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An Interview with Clare Haward


Still Life with Red – Clare Haward
When we are learning to draw and paint, (do we ever stop?) there are the basics that we all have to get under our belts. Like a writer, it’s hard to communicate without an understanding of grammar, there are things we all need to know at some level or another. Drawing from life is often central to this learning, encompassing mark making, line, tone, proportion, colour, composition and so on, we learn the visual language that is the essential currency of art.

Which is all very important and yet becoming too attached to the particulars can be a major constraint. Like being a grammar pedant who is so infuriated by ee cummings that they miss the joy of poems like “i like my body when it is with your”. Creativity often exists just beyond the structure that gave birth to it.

Drawing in proportion, for example, is an important skill to acquire but just because we can, doesn’t mean we must. Very many artists can draw exceedingly accurately in an optical sense and yet find greater fulfilment when they are not sticking rigidly to what might be called ‘the rules’*. What makes us interesting as artists is not when we fit the existing orthodoxy but when we challenge it.

Our very own Clare Haward is a case in point, she has been subject to a great deal of learning and yet has moved with her own language of shape and colour to produce images of deceptive simplicity and intensity. There is an excellent interview with her here

* They’re not really rules, we just treat them that way, the ideas that are put before us are entities that may or may not support us on our way as artists. Generally we discard them only when they have been fully digested.

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Problem solving

One of the things I picked up when learning about how to cope with life is that a problem can be solved head on, obliquely or sidestepped. We all have our favoured way of tackling things. Those of us who favour the head on approach may find that we are occasionally confronted with an immovable wall, an insoluble creative problem.  It may be the head of a figure we are painting which we can’t quite get right. So we end up overworking the head, painting the life and goodness out of it and ending up frustrated and full of despair.

In this case fortune favours the bold artist who owns a palette knife and is prepared to use it. A complete scrape down of the offending area will often be the best plan, or at least a partial destruction that gives us a whole new set of problems to deal with. Very often the original insoluble problem disappears and the new problems are at least interesting.

You’ll know that the first step in solving a problem is in defining it, when something is understood the resolution can already be clear. When it is clear, again, decisive action is to be encouraged, there is no point in trying to preserve work that falls short.

The oblique approach may be more appropriate when we know that there is a problem but we’re not quite sure what it is. Stepping away from the work for a while may do the trick; there are many artists who have paintings leaning against the studio wall for months or years waiting for the day when they spot the fail. Just viewing the work in a different way can be remarkable, certainly stand well back, turn it upside down, look at it in a mirror, pop it into Photoshop. Try different marks, brushes or colours. Change something and everything else changes.

Asking a pal may help but they usually find a fault in the work that we had yet to notice and that just adds to our problems and can spoil a perfectly good friendship. Better to ask someone whose opinion matters less to us that we may glean what we can without the risk of offence. Try the postman.

Sidestepping is a useful creative strategy, this is where we just put energy into another area, as if no problem exists. We can build up momentum so that when we return to the problem we may see that we were just looking at it in the wrong way or it has even become irrelevant.

Creative work involves plenty of problem solving which can be deeply satisfying and there is always the little burst of endorphins that rewards us each time a solution is found.

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Three hours

Just three minutes for this one

We are sometimes lucky enough to get beginners in the studio. If it happens to be a three hour session with a single pose, one of the things they learn is that three hours can seem quite a long time. We forget, those of us who have been doing it a while, that three hours of  intense looking can be completely exhausting. Just like going to the gym (I’m told) there’s no pain, no gain. If we feel knackered after a life drawing session that is a good thing: it tells us that we have been building new connections in our neural systems and makes a substantive argument for a restorative glass of Kits Coty Chardonnay

That said, if we are starting out, we may wish to get into the swing of things by attending a few life drawing sessions which don’t seem to go on for eons and where the model changes their pose before we run out of things to draw. For us that would be our short pose sessions on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, where we focus on dashing the figure down more than on protracted rendering. What we find is that when things go wrong they tend to go wrong at the beginning so having many poses means we get lots of opportunities to catch ourselves and learn to set up the figure well enough to complete it without distress.

Drawing can seem a tricky skill to master, not made any easier by being told glibly by your tutor that really, you are learning to ‘see’.
(“Harrumph”, you may say to yourself, “I can see fine thank you very much, I’m just not very good at drawing noses, show me how to draw noses!”)
But it isn’t tricky at all, it just takes time and sustained effort and the humility to let go of everything we ever thought was good about our drawing. On the plus side, with time, effort and humility there are no special skills required, draughtsmanship is an equal opportunities employer, we all get to do it well.

