REPORT A PROBLEM
A little over six months ago I made a decision to put aside one hour each day to paint. I realised that, whilst in recent years Iíd become a lot more productive as an artist, I still hadn't consolidated my commitment. Consequently, painting kept falling off the bottom of the list of things to do. Cleaning the house, walking the dog, ironing the clothes, planning lessons for school, watching TV Ė all of it seemed to end up taking precedence over actually finding the time to paint. So in the end I made the decision to paint for one hour each day.
I also made another decision. After the house was built I used the top floor sun room as my studio. Although it was small it was larger than any space I'd had for years and my first paintings of any real consequence were created there. The light was superb but in summer it became an insufferable hot house. It took me a couple of years to lay claim to the large space on the ground floor but last year I did and it was then that I made the decision to paint every day. Since then I havenít looked back.
There was a financial consequence to the decision. It had always been our intention to rent the ground studio out. We built it to be self-contained with its own separate entrance, its own toilet and kitchen area and huge floor to ceiling windows onto the street. It even has a separate power meter. But we never seemed to get around to renting it out and in the end, I decided to shift the studio down from the top floor and argued my case with my partner who, after a little initial uncertainty, decided to support me. The rest is history.
There's something very empowering about having a dedicated space in which to create. The room itself is large. It was originally earmarked to be a garage but council regulations prevented us from having one. Fortunately we don't have a car. The studio upstairs, for all it's wonderful light and airy disposition, was a thoroughfare to the roof deck and doubled as the laundry. The downstairs studio is separate from the rest of the house and has allowed me to close the door on whatever I'm doing and pick up the next day without the need to tidy up after myself.
The room was initially used a table tennis room. That said, we rarely played table tennis; so one of the first things I did after commandeering it was to obtain a huge piece of canvas and drape it over the table. This created an enormous surface for working flat. I also installed an easel, some shelving and hung some of my canvases on the wall. It initially felt a bit sterile but over time it's acquired a more industrious feel as the table covering has become personalised with paint, spillage, coffee stains and a variety of other studio signature marks.
Since last October I've managed to clock up more than 200 hours of painting time. By that, I mean
painting time. Not time spent thinking about what I'm going to paint or preparation time as Iím getting ready to paint. I mean over 200 hours of actual painting. I've discovered a core of self-discipline and focus the likes of which I've never really known before. To be sure, I've produced some good work over the years but this is the first time I've made an ongoing commitment to a daily practice and that commitment has, quite literally, changed everything.
Of course, make any system too rigid and thereís a risk that it will all end up falling in a heap. Real life dictates that there are days when spending an hour in the studio simply isnít feasible. That's where weekends enter the equation: what doesn't get done during the week gets done on the weekend. To date, this has worked flawlessly. Simply put, it means I donít fall into the trap of thinking itís all too difficult; that finding seven hours a week to paint whilst working full time is unrealistic and I end up throwing in the towel.
Iíve made art throughout my adult art but itís only recently that Iíve begun to think of myself as an artist. That again is a product of making a commitment to create art on a regular basis rather than piecemeal, trying to fit it in around other more pressing things in my life. The continuity on a daily basis means that whatever Iím working on or planning to work on is uppermost in my mind, or at least bubbling away on the back boiler. In short, Iíve begun to think like an artist. Art has become central to my life.
Part of becoming an artist is finding oneís own voice. For many years I had the skills but lacked any real sense of purpose. The turning point occurred midway through my years in London when I was working with children who were outside of the norm and unable to function within a traditional school setting. The work, although incredibly rewarding, was so demanding that Iíd come home emotionally exhausted. It was at this time that I turned to art as a kind of unwinding process; something I could do while listening to music and chilling out in the spare room.
I produced a few decent works in London but nothing of any real significance but I did begin to have a sense of what kind of work Iíd do if I was to put in the hours. Upon returning to Melbourne in 2010 we moved first into our city apartment (think shoebox with window) and then into a small semi-detached cottage next to where we were building. Quite apart from the lack of space, the amount of time and energy focused on getting the house built meant that any idea of spending time on painting was postponed until weíd finished.
