Bringing Art Making Into Your Life
I have a funny thing I like to do where I break down the elements that make up an artwork.
I started to do them like little equations.
Technique + skill = Artwork
Then I figured you must havean idea, as that’s even more important than skill.
Idea + medium = Artwork
Maybe it’s even more elaborate
Medium + skill + idea + studio = Artwork
You can’t make an artwork without somewhere to make it. So obviously we need all these elements to create an Artwork.
We need to have the space to make it: that’s listed here as studio although more realistically it’s the kitchen table. Or the lounge room floor. Or on the street. It doesn’t matter where really so long as you do it.
We need to make our art with something: that’s the medium. It can be anything. Traditional artist’s materials, found objects, non-traditional media, digital media. But it does have to be made with something. Even conceptual art is made with something. A few titles printed on paper and the viewers’ imaginations? Some artists change their medium with every piece, and others are tied to one medium and we can’t think of them without thinking of this medium. Let’s think Degas. Horses and dancers, women bathing and grooming. Pastels. In fact, Degas sculpted and painted too, but we associate him with pastels.
Every medium comes with associated techniques. And artists also find great joy in inventing techniques not generally associated with mediums. I remember at high school we studied paintings techniques. We had to do a little square of each technique. Wet in wet, scumbling etc. Each technique had a history and a name. As if it made them more real. A technique is just a thing you do. It’s not scary. You add more of them to your repertoire as you go. But the ones you make up yourself are as valid as the traditional ones. Traditional techniques are tied to both an expected look and to the longevity of the final object.
For example, in oil painting there is fat and thin. You start with thin. Oil paint mixed with turps, perhaps for a sketch of the shapes. As you build up your layers, you gradually add more oil [fat] to the paint. The object of this is that the thin paint underneath dries quickly and the fat on the top surface gets to dry slowly so it doesn’t crack. If you do thin over fat, it is very likely to crack. But maybe you want that broken up surface? Then go for it.
In old school black and white photography darkroom printing, the rules were very specific. You had your photograph in the chemicals for specific lengths of time. The second chemical is called the stop bath, as it halted the first chemical developer. Then into the fixer. If you don’t fix it for long enough, it will eventually fade. Then into the wash baths with running water to remove the chemicals from the photographic paper. If you don’t wash it long enough, it will yellow over time and retain a chemical smell. I can tell you I have plenty of these smelly old images from art school. Being in a rush to get work finished. But I also have plenty of images where I followed the process perfectly and these will last a long time if cared for appropriately.
These traditional techniques mean our piece will last through time, degrading only slowly. But if you don’t follow the rules you can make a piece of art that will rot and fall apart because the materials are acidic. But to many artists that is not the point of what they are doing. They follow their exploration trail and do what they need to do to get the result they want in their work. If they become a collected artist they leave it for the restorers to sort out the carnage of decay later on.
I did an internship at a state run art preservation centre in the works on paper [WOP] section. WOP covers photography, books, printed materials, printmaking, watercolour. Any work of art or historical item on a paper base. One woman spent the entire 6 weeks I was there, restoring tiny toy paper soldiers. It was super fun and I got to see and try techniques used to save art works that are having trouble. The methods they use to repair or preserve the works were very impressive.
The classic problem for a WOP would be works that are on paper that is not acid free. The acid in the paper [from the lignum fibres in the tree used to make the paper] slowly eats away at the paper. If not stopped it can fall apart and discolour. In the past cheaper paper usually contained acid, as opposed to cotton or linen based papers that didn’t contain as much. I remember one of the senior people showing me how to wash a piece of William Morris wall paper that was going to be mounted for the State’s Art Gallery collection.
It was gently washed to neutralize the acids and remove dirt. After it was washed it was carefully lifted it onto a piece of clear plastic called mylar then taken to dry: I ripped it of course and I nearly died. The senior restorer just laughed and said ‘well that’s ok, because now I can show you how to repair ripped paper so that no one will ever know’. Restorers humour you know. They showed me a video of an art restorer delicately placing the last piece into the head of an ancient sculpture: as that last piece went in, the entire head shattered into hundreds of pieces. The restorers laughed themselves sick. Truly.
Anyway the reason I’m telling you this is that I did learn what a lot of techniques do: they preserve the work in the long term.
We need some skills. Skill is bound up implicitly with technique and medium. I mean, I am good at sculpting clay, but I cannot weld with metal at all. But I hear you say, you always tell us not to worry about skill, and to just begin. And yes indeed, I still think that’s true. So you don’t need a lot of skill. And I almost believe skill could be replaced with the word desire. A desire to create: if you create for long enough you develop skills anyway. So come as you are.
You do need an idea. A vision of what you will make or create. It doesn’t have to be a really complex idea. It can be as simple as I am going to do botanical drawings that focus on the patterns. Or I am going to do a really big drawing of leaves, that show every detail. It doesn’t have to be something really complicated that sounds like it was written by a curator at your state gallery. Most artists start with a simple notion or premise. What if I do this?
As they work on that idea, if they like it and keep going, it will probably develop into something more complex. Even if it appears more simple. It will slowly grow in layers of meaning as things occur to the artist they are brought in. But remember it doesn’t usually start that way. So don’t stress if your idea is simple.
All this prevaricating brings me to what I think might be the most important element in an artwork: time.
Time is our most precious resource but the one we seem to squander most easily. Yes there are activities that eat up our time that we may not have a choice about. Working, making money to live on, or caring for someone who needs us, an elderly parent or a child. But there is also the time we squander, where we end up thinking, crap, I just wasted two hours watching ‘Say yes to the dress’ on TV. I can never get that two hours back. Of course sometimes what we need more than anything is the lie around and relax. Have a beer and watch Game of Thrones. Or go to a movie with friends, or out to dinner for a date.
But ones of the things I hear most often is, ‘I’d love to do something creative but I don’t have time’.
Nearly all of us do have time you know. Even if it’s just a little. What if you put aside, just 20 minutes a few time a week to do some drawing, or sewing or a paper sculpture. I think you could manage that, don’t you?
This is a sculpture I made recently. It’s not fired yet. I squeezed that art making in.
I squeezed it in between working, being a mum, writing my book, going to work and trying to get the old bod a bit fitter.
So there it is.
Medium + skill/desire + idea + studio + time = Artwork
Now go and make some art.