As we get better our ability to maintain our concentration grows, our perception sharpens, we become more grounded, more certain about who we are and where we are going. We may even have the stamina to stare at a naked person for three hours and still keep seeing more.

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The right way to draw


Right in so many ways, yet the proportions to some eyes may be questionable. Artist Colette Clegg

We all know when a drawing looks wrong. In a portrait it is usually something about the mouth and in a figure the head is often the wrong size for the body. Proportions are one of the most infuriating challenges we face when we draw and there are any number of systems artists have developed to tackle them.

Then when finally we do get the proportions ‘right’ we discover that there is more to a drawing than proportion. ‘Right’ is one of those utility words that has many meanings, correctness is one of them but correct against which measure? We can for example get the value structure right and hang the proportions. The anatomy could be right, the colours, the texture, the rhythm, the composition, the harmony or intended conflict may all be right and yet the petty accountant in our head latches on to one measure, proportion, and finds it lacking. To the extent that we fail to see the many virtues in our work and our desperation for dimensional accuracy puts a brake on every other aspect of the drawing. It can feel like trying to fly whilst tethered to the ground.

If we think of the word ‘right’ as contrary to the word ‘left’ rather than ‘wrong’ we may feel an easing of this burden. If we read Betty Edwards we can learn that the brain processes information in different ways depending upon the task, she talks about drawing on the right side of the brain being very much easier and freer. Confusingly the right brain is attached to the left hand (God obviously got the wiring tangled up when he was designing us) so does that mean that most of us who are righthanded are doomed?

Not really; thanks to the joys of neuroplasticity there is no limit to what we can learn to do. We are actually able to sense how it feels to be in a left or right brain mode and with familiarity we can return to where we want to be. It won’t be a spoiler to say that when we fuss that our proportions are wrong, we are in left brain mode: useful to notice but “move along”. When we delight in all of the other things going on in our drawing we are probably happily ensconced in the right brain, like a child playing with plasticine, enjoying the squishiness and the smell, allowing the medium to be an expression of our imagination without censure.

The irony is that if we can love our drawings as they are, to see them without judgement, we will find more energy and creativity and we may even notice that our eye for proportion becomes stronger of itself.


Drawings that are dramatically right whilst being wonderfully wrong! Artists is @andreabasmagi

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Look. No, really look.


Claude Monet – Poplars on the Epte. Trees and clouds or the visual experience of trees and clouds?

How to look

As visual artists, we do a lot of looking. This is because our excitement and engagement with what we see is a primary driver for our image making, it’s both our source and to some extent our fuel.

Looking and seeing are not always the same thing, one sounds active and the other passive, one could be empty whilst the other implies understanding, one to do with the eyes the other to do with the soul.

Where looking is entirely objective it can describe the raw visual experience, devoid of meaning. We might choose to do this because we want our viewer to engage their own visual cortex and experience the meaning event within themselves rather than have it served up for them.

Seeing involves cognition, so in one sense it’s more complicated as it carries with it meaning and memory. Consciously or unconsciously most of our work will carry the freight of our past lives and who we are. What we personally ‘see’ is coloured by the filter of previous experience and arguably our biological inheritance and it is always unique to us.

In practice looking and seeing are a mashup, all interconnected, a series of multi-level processes that we may or may not be aware of.

What we can be aware of is that the very act of looking is worthy of our quiet attention.

Exercise

Before we start a drawing or a painting, make the space to just look and observe what the eye is drawn to. Allow it to linger and explore. Be aware of any response within the self to what is seen; any feelings, memories, thoughts and ideas that surface. These are all raw material which can be drawn on.

Pausing, being still and observing, it is possible to allow the more obvious responses to subside, the clichés to reveal themselves and for the fresh and new and real to come to light.

You might say that this is more than seeing, it may even be insight.

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Am I repeating myself?


Ashley by Daisy Perkins. Nice.
The old cliché that ‘the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results’, has been doing the rounds again recently. Like many thoughts we return to, it has both utility and nuance.

When we learn, we tend to use repetition to embed skills: as observational artists we look and look again, each time expecting to see more and describe better. Our craft involves a great deal of doing the same thing again and again, mixing paint, sharpening pencils, priming boards, judging value, checking proportion, scraping back. All good, and predictable results are what we look for. Where we look for difference is in our art and it is there that we must be aware of the pitfalls of unconscious repetition.

None of us want to paint the same picture twice. We are on a journey, each visual statement is a step along the way, as we stride on to new pastures we feel the spring of the turf beneath our eager feet. When it comes to creativity, repetition is the deadening hand, the dry wind that sears the juice from our sweet fruit. It is a retraction from the scary, ever-changing present moment Now, back to the remembered safety of prior gambits, the dry bones of past ambition.

