Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The artist at work

Ideal portrait - J Skinner

I have written before about my painting tutor John Skinner; he was one of the greatest influences on my life. Uncompromising, challenging to the point of being confrontational, he would scorn anything he saw as false or trivial. His biggest ire was reserved for those who sought recognition at the cost of integrity.

I was thinking about John and what he'd make of my writing, whether I'm as true to my ambitions as he encouraged me to be when painting. You have to accept failure he'd say, to be prepared to risk everything for the chance of success. If you know what you are going to paint, then it is merely craft; you must respond to the marks, developing from a notion, building it up layer on layer - but always holding onto the feeling; the underlying desire to communicate something that is beyond yourself.

John was talking about painting, but the process of writing is much the same. Most of what I write develops as I type - I had only a vague idea what I'd say as I started this post. I like this process, love it even; it keeps me sane in the madhouse of life. In some ways I envy those who don't feel that need, but I wouldn't change places, for it is worth the struggle.

I have a short film of John working and often play it to remind me of what I've written above. I found a version of it on youtube and I thought I would share the link. Notice how the painting changes as he works on it. Notice too the the scale of his ambition. Whether you like the painting or not is beside the point; it is the process that is important. Watching it today brought to mind how we often end up in a different place to where we had planned to be - and a good thing too, for life without surprises would be boring indeed.

Here is the link

The music is composed by his son.


  1. I'm not sure if you would agree, but I think that one doesn't start to write unless there is an idea that one wishes to communicate, but that the process of writing defines the idea more and more closely - when it is all working!

  2. I do agree, but I think the idea is not necessarily fixed, and the process means it often changes as you progress - in part, that is the delight.

  3. I too, like the randomness of writing... that you might have a vague idea of what you want to say when you start, say a blog post, but then one thought leads into another, often unexpected. I found that when writing fiction too, often it seemed that I wasn't actually doing the writing, wasn't in control, and now when I look back on some of my stories and the novel, can't ever remember thinking what I wrote... by which I mean I don't remember thinking it, so the character must have done the thinking for me! Does that make any sense at all....???

  4. The process he goes through is amazing!! The painting changes so much from the first image we see through to the end result that if I hadn't watched the process I wouldn't have believed it was the same painting!!

    I'm still painting but I seem to have reverted back to my old style. I'm trying new techniques but not pushing myself...once I've finished my two commissions I shall start working through the book again. Oh, which reminds me....I need to send you an e-mail :-)

    C x

  5. What a fascinating man he sounds. I clicked on the link and read about your first meeting and your later tutorials. He sounds such a mentor - but I note it is all in the past tense. Is it because you moved away or is he no longer living?

    As for writing, I'm meant to be doing some 'free writing' each day which seems quite a burden; it is meant to release the creative juices but I think I'm juicy enough without having to do them.

  6. PFG - I think creativity is something that is hard to talk about, so often we end up saying, 'Does that make sense?' It makes perfect sense to me.

    Carol - agree, the change is astonishing

    FF - the books by Julia Cameron (Artists Way and Right to Write) are quite good on free writing. Her style is a bit 'crystal healing and self empowerment' but I liked her encouragement to 'allow yourself to write badly' and also some of her suggested exercises are useful

  7. Your reply to FF was so helpful..my sister in law has Julia Cameron so I will ask if I might borrow it.

  8. I love watching that process. Much of my recent art is like that - I don't have a really firm idea in mind of what I'm after, I prefer to go with the flow. I'm enjoying the whole process a whole lot more than when I used to paint watercolour landscapes as accurately as I could. I love the freedom and self expression and yes, with writing too it often happens that way though when I tried it with a novel for NaNoWriMo it didn't quite work - a bit more planning required I think for something so ambitious