A studio of one’s own

Welcome 2021! I hope this finds you well. 🙂

I wanted my first post of the year to set the stage for good things to come, and also illustrate a little of what I’ve been up to these days. I returned to painting, December; I was missing the way that painting allows you to flood a space, however tiny, with fields of colour and create little dwelling places for the eye, especially during these colour-starved winter months.

I was looking at Matisse’s The Red Studio, and enjoying the way his paintings create spaces and interiors. With all of the time spent at home, this past year has made me think about indoor space — and how changing the way I use a familiar room can help to create a shift, however subtle, that brings a sense of much-needed newness with it. So, I drafted a “studio” scene of my own: in it, it is 4:30 pm, the light is yielding to dusk, moonlight, and Chicago flurries. I’ve queued up a playlist, plugged in the speakers, and it’s the painting hour. My dining room is doubling as the studio at the moment — a unusual space to scatter brushes and paint tubes and things, but something about picture-making and cooking in the same room feels like a truthful reflection on the things that sustain. Also, proximity to tea helps.

A relative who saw this picture early on said: “It is a happy picture painted with love.” I hope to continue 2021 in that spirit.

Completing this picture also led me to generate an artist prompt for the days when the muse needs a hand. Maybe it will come in handy in the future?

Artist Prompt:

Create a picture of happiness. Put yourself inside.

Until next time.

Robert Henri on the song within

Hi, folks. We’re on the cusp of another year, and bringing some hope and lightness to this passage feels more necessary to me than usual. Today, I’m reposting a 2018 reflection; I’m revisiting it because I find myself seeking out an affirming and ‘art teacherly’ voice — some guidance and inspiration for what I hope to be a new phase of embracing creativity. My past thoughts on Robert Henri’s text, The Art Spirit, have been helping me remember some things. SO, whatever your medium, I hope this offers a creative uplift.

I look forward to seeing the incredible projects that 2021 has in store for you, and wish you another year, as Henri wrote, of “great happiness in creation.”

-Shirley


I’ve been enjoying The Art Spirit, by painter and portraitist Robert HenriOriginally published in 1923, The Art Spirit is a collection of Henri’s notes, letters and lectures to his pupils and proteges on the creative life. For the devoted student of painting, there’s lots to sink one’s technical teeth into: painterly lessons on colour theory, composition, the importance of keeping a clean palette (I always lapsed there), avoiding the overuse of ‘white’ to convey value (I did that), and cultivating the powers of visual memory.

the art spirit.jpg

But this little collection shines most brightly in how the fragments come together to convey a message on the ‘art spirit’: the joyful cultivation of vision and imagination. For Henri, art (a term which the book does not take too seriously) comes from enchantment with life. Part of the labour of making, he suggests, lies in developing self-knowledge through experience, the senses, and the imagination — allowing ourselves to be touched and moved by the things around us, and finding exuberance and discovery in our own unique worlds of feeling. Several times in the text, he suggests that the object is not to ‘make art,’ but to live — and to trace the lines of that living through the things that we make.

school of life 1
Image source: The School of Life’s The Dangers of Being Dutiful 

This is a familiar message. But I enjoy how Henri expresses the idea, in different ways, with his own mix of wonder, warmth, and the ardent desire that budding artists learn, beyond technique, to recognize, value, and find tremendous joy in their intuition — what he calls the “inner sense.” For Henri, painting is not merely a technical skill; it is a way of being alive and in full relation to oneself and the world. Henri uses a particular metaphor for this relationship: creative joy is like finding and singing your song with all of your heart — a scary proposition, when I think of it, but The Art Spirit suggests that we give our throats “a chance to sing.”

You’ll find some of The Art Spirit moments that I found interesting below.


The real study of an art student is more a development of that sensitive nature and appreciative imagination with which she was so fully endowed when a child, and which, unfortunately in almost all cases, the contact with the grown-ups shames out of her before she has passed into what is understood as real life. 

