Sketches

I am thinking about the importance of sketches. And in that spirit, I will post this in an hour, regardless of what state its in.

A week or so ago I was in white room full of almost silent, mostly middle aged, mostly white people. I was staring at some brush strokes on a very old piece of paper(?). Heart racing. This was one of JWM Turner’s ‘studies’ of waves and a distant horizon. After he died, hundreds of unfinished pieces were found in his studio. While he worked up his masterpieces, he would experiment. He could be freer outside of the pressures of genius and patron’s expectations. It seems obvious to me that not only were these experimental sketches vital to his polished masterpieces, but that with a few exceptions – Snow Storm is indescribably brilliant – the sketches contained more life. Looking at the simple brush strokes, I could start to imagine his thought process. Could join the dots between human effort and the sea spray he was trying to invoke. In the masterpieces, this humanity is hidden. He wanted us to think he was a magician genius, set apart from us mere mortals.

Maybe this is why I became a teacher not an artist. I am not interested in playing along with the myth of genius. I am only interested in tearing it down.

Virginia Woolf shared JW’s passion for sketching. When writing her most conventional novel Night and Day, partly as a way to contain the chaos of the war swirling round her, she worked on essays and short stories that freed up her thinking. She gathered up those fragments later to write one of my favourite books of all time, itself a collection of fragments of observation, gathered together to form a great sweep of life.

Virginia had a way of exposing her character’s unexamined thoughts, usually extrapolated from her own. JW had a way of painting living things to life in just a couple of brush strokes. These tiny examinations made possible the grand scale and impact of their context but also, if you look twice, give us a chance to see through the show.

Oliver Burkeman reminded us in the Guardian the other day that everyone is totally just winging it, all the time. He quotes Action for Happiness saying “one of the biggest causes of misery is the way we chronically compare our insides with other people’s outsides”.

JW didn’t manage to throw away the last batch of his thousands of hard won experiments and mistakes before he died, allowing us to see some of his insides, stripped of the (equally hard won I’m sure) magic tricks he’s famous for – and love him all the more for it. Through her stories, essays, letters and diaries, we can piece together how Virginia wrote her own swirling insides into her masterpeices. How all she did was look hard, ask questions, then write with unflinching care.

Oooh I think I’m finished. With 22 minutes to spare. See ellie, its not so hard.

I’ll take my spare minutes to do some referencing…

I saw Late Turner – Painting Set Free at Tate Britain in London. GO SEE if you can, its on till Jan 25th 2015. Anything I wrote about him here was learnt in that exhibition. There is a book to accompany the exhibition that I almost bought but didn’t.

My favourite book by Virginia is The Waves, but more and more I’m appreciating the shorter stuff. At the moment I am reading A Haunted House and Other Short Stories. It is delicious.

I just read Virginia Woolf by Alexandra Harris. That, a talk by Ali Smith at the Portrait Gallery called ‘Getting Virginia Woolf’s Goat’, and the exhibition Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision all helped gather these threads together. As did working on getting over my inverted snobbery that held me back from fully declaring my love for that particular posh woman.

Ok times up. Screw harvard 😉

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3 thoughts on “Sketches

  1. I really liked this blog Ellie, and your self-imposed time limit to complete it. I like the idea of development of and from sketches, showing partially formed ideas, warts and all, through to a perfected end product.
    Having briefly taught design in schools I can see parallels here, as with any creative process, between students and lookers in galleries, and the makers themselves. Some dive in, making use of limited time, and dash off all their thoughts as fast as they can. Others sit and stare, not revealing what they are thinking until they either start to interact or wander off disinterestedly. Others ignore or hide their first thoughts, determined to come up with their best and final idea before revealing it to the world. Luckily for us, many of Leonardo da Vinci’s sketches are preserved for us to marvel at; his notebooks are a revelation of his genius.
    I like being in galleries and museums, seeing others’ reactions and listening to conversations about the exhibits. The creative process continues as the observer interprets the display, whether the exhibit is a Turner masterpiece, a modern abstract or an object, as the viewer ‘sketches in’ the bits they perceive are missing. This happens whether we realise it or not, as we add everything of our past to each new experience, so that we all have a unique individual interpretation of the same artefact.
    I am unsurprised at students’ reluctance to share their first thoughts for fear of ridicule. But once they understand the concept of initial design ideas, where even the absurd is acceptable, ideas can flow almost uninhibited. In a brilliant Writing Workshop at Northern College with the amazing Chris Bradbury, we tried an exercise where we each wrote a line of a short story, each passing our own script along so that after ten minutes or so we produced fifteen stories between fifteen of us. The results were creative to say the least. In a way like a committee designing a horse, these stories could be viewed as a collaborative anthology, with the added possibility that they could be refined and improved to produce more ‘finished’ work. Similar exercises can be done with sketches. From many simple, quick sketches of notional ideas to the first rough sketch of the chosen design. Further detailed sketches refine the design in stages up to producing a final design, scaled drawing for making an object, or that completed masterpiece.

  2. I totally love this Ellie. And I am grateful to you for sketching in your sources, I will do this better with my Steel Trap Mind blog. You have encouraged me to revisit Turner and awoken the (never too far from the surface) art historian in me.

    Another thing I read this morning was Keith Hamon’s latest blog http://idst-2215.blogspot.co.uk/2014/11/the-rhizo14-ethnography-and-decalcomania.html Link through from here to the Unreadable Untext, a google doc collectively produced by Rhizo14 participants, sketches from the experience. It’s lovely and quite of itself. Jane Weatherby and I wrote our chapter for ’12 Dancing Princesses’ this way too, sketching it out between us, seeing each other’s words appear on the page.

    Thank you for reminding me that impressionism has its place in our work with words, too.

  3. How do activists learn? – Me Thinking

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