One of the things that I wish had been addressed more in school is the power of play or experimentation. The power of playing and experimenting is that you’re going to get much better results from doing this, instead of simply performing. What do I mean by playing and experimenting? Playing and experimenting is exactly that, playing with the materials that we have, understanding their potential as well as their limits, experimenting for how they can be pushed and interfered to create something new. Playing with composition, cutting things, pasting things, inserting things even if we don’t understand them. I often have found that if I wanted something in my artwork that there was a good chance that my brain was somewhat ahead of my understanding of it. Playing and experimenting with our work involves a degree of fearlessness, as well as telling your inner critic to shut up while you play. Sometimes we brush off the silly ideas, but what we should actually be doing is paying attention to the silly ideas as a point of entry. A lot of times when making work that is abstract is that the work that is being made has never been done before. This involves new pathways being created in the brain as you learn to see and understand from a different perspective. It requires you to ask questions about the materials, the ideas, the history and the context in which you’re placing and viewing the work.
Here are some myths that I have believed in the past about experimentation and play that I hope you can dispel in your own practice.
It’s a waste of time and resources: Its not, I understand that things are expensive, but if we set aside a portion of our time and a portion of our resources in order to play and experiment I believe that the work will be richer as well as your abilities to continue creating.
Its not valuable: It is valuable, each time we practice something a new skill, a new material, a new drawing or sketch this works towards developing our practice as an artist, our mental skills and also our general skills of working with materials. When we master or understand a material through play and experimentation we can really push it to its limits and see how to use it.
This work should be hard and not give any joy: What on earth kind of thinking is this? Artwork is not less valuable because it gave you joy to make it, why on earth are making work that we don’t want to or we get no pleasure out of? Might as well go into accounting or some other vocation that gives me misery if I keep on thinking this.
As artists we end up needing to be able to do a multitude of things for working in the real world. Portfolios need to be sent out for various shows or calls, websites need updating, pictures of our work need editing, these are just a few things that I can think of. While going through some of the adobe suite I realised that not all artists are taught about some of the professional skills that they need for living and working as an artist (whether that’s full time or part time). Here are some things that I think you should learn for enhancing your professional skills as an artist.
1) Photoshop or Lightroom: Don’t feel overwhelmed by this. You just need the very basics in this in order to edit your photos. Much can be done with the yellow to blue or green to pink adjustment as well as contrast, brightness, and saturation. If you can, its best to take photos of your work from as DSLR in raw format. This format provides you with the most digital information available in order for you to work with your images. If you don’t have a DSLR, usually the art or design department at your school will let you “rent” one. By “rent” I mean not having to pay for it. If you’re struggling in Photoshop or Lightroom, hop on Youtube. There are some great channels dedicated to helping you learn more about these editing beasts.
2) Indesign: This is available through the Adobe suite and is very practical for building portfolios, because of the ease of combining both text and photos. I find inDesign to be quite user friendly, and if you can’t figure it out, again, there are some great tutorials either on the Adobe site, or on Youtube.
3) Website: There are a lot of build your own websites with companies like Weebly, Wix and Squarespace to name a few. Why do I think its important for you to have a website? A website is a great place to put up all your work where it doesn’t expire (I’m looking at you instagram) With a website the location belongs to you and you can use the website for whatever you please, selling work, writing a blog, etc. When you build and show your practice only through social media its essentially like building on borrowed land. (Thanks for that example Jenna Kutcher) With social media you’re subject to algorithms, and the need to feed the beast everyday (again, instagram!).
A friend recently asked me if they should go into photography or stay out of it since its a pretty saturated media right now. My answer was yes, overwhelmingly yes, without a doubt yes, do it anyway yes. Why? I really believe that we are all so unique, with unique stories perspectives and loves, insights, idiosyncrasies that the world just does need another photographer. At this point, there are so many different styles out there and ways of expressing yourself with photography that haven’t been fully explored yet. I honestly have been seeing a lot of the same kind of photography everywhere I’ve been looking and yes, I think that no matter what if you want to do any kind of media you should, my one stipulation is: make it your own. Make it about what you gravitate towards no matter how weird or wonderful it is, we need your photography, not just another copy.
