Why are you painting now?

We are living in unprecedented times, as people keep saying. We are in a state of constant emergency. We rush towards ecological collapse while worrying about ‘rebuilding the economy’ once the pandemic has brought our system to its knees. A renewed anger in the face of institutional racism fills the streets, overriding any instructions to ‘stay home’. Our politicians seem to be handpicked to do a bad job on the most urgent issues, while they pursue absurd self-inflicted quests for border walls and Brexit.

The sense of obligation to ‘do something’ felt by many of us is expressed mainly in signing petitions and sharing things on social media. We try to be diligent recyclers, eat less meat and use public transport when we can, donate to good causes – all those individual actions which feel so ineffectual when what is needed is system change.

Some braver and more committed souls dedicate themselves to serious activism – they march for change and camp out in trees to hold back the bulldozers. They give up their life plans in hope or despair for a better future.

How can I then sit in my ‘studio’ painting still lifes and wishing for the pandemic to end so that I can get someone to sit for a portrait again? Surely all art should somehow be addressed to these emergencies? Though I am inclined to think polemical art, art with a ‘message’, is usually bad art, does that matter? How can some idea of the self-sufficiency of ‘Art’ (ars gratia artis) outweigh the urgency of the climate crisis, the vast injustices of racism and colonialism? Check your privilege, indeed!

No answer I’m afraid, just a confession that, in spite of everything, I am still sitting here looking at stuff, putting more paint on (reused) surfaces. Feel free to attribute meaning if you like.

in progress
in progress
drapery, oil on board, 2020

Ramblings on ‘originality’, and a wasp

(Notes for a zoom discussion with a small group of local artists)

Originality in art – what is it? Does it matter? Who exemplifies it?

Relevant words/concepts: ‘derivative’ (a bad thing), ‘in the school of’ (neutral), ‘there’s nothing new under the sun’.

What is originality?

  • doing something that hasn’t been done before – in subject matter, or method or medium
  • not imitative
  • not formulaic
  • breaking the accepted rules of a practice or medium
  • using a new medium
  • doing something that is new for the maker? that is, does it matter whether the work is similar to something already existing if the artist was not aware of that thing? This goes back to the first bullet above – ‘something that hasn’t been done before’ by whom? The individual, the local culture, humanity as a whole?

Does it matter? If so, why? Is it more important/’better’ to do a new thing than to do an old thing well? If originality matters in art, why is reproducing reality, and particularly photorealism, so popular? How does the concept of originality relate to that of creativity?

Is originality prized by the art market because it implies rarity and hence financial value?

Exemplar: Tim Knowles (see http://www.timknowles.co.uk/)

  • I came across this artist years ago when I googled ‘tree drawing’, looking for drawings of trees. His work (including drawings by trees) stuck in my head ever since, and luckily google found him again.
  • his work uses natural phenomena (including people) to translate movement in through space/time into images – traces, time lapse photographs – very different results/methods but unified by a single intelligence.

Other exemplars proposed during the discussion:

Picasso (especially Les Demoiselles d’Avignon) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Les_Demoiselles_d%27Avignon

Yayoi Kusama https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/yayoi-kusama

And then one of our group found this (not really a debate – just two responses to the question): https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/article/magazine-debate-originality-overrated


distinctiveness and individuality are important …. Perhaps those attributes, however, are a bit like destinations in Alice Through the Looking Glass: you get where you want to go more quickly by setting off in another direction.


If art is to be life-changing, it must break the rules, even if we find that unsettling…

True originality in art can never be overrated….we should all engage with even the most unsettling experiences that originality in art provides. Nothing is more depressing than the attitude of viewers who approach innovative work with all their prejudices rigidly intact, refusing to accept that art has a fundamental right to defy even our most hallowed preconceptions. If the importance of originality is not recognised, academicism becomes rampant, repetitive dullness prevails and artists lose their crucial ability to renew our vision of the world with outstanding, revelatory verve.

Which led me to this reaction:  

Gayford and Cork seem to be talking past each other. Gayford approaches it from the artist’s perspective while Cork is talking more about reception – and that may explain why they answer the question differently. It doesn’t make sense for an artist to ‘try and be original’ as their main goal (because it’s too abstract and it implies you have to learn about the whole of art history first in order to know whether you are being original). But a viewer may be looking for the new, or the original, when they go to the gallery.

Cork finds it necessary to point out that originality is not the preserve of the young and gives several examples of artists whose late work was ground-breaking. I’d think that ‘true originality’ (though that’s a loaded phrase – what would ‘false originality’ look like?) is likely to arise after someone has developed their skills and applied their mind to an artform and then chosen to pursue their own path, whether that means breaking with or continuing a tradition.

