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We all want to make better paintings, get absorbed in the process of creating art and then stand back and discover a masterpiece. Often it doesn’t work quite like that! We can get swamped in the middle stages and easily lose our way, or even motivation to continue.

If you recognise that frustration, I hope these ideas will help.

1. Don’t stop through fear – trust that you have the knowledge to make it better

There is often a moment when you are quite pleased with what you have done so far. Personally I’m quite drawn to slightly unfinished looking works – the sense of potential and more to come really resonates with me. I don’t mind if the canvas isn’t fully covered. I don’t want to know it all; if I wanted all the detail I could take a photograph. I want to leave something for the viewer’s imagination.

However we all know that fear of spoiling what you have created so far. When you are working on bigger paintings this can get harder – perhaps you already have a lot of time and/or energy invested within them and it can be hard to move forward and ‘spoil’ what you have already created.

‘Cloud Shift’ in progress on the studio wall

This is a large painting on canvas I had been working on over a few months. It’s been quite a play piece. At this point I liked it; I liked the mood, the looseness of some of the marks, but it felt predictable and a bit gloomy. Stopping here would have been so frustrating, because I knew this painting could be better.

I knew I needed to do more, but the fear of messing it up was so overwhelming it almost stopped me. If I had listened to my inner fear voice I would never have completed this painting.

 

2. Get clear on what you are working on

When you’re caught up in the flow of creating something you are usually so involved in what you are doing that you don’t stop to assess it. You work almost instinctively. Your experience leads you where to go what next, what to try. If you asked me how or why certain marks or colours are there I couldn’t tell you why – they just felt right and arrived. This process comes with experience and practice. It can be tiring. Heck, it can be exhausting, but usually it’s only once you come to a stop that you realise you’ve been working quite a lot out.

But at some point there is a natural break in flow. Particularly if you are tired it can be difficult to recognise this and because we are in some sort of rhythm we keep going. Often this is when I muck it up so I have learnt that when I stop there is often a reason.

It’s hard to be objective about your own work. The very fact that you have invested your time and energy into it means you are emotionally connected to it and this can make it very hard to assess what you have achieved and what should come next.

I liked the marks I had created here as part of a loose play stage, but the composition as a whole wasn’t yet working. It was so hard to do the next stage! The more experimental and uncontrolled means a higher chance it can all go wrong.In the example above I was stuck because I wasn’t sure what the next development should be – the hesitation got me.

Having a set of principles really helps in these moments. Not rules, but guidelines you can use to ‘see’ your own work and know what will take forwards.

After a short time away I could remove myself from the parts I liked and start to see what the painting needed overall. For me it was all too messy so I needed some structure. I liked the yellow ochre but it was too dark and I wanted to really let those linear marks show off – which meant bringing in some areas of clarity. This is how I finalised the painting.

3. If you’re not sure what needs doing next, do anything!

Don’t fuss around the edges, tweaking at small changes. Do something bold!

I was loving the soft greys here with flashes of bright coming through, but it all felt a little…bland? pointless? I knew it needed something radical – a dynamic shift which would bring fresh life.

I find a painting goes through this stage many times, but adding this bold fresh cobalt suddenly gave this painting new direction. Yes, it shook things up a bit, but that’s what I’m looking for. And now I know how to handle this stage I find it exhilarating.

Middle stages of a painting, Alice Sheridan

pink painting in progress

 

Adding this blue surprised me and gave the painting a new lease of life. Without this it would all be simply too soft. Working like this takes guts, but is so rewarding. (see the final painting here) 

4. Check in with your personal ‘bigger picture’

Take a moment to ask yourself what you are exploring within this painting. There should be a deeper level of enquiry… something you are looking to test and learn. That can be as simple as how to portray the light hitting a glass vase or creating a certain emotion within an abstract.

I find it really valuable to re-connect with this big idea in the middle stages. Often as I start painting, I have no idea or plan and this arrives during the process of working on each individual painting. It helps to articulate it, whether in a notebook or just taking time to clarify your interests on that painting.

 

If you are an artist, these are just 4 of my ideas which I hope might help you in your own art practice. Having some kind of guidance system can really make a difference. Over the last few years my own painting has really developed as a result of a program I took back in 2016 with Nicholas Wilton. This gave me, not rules, but a group of guiding principles which will help you to define your own personal intentions – and give you a way to make quick and reliable progress in your work.

I’d like to introduce you to three more powerful principles which will transform your art.

Nick is now launching his 2020 free workshop and if you’ve ever struggled with feeling stuck with your painting I highly recommend signing up. It costs you nothing and it might just transform your work…

The free lessons begin on February 14th 2020, you can  join up on this page, and you will also have access to a private community where I will be hanging out, answering questions and helping to accelerate your learning with my Art Juice co-host Louise Fletcher.

PS: If you have already registered for the workshop, you can still join us in the Facebook group by signing up again using my link.

SIGN UP NOW

(Note: I am a proud affiliate for Nick – if you click on the link, I will be credited for having referred him to you. Should you decide to join the CVP program in the future, I would be compensated. But I get nothing for referring you to the free program – I just think you would really benefit and I want to share it with you).

