Category Archives: art

The Friday Review No. 4: Remembering Stillness and Forgetting Perfectionism

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Painting by Martin Battye FRSA, and my own inept reflection!

This week has been about catching my tail.

You know those moments where you come out of a period of frantic activity and realise that the house is a tip, and so is your head?  Suddenly you find yourself coming in to land in what you think is home, but which turns out to feel like a strangely alien place.

So I’ve been sitting still.  Listening to the birds outside the window.  Doing self-care things, like going to therapy appointments, meditating, remembering how to do the down dog asana (though in my, case, very badly), journaling, and indulging my muse.

I took myself off on an artist date.  Not to a gallery or the movies.  I went for an hour-long wallow at the library.  I love our library.  Its huge.  I always feel like I’m in a sweetie shop with an unlimited budget.  Sometimes I go in there, and I can’t see anything I want to bring home.  Other times, such as this one, there are so many books I want to take home and cuddle that I just can’t decide.  Well, you can only read so many words in the three week loan period, and I figure the ones I like will pop up again soon enough.  I came home with six, including two art books which I hope will help me to get drawing again.

The choice of art books was partly prompted by a dear friend, Martin Battye, painter and raconteur, Fellow of the Royal Academy and my husband’s cricket club.  He lent me a few of his old sketch books a while ago, as I wanted to write a blog post about his creative process, thinking his images might inspire you, dear reader, as much as they do me.  Then Life happened, and the sketchbooks stayed patiently waiting on my desk in a plastic carrier bag for the time when Life would get out of the way, and I would remember I had a blog!  This week, Martin needed his sketch books back, and I felt awful, of course, for neglecting my promise to him, and his kindness in lending me his treasure trove.  I looked through the pages and was once more dazzled by the obvious fact his work illustrates:

It’s a sketch book.  That means it is a work place.  A place to try things out.  You don’t have to get it perfect every time.  Or, as artist and illustrator Cliff Wright puts it so brilliantly:

‘Drawing is a great medium for experimentation because nothing is set in stone – you can always do another drawing if you don’t like the first one.’

Cliff Wright, The Magic of Drawing: Bring your Vision to Life on the Page, David & Charles Ltd 2008

This has been a revelation to me, a victim of perfectionism all my life.  Even as a kid, I struggled with the idea that I could make a mess and get it wrong and practice till I was happy with the end result.  Somewhere along the line, the idea of playing, and of practicing something to get the hang of it, got lost.  It had to be perfect first time.  Which is, I suppose, why I eventually stopped making art altogether.

Martin’s sketchbooks, the sketchbooks of a man I think of as a ‘proper’ artist, show that making rough sketches, making a mess, scrabbling about to find the right line, are what sketchbooks are all about.  Which makes it alright for me to do the same, somehow.

I’m grateful to Martin for his support and generosity in sharing his work with me, and I’m looking forward to sharing some of the precious images from his sketchbooks with you soon.  In the meantime I’m taking this crucial revelation about perfectionism into the coming days, hoping it will sink in permanently this time, and allow me to try stuff out, experiment, get it wrong.  Because that is how you learn.

Happy Creating,

EF

I want to talk about Truth

sussex churchI was having a conversation with a friend who is a songwriter.  A lovely, talented man.  He has left his old pattern of working, writing what he described as ‘pop songs’ in pursuit of his own, original voice.  He wants to be true to himself.  He says he has yet to find his own voice, but I am sure he’ll know it when he does, and it will be a truly special and deeply needed contribution to the world.

For me, this summer’s events have echoed continually his struggle.  I have time and again come up against issues surrounding truth-telling, authenticity, and being heard.

We all need to feel heard.  We all need to feel that our message has got through, that we are understood.

We each have a unique voice, too.  Maybe we don’t need another historical novel, or a pop song, but we need the original perspective of the person making that piece of art, because everyone has one.

Everyone has a unique experience of the world.  No one, not even a twin, can have exactly the same perspective as you, because no one has the same thoughts and reactions, or the same past, to bring to an event.

YOUR TRUTH NEEDS TO BE TOLD

I can’t count the number of times I have looked at what I have written or drawn and thought: ‘Gods, this is shit!  I’ve got nothing new to say.  Its all just copying.’

