Friday, February 21, 2014

The tools of the trade

Funny how the same idea will occur in two totally different places almost simultaneously……I was reading in Robert Genn’s recommendations for an artist’s tool kit in his lovely little newsletter Painters’ Keys.. At the same time, several students in my classes bemoaned their lack of a formal art education, and thinking about that it occurred to be that if you have had any  education you actually do have the tools you need.  For any good education, no matter what field it is, teaches you how to research, how to find out what you need to know, how to go about learning it, where the resources are, and how to analyse and synthesize the information you gather. A good education will also involve reading, trying out, experimenting and practicing on your own.  Most of us who’ve been lucky enough to go to college KNOW these things!!  I remember my Latin teacher continually reminding us that the word “educate” meant to lead out, to lead forward.

Education should not be (though, alas, often is, and especially in the US, I fear) simply memorizing facts – particularly not these days when one little trip to the internet can usually produce a multitude of facts (and yes I know you have to consider the sources – but basically the facts are there).  You really don’t need to fill your head up with facts.  But…what you do need is to know how to learn, to research, to analyse, and to put what you learn into practice. AND you need the time and space and the self motivation to do this.

Which is exactly what Robert Genn described as being necessary for the artist’s toolkit:
“ time, space, series, medium, books and desire”

Time: whatever you want to learn, spend some time on it every day.  You can learn something much better if you practice if daily – not just weekends, not just a weeklong seminar in some lovely quilting conference place!!  I try to allow at least an hour a day for the main things I’m trying to learn and improve at.  If an hour isn’t possible, I say to myself: you must do something.  So if I’m blocking out a quilt on the design wall, I say: “at the least, just get one more piece up!!  Of course it would take a long time for a 365 piece quilt to get done!! But it would Get Done! 

Space:  both Real and Personal.  Any space will do, it really doesn’t have to be a fancy, beautifully organized studio.  I think too many people get hooked on making the space gorgeous and forget about the artwork!!  But you don’t want to have to use your precious allotment of time, simply setting up the work, the machine, the fabric, the paints, the instrument or whatever it is.
  The other kind of space you need is personal space.  You do need to be alone.  Just about every artist I’ve read about really emphasizes that.  Being alone lets you get into your own head so you know what you want to communicate.  Being alone allows you to really focus – and focus is necessary for progress.
Now when you get to the “busy work” part of the process – stitching down the binding, or hand quilting, or even dyeing the fabric…then it’s fine to be sociable!

Series: one of the best ways of making progress is to work in a series…I’ll put in a little plug for my book Working in a Series (see side bar) here – where I got into why you should do this, and how to do it in detail. 

Medium: quiltmakers are luckyj!  They’ve already chosen their main medium – cloth!  Having said that there is still a tendency to keep adding on techniques and types of cloth and different ways of working with it.  The bottom line is that you will get further if you stick with one medium and limited methods.  Look at the “greats” in our world – you don’t see them trying this and that and the other.  Imagine a Nancy Crow quilt with beads and buttons!!

Books: Robert Genn writes: “"How-to" and art-history books are better than ever. They are your best teachers and friends. With books, you can grow at your own speed and in your own direction.”  This is SO true, I would add the internet too of course for all the wealth of visual imagery that is out there now.  Many of the major museums are committed to putting wonderful photographs of their artwork onto the ‘net.  I think a good book is worth so much more than a workshop.  Of course the two together…is the best of all – definitely greater than the sum of the parts!

Desire: You do need to be highly motivated to make good work.  So many people think that talent is something you’re born with and that you’re simply “lucky” if you make good art or play an instrument well or whatever it is….but the real truth is all the time that the person has spent learning and practicing their art.  And to do that you need to have a burning desire to do it, an itch to get back into the studio, a need to be alone with the work.

Quite a toolkit!!
I’d love to hear from you what else (if anything) you consider a necessary item for the art quiltmaker’s toolkit…meanwhile I’m off to the studio with a short stop to put the kettle on for a cuppa tea, of course.
If you have been, thanks for reading!  Elizabeth


kay said...

I would add Goals, and Deadlines - with a little overlap between the two. Deadlines sometimes help me focus and move the work forward; otherwise, I may lose sight of the forest for obsessing over each and every tree. On the other hand, I need time to experiment with ideas and critique my work, in order to achieve my goals.

elle said...

Excellent! It might be worth mentioning to shake up the tool kit once in a while and blow dust and crumbs away.

Vicki Miller said...

I agree with most of what you have said, but I also agree with elle, that new techniques can help to keep the motivation going. I also agree particularly with the desire section. where I would add practice. Many of my students come to me believing that creativity is something you are born with, but as you said, it can be learned - if you have the desire and willingness to practice. Every piece does not have to be a masterpiece, but it most definitely is a way to practice and learn more about yourself and your craft

Jackie said...

I would add: Someone who keeps pointing us in the right direction and urging us on, as well as teaching us how to think for ourselves! Thank you, Elizabeth!

Christine Staver said...

Elizabeth, great blog. Nothing to add, but I did want to know how to get an autographed copy of your series book.

Elizabeth Barton said...

Thank you to everyone for your comments. I agree entirely that Goals/deadlines are an important part of toolkit - for they keep you working even when you don't want to!
and of course without practice, you don't get anywhere, just go round in circles - which might be fun BUT if you do want to get somewhere, you've got to change.
Chris - just write to me re the book, there's an email link at the top right of the page: eisbartonatgmail and thank you!

WesternWilson said...

I have observed often in retrospectives of painter's artistic lives (and writers make this process obvious too) that there is an evolution toward what eventually becomes their distinctive style...something we may also call "voice". Typically an artist begins with imitation, practicing basic skills by copying master works, then trying on various styles and processes as they learn and grow as artists. And even as mature artists settled into a personal style, they evolve. This for me points up a few things...1. do not be afraid or ashamed of imitating a better artist in the pursuit of leaning to be a better artist yourself, 2. keep learning and trying on new techniques and approaches (some will stick and in the most unpredictable ways!) 3. keep working, working because you need to just do it for the gemstone works to come out of all the artistic mining you do!

MulticoloredPieces said...

Hi, Elizabeth. I'm glad you said something about sticking to one medium. Sometimes the "trendy" stuff just looks so trashy. It's fatiguing...