There are times when I believe I can paint anything. I’m so full of confidence and bravura that I feel I could paint the most complicated picture and it be good. Only when I get behind the easel and I’m faced with, not only the subject, but my own deficiencies and imperfections as a painter, that I realise that in reality I’m lamentably poor. Others will protest and say ‘No, Geoff, your work is marvellous!’ But what these people are doing is comparing my talent to theirs. Any artist worth his salt must strive to improve, and that means comparing himself to those he sees as superior. Personally I look to Rembrandt, Durer, Turner, Constable, Stanley Spencer and Lucien Freud – they are my thunderbolts. I know I will never be as good as they are, but isn’t it worth trying? If you have no real desire to improve, you won’t. I know painters who don’t have such a hunger; they’re content to settle for the lucre when they sell something and that is their only goal.
I’m very self-critical about my work. Painting has never been an easy thing to me. I have always struggled; it has always been hard work. I recently read a biography of the Austrian artist Egon Schiele. He was one of those rare individuals who seem to have been born with talents fully-formed. He died aged twenty-eight, having produced hundreds of drawings and watercolours all showing a mastery of form, line and composition. And he wasn’t alone. One doesn’t have to search far in the annals of art history to find others who were similarly gifted. I’m afraid I don’t have the self-confidence of someone like Schiele. There may be parts of my paintings that I think just about work, and that’s the only reason I keep them. Most of the time I’m dissatisfied with 90% of what I produce, and the canvases that I consider total rubbish are recycled and painted over.
Drawing is really the key skill in art. Drawing is observation. It is of the utmost importance. When I draw or sketch I am looking for things that no one else has seen. Finding something new in a subject is the real aim in my work. Most of the time I don’t find it and my drawings are lacklustre and uninspired. My sketchbooks are really a catalogue of mistakes, which is one of the reasons I don’t like people looking at them! I know artists who never draw, or their ‘sketchbooks’ are little more than cursory representations made outside to take back to the studio to be enlarged or copied with little thought to designing a finished work where composition, form and colour are manipulated towards producing a painting that shows the hunger for improvement I spoke about earlier.
As I said, art is really difficult, well, producing good art is. And unless you’re extremely gifted or a genius, most people, even good artists, will find it so. So, dear reader, if you’re an artist, keep struggling on. And if you’re one of the shallow ones who isn’t bothered about getting better, I hope your sales bring you joy.
I know some artists who never change the colours on their palette. They squeeze out a dollop of colour from a tube of every colour they possess and don’t think about varying the colours much from painting to painting. But selecting colour carefully before starting a work can alter your perception and interpretation (and therefore that of the viewer) of a subject by adding a bit of a twist to your normal way of thinking. Introducing a new or unusual colour into you palette can alter our impression of a painting and transform the way we understand it how we feel about it.
Personally, my palette is made up of five colours – white, black, a blue, a yellow and a red. These are changed or added to according to the season and/or the subject. Winter consists of black and white, Prussian blue, alizarin crimson and yellow ochre. Sometimes I’ll paint with just those five, at other times I’ll augment them with raw umber, some kind of purple or mauve, perhaps Naples yellow or Indian red. Very occasionally I change the Prussian blue for cerulean. I hardly ever use Ultramarine or cobalt blue unless I’m painting abroad as I find them too ‘Mediterranean’. Prussian blue gives a lovely shade that is more typical of British skies even in Summer.
Once Spring arrives I’ll start to change the colours on my palette. I add a green, usually sap, sometimes chromium oxide, and perhaps add cadmium yellow and, depending on what I’m painting, I may decide to change the umber from raw to burnt. The only real change to this palette for the Summer months is to substitute alizarin for cadmium red.
Autumn brings quite a few additions. I tend to keep the burnt umber and add Naples yellow, burnt sienna, sometimes Indian red or light red too, swap back the alizarin crimson instead of the cadmium and sometimes use raw sienna instead of yellow ochre. These latter colours are very similar in hue but the ochre tends to be slightly more opaque, depending on the manufacturer.
Of course, these decisions aren’t written in stone. Sometimes I go rogue and throw in a colour I don’t use very much just for the hell of it: Payne’s grey, Hooker’s green or viridian, lemon yellow or Cadmium orange. Moreover, the palettes I’ve listed are strictly for oils, acrylics and gouache paints are something else and have their own set of guidelines which are much less rigorous!
