Every September, on the south eastern Florida coast, there is an opportunity to see and film Goliath Groupers. They gather there to mate. They are gentle giants and they move slowly; seemingly content to weave in and out of divers. I joined Pura Vida Divers, from Riviera Beach Dive Shop, on their boat – The Aurelia – for the chance of seeing them and I was in luck. As soon as we completed out first descent, there they were, as if they had been waiting for us. Fortunately there was little to no current. It was overcast and threatening to rain so the light was not kind and my filter was not up to the job of restoring all the lost colours correctly and in balance but this dive wasn’t really about that. It was about the experience. To float along with these creatures in communal bliss and some kind of unspoken understanding is a privilege and if I have conveyed that with this single image; then I am happy. This kind of image is more frequently linked to sharks who are associated with fear and danger when viewed overhead; lurking; sizing up potential prey; assessing their moment to strike. It is shame that any marine life is tagged with these undeserved characteristics but an image like the one I have produced hopefully goes some way to correcting such negative reputations. I was diving at ninety feet and the sun, even though hidden behind the clouds, still managed to pierce the water and place the Goliath in silhouette. It makes for a more startling image; I hope. I have produced a four minute video of the highlights of this dive, which is on my YouTube Channel Mediterranean Blue Films and four shorter segments on my Facebook page. If you haven’t subscribed to my YouTube channel, please go and take a look and sign up. My underwater art playlist grows weekly.
I wanted to respond to a question that some of my followers, here and on my Facebook Art Page, have asked me recently. They wanted to know when I was going to turn my digital images into paintings? I think that at least some of them see a distinction between the two, where one is art (a painting) and the other is something else, but not art. So, if digital art isn’t art, what is it? Indeed what is art?
When I attended school we drew with pencils (carbon, granite lead etc., – hard or soft) and painted with, in my case, powdered paints and brushes, on various grades of paper. If the art teacher thought your work was good, it was hung on the wall. At art college, and then, later, university, the powdered paint pots were replaced by tubed paints and the quantity and quality of the hair in the brushes improved too, as a consequence of higher budgets and, possibly, an acknowledgement that if you had chosen to specialise in art, at further and higher academic levels, then you were worthy of better materials. I graduated in 1997 as a mature student and whilst we were using computers then (Apple Macs in the Art Department of course) and even constructing rudimentary static web pages, we were still a fairly long way from the idea that art could be produced and presented in digital format.
Art history suggests that Paleolithic humans could be thought of as artists because of the marks they made on cave walls, which were, it is thought, created not just to communicate and express ideas and thoughts of the times, to themselves, but as a legacy for those that might come later. Some historians suggest that some of them are religious or shamanic in theme, providing outward manifestations of inner thoughts. Whatever the truth of this, we know that human beings have long used a variety of available materials to express themselves aesthetically through a variety of mediums in two and three dimensional form.
The earliest art tended to represent animals, especially those that were considered to be totemic because of their special powers, such as being able to fly or breath under water, but as the heaven became separated from earth (the sacred and the secular binary opposite), symbolically, so the idea of the lone artist, working for the early churches and the monarchy, emerged. This is probably where the idea stems from that art should demonstrate hours and weeks of intensive labour and endeavour and should showcase technical mastery. Medieval painters in Europe were sponsored or patronised by the church or the monarchy so that they could acquire their materials (colour was ground from stone, for example) and maintain a studio. The idea that an artist could choose their own subject matter or express their own ideas was unthinkable. There was nowhere for art to be displayed, apart from inside the palaces of kings and queens and churches or palatial residences of wealthy religious leaders. Artists were, even through the Renaissance period, regarded as tradesmen, albeit highly trained technicians, and prized in certain cases. Some even became rich in their own right if they pleased their sponsors especially if they made them look highly attractive, desirable, powerful, influential etc. A select few would become known as geniuses, such as Michelangelo or Leonardo da Vinci.