On the experience of creative insight (on safeguarding your “song”):

At such times, there is a song going on within us, a song to which we listen. It fills us with surprise. We marvel at it. We would continue to hear it. But few are capable of holding themselves in the state of listening to their own song. Intellectuality steps in and as the song within us is of the utmost sensitiveness, it retires in the presence of the cold material intellect… yet we live in the memory of these songs… They are the pinnacles of our experience and it is the desire to express these intimate sensations, this song from within, which motivates the masters of all art. 

Cherish your own emotions and never under-value them. We are not here to do what has already been done.

Find out what you really like if you can. Find out what is really important to you. Then sing your song. You will have something to sing about and your whole heart will be in the singing.

From Henri’s letter to a student:

Your education must be self-education. Self-education is an effort to free one’s course so that a full growth may be attained. One need not be afraid of what this full growth may become. Give your throat a chance to sing its song. All the knowledge in the world to which you have access is yours to use…Don’t bother about your originality, set yourself just as free as you can and your originality will take care of you. It will be as much a surprise to you as to anyone else.

The end will be what it will be. The object is intense living, fulfillment; the great happiness in creation.

And one last one, for now, from a painting critique Henri wrote to a student (something which I think all evolving artists need to hear):

“I like your work and have only to ask you to go on your own interesting way with all the courage you can muster.”

School of fish

I hope your week and Monday are off to a smooth start. I’ve returned to my paints recently. I had been a bit sheepish with the gouache for a while(!), but decided to return to my desk and open myself up to whatever wanted to be done.

These fish flooded into the frame somewhat unexpectedly one night. And the coral came after (the disappearance of coral has been on my mind). These fish are reminding me to stay in the flow.

a site revamp

And… the site has been spruced up. I am tinkering with using this site as a portfolio for my work. The homepage now has some new artwork up and the portfolio has been reorganized and streamlined. The short comics and sketchbook links are, as before, primarily visual pages. And the blog is where I will continue to spill too many words on an assortment of projects. I did this mainly to give myself a placeholder and to encourage more work. Let us see what the time ahead will produce.

Wishing you many hours of creative joy this week. 🎨

Creating space to create

I hope this post finds you well and easing into holiday things. I’ve seen my days take a very nocturnal turn recently, in a good way. Where we are, the sun sets by 4:30 pm. As elsewhere, a longer part of the day is now spent in darkness. We are also currently under a stay-at-home advisory in Illinois, so the usual holiday visits and anticipatory shopping trips have been replaced, this year, by nights at home. These conditions have given me the opportunity to explore the unique qualities and possibilities of nighttime.

I am biased, of course. I have long been a night owl who has had to learn to curb my nocturnal habits in order to participate in daytime things. I love mornings, in theory. Every well-organized sunlit workspace I’ve seen on Pinterest has given me the feeling that daytime is the best time — it’s when we fry sun-coloured eggs in a pan, brew hot energizing drinks, migrate to the work-desk, and expend our efforts. Light allows plants to photosynthesize, makes colours vivid, and makes us feel good. In reality, though, I hit my stride in the late afternoon. My mornings tend to be a bit of a mental jumble. My thoughts flood with the numerous to-dos of the day; it’s as though waking up twists the handle on a spigot and out everything comes, all at once. For this reason, organizing tasks and being productive in the daytime often feels like corralling wayward sheep — doable, but requiring that I marshal my mind’s most industrious herder dogs.

Most days, my inner border collie looks like this… (I’m sure this means that I need better organization methods, or at least more caffeine).

BUT. As the sun sets, a shift happens. The call to activity quiets down, and I properly wake up. A stillness and slowness begins to set in at around 4:30 pm (dusk, here) bringing a feeling of calm and openness — a smoothness to things, and a freedom from daytime rushing around. There’s time to uncoil, and I can almost feel my retinas relax and become newly receptive again. Seeing and sensing the outside things is replaced with seeing inside things in the mind’s eye (characters, scenes, colours… little animals). Night is the time for fireplaces and candles, imagination and inward thoughts. I believe the word-friendship between “hearth” and “heart” is revealing.

