Preparations for the Class (detail) Degas (about 1877) pastel on paper
Jockeys in the rain (detail) Degas (1883) Pastel on tracing paper
Degas and his use of pastels National Gallery London
This was a fascinating exhibition of Degas drawings, which showed how working methods change with fashion and with available materials. During the second half of the 19th century, new dyes became available which were used for paper and pigment. These materials were quickly adopted by artists and altered the way they worked. This exhibition focused on Degas and his use of pastels.
Degas always started his work with charcoal drawings, but although at first he was a master in the traditional use of pastel, with a single layer of chalk, carefully blended and left unfixed, plus a few highlights (“Preparations“), gradually he became much more experimental, building layers of pastel with fixative until the surface was firm and translucent. On this surface he could then draw more texture and detail, often with rough scribbly strokes, unlike the traditional blending, and with brilliant colour (“Jockeys“)
Dancers on a bench (detail) Degas (about 1898) Pastel on tracing paper
Woman in a tub (detail) Degas (1896-1901) Pastel on paper
Eventually Degas began to draw with charcoal on tracing paper. The transparent paper allowed him to play with his drawings, to reverse them, take monoprints from them and to create multiple images, and to experiment with composition. It was a free starting point. He would then fix the charcoal drawings and have them mounted on a rougher textured board to create a stronger drawing base which also gave more tooth to the tracing paper. At the same time he often asked for the mounter to add more sheets of tracing paper to the original so that the whole drawing space was extended. On this he would work with pastels to create the whole layered surface, often covering the original charcoal completely. Final brilliant detail was added in relief by dipping the sticks of pastel into water to liquefy them and leaving the marks unfixed.
I was amazed and inspired by how unconventional and innovative Degas was, over 100 years ago, also so interested to learn just how his work looks how it does. These are (apparently) simple processes which I can and will try. I like the idea of creating multiple images and also experimenting with pastel in new ways. I later went to Tate Britain (“All too Human” exhibition) and discovered that pastel is the preferred medium of Paula Rego. There is an excellent catalogue accompanying the Degas exhibition: Drawn in Colour – published by the National Gallery. Thanks to Catherine Froy for telling me about this show.
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There is nothing like an exhibition brief for developing ideas. It is the fulcrum for focussing on what one’s real energy and interests currently are. For this exhibition “Wild Spaces” at the Whitehouse Gallery, Kircudbright, in south-west Scotland, I started with a large drawing of “Ares”, a Knabstrup horse. These are a particular Danish breed, established 200 years ago, and known for their spectacular speckled coats, as well as their talent for dressage and showjumping. I liked the original photo because the horse was photographed in a winter woodland which acted as a kind of dramatic camouflage.
But where to go from this big charcoal work of the horse with the black markings? I tried abstracting the main shapes of the drawing, but realised that I needed to go deeper (more of which later). I also remembered a lithographic print made around 2012, and returned to this for inspiration for some playful black and white drawings/paintings on canvas. The first time I had felt so free with paint. Eureka! I built on that spontaneous foundation with acrylic paint and charcoal, always working very freely.
At the same time, by way of this exhibition brief, I was practising my knowledge and skill of using oil paint in a traditional way to explore the form and colour of the horse, and decided to use a dramatic photograph as source materials. In contrast to the “flash” drawings above this was laborious and took a period of months to develop. I did a lot of basic drawing, alongside other oil studies of horses, in particular their heads, to make sure I could translate the anatomy into paint, however loosely. This was the meticulous side of my practice.
Gradually these two aspects came together as I became more confident about painting horses in a content. I began to bring together the freedom of the Wild Spaces work with the tight analysis of the studies. In the process I realised that I was interested and inspired by horses in their own social groups. I began a series of oil paintings on this theme, imperfect and exploratory, but thrilling for me to be able to introduce colour into my passionate depictions of the horse.
And what about the large Knapstrub drawing of “Ares”? How to work with that? The only way for me to truly honour this, with all its contrasts and textures, was to take it small section at a time, slow and deliberate. Here is (the beginning of) where my exhibition brief took me!
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Working from the heart can be a difficult leap of faith when one is on a learning curve. At the end of 2017, after a year of studying, including social media marketing and goal setting, I began to feel like an automaton, or, more topically, a robot. I was feeling exhausted and soul-less. Focus, clarity and discipline are great and necessary, and I had a wonderful year in many ways, but there is more mystery to life and its unexpected developments than we can predict.
