|works on paper from Ballinglen|
Last week I was looking over what I brought back from my residency at Ballinglen Arts Foundation in Ireland--some small works on paper, a few more developed paintings, some sketches and notes, website addresses of artists and books to check out, a book of poetry and some drawing materials I had been given. In that moment, surrounded by ideas, plans, materials, and resources, I was struck, as I have often been in the past, by the idea that art-making is basically research. We conduct this research throughout our lives, compelled to keep learning and growing. Many of us deal with making our livings as artists, and all that entails. But what drives us really comes straight from the heart, a pure search for knowledge, understanding, and a voice to express our deepest selves. The search itself is a creative act as we pull from many sources, integrating fresh information with what we've already learned.
Like researchers in other fields,we gain insights and make advancements, refine our approaches, and contribute to collective knowledge and understanding. But to do all of this means that we need time to experiment, test and develop ideas, and to simply mess around in the studio. We also need to engage in thoughtful consideration, using our critical skills. There is no way to skip over this huge investment of time and energy and to move directly to an end result that is in any way original or authentic.
Although it's not always an easy perspective to maintain, I find that thinking of painting as research is a liberating idea. What's needed is an easy-going patience with the process, and the optimism to regard difficulties as learning experiences. The focus is not on the end result, but instead on what is intrinsically interesting within the process itself--what is being learned, explored, and uncovered. There are also times to step back, to evaluate, analyze. But I try to keep myself in a curious, open-ended "what if?" mode rather than trying to push to a particular finish line.
This attitude is something I try to convey in my introductory cold wax workshops, but I find it is often at odds with people's expectations. In the time-span of an introductory workshop, my goals are to demo a range techniques, check in to make sure they're understood, discuss possible applications in terms of each persons work, and to present information about visual language, abstraction and other topics that will be useful going forward. In other words, I provide a lot of information and materials for research, but the real work must be done on one's own, over time.
I often encounter students, though, who figure they will learn the techniques quickly, then move on to making excellent paintings all within a few days. Using the research analogy, this is like expecting to know the focus of your study immediately, when first exposed to a topic. Artists who are already accomplished in another medium seem especially prone to having high expectations of accomplishment. It's understandable of course--they have things to say and the medium is not cooperating! But when you are first using new materials, it's rare to be able to express yourself in your usual ways, and thinking this will happen can result in a lot of frustration. The successful paintings that do happen in a workshop are often done by those who give themselves over to the process without expectations--or who, at some point, release their expectations. Most people do relax, loosen up, and enjoy the journey's beginning once they accept that a workshop provides only the first steps. The true pleasures of research--the deep engagement, satisfaction, and surprises, lie ahead.
student work space, Ballinglen
All my best to my readers for 2017...here's hoping your own studio research will keep you growing and learning in the most satisfying ways!