Archive for category Subject: The creative process

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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Robert Storr: Interviews on Art

There is, quite simply, nothing else like this. Robert Storr is a curator, critic and painter. From 1990-2002 he worked at New York’s Museum of Modern Art as a curator (subsequently senior) in the Department of Painting and Sculpture. He has also interviewed a huge number of artists and these have appeared, since 1982, in a variety of publications. Substantial as it is at 928 pages, this volume is just a selection.

The secret to Storr’s interviews is their intimacy. His involvement, both as a curator and a practitioner allows him insights into his subjects that breed an easy familiarity and a sense, for the reader, of inclusion in a charmed circle. A sensitive interviewer, by making the subject feel at ease and not merely on the receiving end of a questionnaire, will always elicit more information and personal insights. The discussions here range from painting and drawing to sculpture as well as installation, photography, film and performance. Storr’s interest is in the artists themselves and their intellectual and creative processes rather than any pre-conceived notion of what art might (or might not) be. As well as being an insightful interviewer, he is also a sympathetic listener and honest reporter.

The cover presents a list of the subjects included – Louise Bourgeois, Buckminster Fuller, Jeff Koons and very many more. Which ones stand out for you will depend on your personal interests, but you won’t want to read the book for those alone. Very usefully, representative samples of each subject’s work are included as well as previously unpublished photographs of the artists themselves. Books that are predominantly text-based often do not handle illustrations well and it is a point in favour of this one that it does, greatly aided by the quality of reproduction, paper used and page size.

This is a fascinating book that reveals much about the processes involved in creating works of art in many formats and media.

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A Short Book About Painting || Andrew Marr

This interesting and really rather entertaining overview of the creative process and its methods follows on from Marr’s previous A Short Book About Drawing.

The history is fairly well known. In 2013, Marr suffered a serious stroke that left him partially paralysed and having to struggle with even the simplest day-to-day tasks. The physical rigours of painting with oils curtailed an important private activity and led him to a period of introspection that this book recounts. In effectively an instant, he found himself having to think about the simple act of applying paint. Each brushstroke became an important event and this led to further analysis of structure, colour and line.

“My only advantage in writing about [art] is that, because I paint, I can talk about colour, composition, ambition and failure without libelling anyone else”, he says. This insider view makes this more than either a painting manual or a history of art – something Marr is clear about. Rather, it is a contemplative view of the intellectual approaches to painting, of how the artist both views and reproduces a subject and the mental processes involved.

All this could easily become an exercise in navel-gazing and, in a lesser writer, most certainly would. Marr, however, is a first-rate reporter and analyst and, while one cannot help feeling that there is an element of self-therapy here, the result is fascinating and encompassing.

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Release Your Creativity || Rebecca Schweiger

I’m always wary of books like this and the subtitle immediately raises my hackles: Discover your inner artist with 15 simple painting projects. It’s going to be weird, isn’t it?

Well, no. In fact, there’s a lot to like here, even for a tired old seen-it-all-before cynic like me. For a start, the author is a bona fide artist and teacher, having founded The Art Studio NY. She knows her onions, both in terms of creativity and practice, and she can explain her methods as well.

There is, as you’d rather expect, a fair degree of abstraction, but it’s not of the “splosh it about and call it creative” variety. While there’s a fair degree of experimentation going on – rightly, given the slant of the book – the emphasis is more on control and getting your inner thoughts down, rather than freeing the spirit. Some spirits are best kept confined, in my ’umble opinion.

This isn’t your conventional art instruction book, but it’s not a load of new-age hokum either. If you’re a practising artist, I think you could find a lot to like here, as well as a lot to learn about yourself.

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Vibrant Watercolours || Hazel Lale

Rather helpfully, Hazel explains in her introduction, some of what a “vibrant” watercolour is. To summarise, it’s about the use of colour, often unexpected colour and in unconventional ways. She recounts, as a child, wondering why some artists painted portraits with white or green faces and of coming to understand how painting was more than simple representation – an artistic maturity, as it were.

The subtitle also provides a clue: How to paint with drama and intensity. This is, in short, a book mainly about working with and revelling in colour. It’s about seeing, not the obvious, the superficial, but the true character of any subject, whether it’s a person, an animal or any inanimate object. On top of colour, there are also shape and form and these can be manipulated, along with the colours, to tell the viewer more about what you’re painting than simple representation. A photograph will record a subject and allow the onlooker to interpret it for themselves. The job of an artist is to shape the response and convey a personal view. At its extreme, this leads to abstraction, where the response is purely emotional but, here, it’s also about the object itself as much as the pure image. It’s a hard topic to explain in words because it’s so inherently visual, but think of it as poetry rather than prose.

This is an approach that’s been covered before, but Hazel’s sheer enthusiasm will carry you along and almost certainly open your eyes to, if not a new, then certainly an enhanced way of seeing.

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The Diary of Mary Watts 1887 – 1904 || Desna Greenhow

Mary Watts was a leading designer of the Arts & Crafts movement and founder of the Compton Pottery, as well as the wife of the painter George Frederic Watts. While her husband was alive, she was also an assiduous diarist and recorded her thoughts both on art and on daily life with an artist who was at the height of his powers. There is a narrative to the entries that reflects Mary’s desire to make the most of what she felt was the most wonderful luck that had befallen her: basically, she worshipped Frederic.

The comparatively short period covered by the diaries is explained by the couple’s relative ages. Mary was 32 years Frederic’s junior. When they married in 1886, he was 69, she 36 and the 17 years cover the period from then until Frederic’s death in 1901.

Basing herself at Linnerslease, the house the couple built for themselves at Compton in the Surrey Hills, Mary was able to give full rein to her artistic talents. The diaries, begun at her husband’s suggestion, acted as a confidante where she was able to make the most of what she knew was the precious, but limited, time she would have with Frederic. Written in a tiny, almost illegible hand, there is no particular evidence that they were ever anything other than a personal memoir and they have remained unpublished until now. Desna Greenhow has rightly not chosen everything for this book, but concentrated on those passages that most illuminate Mary and Frederic’s story and the artistic, literary and political circles of the time. As a result, it becomes a social as well as a historical document that, while the style can be a little intense at times – “The sweet blessed air as we drove out was delicious … The blessing hand of the ceiling was over our heads in an instant” – her account of the life of an artist and musings on art and creativity hold the attention well.

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A History of Pictures || David Hockney & Martin Gayford

I’ve had this sitting on the shelf for several weeks and it’s been daring me to write about it. It’s become something of a cause célèbre since its publication both because Hockney’s views are authoritative and also because they are trenchant.

I have to say at the outset that this comes close to the book I’ve been hoping Hockney would produce. His views on art can be controversial, but he has a fundamental understanding of ways of seeing that are at once intuitive and convincing. His work with both still and moving photography adds a dimension rarely found and (naturally) completely missing before the middle of the Nineteenth Century. His ability to manipulate perspective while retaining a single viewpoint is one of the most original ideas there has been.

The book takes the form of a series of conversations between Hockney (the artist) and Martin Gayford (the critic). It is a little hard to tell whether these are transcriptions or a more formal, written exchange, though they do have a slightly literary quality at times. The scope of the book is “from the cave to the computer screen” and the progression is chronological, which makes for readability, although it does sometimes repress the idea of ways of expression echoing across millennia. You might counter that art regards itself as a steady development, perhaps from simple realism to more complex means of interpretation, however.

In a way, it doesn’t matter whether you like either of the protagonists. What is more important is that their views are clear and that there are plenty of illustrations – hardly anything is discussed in its absence – giving you the chance to explore your own thoughts and be informed or disagree as often as you wish.

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