If we think of other art forms such as music, I suspect that rule-breaking is not necessary for a work to be ‘life-changing’. Cork’s view seems to imply that originality cannot be a feature of any individual work that is part of a tradition, which again ties the concept to an art historical context, and suggests that you can’t have originality without a tradition whose rules can be broken, and only an informed audience can recognise. And surely what is ‘life-changing’ or ‘revelatory’ will depend on the viewer as much as on the innovativeness of the work. Part of what was life-changing for Picasso seems to have been exposure to art from the traditions of other cultures. It was new to him and this fed into his own (from a European point of view) revolutionary art.


When I was at art school, one of our tutors (whose remit was the more abstract/conceptual end of the course, as opposed to figurative drawing and modelling) used to irritate us students by saying, when we had explained our idea for an assignment, ‘have you seen the work of so-and-so?’, thereby pointing out that something like what we had thought of doing had already been done. At the time this seemed distinctly unhelpful. I don’t want the wind taken out of my sails by seeing someone else’s similar approach. But these days, having been inspired by Lucian Freud in trying to paint, if anyone said, your work is a bit like Freud, I’d be extremely pleased! What’s wrong with attempting to following a master?

And because words are boring without pictures here’s something I did recently which I haven’t done before. The wasp found its way into my bedroom, buzzing loudly and then died. So I drew it, and then made a linocut.

wasp, charcoal and pastel
wasp, linocut, with date added because this feels like an important time

Keep well everyone.


Some qualities of a drawn line (in no particular order and not necessarily distinct):




Curvature – straight/simple/wavering

Speed of gesture


Regularity of tone/variation of tone

Scale of variation in curvature (see speed)





Possible combinations of qualities:


A straight fine, dark line

A simple smooth curve, varying from dark to light

A soft pale wavering line

A hard, dark, jagged, fast scribble

A complicated curve of varying intensity


Each combination suggests/implies a different bodily action or feeling: a tight or a loose grip of the drawing tool, a fine movement of the fingers or a large movement of the arm, a slow or a fast gesture, considered or unplanned mark-making, a gentle stroke or an angry scrawl …

It’s a good thing we aren’t consciously thinking about all these things when we draw. Here are some recent abstract-ish drawings, starting from fairly random lines and seeing what happens:

Ripples – lines generate surfaces – surfaces imply depth

Fissure – pencil and Chinese white on tinted paper

Unidentified fragmentary object

Drawing: adding and taking away

Note to self, on rubbing out:

As a child, you want to rub it all out ‘cos it’s all wrong! Start again from scratch or screw it up and throw it away in a fit of temper.

Later, when drawing from life, you think: don’t rub everything out; the ‘wrongness’ can only be in the relationships between marks, so you need to choose which of them to adjust. And don’t rub out before you have corrected the error, because it is a marker to work from. If you take it away you may just repeat the error, i. e. redraw the line in the same place.

Ideally, you think, never rub anything out – each mark should be a considered mark of observation worth keeping (this is a vain pose).

Then (lastly?) you recognise that the eraser is a positive tool – creating light, adjusting a line, balancing tone, making more precise etc. Taking away can be just as creative and selective and considered as adding a mark (this would be obvious if you started from the position of a carver).

And singular precision of line (as opposed to multiple exploratory wanderings) can also be worth pursuing. It’s all a matter of choice and awareness, of not automatically following a knee jerk reaction but being able to recognise that reaction and choose whether to go with it or not.

Digital doodles

I recently succumbed to the pressure of the 21st century and got my first smart phone. It didn’t take long to find a free drawing app, so I’ve been playing, and thinking about the difference between drawing on a screen and drawing on paper.

I bought a cheap stylus in the hope of gaining more precision, but it turns out not to be any better than my finger, so my doodling involves a degree of randomness due to the fingertip obscuring the point of contact. This lack of control isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it may compensate for the lack of expressiveness of the digital line – constant in thickness and intensity (unless you use one of the pen options that have a programmed ‘angle’ of nib – these are still unexpressive of the artist’s gesture because the variation is determined by direction on the surface rather than any personal input).

The regularity of the line and of its perfect rounded end is uninteresting to the eye, and cannot show the speed or force of the drawing. So any liveliness in the image probably comes from inaccuracies and scribbliness in the drawing – you have to find the line by trial and error. This is compounded by zooming in and out to draw details like eyes – it’s hard to get them looking right when you can only see one at a time!

The contact with the screen is textureless – very different from drawing on paper – but that very slickness might be one of the things that make screens so seductive to interact with. They offer a sense of ease and power – all the things we can do with a swipe of the hand!