Here is the finished version of ‘Cloud Shift’. The principles Nick teaches don’t only apply to abstract work, and you don’t have to reinvent the wheel throughout the progress of every painting. Towards the end you can use this understanding to strengthen every painting you make.

Adding the brighter sweeps of blue (colour harmony and saturation contrasts) and a flash of turquoise lifts the land from the deeper muted tones. And that sky has carefully adjusted areas of lights and darks and uses a wide variety of marks so it has its own interest. I hope you’ll join me and see how you can apply these principles to your own creative work.

>> Join the free workshop here <<

 

Of course, with the same first name, how could I resist? I first met Alice a year ago at The Other Art Fair and we’ve been in touch since then via Instagram (her and me).  We recently had brief exchange about the importance of titles for abstract paintings and I suggested we get together and try and record a “Creative Conversation” for you.

I visited Alice at her London studio in Woolwich and we talked about how work changes over time. She shares where her inspiration comes from, how people respond to her paintings. And we get the giggles.

You can see her work on display at The Other Art Fair in London, 4-7th October 2018 and sign up for her newsletter for a complimentary ticket code here:

www.aliceneave.com

I hope you enjoy this, and that it may be the first of other conversations between artists. I know I love listening to conversations such as this. Let me know what you think!

 

One of the things which helps me in the studio is a ‘mood board’  for my art. It’s good to refresh this and I had become so used to looking at it, that my eyes passed over it and it was no longer serving its purpose.

 

So what’s a mood board?

You’re probably familiar with interior design mood boards – designers use them to bring together ideas for a new room scheme – they can include swatches, visuals and samples. In this sense a mood board gives you a way to guide the choices you make. It may not contain details, but it gives you an overall feeling and a visual way to play with what you would like to create… things which will make you feel proud and excited to create!

Why does this help?

In art the possibilities are endless, so having a gentle way to keep you aligned can be a big help. It acts a reminder – in a big visual, always visible way – of what interests you. And if you keep following what interests and excites you, then you won’t get bored.

Yes, we can do this in sketchbooks too, but they get left in bags, or the cover is closed and they go back on the shelf. A mood board is a big visual, the overall approach and feel.

 

If you feel stuck, you have a tangible object to come back to to reignite your ideas, perhaps see what’s missing, or where you have become stuck in familiar territory rather than following your new year excitement. (PS – you can do this anytime!)

Here is my previous board – you can see I have pieces of fabric, photos of road markings, images from magazines and some older pieces of work which I wanted to refer to.

If you like this idea what’s the best way to go about this? There are a few tips which may help you the first time if this feels unfamiliar and you’re not sure where to begin…

 

Don’t start with pictures!

I like to start with writing. If I go straight to images I end up choosing from what’s available so the choices are coming from outside me. What I’m looking for is my own internal guidance and writing helps with that.

There are a couple of ways you can approach this:

ONE: like morning pages as recommended in The Artists Way; simply write longhand whatever comes to mind about your work until you cover three pages. Julia Cameron advises that you don’t go back and re-read them, but for this exercise I would go back with a highlighter and mark what seems relevant. You may end up with some specific things like “work bigger” or you may find more emotional ties – like a frustration that you never find enough time for your creative work or you are stuck within a particular style.

You won’t find a totally clear answer straightaway – this is a process which can be repeated – and you can adjust your board accordingly.

THE SECOND WAY: is to mind map with single words which feel important. This is faster. If you keep following the spider-arms and questioning what it means to you, you will end up pushing your ideas further. This can be challenging, but being more specific will help your ideas. Instead of ‘work in a series’ what does that mean to you? Will they all be the same size or are you finding links across different mediums.

The answers may not all go onto your board, but could start to create different creative projects for you to focus on.

What materials do I need?

I like to use a cork board and pins. That way you can rearrange and adjust; add and remove elements as you move through the year. I painted my board with leftover house paint – just a pale neutral colour, but you could go for bolder or dark… most of it will be covered, but I don’t like that dull brown as a starting point!

You could also use normal card and stick or tape the elements down.

What should you put on it?

Anything goes, but here are some suggestions:

  • images from magazines – think about the kind of home your work would look amazing in, or use fashion magazines and adverts are especially good for backgrounds with beautiful colour variations. YO could look for intresting textures and shapes in travel magazines. I find it helps to pick magazines where the photography is inspirational or more ‘arty’ or design led – the images are more distinctive
  • fabric strips
  • colour swatches – either from paint sample charts, or paint your own.
  • images of other artists’ work – but think about WHY it inspires you – be specific about what it has which you would like to bring to your own work in your own way.
  • images of your own work – which pieces were pivot pieces for you? What can you learn from them? Those moments deserve to be recorded and reminding yourself that……
  • photographs you’ve taken, or copies from your sketchbook

I also like to write words. Sometimes visuals can be too specific where words give me a looser direction to follow. Cut the letters from magazines, use a stamp, print using your favourite font on your computer or just write by hand (the quickest way!)

You can collect from anywhere, but you are looking for things which raise your excitement level. We want this board to be something which fires you up, which fills you with energy and enthusiasm.

Once you’ve made your board, where should you put it?

I have mine on a shelf just inside my work studio. It’s not directly in front of me while I’m working so I can still concentrate on the painting I’m doing. But it’s still visible all the time. This is something you want to be reminded of, so find a place you will notice it daily.

