Archive for category Subject: The creative process

Spring Cannot Be Cancelled || David Hockney & Martin Gayford

“Hockney is not a believer in healthy living so much as in good living”. This almost throwaway remark could be a mantra for our times. Do you want just to exist, or to live life as fully as you can, even if that comes with a host of risks? Hockney, famously contrarian, is firmly in the latter camp and this book might be seen as his vituperative response to the situation we find ourselves in.

I say “might”, because this is not all that it has been billed, or reviewed, as. It’s probably simpler to start at the beginning: it’s a continuation of the ongoing conversation that Hockney and Gayford have been having for a good many years. This saga has centred around the role, meaning and position of art within the wider world, but has achieved a focus in the present as an escape from and antidote to many of the restrictions that currently face us. The claim of the blurb that it is “an uplifting manifesto that confirms art’s capacity to divert and inspire” is by no means untrue, but does also need to be seen in the wider context of these ongoing exchanges.

You may have seen reviews that describe the book as “lavishly illustrated” and I take issue with that too. It’s hard to damn Hockney with faint praise, but to me, “lavish” means not just “generous”, but “of outstanding quality”. The format of the book is upright octavo and the illustrations are mostly landscape, which constricts their size and obscures detail. It is also printed entirely on book rather than art paper, which dulls colours and obscures detail. Several press features have included some of the paintings, which are Hockney’s iPad works featuring the arrival of Spring in Normandy where he now resides, and which mirror the 2012 RA show, The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate Woods. The problem is that the reproduction there was immeasurably better than it is in the book. Quite simply, if you buy this as a preview of the upcoming RA show The Arrival of Spring, Normandy, 2020 you will, I think, be disappointed.

There is, though, no doubt that Hockney has mastered digital art. Whether you use a pen, a brush or your finger is merely a method of application – what matters is the result and, when seen at their best, these images are amazing. The 2012 exhibition showed a few, but here they are at the forefront and they are absolutely stunning and absolutely Hockney. Try to get to the new show, or at least buy the catalogue.

I don’t mean to say that this is in any way a bad book. Of course it isn’t. Anything which gives us the words and sentiment of the master, especially on the subject of creativity, is to be treasured. It is, however, what it is and not something else.

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Brief Lessons in Seeing Differently || Frances Ambler

This is that rare beast, a book which is as valuable to the artist as it is to the art consumer.

Under a series of heads – See things in a fresh light, Learn the advantages of a different angle, Give yourself time and be still, etc – Frances Ambler provides advice on how to improve the quality of your art. Each section is short, as the title implies, and provides an outline that’s effectively a model for further study. Go away and think about it is her message. Much of it could also apply to ways of looking at paintings, hence the convenient dual appeal.

It’s an excellent idea and succeeds admirably in its aim to be thought-provoking. The use of examples adds weight to the arguments, but you’d better hope you have access to the artists and works cited as there are only a few illustrations, and those are grouped together at the back. To be fair, including more would take this beyond the realm of the budget pocket book into a larger, possibly coffee table tome. To avoid it simply being a large slab of text, the designers have used typographic tricks which you might find annoying if you hang around too long.

For all that, it’s a fun book, which I think is what it intends. After all, as Frances says, “The mundane becomes special as soon as you pay attention to it”.

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DVD My Obsession – the life and work of Robert A Wade || Robert Wade

Making films in these improbable times is a challenge and understandably APV have not produced anything in their usual format. This tribute to Australian artist Bob Wade was originally planned to coincide with his 90th birthday, but the interviews were curtailed by strict lockdowns in Melbourne, where he lives.

Celebrations are often really only of interest to the subject themselves, and maybe those who take part and hope for a little reflected glory. This, however, is sensitively done and made with a broader audience in mind. At its core is an extended interview with Bob, who reminisces about a life devoted in one way or another to art. His greatest love is watercolour and his eyes sparkle like a luminescent painting as he talks about “the surprise and wonderment and magic that suddenly appear before your eyes”. Of what he calls visioneering, he adds, “[It’s] seeing with your brain, feeling with your eyes and understanding with your heart”. Can you come up with a better definition of both the physical and mental process of creating a piece of art? Thought not.

Interspersing this are tributes from many of Bob’s Australian contemporaries, who manage to say a great deal more than “he’s a wonderful artist”. “Underlying everything is sound, honest watercolour technique”, says Herman Pekel. The aside, “Bob is a storyteller”, is perhaps the greatest truism in the whole film.

To make sure the film isn’t just talking heads and still images, extracts from some of Bob’s classic demonstrations are included. These do not, it should be said, add new unseen material, but they do add a gloss to the words and remind us of Bob’s working methods.

