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Reflections and (re)reading the book Art as Therapy

Things have been a bit all over the place recently. Moving house, moving studio, finishing uni. One other thing I have been starting and stopping a lot is my studio practice. I have been thinking and sketching about it in background for a while now, but it’s not something I have had a routine with. For today, I want to reflect on what I have been thinking and sketching about recently, and pull my ideas into this post.

Re-reading Art as Therapy

I read this book years ago and the arguments in it really stayed in with me. Being home for COVID it stuck out on my bookshelf and I was lured into picking it up again. It turns out that one art degree later and this book has only become more important to me! Art as Therapy argues that art is a form of therapy (surprise surprise) that should be harnessed in public and private life. The co-authors did a brilliant job at writing about very complex issues in very simple ways, for instance writing about our faults as humans, and how art can be used as a tool to help us with them.

Having just graduated, it felt fitting to re-read this book, and consider how I can act on these philosophies in my career. This book affected me as a viewer of art, an artist, and as someone with an interest in art academia. I want to separate my learnings into these three categories:

As a viewer of art

I learnt about why objects are important in my life. I learnt about how a great artwork I see in a gallery can make a positive difference to my life even once I leave to go home. I learnt about how I can surround myself with artworks, crafted objects and images to guide me towards living, feeling, acting and thinking better.

As someone with an interest in art academia

This book made me be more critical towards how art is written about in museums and galleries. The book made this great point that the little bits of writing next to a painting in big institutions are written as if the reader already has an interest in art. But in fact most people who walk through the rooms in say the National Gallery in London really don’t. Art as Therapy suggests the writing next to art in institutions should provide a way in, a way for a strange looking 400 year religious painting to mean something to a modern day secular accountant.

This idea plus lots of other great ideas in the book are points I really want to put into practice in my own curation.

As an artist

I learnt about the value of my work, about the shortcomings of painting and drawings, but also the power of them. There was this one bit of the book that really stuck with me: the book argued that historically, paintings make the everyday glamorous, and make us notice and appreciate things like light hitting the wall in a beautiful way, or the colours in a dazzling sunset. Therefore painters focus on aspects of our human life experience and make us notice them, making us savour moments that are perhaps difficult to put into words.

If anyone was to ever ask me what the point is of my art practice, in spending so much time thinking, sketching, talking, writing, drawing, painting about the experience of looking up – in woodlands or at the open sky – I would respond by saying I am artist that is encouraging people to notice a part of the everyday human experience that is tricky to put into words, and I hope that in doing so, my artwork helps us to understand these innate parts of our human experience and savour them more.

The sky and the experience of looking up

The universal but generational experience of the sky

We look up at the sky so much, and there is something human in us doing so. There is something innate in us that makes us want to look up at the big blue, crane our heads out of the window at ominous storm clouds, or glance up at the night sky on the way back from the pub.

It might feel natural and ancient to look up at the sky, but I don’t think the way we relate to the sky once our faces are pointing up has much to do with our ancestors. Instead I think it has everything to do with the culture we are currently immersed in.

The sci-fi films me watch about asteroids crashing into earth, or the books we read about alien civilisations, the news stories about new planets being discovered and rockets launching to the ISS, the planes that float past and disturb a quiet park and the knowledge the ozone is getting thinner with climate change, are some of the cultural associations that affect how we experience the sky.

It was the text The Discarded Image by C.S Lewis which made me aware that hundreds of years ago, the sky was not the gateway to uncountable other worlds, stories and possibilities of progress, but instead a great ceiling which held heaven on the other side.

So what does this have to do with my art practice?

I don’t know why this theme has fascinated me so much, but that doesn’t matter! I want to paint it. I have been doing lots of drawing, in pencil or ink, and this always involves lines in the sky, rings, lines that attempt to show the vastness and size of the sky, a passage way that looks alien even. When I get back in the studio I want to push these ideas much further with actual paint – woah. With acrylic sketchbook pages en plein air, and also big paintings. The glazing style that I have been doing might work well? I don’t know until I try. I’m looking forward to seeing what I find.

