Thursday, 29 March 2012

where nothing?

I'm not sure I agree with myself about there being 'nothing inside' (problematic as the idea of  inside/outside might be, it can still work for me in a rough kind of sense...). There may be nothing intrinsic, in the sense of a soul, a personality, a 'true self', a core, a centre. But the idea of the open channel is also not limited to what filters 'in' through perception on a daily basis.

Stuff can also filter 'up' from previously obscured dimensions, or perhaps 'through' previously impermeable barriers. The channel also contains ghosts, traces, fragments - historical remnants of past presents, swirling around like disembodied footprints.

Feeling around in the dark for subject matter, I see fresco walls, Cimabue blue, the rosy cheeks of Madonnas, the colour of Perugia steps, the curve of the Trevi fountain, tiled rooftops stretching away to soft green hills. 

Snow peaks against a deep blue sky, rhododendron trees outlined against the valley far below, monkeys screetching, light through pines.

While marble shikaras and red flags, golden sari edges, woven green cloth, bleached stone in endless sun.

Curving tiles, shining green glazes, three hundred year old wood, full kimono, white powdered skin. 

Carpets of pine needles, rivers of bark, tiny red shrines, rocks and sky.

All still there, in the channel, gasping for breath.


Monday, 26 March 2012



I suspect I'm not alone in being frustrated at the limitations of my own technique. I haven't had a violin lesson since I was 12, and until two years ago I had never really used paint. The limitations of what I can do technically are obvious to me every day.

With the painting, I probably don't really understand how lack of technique hampers me, because I don't know what I'm trying to do anyway. With music, lack of technique has screeched at me from the age of 12, when I first heard Sugarcane Harris play the violin on a Frank Zappa album. I knew how I wanted my violin to sound, I knew what kind of things I wanted to do on it. I gave up the violin at around the same time, and when I first tried to come back to it at 18, the prevailing cultural 'truths' told me that it was alread too late to try to get the technique that would let me mess around like that. I took it up again at 23, and now it was really too late. And then when I took it up again at 48, and realised that too late wasn't the whole story.

Kath Burlinson said to me once that technique doesn't matter. I didn't quite get what she meant. But this idea keeps coming back at me from different sources, and I'm beginning to see what it might mean. I think Werner and Alcantara are talking about it. Their books are aimed at people who have been through the whole formal music education system, people who regularly solo like demons in jazz clubs, people who perform in orchestras. And still the message is the same. You can have all the technique in the world, but it doesn't necessarily make you a great musician.

So this means, it seems to me, that right now, with the technique that we already have, we could do something much closer to what we think we might like to do (one day...). We could do something different with what we can already do. The shift is in the mind, the heart, the sensibilities -  new paintings, new solos, could come out, right now, without  'a 1000 hours of practice' or a degree in fine art.

Both Werner and Ancantra (and Barry Green) talk about 'turning off your critical faculties' - and this phrase is also discussed in the New Scientist article on flow that Jim and I were discussing recently.

Defining and characterising the flow state is all very well, but could a novice learn to turn off their critical faculties and focus their attention in this way, at will? If so, would it boost performance?

The article goes on to discuss a study by Gabriel Wulf at the University of Nevada:

At the time, she had no particular interest in the flow state. But Wolf and her colleagues found that they could quickly improve a person's abilities by asking them to focus their attention on an external point away from their body. Aspiring skiers who were asked to do slalom-type movements on a simulator, for example, leaned faster if they focused on a marked spot ahead of them. Golfers who focussed on the swing of the club were about 20 per cent more accurate that those who focussed on their own arms.

...These findings were borne out in alter studies of expert and novice swimmers. Novices who concentrated on an external focus - the water's movement around their limbs - showed the same effortless grace as those with more experience, swimming faster and with a more efficient technique. Conversely, when the expert swimmers focused on their limbs, their performance declined.

Wulf's findings fit will with the idea that flow - and better learning - comes when you turn off conscious thought. 'When you have an external focus, you achieve a more automatic type of control' she says. 'You don't think about what you're doing, you just focus on the outcome'. (New Scientist, 4th February, 2012)

So, for example, on the violin, you don't think about how other people are judging you, or how frustrating it is that you can't play like Claude Williams, or why your fingers won't move faster, or how crap you sound. Instead, you focus on the music itself - the extraordinary quality of a note, or the simplest shape that might fit with what the others are playing, or where you could put in a space. All things that are within your range of 'technique'. Focussing on this kind of thing can, in my experience, actually change how you sound.

