Sunday, 25 April 2010
Do you know what you're doing?
'Only when he no longer knows what he is doing does the painter do good things' - Edgar Degas.
When I happened upon this quotation recently, it resonated with me with such force that, in my excitement, I wanted to shout it from the rooftops, put out the flags and declare an 'Edgar Degas' National Holiday! But of course, being English, I did none of those things but I did decide that when I had time, I would blog about it.
Why did this seemingly paradoxical pearl of wisdom from Degas excite me so much? The answer lies in the fact that, over the years I've had so many frustrating conversations with friends, when I've tried to express the same sentiment but never managed to do it convincingly. I knew what I meant - and I knew it from experience, not from having read about it, but I couldn't put it into words and probably ended up only convincing my friends that I'm some sort of inarticulate dreamer.
From time to time, I am asked to teach a 'Pastel Class' or to give a talk or, even worse, a demonstration of how I work! My reply has always been that there's no way I could even contemplate such a thing because I do not know how I work, I don't know what I'm doing when I paint - at which point I feel I must sound terribly pretentious and 'arty' or perhaps as if I'm well on the way to needing to be carted off by 'the men in white coats'!
I'd better make it clear that I'm not referring to the kind of painting I do when I design greeting cards. That's a completely different kettle of fish and, except perhaps in the drawing stage, everything is done with a lot of thought and deliberation and I hope that I 'know what I'm doing'. By 'painting' I mean what I call 'proper painting' - pastel painting in particular.
Here are a few examples to clarify what I mean. In the 'Art and Design' class that I attended in Norwich, we were given very basic 'design' exercises, as far as I remember, from the Bauhaus, and one of them was to make a grid in charcoal and fill it with interlocking 'T' and 'L' shapes, which we could then smudge, obliterate, accentuate, make black, grey or white, according to what seemed needed. I didn't finish my exercise in the class so I took it home and carried on with it in the evening, sitting on the floor by the fire, watching television. When I went to bed, I left it propped up in an armchair and next morning, as soon as I went into the room, it hit me that what I'd done the night before expressed precisely how I'd been feeling at the time. I had been struggling with some very fickle builders and the disputes had become quite vicious; my design had turned into knife blades (I had felt that 'the knives were out') and the black, grey and white seemed so cold and bleak, expressing the feelings of isolation I was experiencing, having taken on, and called to account, a whole firm of builders, their quantity survey and their boss, single-handed! This was admittedly no great work of art, something more like 'Art Therapy' really but the point is that when I was working on it, I had no idea what I was doing!
And yet some part of me had known precisely what I was doing, probably more accurately than if I'd sat down with the intention of painting a picture of how I felt.
On a lighter note, we often had a life model in that same Art and Design class, to use or not as we wished. Another student in the class, whose pastel painting style was quite similar to mine, always seemed to want to pick the same position for her life drawing as I did. As we both worked fast, we overcame this potential problem by sharing the time we spent drawing from our favourite angle. We had been happily managing with this arrangement for some weeks when one of the other students commented that the two of us were very alike, in that we paced about, huffed and puffed, sighed noisily and generally caused quite a lot of distraction to the rest of the class when we were working. Until it was brought up, neither of us had the faintest idea that we we were doing any of these things! How embarrassing! We didn't know what we were doing!
What I'm referring to is almost an altered state of consciousness, pretentious as that sounds! From what I've read more recently, I think it may be a case of being 'in flow'.
Another class that I attended was taught, or more accurately, presided over, by Peter Baldwin. Peter would start the lesson by reading someting art-related to us, most of which I've forgotten, though I do remember him trying to explain cubism to us and reading an extract from Plato! This would occupy the first fifteen minutes or so of the lesson, at the end of which he would ask, 'Is that clear to everyone?' We would not our heads sagely - and then go off and do our own thing. Sometimes we were lucky enough to have models to paint, a nun on one occasion (she was a perfect model as she was so 'still'!), an old boy from out on the Broads, my 'model' for the gardener in my 'retirement' card', who amused us all by walking round the room in the break time, giving us his verdict on our efforts!
When we didn't have a model, Peter would bring in a collection of interesting objects, flowers and sometimes fruit and set up a 'Still life' for us to paint. At the end of the afternoon we were all encouraged to take a look at everyone else's work before it was packed away. One afternoon, the Still Life was set up on a wooden chair with lots of cross-bars and rails. I was quite happy with what I'd produced but one of the other students commented, 'Pity about the perspective of that cross -bar.' I looked again, and sure enough she was quite right - my perspective was completely 'out'! Now I do know quite a lot about perspective from the presentation drawings I had to do for a correspondence course in Interior Design I'd done some years previously. So I was puzzled and somewhat dismayed - until I heard Peter's voice from behind us saying, 'But surely, xxxx, you know that Judy's an expressionist? 'Looking again at the whole painting, rather than focussing on that one 'wrong' angle, I realised that, although I hadn't known what I was doing at the time, the picture actually 'needed' that cross-bar to be as I had drawn it! Somehow it wouldn't have been 'right' if I'd put my knowledge of perspective into practice!
I think it has something to do with switching off the part of my brain that says, 'this is a chair and that is an orange...' and just getting on with it instinctively, or maybe intuitively? Once I begin a painting, that logical thought process recedes into the background, especially if I accompany my painting with music, or even televison, and makes way for some kind of 'inner knowing' to take over! I approach my painting as a series of shapes that need to be recorded on paper, not distinguishing between a life drawing and a landscape or a building - they are all one to me.
Imagine my surprise when I painted an old fishing boat, tied up by the quayside in Broadstairs. I thought I was painting one quite large boat but when I finished it and stood back from it, I realised that it was in fact two, smaller boats! I hadn't had a clue what I was doing!
So how could I possibly teach others to do what I do, when I don't have the first idea of what I'm doing myself? I often say, when asked, that 'people have to find their own way', which may come across as if I don't want to share my 'trade secrets'; but I do sincerely believe that to be true. Can we help people to 'find their own way'? I would answer 'yes, we can' because I was helped enormously by the exercises I did in the Monday morning Art and Design class all those years ago in Norwich. It helped to free me up from all preconceived ideas about what I 'should' be doing.
Also, a comment from an elderly, retired, Slade-trained Art Teacher, a neighbour in Norwich, has stayed with me over the years. I had been pestering her for advice when finally, in exasperation, she put a stop to that with, 'What you've got to realise, gal, is that there ain't no knitting pattern'. Sound advice in relation to life in general, as well as to painting! More on that another day...
The picture at the top arrived in the form of a postcard from Sweden one morning. It's the work of my one and only grand-daughter, just turned four years old. I wonder if she knew what she was doing?