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Celebrating The Slowness of Art

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Friday 26 February 2010

Celebrating The Slowness of Art

Over 2 years ago I wrote to Robert Genn, whose excellent artist’s newsletter I have been receiving for many years. I wanted to raise a tentative hand for slowness in art. I may have been out of step with current thinking because he did not reply. It was in response to the rise of the “daily painting” blog phenomena. The best daily painters are really wonderful and you can see exploration and enquiry in their work, but not all people work that way and I felt that some were being rushed into painting and drawing anything just to hit that daily deadline.

Some 5 years ago artist Grayson Perry wrote a piece which I had some sympathy with pleading for artists, galleries etc. to slow down a bit. You can read the whole article from Times online here.

“We are .. prone to being sucked into the idea that fast is somehow central to modernity. To be relevant is to be broadband-quick and dressed for next season………Picasso set an awesome precedent by knocking out three art works for every day of his life but Vermeer is held in reverence for a surviving oeuvre that wouldn’t crowd out the wall space in a squash court. So I ask gallerists and curators not to expect artists to churn out cool stuff like some cultural ice machine. Often I plan to see a certain exhibition only to find it has been superseded in the blink of an art historian’s eye by the next show.

If we all spent longer thinking, making and looking perhaps less bad art would get made, shown and seen.”

I am a great admirer of the “craft” of art, of the 10000 hours you need to put in to get something right. Not only do I admire its practitioners but it seems to be something I have to do. I enjoy ceramics, but the slow hand building of forms not work on the wheel. I like the cutting and preparing of lino blocks for printing, I will grind my pigments when I work in egg tempera after the laborious but satisfying preparation of gesso grounds. I have gilded and meticulously illuminated tiny things. I enjoy hand beading one tiny bead at a time. All this is slow work and does not make for a very exciting daily blog post. I know I am not alone and that many artists love this time spent engaging with materials and subject. There is a meditative and contemplative aspect to it.. that is much of its addictive charm.

A Slow Leaf 

My good friend John is taking some first steps towards fulfilling an ambition to be able to record his love of the natural world in drawings. Already an excellent photographer on his blog Nuncketest, John is charting his drawing progress publicly. If you go there you won’t see any flashy, slick, formula painting which often seems to clutter up galleries and great swathes of the internet but the intimate, quiet and thoughtful journey of someone who is really looking hard at things.

johns leaf John’s 25 hr leaf.

This “simple” leaf drawing was the result of ( a conservative, I think) 25 hours of work and observation. I am so glad John has recorded the time taken and I love that he talks about picking up “some comfort with my pencils and their sharpening” .

You can read more about John’s progress and his observations of the slow world of drawing. He records his thoughts and tutor feedback too. He is also telling you things that I want to put in every blogpost, that dog my steps every morning as I approach the drawing board.

“You know, sometimes getting started can be the most difficult thing. Whether it's coming up with the subject that feels right or a matter of confidence or even simply overcoming inertia, getting to the initial layout can be a chore. Once I get over that hurdle, I can settle nicely into a kind of meditative involvement. It's just that darned getting started...”..

The Slowness and Skill of the Animator.

I have always been in awe of animators. Their drawing skills are sublime. To be able to make a drawing move, to be able to bring pencil lines to life requires a combination of drawing skills, a total understanding of form and structure, an ability to see in three dimensions and then on top of that enormous empathy with, and understanding of “character”. To be able to convince us that something that started out as pencil lines has not only a life, but a personality we can relate to must be almost the pinnacle of creativity. Despite digital wizardry, it still is a slow art, and like many slow arts destined to be viewed in a second by a fast moving, image hungry public but the time and thought behind the work is staggering.

I look at lots of animators blogs.. one belongs to the brilliant animator Shane Prigmore who has just won an “Annie Award for best character design in an animated feature film” for the delightful “Coraline”. 

From his blog post March 2009 titled: CORALINE FACIAL ANIMATION !

“Henry Selick, knowing I was also an animator, asked me if I might Design , Develop and Test all of the Facial Animation (Expressions, Mouth shapes, Dialogue,Teeth) for every character in the film. How they will emote, and talk and hold their mouths and move their brows from every angle. I WAS ECSTATIC!! I did thousands of drawings designing the MASSIVE library of mouth shapes and expressions, and a SLEW of traditional animation dialogue tests to make sure everything worked just right.