Focus is not something that comes naturally to me and for many other artists as well. As someone who can master most things that are handmade its easy to get distracted. Writing a thesis was particularly excruciating, because I had so many interests and thought I could make them all somehow connect. It was truly exhausting Focus is important and here are some ways that I wish someone had spelled out to me to develop focus.
1- What is the topic you're exploring?
Can you tackle it in 1-2 sentences? Do your friends eyes glaze over as you explain what you’re doing? Can grandma understand what you’re saying? Chances are no one is getting it and neither are you. Ideas in our minds take time to articulate clearly in a verbal manner. Take the time to go through what exactly you’re exploring and researching. There’s no need for flowery language, in fact I would caution against flowery language because it usually shows that you don’t know what you’re talking about. However, its good to at some point to determine what exactly you’re looking for and articulate it in a concise manner. When you begin to get deeper into research you can always go back to the sentences and ask yourself if the research fits under the umbrella of your sentences. If it doesn’t promptly discard it. Which brings me to my next point.
2- Determine what’s important
I am no stranger to idea and research overwhelm. While its easy to see how may things can connect into your topic not everything will mesh well. Its like trying to find pieces in a puzzle, sometimes a piece seems like it may fit, but there’s a little bit of forcing going on. Pick things that flow well and that you can explain. Don’t try and cram too many things under the umbrella of your topic/issue/exploration. Keep it to 2-3 things max that all relate together in a smooth flowing fashion for both your audience to understand and for you to have less headaches in disseminating/articulating. ( I did not do this and in retrospect really regret that I didn’t tone down all the conceptual relationships as it made writing and expressing my ideas very difficult).
3- Keep something for later
As you’re in the midst of building research for a body of work and in the cycle of research/explore/discover that process actually sets you up for a lot of information and inspiration. While you may have narrowed down some topics that relate to your main idea or thesis new information has cropped up and diverting your attention. Make the decision to set it aside and keep it for later. All of these ideas flying at you are fun and exciting and while you may be like bee buzzing from one flower to the next, this is actually damaging to your practice and takes up a lot of your creative energy. Put it in a notebook/sketchbook, get it out of your head otherwise it will continue to take up space, and save it for later. I repeat, save it for later.
I hope this helps guide you into bringing some focus into your practice and writing. Think of your idea as a finely sharpened point thats been whittled down from a large piece of wood. If you discard something you can always recuperate it, but simpler tends to be better.
One of my first year professors said to us once as a class that there are two kinds of artists: planners and feelers. (Just bear with me here) Feelers tend to feel their way through something, and planners tend to have a more direct plan for how they are going to get somewhere. I am a feeler, its a long process sometimes to get to where I want to be. Sometimes I don’t even know where I’m going. I might have a visual of something I want in my mind, but am unhappy with how it turns out leading me to pivot my perspective. Today was a good example. I recently found out that we have about 40 horses that have been moved to a few fields in back of our house. I have been unable to go out there for various reasons; weather, baby, time, etc. I finally went out today with my camera with the intention to photograph them. The light was not that great, the wind was bitter cold, and I’m not used to photographing moving, living subjects. (My main area of focus is landscape close-ups.) However, I began my process of photographing, zooming in where I could, getting different angles with horses that are a bit skittish at having someone invade their territory, while also watching for my own safety. Something isn’t working, it isn’t clicking right. Some of these images are beautiful, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with beautiful images. However, my aim is not for beautiful images, its for a different perspective, I want to see and show you something you didn't know, something you wouldn't see, thats where the real beauty is for me. Anyone can take a great picture of a horse, because horses are great subject matter. It takes an artist to show you what a horse is. I push on, following them as I can. I crouch down at one point so that I can hopefully get a different angle. All of a sudden the horses are curious and crowd around me. I see them in that way that I want. I see the light hitting their long, shaggy fur that’s built up from days of cold, days of rain and sleet. It ripples in the wind, but they aren’t fazed by the bitter cold. That’s it, that’s the image I want. The fur in the wind. The texture and kink in the tail, and the swirls as the fur wraps around their bodies. Instead of complaining about the conditions which are not ideal, making the conditions work for me. Pivoting from my original idea, which was barely formed anyway, seeing instead where the process takes me. If you’re more of a planner, I encourage you to let a little more process and feeling come into your work, you may be surprised at what you get.