I hope I don’t sound like a villain, but I love the night. I’m cultivating this night-time creativity and have started practicing a creative ritual at sundown (4:30-5:30 pm): I light a candle or two, turn on my favourite lamp (the one with the orange glow), queue up a nocturnal playlist, brew a cup of non-caff tea, and give myself an hour to create before dinner — whether writing, editing photos, drawing, knitting… whatever my heart desires of the day. It’s the hour I give myself to set my creative hearth/heart alight. It’s a warm and comforting time for pencils and inks, music, doodling, and orange light. Like all good things, it is bookended by cooking. 🙂 As we approach the cold days, painting and comics have become my staple.

Here’s my messy creative space, replete with handmade pom poms, some unfinished weaving, and deer pals (I am a clutterbug).

The elements of the space are simple and few:

  • colour pencils
  • gouache paints
  • primary watercolours
  • Copic multiliner pens
  • Black Magic and Winsor & Newton inks
  • brushes, brushes, brushes
  • laptop for reference images
  • speakers
  • my big ringed sketchbook
  • a lit candle to signal that the creative light is ‘on’
  • and a copy of Lynda Barry’s Making Comics (2019) which has been inspiring some new artwork and thinking about artwork (more on this in an upcoming post)

In the meantime, here is a little bird-friend — a portrait in gouache of my childhood parakeet, Richard, who was with us for 7 years and was known to mistake a plate of red spaghetti for worms (we let him fly around, he loved it). He is showing me how to glow in the dark.

Until next time. 🙂

Merci, 2018

Hello, friends. It has been nearing two months since my last thing here – I managed to miss the new-year’s tidal wave of blog posts, and then some, but am finally getting around to catching up. Having also renewed the domain for another 12 months, I thought it was high time to break my no-post dry spell.

I’ve found it challenging to keep up with blogging this past while. The last few weeks have seen me a little blocked up – it’s been hard to find my yarn-fingers (the knitter’s equivalent of sea legs) and my words. Even my gouache colours have been lying dormant and unsqueezed in their travel-toothpaste-sized tubes. After some attempts at forcing a few creative Starts — a bright orange alpaca hat that came out too small, a garment-unravelling project that hit a snag and stayed there — I’m deciding to get friendly with this period of creative dormancy — to stop trying to fix it, to let it be, and maybe even get acquainted with it.

As I’ve written in past posts, The Block is no stranger in these here parts. My projects have often followed this logic and sequence: there’s the dizzying dream of making something new, the hours of research; brow-furrowed exertion melds into hyperfocus (the sweet spot and superpower of creators!); acuity grows with repetition and concentration, but unfortunately, so does fatigue; the arc of work winds down; soon, I find myself not just tapped out, but feeling a bit like the bikes I’ve seen around town, tethered in place and missing a wheel (am I the only one who likes to imagine the complex emotional worlds of bicycles?).

That said, I’m learning to soften into periods of pause, like this one. Although the needles and keyboard are mostly silent these days, I keep cooking and ironing the odd shirt and puttering around the apartment with my green-bristled broom, witchy and on the lookout for dust-bunnies. I read books and aspire to finish books — one at a time, too, which is very uncharacteristic. I eat milk chocolate and talk to friends and watch funny movies. I try not to let the post-vacation laundry pile creep too high. I drink detox herbs at night, stream episodes of “Tidying Up” with Marie Kondo and make an earnest attempt at streamlining the spice cabinet (that’s about as far as I get, but I’m happy, in the process, to rediscover a jar of hidden cloves so I count the effort a success). 🙂

I also take stock of projects past, reminding myself that Pauses are temporary guests and not year-round roommates. When I think back on my creative journey of 2018, I remember that it was a great year, full of firsts, milestones, growth, and giving — a very first colour-work garment (yay!), breaking into lace in a big way, doll-making experiments, and knitting up a good amount of baby-things and gifts. It was a year of giving away and keeping the learnings. It was a solid year.

In that spirit, I pulled this little blue butterfly out from my 2013 watercolour archives — I chose it as if to say “Merci” to 2018 for all the good things, and to lift a little wing for the flight ahead.