Thursday, 23 November 2017

Finding inspiration...just how does this art thing work, and (scarily) not work?

Often people ask me about my art. And it makes me stop and reflect.

What does inspire me? Indeed, why do I create artwork in the first place? How would I describe this thing we call art? More importantly, what happens when I wake up and I can't seem to make it work (enter inevitable morning anxiety).

The easiest way to answer these questions is to at first just be technical. Describe the process...the how...not the why (that's way too scary to leap into right away, though I promise I will come to that - comforting cup of tea needed first though).

My artwork and techniques do tend to wander, hence my wandering artist name. An artist's journey is continuous, and carries on throughout their entire life. Or at least for as long as they practice as an artist. The technique and process is therefore apt to develop, change, and evolve over time, and hopefully improve.

For the moment, I tend to focus on the detail, whilst allowing a smidgen of spontaneity. Attempting to capture as much as possible, whilst remembering that perfection does not exist. That in any perceived error, there often lies beauty and interest and an opportunity to learn.

And to do this, I often combine the precision of a designer's pens with watercolour paint.

Beginning the composition
I frequently, though not exclusively, work outside. This can be either entirely or partly, with the drawing construction coming first. This focuses my mind, as the drawing needs to take shape before the lighting shifts too much, or circumstances change. And they can change dramatically.

During this particular day's sketching a moped rider came off his moped suddenly and I and several passers' by went immediately to help. It was quite encouraging to see people automatically leap to the rescue, and how people will willingly take charge of the moment.

Emergency over, and the moped driver safely on his way to hospital, I was able to carry on with the day's drawing and painting.

The essentials - travelling art kit, art board, paper, comfy stool and water

Sometimes, due to the weather, there might be complete, or partial working of the piece indoors - especially whilst working at the top end of Australia, and during the build up to "The Wet", as occasional torrential downpours and lightening storms interrupts the afternoon!

People who know me know that I love to draw trees. I have been particularly drawn to them since I was a biology student. The sense of age, and strength and the beauty of the graveled, characterful grooves, notches, breakages, growths, and wounds add to their gnarled beauty...something we appear to negate or reject when it comes to human beauty. What we see as part of the story of the trees life, we try to mask, cover, deny or even make-over with humans.

Choosing the subject matter

The next step is to set pen to paper. I make no preliminary pencil sketches first. I sometimes warm up, or at times feel the need to go in cold, but the actual image is drawn directly with pen and ink. Any mistakes are exploited or controlled mid-flow! Or not, and I might need to begin depends on how easy it is to let go of that need for perfection.

To be confident enough to do this has taken many years of daily (or as many days as I can) practice - even a single daily sketch is enough to ingrain that muscle memory further, in the same way as a musician learns a musical instrument, a child learns to catch a ball, or a dancer learns a specific dance...the same can be said of an artist. Eye-hand co-ordination needs development in the same way for an artist, as for any other task. And once developed, confidence in the unconscious task ensues. Don't use it...and lose it.

Beginning the initial drawing

The initial drawing is worked steadily and patiently. Not rushing the process is a skill that has taken a while to develop. The process now takes time and represents a meditative process. Observation, and slow steady hand eye co-ordination.

Helping to mask over an area to stop smudging the image

And as the hand works over the page, I'm suddenly confronted with a different challenge, than that usually encountered in the UK, where I often have to stop and run for a cup of tea, and warm surroundings. Here, I have to try to protect the image from the perspiration now building on my hands and arms, and running down my face. Darwin, placed at the top end of Australia, is in a very warm and humid climate at this time of year, building as it is towards 'The Wet', and so I have to fashion a screen over the drawing to prevent it smudging.

Once the final tree image is completed, I look to the images of the different birds seen in the area, and finally decide on the masked lapwing as a good subject matter to add to my composition.

Masked Lapwing hunting for insects © David Norton

This is also part of my art process. Being a biologist, nature often forms part of my inspiration, and using art helps me observe, and focus, and learn more about the world about me. Not so much in words (the blog helps me do that) but visually. It helps me really look at my surroundings.

Birds inspire and fascinate me, representing creatures that will not be conscious of the man-made boundaries and migrate around the planet searching for where the climate and resources suite their needs. This carefree nature though is perhaps an illusion, as the rules and lines still exist for them, often fighting and competing over it, and of course we and other creatures place extra pressures on them too.

Another has had enough, and wanders away © David Norton

The masked lapwing, Vanellus miles, is seen as a common nomad here, and I'd been watching them wandering around the grassy areas of Bicentennial Park in Darwin. It is also named the masked plover, and the plover I am more used to seeing in the Northern Hemisphere does not have the fleshy yellow mask, or wattles, around the eyes and beak, and familiarity goes hand-in-hand with unfamiliarity here. The lapwings here are busy searching for insects and worms amongst the grass. It is seen to be very adaptable to its environment, and the number observed in a more urban area do indeed bare that out.