Here is a VERY , VERY , TINY sample of just some of my facial animation design work.” 


You can read more about the fascinating process of getting this animated film into production on his blog, but you also see his beautiful drawings. this from a visit to the zoo, blog post “Back to the Zoo” in 2006. He says in his college days he was drawing “at the LA zoo almost every week for four years.”


The other day I heard a lady saying how very talented her daughter was at drawing.. said daughter wants to be an animator “ She can copy all the Manga characters really well ” said proud mother.. yes but can she draw I wanted to ask?

Illumination, a manuscript 10 years in the making

Another art form I have always admired is that of the illuminated  manuscript. My own very particular favourite The Luttrell Psalter a fabulous work of mystery, charm and humour made between approximately 1330 and 1340 and produced for the wealthy Sir Geoffrey Luttrell who lived just a few miles from my home. I have pored over and admired its contents since I was a little girl, its scenes of rustic Lincolnshire life imprinted on my mind from the pages of school history books (and yes there are bees!). In his excellent scholarly book on the Psalter “Mirror in Parchment”  Michael Camille describes the multi talented unknown artists, thus:

“Part alchemist, part cook and part botanist….Like the farmer, the illuminator had to keep an eye out for the weather which could affect his field of paint as easily as actual crops”

This is of a time when the artist was one of the “anonymous selfless medieval craftsmen, before the age of “art”.. and before the elevation of “artists” into some sort of special beings by the Royal Academy.

You can turn the pages of this wonderful book and others and consider their slow and careful production at the British Museum’s online “Sacred Texts” site 


What must be one of the most famous of medieval ploughing scenes with its doleful plodding oxen and dour ploughmen.. complete with strange being in the margin. from “Mirror in Parchment”  by  Michael Camille 1998. See also his excellent “Image on the Edge” 1993’

However, time spent does not equal good art. I am the first to know, to my cost, that  sometimes just five extra minutes can render something overworked and lifeless, and I love to see the hand of the artist in things, cold perfection is not what I like at all.

The beauty of a simple line drawing or of a confident brushstroke can be breathtaking but the casual observer may not know or care that perhaps 50 years or at least 10000 hrs of practice, experiment and careful observation may be its bedrock.

Why have I written all this????? ….well just to remind myself of the things I love,  and that being slow and spending 5 hours trying to get a bee’s face right is OK !


Anonymous greenman said...

Is that slowness that I do not have and admire. I get mad if something doesn't come wright at the first time!
Thanks for this post. I needed that!

(I'm not an artist, just curious!)

26 February 2010 at 16:43  
Anonymous kit said...

Wonderful post, I share your sentiments about slowness. You probably already know this quote from Hokusai, a postscript to One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji:
"From the time I was six, I was in the habit of sketching things I saw around me, and around the age of fifty, I began to work in earnest, producing numerous designs. It was not until after my seventieth year, however, that I produced anything of significance. At the age of seventy-three, I began to grasp the underlying structure of birds and animals, insects and fish, and the way trees and plants grow. Thus, if I keep up my efforts, I will have an even better understanding when I am eighty, and by ninety will have penetrated to the heart of things. At one hundred, I may reach a level of divine understanding, and if I live a decade beyond that everything I paint -every dot and line-will be alive. I ask the god of longevity to grant me a life long enough to prove this true."

26 February 2010 at 16:49  
Blogger Shady Gardener said...

Thank you Val. I have not allowed myself the time to draw for a long time. I begin reviewing my bird photos a couple of days ago and sketching some of those beauties from the bird feeders. It is, indeed, slow and meticulous (which I very much enjoy) work. :-) Thanks for making that okay!

26 February 2010 at 22:32  
Blogger John said...

What a lovely post, Val. Thanks so much for the kind words. :-)


26 February 2010 at 23:40  
Anonymous heidi said...

My goodness, a big thank you to Valerie! My art making process is quite slow and developmental, and often I have taken into question my way of working. I find I require time to simply "see", if that makes any sense. I even must "sit" with a piece of work for a few days before I can decide it is complete.

Spending over 7 hours today painting background colors on 7 small boards, your current post was a welcome hurrah to the end of my day. Thank you also for all the lovely links. I look forward to following John's progress in "seeing".

