Self doubt and the room next door…

I heard a great quote on the radio the other day. An artist was explaining how they dealt with self-doubt: ‘I look at complete confidence as the consolation prize of the less able, while self doubt is the essential partner to talent’. This had me feeling instantly more cheerful, convinced as I am that in the urbane studio next door there are real artists who know what they’re about, while I simply muddle through.

It’s almost impossible to judge where you stand as an artist. Do you choose to measure yourself according to finance, audience approval, gallery wall space, job offers, rejections, social media, student bookings, personal fulfilment or some other criteria? And even if I could pick a gauge and go through the unpleasant task of rating myself, would that stop the nagging voice telling me that those in that other room (a room incidentally I picture as a sort of eighteenth century art salon designed by Tom Ford) have a grip where I don’t?

About a year or so I did some thinking and came to realise that I had it wrong. It’s the self-doubt that’s the important measure of how I am doing, not the other stuff I mentioned. Without that unsettling yardstick of insecurity, I’d fear I was getting comfortable and had stopped being honest; that I’d found an adequate visual vocabulary and was sticking with it, instead of taking the the risk of hunting out new and better ways of saying precisely what I wanted for each new print.

So I accept the discomfort of self-doubt as a good sign that I’m doing my job properly and not slumping into easy ways. It doesn’t make the sensation any more comfortable to feel, but it’s at least familiar and it does keep me rigorous. Sadly, it also means I’m forever denied access to the elusive Tom Ford salon for the grown ups of art, but maybe that’s a good thing too – I haven’t got a thing to wear…

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Little Things

A while ago I wrote about ten universal truths applicable to artists. Here are ten more that could probably ring bells with most working artists and makers.

The other person in the queue at Ikea with 100 glass tea light holders will be wondering how they’ll look at her wedding. You’ll be wondering how your students managed to smash their way through your previous stock of paint pots.

You’ll look at ‘working wardrobe’ suggestions with amused fascination, most designers coming up short on places to loop oily rags and nitrile gloves, or indeed garments with the necessary padding for a winter studio.

Within moments of your new supplies arriving, you will have opened the tin/tube/box and sniffed. Probably you’ll need to dip your fingers in too and then find there’s nowhere to smear them clean near your front door.

You’ll find it possible to sit through almost any film if the colours are pleasing, whether they are in the landscape or on the corpse.

Whatever way you organise your storage, the paper you need will always have migrated to the middle.

In a strange and unfamiliar city, the public art gallery will offer you the same rights to sanctuary as did the medieval church.

The assistant in the DIY shop will not thank you for saying that you quite like that green for your kitchen, but has he anything with a touch more ochre and maybe a little vermillion to knock it back a bit?

You’ll clean yourself up for a party and, just as you pick up your car keys, you’ll spot something in your work that needs correcting. It won’t take a moment, but all the effort of scrubbing your nails will have been in vain.

It is perfectly reasonable, when you accept that a huge proportion of your mind is given up to solving creative problems, that you will have no room left for minor issues like mathematics, buying a tax disc or keeping track of time. Be like Sherlock Holmes and embrace your specialism.

Ordinary people will question how you have the patience spend so long making your art. You’ll question how long you’ll have to be patient before they go and you can get back to making your art.

 

 

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Creative Block?

I’ve had an interesting message from a fellow artist on Facebook. She asked how I could possibly be creative ‘with so much hate in my heart?’ This was in response to my comment regarding the American election that I posted on my Facebook page with somewhat shaky fingers after hearing the results. It ran as follows:

‘So it’s a new day for America – but remember that as artists, we take materials and weave them into objects powerful enough to distract, educate, enlighten, move, engage and delight. Looks like we’ve all got our work cut out for us today.’

Not really a ‘hate’ post and one I gave much thought to before writing. Being a Brit, it’s not up to me to be personal about the way people voted and I have no say in the result. However, I do reserve the right to have an interest. After all, you can’t have your Oreo and eat it; either America is a world power and we, the world, are rightly invested, or it isn’t and we aren’t. My post was more aimed at highlighting the unique and powerful skills all creative people can bring to bear at a time of upheaval, whichever side you happen to support.