It was never my intention to become an artist or even an art teacher for that matter. My key strength at school was English and I always imagined Iíd become a writer. It wasnít until Year 11 that I took Art as a subject, a decision largely based on the fact that the Art department seemed like a place of refuge where interesting things were created by interesting people. It was a chat with one of the Art teachers while I was in Year 10 that clinched it for me. She was incredibly supportive. Such is the influence of teachers.
Her name was Christine. She was a painter and I was completely in awe of her work. She was a very accessible teacher who inspired enormous respect and affection amongst her students. She was very young, too, a mere seven years older than we were. This in part is what I found so inspiring, the thought that with determination and practise, I could be like her within an imaginable period of time. Suddenly I was able to imagine a different kind of future to the one I thought I was going to have, a world of creativity and personal expression.
From the outset, I wanted to be a painter like Christine. She worked in a highly realistic style but managed to inject warmth and personality into everything she painted. This was a time before colour imagery became as prolific as it is today. We had no computers, no tablets, not even colour photocopiers with which to create or reproduce artwork. The process of image making, especially realistic image making, was for me infused with a sense of alchemy and wonder. To be able to manipulate wet, sticky stuff and turn it into something tangible and real was magical and compelling.
I still remember the first painting I did in Year 11. It was a black and white acrylic copy of a photograph of a young woman wearing a hat. I was delighted by how capable I was despite having not done any art since I was in Year 8. My next effort was a copy of a painting by Rene Magritte,
The Collective Invention
, which marked the beginning of my fascination with Surrealism and twentieth century painting in general. My next painting was a huge canvas of a hand emerging from grass and pointing skywards.
I was on my way.
In Year 12 I decided to focus my efforts almost exclusively on becoming better at drawing but I was clear in my mind that once I got to art school I would focus on becoming a painter. As it turned out, I didnít get into art school. I literally missed out by one place. Once the first round of offers went out I was told I was third on the reserve list. I was told that nine or ten people usually turned down their offers for other courses but, as luck would have it, only two turned their offers down.
Having missed out on art school by one place I accepted my first-round offer to complete a Bachelor of Education in secondary art teaching. While I initially had some misgivings about it, I soon came to appreciate the benefits of becoming an art teacher. With Christine as my role model I realised that it was possible to be a teacher and an artist. Furthermore, teaching offered the prospect of thirteen weeks of paid holidays a year. What wasnít to like? And so began my career as an art teacher and, over the long haul, an artist in my own right.
In the end I didn't become painter. I couldn't stand the painting lecturer. Instead I became a printmaker, although once I was out teaching and no longer had access to a printmaking studio, I lost interest in it. Instead I turned my attention to chalk pastels and coloured pencils, prefiguring my later return to study to become a graphic designer majoring in illustration. I also became an art teacher and discovered just how demanding and rewarding teaching can be. The challenge thereafter was how to balance art and teaching while at the same time living my life to the full.
Over the years I've done my fair share of commission work, both as an illustrator and as an artist. Whilst my time as an illustrator was relatively short (a couple of years) I sometimes did the odd portrait here and there to generate a little extra cash. Nowadays I choose to forgo such commissions. I no longer want to spend my time doing something in which I have no personal investment or interest. Life is too short. What I do now is what I do and if someone wants to buy it, that's great. And if not, that's fine too.
For many years I had it in the back of my mind that thereíd come a time when Iíd have all my creative ducks lined up in a row and Iíd be off, as it were. I always had a sense Iíd be a late bloomer. As a teacher, Iíve been very fortunate. Iíve never been out of work and Iíve always managed to land on my feet. Iíve taught in a wide variety of educational establishments and am currently teaching at one of Australiaís premiere schools. Itís as an artist that I always thought Iíd be a late bloomer.
I couldnít give a toss about putting work in an art gallery. Itís not where Iím at right now. If I want to show my work Iíve got a perfectly good studio space with street frontage that could double as a gallery space. I could invite friends, colleagues and any interested parents and no doubt sell some of my work. Iím currently working on a three-canvas commission and Iím also putting a few pieces of work into a staff exhibition at work next month but beyond that, what Iím focused on is the painting process itself. Anything else is secondary.
