The big picture

I like to be organised. I like to know what’s coming up in the diary. I like to have at least a rough idea of how things are going to play out commitment-, travel- and work-wise. I guess I like to see the big picture.

I also like to know what’s happening today. My daily list is the guide leading me through the things that should be done to keep the immediate future ticking along. You could call it small picture stuff, I suppose.

With my recent move into a new style of painting, I am excited by the idea of creating on a large scale. I love the thought of pieces that invite you in with sweeping strokes and intense colours. My new enthusiasm lies, quite literally, in the big picture. But it’s daunting when you don’t know what you’re doing. When there’s little or no reference material, where do you start? How do you proceed? Where is that endpoint that isn’t just a mish-mash of paint with no unifying features? How do you create a meaningful big picture?

So I have left the large canvasses for the moment and pulled out little ones. I have scratched around for meaningless little scraps of paper. In a move that took me FAR too long to come to, I have transferred my gaze to the smaller scale as a way of starting. The big pictures seem too hard. The small pictures are the way in.

There are lots of big pictures that seem too monumental to solve – not just in the studio. There are also lots of little pictures that are easier to tackle on our way. Long live the 20x20cm boards, the cut-up bits of abandoned works, the small differences we can make and those incremental daily steps.

Until later,

Kirsten

Remembering

I gravitated towards two of my favourite paintings: John Olsen’s Five Bells and Brett Whiteley’s Balcony 2. Large-scale, detailed, full of incredible depth and, oh, those blues, they sat comfortably as part of the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ permanent collection.

We popped into the gallery shop afterwards (oops!) and somehow emerged with posters of both, carefully rolled, surrounded in brown paper and inserted into a long tube for the trip home. Treasures.

Of course, they are not the real paintings – the colours are not as mesmerising, glimpses of the painterly strokes are hard to see and, of course, they are smaller – but they are not meant to replace the actual items. They are mementos.

Mementos are reminders that something or somewhere or someone exists or existed. They are not the thing. They are their own thing, infused with meaning. They connect us with otherness over time or distance. They are junctions in the webs that we create to link us with the world – to experiences, places, people.

I’ll frame and hang the posters. They’ll remind me of the majesty of the originals, the feel of Gallery, the specialness of my companion and the sunny Sydney day. They have a majesty of their own – not merely mementos but richly layered and valued possessions in their own right.

Until next time,

Kirsten

Ripple effect

The other night I went to a fundraising event for an organisation called Moorambilla Voices. The group provides access to music and the arts to children of central and western NSW to address the scarcity of such opportunities in these regional and remote areas.

Their aim is no less than to change lives. Through their choral and drumming programs they provide the framework for children to develop as people: their resilience, work ethic, confidence, connection to their communities and, of course, their creative and musical skills.

But it was the mention of the flow-on effect of the program that most stayed with me – the fact that allowing a contributing young person to emerge and can, in turn, raise other people. A positive individual can have a positive effect on a group whether that be a family, a friendship group, a town or region. It is that famous ripple effect. By improving one part, the whole is enhanced.

Of course, I thought of painting. By improving one element of a piece, the entire work is lifted, or at least on the way to being so. Sometimes we look at the whole and tackle that. Sometimes we look at a small element and devote time to it. Both are important – the overall and the detail. They work together but there is no doubt that the success of the small parts makes everything stronger.

Via Moorambilla Voices I am warmed by an image of little seeds of creativity, confidence and contribution spreading and germinating throughout the regions. In turn, I am inspired to give more attention to the corners, the quiet moments, the little announcements, and the subtleties of my canvases. Those parts don’t have to draw all the attention, but their well-roundedness will make the entire painting live.

Until next time,

Kirsten

Something might happen

As some of you know, I recently visited the Adelaide exhibition of works by Clarice Beckett, Australian painter of the early 1900s. The collection included still life works, streetscapes, seascapes and landscapes. The streetscapes were my favourites.

There were many blurbs on the walls highlighting aspects of Beckett’s life and artworks that allowed us to more fully appreciate the exhibition. One description, in particular, caught my attention. It was relating to a street scene of a wet road on which travelled a motorbike, either receding or appearing over a crest (I don’t remember which). The motorcycle was both unimportant, in that it was barely fleshed out, but it was also the focus of the work. I don’t know how, or if, such a phenomenon can even happen but that’s how it seemed.

The writing drew further attention to the bike, suggesting that it, as did all of Beckett’s figures in the landscape, lent to the work the ‘possibility of something’. There is a life depicted. There is a human element. There is the chance that further action could take place.

This simple concept has excitingly called into question for me so much of what I do, and have done, in my art practice. Where is the humanity? Where is the unpredictability? Where is the possibility of something? I fear all those things were in limited supply. But I’ve been challenged! I have been tasked with finding humanity, unpredictability and possibility within the framework of my particular inspiration and style. Watch this space, people! A step forward could be coming!

