Sunday, January 20, 2013

More Thoughts On Critique: Your Comments

Toronto Workshop 2012

There were many thoughtful comments to the last blog post on the Art of Critique: A Conversation with my friend Rebecca Crowell.  Several people wondered about the importance of putting words on paintings and if doing so might distract from insights that cannot be captured with words. One friend wrote today to ask me if there were guidelines to exploring painting in an non-verbal way.  These are great questions.

Non-verbal communication is what painting is all about.
I fully understand about the difficulty of putting words onto a painting, and the way that they limit.  It must be like translating poetry from one language to another.  Something is lost in the translation.

Here are a few non-verbal guidelines I've developed when looking at my own work.  I wouldn't necessarily use all of these when I look at someone else's work.  They are just places where I begin.

-First, I feel the piece. How does it make me feel?  Calm?  Happy?  Joyful? Agitated? You don't have to put words on it. What's the energy like, is it really busy or soft and quiet. Am I relaxed and calm when I view the painting?  What am I aiming for?  Am I aiming to make a piece that is calm?

-Also, I LISTEN to the piece. Often my paintings seem to make a sound, a sort of music or a  swelling note.  I remember an earlier series of paintings made a deep chanting sound.  My new paintings make a much higher swelling sound like a violins playing together in an orchestra.  Are the paintings noisy or quiet.  Are they yelling, or are they speaking softly.  And what is it I am intending them to do.   Am I aiming for them to yell? Am I aiming to make music?

-I often put a painting in a place where I'll walk by it regularly so I can see how I live with it.  Is it growing on me? Am I continuing to learn new things about it?  A really beautiful but shallow painting is not what I'm after.  I want something that is even deeper than I meant it to be.  Does it live on it's own, separate from me? 

-Another way of looking at a painting is to pay attention to where my eyes travel as I look at the work.  Do my eyes just keep moving around and around and around, never stopping to rest?  That could mean that I'm looking for a resting place that isn't there.  Should I revise the painting then to make a resting place?   Sometimes my eyes go back and back and back to a certain spot, not resting, but in an agitated fashion.  What that usually tells me is that there's something wrong with that particular place...maybe the colour is too bright, maybe that place can be deleted.  I might hold my thumb up near my eyes as I stand back and look at the work, covering the difficult area.  How does it look if I delete that area?  

-Another thing I aim for in my painting is movement.  You could call it energy I guess too.  I want the viewer to feel it bending and flowing, back and forth, in and out, as though it were alive and you could hear the music it makes. 

Silence Red 10   36 x 60" Oil/cold wax on panel © 2013 Janice Mason Steeves
But let's talk about words now. To give feedback to another artist requires using words, no matter how inadequate they are. Trying to use words to give feedback or to discuss a painting, can encourage us to look longer, more carefully, and perhaps feel the painting in another way. It also gives us the language to communicate.  I'll talk more about that in my next blog post and address these thoughts in my upcoming studio workshop in April and at Cullowhee Mountain Arts in June.

Please feel free to comment on this post.  I love hearing your thoughts and questions.  They help me go deeper into my own ideas.


Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Art of Critique: a Conversation

Rebecca Crowell and I at the Uragh Stone Circle in County Cork, Ireland 2012

My friend Rebecca Crowell and I have decided to explore the idea of co-blogging: a back and forth conversation about a chosen topic that we conduct via email, and then publish on both blogs. This idea grew out of the habit that Rebecca and I have of sending each other long, frequent emails, which we do mainly because we are good friends with much in common. But in bouncing ideas back and forth, we've also had some enriching and stimulating discussions about our painting processes, teaching, art business and the ups and downs of our art lives.

Because this is a new idea for both of us, we are interested to see how our readers respond, and this will help us decide whether to continue co-blogging now and then. Please feel free to comment! 

We decided to begin with the topic of Critique, a subject we've both delved into in the past in our individual writing and teaching. In addition, I am scheduled to teach a 5-day class in June at Cullowhee Mountain Arts in North Carolina, called Visual Language and the Art of Critique, so the topic is timely.

J: Critique is so important to the development of an artist, and I wish that I'd had a workshop like the one I'm giving in June available to me earlier on in my art career.  But do you think a person would perhaps be intimidated to take a course that is about Critique?

R: Maybe--critique does have a fairly scary reputation! But it might help to demystify the word a bit. Basically critique is just a conversation about a work of art, your own or someone else's, right? Focused and perhaps intense, but not something that has to be judgmental or harsh. 

J: The word critique carries quite a lot of baggage and can seem to be only focused on the negative. I'm thinking of it as learning a visual language, learning a way of looking rather than in a critical sense. 

R. Can you say more about that? 

J: Sure, what I mean is that in verbal communication, we choose which words to use and how to put them together to best communicate our thoughts and ideas. We learn this at an early age, how to write a paragraph, how to write an essay.  We don't throw words and punctuation on a page and expect them to communicate.  Should we do the same with images?  Seems to me that we don't learn how to analyze visual communication in the same way.  I'm interested in how we make marks, how we structure a work of art.