  • where you will see it when you wake up
  • the room you spend most time in
  • if you are easily distracted, how about putting it where that happens to remind you of what you would really find fulfilling? Prop it in front of the TV, or in the kitchen so that after dinner you spend time on your creative projects.
  • you can even take a photo of it and use it as your screen saver on your phone!

 

So, what’s on my board for this year?

Overall it’s more spacious – there is a clarity which hasn’t been present before. It feels more single minded. That’s not to say work is fixed or that it won’t deviate from now onwards. Remember this is flexible guide for you, not a rigid set of instructions!

I’ve used small parts of older paintings and visualised them at a larger scale to remind me not to clutter the space. I found the word EDIT in a magazine, and the colours aren’t guides for paintings so much as reminder to play within colour families.

Some things have carried over from last year – that inky streak with the sharp cut out because it reminds to make bold moves, and the list of text…. those are things which interested me last year and still do – what……..(list sample)

 

What do I need to add?

Something to do with photography…. my iPhone is wonderful, but I would like to use a proper lens more this year to give me more control over the images. I want to collect more of the urban space around me and find a way to use this in my work.

 

What else could you use this for?

I mentioned this first on Instagram and some people liked the idea of creating a board for each series of work, even each painting or perhaps seasonally would suit you. If you have a go – please tag me so I can see what you make, and let me know below if you think this will be helpful for your own work – or what you might use it for…. holidays? planning a room? things to add in your life?

Here is one I made just exploring autumn colours for a previous painting I was starting. It’s not a formula for the painting, but it’s a good way to explore what you are attracted to and want to include before you pick up the brush and fall into familiar habits of colour mixing!

Want more tips for your art?

Come and join the free Art Explorers group on Facebook where we will be exploring different ways to strengthen your art practice – and how to get it out into the world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

ukHandmade is an amazing online publication which features artists and makers from many disciplines – find great textiles, jewellers, potters, illustrators and artists. Actually it would be a great starting point if you want to buy unique and special gifts but don’t know where to start.

I was thrilled when they got in touch and asked to interview me and sent me some wonderful questions…. I’ve included three below which touch on ideas about how work evolves from different influence and the importance of handmade to us as humans…

(PS. this is not me!)

Your work has a strong, graphic feel, how has your training influenced your painting style?

The problem solving element of design always appealed to me. The idea of setting a brief I find helpful too – with art the possibilities are endless so it can be very helpful to set some guidelines for yourself. Limitations encourage you to explore. For example, I have filled a sketchbook with colour notes and small paintings done from only three colours when I wanted to learn more about the mixing properties of different paints.

A couple of years ago I spent time working with different printmaking techniques. In a way it didn’t suit me well; creating an etching plate can be so time consuming and the idea of simply reproducing multiple prints didn’t appeal at all! Some of the more unpredictable processes such as spit-bite (where you paint with the acid) I enjoyed and now bring that freedom back to my painting where I now feel more comfortable with welcoming unplanned elements into the work.

I also included elements of pre-printed graphics within the prints as chine collé (the paper is collaged into the paper as the print is being made) and this has now become part of my practice – both in a small collage sketchbook I use to create compositions, and I include collage within the early stages of many paintings just to break the surface.

Overall my work has become edgier in the way I use colour and tone, and I seem to like paintings with clear definition. At the start I’m always thinking about placement and this reminds of balancing a page layout. Towards the end, the changes I make become increasingly subtle and careful and I think this attention to detail amongst the more expressive marks brings a real focus and feeling of attention. That attention to detail definitely comes from my design background.

What does the term handmade mean to you?

It means someone has put something of themselves into it. I think as we grow increasing digital with our interactions there is more need than ever for something which feels human. People have a strong desire for things which are unique and handmade objects or works of art can be intensely satisfying for people. We need that tactile connection which can be missing from much of modern life. I think there is a move away from mass produced items as people make more conscious choices towards things which they treasure and enjoy.

What are the most rewarding and most frustrating aspects to what you do?

The most rewarding is collecting work from the framer. I love the process of working through a painting, but as they near their end it becomes more anxious for me. That moment when you say “there, that’s finished” you are also saying “that’s as good as it gets” and it’s open to judgement. It can be nerve wracking. While they are at the framer I often dream about them, I forget what I finished, I forget the detail… but unwrapping them I have a sense of distance which really allows me to see them fresh and enjoy them. Hanging them at an event and seeing people’s enthusiastic response is always wonderful of course.

What’s frustrating can be all the associated technology we need to know now. My image storage system really needs some work! But getting to grips with all this stuff makes you feel more empowered and I’m stubborn and stick at it until I get what I need. A few years ago I had to track down a photographer for my work and now I have someone I trust and I’m so pleased with the quality of prints I can offer as result. So the headaches are usually worthwhile.

 

We also talked about advice for those starting a creative business, how to clear creative blocks and how always learning new skills is important to keep fresh. Great questions always make me stop to think – if you have any for me, please ask below or join me over on Facebook 

You can read the full magazine here, for free! Look for the Autumn 2017 edition, and flip to page 58 to read the interview with me. Plenty more wonderful artists and makers to explore so I hope this has also introduced you to a new and inspiring resource.