(Incidentally, there is nothing wrong with copying as a practise to learn an art form.  Its been used in art schools for centuries, and if you go into any great gallery, you will find students sitting on little fold chairs in front of paintings, copying away.  Presenting someone else’s work as your own is quite another thing, however, and its nothing short of stealing.)

Eventually, I will find my own, unique voice.  Perhaps I already have, I’m not entirely sure.  But I have my own opinions, my own truths to tell, things that no one else can share with the world.  No, the world may not need yet another historical romance novel, but it may just need mine.

After forty-odd years of being in this world, this is what I know:

We are all unique.

We all have a story or truth to tell.

We all have a right to tell that story or truth in whatever way makes sense to us.

We all have the right to be heard.

We all have the right to develop and acknowledge our own voice.

If there is one thing I want to say to you this weekend, it is this:

TELL YOUR TRUTH

You might find the following links useful:

This, from Liz Lamoreaux, about truth-telling.

This, from Andrea Sher, about the gift of allowing others to help and comfort you.

And this, which is one of my most popular stories, but which was probably the most difficult thing I have ever written, because it comes from a place of deep truth for me.

I can’t sign off by saying ‘Happy Creating’ today.  I just want to ask you to somehow, in whatever way you can, to tell your truth,

With love and thanks for your support,

EF

Inspiration Monday: Gardens and Gardening

Ickworth Garden Temple - take a moment to reflect

Ickworth Garden Temple

(WARNING: photo-heavy post!)

You think gardening is for oldies, don’t you?

Not so.

Go and visit a big garden in your area, a park, a stately home if you have one nearby.  As you wander round, take the time to look at the flowers, plants and trees.  Take the time to appreciate the long vistas the designers have laid out for you to enjoy.  Think about why each plant has been positioned exactly there in the scheme.

The garden house at Ickworth House, Suffolk

The garden house at Ickworth House, Suffolk

Who has walked this path before you?  What is their story?  Read ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ if you can’t think of something better, or watch ‘Downton Abbey’ to clue you in to what might have happened in a garden like this, the secret assignations between the lady of the house and the gamekeeper, the Lord and the scullery maid, or the married gentry who came to visit for shooting weekends in winter, eager to continue their private affairs without their spouses knowing, stealing away into the shady nooks of the different garden ‘rooms’.

Inside the Yew Hedge at Blicking Hall, Norfolk - who might have hidden here?

Inside the Yew Hedge at Blicking Hall, Norfolk – who might have hidden here?

As for public parks, well, imagine all the spies who have met their KGB handlers by the duck pond, the mothers who have pushed their prams through the rose beds and contemplated running away from loveless marriages, the children who have imagined faeries and elves in the trees.

If writing is not your thing, you only have to look at what Monet did with his garden at Giverny to see that gardens can be an endless source of inspiration for visual artists of all kinds.  Maybe your garden flowers could inspire a colourful quilt or embroidery.  There is so much beauty in your back garden and local park – all you need to do is use your eyes.

arbour and urn cropWhat about getting your fingers in the soil yourself?  Gardening is a true art form.  It allows you to create a complete world within the four hedges of your back yard.  You might prefer growing vegetables to flowers, in which case, google ‘potager kitchen gardens’ to see how amazing kitchen gardens can be.

Roses in my own garden.

Roses in my own garden.

There is nothing like actually getting down to business with the mulch and seeds.  Yes, it is often hard work, and it takes time and patience, but it is so incredibly rewarding, creative and satisfying.  Even if you just have a tiny balcony or window ledge, you can fill it with pots of colourful bedding plants and grow-your-own lettuce varieties.  Go to any Mediterranean village, and you’ll see what marvels of gardening can be achieved with a few old olive oil cans, some white and blue paint, and some bright geraniums!

And once the hard work is done, you can get out your deck chair, and muse.  And then maybe paint a picture or write a story about your green empire.

Happy creating,

EF

Inspiration Monday: Creativity is Catching

Top.BMPToday we had the pleasure of attending the opening of an art exhibition by a friend, Martin Battye FRSA.