The medieval universe and a painting by Botticini

I am looking at paintings titled ‘The Assumption of the Virgin’, they’re all paintings from the Renaissance or older. The most compelling ones, to me, are the ones with incredible rendering of dark and light. It appears that light is really important for creating atmosphere in a painting. There’s something tangible, something present, something palpable about effective light in a painting.

I have been fascinated by this painting for sometime now:

Francesco Botticini, about 1446 – 1497 The Assumption of the Virgin probably about 1475-6 Tempera on wood, 228.6 x 377.2 cm Bought, 1882 NG1126 https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG1126

I used to look at it every time I visited the National Gallery, although it is no longer on display rip. The composition of the piece really fascinates me; the vast size of the opening to heaven that dwarfs the landscape on Earth. The rings of blue are IMMENSE. They fade out into this sky blue which permeates the length of canvas, and seems to bounce off the complementary earthy colours of the landscape.

The painting is large, and when you stand before it, the dome shape dwarfs you. It makes you sit down in front of it and stare up at the holy scene above.

It looks kind of as if the sky has a hole cut in it. The layers of blue are the layers underneath the sky blue sky one can see on a clear day. The painter is suggesting that if you were to peal back the layers of blue, like defined layers of the atmosphere, they would reveal heaven on the other side. This analogy fits with the medieval universe model, which depicted Earth at the centre of something like an onion, with layers of space between Earth and the furthest out layer which was heaven.

It amazes me that this image may have reflected the artists beliefs about the world when Botticini painted it. I was told recently by someone that they think artists takes things that are difficult or complex or large, and translates them into objects (or events), which allow for viewers to have discussions and gain understanding. I thought this was so insightful! Re-reading a passage from Gerhard Richter: panorama (2011), I realised Gerhard Richter thought the same thing:

NS: But painting is not about efficiency.


GR: Actually it is, in the sense that it allows us to find a form for a complicated idea, that’s to say, to make something chaotic communicable, it is efficient.

P.21

By doing this, the artist takes something unconfined, something utterly complex and seemingly never-ending, overwhelming perhaps, and translate it into an object or event which is contained, with edges, which may attempt to reveal or describe the issue, or comment on it etc in a palpable format. Viewers (and the artist) can therefore use artworks as a way of grasping an issue, as a promp/ focus for discussion, to see the issue/topic/subject in a new light.

In ‘The Assumption of the Virgin’ it seems that Botticini was doing just this. He was taking the complex, massive, perhaps overwhelming idea and belief that the Earth was at the centre of this great onion structure, with heaven on the outside and Earth at the centre, and translated it into this painting. The simple imagery and the familiar story (of Mary going up to heaven) makes this massive belief structure into something pleasing to the eye, something tangible, something to sit in front of and contemplate, something physical to process, as a method for understanding an intangible/ abstract/ aerial idea.

I want to respond to this work. I’ll start with some ink drawings.

Artist: Amy Sillman

I am revisiting the work of Amy Sillman because I am interested in how she exhibits her paintings/drawings in lines, like washing lines, very close together:

Camden Arts Centre Landline
Image from Sillman’s wesbite: https://www.amysillman.com/pages/pagination.php?page=1

or like this:

Image from Sillman’s website: https://www.amysillman.com/pages/pagination.php?page=1

I really love this format for form focussed works- such as my ink drawings.

Multi-part ink and paint on printed canvas
Image from Sillman’s website: https://www.amysillman.com/pages/pagination.php?page=1

The works communicate to each other, a bit like a sentence. I think showing the work like this allows for the drawings to repeat the same shapes in different shapes/ positions in the space of the image.

