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The Terrors of Nightmares, Monsters and Blank Sheets of Paper

First published Wednesday, 24 February 2016

I remember from school an art teacher saying that there was nothing as scary as a blank sheet of paper. Nighmares, Zombies, Werewolves and meeting the prospective mother-in-law for the first time aside, they do have a point. Staring at that blank sheet of paper I wonder where to start, in reality staring at my own inability to succeed, and the more I stare, the more my will to begin is sucked into that figurative black hole. Suddenly I must have every pencil super sharp, I need a cup of coffee, then a cigarette, I must check to see if I have had any new emails, tweets or Facebook messages in the past 30 seconds. Even the washing up, housework or the dreaded ironing seem like attractive pastimes. The stark blankness of the sheet leaches all the confidence out of me, and more than proportion or rendering or accuracy, confidence is key to artistic mark-making.

As artists usually work in isolation there is no one but myself to insist I get on with it as there is in my life drawing class. I do have strategies though, my weekly life drawing habit being one. It is about so much more than an attempt to capture the likeness of a nude. The one to three minute warm up exercises practice more than observational drawing, learning proportion, capturing movement, rendering a likeness, or being able to assess and reproduce tones. They teach me to just get on and draw, making the first mark without questioning, second-guessing or letting the brain interfere. So Strategy number one is:

1. Go to life drawing (or a plein air) class regularly and train yourself to learn to look and to get on with it without questioning the mark before you have even made it.

2. Strategy number two is to stop the paper being blank, even if that is just standing your coffee cup on it. Hell, spill the coffee if you want to. Look at the work of Horst Janssen if you want to see that a coffee cup ring does not exclude your work from exhibition.

3. Put some music on. I mentioned this in a previous post. I have certain pieces of music that inspire or motivate me, and others that get my feet moving (which must be hard wired to the creative bit of my brain as it seems to kick start that too). Some I have played so often that I am now hard-wired to want to draw or paint when I hear them.

4. Take a bus ride. No seriously, something about sitting inactive while the land or cityscape passes by really does lull the critical brain and stir the creative brain – just remember to take a sketch or notebook. (nb another variant of this is taking a bath, but that is hard to do in the sink at my studio and the sketchbook tends to get wet).

5. Throw paint (preferably at paper or canvas). A variant of strategy 2, and you may as well try some abstract art, right?

6. Scribble or doodle – anything to get your hand, creative brain and pencil moving . . . and a scribble or doodle is throwaway. It doesn’t matter if it is not perfect. Come to think of it, it doesn’t matter if your painting is not perfect either.

7. Look at art. Get the books out (stay off the internet). Collect images in a scrapbook that catch your eye and inspire. They don’t have to (and shouldn’t) inspire you to copy, just inspire you to be creative when you leaf through them.

8. I know I said social media and the internet should not be used as procrastination, but through Facebook in particular I have ‘met’ and made friends with some wonderful artists all over the world. A select few of these have proven themselves firm friends and virtual studio partners offering honest critiques, tips, hints, encouragement, support, friendly ragging and arse-kicking through closed groups or private messaging. Thanks guys – you know who you are.

9. Ok so the practical strategy: make a plan and timetable for the painting or drawing. Breaking the piece down into parts can make to easier to get going, and writing it down on a calendar or in a diary is like a promise or intention to do it and somehow it gets done almost by itself. eg get the piece drawn up and blocked in/under-painted on Monday, paint in the sky or background on Tuesday, then the (horse’s) muzzle, nose and eye painted on Wednesday etc etc. It is not set in stone and sometimes I change the ‘promises’ as I go along but it is setting out as a start. Be careful with this one though. Set manageable tasks or you will further demoralise yourself. It is better to start off learning how much you are capable of within a certain timeframe by setting too little in the tasks at first. Then you can be pleased or even surprised when you achieve them early. Even now this happens sometimes and I feel like I have been given a mini holiday. When it happens I sometimes choose to have some ‘me-time’. Maybe I will go to the coffee shop to write in my journal, maybe go for a ride on my horse or maybe I will be further inspired by my ‘free-time’ to get out my sketchbook or even carry on working to get ahead for tomorrow’s task.

10. The final strategy in my ‘top-ten’ comes from a workshop that I attended with talks and demonstrations by a well-known US based equestrian artist. One of her pieces of advice was to spend some time writing before painting or drawing. These blog posts are by-products of this strategy, but I have also started to use a journal to write (and sketch and doodle) about individual pieces and what I am trying to achieve or the feelings I am trying to emote in them. I am addicted to doing this now so thank you to her.

These are not prescriptive practices that you must adhere to. They are just suggestions of some things that have worked for me in the past either on their own or in combination. I am sure you have much better suggestions than mine and please feel free to share them in the comments below. Let’s take number eight to heart rather than continuing to work in isolation.

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The contents of this article or blog are not intended to amount to advice and you should not rely on any of the contents of this article or blog. Professional advice should be obtained before taking or refraining from taking any action as a result of the contents of this article or blog. Ruth Buchanan disclaims all liability and responsibility arising from any reliance placed on any of the contents of this article or blog.

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