It wasn’t until the turn of the twentieth century, though, that the concept of the self-determining artist really emerged. One who chose their own subject matter, based on their own world-views, ideas, beliefs, opinions and so on. They still needed sponsors if they were not independently wealthy and we only have to think of Van Gogh, as an example, who could not have painted without his brother’s financial patronage. Interestingly, it was at this same point in art history that impressionistic art was born (art that broke the rules of how and what to paint).
From here on there were significant advances in technology that had a huge impact on art and art production. Paint was produced in tubes (which was the reason why the impressionists could paint ‘en plain air’) for example. The invention of photography (at the latter part of the nineteenth century) also changed art forever. Now that it was possible for ‘reality’ to be captured by the camera, there was no need for artists to produce faithful reproductions of the world in front of them. Impressionism gave way to Expressionism and then on to Cubism, Fauvism and Surrealism as artists experimented with colour, form and shape and played with approaches to reality.
The introduction of photographs meant that ‘prints’ or reproductions of paintings could be produced, which made art more accessible to ordinary people. I still remember reading, at university, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1935), an essay by Walter Benjamin, which proposed that the mechanical reproduction of a work of art devalued the original because it detracted from its uniqueness. It is certainly still true to this day that when an artist paints a picture, they will place more commercial value on it, than they will the prints, (or reproductions) and in some cases, they refuse to sell the original at all. This is where we reach the crux of the question I posed at the start of this post.
The reason why the original work of art, produced in paint on canvas, attracts a higher price tag than re-prints of it (by both the artist, agents, galleries, critics and consumers), is not just because of the uniqueness of the original but because the mass production of the reprints is viewed as a form of dumbing down. The fact that the art becomes available in vast numbers detracts from its value. If it can be bought anywhere by just about anyone then it almost has no value at all. Added to that is the fact that the brush strokes have become flattened and the colours do not calibrate. It is no longer the original painting. It is a poor imitation. It is a fraud.
These sentiments lie behind some people’s suspicions about digital art. As if it wasn’t bad enough that prints of great (and not so great) art can be churned off the presses, now anyone can be an artist. We have the technology. We can make art on our computers, mobile phones, lap tops, tablets and so on. Anyone can post a digital picture anywhere and call it art. The process might only take minutes and there are no worries about finding a gallery that will accept it. Instagram, Facebook and Twitter (among many others) are all willing to host our creative efforts.
I’ve done the same myself. I have set up a web site and a Facebook art page and called myself an artist. I don’t wait for critics to affirm my work, I just go ahead and produce it and present it to my fans and followers. My online gallery contains photographs of all my original paintings but it also contains photographs that I have worked on to create a digital piece of art. Here is one such example:
I worked on this photograph extensively using Photoshop and Pixlr. The original picture was very impromptu but I could see it had potential so I worked on it to make adjustments (e.g. size, aspect ratio, lighting, tone, colour saturation, texture) to every aspect of it until I was happy with it. I then finally applied filters to give it that ‘painterly’ quality. It was generally well received but several people asked me if I was going to do a painting from it and that’s really what provoked me to ask the question about digital art.
Interestingly, when I do a painting, I don’t use photographs. I may resort to them only if I need to go back and check some small details because the weather, season, lighting etc. have changed since I started the painting but, apart from that, I paint from what it is in front of me. However, when I take a photograph, I like to turn it into a painting. The reasons for this are various but it’s largely about what people like. People don’t buy photographs in the same way that they do art (and when I say art here, I mean paintings or prints). I think there is a snobbish attitude to photography, in some people’s minds, which causes them to believe that because technology has been used to create the photograph and it took one second to press the shutter-release button, it can’t possibly show as much craft, labour, training, planning or even thought as a painting. Interestingly, when I studied on an art foundation course (the pre-requisite to studying for a degree in art) I specialised in fine art (painting), which was differentiated from sculpture, ceramics, textiles, illustration, graphic design and photography. Sculpture and ceramics also suffered from the distinction drawn between an original work and a facsimile. Consider this article as an example of that point:
Since David is one of the world’s most popular pieces of art, there are reproductions of it on t-shirts, mouse pads, and just about any medium you can imagine. But even full-fledged replicas exist—and Florence has two of them: While the real David sits in a museum, a full-sized copy stands in its original place in front of the Palazzo Vechio, and a bronzed replica towers over the city from its perch on Piazzale Michelangelo.