I was also studying how to make my website work better for me. I have had a website for many years but the current one is more complex and has much more scope. That too involves a steep learning curve. As for social media, I was a novice. But how that has changed! I am still a novice but I appreciate the personal and social advantages of these platforms and I am beginning to understand the opportunities for promoting myself as an artist. The feedback and sharing on social media is fabulous. The point is that it needs to be genuine. If the post has authentic feeling that transmits even over the web, almost with the immediacy of a phone conversation.
After months of strenuous effort in the tech department, it was therefore a great relief to discover quite by chance (in an airport) Ali Smith’s “Autumn” a wonderfully fluid and poetic book about the relationship between an old man and a gifted child and the sharing of his rich and creative life and his love (as a young man) of an extraordinary woman artist in the 1960s. I myself began to soften and regain a belief in intuition and chance, which are so important in creative work.
Monty Don reminded me of the importance of working from the heart again when I found (another airport discovery) his latest book about gardening, “Down to Earth”. He says: “gardens have to come first from the heart or they will never reach the head”… If you are not “pleasing yourself first and foremost or you run the risk of pleasing nobody”. I have found too when making my art work that people have an acute sense of truth, and know what really comes from the inner self and heart. Strategy, focus and goals are undoubtedly helpful, but passion and belief and even uncertainty have to come first.
YoYo Ma, the cellist who created the Silk Road Ensemble, also says “I make everything natural and true from the heart”. .. and … “ Art is when we arrive back where we started and see this place as for the first time”. Yo Yo Ma travels the world with his group of passionate musicians from different countries, often using a ancient instruments and traditional techniques.
By another miraculous chance, I picked up the discussion “Only Artists” on Radio 4 between Toyah Wilcox and Alice Lowe last week. Wilcox and Lowe agree that (often contrary to received wisdom) for them the instinctive voice is the right one, of far more value than the intellectual or technical. Though I would cautiously claim that the rational always has its value. Artists also often have a natural spirit of adventure and curiosity which is with them all their life. Wilcox speaks about working with Sir Laurence Olivier and observing his extraordinary curiosity and willingness to experiment for his entire life. For the artist, she claims, “work is why I am born”, there is no need to justify it.
I loved the moment when she and Lowe discussed those mysterious moment of spontaneous “super-consciousness” when creativity occurs in a flash with brilliant and conclusive success.. “you’ve nailed it”. But, as I wrote in a previous blog, these moments are really the outcome of much experience and work and processing of ideas, even perhaps the carried-over experience of previous lives, who knows. No wonder high profile artists are under pressure to reclaim that state of mind and do so via chemicals of various kinds, including alcohol, and/or via the their relationships.
This blog, “Working from the Heart” is at present a collection of associated ideas and snippets, which await the magic moment of superconscious synthesis!
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During my life as an artist, a passion for the act of drawing and painting has led me through a long winding road of psychological twists and turns, emotional bumps in the road, some unexpected diversions and very many challenges. I have always been searching for a place where I felt both freely expressive and technically reasonably competent. Both components are essential. Without feeling and expression, art for me is meaningless. Without knowledge, which means both skill and ideas, it is impossible to develop. It has taken me many years to find this place and I am of course still learning and still discovering my voice and my language. I have always tried to match my work to a genuine feeling of passion. At one period I found expression in the free flowing application of dye to fabric, and I was a successful crafts-person for many years. I still enjoy the feel and intimacy of fabric and the under-the-radar voice of fashion and clothing. I thank my inspiration from other fabric painters such as the amazing Carole Waller and Kaffe Fassett.
I knew that textiles were not the only medium for me, however. I originally started as an artist on paper and wanted to have that level of control that is achievable with charcoal, pencil or pen, but not with the looser brushstrokes I used in dye painting. I began searching for a way to develop my designs and started to explore drawing and painting. I attended Glasgow School of Art as a full time student in the Painting School for 4 years in my quest to learn more. The focus here was on contemporary art practice and history, so I had to learn a completely new way of thinking. I am very grateful for this and the quality of the experience at Glasgow.
I then returned to textile practice and translated some of my conceptual ideas about space and architecture into cloth (see above). I had now achieved one goal of how to develop my work intellectually, but I was still restricted to working with dye. I pushed this as far as I could by creating abstract paintings with thickened dye rather than paint. I wanted to explore the cultural limitations and expectations around textile art.
But one winter’s day around 2008 I decided to reach out to a local artists’ community at Dunfermline Printmakers. This opened up a whole new world for me. The unexpected textural qualities of print, whether in etching, dry-point or stone lithography, had the same random element as textile work, but with added control and the the fact that I was working on PAPER. An entire new existence and form of expression that happily contained ideas rather than purely a sensual hit. The Edinburgh Printmakers Studio continues to be an inspiration.