What excites me about painting is itís something I can do for the rest of my life, or at least for as long as I can physically lift a paintbrush. Itís not something that has to cease. What also excites me is the knowledge that Iím finally finding my own focus of interest and my own style. Whatís more, Iím feeling increasingly confident about what Iím creating. I get a buzz and a deep sense of satisfaction which in turn feeds back into what I create and the commitment to continue doing so. In short, I love what I do.
Working with very young children has had a profound effect on the way I approach painting. With older students, the inevitable fear of failure often stifles their innate creativity. Making art in a classroom is a very public act. The older and more self-aware (and by default, more self-conscious) a young person becomes, the more likely it is theyíll shy away from making art but with very young children, all bets are off. Iím often in awe of the raw creative passion a young child will demonstrate and the pure joy they experience in the simple (sic) act of creation.
The children I teach range in age from 5 to 12. Each class has art once a week. It is no exaggeration to say that there is a stampede to get to the art room whenever any given class has art. That level of unbridled enthusiasm, though not unknown to me in the past, has never been matched at any other school Iíve worked. That said, this is the first primary school Iíve been employed at as an art specialist. It is not possible to work with such excited and positively inspired young children without succumbing to such creative contagion.
For many years I thought of art as something Iíd been trained to teach others to do and therefore ought to do myself. It was almost like I had to somehow justify the fact that Iíd spent so many years completing my two degrees. Then there were the romantic associations with being an artist which I bought into from time to time. I joined an artistsí collective, published a couple of childrenís books, did portraits for friends and relatives or made exemplars for the classroom. At home, I had a little corner at home where I used to create stuff.
In more recent years I took things to a new level. While in London I started buying canvases and began using artist quality paints rather than relying on the student acrylics from school. I found a way in to a more organic approach to painting which in part was prompted by the painting exercises I devised to try and engage the disaffected students I was then working with. A little light was turned on and this was enhanced by my proximity to the London art scene. In short, I began to approach and think about art in a new way.
I have worked with very young children who have produced the most extraordinary artwork. Many artists, especially in recent decades, have shown a profound interest in the artwork of children. Picasso once said that every child is an artist and that the challenge was how to remain one when we grow up. I have that quote hanging in my art room at school. I can honestly say that the greatest inspiration I have drawn in terms of becoming a painter myself has been from the children I teach and the unbridled enthusiasm they bring whenever they enter the art room.
Many of the paintings Iíve created over the last three or four years have been completely spontaneous. When I tell that to people, theyíre often surprised. Once completed, the paintings are incredibly intricate and highly polished in terms of finish, but at the outset I generally have absolutely no idea what Iím going to do or how things are going to evolve. This is not the way I've historically worked. Itís something Iíve learnt from working with and observing the way children go about the creative process. They just start! They just do it! And when theyíre finished, itís done!
There is a real joy in creating something new. Children understand this and now, finally, so do I. Itís often been said that a teacher learns as much from the children they teach as the children learn from them, and while Iíve always understood this to be true, as Iíve grown older I begin to appreciate it in a whole new way. When I was a lot younger I spent much of my time trying to heal my inner child. Now that heís been healed he loves nothing more that pushing wet sticky stuff around a canvas with a paintbrush.
Every day I try to set aside an hour to paint. I go downstairs to the studio, iPod and speaker in hand, and for an hour I leave everything else behind and focus on whatever painting or paintings I might be working on at any given time. Iím not thinking about what Iím going to do with them when theyíre finished, nor am I worrying about whether what Iím doing has any merit. Iím too busy doing stuff to worry about any of that. More than that, Iím having the time of my life, just like the children at school.
One hour a day. Itís a bit like committing to writing one hundred words a day, or taking a photo a day and posting it on Facebook, which is something else I do as well. Time doesnít stand still. Every day brings us closer to the day after which we will be no more. Life is too short to be making plans that never get fulfilled. You just have to commit to something and then follow through on that commitment.
You canít plan for joy to appear but you can certainly experience joy in the choices and commitments you make.
The Tip Jar