On not being able to draw

You do not need to be able to draw to be creative. This is one of the great lies of art, that it begins with drawing, sketching. Many people take life classes, drawing the human form, or still life classes, bowls of fruit or a vase of flowers. What they produce is probably OK, but the most expressive artists were often very poor at drawing (Henry Peacock wrote this in his book, Art as Expression).

Scribbling, doodling are the most natural things in the world. What is unnatural is trying to copy the world on a piece of paper. This is not as exciting as seeing what you see and feeling the freedom to explore the shapes and forms anyway you like. When we look at the world, we immediately want to interpret it. Being able to draw is not a prerequisite for creativity!

From boredom to insight

Creativity is neither right nor wrong, it just is, and the beginning of your own journey begins with the realisation that your creativity can find productive expression if you wish it.

Many, most of us perhaps, have wanted to develop our creative ideas further, and this often finds an outlet in our work regardless of what we do for a living. As adults we take up various projects to express our creative interests, which become a journey of discovery and personal development. For example, some of us write, others make films or take photographs, and many explore painting, sculpture, pottery, jewellery, textiles, while others design and maintain gardens, and so on.

Perhaps like many others, you had rotten experiences of art in school, especially if you were deemed “not very good” (whatever that might mean…). Instead of drawing a vase, getting the face just right, being able to get the apple to look like something that one could eat, you became frustrated and took typing or bookkeeping instead (I took both of these and actually I think typing was the most useful thing I learned in high school, given where we are with computers!). Faced with these barriers and early frustrations, many people abandon art (and a lot of other creative pursuits such as music, early on in life).

At a later point, many people have a maturing experience of their own lives and want to come back to that creative urge they thought they had lost. But this experience can be mind-numbing as few courses offered by schools or colleges meet the desire for creative accomplishment by an adult learner. It is worth noting that many art classes focus on techniques not creativity itself; also keep in mind that the vast majority of the experience of academics in these institutions is with people 18-25 or so and not with more mature learners. It is quite separate to consider the artistic merits of those in art schools who teach art.

Despite all the modern world can provide in resources, and cheap art classes in the local town hall, many people, perhaps most, feel deeply unhappy with them.

Paint ‘in the moment’, simply see what would happen if…, if you did this and then that.

That does not necessarily mean being careless, it means interpreting how you feel, what you are thinking, at a particular moment.

Abstract expressionists feared the label decorative, as they didn’t want to paint anything recognisable. They also used big brushes, to avoid detail.

By the end of the art class, the art ‘thing’ is done, but it isn’t quite right — the door is a bit wonky, the trees not quite the right shade of green, the skin a bit too mauve, whatever. Certainly not what was asked for or expected by the ‘teacher’.

Like the hamster on the wheel, some people keep taking more classes, but fail to unleash their creative energies; the paintings feel lifeless, seem mute, say nothing about the passion for colour or the heady fragrance – the flower in the vase died as soon as it was painted, and lives on only in the imagination.

Perhaps we try to have creative days and go to art galleries, roaming around murmuring about different works, while feeling that there must be something more to art than this. We see the students with their sketch pads copying some piece of art, but why? What has that go to do with artistic expression? Do I need formal qualifications from an art school to be an artist, we ask? Studies show that people spend perhaps 20 seconds looking at a painting, half of that time spent reading the label!

We may subscribe to an ‘art’ magazine, which arrives with breathless articles on how to paint the sky, getting the grass to look like grass; we wonder if we have the courage to enter next month’s competition. We go the art store and buy another colour of paint to try. We may have a box full of colours yet remain afraid of colour. We own every size of brush and carry our paints around in a pickup truck.

Time really doesn’t exist. Think of the different stages of a plant/flower by combining its growth in some imaginative way.

Thinking like this led Picasso to Cubism via Einstein’s theory of relativity.
He came to understand that objects could be seen from a variety of perspectives.

We may find an avant-garde gallery and look at the shark in aspic or the box of rocks on a stove, and stare hoping that something will speak to us, but such works remain less than inscrutable — they are mute. The ‘official’ art community has spoken, and all art is like this right now; what will the great arbiters of taste choose for next year? Perhaps flowers will be in fashion…. (read Michael Findlay, Value of Art)

So we think that must be the way it is, and we go back to our art classes, and continue to produce lifeless works of increasing technical mastery, but of decreasing meaning. It becomes more important to just finish it! We forget what we are doing, and why. We put the painting in the attic.

Many of us will live in fear of showing others our work. Polite comments are common, as family and friends encourage us to continue. We may post our paintings to some social networking art community, where we receive comments like, “really like the reds”, “great!”, and the ever tiresome, “more, please”. We really want some decent criticism, but cringe at the possibility that it will devastate us.

Pointillism is built on how we put together pictures from dots (look closely at a colour picture in a magazine — it is made of little dots). Make the dots big, and you have Roy Lichtenstein.

The art teachers in our classes seem to give feedback that is banal — they may be honest enough to tell you that the course that you are taking so seriously is from their perspective just recreational art, not a real art class, just something to do on Tuesday’s. You may be dismayed at learning this.

Fear and art go together: “provocative art challenges not only the viewer but also the maker”, (Bayles and Orland wrote this in their book, Art and Fear).

If you are not surprising yourself with your work, you are not creating, as creativity is a powerful force that does not enjoy being contained — it has energy, indeed violence and is more like a force of nature. For many of us, that creativity has been contained by too many commutes on the train, too many office meetings, exhausting days on the line, and working with toxic people.

Fearing what others may think of our work also means that we are afraid of what we may create. In the end, the feeling lingers of an inability to paint.

