Tag Archives: history

Expressing Creativity – Exploring Materials

Modernism, the historical art era encompassing the late 19th Century through the first half of the 20th, is characterized by an emphasis on materials, media and form rather than metaphorical content. They also wanted to remind people that art, even that of the great masters, was just paint on surfaces.

Artists were exploring the tactile quality of paint itself or the properties of stone or metal – essentially examining the Elements of Design (Shape, Line, Color, Texture, and so on) in their pure forms without seeking to tell stories or express meaning. One might say that the Modernists were fighting a losing battle against human nature, since we are biologically programmed to seek meaning and notice relationships – create stories – and will do so even when none exist. Humans seek to make sense from information, while one big part of Modernism wants to depict nonsense for its own sake. (Eg Dada and Theater of the Absurd).

Writing included the stream-of-consciousness novel and poetry that was more about the sound of words than their meanings. In music atonal or 12 tone music rose, with all its unresolved glory along with the famous John Cage conceptual composition 4’33” – one of several silent pieces. The Wikipedia entry on Modernism has a positive cornucopia of links to the theoretical thinkers, writers and artists of the era. They wanted to explore the stylistic conventions of various kinds of art work, but from a distance, without getting drawn in to the stories.

Rothko Chapel

Mark Rothko (1903-1970) was a Modernist painter whose large scale mono or duo chrome works are the epitome of Modernist non-subjective art. The Rothko Chapel in Houston, TX is a non-denominational meditation chapel, and is open and free to the public. Inside the Rotunda, lit entirely by natural light, are fourteen large scale monochrome oil paintings by Rothko. The light constantly changes so the texture of each painting also changes.

Rothko Chapel

Interior Rothko Chapel

When I visited there in the mid-1980’s I felt like there were figures buried inside the darkness. I persisted in trying to see what was hidden. The paintings seem to have a lot of depth. It was very serene and relaxing, but I still wanted to find a subject in the non-subjective artworks. But then again, I also like finding shapes in the texture of popcorn ceilings.

What does this mean for a creativity practice today?

Modernist practice gives us permission to play with materials and media, to enjoy the process without worrying about the outcome or product. We can smoosh paint, or roll it, combine blocks of color or repeat simple shapes over and over. We can stack wood, metal and stone pieces in pleasing combinations.

Some of the best ideas for Modernist experiments come from ideas for children’s sensory play crafts. Throw pigments, pour, spray and embrace randomness. But also combine surfaces and textures. Use one color of different media for a shadow box or other display – paint, inks, pencils, crayons, collage, fabric, found objects

Simple Art Project Ideas.

Scumbled Duotone Canvases 

When used in theater sets, scumbling is a paint technique where colors are mixed together on the surface with the painting tools. In art scumbling refers to washing the darker finish with lighter colors (often with a nearly dry applicator) to mute the colors below. The tool defines the kind of edges the paint makes – roller, brush, sponge, rags.

  • Use two of your chosen tools to smoosh paint on the surface and then blend the edges together forming an ombré.
  • If you like Rothko, try pairs of rectangles with soft edges. Also consider a central circle surrounded by another color.
  • Arrange several of these finished canvases in a grouping to enhance your modern styled interiors.

Pinned Color Swatches

  • Cut many squares from paint chip samples.
  • Pin them in a geometric arrangement to a cork board with small ball pins in one color.
  • Alternatively use a hole punch to make many exact shapes quickly.

Enlarged Macro Images

  • Collect random items with only physical characteristics in common, such as shape, color or texture.
  • Take photos of them, especially macros, and print to create another art grouping.

Resources and Places

Scumbling, glazing and wash at Artists’ Network 

Suzy Kitman demonstrates Impasto This is a very cool palette knife technique shown by artist Suzy Kitman. I would argue that despite there being a subject in her work, the main value is the texture and the paint itself, which to me makes it Modernist. The image is just an excuse to use particular colors.

Pete’s Original Art – Abstract painting video showing many tools and blending techniques.

Modernist Pin Board

Modernism

 

 

Inspired By Research; Inspired To Research

I love doing research as a creativity tool. With the internet this is so much easier than it used to be.

When I was young research for any type of project meant a trek to the library. Our high school library was nice but it had nothing on the State Library of NSW downtown in Sydney with its subterranean stacks and endless card catalog. Plus the building was very impressive with its sandstone dignity, stained glass skylights and traditional wood decor.

