Looking Back to Go Forward

Sometimes we have to look back to go forward in art. Having my art shop in a wonderful old town, when I get a quiet moment I peruse the many shelves of my local antiquarian and second hand bookshop, heaving with weighty tomes of artists of years gone by and I find out so many ideas and techniques that I then buy the said books and add them to my own bookshelves!

I think in art it is important to look back at the techniques and methods of the old Masters: these artists have been revered for centuries and are what artists aspire to be like, yet these methods are scarcely taught and in fact the only places they are taught are during art history lectures and often not to practising artists wanting to deepen their knowledge and understanding of art. By looking back at these methods, I have learnt so much more than I ever did during my time at college studying art.

I also got me thinking about a quote that I have printed out and hung as a banner in my classroom:

“That which we call failure is often that necessary struggle called learning”.

My students occasionally say to me how frustrated they feel as their work sometimes doesn’t look like it’s getting better. There are a few things I say to help them see that they are improving even if a little slower than they had hoped. Firstly, the knowledge that is in our head (techniques we learn in an art class for example) can take several years to reach the end of our fingers in skillful rendering of that technique, so it may take a while before what is in your head gets rendered on paper. With that in mind, I ask my students to critique their work after they have finished their painting and ask themselves ‘if I were to paint this again, what would I do differently?’ and if they can see that a few techniques could be altered, or the use of colour or that the perspective isn’t quite right, that shows great learning, even though it may not be obvious from the execution of the painting that is before them. Also, I tell my students to keep their paintings in a file – even the ones they’re not happy with. This way, when they are having a bad day, they can look back at their old paintings and see how far they have come and even though they may not be pleased with the latest painting, it is a lot better and shows more skill than their earlier works.

What Should I Paint?

I sit at home and never know what to paint.” Does this sound familiar? I have been in that situation myself. You have the urge to paint and you get your palette and brushes ready, sit down and….nothing! No ideas spring to mind and you sit staring at a blank sheet of paper for what seems an age before you pack it all away again and do something else.

The first thing I can suggest to climb out of the creative block is to take plenty of photographs, if your mobile phone has a camera function then you will never be without a camera to take that interesting sky or picturesque landscape. Keep the photographs to hand as you can look through them to gain inspiration and they are all your own work so are therefore copyright free. Remember that you can combine elements of photographs – the sky from one, the land from another and the old, twisted dead tree from another to create a whole new picture.

Another suggestion is to look at some of your previous paintings and try to paint them again but in a different media. This not only helps you to critique your own work and look for improvements but also gives you experience in using a new media that you may have never thought about using. If you don’t have a room set up that you paint in, it can be disheartening because when the mood strikes, you spend fifteen minutes setting up all your materials, in which time the mood may have been and gone. It is therefore important to grab the mood whenever and wherever it strikes. Always keep a sketchpad in your pocket, a pencil and even a few colouring pencils so that you are armed and ready for action. I mentioned last month how useful the biro was to get beautiful tone and shade so there really is no excuse! Don’t give up, the block will eventually pass and just feel safe in the knowledge that everyone goes through it at some point.