There is a wonderful piece of software for digital artists who work on iPads, called Pro-Create. It is very complex and it replaces physical paints, brushes, pencils and canvases with their digital counterparts. Diehard enthusiasts of traditional painting and painting methods might wonder why artists would even consider painting digitally but there are many, many reasons why they would do so. The portability of an iPad is one of the major considerations but it’s also about versatility and what can be done with the image afterwards. It’s beyond the scope of this post to describe the exciting ways that Pro-Create images can be processed and used in other applications, including the moving image, but suffice to say those artists who have embraced digital, have found that it enhances the potential for creativity.
I found this digital picture to be in some ways reminiscent of the work of Henri Rousseau, the French Primitive artist who was, ironically, self-taught and had never seen the desert, jungles, lions, tigers or any of the other creatures and landscapes (in their original contexts) that populated his paintings. I located this picture on a web site called http://www.artranked.com and it wasn’t attributed. If I could, I would. I would be happy to hang this on my wall and I could print it, frame it and do that. I wouldn’t be able to afford a Rousseau. The issue about what kind of art we want to hang on our walls will be the subject of another blog (as well as the issue of whether we should appropriate images from the internet, just because we can) but I thought this was a fitting picture to finish with, to illustrate my point.
I believe digital art has as much value (commercially, culturally, aesthetically, socially, ethically) as traditional painting. I think they both have their place. I still want to paint with ‘real’ paints’ on actual, physical canvasses but I enjoy the fact that I have choices of materials, formats, technologies and methods. I am happy with the digital image I produced of Chloe, one of my two beloved cats. She wouldn’t sit still for long enough for me to ever be able to capture that pose and the expression on her face, which was what I wanted at that precise moment.
Surely, after all the battles that have been fought, to win autonomy for the artist, let’s celebrate artistic choice and freedom, which means that as consumers of art, we are also free to look at, appreciate, study, preserve and buy the art that speaks to us as individuals – however it was produced and distributed.
I have just returned from a scuba diving trip to the Red Sea (Deep South) which provided me with the opportunity to photograph and record many species of marine life and corals. The Red Sea is known and loved by divers for the richness and diversity of its undersea life and, no doubt due to the endeavors of the Egyptian Government to protect and preserve several areas of the Red Sea, it does not seem to be suffering from the effects of climate change that have been documented in other parts of the sea (especially the Great Barrier Reef). For someone like me, an avid diver and an artist/photographer, the Red Sea is therefore artistic gold.
I took two cameras with me, my brand new Sea Life DC2000 and my trusty Go Pro Hero 7 Black. My plan was to use the GoPro to record the footage for a short film and the Sea Life for stills, for this web site and my art page on Facebook, Instagram etc. In the end, I abandoned the Sea Life and relied totally on the GoPro. The reason for this was because there were quite strong currents, which makes it impossible to stay still for long enough to grab clear, non-blurry pictures. The other issue, for divers, can be lack of neutral buoyancy, which makes it impossible to stay in one level place in the water. I am quite good on getting myself weighted correctly and breathing all my air out so had it not been for the currents, which kept me and the marine life, moving at most times, I would have developed my knowledge of the Sea Life camera but the Go Pro rarely fails me and I feel that I was able to extract some fairly decent frames from the footage I shot over a seven day period.