What is it about how these works interact which is interesting? I think when you show works in this arrangement, your eye automatically tries to decipher links between the individual works. Some sort of narrative, or continuation of shape, colour, pattern, idea. It is suggested that individual statements are coming together to form a larger whole.

My degree show is digital due to COVID, so I can’t build any physical instillation/ sculpture. So I want to use this method of a line/ grid of drawings to express moving in-between, underneath, around, inside, a sculpture.

I want to have a go at doing a series of drawings. I have been TALKING about doing this for long time but LIFE.

I’m re-reading parts of the book ‘Lives of the Artists, Lives of the Architects’ by Hans Ulrich Obrist to help with this idea. It has some wonderful interviews with artists and architects which blur the line between the two practices. Since I want to convey spacial architecture/ form/ space in drawing, through a series of works, it is relevant that I read about architecture and art and the blurring and ideas that travel between the two practices.

I’m going to have a first go at making works that sit in a line/ grid now, and see how I go, with this in mind.

I feel like I’m at a point in my practice where the white lined structures I was making seem a little behind what I am doing now. But at the same time, I don’t feel I have fleshed out my new glazing, light collumns etc way of working either. I am in this limbo between the two? Only continuing with my practice after this long pause will work on that! Let me just have a go.

A sound walk

I listened to the episode ‘Everywhere: The Pond’ and it was so interesting. The way they asked the listener to walk to a pond, be that a puddle or a huge lake as the podcast was going. Then overlaid were sounds of someone walking in the natural landscape, the landscape itself, and people talking about their memories on frozen lakes.
By asking the listener to walk, find water, roll up their sleeves, feel the cold, the memories the voices spoke of seemed more real to me, more applicable to me, closer to me. I’ve never experienced something like that before.

I had also never heard of a ‘sound walk‘ before, but it’s interesting. It is ‘a walk with a focus on listening to the environment‘.

Also this!!!!: https://www.wfae.net/#

There are some cool eco soundscapey things out there.

Next I want to do some reading into what soundscapes do. To us listening, what their importance/ use is to artists and anyone else.

Space in sound: listening nature soundscapes

I have become interested in the idea of nature soundscapes, and how they can draw attention to a great empty space above me, framed with tall trees or perhaps just open sky with birds above.

I’ve been thinking about how a natural soundscape could compliment my work in an exhibition space, particularly the instillation work I had been thinking about.

Since my degree show is now online, making a soundscape to put on the page would be a great way to assist the work I want to show. Maybe adding to the theme? Or giving the space an atmosphere where the viewer, by putting on headphones and listening to the soundscape, is transported to somewhere else. Perhaps actually somewhere where they can more easily sit with the work on the webpage.

I might in a way be creating the mental condition for a view to view my work. I have read (and written in uni essays) about how the viewer is not distanced from their daily life when they view artwork online, like they are when they step into a gallery.
The act of stepping into a gallery is making a conscious choice to remove oneself from daily life. For me, and I think for others, a physical gallery gives one the space to experience art and also to contemplate it, without the context, distractions, mindset of viewing it at home, work, the bus etc.
Since the physical gallery space is not possible at the moment, for my degree show or generally, I am realising now writing this, whilst listening to a natural soundscape, that using a natural soundscape on my page may provide the viewer with the same kind of separated-from-daily-life experience that a gallery provides. And thus allow them to view the work in a clear context.

To think about how I want to make this natural soundscape, I am listening to this playlist on Spotify:

The first song on the playlist ‘Crispy May Morning’ does a great job of making me think of being in a forest, with a great height/ space above me, and wildlife making sounds far above my head. My brain literally thinks there are birds far up directly above my head.
Why is that? Because some sounds are further away than others. Some bird sounds are on one side of my ear, some on the other. This tells the brain that the sound through my ears isn’t flat, but sound that is from a three-dimensional space.

Sounds that sound like they are echoing in the space. That’s important.

You need a balance of sounds far away and up close to tell the brain there is distance involved in the sounds you’re listening to.

