Creative exercises for every month


By Bob Booth

I’ve got the theme ‘a still small voice’ and I’m in my studio which is a an old shed. The question is what do you do next? Well don’t panic, have a cup of tea, that’s probably the best start. It’s all very well to talk about theories, but here we will discuss how you actually get started on a theme when using an exploratory approach to painting. You will come to see the importance of avoiding the ‘safe’ path.

For me the ‘still small voice’ is a very powerful idea. When I heard the rumour that this was to be the next Mandorla theme I was very interested as it had already been in my mind for a couple of years; waiting to become a painting. The story is of the Prophet  Elijah, taking refuge in the mountainous wilderness;  defeated and alone. He is confronted with the full force of the elements;  earthquake, fire and wind but ‘the Lord’ was not in these spectacles of power. The moment of truth was ‘a still small voice’ (1 Kings 19:12). Elijah hears the inaudible voice of God and is overwhelmed and changed by it.  

I find this remarkable story very interesting partly because of the epic big bang, power stuff that one expects to be convincing and decisive, but which is set over against a small internal experience; something and nothing, nothing and everything all at the same time.

When I begin a painting, the hard bit, I find, is to abandon the security of images that have already been successful (your own work or someone else's). It is tempting to reassemble these successful ideas for a new painting. What you've already got in your head, in my experience can be lethal for the possibilities of a new painting.

You may have been impressed by a work of art, a really powerful painting, which invites you to harness its strengths. However it can be these very reassuring strengths that can block the way to new life in your work.

The first part of the process is to stay with your theme which isn’t even necessarily visual,  but  is a sense of significance,  a feeling about something.

In my days painting objectively, I used my long paint brush to try and build in the unknowable and the unpredictable; to make the medium and the process contribute more and the objective experience of seeing contribute less. A brush this long makes it impossible to copy ‘reality’! The paint brushes kept getting longer and longer and In the end I was painting with a 2.2m long brush. There is much to learn about the role of the ‘uncontrolled’ in this method of working but even then you sort of get the hang of it and you need to go somewhere else to escape the obvious conclusions of your own experience and reasoning.

With some encouragement from my wife and friends I made a shift to an exploratory process which abandoned the security of a visible starting point altogether.

I got down to the studio and tried to dismiss all the props and ideas that I had brought with me. I put a piece of scrap canvas up. There’s something about scrap canvas that doesn’t say, “this is precious, this has got to be really good Bob”. It’s just a bit of scrap canvas so you feel more comfortable with it.

So I just stretch the canvas flat onto a board, making sure there will be room around the area that will be the painting so that I can change the dimensions of the work any time I like. This feels comfortable: I am free to mess around without the demands of an ‘important’ piece of canvas requiring an appropriate outcome.

What I do in practice is to get some paint, some burnt umber and paynes grey onto my palette. Paynes grey is cold green/black and the burnt umber is warm brown. I use those as a cool and warm colours to try ideas out, not to try an image exactly, but to just muck about really.

The important thing is that you're not just allowing accidents on the canvas that might turn into something. Somewhere deep inside you is this theme, and this is really important. I have this theme and then I start to look for it and I look for it with paint.

This can happen quickly sometimes, while on other occasions it's a long slog and I may end up putting  the results out of sight for a while. You need to be able to return to the painting and see it as though it is not your work otherwise the likely outcome will be to follow the same dead-ends as before. The mistake is not a lack of skill. The mistake is a lack of ‘vision’ and the preparedness to jump into the unknown with it.

I always catch myself hoping that the accident will produce the image that I have really secretly held onto. There is a quotation from the New Testament from St Paul to the Galatians, who have made him really cross. He says, ‘Oh foolish Galatians, you started in the spirit and you’re going to try and end in the flesh’ (Galatians 3:3). That is one of the best bits of art instruction that you could ever really have in my opinion.

You start your painting as an act of faith, as always, watching to see what is happening on the canvas. The next stage is another very difficult stage and that’s ‘just follow and don’t try help it along’. You’re looking, you’re waiting and you’re watching but as it starts to develop the temptation arrives... You know what this image is, you know how it is going to be, and you take over and make it do just that. This is the beginning of disaster. It starts to die on the canvas and all the life is going out of it.
Herod and Salome
I got to that stage with the Herod painting, I was going along with it and it was beginning to go static and I knew why. I had to have the courage to dispose of something so I got the rag and I wiped the rag across the painting and that is where the arm came from. Once I’d pulled the cloth across it got rid of my intentions of turning it into something. It was the intention of sacrificing something, but the whole process of losing was the key to the painting as it turned out, because I could see that this was the arm that actually clinched the meaning of the painting for me.

Contemplating this theme of Elijah actually picks up significant amounts of my experience of painting. For Elijah, the power to rescue himself, to vindicate his beliefs and to defeat his opponent is taken away and he’s left with this emptiness. However it is in this absence, ‘this still small voice’  that new unknown horizons of understanding open up.

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