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.

‘Fast asleep’

Rediscovering the pleasure of linocuts

artist’s proof (with misprint)

the inked lino block – too lazy/mean to glue it to a rigid support, hence the curvature

Pastoral (or carrion)

This is the first linocut I’ve done for ages; it’s also the biggest one I’ve done – 15″ x 5″. The image came to mind last week, from wherever images come from, and lino seemed like the best medium to use.

in progress

Printed by burnishing with the back of a spoon – I never manage even pressure, hence the patchy edge.

linoprint – artist’s proof

The end of the beginning

Yesterday I added as a (rather long) post and as a page (for posterity!) Beginnings and Endings, the last of the accumulated stories that were my reason for starting this blog. So there may be a bit of a lull now, while I figure out what to do next. On the other hand I may already be addicted to this. Anyway I thought I should say thanks to the little group who have ‘followed’ me.

To anyone who is reading this, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the things I’ve put here so far. Before I started this blog I thought of it as just a way of putting stuff out there in the hope that it might be seen. But I have realised that blogging is not so much about publishing as about joining a conversation. The readers are all writers too (the magic of the internet), and, having cleared my backlog, I’m going to be more of a reader than a writer for a bit I expect. I’m looking forward to finding more gems out there. 🙂

Linocut: Reading


Copyright © 2014 Fliss Watts

The long walkers

A very short story:

None of them knew how long they had been walkers. Once there had been a librarian who walked with them, pushing his rickety handcart, full of its accumulation of little books called ‘diaries’, ‘calendars’, knotted string and notched sticks, piled on top of the even older volumes saved from the time before. He had tried so hard to keep a record of the days, by whatever means available, as the world changed.

He would read to them in the long evenings, myths and stories, songs and incantations, random fragments from their past. They called out for their favourites – ‘we want Riddles in the Dark, we want St Crispin’s Day! We want Closing-down sale.’ They liked the rhythms of the orphaned words, whose faded, floating meanings evoked long lost magics: ‘refrigerator’, ‘television’, ‘discount’, ‘door’.

They had buried him in the end, along with his cart, as it was ‘not to be removed from Sainsbury’s’.* And no one else could see the point of dragging the awkward thing around, full of useless objects. They had left the once-smooth roads long since, as the tarmac turned to potholes and the places the roads took them were emptied of scavenge-able stuff or disappeared under rising waters.

They marked the grave with a cairn and carved his symbol on an ancient tree nearby. They thought he would have wanted that. A song was written to remember Sainsbury and his place. Those were the best-kept records now, songs and skills, repeated, stored in minds and bodies, in rituals. But even they could be corrupted, and Sainsbury’s song named no place they could find again, if they had wanted to. Ancient trees will fall, with wind and winters; cairns subside.

The brief span of linear time was ended, that age of progress, of permanent change, of growth and destruction, of borders and wars, of history. The world returned to its eternal circling, summers come and go and come again, nothing new under the sun. The walkers wandered, passing and re-passing. Sometimes Sainsbury’s song was sung, and for a while the librarian walked with them again.


*For international readers, Sainsbury’s is a British supermarket chain.

Copyright © 2014 Fliss Watts