Archives for posts with tag: observation

page of birds

I much prefer to draw from life, but if I can’t do that I do draw from photographs, almost always pictures I have taken myself and invariably nowadays from a screen. I find it much harder to draw from pictures taken from another source, presumably because when I’m photgraphing something I’m doing a lot of looking before and after pressing the shutter, and even if this is not the same quality of observation that comes from drawing, it is helpful.

Creatures that move fast and are likely to flee or fly after a few seconds are hard subjects, though there’s a lot to be learnt by trying. It just isn’t possible to gain as much understanding from a photograph as you can from the real thing, and in the case of a live animal the greatest loss is the sense of connection and the degree to which you become aware of each other’s energy.

sketchbook page, guinea pigs

The robin and the barn owl I drew from photos on my tablet. The guinea pigs I drew this afternoon, observing them through the bars of their pen at the top of the park where I walk almost every day. I watch them closely, spending much more time looking at them than looking at the page, and they watch me carefully, keeping a close eye on what I’m up to. They are wonderful; I think that quite honestly I am happier drawing guinea pigs than any other animal, and possibly more than anything else. I completely lose track of time.

 

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When I’m out and about, occasionally I catch sight of something that’s been made, or hung, or arranged or displayed by someone who had no conscious intention of making a work of art at the time – and yet the result is something strikingly different, something that is expressing an idea, or maybe just presenting itself to the world in a way that says, ‘Look, here I am, take notice of me’.

I don’t want to get into the whole complex business of what constitutes a work of art, or at least, not here and now – but there are times when I feel liberated by stumbling across something in the street that could have been self consciously show-cased in a gallery as an art installation, and I want to celebrate its glory and freshness and integrity. ‘Yes!’ I want to shout, ‘you’re wonderful!’ So I take pictures.

These drain covers are a case in point. They’ve all been carefully constructed so that when in place the design of the stone paving continues across them in an uninterrupted flow; all you are supposed to see when they’re in their right places are the edges of the metal frames. But as each one has been taken out from time to time and put back, they’ve been jumbled up and now they’re a far more interesting visual picture – and a framed one at that. I stood a long time looking at them and enjoying their different shapes and textures, their tonal values and their colour, and the composition as a whole. If this had been hanging on the wall of a gallery I would have stood just as long and looked as thoroughly, but I confess that finding it in the street I enjoyed it more.

Actually I often like to look at drain covers – and street furniture generally. They are things so often ignored and overlooked. I have no idea why this inspection cover has been painted red. Right in the middle of a cobbled street, and not six feet from a neighbouring one that’s a natural unpainted brownish grey, it’s saying something important, but I have no idea what it is. Street furniture has a language of its own.

I’m not sure if this last example really counts as unintentional art, but I found it so arresting when I saw it the other day that I can’t resist including it. What are we to infer from this washing line, with just one single sock? A whole multitude of possibilities ran through my mind – and more entertaining notions than the sort I usually have when looking at something calling itself Art. Long live the art of the everyday, the art of everyone, the art that’s unintentional. All we have to do is get out there and see it.

Whenever I look at something with all my attention – look so that I’m soaking it in and really seeing – everything else stops. It’s why for me going out for a walk is such a good way to unwind, because I can’t go far before I see something that I want to stop and gaze at.

We have a choice about the things we look at and concentrate on. In fact we have a choice about whether we really look at all. At times it would be easy to go through a day without stopping to look (and also to listen, touch, and smell) and sometimes it can even be hard to do it at all. This is what depression is about, when it feels as if you are locked in and don’t have a choice, and then it doesn’t matter what you look at, you can’t make the connection or escape from this imprisoned state of mind.

(A quick note, though, about the picture above – I couldn’t resist using it to illustrate that last sentence, but I didn’t take the photograph while feeling depressed! Far from it, in fact. I love the wonderful richness of the texture of the wall and the wood of the shutter, the pattern and contrast of the bars and the mesh, the subtlety of the colour and the mysteriousness of what might lie inside, behind the open window….)

If you’re depressed you tend to go about not seeing at all, or worse, noticing only things that reinforce feelings of bleakness and despair, so I’ve learnt that it’s important to maintain good habits all the time. I find that going out every day to take photographs but more importantly, to look, is much more than gathering source material and hoping that I’ll stumble upon something exciting. It’s more than taking some much needed exercise. More than anything else it’s about deliberately being aware, and paying attention.

In fact recently, I’ve learnt something astonishing – that simply by paying attention to the right things and making a habit of it, over time we can – and in fact, do – actually change the way our brains are wired.