R: That's a great analogy to written communication.  It brings to mind another aspect of writing that carries over into visual communication--editing. I seem to talk about that a lot in my workshops.  What is the main idea, and what supports it, and what is just excess, unrelated? I think this analogy to written language is also useful in countering the idea some people have that abstraction is only random mark-making without intent or structure.  We need to use visual language in a conscious way--at least at the point when we step back and evaluate our own work-- if we hope to communicate our intentions. 

J: It's difficult to get any opinions on our work after we leave art school.  And if we didn't go to art school, there are few places to learn this.  How have you learned to assess your own work?

R: In my college classes, especially in grad school, critique really WAS pretty negative, sometimes... so I started critiquing myself ahead of time to try and prevent whatever negative response might be coming. I would try to imagine what various instructors or other students might find to pick on, without understanding my own intentions or what I wanted in the work. Not a very good strategy but I bet it's a pretty common way to get through art school! 

Once I got away from college, it took a few years for me to lose the negative voices in my head and to focus on my own path. Gradually I started to develop my own criteria for what I want in my work, and at some point I made a list, which I keep posted in my studio, of things I aim for (for example: complexity, authenticity, presence, tension.) I can refer to it when I am stuck or assessing if something is done and ask myself if the painting reflects these criteria or not. How about you? 

 J. Before I taught myself the elements and principles of design, which I never learned in art school, I always judged my work in the old gut reaction way.  After we've been painting for a while, we get better at this:  simply sensing what is working or what is not working in a painting.  The gut reaction method is this:  put the painting up on the wall, in an area you will pass by quite often.  After a period of time-a day, a week-f you still like looking at the painting, you know that it's working and that it's finished.  If you don't feel that way, you know that there's something else to do and most often you'll know exactly the area that needs the work.  Sometimes the entire painting needs the work!  Ha!  Another way I've judged my work is to put it away for a few weeks or months and look at it with new eyes when I pull it out again.  This is usually a pretty good method, but sometimes we just don't have that time.  I haven't had a list of requirements for my work. I think that's so interesting that you have that.  I have always based my assessment on the feeling of the work, and really, I still do.  Even when I can more easily deconstruct my work now, in the end, it's still the gut reaction that is most important to me.   Do those criteria ever change for you?  Are some more important than others?

R: I don't refer to my list all the time (I do a lot of gut-level reacting too) but when I do, sometimes it opens my eyes in a new way. Although I have added and reworded some things, the list doesn't seem to change much over time--although the way I express the criteria does, as my work evolves. (That's one of the things on the list actually--that I see growth or new insight in the work.) 

I'd say the more conceptual criteria on my list are the most important--for example that the work has authenticity, authority, presence. And really, those are gut-level judgments--going back to your comments.  Hard to define, I just feel whether they are present. Some of the more specific items on the list, for example that there is contrast or a complex surface, have more to do with the deconstructing and analyzing you refer to.  So probably we have close to the same process in this.  It is a combination of intuitive, gut level response and more thoughtful analysis when something seems to call for that. 

So this leads me to wonder, how does this process play out when it's not self-critique, but instead looking at the work of other artists, or when they look at ours? how does that conversation get going? I presume this is where visual language becomes very important.

 J. I think there are certain choices we make in our work that are particular to each of us. I'm interested in teaching how to take apart a painting, just as we learned to take apart a paragraph to understand it when we were in grade school, so that we can see what is going on in the work.  What makes a painting work?  How do we describe it?  By learning a visual language that is easy to understand, we can better understand what we are personally interested in.  One big question we all ask, is who am I?  What do I like?  How does my work differ from yours?  That sort of thing.  They are difficult questions, but by learning to understand what it is that we are personally interested in, by learning to take apart our paintings (and others'), by talking about our work, putting words on it, we can help each other with those questions. Learning how to understand your own work is crucial to moving forward as an artist. I think my background in Psychology has given me a more personal orientation toward critique, where I see it as learning about ourselves, our choices and preferences, as well as about our painting. They can't really be separated can they?

Rebecca and I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

How Does A Journey Influence Your Work

Silence 30 50x50"  oil/cold wax on panel © 2013 Janice Mason Steeves

When I return from a journey,  I let the experience wash through me, not knowing what effect it will have on my work. I just begin to work, and after I have a few paintings under my belt,  I stand back to see what's happening.  Then I realize that it could be a colour I saw that influenced me or the lines on the standing stones, or even something someone said to me.

I always find that I am slow to really settle into a trip, especially when it requires that I paint.  For me, painting is about place; my relationship with the place I am in. In his new book: The Old Ways, A Journey on Foot, Robert MacFarlane says that "the two questions we should ask of any strong landscape are these: firstly, what do I know when I am in this place that I can know nowhere else?  And then, vainly, what does this place know of me that I cannot know of myself?"

