Sunday, 9 October 2011

'So why do you do all of these art challenges?'

My art teachers at school believed in me even if the education system didn't.

I grew up in Cornwall during the 1960s and 70s. Back then we passed or failed our 'O' Levels and 'A' levels based upon our knowledge of art history and the portfolio of work we produced. Unfortunately for me, that portfolio was expected to consist of pencil drawings and oil paintings ... and I couldn't master either medium.

However, my art teachers, Arthur Andrews, Phil Howells and Jim Tinley, saw something in me that went beyond the limitations of the education system. They saw that I was naturally creative and had an irrepressible desire to make art. They therefore did all that they could to encourage me, even opening the art department at evenings and weekends to allow me and a handful of friends to explore our ideas and passions. I eventually scraped a good enough pass to go on to 'A' level where I got a C grade. But I got so much more from my teachers than some lowly qualifications.

Arthur Andrews told me something that has stayed with me my whole life. He said: 'We're all born capable of being artists. Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist as you grow up'. I now know that he was misquoting something said by Pablo Picasso but that doesn't matter; the sentiment is sound. What he and my other teachers gave me was an untarnished, unfettered, childlike love and enthusiasm for art and creativity that I've never lost. They also showed me that the qualifications don't matter; art is an expression of self and no one person's art is any more or less valid than anyone else's. Art isn't like a sport where the aim is to score more goals than your opponent. If anything it is more like a hobby or pastime where the only targets to be set are your own - to get better at doing what you love doing.

I am, as the result, almost entirely self-taught. My technique isn't great and I don't have a traditional command of materials and technique. What I do have is boundless enthusiasm and creativity and, I hope, a sense of cheekiness and humour that comes across in my work. None of it is very serious. It's all done for the sheer joy of the act of creation.

I'm a great believer that anyone can create art. In fact, I seem to spend half my life trying to persuade people of that very fact. 'I can't draw for toffee,' they say. Others express disappointment or sadness that they can't paint or sculpt like other artists. To them and to you I say 'Why are you trying to?'

I guess it's a natural thing to compare ourselves to others. We want to know if we're on the right track. However, all forms of benchmark are invalid in art. How can you possibly say that a Lowry is better than a Rothko? Or that the Manic Street Preachers are better than David Bowie? Or that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is better than Doctor Who? You can't of course. All you can do is express a preference.

People look at a work of art that has impressed them and think 'I couldn't do that, therefore I'm not very good'. But the comparison is erroneous. I can't paint like Matisse. But that's because I'm not Matisse. My hand/eye coordination is wired differently. My life experiences are utterly different. I don't even live in the same century. I could try copying a Matisse but what's the point of that? Matisse has already done it and will always be the best at it. But, if you turn that around, it's a curious and revealing thing to consider that Matisse couldn't ever have done as good a Colgan as I can! What you, I, or anyone else create as art is as valid as any other art because of its uniqueness. There isn't some 'art race' that we're all entered into in life and we either win or lose. Yes, some artists do catch the zeitgeist and become immensely popular. That doesn't make them better. Many of the most famous artists in history were scorned in their lifetimes precisely because they were breaking new ground. Their art was unfathomable, misunderstood, even seen as dangerous. But it wasn't bad art. It was simply a variant from the prevailing fashions. Van Gogh painted over 2000 canvasses in his lifetime and was so unpopular he only ever sold two. That didn't invalidate his art.

There are no art races or tournaments. There are no teams or league tables. The only valid measure of ‘better’ in art is your own satisfaction with what you’ve done. Learn to love what you create and stop comparing what you do with other artists. There is no good art. There is no bad art. There is only art. If you really want to be an artist, then be one. And enjoy it!

The only thing stopping you is you.

And if, through this blog, I can help you I will.

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