Thursday, October 14, 2010

Art for your sake

In this post I want to talk about art and you. I want to get you creating some art. And before you say anything, listen ...


As a working artist, I'm always meeting people who say things to me like 'Oh I wish I could draw' or 'I can't paint to save my life'. It's very frustrating to hear them say that because it's simply not true. They are all perfectly capable of drawing and painting. They have arms and hands, eyes and fingers (and, even if they don't, that's no barrier). What they're actually saying is 'I don't produce anything that I'm happy with'. The problem is their perception, not their ability.

When I worked for Scotland Yard's Problem Solving Unit, we would often find that the issue wasn't the actions of the people allegedly causing the problem. It was the way that their actions were viewed by those people complaining. For example, we'd be told by middle-aged people that it wasn't safe to walk the streets because of 'all of the kids in hoods'. Then we'd talk to the kids with their hoods up and they'd say 'It isn't safe to walk the streets with our hoods down in case kids from another gang recognise us'. And further investigation would show that the only people who ever got assaulted and robbed were under 25. So the problem wasn't kids in hoods but how people outside of that demographic - none of whom had been robbed or assaulted incidentally - saw them.

Art is just the same. If Bob Smith adores Titian and wants to paint like Titian, he'll be disappointed when his work is only 30% Titian-ish. He'll believe that he's somehow failed. But he hasn't. He's created a 100% Bob Smith piece; as unique and valid as anything Titian ever produced. Validity isn't measured by galleryworthiness or monetary value; most of the great painters and sculptors were unappreciated in their own lifetimes and many died in penury. Bob Smith's lack of self-belief is skewing his perception and making him see a problem that isn't actually there. His art is valid. It has worth. It only loses those things in his eyes because he's comparing it to another artist's work. If he'd never seen a Titian would he be happier with his own work? Of course he would.

And there is the issue of taste. Just because Bob may not be happy with what he's produced doesn't mean that it won't be loved by others. Taste is an intensely personal thing. We all see a piece of art differently. I can almost guarantee that there's stuff I love that you'll hate and vice versa. For example, which (if either) of these paintings do you like?

The one on the left is by the late Frank Frazetta. the one on the right is by Boris Vallejo. Both men are absolute giants in the world of fantasy illustration. Both are painted with enormous skill. I love the Frazetta painting. The muted colour scheme, the power and tension in the hero's posture, the anticipation of the snake's strike. Boris's painting, meanwhile, does nothing for me. I really don't like it. I can admire the skill; there's more detail than in the Frazetta painting, and the female figure is far more anatomically correct than the barbarian. But the painting just doesn't float my boat. It's kind of cheesy. The palette is too extreme, almost as if the colours have been used straight from the tube. There's no connection between figure and monster; they're just two objects in juxtaposition. It's like she's posing with a stuffed dragon. Frazetta's figure, meanwhile, is connected to the monster in the most vulnerable way imaginable. You can almost feel that snake warm and scaly as it slithers between his legs. The sepia-toned colour scheme brings them even closer together and there are hints of other monsters lurking in the gloom. I wouldn't hang either painting on my wall but if I had to choose, Frazetta would win hands down. Same for you?
I used to teach art to older teenagers at a youth club in the early 1990s and the Frazetta/Vallejo images were ones that I used to create discussion. What I found, time and time again, was that most of the kids, male and female, preferred Vallejo's paintings. The reasons they gave were almost always about colour and the level of detail and the almost photographic quality of the figures. We agreed to disagree but it just shows how different tastes can be. Now look at these two pictures and decide which one you prefer:
These were two of the finalists in this year's BP Portrait Award 2010. The one on the left is Michal Ozibko's i-death. On the right is Last Portrait of Mother by Daphne Todd. When I went to see the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, Ozibko's piece left me cold. It was huge and beautiful and showed an extraordinary ability. I liked the subject matter and what he was trying to say. But, compared to Todd's picture of her dead mother, i-death was simply an exercise in exemplary technique. Todd's picture held me for ages. The rough strokes of the paint spoke of a haste, of a desperate need to capture the nobility of this frail woman before it was too late. Even the use of two canvasses made me think that, in her hurry, Todd had picked one up that was too small but there wasn't enough time to start again. I later learned that the picture was painted over three days at the chapel of rest where Todd's 100 year old mother was kept after her death. Her mother had given permission for the piece. 'We all hope our remains are going to be treated respectfully, and I can imagine that some people will think this is not respectful,' says Todd. 'There are all sorts of issues about death that are swept under the carpet. No one really accepts that it really happens to each and every one of us and that it is happening all the time.' Again, I wouldn't hang either picture on my wall. But I know which one I prefer.
This idea of 'I wouldn't hang it on my wall' is hugely relevant to this discussion. There's a wonderfully enlightening snippet of conversation in the recent The Ricky Gervais Guide To Art podcast. Karl Pilkington makes the point that 'good art is art that the majority of people like' and that 'there's a lot of snobbery in art'. Gervais comes back with:
'I think there should be snobbery in art. The world is full of idiots. There isn't safety in numbers with art. I think you should be a complete fascist when creating a work of art. I don't think it's open to utilitarian or democratic referendum.' To which fellow podcaster Stephen Merchant pithily adds, 'We'd just end up with the X Factor.'