Martin is a pal of my husband’s from the cricket club, but he is also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Art, and his paintings are vibrant, vigorous and exciting.  It is always a delight to get to see his work, and today’s opening was no exception.  Martin is using oil colours on paper at the moment, and his pure pigments, textures and abstract designs are fascinating.  Scattered around the gallery were also a selection of his recent sketchbooks, and for all the wonder of the major pieces, I found these the most inspiring.  They show an artist’s process, the act of creativity itself, caught as if in aspic.  They contain the genus of the bigger paintings, as well as scribbled thoughts, poignant quotes and articles cut from newspapers and magazines.

I came away aching.

I want to do that, my heart said.

It’s been so long since I used my paints, since I dared to draw.

Lately, I have been remembering the two years of my art ‘A’ level course, when I started discovering other artists, the revelation of abstract art, the earthquake of Modernist artists, architects and designers like Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier, Matisse and Rothko.  I felt so excited, so fascinated by their ideas and the pared-down beauty they created.  I was never able to liberate myself from the tyranny of the figurative, though, as they had, nor from my own self-abusive perfectionism.  I couldn’t, and still can’t, make a mess, try things out, paint outside the lines.

But what would happen if I DARED?

What would happen if I could BE MY OWN HERO?

The truth is that I want to create abstract art.  I want to make paintings that please me as much as Martin’s do.  I want to have his exuberance, his extravagant variety and colour, his sense of fun.

I keep thinking of Jamie Ridler’s exhortation to not judge the art you are called upon to make.  To just do it.

So I have decided to try and find out if I can recover that sense of adventure I had went I was 18 and reading about Modern Art for the first time.  I want to know if I can finally overcome the Nigel voice in my head that says I can’t get messy or paint outside the lines.  I want to find out, one tiny baby step at a time, if I can be the artist who lives inside me, safe in the knowledge that that artist will feed the writer, and vice versa.

Inspired by Martin’s creative process, EXPLORATION is my word for March.  I’m going to explore my creativity and have some fun.  I’ll let you know how it goes.

(If you are in Norwich, do visit Mandell’s Gallery in Elm Hill to enjoy Martin Battye’s wonderful work, open Mon – Sat, 10am to 5pm.)

Happy Creating,

EF

Journal Friday: Reflecting on Creative Blocks

paintbox

So, if you read my last post, you will know that I am increasingly drawn towards drawing and painting at the moment.  This is my current creative season and I want to honour it.  So today, no doubt, you will be expecting me to deluge you with jpegs of the beautiful pictures I have been creating.

Yeah, Right.

Nigel has been hard at work again.  I have produced the sum total of zero drawings in the last two days.  Yesterday I couldn’t even bring myself to go into the study to get out my sketchbook and paints.  The blank page suddenly seems terrifying.  I can’t even doodle.  How the hell have I lost the ability to doodle, for Gods’ sakes?

Bit not good.

This, my friends, is where the journal really comes into play.  I sat down with my trusty moleskine and pen, and thought about my childhood memories of drawing.

I used to draw all the time.  It was what I was known for, amongst family and friends.  I was never without a piece of paper and a pencil.  I made little books and illustrated them.  I wrote stories and illustrated them.  I wrote stories about my favourite TV programmes, like ‘Blakes 7’ (remember that one?  I had a terrible crush on Paul Darrow) and drew the characters all the time.  (If only I had known about fanfiction and fanart then!)  I was obsessed at one point with the Tudor monarchs, and copied their opulent portraits and clothes with fibre tipped colouring pens.  Then I got into the Ancient Egyptians, and copied their sideways style of representation.  I even copied the drawings of E.H Shepherd in the beautiful edition of Kenneth Graham’s ‘The Wind in the Willows’, which my father gave me – it was his favourite book.  And I painstakingly illustrated all my school work (except the Maths, of course, because that was too serious, which was probably why I was never any good at it.)  In other words, I spent hours absorbed in transferring images from my head onto the page.

What happened?  Senior school art classes.  Hours of drawing still lives of pots and pans. Teachers who made us draw boring subjects, and never gave us any information about technique.  I’ve learn everything I have ever learnt about art and how to use paint from copying, which my art teachers said was the worst possible sin.