I guess artists are like politicians in our need to grow a thicker skin than most. Sit at any craft fair or open studio and you’ll need to choose how you deal with critics. I think there are two sorts of criticism: the ‘I don’t like that because I don’t like it’ school and the thoughtful ‘that doesn’t work for me because…’ school. The first falls into the kind of circular argument favoured by small children and can be dismissed with the briskness of Mary Poppins. The second kind is much more uncomfortable, but I try to welcome it because it makes me think.

So back to the hate lady. I was pretty sure her comment fell into the first category. But then I got to thinking that maybe she’s actually stumbled into camp two and should be welcomed for reminding me of a couple of things.

She’s the first to accuse me of something nasty and I spend a lot of time on social media, in groups or in the virtual open studio of my page. Isn’t it interesting that, contrary to all the vile bullying and hatred that social media can house, my small corner, populated as it is by artists, creatives and makers, is universally friendly and supportive? If I check out my fellows, they are of all nations, sexes, ages and, I am guessing, religions, sexuality and colour. Yet we all offer help, enthusiasm and encouragement to each other all day, every day. So what I wrote wasn’t in hate, it was in faith of creative people and to point out how powerful we can all be if we try.

Then again, maybe there was a bit of hate? I don’t go in for hating people; it’s far too energetic, but I’ll freely admit that I hate the circumstances and words that lead to unkindness, dismissal or attack of those who, though they are pretty much exactly the same as us, somehow become defined as ‘other’. That could be said of colour, sex, religion or political group, take your pick. Maybe it’s because of that hate that I think we artists should be at our most creative just now? As my last blog mentioned, art can, in so many small ways, make a difference.

So lady out there, I’m not concerned about my creativity. Last time I checked there were still far too few hours in the day to house it, but I’m grateful you gave me cause to remember how much good there is to be found in my fellow artists and creatives and why we should be sharing it freely right now.

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The Kindness of Strangers

A few days ago I made a comment on Facebook that went viral. To be fair, perhaps it was more under the weather than viral, but certainly the most popular post I’ve ever written. I’d love to say it was about some new departure in my work or a completed project, but actually it was a very simple list of random acts of kindness I’d seen and experienced over a day out in London. I nearly didn’t put it up, worrying that it was a bit sentimental to be championing the lady who gave me the right change for the loo or the two men who leaped to help a mum with her pushchair and toddler on to a tube train. How wrong I was, not only was it shared many, many times, but people chipped in with their own examples of strangers helping out and how much these small acts matter.

I’ve been late coming to art. My father was keen I should do something sensible and, though I got into art school by the back door (by finding the only university to offer the madly combined degree of librarianship, art history and visual art), I did just that by putting down my pencil the day I graduated and working in the photographic industry for most of my life. In a rare moment of agreement, my father and stepfather saw my ambitions to be an artist as idiotic. Art was something done by men back in earlier times when they knew how do art properly. To the end of his life, my Dad would ask kindly about my greetings card business, never once acknowledging that my work on the front was somewhat essential to sales.

The more I work as an artist, the more I realise that my quiet ambitions as a printmaker are actually quite brilliant and important in their way. I’m not out to make a fortune, which is just as well, but I can make a decent living and art does put me in a position to do a lot of good for a lot of people in small, random ways. As I can see from that Facebook page, these little moments make a big difference. The same goes for all the artists and would-be artists I meet who were told that they were fools for wanting to mess about with art when a proper (they are always ‘proper’ aren’t they?) qualification or job was needed.

My ambitions in my prints are simply to give the viewer some space, room to breathe and a moment of nostalgia or familiarity; a bit of a break. I know, because people have told me so, that many of my prints hang on stairs and at the ends of beds so their owners can see them and smile every day. That’s no small thing. I know of a lady receiving end of life care, who kept one of my landscape cards beside her bed to give her a bit of fresh air and a student I taught who relieves the stress of his high powered business life by printing little woodblocks in his hotel rooms all over the world. I’m not looking for my prints to champion causes, provoke revolution or shock the populace; I just want to make people happy for a short while. Just like the man in the suit I watched who queued up and bought two coffees to share with a homeless man at Marylebone Station.

So I’m in a line of work where I can make enough to both eat and pay my bills and, while I do so, I’m able to bring a little kindness and happiness to people’s day. Seems like a proper job to me…

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Watch the Birdie

Have you ever wondered how art gets into the public space?