I painted in the beautiful artist residency at Cill Rialaig in Ireland last November, but I also needed the second part of my journey-at the Abbey in Iona- to spend the time in contemplation rather than intensely working and trying to quickly digest the landscape as I was doing in Ireland. I learned that I just need to walk to feel the land where I am.  I'm even wondering if painting during a residency is necessary for me, or if I need to spend time just walking, absorbing and thinking thoughts that I may not have at home.

The second part of my journey that I spent on the island of Iona, in Scotland-away from my paints-afforded me the time to walk up and down the wild beaches, collecting stones, listening to the surf and contemplating--thinking about my work and my life.  How little value we put on this.

I remember  reading a story about Joseph Campbell. My memory of the story goes like this: Campbell and his wife had rented a small country home for a few months.  A neighbour looked over the fence to see Campbell reading and said to him, "Oh, I see you are taking a break from work".  Campbell replied, "No, I'm not taking a break,  I'm working".  Another time the neighbour again looked over and saw Campbell chopping firewood and said, "Oh I see that you're working now".  Campbell replied, "No, I'm taking a break".

When I came home from my trip in early December. I went into my studio to take a look at the work I had done before I went away.  You look at your work with fresh eyes when you see it again after being away for several weeks.  It felt clear to me that I should continue in the direction the work was going.  As the series is developing since the trip, it has changed slightly.  It has become even quieter and softer. And with the increasing chaos in the world -the drastic weather changes, noise, media-bombardment, the violence-in Syria, in India, in Sandy Hook and here at home as well, I am more committed to working in a way that speaks of finding a still quiet centre.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

About the End of the Year

Silence Red 6 24x24" oil/cold wax on panel ©2012 Janice Mason Steeves

This is the time of the year that we should take stock isn't it?  Look back and see what we've done this year.  What we've accomplished.  Are the art sales up?  Or down?  What are we doing right?  Or wrong?

More than this, I try to look back and see if my work has changed and grown.  And if I have.  I look back to see what I've learned and if it was what I thought I was going to learn.

I always try to write New Year's Resolutions.  Some years I create detailed sections like they tell you in the books on Success:  Physical, Emotional, Spiritual, Artistic, Financial.  I divide them down into bite-sized pieces that would be almost impossible not to accomplish. It takes a lot of time and thought.  I carefully file this list in my pink filing cabinet.  By the end of January, I can't remember which section I've filed it under and in fact, I've forgotten what any of those bite-sized bits were.  It's not until Dec. 31st that I go hunting for that list.

Mostly I am concerned with spiritual and artistic growth.  I suppose that the two go together. They do for me. 

My work grew in unanticipated ways this year as  I decided to explore the idea of Silence. My September exhibition at Granville Fine Art in Vancouver was called Speaking of Silence.  This series is my response to a chaotic world-excessive information, constant environmental noise, bombardment with electronic media, that sort of thing.  Silence, meditation, contemplation are where I am focusing.   These have always been important in my life.  This year, they have grown more important.

Recently, The Menil Collection in Houston, on whose campus the Rothko Chapel is located, created an exhibition called Silence. Their website says:  "Silence is a powerful force. It can produce profound emotions or conjure startling sensory experiences, and it seems inextricably linked to the passage of time. A prerequisite for contemplative thought, silence has become a scarce commodity in today’s media-saturated world. The exhibition and catalogue project Silence, considers this important and little-examined subject in modern and contemporary art."

In the fall I spent three weeks at the Cill Rialaig artist residency in Ireland-a quiet, remote location.  I loved my cottage with its stunning ocean views and the companionship of my artist friend, Rebecca Crowell.  I had trouble though quietening my busy mind.  After the residency, I went on to Scotland where I had a wonderful week visiting cousins that I don't see enough of.  The trip ended with a pilgrimage-a Christian one this time- to Iona, a small island off the west coast of Scotland, to the Abbey that was founded by St. Columba who brought Celtic Christianity to Scotland in 500AD. It was the perfect ending for my journey.  The program at Iona Abbey was called Quiet Week. Led by Stephen Wright, the focus was on the Contemplative path.  How appropriate. Silence and Contemplation.  Something changed in me.  I have no words for the change.

Robert Macfarlane, in his forward to the anthology, A Wilder Vein, suggested that "cognition is site-specific, or motion-sensitive: that we think differently in different landscapes. And therefore, more radically, that certain thoughts might be possible only in certain places, such that when we lose those places, we are losing kinds of imagination as well."

I love the idea that certain thoughts might be possible only in certain places.  I prefer though to think  that we can bundle up those new thoughts and pack at least some of them home to enrich and deepen the thoughts we have in our own  landscapes.

I look forward to 2013 and allowing the time for contemplation and silence.