(But I am getting ahead of myself, I’m supposed to be thinking about my childhood drawing.)

As a kid, art was my obsession, but it requires materials, and they were in short supply.  For paper, my dad bought home gash computer paper from work, the perforated kind that comes in a concertina, with holes along the edges, and with about the same handling quality as IZAL toilet paper.  I was occasionally bought coloured felt-tipped pens but in the 1970s they were rubbish, and the black ones were invariably dried out before they were even used.  At least 25% of the pens in the pack didn’t work within about two days of having them, and you had to conserve those that did with fiendish vigilance.  There were occasional gifts of watercolour pan boxes, but they were very low pigment, and anyway, painting in your bedroom is frowned upon by most mothers because it is messy.  And there wasn’t anywhere else to paint.  What I am trying to say is that I grew up yearning for those huge bottles of poster colour paint that stood on the trolley in school.  The thought of being able to just splash paint about willy-nilly was ridiculous.  My parents wanted to encourage my artistic side, but they didn’t have the disposable income or the mindset to invest in good raw materials for it.

The result is that the scarcity of my childhood has bloomed into a scarcity paranoia in adulthood.  As soon as I was earning, I went out and bought decent art materials, but then I couldn’t make myself use them.  I have drawers and boxes full of sketchbooks, pastels, inks and paint tubes that have never been opened because I still have the mindset that they have to be conserved.  I can’t waste a thing.  To the point where I can’t use a thing.

None of this would I know and understand, were it not for exploring it in my journal.  And in my journal have come the little glimmers of a solution, a plan to tackle my stuckness with baby steps so minute that I can fool Nigel into thinking I’m not even putting pen to paper at all!  Slowly and gently, I will con myself into the belief that making a tiny drawing is safe.  And then I will con myself into making a bigger one.  Until one day I will fulfil my dream of illustrating my own novels, and making huge abstract expressionist canvases like Rothko and Pollock.  But not yet.  To begin with, I will throw out everything I learnt in art class, scrunch up my eyes and begin again, as a child.  It will be hard, but I can do it.  I did it with the writing, after all…

Journal Exercise:

Are you also struggling with a creative block?  Is there something you used to do, and would like to do again, but are afraid to?  Perhaps you are just stuck and you can’t get out of your own way.  You probably don’t even know why.

Get out your journal and take a few deep breaths.  Close your eyes and let yourself fall backwards through time. Feel yourself become a child, doing that thing you loved do and don’t do anymore, whatever it is.  Immerse yourself in that memory.  How did it feel?  What was so satisfying, enticing, transcendently joyful or just effortless about it?  How did splashing paint on paper, sewing a doll’s dress or dancing to the radio help you express yourself?  Connect with the fun, the pleasure, the satisfaction.

Now write about it.  Take time to write out all you can remember about doing that creative activity, and take the memory from as early an age as possible.

Now take another deep breath and continue to write, this time about when you stopped pursuing that activity.  What happened?  What age where you?  Was there criticism from parents or responsible adults?  Or was it competition with other children who you regarded as being better at the skill than you?  Perhaps you reached puberty and decided that form of creativity was childish and no longer for you?  Or you felt you couldn’t go any further with it because you couldn’t make a living at it?  Whatever the reason, explore your memories of it.  Be as thorough as you can.

Give yourself some time to sit with these memories, to contemplate them.  Decide what aspects are still stopping you.  Are you, like me, fearful that your work won’t be ‘GOOD ENOUGH’ (thanks, Nigel), or still carrying that fear that there isn’t paper to waste?  Will doing this activity make you vulnerable in some way?  (If so, you don’t have to show it to anybody, just keep it for yourself.)

(If some major trauma is involved, it is wise to seek professional help.  A therapist is invaluable, and those who specialise in expressive arts or Gestalt might be just what you need.  Don’t suffer flashbacks alone as a result of this exercise.  Self care should always be the first rule of creative expression.)

