Saturday, 26 November 2016

Practice Makes Perfect

Many of us, rightly, resist the use of the word "practice" when applied to the activities and output of artists. It's self-regarding and pompous, and the implied comparison with the medical and legal professions is both silly and, essentially, insecure. Those of us in the less "established" professions – teachers, lecturers, librarians, musicians, and the like – would never refer to our "practice" and, notably, it's snake-oil merchants like aromatherapists, homeopathizers, reiki-ists, and allied trades who generally do refer to their mysteries in that way. I must admit I used to wince whenever I heard my fellow librarians refer to their "teaching", when talking about instructional sessions for library users. The desire to big-up one's skill-set is, I suppose, universal, but it's insulting to arrogate the sexy-sounding vocabulary of other professions to one's own. Certain words do attract attention to themselves, though: I'm told that, if you want to be inundated by hundreds of unsuitable job applicants, putting the word "research" prominently in the advert is like putting a lamp next to an open window on a summer's night.

I suppose, when considering the output of those of us who do not earn a living from our artistic activities, even the word "work" can sound a little pretentious. Though at the same time to dismiss it as "my stuff", "my efforts", "my scribblings", "my daubs", or "my snaps" strikes a smug note of false self-deprecation, which is probably worse. "Work" is what it is, though, even if essentially playful, unpaid, unshown, and unsought, and it's my word of choice. So sue me.

My artistic work, therefore, has always included drawing. I'm quite good; there's no denying it, and always have been. But facility is not everything when it comes to the business of self-expression, and the day I discovered photography was the day I finally discovered I had both something to say and the means to say it. Before then, I had merely been spinning my wheels; action, noise, but going nowhere. In fact, before photography, for some time I had been feeling that I might as well let my expressive urge lie fallow. It had begun to seem as pointless as being quite good at some sport, but not good enough to make worthwhile the sacrifices in time and effort – that "90 per cent perspiration" – required to be really good. But, like a natural sportsman, I felt bad about letting my artistic musculature run to seed, so to speak, and photography saved me.

Two meetings 2007

Three meetings 2009

Mind you, for most of my 30 years of working life, you might say my main and most persistent "practice" was doodling during meetings. I accumulated a mighty corpus of biro-illuminated agendas, minutes, and handouts, expressing the boredom, bafflement, and suppressed hilarity so typical of professional life in a large organization. Conscious that I was regularly binning some of the best things I had done, around the turn of the century I started using A5 blank hardbound notebooks to record my bureaucratic magnum opus (plus, of course, the odd actual useful note). One day I'll scan the best of the pages from these dozen or so volumes, and the sheaf of ornamented A4 pages I brought home with me on retirement, even though it seems the estimable (and rather more talented) Tom Phillips has beaten me to it with his book Merry Meetings. With any luck, between us we may establish a whole new genre.

However, in recent times drawing has been coming back into my life. To continue the sporting metaphor, it's a bit like jogging. To sit quietly in the evening with a small hardbound sketchbook, a few pencils, and various other implements (an eraser and a paper stump are always handy) is like running for a few miles at an easy pace through a familiar neighbourhood. Fun, addictive, incredibly cheap, and a significant contribution to well-being, but nothing more serious than that. Although, like a jogger whose main sport is tennis, I'm sure the regular exercise of certain hand-eye-brain "muscles" must be having a beneficial effect on my handling of line, composition and tone in photography and photo-collage. And, occasionally, I'm getting that little thrill that says: there's something good here, have another go at finding it.


Les Dix said...

I have done things the other way round to some extent. Being a darkroom photographer for about twenty years I took up drawing in the evenings three years ago. Curiously at the same time I seem to have lost the motivation to take photographs and my darkroom is an unused corner of the garage. Drawing is hard. I have struggled particularly when trying to copy my own prints - a practice frowned on by the purists!


Mike C. said...


Drawing is easy! What is hard is producing something that satisfies you (same with the darkroom, really). If you're after some degree of verisimilitude, rather than "just" mark-making, do you know the book "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain" by Betty Edwards? Highly recommended for anyone who finds representation a challenge (which everyone does, to a greater or lesser extent).


Anonymous said...

I too used paint and pencil in my nascent artistic endeavors. Switched to photography I think because there were less "artiste" pressures. I was happy to be a craftsman rather than an artist. But now I don't mind being an artist, though not an artiste. Funny what Less said about putting aside photography while working at drawing. I do the same with music. It's either music or photography but not both.