Back from America
The life of a working painter can be a quite solitary one. Long hours alone in the studio, working through personal and technical concerns, can leave you with a feeling of isolation. It's easy to get wrapped up in the struggle to learn and improve, to reach your personal goals. Ego can take over, perspective shifts and distorts and small things can appear more important than they are.
I think that the concept of balance is an important one in painting. Balance of light and dark, of composition, colour and tone, technique and content, finish and life. Obvious, right? But the pursuit of these fine balances, sometimes to an obsessive degree, can make for a corresponding imbalance in life away from the easel. Speaking as a natural hermit, I know that it's not healthy to spend too much time alone.
I got back early yesterday morning from three days in Haverhill, MA, in the studio of Rob Howard. This was a technical course, designed to teach attendees all the stuff we never learn in art school about the basics of the craft of painting. But it was much more than that. It's no exaggeration to say that I've returned from what has been one of the most positive and rewarding experiences of my life.
I learned many things. I learned a method for stretching a canvas with no scalloped edges and with a perfectly square stretcher and weave. I learned how to prepare various grounds and supports, from gesso to copper plate. I learned how to take a figurative subject from first ideas to finish, and how to gild a frame. I learned how to varnish a painting, more about mediums and their uses than I can remember, and I was shown a method of approaching colour that I have no doubt will make a marked difference to my painting once I've learned to apply it.
I'm not going to talk about any of those things in any detail today. Over the coming weeks, as I start to apply what I've learned, I'll post detailed descriptions of everything as I do it and will endeavour to pass on as much as I can, as clearly as I can. Although it won't be any kind of substitute for attending the course, it might at least be informative.
But my time in Haverhill was about much more than the techniques I learned. I felt privileged to be a part of a group of the most committed, talented and wonderful people I think I've ever met. Each of them has touched me in a different way, and I've learned as much from spending time with them as I have from the content of the course.
The group was made up of around twelve people from all over the US, from the UK (that was me) and even one attendee from Singapore, a young lad of nineteen, who had overcome all sorts of obstacles to make it to Haverhill. But everyone there had these things in common: A complete lack of ego and self-importance, a commitment to learn as much as possible in the three days, and a genuine and selfless desire to help their fellow students to achieve this same goal.
The course itself was very well put together, and covered an incredible amount in the short time we had. It was intense, of that there is no doubt. We were bombarded with information from first thing in morning and onward throughout the day. It was a challenge to keep up and to get it all down. You could argue that you could learn this stuff from books or on the web, but I beg to differ. Some things you just have to see and do yourself to fully understand.
As well as being shown how to do all these things, we also learned the reasons for doing them that way. That makes a big difference, I think. Why does lead in a medium make for a stronger paint film? Why should you throw away the tensioning keys that come with your stretcher bars? Why should you wait at least six months before varnishing a painting? Understanding the reasons for a particular practice helps it stick in your mind, and also gives you a clearer idea of the underlying principles pertaining to the craft of painting.
More of all this in due course. I've been the recipient of what I feel is truly invaluable knowledge dispensed by someone who has forgotten more about painting than the rest of us put together will ever learn. Because of that, I feel a certain responsibility to pass on as much as I can, and this site is the perfect vehicle for me to do that.
But what I can't do, what I can't make real for anyone reading this, is the experience of meeting fellow painters who are struggling with exactly the same issues as me, regardless of style or approach. And these are not just technical issues.
The experience of the last few days has clarified for me the real reason for running this site. As much as I hope that other learning painters will benefit from the detailing of my learning process, and possibly learn something from my mistakes, I also hope to make connections. I'm taking as much as I'm giving, and this is as much about reaching out for a helping hand as it is about offering one.
The Internet, for all it's warts, can be a truly wonderful thing. We can use it to mitigate the isolation that the pursuit of painting can demand, and to restore the attendant loss of perspective that I touched on at the beginning of this post. Without the web, I'd never have known about this course.
If I had to say what the most personally useful thing I've brought back with me was, it isn't how to stretch a canvas, cradle a panel or light a composition, it's this: I've realised that I'm not alone.
After hours, back at the hotel, we spent the evenings together drinking, laughing and discussing, as half-cut people will, all manner of things. Low rise jeans, our home towns, this and that. As well as the usual light hearted chit-chat, we talked about issues to do with post-modern art, the history of painting and illustration, and why we do what we do. I don't believe that any thinking artist with even the thinnest sliver of sincerity can fail to notice that there's something desperately wrong with the art world in our time. These conversations were quite often serious, and sometimes enlightening.
If I had to say what the most important thing I've brought back from the course was, it's the sense of responsibility I now feel to the long history of my profession, and to the world in a wider sense, to produce the best work that I can. And even to try, as far as my capabilities will allow, to make a difference. As small as we are individually, our actions contribute to the shaping of the world around us. I'd like my contribution to be as much as possible about love, beauty, honesty and truth.
Grand words, perhaps. But in a world where the making of money justifies any infringement of the liberties of another, in an art world where notoriety and celebrity are more important than content, I believe that these things matter.
Rob Howard and his hard-working team run three courses, the Artist's Boot Camp, the Portrait Course and the Technical Course. These courses are incredible value, and although I've only been on the technical course, I know enough about the other two to recommend all of them without hesitation. Rob's intent is as clear as it is sincere: To dispense as much knowledge as he can in order to help us become better informed, more skilled artists. Through the dissemination of this knowledge, he hopes to make the art world a better place. He wants to make a difference, and I'm all for that. He also has a wicked and mischievous sense of humour, as does his comrade in arms Graydon Parrish.
Graydon taught a section of the course devoted to his innovative - even revolutionary - approach to colour. We've all seen the various crackpot colour theories that promise to unlock colour for you. This is different. I won't be talking about that here, since Graydon is concerned that the information be transmitted as completely and accurately as possible. For that, this medium is not appropriate. But I will be working on a series of exercises designed to teach me how to apply the theory, which Graydon has given me, and these he is happy for me to post.
In Rob Howard's studio there are two rubbish bins by the door, one labelled 'ego' and the other 'performance anxiety'. The correct use of these bins is the best preparation for the courses. If, having read about the courses, you're thinking about signing up but have distance, financial or time concerns, I strongly recommend you ignore them. Find a way. I did, so did the young lad from Singapore, and if you approach these courses with an open mind, I promise that you will not be disappointed.
You owe it to yourself to give yourself the best head start you can, and the best way to do that is to arm yourself with knowledge. But more than that, you owe it to the art world to make sure that your contribution is the best that it can possibly be.