My personal view of what art is
What is art?
I have a pot in the studio which gives some wonderful explanations of what art is.
- Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.
- Art is never finished, only abandoned.
- Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes - art is knowing which ones to keep.
- Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.
- You don't make art, you find it.
- Art is a language written by all, understood by some.
- Every child is an artist, the problem is how to remain an artist once you grow up.
- Art is a passion or it is nothing.
- Art is not a skill, it's imagination.
I have been asked what art is loads of times. It is the age old question and can easily trip the unwary traveller up. Earlier in life I side-stepped it as I really did not have an answer and I felt defensive as though it was a justification of what it was and by definition what I was. As soon as I opened my mouth I knew I was in for trouble. I loved doing stuff with paint and I thought that anything I did was only a framework so that I could play with paint. If on the way it allowed me to express some emotion I had or made a situation I was faced with more clear then that was a bonus. This was as much to myself as anyone. I had started off following a loose surrealistic style which aloud me to express my feelings without having to explain them. I loved painting, it gave me intellectual stimulation to ask questions about my existence and the process of manipulating paint to look 3 dimensional was a buzz when it worked. I was doing it for myself but also for recognition that I was good at something and could convey feelings and ideas to others. However I always had a feeling that I wanted it to be liked. It is true that as soon as artists, writers or performance do whatever they do they open themselves up to anyone to pier in and have a look, offer opinions and worse still criticism. It is not a problem but does hurt sometimes because of the inbuilt desire to please. It is not always present but it can affect what the artist does along the way.
If all I want to do is paint then paint. Is it that simple. It is but it took me a while to get there. (probably to the end of the article). I wanted to feel genuine because I knew that to be taken for who I was I had to feel it myself. Any chink of doubt is seen a mile off. Validation is what I wanted and no matter how much I tried not to take any notice of criticism, constructive or otherwise I was not happy with my own internal conflict. It stayed in that position for a long time. As soon as the word abstract arrived it would make me feel I had to justify everything again until one day I didn’t. I was having a discussion with a few friends and the subject got onto the subject of what is art as it often did. OK they’d say, what is it then? I never had a great answer. This day I did. I said ‘Right if you put this packet on the table it isn’t art but if I do, it is art’. It was a ‘clever’ answer and at the time seemed a little hollow. Taken with a sense of humour it makes total sense. The truth is that is about as close as it gets. It is undefinable. What is art to one is just another pile of bricks to another. A lot is in the intention of the artist and perception of the viewer. Whatever it is I love creating stuff.
That definition stayed as it was for a while and I thought about it often. There was always a truth buried deep in the sentiment. Art is not exclusive it is inclusive. It is for everyone, whether you are doing it or looking at it in all the myriad of forms that it encompasses.
I have copied several of the great masters like Rembrandt, Boucher and Watteau for theatre productions. They were the photographers and visual scene recorders of the time. Giving their patrons what they wanted and exploring their artistic journey at the same time. Their popularity would come and go as did the fashions. There was a clear correlation between what they were painting and why. Today we have thousands of photographers and chroniclers of life in abundance on social media and everywhere we want to look. It gave the artistic fun of producing images a new lease of life and now we can’t imagine life without them and everyone can do it. In that case why paint? Because painting and creating offers something else. Every stroke is made and has pieces of the experience and intentions of the artist in it. I know that this can be said for many art forms or indeed engineering. What is the difference?
It became clear
I was in a taxi with 4 friends going from Copenhagen Airport to a YAPC conference in 2008. It is a conference for programmers, developers and users of the PERL programming language. At the time I was a graphic and web designer. As we drove along the motorway I spotted a striking building on the horizon, it was curved and made me feel a bit better in the cityscape. I shouted out ‘Hey look a wavy thing’ My compatriots looked in the direction of my gaze and wildly pointing arms and one sad ryeley, ‘Yes Phil, its a car park’ as though that would explain anything. It didn’t. I have been an artist all my life and it was at that moment that a thought dawned on me that later would make sense of many things and answered loads of questions. The immediate thought in my head was that I was the only one who had noticed the ‘wavy thing’ and was more interested in the shape than it’s use. The top of the building made an horizon like the outline of hills and it was reminiscent of the curves of so many abstract paintings as well as paintings of hills and landscapes that adorn our houses.
There had always been a nag in my mind about the development of painting and where it stood in the world, it was now becoming clearer. The love of skill and beauty in a figurative or landscape painting are easy to understand, however when abstract painting comes into the equation I was still so sure. What is the purpose of art and in particular where can it go and what can it give us in return. More to the point where was I going with it and what was I going to do.
That ‘wavy line’ moment also made me realise that perhaps there was a purpose after all. There is always some doubt lurking. At that time I had immersed myself in computers and programming and was to a large degree seen as a techie. Many of my friends were techies and some hardly new that I was a creative as opposed to an engineer in their eyes. I had to own it and come out and say I was an artist and to stop hiding in the shadows for fear of being asked awkward questions. I was there in that taxi in Copenhagen to point out the wavy line.