I had the privilege of attending three different colleges/universities for my art education. I did a diploma in Fine Art at a budding university, brought that diploma to another university that was more established to finish off my Bachelor’s in Fine Arts and then jetted off to Ireland to pursue a Master’s degree at a tiny art college by the Atlantic Ocean. I have seen many styles and heard many different opinions on aesthetics and styles etc. Here’s my opinion which I think is the take-away.
You do you babe. At the end of the day all schools have their own aesthetics and style that they try to culture whether intentionally or not and you have to do you. There is no law or bible on aesthetics and style that you must obey (although some professors would probably disagree). At the end of the day, its your work and you have to live with what you made. Being true to yourself is way more important than being part of a style club. Its so ridiculous, because opinions vary across the board. I had some teachers that absolutely loved my gestural style of drawing and mark making and other teachers that criticised it. At the end of the day, while I am graded by them, I still take the work home and have to live with it and myself. So, I always make sure that what I’m doing is me, and not focussing on the style that a school is trying to cultivate. Style and skill are separate. Skill should be the focus, not style.
I used to participate in the well known discussion of painting might be dead. The snob I used to be, but now I’m over shaming artists for the choice of medium because to be honest its really silly and in a world where artists are already struggling we don’t need to add medium/media shame about their practice. Here are some reasons why I think painting isn’t dead.
1- Painting is a visual language that is valid, because it is a language.
Painting takes either a piece of imagery, a subject, a topic, a scene, a fantasy, or emotional waves of colour and powerfully renders it. How is it rendered? Painter’s choice of blurred, partially rendered, photo-realistic whatever they desire. Why? Because they want to convey more than an image, they desire to evoke emotion. There are so many different styles of painting that you could take a single image and produce so much work because of the way paint can be managed and explored.
2- Painting is in our nature
Look back at cave paintings, if some of the most primitive people were painting, and cultures today that tend to still follow more traditional lifestyles paint it bears to wonder what causes us to paint? There must be something within us that propels us to work in such a fashion to depict landscape, animals and mythology.
3- There’s still so much to explore
I really don’t think that people have exploited painting enough as a medium. I’m still seeing way too many rectangular and regular canvasses, hanging canvasses on a wall proper gallery style etc. Painting isn’t dead, if anything, painting became lazy.
Those are just a few of my ideas and arguments for why painting isn’t dead. I would love to hear anything else that you want to add for painting isn’t dead!
Life drawing, its just one of those classes you love or hate. Love it or hate it though life drawing is one of the most important things you can do to sharpen your observation skills.
1- Life drawing forces your brain to make the conversion from three dimensional to two dimensional. This takes a lot of practice and skill. You might find that in life drawing you often feel very tired by the end of it. Its quite taxing, because your brain is working so hard to accomplish this conversion.
2- Life drawing requires your brain to take scale into account. Typically you have a person in front of you modelling and your paper is much smaller. Your eyes and mind need to scale the figure in front of you down to size. This is also a great and necessary skill for drawing, as learning this allows you to begin scaling things up or down with greater ease.
3- Life drawing sharpens your eyes and mind. The body is moving ever so slightly as the model fidgets, readjusts, changes their shape. As you look from the paper to the model and back again you will notice that perhaps the back is too straight on your paper and readjust. You are consistently making tiny adjustments to your drawing because the model is moving. This sharpens your observation skills.
4-Life drawing helps to elongate your concentration and work flow. When you draw from real life your brain needs to readjust to be able to focus and capture the essence of what you’re seeing in real life to the paper. Life drawing is timed and you are required to get as much information down with as much accuracy as possible.
5- Life drawing helps you to develop your rendering skills. When drawing from life the light is often placed a certain way on the body to accentuate it. You draw with a broad range of shadows and highlights. This helps later on when you draw from photos, because if there isn't enough tonal information in the photo then you are skilled enough to add in that information, because you know where it should be.