Until later,

Kirsten

Paddocks

I have just finished a painting for a show in Naracoorte. It is an abstract piece based on the view of paddocks and fences from the air.

Understandably, the piece is fairly ‘blocky’ – rectangles and lines, mostly right angles and confined areas. I like many aspects of it; it is layered with colours and neutrals, some scratched back to reveal the underneath; the composition is balanced and pleasing and it has worked out as I envisaged which is not always the case.

It lacks something, though. Not enough to prevent me submitting it but enough for me not to completely love it. It lacks movement. It lacks a random element. It lacks surprise and unpredictability.

Independently of all of that, I am planning a road trip into NSW, similar to one that I undertook two years ago. Some of you may remember. I have carefully arranged it, contacted my friends and family with whom I’ll stay, booked motels for any in-between nights, mapped the route and calculated travelling times. I’m very much looking forward to heading off.

It lacks something though. It lacks movement (apart from the 3,000 km). It lacks a random element (let’s not hope for anything too random). It lacks surprise and unpredictability (I know, as far as possible, what I’m in for).

But it also lacks the unknown. It is respectful to those who know exactly when I’m coming but, therefore, lacks surprise. It is comfortable but perhaps lacks a sense of euphoria?

Perhaps my painting is like that too. Comforting rather than exhilarating. Stress-free, not challenging. True-ish to its subject, not completely abstract.

While I’m definitely happy with the way I travel, I’m not at all convinced those are good alternatives for my art. Perhaps my painting goal this week is to be wild and adventurous, to not know where I’m finishing, to have no idea of the back roads I may take and to land somewhere totally unexpectedly. Therein, perhaps, lies the triumph.

Until later,

Kirsten

The birth of something new

I saw a headline: ‘Bindi Irwin gives birth to daughter.’ Brilliant for Bindi but, for my purposes, the fact that it was her in particular isn’t important. What struck me was the phrase ‘gives birth’. We use it so much but I’ve never really thought about the intricacies.

Gives. Birth.

Endows upon someone or something the quality of having been born. Bestows upon someone or something a born state. Presents someone or something with born-ness.

We give birth to many things: people, ideas, creativity, solutions, epiphanies, concepts, awarenesses. We gift to these things life, validity, a presence and the ability to create consequences. These givings occur on a regular basis. They can happen after struggle or so naturally we don’t notice we’re doing it.

So I wonder, what will I Give. Birth. to today? How about you?

Until later,

Kirsten

Starting with a plan

Most times we begin with some idea of where things will end up. We’ll commence a task with some sense of a conclusion; the endpoint is the motivation for the starting. ‘I’m going to read this book until I finish’ (or decide it’s not for me – still an endpoint). ‘I’m going to cook this meal until it’s ready to eat.’ ‘I’m going to buy this coffee with the purpose of drinking it.’

Even if we don’t realise, there’s usually some sort of plan – ignition on, seatbelt fastened, car in gear, mirrors, look, drive. Many of our plans are automatic – the act of showering or walking from here to there. Even in the case of tasks that may take some extra thought – using the ATM, following a map – we are setting some sort of process in train to achieve our aim.

Our days would be fairly rambly, or downright impossible, without a sense of where we’re going. Those destinations don’t have to be particularly special. We can be going into the studio to work, we can be striving to successfully put out the rubbish. Of course, there can, indeed, be grander plans. We can be striking out to be rich by our fifties or fulfil a dream of travelling to Paris. We can build our lives around being a good person or reaching any potential that may be lying dormant.

But on the very odd occasion, we start something without a single thought about what it’s for, how we’ll manage it or what the result will be. We creep along, a step at a time, oblivious to any goals or strategy. And thus, we chug away, let our thoughts wander, keep writing and, all of a sudden, it’s been two years.

In gentle celebration,

Kirsten

New roads

I could have taken the usual route, I guess. I wouldn’t have had to think too much. The car could possibly have driven it on its own. It may have taken a bit longer but the roads would have been familiar and I knew they were of a safe standard.

I decided, though, to put on the GPS and take a back route. It was unfamiliar and different. I harboured a little nervousness but, with that, came excitement: new territory, new turns to negotiate, new towns to glimpse.

So, I jagged diagonally across Central and Western Victoria in defiance of the established road network radiating from Melbourne. I passed through hungry goldfields country, skirted the Grampians and traversed rich grazing lands. It was, in some ways, circuitous – many intersections, some counter-intuitive turns to the east or north, back roads between highways – but it was also direct – as close as you could get to the crow’s flight.