As I implied, films like this can be dry as dust and self-congratulatory. This is neither and is gripping from start to finish. Much of that is down to Bob’s character. His joy in his medium is always evident and it’s enthralling to hear him talking about it more generally than he would in a specific demonstration. The tributes are heartfelt and it’s clear that he is a man genuinely loved by his fellow artists, as well as students throughout the world.

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Shaping The World || Antony Gormley & Martin Gayford

Artists are not always the best people to talk about art. The creative process is intensely personal and can be driven by forces that even the practitioner does not fully understand. Equally, those who talk and write about it, are not themselves creators in visual media and have to tease the artist’s inner workings out of their own perceptions of the finished article.

However. There are times when these two worlds align, and Martin Gayford is usually one of the parties. He is one of the most cogent writers about art and the creative process there is and understands it in a way that few non-practitioners are able to. Even on his own, he is able to provide the reader with the sense of being an insider rather than simply a viewer – and this while that reader is looking at the page rather than the artwork.

Gayford is also a very effective collaborator and his conversations with David Hockney have illuminated works, the artist and the creative process all at the same time. This book takes the same approach: it is a discussion between Gormley and Gayford that covers three-dimensional work in stone, clay and metal from prehistoric times to the present day. Yes, it is substantial and it’s worth adding that the quality of production does full justice to the superb content.

If you asked a random member of the public to name a sculptor, the chances are that Antony Gormley would be the one they’d come up with. Not only will they know his name, but they’ll also be at least broadly familiar with his spare and idiosyncratic figures – the large public works such as The Angel Of The North that are impossible to ignore. We already know from other publications that Gormley can be eloquent on the creative method and he and Gayford here spark ideas off each other that are more illuminating than either of them writing alone.

A book such as this requires careful editing. All discussions include diversions and side-tracks that obscure the central point, but heavy-handed attempts to keep them at least appearing to be contiguous can easily leave the language stilted. Not so here and there’s a strong sense of a continuous narrative driven by shared enthusiasm and common, though not always parallel, ground.

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This lands on you like a major work. It knows it is important, but it wears its learning lightly and, even though we probably expect it, it’s a pleasure to find that this is so.

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The Unquiet Landscape || Christopher Neve

This isn’t a book about art. Rather, it’s a book about how art and the landscape interact and the way in which places and philosophy work together to stimulate the creative process.

Does that sound complicated? Well, just imagine you’re painting a landscape. You could just sit there and make an exact representation of what you see, but that wouldn’t be much more than a photograph. Even the least pretentious artist would want to put some kind of expression into their work – as Edgar Degas reminded us: art isn’t what you see, but what you make others see. Study a landscape, maybe for years, see and understand it in all its moods, make sketches and then – only then – start work in the studio, and you have something completely different. The result isn’t a representation of what you saw, it’s a map of what was going on in your mind as a result of this contemplative process.

So, you see, it is all about art after all, but also that much deeper process that underpins a great work. Christopher Neve writes about artists from William Sickert to Stanley Spencer , Eric Ravilious and John Nash. He had extensive conversations with Ben Nicholson and others that get behind what appears on paper or canvas.

This is a new edition of a book that first appeared in 1990. Frustratingly, the preface doesn’t reveal what has changed, but the blurb hints at the addition of the illustrations and of additional text. If you have the original, it would be useful to know whether that justifies a second purchase.

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Artist Studios New York || Marco Anelli

If you like peeking into artists’ studios, this is a treat. Marco Anelli is a photographer who specialises in projects and this one is exactly what you’d expect from the title. The quality both of the photographs, which include the artists themselves as well as their spaces, and the reproduction are superb and this is an absolute delight to look at. I’m not that bothered by studios myself – I prefer the artist’s work – and yet I’m saying that. The generous format of the book helps a lot.

Not all the names will necessarily be familiar, but Marina Abramović and William S Burroughs stand out. If I was going to be picky (when am I not?), I could have done with some text. However, Marco would probably counter that he’s a photographer and that, if the images don’t stand for themselves, it may be me who’s missing something. The overall quality here would suggest that he’d be the one who’s right.

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Paint Yourself Positive || Jean Haines

This is the successor to 2016’s Paint Yourself Calm and is ostensibly about mindfulness and working with your imagination rather than a visible subject.

Does that sound unbearably new-agey? You bet it does and in less skilled hands it could be a mess, both in terms of concept, presentation and results. However, Jean is a very capable painter who already works on the edge of abstraction and the illustrations here are very little different to her more conventional work, as seen in books such as Atmospheric Flowers in Watercolour. For her state-of-mind work, she uses imagination to control what appears on paper, but that doesn’t mean unintelligible blobs, but rather images that capture the essence of their subjects – flowers, fish, buildings and animals.