What’s a “card catalog”? the whippersnappers ask. It was where research began – looking for an author or book mentioned in a bibliography, or going to a subject index and starting there. I was being my own Google.

Card Catalogue at State Library of NSW - just one of several cabinets

Card Catalogue at State Library of NSW – just one of several cabinets

While a tremendous number of books are available on the reading room shelves, many more are kept in stacks.Having found the reference book I wanted, the process was to fill out a request form and hand it (possibly after standing in line) to the assistant librarian on stacks duty, and then wait while they used the mysterious series of numbers that are the Dewey Decimal System to find the location of the copy, send some even more junior person to walk the stacks, and return with the book.

Reference books could not be borrowed, only read in the adjacent reading room. Long heavy wood desks, hard wood desk chairs, art deco style reading lamps.

I’m not really nostalgic for that process at all – it was time consuming and dependent on the assiduousness of the people creating the cross reference notations. A whole trip to the library could be taken up just with formulating the reading list.

But I do still like the visceral elements of this process. Hand typed cards, with faintly yellowed edges and even hand written added notations – sometimes with actual ink pens. The decor. Silence as a palpable thing, reinforced by the sound deadening architecture. The smell of old books.

Every time I designed costumes for a new show, I reinforced my own personal library with a trip to downtown. I liked to immerse myself in period information, making copious notes, sketches, and – get this – having a few select pages photocopied by the librarian! We weren’t permitted to make our own copies with those new fangled and supposedly temperamental Xerox machines.

How Research Stimulates Creativity

Sometimes it only takes a little bit of research – priming the pump – to get my thoughts, ideas, lists and sketches flowing. It’s always good to pause the research and make notes, mind storm some of the ideas, and go where your thought journeys take you. Personally I find if I don’t grab the moment and jot down ideas immediately, they sometimes get engulfed by the ongoing information input. You can pick up where you left off with your reading and notes, but not always with your idea flow.

At other times, I have been at a loss, and found I needed more comprehensive information before anything useful arose in my mind. I might have been looking for a hook, or a way in to my story. I might have been looking for the right visual motif.

Sometimes I found the theme of my vision adjacent to my mainstream research. For example once I was looking at wartime young people’s clothing, but what really helped me capture my design was looking at school uniforms from 10 years earlier.

Research might mean refreshing the memory – revisiting facts and ideas somewhat known – or it might mean finding information wholly new to you. It’s a stirring stick. It’s new ingredients thrown in. You don’t have to rely entirely on what is already in your head.

Research might be goal oriented and directed. The question is “How do I achieve this”. It generally has been so for me when I am designing something, or need to understand particular techniques to achieve a predetermined result – such as my webpage.

Or it might be experimental and exploratory – following threads until something sparks. The question is “Where will this take me?” If you are stuck, research might be the key. It could be a simple as going to the paint department and looking at the new paint colors, looking at a catalog, going to a different section at the Natural History Museum, or following a repin trail on Pinterest.

The Dark Side of Research

Research can be a time sucker and productivity killer. It’s all very well to follow the rabbit hole and surf the endless links for new connections, when you have plenty of time or no deadline. But sometimes it’s time to stop and actually do some creative work.

Mad Hatter Latin design

“We’re All Mad Here”

Some people, and I have certainly been guilty of this myself, will use research as the ultimate procrastination tool. I think we know when we are putting off getting started, and when we are genuinely stuck or need a bit more information. It can take self discipline to stop following the tantalizing tangents, especially now with so much information so easily available. In the old days at the library I was conscious of definite consequences if I decided I needed another tome, and sometimes a look at the clock decided the matter for me.

I know the feeling when I am using research to procrastinate. I start shifting around in my chair, and feeling twitchy inside. Better just to stop then – put in a bookmark – and instead move on the next step of collating my notes.

You can’t know everything about a topic – even if you are an expert. The old joke is that experts are people who know “more and more about less and less” – and that is great. But for creative work, you only need to hold in your head and notes, as much as you need to move forward. There will always be more and new information to find – some of it may be what you contribute.

Let research be a tool that you use, not a barrier to action.

