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,



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,


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,


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,


Warring theories?

I’ve read a couple of books recently. One was The Middle Finger Project by Ash Ambirge. The other was How to be an Artist by Jerry Saltz. Both spoke about the way, or ways, to achieve a life as a creative.

Ash Ambirge had a challenging start but fought her way to life as a writer. One of her pieces of wisdom is that, in order to achieve goals in a creative field, one needs to be ‘radically self-reliant’.

Jerry Saltz is an art critic who has been immersed in the US art world for many years. One of his fundamental guidelines is that, in order to achieve goals in a creative field, one needs to be ‘radically vulnerable’.

Radically self-reliant? Radically vulnerable? My first reaction was to be amused at such disparate advice. How differently people in similar fields can think! As I digested the thoughts further, however, it became clear to me that self-reliance and vulnerability are two sides of the same coin.

In order to be willing to submit to, or to creatively survive, vulnerability one needs to be self-reliant. The presence of some degree of self-reliance allows one to ‘put it out there’ and be vulnerable. The two go hand-in-hand. Funny that two extremely different authors should each come up with half of the neat equation.

And the common addition of the word ‘radical’ adds the passion, excitement, determination and out-of-the-ordinariness that carving out any sort of creative, or any other, life asks of us.

Radically self-reliant. Radically vulnerable. We don’t have to choose. Be both.

Until later,


The stand-off

I walk through the studio and narrow my eyes at it. It stares back in a clear challenge to my authority. Even if I stop and give it a long, hard look, it is resolute in its defiance.

Who will win? In the words of that old TV gem, Iron Chef, ‘who will reign supreme?’ Will its chaos triumph and drive me to paint over it, or will I be victorious and press it into something worthwhile? The jury is definitely out.

Deep down, I fear I might be defeated this time but, by hell, I won’t be giving up without a fight. With layers and more subtlety, a strategic approach and a determination that I’ll dredge up from somewhere, I’ll give it a decent whirl.

It doesn’t have to happen today – I’m prepared for the long haul. Down the track I will either have a second-hand canvas primed for a new start, or a unique work ready for the framer. I am in the thick of a slow battle to see which it is. This will draw on every imaginative and artistic bone in my body – a challenge I hope I’m up for. And if, by chance, I come out on top, it will be a very special painting.

Until later,


Output and input

When I came to write today, I had to face the awful truth that I didn’t really have anything to say.

One might see this as an output problem – no ideas, no grand thoughts, no insights. I actually think it’s an input problem.

After a period of not much reading, of saving articles and interesting bits on the computer but not going back to digest the information, and a generally intellectually lazy time, I haven’t exposed myself to anything new. I’ve ground to a bit of a halt, mentally, and now it’s showing!

So it seems my task is to keep this post brief, find something bright and shiny to read and actually be inspired to think.

Until later,


Being friends

I decided recently, or perhaps I just finally realised, that having an art practice is having a friend.

Mine’s not too demanding – one might even say forgiving. It accepts times of inattention and superficial contact. It is patient. It remains constant during periods of my frustration and confusion, my indecision and fumbling.

An art practice is a long-term companion. It hangs around, present and comforting. It flourishes when we interact, as I do; retains its potential during all sorts of experimentation and failures; is stoic in the face of doubt. It celebrates with me and grows a little with each success.

It boosts me, inspires me to be better, draws out positivity and hope. It sits by me during long days and facilitates exciting opportunities.

My art practice is less something I do and more something I exist with. We walk together, often silently, sometimes joyously but always closely.

Until later,


There is a tension

For my family, Christmas is an important time – not in much of a commercial sense but as a perfect excuse to gather at our favourite place.

But although it is all a delightfully relaxed affair, I do harbour certain little rituals in the lead-up – the major one being that the fun of the Christmas preparations should (for me) be a December event (except the making of the cake ….. the earlier the better! Thank you, Mum xx). I do despair at the post-Hallowe’en Christmas influx in stores. Even the streets have already been decorated as the festive season becomes the fifth measurable period in the calendar.

But, I am a highly organised person and I have time on my hands. Therein lies the tension. It’s not even mid-November and I’m ready, set to roll, and already excited, notwithstanding the fact that celebrations this year, thanks to COVID, will look a little different. I hold the small selection of gifts, food, a box packed with essentials and a comforting collection of lists.

So, I’m laughing at my wanton disregard for my previous self-imposed discipline! So much for willpower. Haha! There is definite tension, an agonising betrayal of self.

But if that’s my biggest challenge for this month then I am, of course, the most fortunate of people!

