Friday, 31 August 2012

making the path...

Yesterday I wrote a post on the other blog, reflecting on the two different themes in my drawing and painting. I never know what to call 'it' - I was using 'work' until I read Kathleen Jamie a week or so (more below). It suddenly struck me what a strange process this is. Sometimes it  hits me anew how much the whole thing is  'making the path by walking'; making the path by working. I keep thinking that I'm going to arrive at a place where I'll know what my work is, is to be, where it starts from, even a sense of where it's going. And then I learn, again, that I'm already in my work, and that in one sense the path never becomes much clearer. You just see the next stone heave into view out of the mist, and you respond, and then another stone appears....

Kathleen Jamie, The Guardian, 18th August, 2012:

...This is why I'm suspicious of those writers (and artists) who can brightly describe their own books. Who can 'pitch', and talk about 'my work' as if they might talk about 'my dog' - as if it were fully formed and present and trotting along obediently beside them. It seems to me that if you know precisely what you've done, or are going to do, then it's a project. Projects are not art. Art proceeds without a map.

I'm quite uncomfortable with the word 'art' too. A friend was talking to me about the John Cage quote I posted a few days ago, pointing out that it implied that there is only one purpose to art. In that discussion I came to the conclusion that perhaps what matters to me is simply knowing what my own purpose is in doing it, regardless of all the debates out there. My thoughts went something like this...

It doesn't even matter to articulate a purpose, unless one feels interested in the idea. For me it's about internal experience, about a to-ing and fro-ing between my experience and the world, and something happening as a result of that. I can't see that there's really anything else but this. Of course, you can choose to become wrapped up in politics and fight against injustice etc, feeling better in a moralistic sense because you feel have moral obligations to the wider world. But you're actually doing that  because it makes you feel better in terms of your own experience as well. There's no getting away from it, as far as I can see. And when you make art because you have to, I don't think it's about ONLY that internal experience - people respond, the work goes out there, makes its contribution. I was very confused about this for most of my life. I now think that art and music make as much contribution to the world as volunteering your labour or giving away your cash. AND I think that people who are doing what makes them feel vibrant and alive are themselves making a contribution to their society by BEING vibrant and alive. I have far more capacity now to support friends in distress and do things for people than I had as an academic.

From this internal experience thing (it's my life, I'm going to die, this is it) I think I would say at the moment that art, for me, is a way of exploring the world. That's what I want it to be, and what it is when it's working best. I suppose I like the idea of creativity better than art, because it lets me play with cutting up bits of paper and weaving them together, and, actually, the images I make when I play like this are in some ways much more exciting to me. And to others, from the feedback I get. Either way, it doesn't matter. For me it's about a gentler, more exploratory, more forgiving, more playful, more expansive way of being in the world. Purpose of art for me, I suppose. 

I don't know why it interests me so much to explore these ideas in writing. But it does. Part of my to-ing and fro-ing.


Thursday, 30 August 2012


From Artify it again.....


repetition and novelty

I've been thinking about the idea of repetition and novelty since very early on in this recent painting stretch (now perhaps nearly three years....). I felt that I had come up with the idea myself, noticing what was somehow visually interesting in natural forms. For example, in this picture of lichen there's a sense of things repeating - a roughly circular kind of shape, and a limited range of variations to the colours. At the same time, compared to, say, a textile design, the circle shape and the colours are all very slightly different from each other; no two bits are alike, even though overall there's a kind of rhythm to the shapes and colours. Like an Indian raga playing only certain notes of a scale, or a piece of music that stays in the same key.

Since then, I've found that various other people have talked about this idea in different contexts. Recently there was an article in the New Scientist which focussed on neurological findings in relation to the appreciation of art. Discussing his own response to abstract painting, the author asks, 'why are we so attracted to paintings and sculptures that seem to bear no relation to the physical world?'

One experiment subjected volunteers to 'works of art created by famous abstract artists', and 'the doodles of amateurs, infants, chimps and elephants', and they had to judge which ones they liked best. They found that  'volunteers generally preferred the work of the well-accepted human artists, even when they believed it was by animals or a child':

Somehow, it seems that the viewer can sense the artist's vision in these paintings, even if they can't explain why.