 

 

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It’s just so good to take yourself to new places and get new stimulus. Sometimes we have to be responsible for filling our own idea ‘pots’ but it can also be great to be led by others.

I’ve really enjoyed three days in the beautiful Yorkshire Dales taking a course with Lewis Noble at Jack Beck house. He was very open with how he uses his sketchbooks to gather ideas which sometimes become leads for new paintings.

Watch and see what I will take away and incorporate into my own practice going forward.

 

 

As my own approach to painting abstract art has changed over the last year, this has left me wondering where sketchbooks fit in with the whole picture…

If sketchbooks help to plan alternatives, test compositions and colours, how does this fit in with a process where all that discovery, that excavation, happens on the canvas itself during the process of painting?

 

inspiration for abstract artist Alice Sheridan

Valencia graffiti and the sketchbook pages I worked on in the following week

I wrote about this in my recent newsletter (would you like to get the next one? you can sign up here ) and how my short trip to Valencia ended with lots of new experiences, but empty sketchbook pages. Jean Davey Winter messaged me “this is just so relevant to me at the moment. I’ve just got back from Cuba where I had planned to do lots of sketchbook work and came back with next to nothing…apart from photos, memories and a feeling that I now need to process this sensory overload both visually and mentally!”

Jean originally trained in printed textiles and has been course leader of a BA Hons Fine Art programme so you would think she is well placed to avoid sketchbook angst, but it seems it gets to us all! But for abstract artists where work is not representational, what do you actually put in those pages and how do you use them to inform your work?

abstract art sketchbook

mark making by Jean Davey Winter

Jean says “these are all from an A6 sketchbook – a size I really enjoy working in. None of them ended up as larger paintings – but I do find I can free up and be more inventive when I’m working in a sketchbook – just frustrating that it doesn’t happen in quite the same way when I get onto a larger canvas…”

composition drawings in the sketchbook of Jean Davey Winter

“these are ways of thinking about compositions – this is sometimes helpful, especially as a starting point, but the problem is when I come to translating what I like about a line drawing into a painting the whole thing obviously changes completely.”

Line is immediate. It’s a direct and subtle translation of how you interpret what you see and over time your own personal language of mark making emerges. But as preparations for paintings it sucks. It can be almost misleading… it just delineates form without any information about the relative tonal density of the areas. We both agreed that adding tone or colour afterwards then just feels like colouring in!

If we break down the elements of design (and consequently any image on a flat plane) perhaps this helps:
• point
• line
shape
• space
• color
• texture

Once you refocus on these, it doesn’t really matter what your subject matter is – there is plenty there to get you going. Colour alone can be a lifetime of exploration and understanding.

Add in other design principles like balance, proportion, emphasis, movement, pattern, repetition, rhythm, variety, harmony, and unity and you have a full tool box of potential.

Ideas come from mysterious places; they can well up without warning.

One thing I have noticed is how often an idea begins in the pages of a sketchbook and then stays hidden. I may be working on something and then suddenly see recognisable fragments emerge from a note I first made many years previously.

Or the opposite happens: the pages shown here I made one day, seemingly at random and then later I looked back through my photo roll and noticed the shapes and colours within this image of Dartmoor. Later in the week I was waiting for the children at the climbing centre and took this photo: the yellow against the dull green, the glowing light against the grey, the fine lines of the netting next to the smooth dark grey.

All these elements link together and could be the basis for an abstract painting. Can we define what the source is? Who knows! Does it even matter?

Making connections between the outside world and our inner reaction to it is what abstract art is about for me. That need for exciting variety and times of calm reflection which is essential both for art and within life.

Having an ongoing sketchbook practice can be so helpful as a way to allow ideas the time they need to emerge; if you are looking for ways to reinvigorate your own work how about these tips…

Be selective

think about separating out and exploring the different design elements. Maybe you just want a mark-making book to explore different mediums, maybe you do want to practice your life drawing or create a book around still life and abstract shapes? Mix and match or have one book for each practice.

Find a medium which works for you

I’m currently loving collage, but anything which has a low barrier to getting started is good – coloured pencils, different pens, pan gouache can all be great

It’s Ok to have some downtime

It’s not a race. Ideas can develop slowly or in a rush but often when you’re NOT thinking directly is when the best, or most distilled ideas come to you. There are many who advocate daily practice and while this can be great ti get you out of a rut, it can also end up making you feel forced and disengaged. Go with the flow instead.

Use technology

Using your phone to take photos still counts. You are raising your visual awareness and making selections as you photograph. Even if you then delete them all! Jean: This is why with the colour ones I tried working from a photo on the computer screen, trying to simplify and look at shapes/colours and marks.

Sketchbooks can also be places for words. I’m amazed at how much writing helps me to formulate my ideas and I do more writing now than at any tie in my life, but that’s a subject for another day!

If you are a creator I’d love to hear how you use your own sketchbooks. If you are an art collector do you enjoy seeing in to artists’ books? Please leave a comment below or add a photo over on this Facebook post.

On Instagram you can follow my studio practice and sketchbook pages here, or see more of Jean’s ongoing process here where she is currently sharing photos of her Cuba journey and loving the vibrancy of the new colour palette.