Until later,

With a smile,


Crossing over

I ventured into Victoria yesterday. I was delivering a load of paintings to the owner of Koopman’s Gallery in Dunkeld. I could only travel seventy kilometres into the state so she met me at a little town called Coleraine where we exchanged the goods.

It was quite a procedure to get there: an early-morning application and subsequent approval from SA Police and a COVID test before departing with a requirement to repeat weekly. Once I’d surreptitiously handed over the art work (maskless – oops) I felt like I’d been involved in some clandestine drug deal.

It is certainly a bizarre time when Australian state borders are closed or have limited penetrability. We are so accustomed to freedom of movement in our country that the flashing ROAD CLOSED sign coming into South Australia was slightly disturbing. It was a reminder, in this state where the Coronavirus is partially disappearing into memory and social distancing seems a product of mere politeness, that the world is still in turmoil. Increasingly so.

I am yet to see today whether Victoria has had a third consecutive count of zero new cases. From afar, this seems like an extraordinary achievement. I have no doubt it has also been arduous. And long. And destructive. But, perhaps, successful. I am overwhelmed, can barely understand, the rates of infection in other parts of the world. May our isolation protect us a little.

And so, as I head to the studio to paint trees in crazy colours, I wonder whether I should be creating some sort of artistic response to this phenomenon that is, hopefully, a once-in-a-lifetime event. On the other hand, there are others better equipped to do that and trees are a little bit alive and hopeful. I’ll probably stick to the usual modus operandi, now that I think about it.

Until later,


Shining through

I made a mess of a painting the other day. That is not uncommon and, while frustrating, not a cause for undue alarm. Because canvasses are reasonably valuable, I need to try to re-use them if I can. Not surprisingly, the design on this particular canvas was bold so I needed to cover it up adequately before being able to begin something new.

My first step was to paint over it with black gesso. Gesso is a primer used to give a good painting surface to canvas. The black is effective at blotting out previous images and, although it takes several coats of white to reinstate a clean canvas, it is still my preferred option.

The black seemed to work as well as can be expected (no over-layer completely removes the textural remains of the first work. Visible shapes and raised lines hang around – ‘shadows’, if you like, of a work now lost). So, onto the white gesso – the first coat of three.

What I discovered, though, was colour bleeding through from underneath into the new layer. The more gesso I laid on and the more I brushed, the more colour was drawn to the surface. At first it was a hint, and then an undeniable hue. Eventually, I had a fully-blown abstract painting! Two things became obvious; firstly, one of the brands of ink I had been using was not sufficiently permanent and, secondly, gesso was not effective as a fixing medium.

So I began to wonder about us, human and ever-changing. How many layers do we need to apply, and will there ever be enough anyway, to hide our true colours? Will what we deeply are, what we are really feeling, escape the confines of over-painting and, eventually, rise to the outside – joyously or reluctantly, well-received or otherwise? Or, on the other hand, can we take a piece that is perhaps flawed and create something new without traces of what once was?

Food for thought.

And I won’t use those inks again.

Until later,


I’m sorry. I drifted off.

After years of unintentional, involuntary and, probably, inevitable practice, I have developed a disappointingly short attention span. They say that is the fairly universal truth of the modern world but I would have hoped to hold out longer than I have. I read headlines without delving further, can take in only a few pages of a book before getting distracted and rarely watch anything on the television that requires more than a cursory investment.

I received an email (I skimmed the majority of it) from a workplace guru that I follow called Chris Brogan who spoke of people’s desire, or need perhaps, for ‘just the facts’. Stories and elaboration lose people. The current mode in articles, blogs, seminars and the like, is to cut straight to the chase, hit the guts right from the off . Newspapers have been doing it for years with their clipped paragraphs and carefully structured format of material of descending importance. The rest of the world is simply catching up.

When it is necessary, I can still focus but it does require a discipline that perhaps it shouldn’t. I tend to ‘psych up’ before and rest afterwards. Remember, this is activity that used to come naturally and now requires intellectual wrangling to get into that space.

I imagine that if twenty-first century habits have been cemented by repetition then it could be possible, through concerted effort, to reverse the rot. A deliberate program of gradual extension of involvement in each activity will probably do the trick. I could get lost in a book again, watch a movie or paint all day.

But maybe tomorrow. I seem to have lost my enthusiasm!

Until later,


Taking a break

We’ve had a break. We’ve had a rest, taken a spell, stepped away. We’ve not done the things we normally do and, instead, done different stuff. We’ve packed up and headed away. We’ve also spent time at home but out of the usual routine. We’ve had a recess, experienced a hiatus, had a change of scenery and lived a life of different expectations.