It would be perfectly possible to use this as an aid to mindfulness, but it’s also a very worthwhile guide to a rather different approach to painting. If you already love Jean’s work, this is another pearl of wisdom to treasure. If you’re new to it, it’s no bad place to start.

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Memory Banks || Karin Mamma Andersson

The afterword to this catalogue of an exhibition is more helpful than the introductory essay. Here, we learn that Andersson’s paintings are loosely based on her photographic archive and are a link between the central focus of the 2018 FotoFocus biennial and the thinking behind painted art. As the rest of the book is simply a collection of images, this is helpful, especially for those not familiar with the context or the artist’s work.

The introductory essay attempts to achieve in words what the paintings do visually. In this, it is only partly successful. Broadly elegiac, it draws comparison with the crumbling Vasa galleon that was raised from Stockholm harbour in 1961 without modern conservation techniques. Kevin Moore uses this comparison to examine how the imperfections of human memory can be traced through a painting created from a sharp photographic original. Actually, having written that, I’m starting to get an idea of where we’re at, but the original is hard work (ironically almost a reversal of the process involved with the images). It’s fair to point out that the essay isn’t a direct attempt to explain the corpus but, if it tends to confuse, it is perhaps less than helpful.

For all that, this is a collection of intriguing images that, while it tends to prompt the initial reaction, “meh”, draws you inextricably in. Maybe that’s the best indicator of success.

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59 Paintings in which the artist considers the process of thinking about and making work || Paul Winstanley

This is a fascinating idea and the elongated title tells you exactly what it is about.

Insights into the creative process can be a mixed blessing. Some artists work instinctively and have little to say: “my paintings speak for themselves” is the limit of their explanation. That, you can argue, is as it should be: art that needs explanation isn’t true art (discuss, showing your workings). Other artists are eloquent on their working methods, stage-by-stage processes and creative juices. Sometimes, they’re quite good painters too.

There is an enormous stumbling block in this otherwise excellent book: do you like Paul’s work? Are you ready for a style of painting that centres on the mundane (unoccupied utilitarian chairs in an ill-lit, empty lobby, anyone?) The results, that frequently look like badly-shot Polaroids, won’t be to everyone’s taste, but there’s no doubt about the art and, I’m going to argue, the creativity. This is something more than simple realism; it’s a form of abstraction that adds more than a little (poor focus, motion blur, restricted lighting) to the subject. To achieve this requires not just quite a lot of skill, but also vision, and that’s where this book comes in.

The thing is, Paul is eloquent on creative thought, but he’s not prolix. The pieces that accompany (on the facing page) each of the 59 paintings are something between an extended caption and a mini-essay. They tell you more than just the bare facts and do actually achieve the stated aim of being a sort of meditation on the scene, the representation and the means of getting from one to the other.

I’ve talked myself into liking this and I’ve done it because Paul has made me think, both visually and verbally. I’ve created my own inner dialogue and I think he’ll get you to do the same. I won’t be visiting a gallery with my cheque book out any time soon, but I will be coming back to this book.

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What is Painting? || Julian Bell

This timely reissue, in a revised edition, addresses some fundamental issues relating to what we might call reproductive art. What, for example, asks Bell, makes one painting more “real” than another?, addressing the whole issue of the nature of reality itself and whether we can, in fact, trust artistic expression. A painting is, after all, merely a version of what the artist was looking at. Indeed, I think one could argue that “merely” is the wrong word there and that an interpretation, maybe even an explanation, is what we should expect from an artist. If we want absolute reality, then a trip to the location or a good photograph are more appropriate and accurate reporters.

Interestingly, some of the issues that Bell addresses are also raised in Andrew Marr’s recent A Short Book About Painting, not least the question of what is “bad” art, why does it have an appeal and what, anyway, is the nature and definition of beauty?

The information sheet that came with my copy tells me that “much has changed in the world of art” since this was originally published in 1999 and that the text has been substantially rewritten while retaining the six-chapter structure. I turned to the preface for further information – what’s changed, how has it been addressed and, indeed, why was this necessary? Sadly, Bell is silent on this and the short preface appears to be the original. I would have liked more, and particularly from the author himself. It doesn’t alter the incisive examination of the nature of painting, but some pointers would have been useful, perhaps even essential, especially if some of the basic premises have changed. And, if they haven’t, is revision really necessary at all?

This is, however, a worthwhile analysis of the creative process and is well-argued and thoroughly illustrated. As is common with books where the text is the main event, the paper doesn’t do justice to the reproductions, although having them as aides-mémoire is handy.

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