Another study presented volunteers with abstract paintings that were upside down and the right way up, and found that the upside down ones were deemed to be less pleasurable. I find the tone of all this slightly weird, in that the underpinning assumption seems to be that abstract paintings, because they don't represent recognisable objects from the physical world, are in some way random and unskilled. When you think of the level of (representational) skill that many abstract artists achieved before turning to abstraction, it doesn't seem surprising to me that their abstract work is equally visually skilled, in terms of creating something that the mind responds favourably to.

Another study related to the brain's ability to process complex scenes and found that 'a certain level of detail is required to please the brain. Too little and the work is boring, but 'too much complexity results in a kind of perceptual overload''. Furthermore, the detail of many pieces:

...showed signs of fractal patterns - repeating motifs that reoccur at different scales, whether you zoom in or out of a canvas. Fractals are common throughout nature - you can see them in the jagged peaks of a mountain or the unfurling fronds of a fern. It is possible that our visual system, which evolved in the great outdoors, finds it easier to process these kinds of scenes.

A couple of weeks later, there was a letter in response to this article:

In your look at neuroaesthetics, the correlation of a data compression 'sweet spot' with appreciation of modern art raises the issue of the link between pattern and novelty. A repetitively patterned input is highly compressible. A totally random input is incompressible. We find the repetitive pattern boring as we detect no novelty. Total randomness disturbs because we can detect no pattern. It would be interesting to correlate eye-tracking of modern art with image compressibility. Perhaps the eye continuously  moves over an incompressible, random image, searching for a pattern, and likewise over a repetitively patterned image, seeking novelty. Optimum compressiblity, or the sweet spot, may be when the eye detects relative novelty in a sea of pattern, or pattern in a sea of novelty.

From this point of view, the kind of non-representational work that I'm interested in is perhaps every bit as 'natural' as a recognisable landscape....


Monday, 27 August 2012


I've enjoyed myself this morning, doing more stuff from my new book. And I was randomly allocated a previous post when checking my post from yesterday. It said:

'[the residual purpose of art] is PURPOSELESS PLAY. This play, however, is an affirmation of life - not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we're living, which is so excellent once one gets one's mind and one's desires out of its way and lets it act of its own accord'

John Cage, cited in How to be an Explorer of the World


Sunday, 26 August 2012

cycles of emergence

I've just noticed a cyclical pattern to the way that ideas seem to emerge. The first example of this was when the Indian gods started appearing.

I was very surprised to see them, and wondered what they thought they were doing. But something pushed it on for a while, until I ended up with this:

I was actually quite pleased with this, but also in some way self-conscious, presumably imagining that 'people', whoever they may be, would think that what I was doing was kitsch, or obvious, or something. Somehow I moved on and started doing something else.

Some months later, after the Discpline of Freedom workshop, I began to properly do a daily practice, one aspect of which involved painting without thought or intention. Within two days I had this image (the one on the left, photographed later...), which suddenly brought the two strands of my past work together. It was combination of two themes (circle vortex) I had been working on on a small scale, suddenly appearing on a much larger one. Somehow it delivered me right back into the lap of my gods.

Recently, this process of an idea trying to emerge and then disappearing happened again. I was working in oils for pretty much the first time (see  below), and getting fascinated by the earthy grounds that were appearing. I wanted to do more, but I remember thinking, 'well, I can't just work on grounds, for goodness sake...'.  I seemed to be working on the inner assumption that I had to be working on 'making paintings' at all times. I've noticed this before, it's like a habit of productivity or something.

It was only when I found a book which I loved, in which I discovered, after I received it through the post, that there was a  lot of focus on making different grounds, that I began to feel that experimenting with different grounds might be a perfectly acceptable thing to be doing.  

I'm not sure if the issue here is to notice how the first appearance of the idea in both cases was walloped by the critic, or whether perhaps what's interesting is that the emergence of a creative theme seems to be cyclical. And that as it cycles round, the volume gets turned up. In these examples, the first appearance of the idea was, in the first case, a few pieces of work which were then abandoned, and in the second place, a thought that was dismissed. Either way, the work on that theme stopped. 