Creativity is all about the new, it may look at the old but the eyes are dewy fresh. When we find ourselves languishing in the airless seas of cliché, the zephyr required is the new and the different. We are fortunate in that we live in a world of change, each moment is new and freshly minted, so novelty is not in short supply. If we cannot see it, it’s either because we don’t want to (it’s scary) or because we are not looking.

Even if we change just one aspect of what we are doing we will be helping our selves. A change of subject, space, materials, attitude, or preoccupation will all cause us to fall back on our creative resources. The most important routine an artist can have is to break routine, to connect with what is, rather than what has been.

With the possibility of a Christmas just around the corner why not choose to be gifted a new colour/brush/paper completely at random by a loved one and then to commit to using it and seeing where it goes?

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Following the crowd


Flicking through the fly blown organs that nowadays constitute the news, I read about how most people, most of the time, just want to fit in. They want to make sure that largely they do what others do, possibly with their own stylistic flourish but certainly avoiding challenging any of the accepted mores of their time.

Artists of course are different. They choose a course in life which sets them against the orthodox, they point things out that others haven’t seen, when others turn left they turn turtle and make soup. Prominent artists in history tend to be remembered more for what they did differently than what they did well.

One of my favourite quotes – I don’t recall the author – is that if your work looks right, it probably isn’t. If it looks right that is because it looks familiar, derivative either of your own work or another’s. If it looks wrong that may be because it is new. Or rubbish. But let’s concentrate on the new.

To present your own work when it doesn’t look like anyone else’s is unnerving, it requires courage to tell your truth. There are flamboyant souls who revel in being controversial but most of us don’t want to make a fuss. When we see that our own work looks odd we want to cover it up, make sure no one has seen it and move on. In so doing we deny the world of one of the most important things we can give it, our personal insight.

When others are moved by what we have seen, it can liberate them to move in similar ways. With time what was seen as apostasy can become the mainstream.

What will stop us is fear, for fear is very effective at closing down our critical faculties. What conquers fear is love because love is substantial and fear is a wraith, an imagined possibility. When we love ourselves we honour our output and value it. When we take the risk and put our work out there, that is an expression of love for the rest of humanity.

“It is only when we are no longer fearful that we begin to create.”
J.M.W. Turner?

National treasure Neil Oliver has some interesting reflections on fear here. (Warning – it’s not very polite about our government!)

Learning from each other

We sent out a sort of questionnaire to everyone who has been painting and drawing with us this year, thank you so much to those of you who responded. We were a bit overwhelmed with the number of responses, almost exclusively positive, so thank you all for taking the trouble to share your thoughts with us. It will take a little time to digest all of your comments and respond.

The New Year

Whilst the studio is closed, Ana and Simon are busy updating the website and getting everything ready for New Year, we hope that you will be able to book courses by next week. You might note that David Sawyer has kindly agreed to work with us again, probably on Thursdays, details to follow. We will also be offering a short Introduction to Oil Painting on Friday afternoons, Simon Dunstan (that’s me!) will be getting you going with oil paint and colour.

Our Spring Term starts on the 4th January for all of the ‘drop-in’ style groups and on the 10th January for the more formally structured courses.

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The tyranny of optics


A photo of the retina – the white blob is where the optic nerve attaches, it’s called the blind spot.

One of the advantages of having bright and fleshy beings in the studio again is that casual conversations about drawing and painting emerge of themselves, surprising us and reminding us of the strong forces we wrestle with when describing our world.

One recurrent theme is around how we see. As visual artists this is more important to us perhaps than to many: freedom from the idea that our perceptual system works like a camera can be a breathy liberation.

So lets say it, your eye is not a camera, very far from it. Yes, there is a lens which projects onto the back of the eye but as soon as the retina gets involved the magic begins.

The retina is low resolution except for a hot spot in the middle. What you see with clarity is an area about the size of your thumbnail at arms length. Everything else is mush. If you don’t believe me hold your arm out now and whilst focusing on your thumb try and experience the level of detail in what surrounds it. Not much there, is there? There is even a blind spot of which we are blithely unaware.

The optic nerve, the string that attaches the eye to the brain is actually made of brain. It triages the information being received by the eye and only passes what it deems worthy of consideration, chiefly things that move or things that are new.

Our visual experience is a tableau orchestrated by our mind’s eye, cunningly arranged to convince us that we are in a highly rendered three dimensional space filled with things. This is an illusion, it is a trick consciousness plays on us, for good Darwinian reasons. At the visual level at the very least, we create our own reality.

One aspect of the trick, which can be infuriating for us artists, is that as soon as a ‘thing’ is recognised, a hieroglyph is issued rather than the full richness of visual experience. The brain can work faster with this visual word, which keeps the illusion running smoothly.