I have posted the fish pictures on my Art Page on Facebook and on Twitter/Instagram and chose to feature corals on this page. A lot of divers see these in their peripheral vision and admire them, of course they do, but very often, especially in the Red Sea, they are looking for the ‘big fish’ – the sharks, the dolphins, the rays etc., and the corals are not always documented with as much enthusiasm. My hope, here, is that these two sample pictures demonstrate the wonder of the coral gardens in the Red Sea. It’s difficult to describe them in words that can do justice to them. Some of the corals look as if they are from another world and they go on and on, forever. Sometimes, the garden becomes a forest and you find yourself weaving through giant ‘trees’ and under mountains. It’s absolutely spectacular. The colours, textures, shapes, patterns, forms, structures, sizes and so on, are so unusual, diverse and so plentiful that you wish you had enough air in your tank to be able to stay underwater for weeks, just to try to assimilate the scale of everything.
I will add to this collection, when I have had the time to catalogue everything but this is an introduction to my collection of coral images, that I hope you will enjoy. Maybe it will inspire some viewers to take up scuba-diving, to get a closer look at this magical underworld.
I have been absent from these pages for several months. The reasons for this are probably explained by my last blog, which was a tribute to my mother. Now that summer has moved into autumn and the initial shock of bereavement has given way to the gentler if more persistent rhythm of day to day grieving, I have been able to reconcile myself to the fact that life must and does go on. The urge to create (and not feel guilty about doing anything other than just being locked in mourning) has thankfully begun to return. The temperatures here in Florida are also beginning to show signs of dropping from over a hundred to the mid eighties, so renewed energy levels, combined with more favourable weather, is providing me with more opportunitites to pick up my materials and produce art. This change in my mood was signaled by a recent trip to Grand Cayman where I tried out my new underwater camera for the first time and experimented with lights, strobes and filters on both that and my ever reliable Go Pro. Here are two of the results of my latest ventures into the world of underwater art. Please do keep returning to these pages as I continue to explore the possibilities of what can be created from exploring the ocean.
I have been absent from my art web site and from working on my art in general, for some months now, since my my mother became terminally ill at the end of 2018. She died on Sunday, May 5th 2019 and although these early days of bereavement are so very tough, I have been able to write a tribute to her and produce an image that encapsulates my thoughts about her right now.
When I was eleven years of age I became ill with appendicitis and after the operation to remove the offending organ, was delighted to be able to spend eight weeks recuperating at home – and thus not attend school. It was June and, as was typical in the sixties, it was very warm.
We lived in a beautiful house with a private, enclosed garden full of fragrant blooms. My favourite amongst these was the blue iris. I spent my days reading, drawing and painting whilst my mother pottered about in and outside of the house. This was the first time I had ever spent alone with my mother that I could recall, because the only other time would have been before my younger brother was born and I couldn’t really recall those very early years. I felt this time period was magical and significant, though I did not really understand why at the time. It is only now, all these years later, that the circle of meaning has completed itself and I can see how other later events also connect with then and now to explain to me why those days and weeks were so special.
I produced a picture of the irises during one of those idyllic sojourns in the garden and presented it to her. I spent hours on the picture and even though it was in pencil I tried to capture their essence – especially the depth and brilliance of the colour blue.
The years went by and I don’t know what happened to the picture. We moved house. It was probably abandoned somewhere in a drawer. This didn’t matter to me. What was important was the fact that I had done it and always remembered doing it.
My mother had the most beautiful eyes. Big, wide pools of iris blue that could melt, disarm or disturb anyone who looked into them – depending on whether they were friend or foe. I didn’t understand, at the age of eleven, what the irises signified to me, but I do now.
I would think of them many times over the years and as I pursued my practice and study of art I often wondered why I didn’t paint them in colour.