Life drawing is taxing, but extremely fruitful in terms of what it gives back. If you aren’t able to access life drawing at your university because of department funding problems or if you’re learning to draw at home usually artist run galleries or centres will have life drawing on about once a month or so for a small fee which is usually to cover model costs. If you don’t have an artist run gallery in your area you can always do life drawing with a bunch of friends wanting to do the same thing, you don’t have to take your clothes off, (unless you don’t care then by all means).
With all of this COVID-19 stuff going on I have been seeing many tutorials for making masks. Before COVID-19 I read that people were sewing and knitting for the animals affected by the Australian bushfires. Its been really interesting to watch the power of craft begin to show itself as vital again. All that being said, I was reminded of what is craft’s role in the art institute? How does it get a space and a voice. I feel that art institutions kind of look down their nose when it comes to craft. I think that this is a leftover patriarchal attitude that craft isn’t an art form. (Unfortunately there are many leftover patriarchal attitudes in the art world that we need to keep questioning.) What defines art? If an upside down toilet can be revered as an art piece why can’t work that has been crafted also be called art? For the sake of clarity, when I talk about craft I’m referring to sewing, embroidery, knitting and crocheting for the purpose of this post. I really believe that craft is art and I’ll tell you why below.
Craft requires a certain amount of skill and knowledge in order to create something. I can weld, paint, sculpt, build with power tools, but the baby sweater that I started 2 years ago? I finally unravelled it and rolled up the wool. I cannot read those knitting patterns to save my life. I don’t have the skill or the patience required to knit something. Those who work in craft such as sewing, knitting or crocheting in order to make art have to make something either without a pattern, or make a pattern. This requires spatial knowledge of how the medium will take form. It takes understanding of how the stitch will be constructed in order to make forms.
Knitting, crocheting and sewing can be used as mediums to build three dimensional forms, and therefore can be used as a way to make sculptures. These mediums are not limited and can make both organic and geometric structured forms.
What defines a line or a mark? Do we make lines with only pencil, paint or markers? Or those the only valid mediums for making a line or a mark? Absolutely not, a stitch in thread or wool by machine or hand, anything that can be used to make a mark on something is valid as a drawing method and tool. Every time a stitch is made in either sewing, crocheting or knitting this is a form of mark making. The stitch in sewing can be zigzagged, thick or thin, long or short, and can be built up to show tonal value and contours. The stitch in crochet and knitting can be altered to make a new kind of mark. You can make almost any kind of mark with crochet and knitting.
Craft has history, in the same way that art has been used through the past centuries, craft has as well. Not only has craft been used for domestic uses, but it has been used for both political and narrative uses, ie: quilts used in political campaigns, tapestries with narrative woven into them.
If you want to explore craft as an option in your work go right ahead, if your professor or classmates is a little unsure then feel free to print this post up and distribute it.
It was just one of those days where I knew if I made it into school I would be wrecked even more for the rest of the week mentally and emotionally. Its not that anything had happened in particular, but sometimes at some point during the semester a full course load in a studio heavy program takes its toll. I pressed send on the email, having written to my teachers I would not be present for today’s classes, because I was taking a mental health day. I then proceeded to just relax for the day and not worry about what I was missing out on, because my mental health had become a priority.
Mental health is becoming this new fad thing that we all talk about, but our institutions, systems and infrastructures don’t take note. Its fine to talk about mental health and admit we have problems as long as we all keep functioning at the same break-neck speed that is expected of us. As with most things, we need to take responsibility for our own bodies and health. We cannot expect institutions to regulate these things for us. So, if you’re feeling like you cannot possibly go on today, take a break, send off a quick email to your professors stating that you need a day off in order to take care of your mental health. I guarantee you’ll probably get more work done for the rest of the week because you listened to your body and gave it the rest it requires.
Oh hello, welcome to my blog, hacking a BFA. Is it an academic blog or is it just an art blog? I don't really know. Some of this might be relevant to art students only, some of it relevant to art amateurs......does it really matter? I invite you to treat this blog as an art buffet. If you want something more in depth...its here, something more geared to art newbies....it's here. Enjoy!
Melissa Cayford is an artist, designer and educator bent on making art and art education more accessible.