Me and my birds on the Grand Union Canal

Me and my birds on the Grand Union Canal

There are plenty who wonder why, but that’s a whole other answer. This is the tale of my public art project to install seven enamel panels, depicting local birds and plants, at the side of the Grand Union Canal in Milton Keynes as one of seven artists commissioned to provide art for the Gyosei Arts Trail.

It’s a slow old process public art. It may seem that all you need is Anish Kapoor on speed dial and bish, bash, bosh you have big art on the doorstep, but the reality is much more glacial. The Gyosei Trail (named in commemoration of the Gyosei International School, previous occupant of the site) first cropped up with an invitation to me from Great Linford Parish Council to suggest ideas back in 2012. These days I only pitch for public art by invitation, which sounds awfully smart, but in reality just means I do it very rarely, have a bit of a niche with large-scale enamel work and a decent reputation for turning up sober and on budget.

I love coming up with ideas for public art. Printmakers by sheer force of their processes tend to the practical and it is the cocktail of artistic vision spiked by questions of production, installation and, everyone’s favourite, vandalism that I enjoy. For this project I had the Japanese legacy, the slip-slop of canal water and local birdlife to inspire me, balanced with working out how to get full colour images plus Japanese poems onto enamel, then onto the side of a bridge and then keep them there safely.

A quick word about the money and my budget planning methods. The original funding came from the builders of the new housing development on site under compulsory government directive 106 (the money funded improvement to the area’s transport, educational and leisure facilities in addition to our arts trail). Coming up with the artwork is never as stressful as coming up with the budget. Once my pitch was accepted, I had to create a proposal with an upfront budget including everything from my time to the high-vis vests worn at installation since the financial contract was finalised on my predicted budget. Here’s where a good imagination comes in useful: I sat and visualised the entire project from sketchbook to bridge wall, simply writing down everything I could see to give me a framework. Then I researched and costed practical issues like labour, production, delivery expenses, health and safety and site access to fill in the blanks. Possibly not everyone’s way of arriving at the budget, but it works.

Here’s an example of one of my design drawings for the project.

Heron and wild plum, an image for early spring

Heron and wild plum, an image for early spring

This is what my client saw initially and was good enough to pay for up front (many projects die in the water and not all clients are as ethical about paying artists for work done when this happens). The choice of format is that mix of aesthetic/practical I mentioned: the viewer sees a pleasing nod to the Japanese love of the tall upright scroll painting, while in fact the factory could only print to 84cm wide so I simply had to go up rather than out.

As for subject matter, check and then check again: my progressive seasonal theme needed both birds and plants in accurate as well as aesthetic accord. That or I’d be called to account by knowledgeable locals and have to announce that the whole project was a subversive look at the impact of global warming – wildly inaccurate to wildlife activist in one bound. The poems too were tricky. The client kindly researched and supplied seven appropriate poems, but it was up to me to get them correctly typeset and into place. My family came up trumps and coerced a Japanese scholar, under the impression she was staying with friends for a holiday, into proof reading and, unable to resist the weight of her learning, into providing authors for poems thought to be anonymous.

I always tend towards hand painting my enamel projects, but my discovery of Tiled Space, a company that can print enamel as a transfer to simply slide onto metal for firing, meant I could provide a more complex design incorporating text at the same time within budget. These are the originals.

Local birds and plants with a Japanese twist

Local birds and plants with a Japanese twist

I chose linocut over Japanese woodblock for its stronger, more graphic quality and because I wanted to sneak in something of the British transport poster. Colour I always make up as I go along. I spent almost as much time as the local fishermen looking at the canal and working out how to say ripple seven times without repeating myself while mixing seven believable but somewhat more upbeat than usual canal water themes.

Printing the enamel was up to Tiled Space. We had some hiccoughs along the way as can only be expected when the factory is pushing brand new technology to the very edge of its tolerance, but the day came when we had seven enamels ready in our back garden. Heaving them from garden and onto bridge wall I subcontracted to my more than capable other half, plus fellow printmaker and strong man Will.

