Six steps to improve your art

YouTube and other social media are filled with very helpful guides to making art, but it can be overwhelming to trawl through the wealth of material online. I have been painting and drawing for 20 years and though I would describe myself as no more than an enthusiastic amateur, there are a few things which I have learned along the way which help me produce work which gives me pleasure.

I characterise them as the three M’s and the 3 C’s.

Let’s start with the 3 M’s

  • Motivation –What are you trying to achieve? When you decide to paint or draw a picture what is it that motivates you to produce it? Why do you want to make this work? Whether it is abstract or figurative, what attracts you to the subject? What is your intention? What are you trying to say? Is it to produce an accurate representation of a place or person? Is it to use shapes and colours to evoke a mood? Having a clear idea of what you want to achieve is vital at the beginning even if you don’t have a set idea of how you want to achieve it (if you want to take an expressionist approach, for instance and allow the picture to evolve).

Without an idea (and let’s give it a title up front, even if it is “abstract in contrasting colours”) how will you know when something worthwhile has been achieved?

  • Materials – Which materials do you enjoy using? How do they relate to the motivation? Which materials best help you express yourself? Again, the internet is full of examples of a massive range of materials and new techniques but the danger is you become jack of all trades but master of none. Take some time to experiment by all means, but try and focus down on an approach which works best for you, be it watercolour, acrylic, pastel or whatever. At the same time, don’t be overwhelmed by colour and the latest hues. Experiment and try to focus down on a palette which works for you. This will enable you not only to concentrate on the subject rather than the materials, but will also give your art consistency over time.
  • Mastery – Practice and practise. No one becomes expert overnight. Try and practise every day and keep a sketch book to try out ideas. One of the things I worried about in the past was wasting paint or canvas or watercolour paper on trying things out. I felt I had to produce something “finished” at the end of it. So use your sketchbook. Learn what works and how materials behave. Look at other artists. Learn from their techniques. Learning to paint is like driving – be comfortable with your materials so you don’t have to think about them too much and you know instinctively what works and how to put paint to paper/canvas. The same with drawing. There are rules around perspective, vanishing points, shading etc. But they are rules which can be learned and used until they become instinctive. 

Now the 3C’s

These are all about some simple rules which I follow when painting. Again, they can be learned until they become instinctive and really help with a pleasing end result:

  • Composition – This is terribly important. If you don’t want your picture to look unbalanced or difficult to read, you must think about how it’s composed. Even (and some might say especially) if it is entirely abstract. Where do you want the viewer to look? What is your focal point? How will you guide the eye around the picture? For instance, the simple rule of thirds which divides the picture surface into horizontal and vertical lines. Placing a focal point at an intersection of the lines makes a pleasing composition. Or using paths of fences of lines of trees diagonally to guide the eye into the picture and so on. Read and learn some simple rules of composition and why they work and you will see your pictures improve enormously.
  •  Colour – Colour theory can be quite daunting and yet it is central to any successful picture. Colours should never be seen in isolation as each colour has an impact on those around it. The colour wheel is a great tool for learning how colours work together and rewards some study. But don’t get hung up on the complexities of colour theory. The basics of colour and tone, complementaries and colour mixing from a limited pallet will help a lot. In addition, how colour works to model form through light and dark and shadow is fascinating. As before, choose a palette which works for you and experiment.
Mondrian subverted
  • Contrast – Contrast can mean many things. It can be the contrast between light and dark areas. It can be between different colours on the colour wheel, or it can be between different shapes and sizes. Or between different textures. It is one of the key things we look for in works of art and may be related to our ancient past when we scanned the world around us for patterns and anything which stood out could be a danger. So build contrast into your work. Don’t be afraid to make your darks darker, and your lights lighter. Remember light against dark and dark against light.

So those are some of my tips for making better pictures. I’m still learning! And remember – when the fun stops – stop. When you find yourself fiddling and the last stroke you painted didn’t seem to work then stop!

Good luck and enjoy your painting!

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Some reflections on the impact of coronavirus

“There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.”
― Albert Camus,
The Plague

I want to reflect on the Coronavirus pandemic, not from the medical point of view or the horrendous mortality statistics, but on the impact it has had on our daily lives and the way society has responded.

This has led me to look again at the mid-20th century philosophers in particular Sartre and the existentialists. In the aftermath of a horrendous world war and the totalitarian regimes which spawned it, they grappled with questions around freedom, liberty, personal choice and responsibility asking what it meant to be free, what responsibility did people have around personal choice, and how to give meaning to our lives.

By the end of the 20th century, existential thought had fallen out of favour, and yet it seems to me to continue to raise important questions about the impact of Coronavirus on society.

There are many themes running through western history, but if there is one major theme for the west in general and Great Britain in particular it is about freedom and liberty versus the need to be governed.

