The Problem with Making a Start

It’s been an amazingly dry summer and I have been out painting more than any other year I can remember. I’ve met a whole lot of people too and a good number of those have bought my work before from galleries around South Devon where I lived for twenty odd years before moving to Cornwall.

‘Hey, are you the same Mark Gibbons as the Mark Gibbons on my wall in the hall’... ‘Yep, the very same one.’ Then we would get into the hows and whys of me moving to Cornwall and what they had been doing in the intervening years and the sun would shine and I’d make tea and all would be well.

I’ve had my spare chair and sketchbook with me every day but I have been surprised at how few people took up my offer of ‘Making a Start’. It would seem the move from ‘I would love to be able to paint’ to actually making any sort of mark is far more problematic than I had assumed. I think what people really mean is… ‘If by some stroke of luck I was visited by the painting fairy in the night and in the morning I was able to paint, then I’d be chuffed as a cat with two tails’. Trouble is, at some point you have to make a start with a mark of some sort.  

The culprit is of course ‘fear’ and its twin ‘shame’. Most people just would not take the risk of making a picture that was a lot less than perfect and have it be seen by others. The easy and obvious solution to this is to promise yourself absolute privacy but then you have the problem that you yourself will see the painting and you yourself will know it is not as good as you would like it to be. There is no way round this impasse except to accept that a lot of your first attempts will be disappointing and to just carry on making marks.

I would like to show you one of my early attempts at painting. I made this watercolour of the old paddle steamer that used to steam back and forwards across the Humber to Lincolnshire. I loved the old docks round Hull and spent many weekends as a student there exploring and trying to make some sort of a record.

The painting was made in 1971 the year before I graduated and I copied the picture from a black and white photo I developed myself in my dingy student kitchen. I have to say I’m fond of the picture for sentimental reasons but there is a lot that could be improved. The sky is completely lifeless and without any atmospheric perspective and there is no movement or colour in the river, you would be hard pushed to say where the sun is supposed to be, the smoke is a more or less solid flower of brown that blooms from the too red funnel. But it was a start and that is what matters.

I also would like to show you one of my Wet Sunday paintings. I had the beginnings of a draughtsman’s skills as I did a lot of technical drawing at school but I was, to put it mildly, crap with colour. So on wet Sundays, when I wasn’t walking round the docks, I would take out my paints and try and see what colours I could make and then I’d write down the ones I liked. The left side of picture is a collection of green greys made by adding different yellow and earth colours to Cerulean (still one of my favourites) and the right is Viridian toned down with different yellows. By just dealing with colour and not trying to make a proper painting it took all the complexities of drawing away and left me the totally enjoyable adventure of exploring what was in my paint tubes.

So, at the risk of overstating the paint (point!)… There are no tooth fairies or painting fairies…all you have to do is make a start and the rest will follow.  

Artist at Work

I live in a tiny hamlet near Launceston on a 10-acre smallholding where conversation is in short supply. My wife is away at work all day and all the kids have flown and although talking to the bees is therapeutic enough, for a while, eventually I get to crave more than their droning on and after a few days start to develop cabin fever.

One of the few real downsides for me of being a professional artist is the huge amount of time I have to spend alone. Most people have at least a few colleagues that they work with and although that has its own challenges at least it’s a social environment and we obviously all evolved to live in close proximity to others. So my sign, ‘Artist at Work, Conversations are Free’ (which I always put up when I’m out painting), is there so that I can enjoy some human contact while I work. I’ve done a fair bit of demonstrating at local art societies over the years, so I am more than happy to work and talk at the same time. Very often I have to wait a while for a watercolour wash to dry, so I make myself a cup of tea on my camping stove and with any luck can have a free conversation too.  

I’d say about a third of all the people who stop to look over my shoulder say something like ‘I wish I could paint’ or ‘wow, it must be lovely to sit here on the cliffs and be able to do that’ and then go on to tell me that they have always been rubbish at painting since Miss Terror in primary school told them their flowers weren’t any good and anyway they couldn’t draw a straight line even if they tried. 

My answer goes something like this… In the days when you could walk up the isle and peek past the curtain and actually talk to the pilot of your plane, you wouldn’t think of saying to them ‘hey I wish I could do that but when I tried it at primary school I was just useless’. The chances are that the pilot ran round the playground with their arm’s out ‘wishing they could fly’ but clearly realised some time later that something else has to happen before take-off. The point being that flying and painting have a lot in common; there are a lot of variables that you have to control, and you have to know how to control them and (maybe) even know where you are going. AND to do it well you need to do it a lot before you get any good at it. It’s no surprise that our early attempts at painting are frustrating but that is not a good reason just to give up.

 The only significant difference between artist and non-artists is that artists do it and ‘non-artists’ don’t.

It has bugger all to do with talent (I know plenty of very talented ‘non-artists' and quite a few non-talented artists). The key is in the doing, just like learning to ride a bike (or flying). The good news is that crashing a painting results in less loss of life, though I admit it can be a terrible blow to one’s pride.

The hard bit is letting go, opening a tiny sketchbook and making a start. If you fancy it, and you come across me on the coast, I always carry a spare chair and an extra mug for tea.