None of this is meant as criticism of the app – and there are probably other programs that don’t have these features. Rather it is making me think more about what is important in any drawing – the degree to which it can reveal the personal intention, thought or feeling of the artist in subtle (usually analogue) ways, in strong or faint marks, confident or tentative, forceful or delicate. (This is similar, though not identical, to the difference between a handwritten note and a typed one – no ‘handwriting’ font can convey what real handwriting can.) People sometimes talk about ‘mark-making’ – is this what they mean?

Anyway, here are some exploratory doodlings from my phone, restricting myself to the ‘pen’ and ‘pencil’ and eraser, and avoiding the complications of colour.


dream image – shrine/omen

coming or going


Thinking about false assumptions (or: wittering on…)

I have a natural inclination to look for clarity in writing and ‘accurate’ observation in art – are these mistakes? Or lack of imagination?

I am only just beginning to realise that/how/why obscurity, abstraction (and invention?) are important too. The ‘clearer’ a statement, the more ‘true to reality’ an image seems to be, the easier it is to pass over them without engagement, to leap to a conclusion. You get it (label it) and move on. Been there, done that, bought the t-shirt.

But if you want to provoke a reader to think, not just to accept what you say uncritically, if you want the viewer to pay attention, to look hard, maybe obscurity, unclarity, is a good thing. Something that makes you ask ‘what’s going on here?’ Something that breaks the flow, stops the eye, makes you go back and look again, think again. (Is this why ‘decorative’ was a bit of a dirty word at art school and  ‘nice’ or ‘lovely’ are damning with very faint praise, because a ‘nice’ thing won’t make us stop and think?)

It’s not just about tricks of the trade, speaking softly so people have to listen, manipulating an audience. If art is about the doing more than the product, this means that you have been provoked to thought yourself. The eye, the mind, that must be engaged and surprised is yours, the writer, the maker. And sometimes playing, not planning, is the best thing to do. Exploring, not arriving. Suspending judgement.

To assume that you can express a thought ‘clearly’, or a perception ‘accurately’ may be the basic error, to fall for Descartes’ myth of ‘clear and distinct ideas’.

The flowing line needs interruption, the glib, ‘self-evident’ thought needs examination. Facility à facile?

The unexpected, the unpredictable is what engages, what interests us.

Even when what you are trying to do is render how something really appears to you, you have to look beyond your assumptions, formulas, clichés, etc., because ‘truth is stranger than fiction’. Drawing what you see, not what you expect to see.


I’ve often been uncomfortable with the emphasis on ‘originality’ in art. It seems like a terrible burden to place on an artist or student – to do something no one’s ever done before. And doing something new for the sake of newness always seemed a mistake to me.

But if the unexpected, the surprising, is what engages us, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe being original is the point? Certainly, seeing something you’ve never seen before or meeting an idea that never occurred to you is part of what we value in art or writing.

But (another ‘but’) it’s that ‘for sake of’ that is the problem, I think. Making originality the goal is useless because it implies nothing positive. ‘Just don’t repeat.’ So do we have to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of art history before we begin, to make sure it hasn’t been done before?

We don’t want to be derivative, ideally; in that sense we want to be original, which means to think for ourselves, to address the world as we see it, and ask our own questions. Whether that results in something that other people would see as ‘new’ is a different matter (that’s probably part of what distinguishes the ‘great’ from the rest of us). In any case, what other people see as new depends on what they have seen before (just as whether an artist’s work is derivative depends partly on what they are familiar with – similarity to someone else’s work you’ve never seen can’t be derivative of that work).

Originality in the sense of ‘unlike what has gone before’ or ‘new to the world’ may matter to the well-informed receiver, but for the maker originality must about how they personally arrive at the work. They find something out by doing it. Copying is (usually) unoriginal, not because the result looks like the thing copied, but because the copier is letting the source do their thinking or looking. (A bad copy isn’t more original because it looks less like the source than a good one, though it may be more interesting to look at.)

Well, dear imaginary reader, you may be thinking ‘this is all so obvious – we’ve heard it all before!’ – but I feel as though I haven’t thought about these things before in quite this way, so that’ll have to do. Now here are a couple of drawings – enjoying pencil on paper.

fantasy geology

fantasy archaeology – hole in a wall

Disagreeing with John Berger

I had an interesting conversation the other day, about art, education, etc. and, after declaring my (tongue in cheek or not) desire to become a full-time portrait painter, I was handed a book of essays by John Berger (John Berger Selected Essays, ed. Geoff Dyer), bookmark on p. 98, at a short article from 1967 about why portrait painting is defunct. The opening line being:

‘It seems to me unlikely that any important portraits will ever be painted again.’

