what he was doing. In his later life he had a real process when he worked and knew where he was going with his ideas. But he admitted that he couldn’t necessarily explain what his work was about.

In a doco  by Directors Cut Films called ‘Sir Terry Frost’, Frost said  ‘I will often tell a story about how I got the idea and I think that’s true, well I know it’s a true statement….er what I can’t tell you, don’t really know of course, which I can’t really explain, is how I get from the story, the memory to what I actually make. That painting has to stand or fall by itself.’

I love that Sir Terry acknowledges that he is now telling a story, about the idea. He wouldn’t have to be telling stories though if people were not constantly asking him what something means.  But what something means and what the idea was are two really different things.

Above: Sir Terry Frost.  He started painting when he was a POW in the second world war. And kept painting for the next almost 60 years.

So Sir Terry may not always have remembered what his idea was but he had a really strong way of working, a process that worked for him.

‘I get the canvas the right shape for starters. It’s got be the right shape.’ What does this tell us? That the shape of his canvas was part of his idea, not an afterthought or whatever is lying around. Then he would start with charcoal, then layer in with acrylic, then he would be  reaching for the pastels or the conte, and finishing up sometimes with oils. If he couldn’t find whichever he was after the conte or pastels [ he would be using one or the other depending on whether he was switching to oils], then he would just grab charcoal or whatever. He said its more important to keep working, not to be interrupted or he loses the original impetus.

All this tells me that he is working from a strong image in his head , but it’s not something he can necessarily put into words at all.

Above: ‘Red and black squeeze’, 2001, by Sir Terry Frost. Screenprint with collage.

Above: ‘Development of  square within a square [green]’, 2000, by Sir Terry Frost. Screenprint.

Above: ‘Black circle’, 2002, by Sir Terry Frost. Screenprint.

Above: ‘Washed vertical’, c. 1956, by Sir Terry Frost. Oil.

Above: 1956, by Sir Terry Frost. Gouache.

Sometimes what seems a great idea in your own head can sound a little daggy when you go to tell someone about it. Maybe it’s because we are only giving the one minute version of it. I have been working on a series for a while now. I have shown a few of the pieces in previous posts and on the Making Art website. Even now I don’t really feel like telling exactly what my idea is about. Why? because its long and complicated. The short version is ‘I am making some small sculptures using clay that are an homage to detective show. Each one is like a clue.’ The longer version is trickier to explain…here I go…

‘ When I was a kid [maybe 13?] my mum decided to bribe me to lose weight by buying me a book each week as a reward. She sent me to the newsagent [corner store] and I could pick whatever novel I wanted. This was areal treat for me. I picked one by Agatha Christie. It began a life long love affair with the detective novel/tv show. [My poor husband… I watch virtually any detective/ mystery show. At the moment I’m watching the Swedish ‘The Killing’.]  The cover painting of the Agatha Christie was painted by artist and illustrator Tom Adams, one of a long series he did of her covers, and it was part of the whole thing for me. Each painting contained some kind of obscure clue about the mystery inside. Ever since then I have loved his work. This year I decided to give in to my inner child and create a series of  semi realistic work that deals with both my love of detective stories in general and specifically the endless red herring style clues which Agatha Christie drops us and the way that Adams used them in his covers. So I am creating works in clay, that are clues to imaginary stories.’

So obviously sometimes I seriously can’t be stuffed saying the long version of this… it’s a bit long and boring. And it’s quite personal too.

Above: Tom Adams painting for the cover of  ‘Towards Zero’.

Above : Tom Adams painting for the cover of  ‘They Do It With Mirrors’.

My series isn’t finished yet. I have yet to apply some finishing colour  to the fired works.

Above: A gun resting on a book, terracotta paperclay. The gun is a copy of the one Adams did on his cover.

Above: The book’s title ‘ The Tomb’ is  a nod to Agatha Christie’s love of archeology.

Above: A knife hilt stuck in a ball of wool, porcelain paperclay. This one is an homage to Miss Marple’s constant knitting and the fact that she’s always getting involved in murder cases.

Above: A vial amongst the bandages, terracotta paperclay. This one pays tribute to Agatha’s love of poisons, and also of disguise. Is that patient really who you think it is? Or is it a spy being snuck out of the country?  Or is it the bandages of a stolen mummy?

Above: A detail showing the cork which I think looks pretty cool. 

So what’s the deal with talking about your ideas?

  1. It’s tricky
  2. They don’t have to sound good to other people.
  3. You don’t actually have to tell people what your work ‘means’. You can let your work stand for itself, and if you’re worried it won’t be understood give it a title to help it along.
  4. Your idea doesn’t need to be translatable to words. You are not making words. So long as you can figure out what you want to make its ok.
  5. Its ok not to quite know what your idea is. So long as you are still making it.
  6. It’s ok to be protective of your ideas. You don’t have to spill your guts constantly. Putting work out there is personal enough sometimes.
  7. Be like Sir Terry and know its ok if the things you are saying about your art are a bit of a story. Goodness knows that if you ever get any public exposure for your work it will be off creating a life of its own, with the help of curators and marketers and their lust for a good yarn.
  8. And remember little grasshoppers: just keep making. And if you are having trouble teasing out your ideas please go look at the Ideas section of the Making Art website.


One comment on “Ideas for making art are hard to talk about.

  1. Pingback: Battling Your Art Demons « Making Art

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This entry was posted on October 18, 2012 by in Artists, creativity, Ideas and tagged .
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