Gervais may be opinionated and inflammatory but I agree with him 100% on this issue. Art isn't about what the majority likes or wants. Art is all about the artist and what they want to say by commiting to canvas, paper, wall or plinth. An artist should never have to limit their creativity or change their chosen style just to satisfy some scorecard. There should never be some average mean of public taste and sensibility (whether or how to display the piece publicly is a different issue). If that were the case, all art would be the same. It would never evolve. It would stagnate. And, by the same token, you cannot measure one piece of art against another in terms of whether it's good or not. I can't possibly say that Frazetta is better than Vallejo or that Todd is better than Ozibko. It's as nonsensical as asking 'Which is better, an apple or a pear?' Neither is better. Better by what measure? All any of us are qualified to say is whose work we prefer.
Which brings me back to you, dear 'I can't draw for toffee' person. When you draw something and say you're unhappy with it, what are you unhappy with?
Are you unhappy because it doesn't look like the kind of art you like? None of my artwork looks like the work of those artists I most respect. I will never be able to draw and paint like Beryl Cook, Willie Rushton, Jon Burgerman, Amanda Visell, Eric Joyner, Arthur Rackham, W Heath Robinson, Ralph Steadman, Hajime Sorayama ... and all the others. So I don't make the comparison. How can I? I'm not any of them.
'There isn't safety in numbers with art'. It's so true. The fact that a greater percentage of the public prefer Constable's The Haywain to Lucien Freud's Benefits Supervisor Sleeping shouldn't mean that all public art should be green, oily and chocolate box pretty. When Picasso first shifted an eye to the wrong side of a painted head, he didn't think to himself 'People are going to hate this'. He did it because it felt right and to Hell with the rest of the world. He wasn't comparing his art to some benchmark of public opinion. He painted for his own satisfaction.
Children are deliciously uncritical and they love what they create. My grandchildren (aged 5 and 3) are always delighted with what they've painted. 'It's a train!' they reliably inform me as I try to find anything even remotely train-like among the raw blue, yellow and red splodges of poster paint. They see the value of what they've done. It's naive art in the true sense; they have not yet developed a taste in art and have no knowledge of art with which to compare their own efforts. The curse of adulthood is the loss of that naivety. The tragedy is losing the joy of the act of creation.

Or maybe you're unhappy because you can't move the vision in your head onto the canvas? Then take some art lessons. Or teach yourself. The process of painting or drawing is mechanical and it can be taught. The proportions of the human body can be taught. Use of colour and tone and media can be taught. It's hard work at times but if you want it bad enough, you'll get it. What can't be taught is imagination and passion. If you have the vision in your head and you desperately want to express it, you're already there. All you need to learn is how to use the tools.
You have to forget the idea of being 'good' or 'bad' at art. Art isn't like sport where you win or lose. Some people are better tennis players than others. No one is a better artist than any other.
As I wrote in an earlier blogpost, I know that people who tell me 'I'd like to write a book one day' mostly never will. If they really wanted to write, they'd write. All of the writers I know write all the time in notebooks, blogs, on napkins and i-pads. They can't turn it off. The consideration of whether anyone will ever read it other than themselves is secondary to the act of creation. That's why they're writers.
Artists are no different. I know lots of people - illustrators, painters, sculptors, photographers - and they never stop creating art. I was sat in a pub with my mate Mark from Photoswithattitude recently and, even though it was a social drink, he took at least ten photos of people and things because a shot presented itself and he felt compelled to capture it. Mark's photos are not simple landscapes or portraits or records of events. Every shot is composed, considered. And yet most will never be prints or be published in a book. He took them because it pleased him to do so.
Behind me in this room are six unfinished paintings; four in acrylics, two in oils. I'm teaching myself to paint because I don't know how. I'm enjoying myself immensely even though they aren't for sale and won't go into an exhibition. I'm not as technically proficient as any of the artists I've mentioned in this blog. I don't know if anyone will ever like them. But I don't care. I'm having fun being an artist.
If you really want to be an artist, then be one. The only thing stopping you is you.