It was much more interesting than the usual route because of its novelty. It may have taken me to the same destination but the travel was lively and interesting – an exploration of previously un-traversed byways. Nothing was off the table – if a side road was suggested then I took it.

There wasn’t much traffic compared to the arterials heading back to the capital. Sometimes I travelled for significant periods without seeing another car. I felt like I was beating a new path that no one had travelled before. I was breaking new ground.

I arrived home, as designed, but was unusually uplifted by the journey. I’d seen new things, encountered new places and forged a new route. It wasn’t the comfortable way, or the easy way, or the normal way. It was better.

Until later,

Kirsten

Hospitality

I don’t have a coffee machine at home. There’s nothing stopping me – I could if I wanted to, and I don’t particularly object to them. It’s just never worked for me. If we’re going to imbibe, we visit the cafĂ©.

Recently, while away from home, I went to my preferred holiday outlet. The staff had changed (post-Covid, of course). While perfectly functional, they were not into that apparently elusive menu item called hospitality. While the coffee was still excellent, there was something missing.

It made me wonder why I have coffee at all. Perhaps I carry a caffeine addiction – that is not uncommon – but I suspect there’s more to it than that. Why do I always go to the same place where they know my name, my order and, often, where I tend to sit? Why do I feel so chuffed at getting a hug from one of the baristas after being away for a month? Why, while keeping out of their way while the staff are trying to work, do I love a quick chat if the opportunity arises? Why did one staff member, much to my delighted surprise, go to an exhibition of mine?

It has never occurred to me before (quite possibly I’m years behind) but the word hospitality is built on the word hospital. In its best sense, a hospital is a place that cares for people, makes them well. Hospitality does the same thing. It nurtures; gives security; begins, middles or ends the day with warmth. You don’t have to know the staff for hospitality to be given. For some workers, it’s a gift they share with all customers. That’s why I buy.

I think the coffee is immaterial. It’s merely an excuse. I might, in fact, order a second just so I can hang around.

Until later,

Kirsten

Judgement

So, we artists can bemoan and discuss the trepidation and vulnerability we feel at people judging our work when we ‘put it out there’. Not surprisingly, it’s a difficult thing to hang, or post, or produce what you feel is the best work you can do at the time and know the eye of the public is upon it. Judgement inevitably follows. Indeed, a wide range of responses results, from the overwhelmingly positive to the don’t say anything to the outright negative.

But we judge our own work too, possibly more harshly than anyone else. Judgement and a constructive ‘inner critic’ are, in the works of Mark McGuinness, what separate us from the league of amateurs. From tiny judgements about the shape of a mark to the big judgements about the quality of a finished work, the process is ongoing and vital.

But, it is a hard habit to break. I have recently undertaken to paint a large number of sketchbook-sized, meaningless, abstract experiments. The two rules? Just play and NO judgement; move through the process applying paint as the mood dictates and accepting the pieces that may be ugly, mistakes, stupid, embarrassing, too much like someone else’s, or just plain awful without attaching any of those labels. It is nearly impossible and takes great discipline or, perhaps more importantly, detachment. Just accept each one and carry on. It’s difficult and perhaps significantly against the grain.

I suppose judgement, in its purest form, is what guides us. It’s a word that has quite harsh connotations in our current age when directed towards others but, in essence and at its best, it keeps us safe, living our best lives and aiming for better.

Blogs, like artwork, can be judged too. Just putting it out there.

Until later,

Kirsten

Nothing is impossible

‘Nothing is impossible’. I actually don’t think I believe that. ‘Nothing’ is a big call. I also have great scepticism about sayings that promote the idea that, if you want something badly enough, you can get it. Perhaps I’m a cynic.

Having said that (and possibly dampened everyone’s spirits) I do think that many more things are possible than we might initially grasp. We shouldn’t be limiting ourselves to the obvious.

I was watching the tennis the other day and caught the post-match interview with Austrian, Dominic Thiem. He was questioned about his come-from-two-sets-down win. He spoke about being reminded to never give up and then turned us all upside down with the statement that ‘impossible is nothing’.

My immediate reaction was to put such a divine reversal of the hackneyed phrase down to Thiem speaking in his second/third/fourth language. The more I think about it, however, the more I wonder whether it was deliberate.

‘Impossible is nothing’: the concept of impossible is of no consequence, worthless, not to be worried about, undeserving of being any sort of limitation.

Short of running into Mr Thiem in the street and quizzing him, the real story behind the comment is a mystery that will remain unsolved but, when offered ‘nothing is impossible’ or ‘impossible is nothing’, I like the latter.

Thank you Dominic.

Until later,

Kirsten

Doing it deliberately

OK. So, probably much to my shame, I glanced at one of those stupid Facebook games. It was one of those grids filled with apparently random letters and the instruction was ‘the first three words you see will be your mantra for 2021’. Highly scientific and well-reasoned, OF COURSE!!!!! Nevertheless, I stumbled in to see what would pop up.

