Sunday, April 19, 2015

Helping Artists Discover Their Personal Voices-Part 3

Gathering Light on Paper:16    16x16" Oil on paper ©2015 Janice Mason Steeves    

To read Part 1, click here

To read Part 2, click here

Elements of Design

Part 3,  is about looking at your work and the work of other artists to help you discover what you like. In my workshops, I love to teach techniques of working with the medium of cold wax and oil along with the elements of design. The process of painting involves the head and the heart- free and expressive play, along with an understanding of structure. Not one without the other. I'm interested how to read abstract paintings, and understand what elements of design an artist uses to express their ideas. For each design element, I teach various ways of working with cold wax and oil. For example, when I teach the design element, Line, I teach several different techniques for making interesting lines.

And then I invite each student to consider the importance of Line in their own work, asking them to think back over earlier work and see if line appears in their work. We tend to naturally gravitate to using certain elements when we paint. 

I do this with each of the elements of design. This gives an analytical approach to understanding your own art and you begin to see your artwork in a whole different way.
So while free expression, joy and spontaneity are important in a work of art, that's not all that's important. Skill is important.  Craftsmanship. A potter needs to learn how to centre the clay, how to trim the bottom when the pot is at a certain stage of dryness, how to pull a handle and attach it to the body of the pot when they are both at the same level of dryness. These are necessary skills. In painting, among other required skills, is knowing how to stretch a canvas, how to apply gesso to the canvas, and how to mix the paint with various mediums to get the desired results. It's also an essential skill to learn the language of art-the elements of design-the building blocks of a painting.  And then, once learned, to apply them to your own work to help you understand yourself-what you like, what interests you. This understanding helps you grow as a person, and helps your art grow too. 

In art, it is necessary to impose limitations. In the book on musical improvisation, called "Free Play", Stephen Nachmanovitch says that "limitations provide us with something to work with and against". "Improvisation is not breaking with forms and limitations just to be 'free', but using them as the very means of transcending ourselves."  I ask students then to choose elements they wish to work with and to limit themselves to working with those for a period of time.

Looking at the Work of Other Artists

Keep looking at the work of  important historical artists, as well as prominent contemporary painters and artists who may not be prominent but whose work you like.  This is a very important part of learning about painting, not only to educate your eye, but as a way of learning who you are and what you like. Write down what it is you like about the work of those artists. What qualities do you like: the meditative feeling, the use of bright hot colours, their sensitive use of line? And then ask yourself if you want those qualities in your own work. Or do you just enjoy that in others work but not necessarily in your own? When you come across the work of artists whose work you don't like, ask yourself specifically what it is about the work that you don't like. It's all about learning about yourself.

 Pianist Kenny Werner in his book, "Effortless Mastery", talks about technique versus creativity.  "One camp says, 'I don't want to absorb too much technique, too much language, because it will squelch my creativity'. Some people are afraid to learn too much for fear of losing their soul.  But that doesn't hold up. What could the poet or playwright write without command of language? Composer Donald Erb says that if your talent can't stand a little training, it must have been pretty fragile to begin with."

This is the final episode (for now) in my series of Helping Artists Discover their Personal Voices. I'd be happy to have your feedback on the series or suggestions for further episodes.