I mused that abstract paintings and wavy architectural buildings were a way of bringing the natural world into our cities when the distant horizon was not possible to see. So that us humans could stare into the middle distance in a city and get some sort of solace from the far distant memory of our ancestral landscape. It may or may not be correct however we all have a desire to see and be surrounded by things we think are beautiful. The curves in nature are and always have been a source of beauty. The landscapes we live in are an ever changing vista of wonder that we often take for granted until they are absent. This gave me a starting point to go off and explore.
I have to have risk to push myself onto the creative wave. That is risk at the point of execution with no turning back and no undo button to save me if it goes wrong. It has been said that I could paint over something that I have done but the mark is still there underneath. If it does apparently go wrong I have to bring it back from the brink and make it right. Like the hidden gems in the undergrowth of a wood that makes the scene pulsate with life. You can’t see it all going on but it is there and you can feel it.
It is very easy to get caught up in all the questions and justifications of what is being produced. I got weighed down so much that I didn’t do any painting for a long time. There didn’t seem to be much point. Eventually I realised that whatever I was going to do I needed to do it for myself regardless of what others around me felt or thought of it. It also had to be fun and for me I must be genuine. I felt that if I was honest and transparent it would stand on its own and others would appreciate it for what it is and also find their own interpretation in it. No room for pretending, that would not work. Artists put everything they have into what they do, It is a passion and a quest which may change but the underlying drive is always there.
There was now a quest to get to there, wherever there might be. I came up with the expression Risk>Intention>Execution to describe how I got to that point and what it meant to me. This was the buzz that I wanted and when I started to experiment it was fun. Initially I thought that I would carry on the development behind closed doors until I felt I was ready to unleash it into the world. That may have been forever because I would never feel ready. So I decided that I would put my developments online and see where it goes. The format was not clear but as explained in ‘How it all started’ and my profile, I came up with the idea of doing a painting a day to force me to paint and to develop my own voice.
So here I am I have defined what I do and the path I am on. I paint a painting every day. I do it first and foremost for myself, my own journey into wherever it is that I am going. As long as I am going. Once I began to do it for my reason and be honest about it, I was able to engage with people a lot easier and what I said and what they said made sense. It was a breath of fresh air not to have to sort of apologetically explain what I was doing and who I was. It was suddenly plain and simple.
All paintings I do are put in the studio window and passers by stop to look to see what I have done. There are always three paintings; yesterday’s, the day before yesterday’s and three days ago. Today’s is drying.
There are a couple I often talk to who pass in the morning on their way to work. He loves to name them and work out what the picture reminds him of. He will often say that he does not want to offend me by saying it looks like something that perhaps it isn’t and I always say the same thing. That I just do them, that what he see in them is his interpretation and that I just love the fact that he looks at them and that he enjoys seeing things in them. That makes me happy that they make some sense and are appreciated by someone for whatever reason. It is a delightful connection.
What our unconscious directs while painting and what it does when looking at a painting and how it affects everyone in different ways is wonderful. The fact that I can produce a painting feeling down in the dumps but it can be seen by another and give them happy feelings or think that I as happy doing it alludes to the notion that who we are and who we think we are and who others thank they are is an illusion. The sense of self that colours everything we do in one way until we change that sense of self and it colours everything in a different way.
When the lockdown arrived in 2020 I stood in the studio looking out onto the deserted street and wondered for a second if there was a point in painting or putting the paintings in the window. I knew that I had committed to do a painting a day for myself as well as anyone else and that of course I would continue. The whole thing was part of the experience. I continued to put the paintings on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter as before.
After a few weeks I got a lovely message via Instagram which gave me my answer:
Hi Phil. I just wanted to drop you a quick message because your art has really touched me this evening. I am quarantining back with my parents in Malvern Link (not always easy) and went for my walk on the common at sunset this evening, to an electronic music soundtrack. Walking back through the link your 3 photos - yesterday, the day before and the day before that - really jumped out at me and I spent ages at your shop window looking at them and reading your little bio. I really felt I understood your inspiration to paint to electronic music, and enjoy your idea to create one painting a day. And I love the colours/boldness. So yeah, just that really. Hope you're keeping well in these weird times. Best wishes to you
This was fantastic to know that what I was doing had helped some one and that I was right to carry on. It also made me realise that if I was not being genuine it would not have worked.
Do what makes you happy
Whatever it is that you do, do something that makes you happy. It was far harder for me to discern what my purpose was in life or to find myself because they are often obscured and there is not a feeling called ‘this is what it feels like when you have found yourself’. Luckily there is a feeling called happy and we all have a better understanding of what that means. When I stood looking out of the window in 2011 with an urge to paint and wondered where to start I said to myself ‘It has to be fun and just don’t care what anyone thinks’. I knew what happy was, it was putting paint on paper. So that is what I did.