In 1993 I was studying A Levels (Art and English) and a Foundation Diploma in Art at Weston-Super-Mare College of Arts. I was married with young children and was determined to complete my further and higher education, which had been abandoned after my parents divorced when I was a teenager. I attended English Literature with a lovely lady called Louise, who gave me a lift in to college in the evenings. Without her, I would not have been able to go at all as I was extremely poor at that time in my life and could not afford transport of any kind. When we completed our exams I asked her what I could do to replay her kindness and she asked me to paint her a picture. She wanted me to produce a copy of Van Gogh’s Irises. I was a passionate devotee of Van Gogh and was highly honoured to be entrusted with this task.
This time I painted them in all their rich, vibrant glory with a huge, confident palette knife because this was a second chance to use colour and do them greater justice. I spent several days on the painting and when I proudly gave it to her I packaged it in a protective plastic wallet. I was then horrified to see, that when she tried to pull the picture out of its sleeve for a close-up inspection, the paint had stuck to the plastic. I thought I had ruined it but she reassured me I had not. Louise and I went our separate ways that summer, to different universities and different futures, but we stayed in touch sporadically and when the wonders of social media enabled me to find her online, I tentatively asked her about the picture of the irises. She sent me a picture back to show me that they were sitting happily and intact on the wall of her new house in Kent.
Today, after I wrote a tribute to my mother, for her funeral, I wanted to produce an image that represents all my thoughts about her at this time and in this moment and this is when the circle of meaning completed itself. I know now that the first, tentative, drawing of those irises was my childlike way of explaining that the irises signified my mother’s eyes. It was a first draft, that’s why it was in pencil. And now, today, I have produced what will be the first of many images on a theme of blue irises. Those who know me well know I have always loved the colour blue in all its hues and shades. The blues of Cornwall, where I lived till recently. The blues of the ocean, which are still here with me – in Florida – and the blues of my mother’s eyes. Iris blue. A beautiful, rich, vibrant blue that pulses with life forever.
I deliberately placed the apostrophe at the end of the noun to make it collective, which might seem to be a little assumptive of me, but I do feel it is possible that at some point most artists might experience artists’ block. It may not be that there is a lack of stimulus but rather a block in the creative channels – somehow the ideas cannot seem to get from the brain to the canvas, paper, pad etc.
If it is indeed lack of stimulus, then the answer to that is probably easier to remedy. Go somewhere new or different OR go somewhere comfortable or familiar but that you haven’t been for a while. If it isn’t a landscape, an interiorscape, a cityscape or a seascape that is going to fire your creative juices then think micro – hone in on the very specific detail of something that you’ve never looked at before with an artistic eye. You are surrounded by people, places, objects, animals, rooms etc. that can all provide fascinating subject matter if you visualise a different way to represent them.
The inability to create even when you have the ideas, the time and all the materials in front of you ready to go might initially be more worrying. It could be a variety of external or internal factors that causes it but it doesn’t last. Some of us might see this phase as a signal that we are meant to be doing something else – albeit temporarily – and take advantage of the moment or the time to attend to whatever is nagging away at us – whilst others may see no reason for it whatsoever. For those, and I am one of them, the answer is to have a coping strategy that can yield some exciting results if applied.
The ideas I am presenting here are not mine and they are not new. If you search for ‘artists’ block’ online, regardless of where you put the apostrophe, you will find many helpful and inspirational suggestions and the purpose of this blog, today, is simply to share some of them with you. Most of them take the form of exercises. So it’s a bit like going back to the basics and practicing again everything you learned when you first started developing your identity as an artist. If you work through a series of exercises about line, shape, composition, form, texture, tone, space, monochrome, colour etc with no intent to produce a finished piece of work you can grow the neuroplasticity of your brain and stimulate other parts of your brain in the process. Once you’ve ignited your creative spark again you may find that you’ve broken through an artistic wall or barrier and you produce new and really exciting work. Even if that doesn’t happen every time, you should find that the progression back to working in the way you always did has been achieved almost seamlessly. It’s always worth remembering though that many accomplished musicians still practice their scales even though they can play profoundly complex pieces of music because the maxim is that you should always maintain the health of your base knowledge and skills.