How we balance the power of subjects against over mighty authority, seen in the battles between crown and parliament, the independence of the judiciary and the development of English law with its central tenet of habeus corpus, or how we balance freedom of speech against social norms are all central to the way we live and the way we think.

Such freedoms are hard won, easily lost and even harder to recover.

So the debate around the wearing of masks, or the decisions to save the NHS and prioritise the response to covid over other illnesses, or the decisions to close schools and threaten the life-chances of our young people take on a much deeper meaning when look at from the existential perspective.

What does it mean to be free? How do I balance my individual freedom against the community need in times of crisis? How much authority am I prepared to delegate to others? Do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few? What about young people’s education? What about the treatment for cancer sufferers? What about family versus the wider community?

As Camus said, wars and pestilence are always with us, yet each event seems to take us by surprise, produces the same panicky response and a knee-jerk authoritarian approach under the guise of:  “We (the government, the scientists, the authorities) know best. You need to do as you are told. Dissent won’t be tolerated. It’s for the good of the community.  Any restriction on personal freedom will only be temporary” etc. etc.

This is accompanied by Orwellian language. We’ve seen it throughout the pandemic “The new normal” and “Social distancing” being classic examples.

Nothing I’m saying belittles the crisis we have faced, nor the sacrifices which have been made, nor the tragedy which has touched so many families.

But I am concerned about the lack of debate around the issues raised by our response.

Indeed, not just our response to the pandemic, but the way we are responding to a whole range of other issues, where debate is closed down, dissent is vilified and decisions are taken without regard to the wider context or unintended consequences.

I wear a mask in certain circumstances because I think it might help, and it seems a common sense thing to do. I also accept that some people find wearing masks deeply distressing, or that their view of the evidence might be different from mine. That does not mean I am comfortable with being made to do so by the government under threat of sanction, nor am I comfortable with the precedent it sets for the future and some of our hard won civil liberties.

To finish with another quote from Camus:

“All I can say is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims– and as far as possible one must refuse to be on the side of the pestilence.”
― Albert Camus,
The Plague

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Romanticism – the roots of Existentialism?

There is a fascinating series of documentaries by Simon Schama on BBC about Romanticism and its relevance to the modern world.

The first episode was about the aspect of Romanticism which was concerned with freedom, the imagination, a sense of self and a sense of humanity as one facing an uncertain future and an indifferent universe. Its politics were anti-establishment, anti-elite with an emphasis on the power of the people and yet also the importance of individual freedom.

As I watched the programme I was increasingly struck by the echoes of existentialism and began to wonder how far back beyond Nietzsche and Kierkegaard those roots stretched?

When you read Shelley’s political poetry with its emphasis on action, or his defence of atheism; when you look at Delacroix’s liberty leading the people or Gericault’s raft of the medusa, you are seeing and reading the ancestors of existentialist writers such as Sartre and Camus with their philosophy of freedom, authenticity and political action to express the voices of the oppressed.

And in Coleridge and Wordsworth you read of their love or nature, their absolute immersion in life as if nothing else matters but what is around us here and now, again reflecting Sartre’s belief that this life is all there is and needs to be experienced and lived as authentically as possible.

So, it seems the modern world does contain echoes from the Romantics, and their influence is deeper and wider than we might have imagined.

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Abstract art and Existentialism

“Painting is a duality and abstract painting is an entirely aesthetic thing. It always remains on one level. It is only really interesting in the beauty of its patterns or its shapes.”
Francis Bacon

This quote from Francis Bacon reflects the tension between representational and non-representational art, both between artists and amongst audiences.

Bacon also said most abstract art was purely decoration.

Fundamentally, this comes down to a question of meaning and intention. Is the artist interested in telling a story, giving a sense of meaning to his/her image as well as a sense of composition and design, or is the artist looking at the painting as an object in its own right. That object being constructed of colour or shape or composition.

This is where Bacon has a point. Even abstract art needs to convey something if it is to avoid being just decorative.

One way to avoid this is to think about art from an existentialist perspective. Sartre talks about “contingency” which is the seeming randomness of things just existing in space. Man is desperate for meaning and order in this chaos, but the universe seems indifferent. Art, he believed provided contingency and necessity. It reflects back the objects around us (contingency), and makes an attempt to provide meaning from the artist’s perspective, whether in narrative form or through colour and shape (necessity).

Great abstract art does this.

It asks us to look at colour, shape, juxtaposition, texture in order to evoke a new perspective on the world around us. It questions our way of looking and, from a phenomenological point of view, asks us to experience the painting as a thing in itself and thereby become more deeply aware of our own existence.

Bacon was right. Abstract art is only really interesting in the beauty of its patterns or its shapes. But isn’t that true of the whole world?

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