Chris Hale said...

What an excellent and inspiring post this is! It's never too late to start learning something new. I've persuaded a friend to loan me a melodeon, and I now attempting to learn to play it. I'm rubbish, but I'll get better. Wish me luck...

Stevyn Colgan said...

Good luck Chris! The fun is in the trying and the achievement when you produce something you like.

Claire said...

Really enjoyed this post, especially the 100% Bob Smith part.

I didn't draw after school, because I was pissed off that I got a D in my GCSE's and the career advisor person suggested doing something with English, so I put the pencils away.

Then whilst I started blogging for my counselling diploma, I started doing some crappy doodles using the paint thing on microsoft. That led to me drawing doodles for the blog.

While my mum was in hospital I started doing daft cartoons for her, of the staff and her various medical procedures, like having leg amputated, which she loved.

I used the doodling to say things with pictures, instead of words and it helped enormously.

Now I can't stop doodling :) I look at other peoples stuff and think gargghhhhhh I will never be able to draw like that, but then I have a word with myself and remember that I do it for myself, because I love it.

Thanks for the great post.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Claire - That's great to read. I work as an artist (and writer) and people seem to like my stuff ... but I only got a C at A Level at school because I was being measured against a set of criteria that, frankly, I couldn't meet. Sadly, the education system is a bit of a sausage factory and there's no facility to allow true freedom and individualism in art.

I'm so pleased you get pleasure from what you do. x

Photoswithattitude said...

Hey many thanks for the mention Steve - Am I really that obsessed with the camera? - Sometimes I don't even know I'm doing it, but I am always looking for that shot which will capture a memory, or moment in time

Stevyn Colgan said...

Mark - I think you may be! But that's great! That shows real passion.

Karen Redman said...

Hi Stevyn, What a wise post this is - and with your characteristic warmth & humour, comes a great deal of very sound advice ... which I really should heed! I know I'm a writer ... I just have to sit down & write now! Thanks for reminding me about that! x

Simon Rudd said...

fantastic blog :D i started using Photoshop many many moons ago and this has led me to traditional art :D i call myself an artist and although i dont think my paintings will ever rock the world i have sold a few :)

At school i loathed art, mainly because one teacher gave me 1/2 out of 10 on a self portrait i spent hours working on. It sort of put me off even trying. i think this one action set me back about 15 years.

this has really inspired me :)


Stevyn Colgan said...

Karen - It doesn't matter what the artform is - do it because uyou love it. one of my (not quite) secret pleasures is writing songs. I've written over 200. None ever recorded professioanlly, only four ever played live. But I keep writing them!

Simon - Good to hear it! A close friend of mine had the same kind of experience. She spent ages on a drawing and was then accused by her teacher of tracing it. she didn't paint or draw again for 20 years. Bad teaching and poor mentoring can knock the creativity out of impressionable kids. If I had my way, we'd be doing more to encourage it.

Anonymous said...

Wow. Thank you for this. My artistic medium is cloth rather than pencils or paints - but I haven't made anything in a long time. I'm currently partway through my first project in several years, a coat I dreamed after the birth of my daughter - and you've just effectively removed the self-doubt I had.

My seams aren't as beautiful as they would be if I had the right feet on my sewing machine, and I don't have the technique of a fashion graduate - but the design and pattern are absolutely, 100% MINE and looking at it in the light of your article, it's shaping up to be a garment I will be proud to wear.


Stevyn Colgan said...

Gnomentum - No thanks required. The art is in you and you're getting it out. That's all that matters. x

Mark Bennett said...

Great post Stevyn. I couldn't agree more that the main reason you should create art is for yourself, not to sell or to get into galleries etc. I paint what I want and what I feel passionate about. If people want to buy it then that's just a bonus!