I came across these terms in an article on contemporary art. There the observation was made that a lot of artists have great technique but very little substance .
It made me think!
Up until now, the focus for me had been on improving my technique but what is meant by substance? Does my art have substance and how is it measured?
My art does have a theme which is wildlife. It is what I am interested in and… it is what I enjoy drawing. But my assumption is that the writer of the article on contemporary art would regard that in itself as insufficient to give the art substance. So, should I be placing more emphasis on the substance of a drawing?
On reviewing the drawings that I have completed, most are head portraits where the challenge had been to improve my technique particularly in the rendering of the eyes. It is important to me that my subjects have well drawn eyes. In my view, this is what brings life to a subject. But what motivated me in the first place to choose a particular subject to draw?
Take this drawing of a red squirrel, it does radiate “cuteness” , but that was not the attraction. My interest was more to do with the way this particular animal seemed to have suddenly stopped on that branch with a direct look of inquisitiveness. I imagine the squirrel to be asking the question:
Is there an opportunity for food here?
If the squirrel was not inquisitive, it would struggle to find enough food.
On the other hand, this Hare that I have still to finish is not as cute as the squirrel.
Surviving in open fields and on mountain tops constantly exposed to the elements and predators particularly those that may fly in from above, must result in the animal living constantly on its nerves. To me that wide eyed alert look suggests fear and I imagine it to be constantly asking the question:
Are you going to eat me?
Would giving more emphasis to such concepts improve the substance of my art? Who decides what substance is?
Another drawing worth considering is the cheetah.
It is an animal built for speed and to reflect that, there are a lot of what I would describe as loose strokes but in this context, hopefully, it conveys motion and therefore I am relaxed about that.
As for another piece that I am currently working on which is an Orangutan and her baby… this is a piece that I did consider in a bit more detail.
It is on a dark surface. I did that deliberately as the fiery orange and reds of the animal against the black background in my view inject an element of fear into the piece. This is particularly relevant when you consider that the motivation behind the piece was to raise awareness of the indiscriminate destruction of their rain forest habitat. The fear experienced by these animals when the destruction begins can only be imagined!
However, I do accept that these interpretations of my art are mine and I guess they may not necessarily be shared by the viewer. Should that differing view be considered a problem?
Through discussion with my partner, we both agreed that every picture does have a story. But, how that story is interpreted will be up to the viewer. I may draw a squirrel with the intention of interpreting the inquisitive nature of a squirrel so vital for it’s survival but for others, they may be happy to admire it for its cuteness. The fact that I used loose strokes to convey the speed that a cheetah can achieve may be criticized by some but for others the choice of stroke is irrelevant. What matters to them is the entirety of the piece and whether they like it or not. Does that difference in opinion of the technique matter?
For me what matters the most is that I am happy with the piece and that it has meaning to at least someone! Now, I do acknowledge that my art may not be regarded by many as deep and meaningful. But then, I don’t think it matters how academic or how simple that meaning is as long as it is accessible. Differences in the opinion of the interpretation of a drawing and the technique and style of a piece creates the opportunity for discussion. That is what makes art interesting and I would suggest is what gives it substance. As for the measurement of that substance surely that can be measured by how much discussion a particular piece of art generates!
In conclusion : I will keep drawing what I draw, strive to improve my technique and will think a bit more about the story my art is trying to convey. What I will not do is get too hung up about substance!
From trying to work on six projects at once, I am now down to a more manageable three.
The fox is now complete but the butterfly will, unfortunately, have to stay as a demonstration piece. While explaining to others what to do and what not to do with regard to the use of watercolour pencils, I have shown too many examples of what not to do. I now think it would be difficult to retrieve the piece.
But, all is not lost as using the experience I will then go on at some point to do the butterfly again. It will be part of a series of drawings and I have references that are my own. It is always satisfying to use your own references. The artwork is then truly yours.
The Wolf is virtually complete but I am struggling to decide when I should call it finished. Every time I stand back and take a look… something catches my eye that could do with further work. If I am not careful I am going to overwork this piece. That would be unfortunate as I am really pleased with how it looks, particularly as it was a challenge to use only a limited number of pencils. Five watercolour pencils were used along with a Derwent Chinese white pencil for the fur while the eyes were completed using two polychromous oil based pencils.
Watercolour pencils I feel should offer more possibilities but I guess the problem is that it takes time to get to know them… something that can be a struggle to find.
With the butterfly being put to one side to be redone at a later date, the Hare and the Squirrel have had more work done on them than was expected. Both should be completed within the next week.
There has been no further progress on the Orangutan.
After the completion of the Squirrel and the Hare, I really need to crack on with this piece therefore until then it’s no more new projects.
Normally, I don’t like having more than three or four projects on the go at any one time! But, I currently find myself with six projects and only the fox nearing completion.
Portrait of a Red Fox WIP
Small Tortoiseshell Butterfly WIP
Red Squirrel WIP
Family Portrait of an Orangutan and Baby First work in progress
So, why take on so many?
As the completion of a project nears, an eagerness to get onto the next project starts to take over. By going ahead and making a start on another project the pressure to simply rush the current project eases.
Also, pausing that initial project allows the following question to be considered:
Is the project progressing in the way that was intended?
After plotting out the second drawing I then go back and continue with the main project.
If the first project is particularly big then I may start a third project. Usually, by this time the first project is near completion and it is very rare to start a fourth. That only happens if there is a theme that involves a series of four artworks.
The reason I have found myself in this predicament is down to a clash of commitments, timescales and not planning properly.
Volunteering to undertake a demonstration on watercolour pencils required some preparation. It was a good opportunity to further explore their potential using the Albrecht Durer range. The butterfly was the planned demonstration piece with the wings being split into sections to show how watercolour pencils can be used both wet and dry.
What I had not planned for was the undertaking of a wolf project.
The wolf was started as I fancied trying pencils that had been bought some time ago and not been used. These were from the Caran d’ Ache Museum Aquarelle Watercolour range. They are considered by many to be the best. Apart from the use of Polychromous oil based pencils for the eyes, the rest of the work will be undertaken by only using the five watercolour pencils that I have from the Museum Aquarelle range. Unfortunately, they are expensive but nevertheless lovely pencils to use.
I am looking forward to finishing the wolf even though he was an unplanned project.
Then along came a deadline to focus more on local wildlife. That required the starting of two more projects which were the Hare and the Red Squirrel.
Suddenly, I had lots of uncompleted artworks.
If I want the artwork to be completed on time, a more disciplined approach is required
In the short term, I will be prioritising on the completion of the fox and then the butterfly. After that, I will concentrate on the wolf.
Unfortunately, the Orangutan which was started way back in early January will need to be put on hold while I concentrate on the local wildlife theme which will continue with the Hare and the Red Squirrel.