I have been thinking a lot recently about my own artistic influences both conscious and unconscious. This was initially prompted by a question posed on an application form for membership to a society. “How does your work relate to theories of contemporary art critical discourse? ” A fine example of International Art English! My answer was perhaps a glib cliche, “It doesn’t.” Yes I could draw some parallels with movements with which I have some affinity or artists whose work I admire, but as I have mentioned in previous blogs for much of my career, I have been creating within a different discipline. The skills may be transferable but the influences less so. There is no denying that since my decision to pursue a fine art path I have discovered other artists drawing inspiration from the same sources as my self, but it has ever been so.
However, some paintings seem to have been a reoccurring presence in my life and perhaps despite their irrelevance to the direction of my own work they have influenced me regardless. One such work could be “Spatial Concept Waiting” by Luciano Fontana. Hardly a painting at all, it consists of a simple un-primed hessian canvas with a precise diagonal cut slicing through the material to reveal a black, cavelike void behind.
I first came across this work as a schoolboy on a trip to the Tate Gallery with my Father. My Father was fine draughtsman and a big influence on my creativity when I was a child. He taught me to draw and showed me works by artists he admired in the books he borrowed from the library. He loved the work of Raphael, Rembrandt, Watteau, Dürer and Picasso. We would make occasional trips to one of the big galleries in London so that he could show me the real paintings. Spatial Concept Waiting however was not high on the list of important works I should see. My father dismissed it scathingly as he did most modernist or conceptual art and perhaps that was the reason it stayed with me. I’m sure I agreed with him, and without a doubt at that early stage in my artistic development this negative view of contemporary art coloured my thoughts as well.
I encountered Fontana’s work again at art school and while I now understood it and the context of spacialism in which it had been produced, it was just another work in another art history lecture.
Forwarding some 20 years later and as I begin to define the direction of my own work I am cutting into the surface of the board and creating textures behind the surface plane. Although there are few similarities between the piece I am working on and the neatly cut hessian of Fontana’s work, something reminds me of that brooding darkness behind the thin skin of cloth and the feeling that there is still more going on behind it.
In February I took my daughter to the Tate Modern just as my Dad had taken me. Zoë is more than happy to explore her own feelings about the work on show and just asks questions when she wants to know more. Looking at familiar works through her eyes is both refreshing and surprising. Rounding a corner I was presented once more with Spacial Concept Waiting. This time it felt more like coming across an old friend. Although I like it, it’s still not a work I would necessarily choose for my own fantasy living room, there are just so many to admire and lust after. However perhaps it’s time to finally admit that the idea of wanting to go beyond a flat two dimensional surface has stayed with me and the seed could well have been planted by Signor Fontana.
This chain of thought has me wondering what other seeds were planted back then and I have begun to think that perhaps some of those parallels were not parallels at all.
With hindsight there is perhaps a fuller explanation to that question on the application form, but it is certainly not one that I could ever fit into a few hundred words. Perhaps it’s completely impossible to avoid the influence of other artists? The unconscious nudge has even more chance of finding its way into ones work than the big looming presence that you try so hard to avoid. Either way, I have decided to allow myself some little creative luxuries that I would have avoided previously as having been explored before or touched by an artist who’s work I admire.
I’m allowing myself to create in white even though Ben Nicholson created such amazing stark reliefs with it.
I’m also letting some of my collaged paper roughs become the final piece despite Matisse beating us all to it by some 70 years. It’s not as if I’m treading on any ones artistic toes so what does it matter if someone else can draw comparisons and similarities?
Last week I was invited by the Art & Design Faculty at Mounts Bay Academy (one of the two secondary schools here in Penzance) to give a short talk to some of the students. The premiss was to explain my work, the ideas and processes behind it and a little about my journey from scientific illustration to fine art. The kids were brilliant and after my talk two year 9 students, Jess and Tom, interviewed me for the school radio station and a piece in the newsletter. Mounts Bay Academy was one of the first secondary schools in the UK to give every child an ipad as a learning aid. It was no surprise to me therefore that while Jess interviewed me using the questions she had researched and prepared on her ipad Tom, recorded the interview on his for later use with other media.
Thinking back on it digital devices have been part of my creative process for almost all my working life. I have been using Apple Macs and the great plethora of art and design software that arrived along with them since the late 80’s. I commented on this during my talk, making a joke of how they didn’t look half as cool back then. I explained how I use it as part of my creative process. I wanted to emphasise that a pencil, a camera, a brush, an iPad or a pallet knife are all just tools. It’s not the medium, it’s the ideas that count.
This brought me to three key points I wanted the kids to take away from my address. Inspiration is all around us if you know how to look with a creative eye and an open mind. The technology in your pocket is a great tool so it doesn’t matter if you use your smart phone or a digital camera to record what inspires you. Keep a sketch book so that you can put all your ideas in it however vague they may be.
Sketch books were something the art teachers were also keen to encourage. It seems students don’t always see the relevance of them or the importance of keeping one as a useful habit. Like everyone who has ever been through a formal art education I had the importance of keeping sketchbooks ground into me. Sketchbooks, sketchbooks, sketchbooks. It’s a mantra beloved by foundation course tutors worldwide, and an essential part of the coursework for GCSE or A level Exams. Art Historians adore them for the record and provenance they provide. Even us mere practitioners find other artists sketchbooks endlessly fascinating for the window into another’s creative thought processes
Keeping a sketchbook of some kind is a habit I find useful, if not essential. With my mind often jumping between ideas somewhat erratically and my tendency to get distracted it has become somewhere to record snippets of information, moments of inspiration, doodles, designs and even the occasional en plein air sketch. But am I wrong to try to perpetuate their use in the potential artists, designers, and architects of tomorrow? As I had already told them they have the technology with them everyday to record images of the world around them so why not use it for thoughts and sketches too?
During Grayson Perry’s superb series of Reith Lectures for the BBC he was asked whether acquiring skills and technology paralyses creativity? His reply mirrored my own thoughts on this, he said “Oh no. absolutely not. You know I mean it’s a great joy because as soon as you learn a technique, you start thinking in it. That’s the great thing, you know. When I learn about a new technique, suddenly my imaginative possibilities have expanded…A phrase that I like is “relaxed fluency” you know when you get into the zone and you’ve done your 10,000 hours and you’ve become really skillful.”
I have most definitely done my 10,000 hours and I would say I am as relaxed and fluent wielding Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator as I am a pencil. So why do I still have a sketch book?
Perhaps it’s just the technology I grew up with. My training was very traditional too, water colour, pen and pencil, hand rendered typography and pasting up pages. So it’s hardly surprising that when it comes down to it, I think with a pencil. But what if you grow up using something as sophisticated as an iPad?
For people like myself the development of technology and the new creative possibilities it holds is as astonishing as it is exciting. For the new generations of young creatives like those at Mounts Bay Academy it is just part of everyday life. So if there is one thing I have learnt from my visit to them, it is that perhaps I’m not as adept as I thought. I don’t think with the technology after all… but they do and I can’t wait to see what they create.
I am starting this blog section of my web site with the best of intentions. Namely to forge something slightly more personal with those who come here and are interested in my work. I have no particular plan other than to give some kind of insight into my work and creative thinking. However as I am constantly reminded by my wonderful wife I am easily distracted. So my blog entries could either be sporadic in which case I have been distracted by something else, or they could be a distraction in themselves. In which case I will be gently reminded that I should be painting. [ read more ]