The Artists Network, with no apostrophe whatsoever, features many excellent suggestions for overcoming artists’ block so click this link to read more. Lee Hammond calls her approach to the problem of artists’ block, therapy, and the technique she recommends involve the use of a viewfinder.
On Jennifer Allen’s page Frieze she writes in depth about the problem and draws on the comparative experience of writers. I like one of her examples of the parallels between these two forms of creative expression so much that I have quoted it here in full:
“It’s reckless, but I’m going to ‘translate’ for artists the best advice I’ve read on writer’s block. Dorothea Brande’s classic Becoming a Writer (1934) begins with the psychoanalytic distinction between the unconscious and the conscious. She suggests making daily appointments – and respecting them to the minute – to allow the unconscious to produce ideas freely without being censored by the conscious ego. However resistant to training, the unconscious brings a wealth of ideas to such appointments with freedom – like a little kid runs wild in the playground at recess but gets bored in class. Brande is against stalling – staring at the paper, screen, canvas – and advises moving around until inspiration returns, or making the next appointment before leaving the work in a rut. When I’m stuck, I’ll do a dull task, like washing dishes; by the first pot, I’ve found my answer.”
I hate washing up but cleaning my art studio is something that I would find pleasurable, especially if it did the trick. Ingrid Christensen certainly recommends it in an article that can be found on the www.artsy.net web site. Her other suggestion, to copy existing art, is one that I recommend, especially if you do not copy slavishly. I was once taught a really useful and simple trick: take a really famous painting – I chose a painting of ballerinas by Degas – and turn it upside down. Reproduce this image but abstract it a little too. Then turn the result the right way up and abstract it a little more. You can find the result of my version of this technique if you look in my Back Catalogue. I wonder if you will spot it!!
If any or all of these techniques fail to work for you then be inspired and reassured by these quotes from the ‘greats’ who suffered the same demise at various times in their artistic lives:
“Creativity takes courage.” — Henri Matisse
“If you hear a voice within you saying, ‘You are not a painter,’ then by all means paint, [boy], and that voice will be silenced.” — Vincent van Gogh
“I think some of the biggest bursts of creativity and artistic growth I’ve had are usually preceded by a big creative block.” — Ashley Goldberg
Please feel free to add your own comments about what works for you.
I have just returned from a short diving trip to the Bahamas and was fortunate enough to encounter some sharks (Nurse Sharks and Caribbean Reef Sharks). Here are three pictures, crafted from the video I shot and edited, which you can watch here on my YouTube Channel. Please click to subscribe. In addition to producing ‘planned’ pictures, it’s always a delight to be able to take advantage of serendipitous moments and craft something out of an unexpected encounter – in this case with a Passion Fruit Flower. I was visiting a friend and this one was sitting on the tree in glorious isolation in her garden.
I have a YouTube Channel: Mediterranean Blue Films. I am using it at the moment to showcase my scuba diving videos, which document marine life in some of the most beautiful dive sites around the world. I take an artistic approach to the process of shooting and editing the films so they are not documentaries or any other kind of film genre – they are film art. The channel features a play list of about eight films at present but this will expand as more and more films are uploaded to the channel. The plan is to make some of these available as meditational and sleep-inducing videos or even as screensavers.
Before I became a full-time artist, I was a teacher of Film, Media and English so I have a lot of resources dedicated to teaching students how to plan, shoot, edit and produce short films and how to write in any kind of film genre. I have also taught marketing and advertising, especially social media advertising and my resources include tutorials and manuals on how to use image (still and moving) editing software and publishing software to produce professional marketing and advertising material for print and the web. As the channel grows, these resources will become increasingly available. Please click this link to subscribe to my channel to help this process develop at as fast a rate as possible: Mediterranean Blue Films