 Research tools

  • Written published material – whether on line or in hard copy
  • Spoken word, oral histories – ditto – but the web makes access so much easier
  • Video material – documentaries, histories, how-to videos on You Tube
  • Memory – interviewing people, finding instructors
  • Trial and error, and exploring materials, as I mentioned in my prior theme.
  • Museums, galleries, and Aunty Mabel’s attic – places with visual artifacts.

Here’s my latest Infographic – about intentional research:

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Please share this wherever you wish.

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Aesthetic Preference – Shabby Chic

Lois Crowley Heritage layout

Lois Crowley Heritage Layout

I’m talking about Shabby Chic this week, because it follows on so sweetly from Romantic Country Cottage.

The term was coined, and trademarked, by textile artist and interior designer Rachel Ashwell. The style in home decor is characterized by a lot of whitewashing and very pale pastels. The accessories, textiles, and furniture are usually old or look old with intentional distressing. The watchword is Texture.

Hallmarks of shabby chic style include using glamorous and luxurious elements like gorgeous chandeliers in casual settings, and layering folk art elements like quilts and lace tablecloths.

There are two ways to achieve the worn and distressed look on furniture or other items. The most effective, in my opinion, is to sand back the paint at the edges, high spots, and places where “wear” would naturally occur. Using a nice wax based colored polish will add patina.

The other way is to add paint in a rough, even sloppy, way so that the underlayers show through. The best way to achieve that is to use crackle paint finishes, which are designed to shrink as they dry and reveal the underlayers as if they were aged in the sun and rain over decades.

Shabby chic designs include laces, textures, and frayed edges. Printed and stenciled texts remind us of old flour sacks or tea chests. Chalkboard – black with white lettering – is another recently popular element. Empty picture frames, sometimes stacked, suggest the idea of incompleteness.

A shabby garden would have more white flowers, and wild flowers, rusty metal elements, old bathtubs filled with shrubs, lavender (again) and peonies. Clothing would include antique and Victorian lace blouses, tulle layers, granny boots and textured tights (roll on winter). I think faded velvet shawls too.

To me fairy tales sometimes feel shabby chic – the cottage in the forest that is run down and filled with old books, the strange old castle with wrought iron fencing.

Here’s how I described it in my shabby chic treasury:

Simple, aged, distressed, neutral colors & pale, weathered, folk. Old lace. Connection, history, folk tales, burlap, farm house, sheers. Timeworn. Miss Haversham. “To Kill a Mockingbird”. “Picnic at Hanging Rock”.

To this I would add pale lilac, mint green, robin’s egg blue, blush. Wabi-sabi all over again.

Quail Eggs in a dish

Quail Eggs in a dish

Ways to Bring the Shabby

It’s popular because it’s easy.

One way to add shabby chic elements to your decor is to paint vintage or old things – tins, hooks, wood boxes, candlesticks, ornate picture frames – with white or pastel paint and sand the edges. The paint color adds a unifying aspect.

Another is to bleach floral prints and incorporate plain muslins, lace, crochet in cream string, doilies, and many layers of sheers as the textile elements – drapes, table cloths, pillows and slipcovers.

Include vintage and aged garden accessories – especially urns, wire frames from topiary work, and baskets.

Add nostalgic and memory elements – like hanging a vintage baby’s christening robe on a twisted wire hanger among a bunch of silk hydrangeas. Use old pewter and tarnished silver cups and jugs. Mercury glass.

Bring architectural elements, carvings and castings, that might normally be on the exteriors inside.

Shabby looks great in company with industrial, mid-century modern, or minimalism, and loves Beach Cottage style too. However, in my opinion, it doesn’t work as well with Traditional – since it either looks like you aren’t done refinishing the rest of the furniture, or that you have a bunch of old stuff that needs refurbishing. In a house full of very Traditional furniture, I would stick to a few pillows, and small items.

There are a lot of scrapbookers using shabby chic style in their layouts. It works especially well with a touch of glam – silver beads, tiny rhinestones, pearls and old buttons.

Family Ancestors mini-album

Family Ancestors mini-album

Because it is all about the white, it is also a very popular wedding theme.

Plus it’s a great way to affectionately showcase beloved heirlooms.

Carved old mirror

Carved old mirror

 

Please visit my Shabby Chic Aestheric Preference Pinterest Board to see more examples. Do you love it? 

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