Growing up in a household where art materials were plentiful–thanks to my mother’s vocation as an artist and art teacher–I started drawing at the age of 2. My father was a musician, from a long line of musicians, so there was plenty of artistic temperament to go around in my family!
Though I didn’t inherit any of his “musical genes” (if there are such things) I’ve had a passion for all things art related ever since, sometimes including other arts such as drama, writing etc. It is, however (sadly) possible to have too many interests. In this life, we have time enough only for one overriding obsession, and each field of art making devours time, taking all you’ve got and then demanding more. Visual art has been my mainstay and the pursuit into which I have invested the most energy, emotion, time and determination.
Along the way, I’ve had to make a living and was directed into nursing by a vocational guidance counsellor when I was 25. By that time, I was tired of being a starving artist. It turns out that being hungry and living in an attic–which I actually did once–is not so inspiring after all!
More recently I’ve studied Counselling and Psychotherapy. I run art therapy groups in Hobart which I enjoy immensely though it can be challenging trying to divert people away from self-defeating perfectionism (sadly, a trap for so many of us who venture into art).
Art can be deeply frustrating; Brett Whitely called it: “a difficult pleasure”. There have been times when I’ve had a love-hate relationship with it but in the end, I think the best way to keep going is to be motivated by a love of learning for its own sake, to quote Robert Greene from his excellent book: “Mastery”. It’s not something that can be driven by a desire for praise, approval or success, in my opinion, but is instead energised by that irresistible urge to create and to learn more about one’s materials and how to use them to express the inexpressible: one’s subjective experience of the human condition, of life and of the world.
I grew up mostly in Sydney and spent most of my life there till recently but lived in London for a few years as a child and adolescent, and in the US for periods in my 20s and 30s. I now live in Hobart with my husband, cat and two dogs. I am daily stunned by the beauty of this city and feel very lucky to have been able to escape the frenetic pace of Sydney by moving here.
My training as an artist
When I went to art school in the 80s, we had some excellent teachers but the curriculum (there and elsewhere, throughout the Western world) was geared toward “free expression” rather than teaching students a vocabulary of skills with which to express themselves. This strange deskilling in the name of creativity, which had been gaining momentum in the world of visual art education for decades, left me and many others ill equipped to do battle with the immense complexity and difficulty of painting. It could be compared to raising a child by rewarding them for vocalising, but never teaching them actual words, so that all they can do is make incomprehensible noises. Art is difficult enough without this handicap.
No one would ever consider training chefs, athletes or musicians in this way. As someone with no interest in sport, I can see how football might become a little more interesting under these conditions, e.g. if all the athletes were running around doing their own thing, “creatively” and none of them actually knew how or why to kick the ball. But I certainly wouldn’t be in a hurry to dine in a restaurant staffed by chefs who’d been taught to be toddler-like “free expressers” with their culinary creations. Toothpaste cake anyone? Nor would I be keen to listen to “music” created by untrained but exuberantly expressive pot and pan bashers. So why has this spirit of dumbed down, inarticulate “expression” overtaken the visual art world?
Like many artists, I’ve managed to find some very good teachers along the way but have largely had to teach myself. In my ignorance (and a desperate hope that the right materials might point the way forward) I’ve spent a small fortune on art materials– and gotten lost down many technical rabbit holes.
Of course, materials are extremely important and the cheap and nasty end of the market is definitely best avoided, but, sadly, some expensive items on the market are virtually worthless (beware the “secret ingredient of the Old Masters”). Even the best materials won’t teach you how to paint.
I’ve learnt also that mere practice isn’t enough. What is needed is intelligently- directed practise based on study. Finding the right teachers–be they live, online or the author of a book–is an art in itself. One then needs to find ways to get (or give oneself) useful feedback. None of it is easy.
Luckily, nowadays, there is a trend towards teaching the old techniques again–and the internet has made it possible for those lucky enough to have been taught the old (and some new) ways to spread the word to others.
I am very thankful to all the generous artists out there who share their knowledge freely or at low or very reasonable cost. Some of these include Paul Foxton (http://www.learning-to-see.co.uk) whose wonderful website and excellent course, Mastering Colour, has made a huge difference to my practice, as well as Will Kemp (another excellent website https://willkempartschool.com) and Graydon Parrish, who has done so much to increase understanding of the Munsell colour system. I will also give honourable mention to Darren R Rousar for his website Sight Size (https://www.sightsize.com/darren-r-rousar/) and his excellent ebooks including “An Accurate Eye” which is one of the most unusual but useful books on drawing I’ve ever encountered.
Another great resource is Virgil Elliot, whose extremely well-written book “Traditional Oil Painting” contains a wealth of knowledge that he has gleaned over 6 decades of painting and researching. It’s out of print at the time of writing but the new edition is due to be published any day now.
Another person who generously shares his unique knowledge and the decades of research he’s put into painting materials and techniques is Tad Spurgeon. His book “Living Craft” is a great resource.
Most recently I’ve reignited my interest in printmaking and have been studying Japanese woodblock printing.
It’s very easy to get addicted to study and one must temper one’s interest in learning with actual practice. Finding the balance is an ongoing but invigorating struggle.