I want to almost place the sounds so that they enter my ears lol in a place that makes sense with how landscapes are ordered. So for example I wouldn’t want the sound of water seeming to come from above (unless there was a waterfall involved!) because water is on the ground.

Walking happening around around me use?:

Crunching underfoot. The shapes have to move across the soundscape to give sense of things moving in space, to there being space from where the recording was made.

This is a great one from the playlist that has sounds from left to right, moving, etc:

Now I want to do some more research into other soundscape artists. And also have a play at making some stuff myself!

Hughs R. (1991). The Shock Of The New, Edition 2?, London: Thames and Hudson Ltd

  • ‘The silence of nature itself, in which the random noises of culture were swallowed up – was one of the dominant facts of medieval life, outside the cloister as well as inside it.’ P.324
  • ‘…might well have exceeded anything we take for “normal” cultural experience today. Now we see the same cathedral through a vast filter that includes our eclectic knowledge of all other cathedrals (visited or seen in photographs), all other styles  of buildings… the desanctification of the building… the secular essence of our culture… the memory of “mediaeval” sideshows at Disney World,’ Pp.324-5
  • ‘the pre-technological eye was obliged to scrutinize – one thing at a time.’
  • How is my painting a reflection of the image intense culture I have grown up in?
  •  ‘The idea of sitting down and painting the environment of signs and replications that made up the surface of the modern city was obviously absurd. But how could art defend itself against a torrent of signs that were more vivid than its own images?’ P.325

Finished painting!

This is the first large glazed painting I have finished! I am happy with the results and I think it shows potential for the future.

From start to finish:

Next time I do one of these paintings I want to record each layer of glazing, which didn’t always happen here, and perhaps use a tripod and a camera to photograph the painting from the same angle each time. The result would look cool!

This is the finished painting:

What works well

The glazing adds so much atmosphere to the canvas. The brushstrokes fade into a haze. The colours are so much more radiant than any painting I’ve done before.

The layering of colours creates some strange coloured effects which draw the eye towards the surface of the canvas. There is something strange and interesting about the colours.

Having lemon yellow in the column of light works really well. I first tried the light with just titanium white, but it looked uninteresting. Using the yellow adds a strangeness to the light and gives the painting some vibrancy.

Glazing highlights with a titanium white gaze worked well to bring out highlights in the painting.

This glazing technique with the brushstrokes combines old painting with new and I like that!

What doesn’t work

The painting is quite gloomy, which works well for the grey, cloudy day this painting is based on, but there is perhaps a too little grey/whitness from the sky.

The texture of the white light is too patchy. This comes from my impatience! I need to wait a full 24hrs between glazes, and build up much thinner glazes over a longer period of time. This would give the light a much softer and more radiant glow, and really improve the painting.

Comparing old and new method of painting

How different they are! The new painting has a stillness to it that the old painting doesn’t have. The older painting is so gestural and immediate, but the newer painting is quiet and aged somehow?

The older painting looks so much more refined and worked on to maximise my intentions. You can see I have much improvement for the newer painting method.

Unfinished painting so far

This is what the painting looks like so far. I had more time in this project I would keep glazing. And after this deadline I will keep continuing with it!

You can see I have just started to add the column of light to the painting. I tried adding multiple layers before the glaze had fully dried and I got this horrible texture:

Where the semi-dry glaze would rub off from the pressure of the brushstrokes and leave this patchyness.

I decided it was not worth rushing this painting. Better to have it finished later and done well.

One thing I am struggling with in this painting so far is conveying the bright blue skies and brilliant sunlight that was in the landscape when I painted it. This is because glazing adds an intensity to the scene but it also darkens it. I think I need to add layers of white glaze to parts of the canvas to lighten it up, like I did with the first big glaze canvas. So far my process of glazing has been one of darkening and lightening, pushing back and pulling forward.

I am excited to see this painting finished!