Thank you Jean for our conversation and for sharing your work with us 🙂

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It seems as soon as I have a rhythm to my day, it changes!  When I first started painting again when my children were younger I found the day could so easily get swallowed up with the luxury (? I know! ) of doing domestic tasks in peace and quiet…

These days I try to be more disciplined about making time for what’s important to me.

School days start too early for me; the alarm goes off at 6:30am. After a good breakfast and the children have left for school I may have a browse on Instagram to see new posts from people I follow in the US. I know wise advice is not to get sucked into social media early in the day, but I find it inspiring and joyful to be connected with so many creative people all over the world. When I began painting again it felt quite isolating, working alone with no adult conversation, so discovering this amazing online connection really does make a huge difference to my life.

Ten years ago I was suffering from depression. I had stopped my career in graphic design when my son was born prematurely and I wanted to be at home with him and then my daughter. Despite good friends, I still felt like I had lost myself. Going back to life drawing classes was such a great way to get absorbed in a creative activity.

We live in London and most mornings begin with walking our dog; one morning we have a dog walker so I can have a longer working day and one morning is a pilates class I’ve been going to for 14 years. Being outside wakes me up; nature inspires but even walking down the same street I notice colours in brick work, or light coming through the slats of the underpass can be rather beautiful. Noticing all these ‘visual sparks’ is what I love about making art. I take far too many photos, and usually delete them, but they are somehow in my visual memory bank and I’m surprised at how they resurface in my work.

It’s usually around 11am when I go up to the studio; a room on the top floor of our house. Of course, a huge studio would be heaven, even a sink would be good, but having space at home means I can dip and out more easily, even with short patches of time. The space has evolved with basic furniture, I used to have a large sheet of plywood as a desk, but last Autumn that became flooring and I fitted a false wall with a series of nails so that I can position and move around larger panels. It works well and helps me visualise how paintings will look hanging together. I tend to work in series and one can often inform the other.

Before I begin I may spend time looking at work I did yesterday, or writing in my studio diary as I find this helps me identify what to work on. Putting ideas into words really helps me clarify what I’m trying to do next. Other times I may work in my collage sketchbook, but I’ve found this often goes in waves… idea generating and sketchbook work over the holidays or working to make the paintings during school term.

Usually I listen to the radio – I enjoy the sense of other people working ‘live’ alongside me – sometimes a music station and sometimes BBC talk Radio 4 with it’s mix of factual programmes or plays which take my mind into another place.

Depending on what time I began I may stop for lunch or just keep going. My painting day ends with a bump at 4pm when the children arrive home and it’s definitely time for a cup of tea. The usual round of homework, laundry and cooking follows although I’m often now also trying to do other art related tasks – scanning images, tweaking the website, copying images for a blog post.

This business side of marketing your own art is hugely time consuming, but I enjoy the learning side of it, although the tech can drive me crazy! Often my husband comes home to find me growling at some piece of software or other which isn’t doing quite what it should. I’d like to be able to switch out of work mode, but that seems hard to do at the moment.

When the children were younger there was a more clearly defined routine – and we had an evening… now I’m usually the first to bed. Either with a good novel, but these days just as often it’s a business book or artist biography. I’ve just finished reading Clear Seeing Place by Brian Rutenberg which is about his life as an artist, and is full of wise insights about facing your creative challenges.

Ultimately that’s what I love about making art. It forces you to confront things. No one can paint this painting but you. If you procrastinate the only loss is your own work, and probably no one else would care. But when you DO make it clear, and make creativity your priority, the joy of seeing completed paintings hanging and knowing you made them, is just wonderful. And when you see that transfer to other people – so much that they want to live with your work, it’s an honour – and a responsibility I think.

During holidays we often spend time in Dartmoor – a rugged area of national park in SW England. The landscape is wild, rocky and open and I find it exhilarating! What I think I’m trying to do in my work is mix this sense of space and changing weather with the busy impact of city life. In the run up to an event there will also be taking the work to the photographer, testing print samples, arranging framing, writing and printing labels. I also keep an eye out for submissions and forward plan for event deadlines. I think many people think I just mess round with paint, but it’s a whole life of thought and emotion which goes into making art but I see this as a ‘rest of my life’ job and I’m not in a hurry.

Alice Sheridan working in her London studio

This article was first published as guest post for CYL collective in March 2017

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There is nothing like sneaking things in at the last minute. The Robert Rauschenberg retrospective exhibition at Tate Modern ends on 2 April. If you’re reading this too late, I apologise – go and look up the catalogue which is a hefty almost two inch thick book jam packed with writings and images. (link here)

But, if you can, get yourself to Tate Modern this weekend to see the Robert Rauschenberg retrospective. Eleven rooms filled with work spanning almost fifty years.

Art work entitled 'Ace, 1962' by US artist Robert Rauschenberg during a press preview at the Tate Modern in London

Photo credit: DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images

What struck me most as we walked through was the sheer energy and exhilaration. You never knew what would be waiting in the next room – this man never stopped! He collaborated with dancers, with musicians, he used dirt and found materials. He turned comic books into paintings which were dismissed as irrelevance. He added found objects: socks, ties, window fans, bits of wood, a brightly painted quilt…

And just as you are getting used to this approach of using objects for their own sake rather than representation, we have a room full of the most beautiful, delicate and almost fragile drawings using transfers and quiet subtle colours. Except the whole series is based around Dante’s Inferno and the tiny figures taken from contemporary news images are highly political.