A break. It can be a short cup of tea during a study session or a six-month haul of long-service leave. It can consist of sleep or travel or talk. It might mean eating different food or catching up in the garden. A break may be a physical relocation or a mental reduction of demand. A break may involve exercise, no exercise, hobbies, pleasurable pastimes or simply an alteration of activities. You can take a break from something and do nothing. You can also take a break from nothing and do something. You can take a break from work, from laundry, from stress and from boredom.

A break needs to end, I suppose. Otherwise, it becomes a change (which some say is as good as a holiday but that is yet to be quantified). We come back with different ways of looking and seeing. We may be energised and revitalised. We may have new perspective. We may have found clarity around decisions. We may feel restored (or we may feel exhausted from our unaccustomed activities). We may have fresh eyes, a new approach, bolstered enthusiasm or greater resilience.

It seems that taking a break is a powerful pursuit. Whether it is a short break during an hour or a day, or a longer recess during a year or two, a break seems to be essential for keeping us focussed and enjoying what we do.

But, you know, it’s now time for coffee.

Until later,

Bucket lists

The other day I was looking at a box that once contained beer. Printed on the outside was an invocation to enjoy your ‘Corona Bucket List’ which probably involved drinking the Mexican brew somewhere exotic. I’m unlikely to do that but it did get me thinking about the phenomenon of bucket lists.

The jury is out on when the term was coined but the general consensus is that it was, indeed, first used and popularised by the 2007 film of the same name. A list of things you want to do before you ‘kick the bucket’ is the premise. But what does the presence, or not, of a bucket list mean?

So, what are bucket lists for? Do they keep us moving forward? Perhaps they give structure to our planning. Do they guide decisions or provide topics for conversation? Are they a list of things to look forward to, something to hope for, or chronicles of exciting dreams? Are they a focus for financial saving or a great source of birthday present ideas? Are they inspiration for joyfully using up the inheritance money, a final, delightful fling? Do they serve to keep us young? And can a strongly-held and un-completed bucket list lead to disappointment in the world, oneself, resources available?

Are goals and bucket list items the same thing? I’m not convinced they are. Goals, perhaps, grow out of existing pursuits. Bucket list items, perhaps, are more discrete – certainly the image of a catalogue of one-off experience is the classic version.

I don’t think I have a bucket list. I used to have things I wanted to do – run a marathon (definitely missed my moment of enthusiasm there), walk the Camino de Santiago (not quite so keen now), go back to New Zealand or the UK (not, much to my very good fortune, new experiences). I haven’t got a hankering to jump out of a plane or try rock-climbing – although I don’t want to suggest that a bucket list needs to be a litany of adventure activities. Far from it. Maybe my bucket list consists of reaching a ripe, old age before I die!

A bucket list. What’s on yours? What are the steps you need to take to cross some of those off? Or maybe your direction and progress comes from other drivers. Interesting thinking.

Until later,


Face the world

I have been playing with portraits – firstly as part of a drawing project focussed on self-portraits and now in paint to get my brain/brush back in tune.

It’s given me time to think about portraiture in general. As an inveterate visitor to the Archibald Prize in Sydney each year (sadly, not in 2020), I have enjoyed the art form for some time. Having now dabbled – not even stepped on to the ladder; more like located it in the garage – I have been thinking about what a portrait should depict – indeed, what a portrait COULD depict.

The most obvious answer is a likeness; of the face and possibly extending to indication of the physicality of the subject. But is a face necessary? Several years ago, to some degree of consternation, Tim Storrier won the Archibald with a self-portrait without a face. On careful inspection, you could possibly see a face flying away in the wind with a sheaf of papers but it was not placed in the conventional setting by ANY stretch of the imagination. So, you could ask, is the physicality equally as important as the visage? Does it tell as much, or more, about the subject?

And even if we take the facial likeness as vital, what else can it show? I saw, in recent years, a portrait of Paul Little, former Chairman of the Essendon Football Club, who battled through the accusations of and investigations into the drugs scandal. This portrait depicted a broken man. Although the painting was utterly conventional, there was, emanating from it, the desperation and exhaustion of defeat.

So, while my new foray into painting is still struggling for a basic likeness, my drawn portraits are heading towards broader goals. What can we see? What is the emotional quality? What is the history? What is that instant secret that is given away – captured by the artist in a moment of connection? That’s certainly something to aspire to.

I’d better drag that ladder into the studio.

Until later,