If the eye recognises a banana, the optic nerve sends its hieroglyph of a banana, enough for the minds eye to work with but pretty much useless for the observational artist. For us, to really see a banana we have to stop, focus, be intrigued and explore. We have to convince our mind that this is not just an archetypical banana but a particular banana, an exquisite and unique banana.

Traditionally and in practice, artists have learned to draw the many ‘things’ that fill the creation. We refine our inner hieroglyphics. Your visual shorthand for an ear is a useful expedient when your drawing is more interested in gesture or narrative. But when learning to draw the ear then acute observation is the thing.

Understanding a little of how perception works is not only fascinating but opens up interesting questions for artists. If it is the case that the mind’s eye has a talent for filling in the gaps, do we need to describe everything we see? Could we supply a series of visual cues instead of slavishly rendering what we appear to see? Is this why images which have a more broken presentation can be more engaging?

Whilst we are surrounded by photographic imagery we can be forgiven for thinking that this is how perception works; after all, we’re just following the science of optics. Then, with a little curiosity, we discover that there is more and deeper science which tells a different story and our whole world changes. The camera never lies and yet, when we appropriate its very particular form of ‘seeing’ for our own, it becomes the most outrageous of misrepresentations, defensible with logic and yet fundamentally a misunderstanding.

The propensity to question everything, including certainties like what we see, is a powerful tool for an artist or indeed, any awakened human being.

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Why you are the true Alchemists


Detail of The Alchemist – Joseph Wright of Derby

Why you are the true Alchemists

On a perfect day with a pristine blue sky, un-etched by con-trails (why do they disappear some days and not others?), I found myself in a swanky part of town looking at some gold bullion. It’s pretty stuff, you can see why some people go potty over it. It has a presence and value that needs no explanation.

Back in the day there was an idea that base metal could be turned into gold through the application of alchemical processes. The Philosophers Stone, it is said, could not only turn base metal into gold but could bestow immortality, properties that even today would make it more desirable than an iPhone13.

Cynics will tell you that during the Renaissance, alchemy became a cover for esoteric practices that would have been classed as heretical by the Church, an organisation which was almost as powerful in its day as Google or Facebook. They say that the real purpose of alchemy was to realise the presence of the divine in base matter such as the self.

Artists are of course the true alchemists. They have the business of taking base matter such as a drear landscape or a couple of old pots and seeing the startling and self evident value of these things. To transform otherwise banal objects and places, words and sounds, shapes and colours in this way makes them wizards. When they then share what they have seen with others they go some way to helping us realise that it’s all perfect, every moment when seen aright is golden, each nugget of existence a glistering gift.

Gold is a medium of exchange which like alchemy, is rather forgotten about. We have no need for such things these days do we?

nb What I particularly like about artists is that they can often deliver their astounding output in spite of themselves, creating works of perfection whilst being notably imperfect themselves. Sometimes they will not even notice that they have produced something of great value to others, so familiar are they with their own insights.

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Discipline

Discipline is not a popular word these days. It carries with it a sense of obligation and duty connected with institutions and punishment and unless that is a bit kinky, not really much fun at all.

The word comes from disciple, one who follows to learn and when used this way it seems to make more sense to us artists. If the opposite of discipline is freedom and we were to approach each act of art with complete freedom we might be all over the place. Some structure or constraint is used to direct our efforts, we may be following ideas which were given to us when we learnt to draw or paint or following an inner feeling or intuition or just following the rules of our chosen medium. Whether we can articulate it or not there will be a discipline we adhere to, even if that is to have no rules at all, the hardest one.

The discipline of an organised palette, of cleaning brushes, of drawing each day or of attending to our social media (yuk!) can all be electively ignored without inevitable disaster but when we work, that discipline needs to be in place even if it is unconscious. Moving towards our sense of rightness, balance or beauty or conversely pursuing the startling, jarring and uncomfortable are all movements and movement is good, stasis is not the artists’ friend.

Working with an explicit discipline gives us something to follow and also to question, to fight against and push the boundaries, it’s always good to see what can be achieved with a severely limited palette or by drawing with the non dominant hand, things emerge that were previously unseen.

The paradox is that with a firm discipline in place we seem to have greater freedom. Coherent light, as found in a laser beam, is just the same light that bounces around in a million ways but it is organised so that all of the light waves are of the same frequency and going in the same direction. No more energy needs to be used than in dispersed light but it is much more effective in very specific ways. When we work, there is always the possibility of our creativity constantly engaging with everything that arises, what of this? and what of that? The discipline we impose means that we can expend all of our energy within the defined parameters, which feels like freedom.