I haven’t been very active during the last few months, as you can see from the frequency of these blog posts. I’ve found the lockdown period to be very depressing. Long stretches of time with little to do has been very disheartening for me. But, I hear you say, it’s the perfect time to paint; why don’t you get the brushes out and get to work? I’m afraid my modus operandi isn’t quite like that.
The inability to get out and about into the wilder landscape has seriously dampened my creative spark, and only in the last week have I started work on a few paintings from older sketches.
This would seem to be the perfect time to think about what I want to do artistically when the lockdown is lifted and where I want to go with my painting. My latest work has taken on a more abstract and incisive quality – scored lines with knife and pencil, paint gouged on with brushes, and perhaps I need to follow this through. Perhaps not.
A cup of tea isn’t a simple matter, at least not to serious tea drinkers! Tea is as rich and intricate a subject as wine is for those who choose to investigate it and delve a little deeper below the surface. Drinking tea is inextricably linked with the whole eastern culture – mixture of the two principles of wabi and sabi. ‘Wabi’ is a word which denotes the spiritual aspect of life, characterised by simplicity, restraint and unadorned beauty. ‘Sabi’ represents the imperfections of life and the natural way of things in the outside world. For me, the tea bowl plays an important part in the appreciation of tea, a way of engaging with the cultural activity of the tea ceremony. By drinking from a tea bowl, or chawan, I feel spiritually connected, more relaxed and in-tune with myself.
In fact, to be precise, chawan is the name given to tea bowls used in formal tea ceremonies; for everyday drinking the Japanese use yunomi. But whatever they’re called there is something inherently satisfying about using them. I’m not suggesting that everyone have a tea ceremony each time they have a cuppa, but by taking time out to relax, prepare the tea carefully and drink out of something beautiful they are participating in something transcendent and numinous.
Of course, I don’t use a tea bowl every time I have a cup of tea, but there is something infinitely pleasurable about drinking from an attractive well-made vessel. I do try to have a relaxing cup of tea at least once a day; using my favourite oolong tea, preparing it carefully using a tea pot, infusing it for the correct length of time and finally drinking from a tea bowl.
In the studio tea bowls figure quite highly on my list of vessels to make, although most customers still prefer mugs with handles to drink from. Personally, I think the fact that there isn’t a handle on a tea bowl seems to give the act of drinking from it a more sacred quality; it’s easier to cup the hands around it in an almost supplicatory way. The heat of the tea is easier to feel, and one is aware of a ‘closeness’ to the flavour and aroma of the liquid. In making tea bowls I rarely use a gauge (though I do weigh out the lumps of clay) and, keeping the wheelhead turning a little slower than usual I allow each bowl to take its own form. In that way I feel I am putting something of myself in the vessel – it becomes more of an individual item. I’m not bothered about making it ‘perfect’. I’m happy with whatever comes off the wheel, as long as it has character and feeling. A few uneven blemishes I can live with.
I urge all tea drinkers to try having their own personal ‘tea ceremony’ once a day, drinking their favourite tea from a chawan or yunomi, taking time to relax and chill out for at least a few minutes. Try it for a week at see what happens!
There is great difficulty in balancing the process of creating art and running a studio. Even before I’ve made a single pot, the demands of planning, setting up the workplace, and managing finances take its toll on the imagination. I’m conscious that working alone has the effect of separating the creative flow from the whole process of making pottery, forcing one to focus on the mundane aspects of business. Of course, I know that you can’t have your cake and eat it; if only it was possible to have complete freedom to make whatever you want and not bother with the practical aspects of managerial control and direction. Perhaps it’s only the very rich and the unemployed who are able to do this!
Trying to balance aspects of the Eastern artistic philosophy and that of the West is incredibly difficult. The asceticism, austerity and spirituality to which I aspire is almost impossible within Western society. Short of finding a cave and living in it as a hermit there is no way of filtering out every tendril of western influence. The only way to proceed is to accept it and make the most of it, using whatever aspect of modern culture you can to help you, while trying to keep the simplicity, economy of style, and of course the spirituality, within one’s art.
Bernard Leach once stated that modern society has ‘increased the tempo of industrial slavery’, and although one may argue that is no longer the case in the twenty-first century, we are still shackled in many senses to the treadmill of institutional monotony, even in within the ‘freedom’ of our smartphone, internet-driven, selfie-obsessed modern world. My hope is that, as a craftsman, I am not ‘obliged to live parasitically or precariously because I have no recognised function’. §
§ See A Potter’s Book by Bernard Leach (Faber and Faber 1940, 2011)