The first word I saw was POWER. I reckon they rig it so everyone sees that one. The third word was GRATITUDE. Valuable. It was the second word, however, that triggered my thoughts. It was PURPOSE.

Over the years, I have been to a couple of workshops with Melbourne painter Robert Knight. At one of these, he instructed that we should never apply a brush stroke unless we knew what it was going to do, how it would affect the whole. There was a deliberateness to his approach rather than just a flailing about. Effectively, he was mandating we paint with forethought and purpose.

This skill – of knowing how an application of paint is going to contribute to the work before it hits the canvas – is obviously one honed over decades of practice. In addition, I can’t quite apply it to all artistic practice and all media. It does, however, call us to work intelligently and with consideration. It calls us to create with purpose.

There are so many ways to slide from purpose in art to purpose in life. I don’t need to spell it out for you, or for myself. It is sufficient that we are reminded that PURPOSE is a thing, a deliberate act, a choice. And who knows? Perhaps it will even succeed in squeezing its way into some sort of resolution, or goal, for the year. Ha! Dare I say, Facebook wins again!

Until later,

Kirsten

Reset

I guess you’d say that things in my creative world have entered a difficult stage. I feel stale, there is a lack of quality in my painting, techniques that have served me well are proving not to be so reliable and I am frustrated by all those things.

So, I approached an artistic friend/teacher/mentor. (Jody Graham is her name and I encourage you to check out her work. Quite amazing drawing). I was seeking some guidance for how to, not just get through this period, but also to take the next step in the development of my practice. It is time to work to get better – enough of feeling like I’m standing still.

Jody’s advice was swift and directive. She prescribed limits. Restrictions. ‘Only draw what fits in your hand or only paint with two colours or paint using the back of a rubber thong or draw blindfolded every day for a month’. Jody advocated a drastic narrowing of the material options, coupled with a daily discipline, to open up more expansive possibilities.

I once mused, in this blog, about generalisation and specialisation. This is a time to specialise – to push hard in one area, to plumb the depths, to dig a deep hole in one place and mine whatever treasures may be found there. I have usually tended towards generalisation so this is a new and interesting path.

I’m sure there are applications of the sometime need to set limits, to shut down the breadth of options, in everyday life. Sometimes we compartmentalise in our minds – a method of dealing with overstimulation by setting the boundaries of what we will think about at a given time. Are there others? Now that we’re looking out for them we will probably see them everywhere.

Until later,

Kirsten

P.S. And for the record, for the next month I am going to paint only with watercolours, only with two types of insulating foam and a stick, and only concentrate on faces. Let’s see what happens!

Be a beginner

Much is discussed in the art world, and in works dealing with creativity more generally, about the gift children have of expressing themselves without fear or censure. Children draw with a freedom that is not weighed down with expectation or judgement, they speak honestly of their thoughts and their ideas are unfettered by silly practicalities.

Many writers warn against ever feeling like an expert. With expertise can come a belief that everything is known, that there is no more to learn. This is a static state and one that stops us in our tracks – forces us to repeat behaviours that have worked in the past and close our eyes to new possibilities.

Child-like vision is, of course, something to strive for in a creative life – in any life. Can we, as adults, burdened with our hopes, critical faculties and sometimes unrealistic aspirations capture some of the bright and shiny beginning-ness of childhood.

We learn most voraciously as a beginner but, somewhere in our teens, middle or older years, we move to avoiding things at which we feel less than competent. We like to feel in control, as if we are presenting a capable face both to the world and to ourselves, and we usually don’t feel comfortable fumbling around with uncertainty. We believe that because we are grown-ups we are meant to be able to do things.

Whether in a field in which we have some knowledge or in a completely new pursuit we should strive for that innocence of the young – that delight they take in whatever they do without feeling that they should be something else. We learn that feeling, or perhaps develop it within ourselves, in order to function in our world but we can still try – try deliberately and hard – to become excited beginners again.

Until later,

Kirsten

Telling the around

In art, negative space is the name given to the area around and between a subject. Conversely , positive space is the subject itself. Negative space and positive space meet at the edges. Together, the negative and positive define the image – give it shape.

I recently read Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. The title character is largely created through the stories of others: little vignettes of other people’s lives that are pasted, like a collage, and create or flesh out the character of Olive by sitting beside her – being, if you like, the negative space that firms up her edges.

So I am reminded, in my painting and drawing, to ‘tell the around’ as much as depict an object itself. The ‘around’ is the other side of the coin, the balancing factor, the limit. Its story is the other half of the whole. What isn’t is just as important as what is.

Until later,

Kirsten