Think about ways to ease yourself through these issues.  Maybe taking a beginners or taster course, where everyone will be fumbling about at the same starter level, could encourage you that what you make doesn’t have to be perfect.  Perhaps an online course that you can follow in private, and at your own pace (Alisa Burke has some brilliant art and sewing courses.)  Or you could buy some kids art materials and use them with your own kids (or borrow someone else’s for an afternoon).  Watch how kids are completely free of judgement when they make art.  They are just having fun.  You can, too.  (Actually, I think I may have to borrow some children and do this myself!)

Trust that what comes up in writing your journal is from deep within, an inner wisdom that will guide you back to your creative centre.  Above all, be gentle with yourself as your formulate your action plan, and give yourself as much time as you need.  You don’t have to become Picasso or Nijinsky overnight.

Happy Creating,

EF

Outflow: My Creativity Right Now

Picasso ceramicsWe are having a heatwave here in the UK, and I’m not very good in hot weather.  The result is that my brain has gone on strike, as has much of my body.  Which makes me think about ‘creative seasons’ and the Habit of Art.

My ongoing health problems taught me long ago to have peace with the days when I can’t do anything beyond lie on the sofa and practise my groaning. ( I’m getting quite good at groaning, I have to say.)  Chronic Illness is, however, a bit of an extreme way of forcing oneself to recognise one’s creative cycles, and not one I would recommend.

There are lots of creativity gurus who are adamant that turning up at the page, or the canvas, and making yourself do the work is the only way forward, and for the most part, I would agree.  But what do you do on the days, like today, when it just ain’t gonna happen?

Take note, that’s what.

I find my creativity goes in bursts, as I have mentioned before, and in recent years I have noticed that my writing seagues slowly into art in the summer months.  Writing is a great thing to be doing when the weather is cold and wet, and all you want to do is curl up in the warm.  In the summer, though, the urge to get out there into the landscape and experience the world is almost irresistible, as anyone who has ever worked through the summer in an office will agree.  Right now I am experiencing the difficult-to-ignore urge to paint rather than write.

And I am OK with that.

Yes, I am feeling a bit frustrated that I can’t settle to the writing projects I want to progress, but I can’t force it, or I will get resentful, and probably produce pages of complete drivel that I’ll hate later.  The urge to be creative is still with me, though.  It is just taking a different, more exterior form.  I want to draw, paint, decorate pottery, make cushion covers, garden, and bake cupcakes.  So that’s what I’m going to do – at least as soon as the weather cools down and my brain starts functioning again!

There is a tension between turning up to create and the creative seasons themselves, and the skill of a true creative is to be able to accept the difference between a) the resistance to sitting at the desk and working, which is procrastination and stopping oneself being all one can be, and b) the natural flow of creativity as it morphs from one season to the next.  There is much to be said for making yourself sit down to create every day, but using it as a stick to beat yourself with is not helpful.  We need to be aware of when our creativity transforms, and to trust it enough to go with the flow.  This doesn’t mean I am abandoning my writing for good, simply that I know that right now, that isn’t where my best work will come.

The image in my head to illustrate this is when Picasso discovered the provencale village of Vallauris and threw himself into the art of ceramics.  I have no doubt there were those who worried that his canvas days were over, but that was far from the truth.  Instead, he trusted his creative urges enough to know that ceramics was a road he had to walk at that point in his life.

So I am trying to emulate Picasso, and to be at peace with where my creative road is taking me.  It’s not easy, and Nigel has a lot to say about not having the gumption to get on with the novel, but frankly, STUFF NIGEL!  Lets get out in the sun, eat ice cream, and do creativity the way we need to right now!

Happy sun-bathing and creating,

EF

Inspiration Monday: Dreams

angrysea

Angry Sea by John Lewis Photography

Everybody dreams.  Maybe you don’t remember all your dreams, but they are there as a window into your own psyche, and to explore as a source of inspiration.  Dreams are a chance for your imagination to go completely wild, places where the impossible really can happen.

I’ve always been very fortunate to dream in vivid technicolour.  Many of my dreams are coherent stories in filmic form.  I am often aware that I am dreaming, and find myself enjoying the stories playing out inside my head.  Maybe you don’t have that capacity, but through the technique of lucid dreaming, you can develop more.  Maybe you only have occasional images, snapshots of your dreamworld.  Even these can be fodder for your art.