With painting, I don't know if I have the technique to do what I want to do or not. I can see more and more clearly, or at least, so it seems today, that what is problematic  here is that I don't know what I want my external focus to be. What is my 'subject matter'? I don't yet know.


Sunday, 25 March 2012

being yourself

A Seuss drawing suggesting that no matter how big, inflated or different the image we try to portray, being ourselves is most important.

TM & © 1995 Dr. Seuss Enterprises, L. P., Secret Art Collection, courtesy of the Museum of Science and Industry

Both found at

Saturday, 24 March 2012

internet collections

I'm discovering some extraordinary collections of  painters...

Finding this work makes me feel slightly sick with jealousy and a sense of inadequacy, but at the same time, as I noted in my book yesterday, it seems to me that that feeling of jealously is a recognition, something speaking to me about what I'm looking to do myself.

And let's face it, these people have been painting for years. They've put in hours and hours and learnt and learnt and learnt, about materials, if nothing else, which I'm beginning to realise is a huge work in itself.  The technical stuff is huge, especially if material effects are the thing you're most interested in.

Thursday, 22 March 2012


And at the same time (as what I wrote about in my last post), monumental frustration. Why am I not yet painting the bigger, braver, more interesting paintings that I would like to? Am I stuck, or am I just 'trying to push the river'? Perhaps the sense of circularity, of not bursting out into deeper, more confident worlds of colour and form, is just the way it is. Perhaps there's no way to make the plant grow any faster, or with some sense of plan that is anything other than that which is intrinsic to its cells.

Slowness is hard to learn.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

the sky

I continue to draw/paint the sky. Or, not to paint the sky, at all. I remember about a year ago thinking, that's it, I want to paint the sky; noticing how I stared at it all the time, watched it change throughout the day. And then I immediately thought, how audacious, don't be so ridiculous. The ghost of Turner leered at me. And I used to have this fantasy, every day, as I walked, of standing in the long grass with a big loose piece of canvas on the ground before me, painting away. But I couldn't do it. How do you paint the sky, I kept thinking. How could you even start?

It looks to me now as if one of the problems was that I was thinking about the painting I would produce from this process I took such delight in fantasising about. I decided, before I had even started, that the painting would be so small and inadequate, compared to the sky, that there really was no point in beginning.

Now, as often as this grey Scottish climate will allow me, I'm out there, sitting in the grass, working under the sky. And, as I've written about before, I slowly begin to realise that the painting or drawing that comes out is less and less what it's all about. Never mind 'capturing' the sky. Never mind whether or not my painting 'looks like' the sky.

I can't begin to describe the process, the experience, of sitting outside, listening to birdsong, looking and looking. Looking, and in response to that looking, choosing a colour from my crayons which is suggested by what I'm looking at. It isn't the same colour, at all. It isn't, as I watched a Russian artist do in Tenerife, about holding the crayon up to the sky and trying to get the best match. It's about getting an idea from the sky. It might be an idea about shapes, or about colours sitting together, or a sense of movement. It's about learning how the materials work through using them over and over (in this case, watersoluble waxy crayons, which I will later flood with water which will more or less dissolve what I've drawn completely). It's something actually very simple, and it's more or less mind-free.

I'm freed into the present. And I can feel the effects of being regularly and so completely freed in this way in every part of me; in my body, in my outlook, in my emotional responses. Utterly cool.


Sunday, 18 March 2012

ontological teachers

I'm thinking about what Jim said about the ontological dimension of learning art. Even to have named it seems to me to be a very interesting way of beginning to hack into this thorny issue. If the thing that's really powering art (or music, for that matter - I can't speak beyond those two) is the ontological stuff, then it occurred to me that it would follow that what people like me need are ontological teachers (as well as technical teachers to learn about technique...). 

Teachers who can push you over the edge of your cliff of being.

When your eyes are tired
the world is tired also.
When your vision has gone
no part of the world can find you.
Time to go into the dark
where the night has eyes
to recognize its own.
There you can be sure
you are not beyond love.
The dark will be your womb
The night will give you a horizon
further than you can see.
You must learn one thing:
the world was made to be free in.
Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which you belong.
Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learn
anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive
is too small for you.
~ David Whyte ~

In which case, I have teachers.


anatomy of creativity

 Jim's image

A post from Jim on the subject of creativity....



Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...