Rauschenberg Canto XIV Dante transfer drawings

Canto XIV: Circle Seven, Round 3, The Violent Against God, Nature, and Art, from the series Thirty-Four Illustrations for Dante’s Inferno

Robert-Rauschenberg-screen-prints

There is a strong sense of the era in which he was creating – JF Kennedy crops up repeatedly. Space travel, references to the Vietnam war and later the restraint upon citizens of China, our position within a consumer world all make their mark.

This is a hugely visual collection of work from an artist who didn’t restrict himself to any particular medium or approach. It also feels like work full of thoughtful consideration – a lifetime of opinions. It bristles with energy that never lets up. There is a record of a performance piece involving (from memory) roller skates, three dancers in wedding dresses, parachutes…. It seems a little out of context to me until I feel it is simply a lively reaction to what is possible.

No point in asking ‘why’ when the obvious answer is simply “why ever not?”

He seemed to move through relationships just as quickly. In 1949 he marries Susan Weil and they have a son, by 1951 he is in a relationship with the artist Cy Twombly and then another art contemporary Jasper Johns. At the time of the Pelican performance piece in 1963 he is living with the dancer Steve Paxton who talked about the idea of incorporating everyday action into dance “We began with this idea of Bob’s that you work with what’s available, and that way the restrictions aren’t limitations, they’re just what you happen to be working with.”

What did I take from it?

Think – take ideas from everywhere, it’s all valid. Don’t think – don’t be obsessed by proper materials or delicacies.

Be aware of your surroundings – use whatever you can. There is no limit. Don’t be precious. Some paintings were completed on stage and stopped when the alarm clock integrated into the canvas went off! Have fun!

Testing. From the early days he sets out to question what the role of art is. Is it new art if I just erase an existing drawing by Willem de Kooning, a process which took many hours and over 40 erasers?

Can I investigate the role of chance by creating two almost identical paintings simultaneously? 

Robert Rauschenberg Factum1 and 2

Left: Robert Rauschenberg. Factum I. 1957. Combine: oil, ink, pencil, crayon, paper, fabric, newspaper, printed reproductions, and printed paper on canvas, 61 1/2 x 35 3/4 in. (156.2 x 90.8 cm). The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. The Panza Collection; Right: Robert Rauschenberg. Factum II. 1957. Combine: oil, ink, pencil, crayon, paper, fabric, newspaper, printed reproductions, and painted paper on canvas, 61 3/8 x 35 1/2 in. (155.9 x 90.2 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase and an anonymous gift and Louise Reinhardt Smith Bequest (both by exchange). All works © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation

 

It seems his work moved in clear ‘batches’ as he leaps in steady jumps from clue to clue. Almost scientific in approach by following the leads he has already uncovered; so, I’ve done these large brightly coloured ‘funfair’ paintings and combines, what happens if I now create 34 relatively small drawings with very limited colour – what are you looking at now?! 

If you’ve ever felt as an artist that you have to have a ‘style’ this blows it out of the water!

However there is a thread and an evolution. By the end of his life, his work using silkscreened images is refined further and the last pieces combine photographs from his own collection. It feels like a cinecamera on quick rewind – quick glimpses of the world, flash backs and always on the move. Isn’t that how we now see things? 


 

 

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what to do when you are stuck with your painting

Right, I’ve got to the middle stages of a painting, and I’m stuck…

These days my paintings begin with no fixed idea of outcome. I may make early choices about colour or bold shapes to get the surface active, but as the layers build often the marks and decisions are fairly random. Occasionally I glue things in, I choose colours I really don’t like – just to rock the boat! And there is certainly a stage where it all looks a complete muddle and I wonder if I have any idea what I’m doing. Keep going. Keep adding, change scale, use hands, use glazes…

Next comes the most crucial part of the process

Early spontaneity is essential if a painting is to have a sense of life. Actually, keeping a feeling of freedom and spontaneity is important right until the end. But, if you only have spontaneity then you can all too easily end up with a painting which simply looks a muddle.

At some point you need to bring in a more conscious assessment. Don’t get me wrong – many of those early processes have thought involved, although perhaps these were more subconscious or intuitive. As my painting experience grows, the more I build an understanding of what is likely to work and these become almost instinctive.

My own personal response is changing all the time as I learn how I want to deal with the paint, but there comes a stage where I need to take charge over the so-called random marks.

At times it can be clear what I want to do; certain elements may stand out to me and I know what I want to amend. Other times, this involves a fair amount of sitting and looking – just sucking in the information already within the painting. It can help to turn the painting, or to reduce a photograph of it – anything which distances me from my experience so far and lets me take a more analytical approach.

Unfortunately at this point one thing usually becomes clear… some of it has to go.

That beautiful part where the yellow and blue overlap just so? It’s just in the wrong place.
The section with all those delicate lines – just too distracting.

This is one of the hardest things I’ve had to come to terms with in this more fluid approach to creating a painting. The loss of parts you love.