One Christmas Eve I had a dream.  I know it was a coherent one, I was aware of it at the time.  When I woke in the morning, I had only one image left in my memory, but it was a compelling one.  Imagine a man, looking very like Richard Armitage, tied to a chair.  A demon stands in front of him and sinks its hand into his chest, and pulls out his still-beating heart.

That was all there was.

No context.  No meaning.  Just this image.

That was where my five book series of Evenlode novels began.  Five novels, which began with one blurrily remembered image from a dream.

Here is the dream I had last night:

Two teenaged boys are living in a run-down, poverty-stricken, former industrial city in the North of England.  They roam a half-derelict, grey landscape pocked with disused steel works and the skeletons of mine engines.

One is tall, dark and skinny, the other short, stocky and blonde.  They are both outsiders, clinging together for support because they have no one else.  They are hunted by a gang of other boys who regularly attack them, and call them names.  They accuse the two friends of being gay.  That is the reason they give for their hatred.

One day, the blonde boy helps his friend through the front door of the dark boy’s parents house.  He has been badly beaten.  His father is at home.  When the father finds out the reason why his son has been beaten, he assumes the accusers are correct.  He starts to beat his son for being gay, for being weak.  His belt will make the boy a proper man, he claims.  The blonde boy stands between father and son.

‘Your son is a proper man.  A real man.  He protects me.  He takes the heat for me, because I am gay, not him.”

The blonde boy has already been rejected by his own family for his sexuality.

Later, broken and despairing, the boys walk, hand in hand, up the hill to where a huge World War Two concrete bunker stands, clinging to the top of a sea cliff above the town.  The sea is rough, the wind strong, the air full of swirling grey drizzle.  The cavernous interior of the bunker has been taken over by the council, and is being used as a reahearsal space for the city’s orchestra.  They are practising a piece as swirling as the tormented weather outside.

Together the boys walk through long dark corridors buried in the hillside, swelling music echoing around them,  until they reach the roof of the bunker, where the Ack-Ack guns were once mounted.  Together, they stand up on the narrow wall around the edge, and kiss.  And then, together to the last, they jump and fall, still holding hands, down the cliff and into the churning seas below.

Yes, it is messy and there are holes and cliches in it.  But that is what I dreamt, in its entirety, as I remember it.  It is atmospheric and tragic, and I don’t even want to think about doing a psychological reading of it.  But wouldn’t it make a great short story?  Or even a short film?

Dreams are a free resource just floating about inside your own head, begging to be used.  Don’t waste a minute.  After all, isn’t that a great excuse to sleep more?

Writing Exercises:

You can find our more about Lucid dreaming here and here.

Keep a notebook by your bed and write down your dreams as soon as you wake.  Don’t wait.  You will forget them.  Write down whatever you can remember, no matter how disjointed it may seem.  Describe what you saw in as much detail as you can.  I get enormous, almost baroque detail in my dreams.  Get as much down as possible, even if it seems too weird, complicated or just completely insane!  You never know what may be useful later.

(I find this technique especially helpful with troubling dreams or nightmares, which I have a lot.  These sorts of dreams can follow me around during the day, filling my waking heart with dread or sadness.  However, I find that once I write them out, their power over me wanes, and I don’t get the ‘after effects’.)

Now, dip into your dream notebook whenever you are looking for an idea or a writing exercise to play with.  Choose a dream, a scene, an image, or a whole story if you get them, and use it as a starting point.  Write stream of consciousness for fifteen or thirty minutes and see what comes out.  Can you use this as the start of a short story?  A screenplay?  Is there an interesting character here for you, as there was with my Christmas Eve dream?

If you are a visual artist, what colour palette comes out of this dream for you?  What striking images, silhouettes, shapes stick in your mind?  For example, in my ‘two boys’ dream, the colour palette was greys and blues, the shapes of derelict buildings were jagged silhouettes against the lowering sky.  Explore the colours you recall in your sketchbook.  What would a painting of your dream look like?

A musician might take from my dream the echoing strings of the orchestra, muffled by the concrete, and backed by the roaring of the waves as they crash against the cliff below, and turn that into some kind of soundtrack.

Where can you take your dreams?  How far can you drive your limitless imagination?

Happy dreaming,

EF