I’m painfully aware that it’s been a long time since my last blog. Increasingly aware and increasingly pained as my brother-in-law and manager of my website, has taken to pinging me emails on the subject. Reminding me of my blog deficiency with an ever-lengthening timeline of my failure to provide.
I wouldn’t mind, but it’s made worse by the fact that I like writing this blog. Here’s the place where I get to write with slack on subjects I fancy. Those who know me will know I have a monthly column at Artists and Illustrators Magazine and have just written a book*. Noble projects both of them, but requiring me to be accurate, conscientious and not to slag off my relations for calling me out on my failings. The book’s done, but the articles are ongoing and once I have cudgelled my brain into embracing a fresh topic for A&I every month, there’s precious little energy to think again for my blog.
That’s about to change. Hurrah. At 10am GMT Friday 8th November I launch a podcast with fellow artist Peter Keegan. We are channelling everything we know about the business of becoming artists into Ask an Artist and hitting the airwaves. This for the greater good of all those out there who want to make a start on earning some money from their art. For the greater good of me, there’s going to be a lovely cascade of blog ideas weekly. The proper show notes and yet another writing job, I’ll be doing over at the Ask an Artist website more or less in the style of a stern but kindly aunt. Here I get the freedom to blog along freestyle.
Of course, I urge you to tie up all the loose ends by subscribing to the show on your platform of choice, embracing my sage show notes over at Ask an Artist and completing the triad by reading this blog, which I promise will now appear on a more regular basis. But it’s not compulsory. Nothing about this blog is compulsory, not even not writing it for a bit. Just saying…
*My book ‘Making Japanese Woodblock Prints’ Crowood Press is coincidentally also due to be released on Friday 8th November. I’d shout more about this, but the first print run is already spoken for in pre-orders, so there’s going to be a bit of a delay while they print some more.
I thought it would be interesting to write a blog explaining exactly how I make one of my linocut prints. This print, called Vale Raking Light is a great candidate for a thoroughly nerdy piece with plenty of technical detail and hopefully some helpful ideas.
Maybe take a quick quiz to see if this blog is for you before you go on reading: you meet a person at a party who begins talking about the rag content of paper. Do you a) wonder in bemused horror how much scraping your host had to do at the bottom of the social barrel to come up with this freak or b) glow with pleasure as you give up the next two hours and all pretence of socialising while you pin down why Somerset may or may not trump BFK Rives. I leave you to judge, depending on your answer, whether to read on or not…
Raking Light is a reduction linocut using traditional artists/battleship lino, printed in oil-based inks onto Fabriano Rosaspina paper using an Albion printing press. By reduction printing, I mean that the whole print is created from one piece of lino (which I’ll refer to as the block in this blog). After each layer of colour is printed, more is cut from the block until the print is finally finished and the block destroyed. This print has fifteen layers of inking in all.
I use Intaglio Printmakers oil-based inks with the addition of their extender and cobalt drier. Extender adds transparency to the inks, like adding water to watercolour paint. A scant drop of cobalt drier to a tablespoon of ink will speed the drying time of oil-based from days to hours. I use oil-based ink because I find it much more sympathetic to colour mixing: what you see is what you get. With water-based ink, the colours look edgier and often darker on paper as opposed to the mixing slab and can look chalky with the addition of white. Importantly I can work light to dark and, less conventionally, dark to light with oil in ways impossible in water-based ink. I also avoid the danger of the paper cockling with damp ink. This can be a problem with water-based inks, especially since I often work with many layers of ink.
Raking Light began with a sky spotted from the car. I lurched to a halt on the road into Aylesbury and took photos on my phone. Usually I make sketches too, but not this time, not on the A413. I used these photos to work up this design drawing ready for transfer to the lino.I assemble my landscapes in my studio with the help of source material. I’m far more interested in catching the feel of a place rather than making an accurate representation of a specific location. That way the viewer is free to make the landscape their own while I, in turn, am free to arrange the composition to my own satisfaction. You’ll see the land change shape later as the print progresses.