So a few things help:

Take regular photographs as a painting progresses

Sometimes I prefer how it was yesterday. Ouch. While I can never recreate (or should try to) what has gone before, it does help if I know I have a visual record. I can use this as a scrapbook of ideas, or just a reminder. Often it’s hard to identify HOW something was actuallycreated and I know I’m not alone in the feeling of looking at a painting and thinking “I made that?!” and next… “Can I even do that again?” But having photographs helps remind me that good things come from trying something new. Often a painting jump steps up a gear just at the point when you do something drastic.

Accept there is no one right answer

At any point a painting has so many options open to you. This is what makes creating art so challenging, and what makes looking at it so invigorating – hopefully you have a sense of what has been and an immersion just at the point the painting stopped…

Knowing that if you sacrifice one part, it will usually benefit the painting as a whole

Just knowing this helps. At first this was something I had to force myself to do because it is so hard to do something risky when you have already put so much time and energy into a painting. But if it’s not working as it is – then what do you really have to lose?

Visualise some alternatives…

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This can be as simple as squinting from a distance and simply using your imagination to project what impact changes might have. Would this dark area be better light? How about if this green shape was much larger?

Hopefully this gets easier, but I have three practical ways to help.

I often use sections of paper to overlay certain areas as a first stage test to see “will this work better?”  I can use coloured paper, pages from magazines or painted paper, or even torn sections from old paper palettes.

The other trick I learnt from the Nicholas Wilton course is to use Photoshop to make some adjustments. There are some limitations to this – you can’t ‘copy and paste’ whole sections of multi-layered paint. If only! That really does only exist in Photoshop world. But it does allow you to troubleshoot if you feel the whole paintings is not working and perhaps work out some ways forward.

This screen shows a recent change I thought through in this way. On the left you can see how the painting was. I had reached a stage where I had this off-set composition which I liked, and the bird shape had materialised. I don’t paint birds, but I rather liked the slightly surreal nature of the bird on the hill. (It reminds me of a Beatles song for some reason. I’ve googled “Beatles song bird on the hill” and it doesn’t exist so there’s another strange subconscious link!) Anyhow, I liked the bird but he was too obvious.

On the right you can see the changes I tested out. My aim was to let the complexity of layers in some areas show clearly – if it’s all complex, it’s all just too much. I wanted the soft green to be key, so I enlarged this area, I introduced some deep reds as the complementary colour to the green and I darkened the ‘sky’. This could have been deep blue or red, but I chose a warm mushroom brown. The destaurated colour lets the other colours take centre stage and the bird becomes slightly hidden.

Of course this now needs to be taken to the studio and created in paint! But having a clear idea helps me make adjustments with a similar clarity of approach. Is this part small and controlled or am I creating a large textured ares with subtle gradations of colour. Either way, better not to be tentative, but decisive.

This painting has now SOLD but you can see current available originals here.

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Summer is sketchbook time for me – a time to re-stock the pages which can be the starting point for so many ideas.

I enjoy essential time away to become absorbed in a drawing and the feeling of working on something with no judgement on the outcome. This year I’m trying to avoid drawing straightforward landscape views and push towards a slightly different way of working. In a way it’s bringing in the sense of exploration and discovery at an earlier stage.

orange-sketchbook

Capturing the colours of Dartmoor

Constructing spaces…

In my recent paintings I have taken a freer approach and made a loosely constructed landscape by building layers of mark making. It’s a flow between playful exploration, which can feel out of my comfort zone at times, and then a more considered phase to ensure it works together.

To and fro; the whole approach involves more precise analytical thinking and instinct working together.

I don’t begin with a literal view of a place in mind so I’m changing the way I work in sketchbooks to try and reflect this. This means fewer drawings of places and more arrangements using collage and drawings which just explore the way marks and colours interact:

watercolour-hills

Every so often something happens which waves a small flag at me and I think this drawing may have been one. I had been out all day and was feeling frustrated that it all felt rather predictable, nothing new. It was windy, I was hungry but I wanted something else from this view. I was sitting high on a tor looking across the valley and the light kept changing as the clouds blew across. I just wanted to capture the sense of space and the small shapes of fields as the sunlit caught them. “Analyse – be precise! What is it you are drawing this for?”

chips-of-colour

And there it was… something sort of fresh and different. Using restrained colour like this in small segments is new for me; not describing the view all over, but just in highlighted areas.

Sometimes I find colour can be too dominant, especially in a quick drawing. This more minimal way of adding colour reminders could be helpful. Untouched ares of the page become part of a drawing but painting will bring a different challenge as untouched spaces can just feel forgotten – there needs to be enough interest throughout, but without becoming overly ‘busy’.  I’m not sure what this will lead to, but while I enjoy the rest of the best of British sunshine I’m also itching to get back to the paints to see!

mixed-media-sketchbook

Mixed media sketchbook – Alice Sheridan

This week I have been looking again at the sketchbook work of Barbara Rae * – if you don’t know her work you are in for a treat!

Barbara Rae sketchbook Bay at Roy Well 2003

Barbara Rae sketchbook: Bay at Roy Well 2003

Which materials are right for the job?

