Here’s an article I penned recently when I was asked to make the argument for experimentation in an artist’s practice.
“I wonder what kind of an artist you are or want to be? Do you ever consider it? Or do you just start an artwork same as you always do?
I admit to being a “troubled”, “unsettled” sort of an artist – and one with an incredibly low boredom threshold. It stops me in my tracks should I ever consider painting the same thing twice in succession. I can’t help it but I never settle to start a painting without revisiting that initial question – why am I doing this? What do I want to achieve? And how? Why am I an artist at all? I ask myself these things again and again in all seriousness because I don’t want to just do the easy thing and to stop myself from doing it. I never get past that question but it always puts me in the right frame of mind to begin with.
You may know already in what high regard I hold Richard Diebenkorn. If you’re not familiar with him or his approach to starting work I really recommend you look at his “Notes to self”*. Personally I aspire to his dicta knowing I could never achieve them……. but they keep me sane and fresh and madly in love with painting. You could well do worse than summarise them as “art for art’s sake”. Such a pity the phrase has become a stock cliché.
I was asked to make the case for Experimentation. To my mind its value in art is incalculable and beyond any doubt, but you might be surprised that I don’t consider myself experimental at all …. well not on the same scale of your average Turner prize wannabee anyway! But experimentation with a small “e” yes. Variety is central to everything I do. Never satisfied with the last thing I did I am always looking to change – make marks with different things, different media, different support, different size/shape, less paint more paint, limited palette, tonal variations of one single colour, incomplete composition, no composition, paint the frame, leave bare canvas, one touch, finger painting, splatter – you name it I try it, and I’m always adding to it. The same applies to when I paint, where I paint, how I paint – sitting, standing, lying down, in bright light, in darkness, music on/music off, squinting, one eyed, fast, slow etc etc. It all helps switch off my conscious mind – essential for me. And don’t even get me started on subject matter!!
These things are what I call experimentation. I know on some level it’s all petty and pretty idiotic but however small it all helps. Keeps me from stale. Try it!”
*”Notes to myself on beginning a painting” by Richard Diebenkorn
- Attempt what is not certain. Certainty may or may not come later. It may then be a valuable delusion.
- The pretty initial position which falls short of completeness is not to be valued – except as a stimulus for further moves.
- DO search.
- Use and respond to the initial fresh qualities but consider them absolutely expendable.
- Don’t “discover” a subject – of any kind.
- Somehow don’t be bored but if you must, use it in action. Use its destructive potential.
- Mistakes can’t be erased but they move you from your present position.
- Keep thinking about Pollyanna.
- Tolerate chaos.
- Be careful only in a perverse way.