Several years and a few exhibitions along the line, I discovered that actually I preferred just doing the drawings and if necessary reproducing them in giclee form rather than creating original prints. My horse drawings of this time were a glorious explosion of passion and energy which had been stored up since I was a small child, and were also a celebration of having recently owned and loved horses for many years. Success ensued, including commissions and awards, and in particular the commission to write a book about drawing horses “Draw Horses in 15 Minutes”. I love to write, I love everything equestrian, and I love to draw, so I took on this challenge and the book has been a success.
In the process, however, I started to discover gaps in my knowledge. How much anatomy did I actually know? Did I really understand about tone and colour? So much of what I did was intuitive, and once again I realised that I needed to dig a bit deeper in order to take another step forward. Another journey ensured, starting with a human anatomy course at the Ruskin School of Art in Oxford with celebrated artist and anatomist, Sarah Simblet, in July 2015. Very inspiring, and I have followed up with numerous anatomy and drawing and painting classes, both human and equine-related, with celebrated artists and experts such as Edinburgh-based artist, Alan McGowan.
In January 2015 my next step in my life as an artist began when I started to teach myself painting. Thanks to Iain Simpson for his step by step introduction and invaluable references in the Open College of Art texts. I was gradually learning this new medium, but still could not relate it to the energy and certainty of the textile work. Then in 2016 I heard about an Irish art teacher, Pauline Agnew, who teaches on line courses. Pauline truly reaches the parts that no other teachers do, and together with her input and that of Philadelphian artist Martin Campos, painting has started to feel like a natural form of expression of me which combines colour, texture and feeling and also precision – and which is a satisfying arena in which to explore drawing and the incredible properties of colour. One of my aims was to create equestrian paintings. I have reached “Go” with increasing confidence in painting the horse’s form and anatomy in colour.
One of my aims over the past two years was to create equestrian paintings. I have now reached “Go” with increasing confidence in painting the horse’s form and anatomy in colour. This is a traditional approach for me but I have great satisfaction in working in oil paint with increased understanding about what makes an image work.
That is not to say that I have abandoned drawing (of course) or working on cloth. For me there is still something incredibly liberating about the pots of brilliant liquid dye and the welcoming texture of wool, silk or cotton. Plus the fact that fabric exists in a different and in some ways a freer place than painting. But I am thrilled with the joyful experience of making visual statements about what I love in paint, and with my life as an artist to date.
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This week I shall be working on the portrait with Alan McGowan, the Edinburgh-based figurative artist. Alan works works in a free and expressive style. This apparently improvisatory style is actually based on a rigorous knowledge of anatomy. Such knowledge”gives the freedom” to improvise, as Alan says. Alan McGowan teaches all over the world, so I am especially fortunate that he is able to provide workshops so nearby. This week the focus is on the portrait, but he also teaches life painting and drawing and specialist anatomy workshops. Highly recommended.
I hope to build my knowledge of the human head and the face, and to learn more about the use of paint and colour. The week will be an opportunity to share time with a group of dedicated artists in a great environment near the Old Custom House of Leith Docks. The experience will complement my work based on the time with Martin Campos earlier in the year.
LATER in the week
These images show the work that I did in the Alan McGowan class We began with drawing and then moved into a single study the following day. I tried to focus on the tonal composition as suggested by Alan. In some ways I succeeded. During the second half of the week we had the same models over three days, so there was time to build up a more complete painting. I was looking at paintings by American artists such as Alex Kanevsky for inspiration, as well as taking in Alan’s practical advice and wisdom (MIX PAINT CAREFULLY FIND THE STORY USE YOUR EYES!). A very enjoyable and stimulating week and perhaps quite importantly a change in routine with new people. Thank you to everyone who was there.
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In July I went to Cork in Ireland to study with Martin Campos, teacher at Philadelphia College of Art. Martin is a figurative painter, who specialises in the human figure, and he is a wonderful draughtsman and painter. But I like the way he places his subjects in an abstracted context. I want to learn how to place my equestrian subjects in a different context, and that is why I wanted to learn from Martin. But I am enjoying working with the human figure as well. It contains so much meaning to us as a species, so different from the meaning of an animal. We can never fully share the experience of an animal in the way that we can empathise with other human beings. However, my passion is for drawing and painting horses
Martin also practises plein air sketches as a daily routine. This is another great idea to loosen up and discover one’s own interest and focus.
The workshop was organised by another teacher, Pauline Agnew. Pauline is also an inspirational and liberating artist, and she runs on line courses and also workshops all over the world. “Pauline is truly an art whisperer” to quote some of her students.
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