Finding the right materials to work in sketchbooks can be a search. It’s all part of developing your process and also being aware of what information you want to record; what will help you decipher what you are seeing into a form that will be helpful later on. Pencils are immediate and easy, but I noticed that I tend to draw with line work – fine for developing mark making but sometimes not so good for colour or tone. For a while using watercolour has worked well for me; no fiddly lids, quick to mix and using alongside water soluble media has been my go-to sketchbook medium of choice.

However, I’m coming out of a spell of painting and watercolour suddenly feels too fluid and transparent. Possibly lacking a density and boldness which is what I rely on the other materials to bring.

An artist not afraid to experiment

Barbara Rae sketchbook Autumn Vines Oppeole 2010

Barbara Rae sketchbook: Autumn Vines Oppeole 2010

Density and boldness are certainly two words you could use to describe Barbara Rae’s sketchbooks; filled with strong, bright drawings done on location. She shies away from the description of landscape painter, but the importance of place and sense of location is very apparent in her work which often includes human impact on landscape in the forms of furrows or fencing. She works across multiple disciplines: large scale paintings and big, energetic monoprints. Scotland and Spain are favourite locations and the colours which vibrate upwards from the land are clearly visible and she is skilled at finding unusual and surprising combinations.

Barbara Rae sketchbook Kerry 2008

Barbara Rae sketchbook: Kerry 2008

Barbara Rae sketchbook Ceide 2003

Barbara Rae sketchbook: Ceide 2003

Barbara Rae sketchbook Fence at Dounpatrick 2002

Barbara Rae sketchbook: Fence at Dounpatrick 2002

To give you an idea of scale, her sketchbooks are usually A4 and she works in two at once to give the pages time to dry. Working outside, often in wild or hot conditions she uses watercolour alongside acrylic and combines drawn marks in charcoal, chalk, pastel. She has used wine to mix paint instead of water….(I’ve been caught out with this before, but I tend to have a flask of tea – I clearly need to up my beverage game!)

Barbara Rae Tomato plants Robion 2010

Barbara Rae sketchbook: Tomato plants Robion 2010

A few years ago I visited a London gallery which was showing Barbara’s work and bought the book of her sketchbooks (currently the best link to buy). The gallery owner said she had just nipped out to get a sandwich but would be back soon if I wanted to wait and have it signed… no further invitation needed! She was supremely encouraging, as you may expect from someone who has taught for many years, and thoroughly down to earth. What impressed me most was her continued enjoyment of her materials, an experimental approach to her art practice – she was then incorporating nail varnish within her artwork to bring a degree of luminescence.

All of sudden, using gouache seems rather tame!

Barbara Rae sketchbook Aultbea 2010

Barbara Rae sketchbook: Aultbea 2010

* Barbara Rae was born in 1943 and awarded a travel scholarship in 1966 which boosted her love of location drawing. She was elected President of the Society of Scottish Artists in 1983. She was made a Member of the Royal Scottish Academy in 1992 (ARSA 1980) and a Royal Academician in 1996.  In 1999 she was awarded a CBE. Rae lives and works in Edinburgh.

All artworks copyright Barbara Rae – you can view a complete PDF of 228 images from her website

 

This is not really what you want to see when you peel a print back from the press…

blank plate.JPGOops! Practically a blank page.

The plate had been inked and wiped, rolled with a second colour and fine paper cut and glued for chine collé… and yet for some reason the glue didn’t take and the paper didn’t stick. Not exactly the result I was hoping for!

And yet anything experimental has a degree of failure. If we know the end result before we begin then we are just going through the motions. I don’t wish to work to a tried and tested formula.

This is the hardest thing about art. For it to be exciting and rewarding, you always need to be pushing the boundaries of what you already know.

On Mondays I try and work through my domestic tick list. Pre-determined jobs with a defind outcome; change the dentist appointment, sort out an online bill payment, change the sheets. Tick, tick, tick. Easy.

But ask me to write a list of what I am going to tackle in the studio this week? I still find this very hard to do. I can promise to turn up, but I can’t promise what the result will be.

I give you:

“I am trying to work with the same plate to get different results each time. Some elements are the same, but other things shift. How much is pre-planned and how much is left to chance? Does the planning help the journey towards the end result or take away the joy of creating? Control and freedom and how do these things fit…?”

Not exactly precise is it?

Because there is no pre-determined, defined outcome.

I’m not sure if anyone gets to this stage with art. Maybe that’s what I’m searching for when I talk to other artists or read their biographies… Does anyone really know what they are doing? Or is it just me who has doubts?

Moving past the blank page I kept going.

Alice Sheridan 365create_Day 94 monoprints.JPGAnd the next prints ‘worked’.

Things stayed stuck – in a good way! Something about the structure was right. There is enough variation to be interesting.

My Dad will still look at them quizzically and try and find something nice to say but for me they feel ‘right’.

I’m not alone in this – last week I went to the Richard Diebenkorn exhibition at the Royal Academy – he was always searching for ‘rightness’. Not the easiest thing to determine, especially if we can’t really put our finger on what we are searching for.

So I’m celebrating blank pages. In fact I may even pin this up on my wall; a small reminder that the ones that go wrong often lead to the ones that go right. Even if we don’t quite know what direction we are going in.

Maybe especially then.