Wednesday, 28 September 2011

The perfect is the enemy of the good

As I look at the dodgy nose and badly-rendered mouth on the above sketch, I’m thinking about the following passage on perfection from Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orland.

‘If you think good work is somehow synonymous with perfect work, you are headed for big trouble. Art is human; error is human; ergo, art is error. Inevitably, your work (like, uh, the preceding syllogism…) will be flawed. Why? Because you’re a human being, and only human beings, warts and all, make art. Without warts it is not clear what you would be, but clearly you wouldn’t be one of us.

Nonetheless, the belief persists among some artists (and lots of ex-artists) that doing art means doing things flawlessly – ignoring the fact that this prerequisite would disqualify most existing works of art. Indeed, it seems vastly more plausible to advance the counter-principle, namely that imperfection is not only a common ingredient in art, but very likely an essential ingredient. Ansel Adams, never one to mistake precision for perfection, often recalled the old adage that “the perfect is the enemy of the good”, his point being that if he waited for everything in the scene to be exactly right, he’d probably never make a photograph.

Adams was right: to require perfection is to invite paralysis. The pattern is predictable: as you see error in what you have done, you steer your work toward what you imagine you can do perfectly. You cling ever more tightly to what you already know you can do – away from risk and exploration, and possibly further from the work of your heart. You find reasons to procrastinate, since not to work is not to make mistakes. Believing that artwork should be perfect, you gradually become convinced that you cannot make such work. (You are correct.) Sooner or later, since you cannot do what you are trying to do, you quit. And in one of those perverse little ironies of life, only the pattern itself achieves perfection – a perfect death spiral: you misdirect your work; you stall; you quit.

To demand perfection is to deny your ordinary (and universal) humanity, as though you would be better off without it. Yet this humanity is the ultimate source of your work; your perfectionism denies you the very thing you need to get your work done. Getting on with your work requires a recognition that perfection itself is (paradoxically) a flawed concept. For Albert Einstein, even the seemingly perfect construct of mathematics yielded to his observation that “As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.” For Charles Darwin, evolution lay revealed when a perfect survival strategy for one generation became, in a changing world, a liability for its offspring. For you, the seed of your next artwork lies embedded in the imperfections of your current piece. Such imperfections (or mistakes, if you’re feeling particularly depressed about them today) are your guides – valuable, reliable, objective, non-judgemental guides – to matters you need to reconsider or develop further. It is precisely this interaction between the ideal and the real that locks your art into the real world, and gives meaning to both.’

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Pen drawings

I recently bought a couple of fine-nibbed drawing pens. I used to draw in pen a lot; there’s something quite liberating about it. Not being able to rub out your mistakes means you don’t have to be precious about the drawing… it’s going to be a sketch rather than a finished piece. And somehow, that makes me draw better. Small, quick portraits like these. Freer, more energetic. The last was particularly interesting to do because this is a relatively new face, one I’m not that familiar with. Surprising what a difference that makes. Surprising how the features of a familiar face flow from the pen so readily. Maybe it’s not surprising at all; I’ve just not thought about it before.

Friday, 16 September 2011

The Flea

Here’s a doodle I started a couple of weeks ago in an effort to kick-start some etching (it hasn’t worked so far). The cat had issues with fleas last month – sorted now thank goodness – so a flea print had to be made of course. A friend suggested illustrating John Donne’s rather racy poem The flea; interesting metaphysical mind games. So here’s the beginnings of it. Needs more work however. Maybe I could market it as a Valentine card…

MARK but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deniest me is ;
It suck'd me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be.
Thou know'st that this cannot be said
A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead ;
Yet this enjoys before it woo,
And pamper'd swells with one blood made of two ;
And this, alas ! is more than we would do.

O stay, three lives in one flea spare,
Where we almost, yea, more than married are.
This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is.
Though parents grudge, and you, we're met,
And cloister'd in these living walls of jet.
Though use make you apt to kill me,
Let not to that self-murder added be,
And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.