It appears that people have in the past believed in the myth that the wattles contain venom, it seems that this is because of being extremely territorial and their protective behaviour around their nests. They exhibit a noticeable swooping behaviour, mostly against dogs, cats and other birds. It may just be that the wattles actually have meaning during mating, as with cockerels and turkeys.

These lapwings appeared to be quite at ease today, and so I was able to use a couple of David Norton's images to develop the artwork, drawing in the birds and completing the foreground, before finishing off with a gentle watercolour wash and bringing depth of field by including my characteristic line clouds and sky; giving an artist's view of the day...without the moped accident of course!

Finished piece - Masked Lapwing, Vanellus miles - Bicentennial Park, Darwin, NT

So how about that other question? The why? Why do I attempt to create art?

What's that about?

I am definitely a creative person, and a predominantly visually creative person at that. And so my need to create drives me. Take away everything from me, and if bored, sooner or later I will begin to create. And I have an urge to improve myself, and personally I see art as a striving for perfection (although that does not exist, I continue to repeat to myself!!).

I have always received attention when it comes to art; given positive (and negative) feedback when I create something. My earliest memories for me involved the creation of some sort of childhood artwork, and right at the beginning the feedback was positive, and I didn't receive too much negativity (although enough to stop me severely for long periods of time). Voices that may have thought they were being constructive, but that for an artist, can have exceptionally damaging results, and some of those voices are my own thoughts...

Such as only dead artists are successful, there's no money in it, surrounded by all these masters, what is the point? These are just a few...and they are is a journey, and to answer the question why I produce is because for as long as I can remember, a voice inside me was and is always saying, I want to be an that's the voice that keeps leading me.

Creating artwork gives me a sense of validation in the world, and contribution, and a sense that I can create something that might last, and hopefully be appreciated, at least a while, after me. It also helps me to connect to other people (even if that connection is negative, and sometimes painful).

And as the next potential artwork looms, it leads to another important question about producing art.

How do you retain that freshness, that joy and spontaneity in your work? How does the process actually work, rather than how you want it to work?

The wish is for it to be turned on and off like a tap. To have good work appear every time. To wake up fresh and new and become as productive as a factory every day, and at any time of the day.

Alas, it is not that way all the time. And every artist, I'm told, is different. We all need to answer that question though I think. What helps the process? Or what maximizes it. What helps keep it as a joy, rather than a chore?

These questions I am, in fact, still seeking to answer for myself. And it often is akin to the natural world itself. There is an element of unpredictability and an uncontrolled nature to it, but there is also an element of discipline and ritual involved too. To always come to the table, to the day and to the work, and always strive to do one's best, through the good and the bad work. That is important.

To respect it. But to also respect yourself, and your limits. That too is important.

To exorcise and listen to the devils and the daemons, and move through it and use it for the next work. This is another important part of the process. Can I do it again? Will it work this time? Is there any point to this? Have I killed the magic? If I could do it yesterday, why can't I do it today?

And through the practice, I await the next stretch; the next step forward; the next big leap. Where I get to say, wow, I didn't realise I could do that.

The next improvement; the next development, and the next inspiration. That's what you constantly yearn and wait for. Scaring yourself, and moving yourself out of your comfort zone can often help.

Be bold, and bold things will come. Perhaps not in the way we expect them to, but bold, scary things tend to come...our universe just seems to work that way.

Sometimes that inspiration is like a bird. Unpredictable, and flighty. And you never know which bird it will be. But a bird will suddenly land in front of you. Nervous and aware that it is being watched. And sometimes it stays long enough, and sometimes it flies off before it is caught.

Rainbow Bee-eater, Merops ornatus
And so for this next artwork, stay tuned...she'll hopefully come back...

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Shooting wildlife in the digital world

The intrepid Australian Dave-duo are settling into a wee bit of routine in Australia, and developing a team feeling. Dave N takes the photos of the local bird and insect-life and imparts the local knowledge, whilst Dave D composes the artwork.

Forest Kingfisher Darwin Northern Territory Australia by David Norton
Forest Kingfisher (Todiramphus macleayii), Darwin, NT Australia © David Norton

Forest Kingfisher, Darwin, Northern Territory, NT, Australia, David Dalzell, the wandering artist
Forest Kingfisher, Northern Territory, Australia

What quickly gets flagged up is my naive (but I would argue, uninfluenced) eye, when it comes to subject matter. I get the impression, when I see something new, and for me, exciting, that I may be getting swept away about the equivalent of the local common sparrow, or pigeon from the UK...two a penny.