This, of course, stuck in my head. Maybe it could be dismissed as outdated and irrelevant (1967 after all was before Lucian Freud became a grand old man of figurative painting and a time when Berger could write entirely in terms of ‘men’ without a raised eyebrow). But it stuck, as it raises the question of whether the thing that I have always been most drawn to in terms of sculpture and painting is at best anachronistic and at worst, as his argument develops, politically incorrect.

Berger talks about portraiture as an institution in a particular social context, with a function we don’t (or shouldn’t) want/need any more. He defines portraiture as the creation of images/likenesses of people (particularly men it would seem) to ‘underwrite and idealize a chosen social role of the sitter’ (p. 100) and argues that it has become redundant now that we have photographs to get likenesses and social roles do not function in the same way in our individualistic society. Today there is no point in painting portraits, he claims, and he sees ‘no reason to lament’ their passing.

This sounds very bad for anyone who wants to paint individual people, as individuals, and who cares at least partly about ‘getting a likeness’. But I don’t think it’s as bad as it sounds. Berger is talking about ‘portraiture as a genre’ and he says, in considering this genre, ‘it is no good thinking of a few extraordinary pictures but rather of the endless portraits of the local nobility…’ etc. The great painters, Rembrandt, David, Goya, he says, painted portraits that are not to be included in the genre of professional portrait painting, because they are ‘in fact works of self-discovery’. So his attack on portraiture seems to slide from a sweeping claim that ‘no important’ portraits will ever be painted again, to a narrower rejection of a genre practised by hack painters ‘who never went beyond the stereotype’ or a few ‘good professionals’ whose paintings still accepted and confirmed social status. It seems that it is this embeddedness in a social hierarchy that he most objects to and sees as outdated. And the most ‘important’ portrait paintings actually would escape his critique because they escape the bounds of the genre as he defines it.

So his argument applies to a historically defined role for portraiture, not to the treatment of individual persons as a subject matter for art. His critique suggests that any good paintings of people from the past (Rembrandt, etc.) don’t count as ‘portraiture’ in his sense – and portraits from the past that do count are generally pretty bad anyway. No wonder he does not lament them.

But does that mean that today there is no point in painting pictures of people?

Berger recommends that people who can paint portraits should use their talent ‘to serve a more urgent, modern function’ than portrait painting. This raises another point of disagreement, namely, with the ideas that art has a ‘function’ (or artists a kind of social duty) and, perhaps even more curious, that this function can be ‘modern’, and that it constrains the allowable subjects of art.

In another essay in the same volume, Berger talks about drawing. Its opening paragraph speaks powerfully about the process of drawing as discovery, but he distinguishes drawing from ‘painting a “finished” canvas or carving a statue’. ‘A drawing is essentially a private work, related only to the artist’s own needs’, while the finished work is public, related to ‘the demands of communication’. Again, Berger seems to see the ‘finished’ art as primarily functional.

I can only speak for myself, but this distinction seems wrong. For me at any rate, whether drawing, painting or modelling the same motive of discovery prevails, discovery of the subject of observation, discovery of the capacity of the medium and of my own handling of it. The public, communicative aspect only arises afterwards, if at all. The activity of looking and reacting to what one observes, in charcoal or paint or ink or clay, is the fundamental thing. The work produced is in a sense a side effect of an addiction to the practice.

If an artwork must have a function, why should it not be careful attention to an individual human being?

To return to Berger’s discussion of portraiture, he concludes, ‘it seems that the demands of a modern vision are incompatible with the singularity of viewpoint which is the prerequisite for a static-painted “likeness”. … Individuality can no longer be contained within the terms of manifest personality traits. In a world of transition and revolution individuality has become a problem of historical and social relations, such as cannot be revealed by the characterizations of an already established social stereotype.’

This seems to contain so many questionable assumptions it’s hard to know where to start. First, that there is a ‘static viewpoint’ in any portrait painting – the painter is not like a single lensed camera fixed on a tripod taking in a simultaneous image of the whole subject. The act of painting takes time and involves movement and communication between the artist and the sitter – the painting will always be an amalgam of multiple impressions and discoveries. Second, that the aim of the portrait is to ‘contain individuality’. This suggests a kind of conclusiveness, the idea that a portrait somehow aims for a complete and final representation of the subject, but that is obviously impossible. It surely has to be rather an expression of this particular interaction between subject and artist. To that extent Berger is right – individuality is a relational and changeable thing.

The genre of portraiture as status-driven and in the service of a fixed social structure is clearly worthy of critique, but surely it always was. Was the revelation of individuality ever just a matter of characterizing a stereotype?