I made a tracing from my drawing to transfer the lino to the block. I use Polydraw plastic tracing film for all my tracings. Polydraw is completely stable, no swelling or cockling even if it is splashed with water, unlike conventional tracing paper. I flipped the tracing over to reverse it (so that the print would appear in the same orientation as the design drawing, rather than as a mirror image) and transferred it onto prepared lino using carbon paper. I prepare my lino by giving it a light sanding with fine sandpaper to key the surface and then stain it with red ink much diluted with white spirit. I wipe the dilute ink on with a cloth, leave it for a few minutes and then rub off the excess and wipe over with white spirit to finish. The carbon paper I use is office carbon and it can transfer to the print unless it is treated. To prevent transfer with oil-based inks, I leave the carbon to ‘set’ for an hour or so and then wipe over thoroughly with white spirit. This reduces, but doesn’t prevent, transfer when using water-based inks, for those I suggest making some sacrificial prints to allow the carbon transfer to fade before starting to print properly.
This photo shows the lino with the first layer of ink applied for printing. I used a combination of different rollers to apply the ink. Here I have at least three rollers on the go and am inking only where I feel it is appropriate. With this approach, you can either just add more ink between each impression, accepting that the image will become softened and blended with each application, or you can wipe down the block between each print so that the painterly application of ink is fresh in every print. I dot between the two methods depending on what I’m doing.
This is the lino showing my early cutting. The red is chinagraph pencil and the blue lines the carbon. I used the chinagraph to resolve the landscape as I went – it changed significantly right up until the end of printing thanks to how the work developed. I may start with a design drawing, but it is never set in stone and I often change and adapt as I go. I never make a colour study or plan of any sort either. This seat of the pants approach means I am constantly responding to what the work needs rather than being restricted by preconceptions.
This is an early impression showing the mix of roller-applied colour in the sky. The ink is mixed with extender at about 95% extender for great transparency. Using so much extender comes at a price: it can make the ink sticky and stringy, flicking it up onto the bar of the roller where drops can drip back down onto the print (solved by keeping and eye out and wiping down regularly). This dilution also requires a good deal more work with the roller on the lino than normal to even out the ink if you want a smooth transparent layer. I use a little ‘tack reducer’ added to the ink to make it flow better and be less sticky. Tack reducer looks like Vaseline and a small amount added to oil-based ink will help it to flow on cold days and eases the stringiness of extender-heavy inks.
Here is my slab showing the various colours and rollers. I always mix using the previous colours as a part of the new colour. This started out as thrift in my student days, but now is more a matter preference for a harmonious palette.
This picture shows the build up of the sky, very transparent and painterly. I enjoy the contrast between the definite cut line in my work and the vagaries of my inking. This makes for an edition where the prints all share the same colours and cutting, but the application of the ink varies. I have no issue with this, making numbered photos available for clients and galleries to select their preferred prints and have never had a problem commercially. If I reach a point where the variation pushes the notion of an edition too far, I will sell the prints as a series.
This series of photos shows the build up of the landscape. The land remained a quandary and, if I’m honest a bit of an irritation, until I started work on it, then it became my favourite part of the print. The first couple of layers of land had almost as much extender as the sky to give it luminosity, but as I got closer to the foreground, I reduced the extender to less than 20% and then removed it all together for the last couple of layers. I didn’t decide what to do about the tree until the end, but kept my options open by putting on some ink at an early stage to see how it looked. I didn’t ink the tree at every stage so that it would stay crisp and detailed when finally printed. I always avoid over-inking areas of fine detail if I can.
These two photos show the lino with a painterly application of bright ink that is going to print over dark ink, then the subsequent print (see how I am now ignoring the tree). While oil-based ink makes it possible to work light over dark, you need to make the lights overly bright, as the darker base layer will always knock paler ink back and subdue its tone on the print itself.
Below is the final result again showing the finished tree which I printed in one hit, highlights and all. I began with fourteen pieces of paper and ended up with fourteen finished prints. This takes a good deal of experience and nerve.
The reduction process doesn’t allow for test proofing or going back and printing more. If you are new to the process, either allow yourself some extra prints for mistakes or accept you could end up with a very small edition (I do remember going from twelve down to one back in the early days, necessitating a cry and probably some chocolate biscuits).
If you want to see the variation in inking you can look at the prints in succession here. Better still, if you’d like to buy one, click here. If you want yet more advice insight and help, you can scour my resources pages here or join me on Facebook or Instagram where you’ll find me as Laura Boswell Printmaker.