27 February 2010 at 03:53  
Blogger Dan said...

Hi Val
I love these posts you are doing on slowness! We hardly seem to make or take time to enjoy or appreciate anything properly these days! I have recently started drawing again, and at first I was 'in a hurry' to see the end result, but now I realise that I get so much more out of it if I put more time in! No pressure, no rushing, just doing the best that I can. I was interested to see John's drawings, and love the way he is experimenting and enjoying it.
When I looked at that manuscript the first thing I thought when I saw the strange creature was a wife or mother in law, standing over, dragon-like and willing the ploughing to be done as quickly as possible!
best wishes

27 February 2010 at 07:57  
Blogger sharp green pencil said...

So interesting to read your comments.. thank you all and so glad you are enjoying slowing down a bit!

Greenman .. I think you probably have more patience than you realise after all you do work with orchids! and you do me the honour of writing to me in English I wish I could return the favour in Portuguese!

Kit .. yes indeed I do know this humbling quote. I blogged abut it some time ago but I would be happy to have this comment on every blog post I ever do!!!Lovely to hear from you.

SG.. Fantastic! do let me know how you get on .. oh and how long it has taken, too :)

John.. you are very welcome people will enjoy finding your blog I some already have!!

Heidi you are so welcome I really empathise with your slow art production.I can spend hours staring into space trying to work things out and have had to restart 4 bees so far,, but no one ever knows all this do they?

Dan. well how wonderful you are drawing! It is a very slow process, there is definitely no hurrying a pencil. I like your take on the manuscript.. I do so agree..
and I was wondering if your terriers know the meaning of "slow"?

27 February 2010 at 20:57  
Anonymous gretchen said...

Looks like I'm a bit late to the party in reading & commenting this post- but what a wonderful post it is. I too, work ever so methodically and slowly. I find the whole process, from initial sketch/page design and layout through to the finished highlights a meditation and hours fly by like minutes. Also like you, I SO understand that 'last brushstroke' and how it can make or break a piece that I've labored over. One thing I need to practice is that when I think the piece is "almost" done, THAT is the time that I need to walk away, go make a cup of tea and return to my work with fresh eyes. Speaking of practice, I recently left a comment of John's blog "Nuncketest" re: the old story about an elderly Chinese artist- and how he was questioned by a patron about the high price he charged for a drawing that took only minutes to execute. He replied that it took him 25 years of practice to be able to draw that piece in so short a time!
Seems we are all on the same wavelength here; thank you for sharing this excellent post,

27 February 2010 at 23:12  
Blogger sharp green pencil said...

Hi there gretchen, lovely to hear from you. Oh if only we knoew exactly when to stop!! Re the chinese story..I have myself occasionally had to say that to people. I used to run a gallery and it was much easier to say it about other peoples work.. the trouble is that original art has become so devalued. I remember a remark from a woman who was looking at a small framed print for about $15.. she asked if it was an original. When I said no she was huffy and said she wouldn't pay that for a print!! .. sigh

28 February 2010 at 21:54  
Blogger Bozena Wojtaszek said...

Hi, I'm a quiet admirer of your blog (and drawings!) but this post (and examples) is something else - thanks for this!

1 March 2010 at 18:25  
Blogger sharp green pencil said...

Thank you so much Bozena you are very kind.How wonderful to hear from someone in Poland. Your quilts are very beautiful. That is a slow art if ever there was one! I am always ashamed of my lack of language skills when someone like you writes so well in English.. a little Spanish is all I can manage. Thank you for taking the time and trouble! :)

3 March 2010 at 00:43  
Blogger Terra said...

Celebrating slowness is so fine.
I love the glowing beauty of illuminated manuscripts created by monks; it is close to indescribably beautiful.

7 March 2010 at 00:21  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How interesting - slowness. Does anyone feel they warp time when they are concentrating on a task, or is it just me! Talking of the Luttrell Psalter, we too were inspired by the images and turned them in to a short film. The film itself took one year to shoot, we filmed the agricultural year and the changing seasons in real time. All of the clothes were hand made too - I think that qualifies for slowness too!

30 June 2010 at 08:10  
Blogger sharp green pencil said...

Period wardrobe: I am so delighted to get your comment! sorry for late reply.. I am fascinated by the Psalter . I shall be returning to the UK in September and hope to spend a bit more time in the area with maybe some drawings .. you are so right about the slowness of making clothes by hand!! Lovely to film in real time!!!

18 July 2010 at 12:13  

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