Colours don’t really exist independently of how we see them.
Infra-red colour film records colours in a different part of the light spectrum, which our eye can’t see (snakes see infrared, some insects see ultraviolet).
Translated into painting, it lets the sky be green and fields blue.
You know that morning colours are different from evening colours and the sky still has light in it hours after the sun has gone down – purples, magentas.

Picasso said: “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child”.

Developing your vision through abstraction

Not everything we want to paint needs to look like something, such as a bowl of fruit, a tree or a landscape. We may instead want to capture the smell of a flower, the feelings we have looking at a sunset. Steven Spurrier, the wine expert, calls wine ‘bottled sunshine’ – what does that look like?

These experiences of our senses and of our thoughts are all quite real, just as real as the flower in the vase. The key is know how to make creative sense of them.

The challenge, then, is to translate this internal understanding of the world, the one you don’t get to play with in ordinary art classes, into something that can appear ‘out there’ on a piece of paper or canvas, evolve from a lump of clay or stone.

We may be drawn to a simple bowl of fruit; we may like its shapes, contours, colours and be less interested in painting the fruits accurately. We want to convey the feelings about the tastes themselves, so that the fruits merge into a feeling for the bowl of fruit, and a sense of enjoyment.

We may see the fruit, and think of ‘five a day’ for instance, and the health benefits of the fruit, and seek to capture that notion in a painting.

You are already here!

You can approach abstract art from familiar territory – it is not an undiscovered country, but the natural way of seeing the world. It is the world you live in and make.

For people interested in new forms of expression, abstract painting can be liberating, once you are freed of the strictures of the still life class, the life study class, the art history class, the tools and techniques class.

Dance Cognitif

The featured painting illustrates old colours and abstraction perhaps 500 years ago if the artists of the day had pushed their perceptions to that end. If you look at the drop down menu under the ART tab, you’ll see other examples of this exploration.

The Passage of Time

The Passage of Time

This painting explores the wonderful abstracted backgrounds painters of the period imagined and also draws on the work of Malevich.

The “Passage of Time” has a fluidity to it, but it is also chunked; while we experience time relatively ‘smoothly’ and perhaps at times passing too quickly, we remember the passage of time discretely, as events and a real sense of before and after. It is not fluid when remembered.

It is acrylic on canvas, 70 cm x 100 cm. Painted using a knife.

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In the city 1


Horizonal paintings are perceived by our minds to be landcapes when there are also lines running horizontally. The horizontal Scapes explore, to a degree, how little is needed to evoke a landscape moment. With my photography and tapestries, I did landscapes as narrow vertical images. Our eyes see through what is called a ‘letter box’ format (wide and thin); by turning that aspect ratio on its side, we see from the ground up to the stars.

With city Scapes, I explore the monumentalism of the built environment; it is anticipated that we’ll all live in cities, but at what cost to our quality of life. The Indus Valley, a connected megalopolis that can be seen from space, has a population approaching 1 billion people. Artscape 7 is a vertical landscape.

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Cognitives is what I call my work that draws on Suprematism (Malevich), Artistic Relativity Theory (what some called Cubism) and Abstract Expressionism. Techniques frequently involve glazing (up to 50 layers in almost homeopathic concentrations) usually on heavy paper. These paintings seek to conspire with the viewer’s mind to create new ways of seeing ideas.

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Departure and Arrival


Sumi-e is Japanese or Chinese brush painting, done on very fine paper, with ink and special brushes. I’m exploring abstraction through Sumi-e and Zen, so these are exploratory studies.

There are some artists in Asia that are moving away from the figurative form of Sumi-e with a focus on landscapes, plants such as bamboo and animals and birds. Some historical works such as Hiroshige’s waves are early examples, while Gao Xingjian, who won the Nobel prize for his writings, has done some wonderful abstracts.

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All that is melts into nothingness


Mediaeval considers what abstract art might have been in the 15th Century or thereabouts. Indeed, the question I ask when I look at the work of that period in London’s National Gallery, is ‘what were they thinking?’

Drawing on conceptual models and exploration of the colour palette, these painting are on paper, canvas and panels/plywood. I’ll be doing more on panels, especially with their rough surface.

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tapestry technique, fabric and old farm implement. about 0.2 x 0.1 m


For a while, I was part of a weaving guild, having taken up tapestry weaving to explore textural effects of my art photography; as I work with film, I am in the process of making digital images of my art photography and will post a gallery in due course.

These are all made on very large flat looms, not tapestry looms, using in many cases hand-spun cotton, wool and silk yarns. Weaving in this way is very slow and tough on the back!

Morning Colours and Evening Colours are vertical landscapes. The Swimmer is an homage to the book “Swimmer in the Secret Sea” by William Kotzwinkle who no one seems to read anymore. Breastplate is more a woven/macrame construction, rethinking the breastplate worn in combat. Adz is a mixing of a found object with weaving; at one point, I explored pottery to create a pottery frame for a woven structure but the tension broke the pots (no I didn’t weave the unfired pot then put it in the kiln…).

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Abstraction Book

I wrote a little book on how abstract art is liberating for creativity.

You can order a (pdf) copy from me. The text below sets out my thinking in a bit more detail.

Introduction to Creativity and Abstraction: THE BOOK

If you are interested in thinking further about abstraction and creativity, you may order a short book for your personal use.

For further information or to order: email Mike at this address: mike <at @> skythunder <dot .> net

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Abstraction Short Courses

These more specific courses may be of interest; all are half-day.

  1. still-life abstraction

  2. landscape and cityscape abstraction

  3. figurative abstraction

  4. abstract abstraction (for those who really want to explore the outer limits of the materiality of visual perception)

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