So it seems to me that by Berger’s own definition of portraiture there will never be any more important portraits, but there probably never have been. But that says nothing about whether or not one should attempt to paint people.

‘let the task be master: which is only not to choose to do anything but what has chosen me to be done.’ John Crowley, Engine Summer

Indian ink, drawing what is at hand
Indian ink, drawing what is at hand

(Here’s an irrelevant image – I suspect drawings of animals would be even more dubious than portraiture in Berger’s view.)

Art and economics – a rambling

Some people are driven to make things, to paint pictures, to make sculpture, etc. These are activities that often are engaged in for their own sake, not as a means to an end, like wealth or security. They are definitely not high on the careers officer’s list of job recommendations.

Some people value the products of these activities and may be willing to spend money on them, if they have money to spare on such luxuries. Many of the people in the latter group are also in the former (at least that is how it seems to me) – which is a problem in economic terms. Clearly if only artists buy art, the system cannot support itself; exchanging art for art cannot produce a surplus to pay for more mundane necessities. Unless there are some non-artists spending enough money on art it is an unsustainable practice, or at least it can only continue if the makers of art either do something else as well to make a living, making their art more like a hobby, or are independently wealthy themselves. It seems that both the making and the owning of art must be seen as luxuries.

Must we accept then that the possibility of some people making art as their primary activity is dependent on an art market ultimately funded by the rich? On wealthy patrons (or wealthy artists) whose taste will therefore determine what is made and who makes it? That is, is the art world we have got, with galleries and collectors at the top selecting the lucky few artists whose work is deemed good enough to invest in, the only way it can be?

A fantasy world:

There are jobs that are essential to this fantasy world, which are shared among its fantasy citizens. Everyone who is able has to do some essential work (from growing food to caring for elderly neighbours perhaps), in exchange for a fantasy citizen’s wage, but this leaves them some spare time to do other, non-essential things. Maybe some people use their spare time to do other jobs to increase their income.

Some people make things in their spare time, not to increase their income but just because they choose to. All the things they make are put in a library of things, from which people can borrow the things. The makers whose things are borrowed most often are rewarded by being given more time to make more things. That is, they are released from some of the essential jobs – or rather their making is recognised as part of the essential work. Because in this fantasy world, art is not seen as a luxury but as a necessary part of the good society, to be accessible to all. And incidentally, money is not the primary reward – that is time.

(I did say it was a fantasy world…)

And here’s an irrelevant image:

Lino print: Curious Cow

Copyright ©2014 F. Watts

Notes to self: Learning to paint etc.

When modelling in clay, avoid smearing the clay about, or automatically, arbitrarily, smoothing out all the tool marks, etc. Smearing produces an unintended, uncontrolled form (and combined with smoothing, usually a lumpy and uninteresting surface). Instead I want to add or remove clay in response to an observation or an intention.

As in drawing, so in modelling and in painting, each mark, each piece of clay, each brushstroke, ought to be part of an act of seeing, of paying attention to the subject and the work.

So practise, practise … so that the medium becomes a familiar tool to enable that act of seeing, not a hindrance to it. As familiar as this pencil or the hand that holds it.Photo1553

And another thing: don’t hunt for something ‘meaningful’ or ‘significant’ to paint. It isn’t really about the content, or even the form; the significance is in the paying attention.


A dialectic for would-be artists

So you want to be an artist – i.e. to spend as much time as possible making stuff, learning how to do it better, making more stuff, … But how to live in the meantime?

Catch 22 #1: you can’t make a living as an artist until you are skilled at it, but it’s hard to get skilled at it while making a living any other way.

Catch22 #2: much of what makes the work worth doing is doing it for its own sake, but if you can make a living at it you’re now doing it for the money instead … and if you deliberately aim at saleable work it will probably lose what intrinsic value it had, if any, because you will have subordinated your own vision to that of an imagined, and necessarily generic, ‘market’.

Catch 22 #3: marketing is not the skill you have or want to develop but it seems to be at least as necessary for the ‘making a living’ thing, and even if you have it, doing it steals time/energy from making stuff.

(That’s what galleries and agents are for, isn’t it? – But you can’t get them to sell your stuff without selling yourself to them…)

Catch 22 #4: artists and would-be artists often lean to the left and identify with the unempowered, but to earn a living from your art you need buyers, and art buyers must have money to spare for unnecessary things like art.

Catch 22 #5: you secretly believe that the best thing about art is doing it, not having it, so how can you justify selling things? Clearly you should be helping other people be artists, making a living teaching or working in the community… But then you are back to Catch 22 #1.

[And yes I am in the middle of open studio weeks 😀 ]