Cruel and sudden, hast thou since
Purpled thy nail in blood of innocence?
Wherein could this flea guilty be,
Except in that drop which it suck'd from thee?
Yet thou triumph'st, and say'st that thou
Find'st not thyself nor me the weaker now.
'Tis true ; then learn how false fears be ;
Just so much honour, when thou yield'st to me,
Will waste, as this flea's death took life from thee.
John Donne

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

I was Vermeer: the legend of the forger who swindled the Nazis

I Was Vermeer by Frank Wynne is a biography of Han Van Meegeren, the ingenious Dutch art forger who managed to install, albeit unintentionally, one of his fake Vermeers into the private collection of Hermann Göring.  Arrested for treason in 1945 – selling national treasures to the Nazis being highly illegal – he was vilified as a traitor by the press.  However, once it was proven that he had painted it himself, he became a national hero; the humble painter who duped one of Hitler’s right-hand men.  Van Meegeren’s own work is quite collectable now and he has somewhat of a cult following.

The book starts off with an account of Van Meegeren’s arrest in July 1945, then goes back to his childhood.  Born in 1889 in Deventer, Holland to an overbearing father who made him study architecture instead of fine art, it’s easy to see where Van Meegeren’s resentments started.  He was a talented painter and very sure of his own abilities.  Once finished with his architectural training, he painted full-time and exhibited.  He wasn’t able to make much of a living from it though as his subject matter and style didn’t fit what was going on in the art world in the 1910s.  Dealers and collectors considered his work out-of-date.  Van Meegeren and his family (by now he had a wife and two children to support) were constantly in debt.  It was a combination of his association with some dodgy characters and their nefarious art world dealings, his own overblown view of his talent and the festering resentment he nurtured against the Dutch art world for not recognising such that gave him the idea of painting a Vermeer himself.  

And this is the focus of the book.  Wynne gives a very detailed account of how, familiar with the X-ray and chemical analysis techniques the experts used to authenticate works of art, Van Meegeren painstakingly researched Vermeer’s pigments and painting structures to produce a work which would fool the art world.  It took him ten years of very dedicated work to achieve this – and all his efforts paid off with The Supper at Emmaus.  He had cleverly created a new Vermeer which conveniently fitted into a recognised gap in the painter’s oeuvre.  It was heralded as a masterpiece, perhaps Vermeer’s greatest, by Abraham Bredius one of the foremost Dutch art critics of the time and sold to one of the country’s top galleries. 


Originally his plan had been to create just one painting; when it was declared as genuine, a newly discovered work by the great master himself, and hanging in the Rijksmuseum, Van Meegeren would come clean.  Confess and embarrass the art world for they’re gullibility.  He had always had a taste for high living however, and went on to forge other works by Vermeer and some of his contemporaries, amassing huge wealth in the process.  It wasn’t until he was forced to confess in 1945 that his career as a forger came to an end.  Even then, the authorities didn’t want to believe him so he was tried, rather bizarrely, by ordeal; he spent two months painting a replica of one of his fakes whilst watched constantly by a rotating shift of lawyers, prison guards, art critics and journalists.  At the end of this period it was no longer in doubt that Göring’s painting was a fake and Van Meegeren’s status changed from despised traitor to heroic rogue (Göring had given the art dealer a large number of other Dutch paintings as part payment for the fake Vermeer; these were restored to the nation).

Frank Wynne is a journalist, not an art critic; I find it hard to describe quite in what style the book is written.  Wynne recreates conversations and makes assumptions about what Van Meegeren was feeling and thinking and presents these as fact, blurring truth with fiction.  He uses the present tense at times to build tension and atmosphere.  These elements make the book a quick and easy read; no impenetrable art theory here.  It doesn’t even read like a biography really, more a tale of true life crime, particularly as Wynne tries to build a psychological profile of the painter.  Even the title is a bit cheesy!  This isn’t really what I look for in a biography but I enjoyed it nonetheless.  If you're interested in art forgery and after an enjoyable, light read, give it a go.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Tinkering with drypoint and etching

These are some recent drypoint doodles just for something quick and easy to do.  the second pull is actually better I think - the first is a bit too dark.

This etched pinecone isn't finished yet, needs more tone to 3D it up a bit (technical term).  Maybe more line work, maybe some aquatint.  Looking a bit lip-like at the moment.  It's actually part of a larger image which I'm working on so the foul bite will be taken care of.