I never thought I could ‘do’ art, as much as I enjoyed it. It was something out of reach, for other people who I thought were way more creative than me. It was something I was told I had to give up at school and instead choose subjects that would help me get a ‘real job’. Now I’m tentatively giving a bit more space to that little voice that quite enjoys creating things. At forty, it feels like paying attention to a younger version of myself, rediscovering a part of me I chose to leave back in 1997, consciously leaving art behind to study another GCSE that I didn’t want to do at all. The past is the past, though. Now, it’s about the enjoyment of rediscovery. It’s newness, it’s challenge – and mostly, it’s pretty fun.
I’m so bad at art
I’ve told myself this my whole life. The bar is quite high in our family, full of wonderful artists, designers and generally creative people. But the act of translating what was in my head to something on paper is something I’ve always found hard, and as a result over the years I just left it behind, as something I was ‘rubbish at’. I’ve found a few things I enjoyed – pyrography, metal clay, making a bit of jewellery – but always had a huge hang up about actual ‘art’, as I defined it to myself. Because I am not instantly Rembrandt or Picasso I think I’m terrible at it. Recently, though, I’ve felt it’s time to rethink how I’ve looked at ‘art’, and looked at myself. I’m challenging myself to get over that feeling of inadequacy, and to begin to enjoy the process of art as a thing in itself, rather than beating myself up about the end result. And if I end up still feeling inadequate, then that’s ok, too. I want to enjoy the process, rather than worry about the things I’m drawing being any good.
I love the process of getting so lost in something I lose track of time. I love to have a project in my mind and to sit and work at it until it’s done, just being in that moment, not hearing, not seeing anything outside of it until my eyes are blurry and I can’t remember the last thing I ate. Much of the time, although I like the end result, it’s the process that is the reward for me – I find the same with a lot of things I do. If it’s interesting to me, the act of ‘doing’ highly outweighs the project being ‘done’. With this in mind, I figured that the ‘doing’ is going to be a big thing for me. What do I get? I get a sense of fun, of enjoyment. If I remove all the pressure to ‘draw something’ and just make colours, and textures, and crazy shapes, then that is something I want to engage in. So one evening, I tipped the contents of my long-forgotten art box over the conservatory table, and began making a mess.
The joy of mess
I found a load of mica and oxide powders from the time I decided to make my own eyeshadow, and some jagged shards of brass left over from the time I was really into making jewellery. I went with the flow and just poured mica onto some paper, and smudged it around with my fingers. I imagined I was painting on cave walls with earth pigment – I made dots, I dragged long lines down the page with my fingers, I smudged red into yellow into brown and watched as the colours became ingrained into my fingerprints. I made some muddy squish by dipping my fingers into water. I scattered brass pieces onto the page, and moved them around, looking at the shadows. Was this art? Yes, I told myself. This is your art – the process, the curiosity. What had I made? A huge mess, that’s what. But did I feel better afterwards? Absolutely.
Lines and Mountains
I took a sketchbook to Scotland recently, as we tackled the North Coast 500. The daunting blank pages, the fine liners, the local galleries brimming with stunning paintings. I wanted to make time to just sit and draw, I wanted to switch off from the hustle and bustle of thoughts in my mind. I wanted to practise, and get used to that immediate fear that grips me whenever I think about drawing a ‘thing’. It took me a few days to get the sketchbook out of my rucksack, to open my roll of pens, to sit in my little camping chair, look at a mountain, and try and translate the sloping sides to something that looked vaguely similar on the paper. It was terrifying – the stress of trying to draw something that actually existed. Letting go of the expectation and the disappointment of not being an instant master illustrator is hard, but once I got into it, again, it was the process that calmed my racing thoughts. I felt myself relax into it, looking at those huge, silent, powerful mountains, taking in sharp lines and shadows, scree and heather. Letting go of perfection, letting my pen skid around on the page, drawing and overdrawing lines, breathing slower and feeling that focus slowly take me over.
I drew every day after that, until we came home. I made a small zine of our trip, little funny drawings of stuff that happened each day. My sketchbook now has a few mountains and lakes, some terribly out of perspective woodlands and some messed up campsite sketches where the disconnect between my eyes, brain and hands is embarrassingly apparent. The difference now is that I remember drawing those sketches. I remember the process, and I’m quite fond of the end results, weirdly skew-whiff as they are.
More and more
I think I’ll draw more. I’m enrolled on a beginners animation course currently which is challenging me to draw a lot more than I would do otherwise. It’s quite nice to have homework, something that forces me to take time to sit down and play around with art stuff, even it it’s just a felt tip or a pipe cleaner. The biggest freedom for me is that shift in focus from the result to the ‘doing’ part. It’s something that’s come up in other areas of life, but applying it to creativity has been really illuminating and quite freeing. Removing the expectation of having something amazing at the end and being inevitably disappointed has just left behind the enjoyment of creation, instead. And that enjoyment is something I’d quite like to experience more. And more, and more.
The winds blow the sea into crashing, foaming waves. Rain drives pin pricks into faces, clothes soaked through, feet in the sea-froth and alive, alive, soul singing in this tempest. One foot in front of the other along the shoreline, wild smiles as wide as the horizon. The rain falls harder, smashing into crowns on the wave tops, thundering from rock and headland, in our ears and eyes and souls.
Later, I comb the tideline, for after the storm is the best time for seekers. I collect plastic rope and crisp packets, chocolate wrappers from far away, shards of who-knows-what now broken down into coloured, sea-bleached pieces. But alongside the plastic, I also collect treasure.
First is driftwood, a small piece, lighter than air, dry and salty and filled with holes. A mermaid’s purse – two, in fact, one small and brown, the hole in the casing showing where new life began a journey into the sea. The other is huge, black, glistening and intact – I lie it gently in the shallows and let the waves take it away.
Oily seabird feathers lie scattered and I pick a small one, white with a streak of brown, to remember the wind that still ruffles the tops of the waves and ties my damp hair into salty knots. As the tide slowly recedes I comb the shining pebbled sand for sea glass. First one piece, translucent and glittering. Then another, and another, as my eyes tune into the spaces between shell and stone. Soon my palm is full and I grasp tightly to the pieces, feeling them scrape against each other as I secrete them safely in my pocket.
Finally, seaweed to bind. A long piece that reminds me of a shoelace – I hold it to the air and it whips back and forth in the sea breeze.
Days later, at home, I lay my finds out and begin the sea totem. A small piece imbued with wind and sea and wildness. Carefully, I wrap old rope and seaweed around the driftwood, attaching feather, egg case, sea glass. Elements of a place, of time, become one. Next time I visit I will release it, undo it, return each piece to the place where it belongs, but for now it stays with me, bringing that wild place home.