I think of myself as a good customer, not really any trouble and certainly not an irritation in a coffee shop. Then my son, who used to juggle his work as an illustrator with work making coffee*, pointed out a few unexpected things I should and shouldn’t do that make all the difference for the staff. Here are a few pointers along the same lines that make an artist’s life a little easier, based on a few things that I’ve experienced and know other artists encounter as well.
‘I did that at school.’ As a complete sentence, this isn’t a winner with any artist. As part of a sentence, it can be. Every Japanese person that’s ever watched me demonstrating Japanese woodblock printing has said ‘I did that at school’. The big difference, and part of why I miss Japan so much, is that they’ve then gone on to add something like ‘so I think I can see what you are doing’ or ‘but I only worked in one colour’ thus turning the phrase from one of dismissal at my childish antics into an engaging conversation starter. Though when I think about it, school’s a place where there are so many things to try. Thus we could be saying this to so many more people. I might try it with an accountant, biologist or journalist next time I meet one.
If you wouldn’t ask your plumber, don’t ask an artist. Here I mean those personal questions outside of our respective skills set. It’s surprising how many people feel fine asking artists some pretty invasive questions. Some I’ve fielded include ‘Do you actually make money at this?’ ‘How much money do you make in a year?’ and ‘So your partner’s the one paying the bills?’ Just because we artists are a bit of a mystery with a business plan that runs along the lines of ‘so I’ll make some stuff out of my head involving some colours and shapes and strangers will pay me’ it doesn’t mean we’ve forfeited our right to privacy and a little respect. Besides we’ve probably all had our fill of such questions hissed in various tones of anxiety and exasperation by our mums and dads, back when we were filling out forms for art school.
No need to make creative excuses for not buying work from artists. Artists who sell work directly quickly become realists and we all understand that not every encounter results in a sale. I can relate to this one because, back when I was an awkward teenager (this was so long ago that the local clothes shop concerned had staff who took an actual interest in me as a customer) I found it almost impossible to leave empty handed without concocting a polite excuse usually involving my needing to ask my mum – a teenager? Seeking advice from mum? Really? Not having space on the wall is, I’m afraid, a similar polite evasion familiar to all artists and hopefully we receive it with the same kindness as the ladies in Teen Jean.
Buying a lovely piece of art at a show is a thrilling experience. Share that with your companions, tweet about it, post a selfie with it, or break the news gently to your accountant. Whatever else you do, refrain from rushing back to another artist at the event and sharing the moment with them. No artist, however much they love, support and generally want the best for their artist companions, will share the joy of you having bought a piece of work from someone else. We may be the best qualified to understand the work and the value of your purchase, but we are usually a bit tired and a bit stressed from selling our own work and most likely not really pouring our entire heart into sharing the moment. When this happens from time to time I try just to put it down to overriding excitement and tell myself it’s charming really…
‘How long does it take you to make it?’ is a trick question, or at least it has a trick answer. It’s not a great question for an artist because making art really isn’t the same as turning out cans of beans from the factory. Anything other than a specific time based reply sounds pretentious, but would be the most fair. While I try to avoid the nauseating ‘a week to make and a lifetime of experience’ that’s actually a pretty honest answer. No piece of art exists in a vacuum and a single print, it is always prints in my case, is really a follow on from the things I learnt before and the things I intend for the next one. It may take a week to design, cut and print, but that’s just the mechanics. It takes no account of the time it took me to reach the level to make the print in that week. Reducing work to the mechanics of production with no account for the artist’s skills is to miss the point a bit. Besides, we’re usually rubbish at gauging time when we’re making something. I tend to tell the passage of time by how many clean socks are left and if there’s any milk.
I hope, like Jim’s explanation of what not to do in a café, this helps. I know my coffee breaks now give the staff a break as well as a result of his advice. But not to worry if you’ve said some or all of these things (OK, worry a bit if you asked ‘So your partner’s paying the bills?’ That one was rude). We’ve heard it all before and we’ll hear it again and we understand how easy it is to just say the first thing that comes into your head when you have to say something to a stranger and an artist at that. But dodge the things on this list and we’ll be in a much better position to give you some interesting answers.
* Incidentally Jim’s neat answer to very rude customers was to take the time to perfect his decorative milk pouring skills to the point that he could create a penis design to top the coffee in question. Short with the staff? Might be worth checking that flat white…
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…
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.
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.
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…
Have you ever wondered how art gets into the public space?
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.
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.
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.
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.
*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…
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.
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.