The enamels sit on the support wall of a large bridge. As you can see from the photo, the bridge wall is corrugated and if you’ve ever watched a toddler try to stick dry pasta to corrugated cardboard*, you’ll appreciate attaching the enamel panels didn’t come easy.

corrugations offering a challenge to the installation crew

corrugations offering a challenge to the installation crew

Ben and Will had to drill eighty odd entirely accurate holes into the unknown, untried concrete to hang a series of stainless steel frames. Then they hefted each panel into place to be fixed with tamper proof security screws while hoping Islebest, another of my factory finds and fabricators of the frames, hadn’t let us down in drilling exactly matching pilot holes to twin with the enamels. They hadn’t and everything aligned perfectly, falling into place. Thus I was able to accept kind comments from passers-by with gracious modesty when I arrived later to swan about and have my photo taken for publicity and blogs such as this.

You can see my enamels on the canal as it passes under under Dansteed Way, Milton Keynes and don’t forget you can buy greeting cards of the birds in my shop or treat yourself to an original linocut from the project.

*My son Jim and I once made a mask for his appearance as ‘The Minotaur’ in his primary school play. We created it out of corrugated cardboard and various other items painted black. Most of the reception class were reduced to frightened sobbing when he arrived on stage. Job done we felt…

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Consequences

I’ve been wrestling with a couple of worries for a while now – the final Art in Action arts festival this year and the question of teaching. Both things boil down to thoughts about supporting artists to be their creative best.

Art in Action will end this year and, despite protests to the contrary, I know of no other major arts festival (footfall of twenty to twenty five thousand visitors) that invites artists to demonstrate and only takes a commission on sales in exchange. While I totally accept that the decision is made, I feel deeply sad that the public will lose the chance to see such an amazing variety of artists actually at work, as opposed to seeing us standing beside our work at other fairs. And that’ll just be those of us that can afford the stands; let’s not forget that Art in Action championed young, emerging and foreign artists who are unlikely to be able to afford to participate in major commercial shows.

There is some talk of future projects in the wake of Art in Action and I sincerely hope they won’t take the form of teaching alone. I’ve written at length about the benefits and pleasures of teaching. I’ve said that I am a better artist for teaching and I fully acknowledge that it is a large part of my professional life. However, please don’t let’s confuse giving artists the opportunity to teach with supporting artists to create artwork.

Teaching should, in my opinion, run concurrently with making. In the right balance, the challenge and discipline of teaching is a marvellous spur to creative work and can both financially and mentally support an artist in their making of art. However, it’s a balancing act. Get it wrong and the scenario goes like this: talented artist, who happens to teach well, lands a beneficial amount of teaching work. Their classes fill, expand and demand rises. The artist, seeing reliable income, takes on more teaching and the balance starts to tip towards fitting in the making of art around the demands of classes. Gradually the artist has fewer pieces of new work so teaches more. As the artist creates less, their confidence saps and they come to depend on the teaching rather than sales of work. Eventually they become a teacher who makes art and, in the final act, their teaching ability declines through lack of their own creativity. I can’t imagine why Hogarth didn’t make a whole set of engravings about this very topic…

Whenever I meet the public, I am hit by a wave of enthusiasm for learning. Fantastic, great and super cool that so many people want to have a go at creating art and welcome to a world of creativity, but I’d like to appeal to all you students and students-in-the-making to remember that, for you to get the very best from your teachers, you should also try to support their creativity by investing in them as artists. Make a few small investments in art and craft and you’ll be maintaining the creative excellence of the very people who inspire you to want to learn and in whose expertise you rely when it comes to taking a class.

I’m not suggesting you have to sink large amounts of your hard earned cash into a major artwork (though if that’s a viable option don’t let me discourage you). I’ve made a choice to support my fellow artists in small ways by buying art as gifts and opting for buying craft made wherever possible, whether that’s something practical, or a treaty buy for my family and me. I get to own far more interesting stuff, the maker gets to make more, we’re all happier as a result and, since happier artists make better teachers, it’s a win-win for everyone.

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Let Me Count The Ways

I was recently following a thread in a printmaking group on Facebook discussing making the jump from printmaking as a pastime to a full time job. Everyone agreed it was tough and I was nodding smugly along with the postings. There’s nothing half so pleasing as hearing that you are that heroic worker chipping away on the coalface of art (really I feel I’d like one of those grand old-school Soviet sculptures celebrating the artist printmaker installed in my garden) and then the group and my thoughts went separate ways.

