Start Making Art

‘When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change’

Max Planck, – Eight Lectures on Theoretical Physics

Making Art Yourself

This article is about making art. It is an invitation to make art for yourself, and with groups, as experiential learning. Most importantly it is about making art as a form of exploration, discovery or research. It is a starting point for me as I intend to develop more ways of sharing practice through this site.

Making art as a form of research is not new idea, but it is part of an ancient discussion. Plato believed art was illusion, an imitation of real things, and thus it moved us away from truth, but that this illusion was powerful and thus dangerous. He believed it should form part of the education of young people, but should be censored, to present only ‘good’ images. Aristotle thought art was an essential way to learn by copying or experimenting with ideas. He thought art had form and content of it’s own. Plato pointed to heaven. Aristotle to the earth. The arguments about how the making a sharing of images as a source of creation or corruption is with us to this day, in discussion about access to images and ideas on the internet. Nothing changes.

But art as a way of knowing is currently very hot in the world of art education, particularly at the post graduate level. Art and craft education is probably the most experiential of all formal education paths. It is a path that includes fine art, design, drama, music, coding and game design. It is a natural ally of outdoor learning, and has a lot to offer, as a way of developing creativity, exploring aesthetics and broadening participation. Like outdoor learning however, one would not expect an educator to use canoeing as a learning tool, without the educator having knowledge and experience of canoeing. If you already make art, you may well use it in your work. If you are new to art, this article has ideas about how to start with art making. When you make art the end product is valuable, but the journey undertaken on the way is even more valuable. The benefits are in what you find on your journey, more that where you end up. Making art is an adventure. This is why it is a useful tool for outdoor experiential educators. It can be used to facilitate the inner adventure to complement and enhance the outer adventure. The ideas below point the way to help you undertake your own journey ion discovery. What you find will help you and will inform any work you do with groups. You cannot take a person to a place you have not been to yourself.

1. Start With Theft.

All art making has to come from somewhere. But all artists start by copying other peoples ideas. Pablo Picasso said ‘Art is theft’. David Bowie said ‘The only art I’ll ever study is stuff I can steal from.’ The argument is that nothing is original. On your own journey, start by finding art you like and copy it. Trawl book shops for ‘art’ books. Charity shops and discount book shops are a great start. Collect images you like and imitate them. Buy a pencil case and some pencils and a notebook. Use any of the many drawing apps for tablets. 

Here is my first recommended read . It is ‘Steal Like an Artist – 10 things Nobody Told You About Being Creative,’ by artist Austin Kleon. In the book Kleon suggests that the artist is a collector. The artist collects ideas and turns them into artform, first as copies then as their own art.  Jean Luc Goddard, the film maker said ‘It’s not where you take things from it’s where you take them to.’

2. Just Do It

Kleon reiterates the cry of the activist to ‘Just Do It’. He says ‘If I’d waited to know who I was or what I was about before I started “being creative,” well I’d still be sitting around trying to figure myself out instead of making things. In my experience it’s in the act of making things and doing our work that we figure out who we are.’ Use your notebook and draw, collect ideas, copy images, paste clippings of ideas and images. But just do it.  This is sometimes called a tear book or swipe book in the art world. You will learn how and why to do art by doing it. Kloen identifies the ‘Imposter Syndrome’ experienced by most artists. As a beginner you feel like an imposter, like your art is not worthy. Work through it. Use it to have empathy with clients new to all those challenging outdoor activities. Imposter syndrome is a sign you are learning. Just keep collecting and drawing and doing.

3. Don’t Call it Art

After a while the collecting images will start to have a pattern or take on a consistent form. You will get to see what you like and don’t like. Like Kleon suggests, you collect images, ideas and turn them into your own art. The way you look at things and see things will change. This is a great thing for you, but a great thing to get to with people you work with. In this one thing you have already learned enough to start doing art with groups. But I have found, the moment you call something ‘Art’, some people will run a mile. The trick is to not call it art. 

Here is my second recommended read. Get hold of a book by Keri Smith called ‘How to be an Explorer of the World – A Portable Art Life Museum ’ (On Amazon for under £3). Smith gives about 60 different ways to explore the world. Not one of them called art. These include ‘How to wander aimlessly’ and ‘Interesting Garbage’ and ‘Found Smells’. These are like scavenger hunts on creative steroids. All explorations have 5 principles which support experiential learning. ‘Observe, Collect, Analyse, Compare and Notice Patterns.’ She cites the roots of the word art as meaning ’To Arrange’ or ‘Fit Together’. In this sense art is about taking familiar things and seeing them in a new way. It is creative. Smith says ‘When I look closely at the work of all my favourite artists…I notice they are all collectors.’ This reiterates Kleons’ idea of artists as collectors, and opens up the scope for art to become research or exploration. But you can make your own images without drawing.

4. Take out of Focus Photographs.

All phones these days have cameras. A phone is a great place to start your own art research. One of Smiths explorations is called ‘Found Faces’. For yourself or with groups, you could collect images of faces in tree bark or plumbing or car grilles. The point is that by starting to collect images you are starting to be an artist. 

But a picture of a face is not a face. A drawing of a tree is not a tree. In reality you are not copying the world. You are making an image of your version of the world. Think of a map. Think of a map as art. A 1:25,000 map depicts the world around you but on a smaller scale. It shows you stuff about the world you could never see with your eyes. A campsite 5 miles away in a valley, totally out of sight. The Mona Lisa shows you an image of a real girl called Lisa Gherardini who lived in Italy in the 16th century. Art gives us the power to control or change how things are seen. 

Garry Winogrand, a famous street photographer said “I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed,” and “If I saw something in my viewfinder that looked familiar to me, I would do something to shake it up.” By taking or making our own images, we have the power to change how things look.  Here is my third recommended read. ‘Why It Does Not Have To Be In Focus: Modern Photography Explained’ By Jackie Higgins. 

Other good places are notebooks and envelopes and boxes. These can collect drawings or objects or words. What is collected has two elements. One is the value it has to the artist/collector. The other is the value it has to another person. If you make art it is good to share it. That is part of art. Notebooks, envelopes and boxes as collections allow the collector to choose how to share. This is important to help you become an artist and other people to do art. More on how to share later, as this helps establish safety for your showing your very personal creations to other people.

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