Orange-footed Scrubfowl, Scrub fowl, Bush Chook, Darwin, Northern Territory, NT, Australia, David Dalzell, the wandering artist
Orange-footed Scrubfowl (Megapodius reinwardt) or "Bush Chook", Darwin, NT - Australia

Magpie-lark, Lark, Darwin, Northern Territory, NT, Australia, David Dalzell, the wandering artist
Magpie-Lark (Grallina cyanoleuca), Darwin, NT - Australia

The Orange-footed Shrubfowl (or Bush Chook) and the Magpie-Lark are two examples of this. They are a frequent resident of the Darwin area, and for the Bush Chook, in tropical areas of Australia, and for the Magpie Lark - throughout mainland Australia. They are wonderful birds however!

Finding them frequently may also give me the opportunity to show the animals in a new style and light, by using them in new compositions. In this next case, whilst looking at the Darwin Parliament Building - a wonderful example of art deco style design - popular around Darwin.

Keeping Watch, Parliament House, State Square, Darwin, Northern Territory, NT, Australia, Magpie-Lark, David Dalzell, The Wandering Artist
"Keeping Watch"

Wandering around the city, I have been able to begin to gain a perspective of the very new, with the very old. Composing "Keeping Watch" felt like the tensions between the ancient and the new, the natural and man-made worlds, and the inherent fragility of both.

The parliament building in Darwin is Australia's newest parliament, completed in 1994. A lot of Darwin was rebuilt after cyclone Tracy struck on Christmas Eve in 1974, and twenty years later this building was built on the old post office site. Such destructive force of cyclones for me is unimaginable, although it seems they are growing in frequency and force around our planet.

Shifting the perspectives for me gives the almost 'dinosaur' watchfulness of the bird to the fore. It brings an almost sinister air to the piece. Nature is often seen as beautiful, but of course it can also contain surprising destructive forces. During times where the natural world seems gentle, our influence could potentially unleash such huge and lethal forces, and the questions within this building would be most apt...what are we doing to our world?

Spending time on this continent brings the opportunity to increase my knowledge of the animal (including human) and plant kingdoms firsthand. The life and history here were separate for so long, that many things are very different, and I have only touched the surface. Only comparitively recently would it have been possible for someone like me to even be aware that this continent existed.

Watching the local wildlife is an activity that brings some challenges in identification. As a trained applied biologist, my strengths were more in the areas of the how, why and when of the biological world, rather than the what, and taxonomy has always been a little challenging for me, even in the UK.

Dave's local and national knowledge however, becomes invaluable, though there would be times when we were both utterly stumped.

Immediate answers are something that we have become more expectant of, demanding of even, as our electronic world has propelled us into an era of instantly accessible information.

Now I am not always content with the digital world...actually, at times I wonder if we have lost too much by adopting it - time, patience, perspective to name but three. Living in the world of online resources is somewhat an illusion that we can always access the right information, and act immediately, and my frustration levels are often a symptom of this phenomenon.

Artists and taxonomists in the past however, would have had a different approach to illustrating and identifying their prey...with results somewhat slower, and permanent, hunting either with a gun, or a net, with the prey ultimately stuffed or spiked on the end of a needle!

Thankfully, these days the technology we have to hand enables us to capture an organism, whilst allowing it to continue its life relatively unaffected.

Accepting the pros however, also means we have to accept the cons. And the virtual world is an ever-moving world of facts and figures. Caution speaks out that I would have need of an expert.

Taking pictures of the animal life here may result in images that can be used for art reference, but what do you do when you have no idea what it is?

The books needed are sometimes many, and not always to hand.

Interest had begun to turn towards the smaller, and at the same time vaster diversity, of the insect world.

A pair of rather intimately-locked butterflies had stumped us. They appeared to not at all be concerned by the photographic capturing of what should, I suppose, be a private matter (although they'd decided to throw propriety aside by using the balcony).

Graphium eurypylus nyctimus, Great Jay Butterflies, Butterfly, Darwin, Northern Territory, NT, Australia, David Norton
Graphium eurypylus nyctimus (Waterhouse & Lyell, 1914). © David Norton

With the butterflies digitally caught and showing no signs of stopping, to save blushes, our attention turned quickly to identification!

Where would we find an expert. Enter the virtual world of forums, stage left! And the joy when technology enables us to quickly connect up.

In just a few minutes I'd managed to find, join and introduce myself to the Insect Collectors Forum. This is a resource for insect collectors, enthusiasts and those with a virtually inexhaustible insectivorous appetite.

Within a few hours, I'd received an answer. Thank you Paul K from Canada! It was a sub-species of the Great Jay butterfly - Graphium eurypylus nyctimus (Waterhouse & Lyell, 1914).

And logging onto the Atlas of Living Australia, the image of these butterflies was loaded up, and the sighting recorded.

We just have to wait 1-2 weeks for it to appear on the site. Ah well. There's that reminder that not everything can be instant. We'd have to wait for confirmation that these butterflies were indeed what we thought they were.

For now, job done! Now I've only to create the artwork...

The Great Jay, Butterfly, Darwin, Northern Territory, NT, Australia, David Dalzell, The Wandering Artist
The Great Jay - Darwin - NT