The general feel of the thread was that a full time job printmaking was defined as printmaking alone. Everything else, especially teaching, seemed to come under the heading of necessary jobs done to support printmaking and weren’t somehow included in the goal of being a full time artist.

I’ve no problem with the idea of making a living by the pure making of art alone. I just think it’s fairly rare to be able to do that and I know that it wouldn’t suit me. Most of us have to do diverse things around our artwork to make a living and I would argue that it all feeds into a richer creativity when we do get into the studio. I include writing, teaching, selling printing products and occasional consultancy work in my job description of ‘artist’ and I think they all have a place under that title. Why not celebrate the pragmatic end of being an artist as well as the visionary one? It all takes hard work and creative thinking and, while these pursuits may not be the unlimited studio time many of us crave, I think for me they define being a full time artist rather than exclude it.

I’d put in a special plea for teaching as part of an artist’s creative practice. I know I would be a weaker artist without it and will always teach in some respect whatever my financial circumstances. It is a great privilege to teach. Teaching demands that I think through and can articulate my ideas and my process clearly and that I can make those ideas and processes work for strangers. It also demands that I turn my skills into way of coaxing the very best from each student’s creativity, rather than from my own. I can’t think of any other way of imposing such rigorous demands on my thought processes, my practical skills, or of making me adapt my talents to so many different outcomes. Frankly I don’t have the discipline to do all this for myself: my students do it for me and for that I am grateful.

So if you are one of the people who dream of one day becoming a full time artist creating artworks alone, I’d say good on you! But in the meantime I’d ask you to pat yourself on the back for the other work you do and maybe start thinking of those tasks as all part of the artist you are already.

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Give and Take

So here’s the thing: what to do about requests for advice? It’s something I have been thinking about recently as these requests escalate. I should start by saying that I am pleased to be consulted and even more pleased that people should think that I am worth asking.

I do try to wait to be asked though. When we were sorting out our new home we found we had a neighbour who began every conversation with ‘I don’t want to give you no advice, but…’ and then proceeded to not only give us his advice, but also his opinion that, as feeble creatures etiolated by life in London, we would be doomed to failure in any practical pursuit. In fairness, we were so energized by fury that we proved him entirely wrong. Perhaps a positive result, but it was a salutary lesson in when to keep my mouth shut. I remember all too well how we planned to hit him with a spade and hide him in the concrete foundations for my Albion…

Solicited advice is another matter and I am happy to help provided I can and have the time. Mostly it is a fair exchange: I get the rosy glow of having helped out (this, I confess, is greatly helped by a thank you), the questioner remembers me as a decent and helpful artist and none of this hurts my reputation. In fact, if I check why people are buying prints, visiting me or taking a class, I often discover it is because I’m thought of as that supportive, kind person who makes good prints. Taa daa, a result the meanest bean counter would appreciate.

However there are times when I say no. I don’t like doing it. In fact I can probably guarantee that for every half hour spent fuming at my refusal, I will have had an hour of squirming guilt in the style of Alan Bennett. The refusals happen when I’m asked to advise on how to teach my branch of printmaking rather than how to print (nobody enjoys shooting themselves in the foot), or if I’m asked to advise when the person has been learning with another teacher who should, in my opinion, be their first port of call. Reasonable eh? But it does upset some.

As yet nobody I have refused to help has come back to say ‘Fair enough, thanks for taking the time to explain yourself’, but a few have taken the trouble come back to be cross. I take the opposing view and make a point of responding positively to people who turn me down. A quick message of friendly thanks and wishing them well is actually very cathartic for me and I’m comfortable approaching them again if needed. Oh and it’s probably nicer for them too. A little win-win in the face of disappointment if you choose to see things that way.

So I will carry on helping where I can, though I may ask to publish and answer questions through my Facebook page as a way of broadening my audience while helping out if demand increases. But, unlike our neighbour, I promise not to throw in any nasty comments on your upbringing. I have no wish to end up under anyone else’s Albion…

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‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that…’

I haven’t written a blog for a long time and I apologise. This isn’t so much a blog as a nod to the world of Facebook: ten amazing facts about being self-employed and, more specifically, a self-employed artist.