This is from an e mail newsletter that I subscribe to called Just One Thing, by Rick Hanson, a neuropsychologist from California:

“Moment to moment, the flows of thoughts and feelings, sensations and desires, and conscious and unconscious processes sculpt your nervous system like water gradually carving furrows and eventually gullies on a hillside. Your brain is continually changing its structure. The only question is: is it for better or worse?

In particular, because of what’s called ‘experience-dependent neuroplasticity,’ whatever you hold in attention has a special power to change your brain. Attention is like a combination spotlight and vacuum cleaner: it illuminates what it rests upon and then sucks it into your brain – and your self.

Therefore, controlling your attention – becoming more able to place it where you want it and keep it there is the foundation of changing your brain, and thus your life, for the better.”

I’m still not sure exactly why, but this idea got me really excited. Possibly it’s because I like the tangible fact that something I’ve always felt to be true is actually a scientific fact. More probably it’s because I am so preoccupied with landscape and the way water erodes and changes it that I find this such a powerful metaphor, and now I can feel myself creating new channels in the landscape of my mind. If my brain is continually changing its structure, I’m determined to try to make it for the better!

A few days ago I walked down to the river. I hadn’t meant to go, but once I was outside I realised that as it had rained the previous day and most of the morning, the river would probably be up, and the usual sluggish flow might be something rather more exciting.

As soon as I got there I scrambled down the bank to get as close to the water as I could. You get a completely different feeling about a river if you can get right down almost to the same level as the water; suddenly you begin to realise the power of the movement, the strength of the surge, and as I crouched down to take pictures I understood how easy if would be to get swept away if you slipped and fell in.

I love rivers. There’s something about watching moving water that is so compelling; it holds your attention like nothing else and allows you to stop thinking, to let go. A couple of years ago I spent a  day at the Strid in the Yorkshire Dales, a really dramatic stretch of the river Wharfe where the stream is forced between a narrow channel in the rock and churns and boils as it thunders through, and standing there you’re even more aware of the power of water, and what it can do.

It was this day at the Strid that led me to develop the designs for jewellery that I later called the River Collection, and from that moment on I kept coming back to the idea of the river as a point of visual reference. But the idea of the river goes beyond this as a source of inspiration. As Rumi wrote:

“When you do something from your soul, you feel a river flowing in you, a joy.”

I’m not the only one around here that spends time looking closely at things. After several grey days the sun broke through this morning and all of a sudden it felt like spring. I was glad to see these two figures in the distance, one of them with a camera, peering intently at the crocuses that every year cover this bank like a snowdrift.

I love the way the season, the weather and the time of day can alter everything so dramatically. I can go for the same walk on a different day or at a different time, and suddenly be stopped in my tracks by the sight of something astonishing.

Someone asked me the other day which medium I like using best. It’s a hard question to answer, but I think whatever I’m currently using I’d probably say that’s the one I love most, (though ask me that again when I’m immersed in jewellery making, or when all I want to do is stitch fabric, and it’ll probably be a different story). At the moment it’s watercolour, and drawing and watercolour painting are both equally important for me but for rather different reasons.

Actually watercolour has characteristics that make it easy to get obsessive about. Some of this has to do with the paint itself; it’s so enjoyable to mix and dilute and load onto a brush and to watch what it does when it get on to the paper – whether it’s a wet wash that runs and soaks in, or a dry swish of colour put on with the side of the brush, or two colours put on wet next to each other and allowed to collide and then merge and mix on the paper to create fluid explosions of new colour between them. I could do this for hours, and sometimes I do just this and nothing more – simply mix two colours in varying proportions.

I try to look closely at something every day, with complete attention, for several minutes – and though drawing inevitably means doing this, sometimes it’s more a matter of simply soaking up the experience of the moment and doing something like quietly mixing paint, thinking of absolutely nothing else. I have certain colours that are old friends – like aureolin yellow and cobalt blue which make lovely greyish greens, or cobalt blue and burnt umber, which make beautiful subtle greys – that I return to when I need consolation and some peace and stillness. After a while nothing else matters, and at the end of a day when I’ve painted like this the colours I’ve been mixing stay in my subconscious mind so that I see them when I fall asleep and sometimes they fill my dreams.

Returning to watercolour painting after not having done it for a while can be a pretty horrible experience though, because it is so unpredictable and demanding. Throw yourself into it without having mind and heart prepared and without imposing some sort of discipline on yourself, and the day is doomed. This is the side of watercolour that is not what people expect when they think they’d like to take it up, but it’s the flip side of the coin; get the practice right, and it’s the most fulfilling and rewarding form of art practice that I know, even more than drawing. I like the fact that it requires me to slow down and collect all my attention, to be in harmony with myself and to be focussed in the right way, and that if I’m not, all of that will be immediately and horribly obvious right there in front of me on paper. It’s what makes the expression art practice really mean something.