On not being able to draw

What is he seeing?
What is he seeing?

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. 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. This is not as exciting as seeing what you see and feeling the freedom to explore the shapes and forms any way you like.

When we look at the world, we are already interpreting it.

From boredom to insight

Creativity is neither right nor wrong; it just is.

Your own journey begins with the realisation that your creativity can find productive expression.

Many, most of us perhaps, have wanted to develop our creative ideas further, and this often finds an outlet in our daily 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. This is what adults do.

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.

Perhaps, though, 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. Faced with these experiences, many people abandon art (and a lot of other creative pursuits such as music), early on in life.

This painting is from a still life class I took, only once, where we were instructed to copy a copper pot. I explored the light around the pot instead. 

Shadow of Copper

It is not uncommon for people to have a maturing experience of their own lives and want to come back to that creativity that had eluded them. But this experience can be mind-numbing as few courses offered by schools or colleges meet the expectations 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 academic artists in these institutions is with people 18-25 or so and not with mature learners with life experience. [I have written variously on the subject of art education, the articles are copied into the art blog on this site.]

And there is a phenomenon of ‘late blooming’ creativity.

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

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 — painting as they say in the ‘here and now’..

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, we often keep taking more classes hoping the next one will be different. But they aren’t; the paintings feel lifeless, mute – the flower in the vase died as soon as it was painted, and lives on only in the imagination, but is definitely not on the canvas!

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?  You ask a student why they doing this and they don’t know (true story!). Studies show that people spend less than 15 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.

Think of the different stages of a plant/flower by combining its growth in some imaginative way. Paint its whole life course at once.

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 edgy (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 and will forever be determined by the great arbiters of taste; and what will they choose for next year? Perhaps flowers will be in fashion…. (read Michael Findlay, Value of Art). It is worth noting that emergent artists are toward younger artists because, perhaps cynically, there are more selling years with younger artists. Yet, true creativity is not dependent on being a certain age. So we don’t get to exhibit our work.

Indeed, there were and are a large number of women abstract expressionists, but they were in effect written out of art history. Get a copy of “Women of Abstract Expressionism” (Yale/Denver Art Museum, 2016).

So we think that must be the way it is and sigh. 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. But of course, it doesn’t have to be like 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).

Many of us may 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.

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. And yet you pay.

Creativity, though, is powerful and dangerous. It has energy, indeed violence and is a force of nature.

Creativity does not like to be contained.

Fearing what others may think of our work also means that we are afraid of what we may create, of how potentially violent our inner creative energies may be. What might come ‘out’?

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’.

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 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, or evolve from a lump of clay or stone.

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.

You have been here all along! Welcome home.

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