I’ll write a proper blog soon. I promise.

AMAZING FACTS

1. Spiders love studios and the big ones especially enjoy snuggling up to artists when they are doing something fiddly with Indian ink.

2. Moths hate studios and will take any opportunity to kill themselves by adhesion to wet prints, especially if they can achieve this by being chased onto the print by a cat.

3. People are uneasy when you open the door to them mid-afternoon wearing pyjamas, a woolly hat and a large apron splattered with scarlet, but the couriers get used to it.

4. It is entirely possible for an artist who is no longer bound by a school timetable to lose track of time. My clock stopped at 2 o’clock and I believed it was 2pm from about 12pm until 6pm when I wondered why it was dark at 2pm.

5. The people of Radio Four cannot hear you shouting however loud and shouty you get. This is probably a good thing.

6. The Archers are not your friends

7. You can play the honourable game of ‘self-employed poker’. The rules are simple: you call a self-employed friend and say ‘I had an abscess on my molar (simple colds and slight aches are not acceptable) and still taught/saw a client/met a commission’ to which your self-employed friend says ‘I see your abscess and I raise you an ear infection, a high temperature and a class of disaffected teenagers’. At the end of the year the most extreme illness wins.

8. Your excellent sense of colour and composition will make choosing household sundries a nightmare. Hours spent on the Internet because it’s obvious that every ironing board cover you see has been designed by a moron on crack cocaine.

9. Visitors will want to improve your studio for you. In my case they usually want me to add plumbing. I suspect if I had plumbing they’d suggest a fridge or a small kitchen or a Jacuzzi. This causes me the conflict of pride in being as hardy as Bear Grylls in my primitive hovel and tired because I thought through the plumbing conundrum long ago and have decided a bucket is the answer.

10. You describe real days off as days off-off because simple days off always involve work, but in a lesser sense; perhaps a trip into town to buy supplies for students (trip into town yaay!) while the day off-off is a wonderful but slightly anxious time where you take a complete break from work, but know there is something missing. A bit like leaving your baby behind at a service station.

Bonus Fact

Your family will give every appearance of being completely unimpressed by the original artwork you send annually as a Christmas card, but look hard enough and you’ll find the drawer where they have carefully stashed each and every one. Do not mention your find to them, it will ruin everything.

 

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Words of Wisdom

With a solo show coming up soon I’ve been asked to fill in a questionnaire to help the gallery with their efforts to promote me on social media. One of the questions was ‘What’s the best advice you have ever been given?’

Great question, but a tough one to answer. In the end I went for a flip answer: ‘Don’t bleed on the artwork’ which wasn’t so much offered as a piece of advice as hurled as an imperative in a graphic design practice I used to visit. Valid if, like me, you are surrounded by razor sharp tools and spend your days digging out bits of wood. In fairness I tend to get more paper cuts than anything else these days. I did manage to nick myself on a piece of toast the other day, quite how I’m not sure, but rose to the double challenge of no blood or cherry jam on the artwork.

To come clean, the one piece of advice that changed my life was given when I was dithering about whether I wanted to print at all. After leaving a career in the photo industry I was in the extraordinary position of having friends urging me to take and use their Albion press. I had the room and the time to do it and yet I refused. Trouble was that I hadn’t printed in sixteen years and I was two years into recovering from a savage fight with depression. It was far too easy to say I was still too ill, couldn’t concentrate, not good enough anymore, I hadn’t even been drawing since I left art school, etc etc. Oh, so easy to give up.

I was reciting this litany to a much older friend who listed patiently and then said ‘Stop making excuses and get on with it. It’s fine if you fail, but hopeless if you never try’*. Not what I wanted to hear at all: she was supposed to tell me how brave I was and how she understood. I’d like to say I was transformed into the artist I am today on the very spot as a result, but actually her words just niggled away to the point that I belatedly agreed to accept the Albion and rather grudgingly started printing.

The rest, as they say, is history. But I have never forgotten that, without her unappealing words, I would never have tried. Tough love indeed, but for me, the best advice I have ever had…

*I need to say that she said this at a time when I was a long way into recovering from depression. I would never, ever, recommend saying anything like this to someone ill with depression. Giving any advice in those circumstances is a mistake in my opinion; a hug and just being there is far more valuable.

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