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Throw away the ball and chain!



by Nat Young


The great Turner was probably the best-known artist who rid himself of all his inhibitions. His early work was very topographical and almost monochromatic. Dare I say it, they were good but rather dull by some of today's standards. His later work was unrestrained and joyful with large imaginative and ethereal images, with little evidence of his early topographical drawing. He had transformed his creative spirit into something of staggering beauty. I suspect that if Turner had not changed he would have remained an 'also ran'. It is with this master in mind that I have been tempted to write about possible ways of freeing ourselves and developing our skills in other directions from that which we started.

It has taken me years to be free and yet still I find that I have to make a conscious effort to break away from a desire to depict a scene as it is in reality. It is a major challenge for us all to change our handwriting and maintain it. There is always a constant subconscious desire to not make any mistakes and if there is a good passage of painting not to lose it. However if a decent bit of painting has been removed, perseverance usually leads to a better painting at the end of the day. It is not quite as easy to achieve this in watercolour, although not impossible, but significantly easier in oils and mixed media. In theory we should be able to paint the perfect picture if we are able to paint out our mistakes!

How often have we all found that the best piece of painting is the first bit when we may put the undercoats on with an abandon but always knowing that this is only the beginning so it does not really matter. How often have each one of us wished that we had left the picture at this stage, when it is at its freshest most confident! If only we could paint with such freedom all the time. It is this conscious effort to be free which will take time but will pay dividends in the end. It is a new learning process. There are artists that I know who paint a practice painting first before going for the 'big one'. It perhaps isn't surprising to find how often the practice becomes the major work! If we could all paint believing that each picture was the practice! It is also true that the first gestures are the most enjoyable and it is the later ones that become so anguish making and dispiriting. None of us are alone in this. We are all as good as the last image!

I think that the difference between a professional and an amateur is that a professional makes mistakes with great panache which not surprisingly are much less obvious than our own tentative timid ones. Better a confident but incorrect stroke than the same mistake but drawn in an over careful way. Edward Wesson never seemed to mind if one of his telegraph poles had a kink in it! To lose inhibitions means making marks with courage and taking risks. Most mistakes can be corrected. It is always possible to paint out an area with acrylic white and then restart. This of course is an anathema to a purist but will provide another dimension to a painting. Sticking a piece of watercolour paper across the offending area can provide exciting surprises. We may not achieve the result that we originally intended but we've moved the goal posts and created something surprising instead. We now have a new creation, rather than just a simple picture. The method is rather akin to a plasticine modeller who moulds away, adding and removing bits to produce something really worthwhile.

Speaking from my experience, a timid painting is never a flowing success but often the fear is about not ruining a 'posh' piece of expensive paper and wasting expensive paint. We will never be able to improve with this restraint clinging to us and holding us back. No claims can be made to the origin of the fact that we are only making marks on paper and the type of marks that we make are only the means to the end, whatever the end may be. We are governed often by the belief that we must only paint in certain ways using the correct sized brushes, the correct type of paint, the correct paper and the correct pencils. The list of self-imposed rules is endless. This self imposed 'ball and chain' syndrome is often caused by fanatically following a revered artist and that artist's own preferred method. This is fine for a while but in the end becomes very restrictive and from which it is difficult to break away. This disease smites most of us at some time or other! However, paintings are no more, no less than putting some form of pigment on to a receptive surface. How we are to achieve a final result is largely irrelevant. So a simple watercolour may become mixed media but better this than a watercolour that is only fit for the bin! Never throw them away. Try pulling an old discarded one from the drawer and create something else from it. After all you can't make it any worse! If the worst does come to the worst, then we can always tear it up and use the bits in a collage!

A real 'stopper' is the belief that we should be entirely truthful to the situation that we see in front of us. It is my belief that we should be truthful to ourselves, after all it is our own personal interpretation of what lies before us. Presumably the end result is to obtain a good picture. In other words, although we may be depicting a landscape, still life portrait or whatever else, the painting must, and I emphasise 'must' also have a life of its own. That is the time when we perhaps take our eyes off the scene in front of us and turn our backs on it. The painting must then become independent of the scene to attain something, which is satisfying to us. This may alter the image that we started with, but it is still being truthful. We are making the painting better. In landscapes, perhaps we should try to capture the spirit of the place. That is painting the very essence of the 'thing' in front of us. It is not dotting every leaf, blade of grass, branch or tree. It is that first image which we see at an instant. This vision may be a mixture of shapes tones and colours. It is these interpretations which allow us to go along the road to deliberate abstraction or to show the reality in an abstract way. I am reminded of a remark made about a favourite artist, that' when you see one of his paintings, you can feel the drips of moisture from the trees, and you may feel the moss under your feet in a wood and you can feel the breeze blowing through the trees.' It is only by allowing a freedom to come into a picture to achieve these sensory statements. Sometimes it is helpful to include notes of the feelings that we encountered when made the sketch. Was it windy cold or warm? What else did we feel at the time? For instance did we hear birds, insects or any other sounds which all may colour perceptions. To recall these events at the time we are making our painting may help us to conquer these restrictions and allow us to throw away all the rubbish that hinders our thinking.

Losing our inhibitions means also taking risks to try and achieve something really exceptional. The result may well be a picture or even better, a sensory experience, which is 'different' and will allow itself to stand out in crowd.