In the case of the first example, the gods only got back in because the process I was following after the workshop had temporarily silenced my mind/critic. In the second case, the thought was forgotten until it was verified by appearing in an external source....

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

picasa features!

This new picasa stuff, which probably isn't new at all but I've only just noticed, really seems to have some potential...


Monday, 20 August 2012

strange and funky stuff...

...going on over on the other blog.....


who is it for?

I remember in the early days of writing this blog being very perplexed about who creativity, particularly making paintings, was for. I had a strong instinct that there was something wrong with making paintings with an audience in mind, in the sense of half-consciously trying to please that audience, trying to second-guess what it might like (and buy? and praise you for?). Somehow it seemed imperative that I found my own wind, set my own sail, without looking around me.

This attitude led to people saying, 'Well,  it's the process that's important, isn't it, not the product?' This seemed right in a way, in that there was certainly something important about the doing of it, the act; the texture of paint, the responding in the moment to the marks that appeared. But it also seemed to imply that you'd be quite happy to make a painting and then put it in the bin. And that didn't seem so right.

Another comment was, 'Oh, so you're doing it for yourself, so you don't care if no-one ever sees it. You'd do it anyway'. Well, yes, and no. You do it because somehow you have to, you need to. Not doing it makes your life into a shadow. You're doing it from yourself, to your own vision. But now I see that there's a difference between trying to second-guess or please people, and wanting to share what you do.

On the whole, I don't want to put what I do into the bin. And I don't want to have a workroom getting fuller and fuller of paintings that no-one has ever seen until the teetering pile hits the ceiling. I've witnessed the occurrence of something quiet and strange coming through me, and I want to share it. Creativity seems to me to be a kind of miracle.

Monday, 13 August 2012

inhibiting the body

Watching a singer on TV this evening, I'm suddenly struck by something obvious which suddenly seems new. I notice how she moves her hand, her expressions, how, despite the fact that she's performing and no doubt has made some conscious decisions about how she may think she wants to look, you can still see that quite a bit of what she does is not manufactured.

And then I see it, clear as day - that the whole body is an integral part of your singing voice. And it knows exactly what it wants to do; how it wants to sway, or move its hand, or raise an eyebrow. That knowing doesn't have to be studied, or learnt, or practised. In the same way that people who are not dancers dance beautifully and perfectly when they think no-one is looking, the knowledge is already there, innate. We're born with bodies primed to move and sing and dance. And then we block it all off, stuff it all up, with culturally learned self-consciousness. And then we try to 'learn to sing' or 'learn to dance', focussing on exercises and techniques, trying, trying, trying, forever pushing with the mind.

I suddenly saw that I know this. That I've watched my hand move out as I sing, and that I wouldn't let it move out if I was singing with someone else in the room. Never mind singing lessons, or looking up technique on the internet - how do I get myself, mentally and emotionally, into that place of knowing? How do I stop  self-consciousness from stopping my body from doing its natural thing?

Earlier in the day, I'd noticed that because I was a) tired, and b) sure that no-one could hear me and judge me, my voice had been completely clear and strong, as I'd noticed it hadn't been when we had someone staying in the house (even though I knew rationally that they weren't actually listening at all). I realised that my friend Lorna Penney's idea of 'the push' was much more subtle than I'd previously understood. The push, in this situation, is perhaps an unconscious desire to 'sound good', or 'hear improvement', and it subtly tightens up the whole body. Desire and striving tighten up the vocal chords in some subtle way, at the same time as inhibiting the body's natural movements stops an overall bodily flow.....


Thursday, 9 August 2012

the body adorned

As I suspected, rather wonderfully, really, actually doing the work is taking over from thinking about the process. Another post on the Indian project today at


Friday, 3 August 2012

what to do...

Not sure how best to link between my two blogs now. I think I'm likely to be writing about the Indian Art project for a while. You can join that site as a follower if you want, or I'll just post a link to it here from time to time.



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