Free Your Arse and Your Art will Follow
I am paraphrasing again – this time George Clinton [“Free your ass and your mind will follow”, Funkadelic 1970] but I could have easily titled this “Get up, stand up, stand up for your Art” and (while I am on a roll) misquoted Messrs Marley and Tosh [“Get, stand up, stand up for your right”, The Wailers 1973]. Of course there are no rules. Sometimes I stand, sometimes I sit and sometimes I perch on the edge of a tall stool, but I do mostly work at an easel instead of on my lap or at a desk. [note the easel must be tall enough, or it will make your back ache]. My choice of stance usually depends on what, or what part of, a piece I am working on, and how long I stand or sit may depend on what hangover from age or old injury is troubling me that day, but if I want to make more gestural marks, I stand up. If you want to go all eastern about it, according to Chinese lore sitting depresses your chi [qi] energy, while standing releases that energy and allows it to flow around your body and interact with your creative energy [qigong]. In any case, standing to draw or paint allows me to engage my whole body in the process.
There was a recent craze for standing to do any type of work, which was supposedly healthier though subsequent studies disproved the theory and instead concluded that any stationary position, whether sitting or standing is detrimental. But taking that a stage further, it is easier for me to move freely when I do stand than when my backside is glued to a chair. Standing also facilitates the catwalk or dance of regularly moving back from my artwork and taking an overall view. This in turn allows me to see where the proportions are not quite right in a drawing or to see the tonal and colour values working over a whole painting rather than just the area I am currently focused on. While standing back, half closing your eyes, turning the work sideways, upside down or looking at it in a mirror also helps identify any areas that are ‘off’.
Let me add another element, and this is one that I ‘discovered’ more through riding horses than through art. I say ‘discovered’, but have since read of others saying the same, which only goes to support my theories. Let’s try an experiment. Sit down and hold a pencil up in front of you at shoulder height. Now move it as though you are drawing on a canvas in front of you. You may move just from the wrist or from the elbow, but your shoulder will be bracing to anchor your arm and you can probably feel it in the underside of your upper arm. Now stand and do the same thing. You should feel your shoulder move in the standing position and your waist and hips are now taking on the anchoring role. You may find that you have less of a death grip on the pencil with your fingers and that the movement of the pencil has more flow and grace. In horse riding as a youngster I would constantly hear about people having ‘heavy hands’ as a cardinal sin, but no one ever explained to me how to have light hands. I saw people fixing their hands in an attempt to hold them still and magically make them light. I also saw people with an almost non-existent hold on the (usually sagging) reins in an attempt to find ‘lightness’. I most likely tried these approaches myself too, though as I usually ended up riding the nutters that no-one else wanted to, maybe not so much the second one. What no one explained was that the lightness of the hands comes from the support, strength and flexibility of the hips and the core muscles, not the hand itself. [If you want to read more about the connection of the core to the reins then Thomas Ritter’sArtistic Dressage blog is a good place to learn]. Now think of a ballet dancer. Firstly a class of three year olds standing in first position and raising one curved arm up in front, out to the side and then down. The movement would probably be jerky and the hand and arm held stiffly; then think of a professional ballerina doing the same: the movement would be smooth, elegant and seemingly effortless. Now stand up again and try to replicate both movements. To do the 3 year old version think of only moving your hand or wrist, then repeat ignoring your hand and wrist but using the elbow to initiate the movement, then repeat using your shoulder and if you are finding that easy try the hard one: initiate the movement by using your shoulder blade (it helps if you first allow your shoulder blades to sink down either side of your spine towards your hips and engaging your stomach muscles to support your core - think of pulling up a zip on a tight pair of trousers!). You should find that the closer to your core you initiate and support the movement, the lighter, freer and more gestural the movement: more like the ballerina. In horse riding we are of course ‘sitting’, though in dressage that ‘sitting’ aims to be more like my perch on my tall stool, so that is a skill in itself: to be able do this in a sitting position too. It is not impossible, but harder and less easy to sustain without practice and building of both mental and muscle strength.
In art if we can master gesture in all three positions (stand, perch and sit) then heigh ho, best of both worlds – the lighter feel and more gestural drawing or painting mark is just easier and more natural if you perch and easier still if you stand. Needless to say, standing is also more convenient for bopping about (another energy enhancer) to Funkadelic or any other favourite music that I have playing on my headphones or in the studio. . . which might just be the subject of next week’s blog.