The studio door blog
19/07/2020

"It's only paint on canvas/paper/board."......... but is it?

Lovely stuff
Studio excitement today in the shape of a parcel of fresh art supplies from Jackson's: catalyst brushes, 1L tub of gesso, heavy body turquoise, tubes of quinacradone gold and bright green, tubs of primary yellow/phthalo blue/yellow ochre/ magenta, new brushes and acrylic gloss medium. The cocktail of excitement never fails, plus a smidgen of guilt because the now diminutive pile of unwrapped goodies cost over 100 quid.

Go back 25 years.....

Looking over the Sahel

One of Jacob's students on a sketching trip

I'm in Maiduguri, a city of a million people on the southern edge of the Sahara in NE Nigeria. The water is brown, electricity barely there and food expensive (hard to get, hard to keep). On top of that the Gulf War rampaging in Iraq is the cause of anti-western feeling in this predominantly Muslim, often unstable area. I'm packing to leave after 6 months staying at the city's university. What I'm returning home to is uncertain, we've been living on my partner's African salary, my house is rented out and I'd packed in my job at the University of Sheffield. Money is tight and I'm anxious to conserve as much of my precious remaining art gear as possible.

I offer my worn out brushes and a few paints to Jacob, a young friend who teaches in the University's Art department. I'm still riled by his clumsy attempts to convert me to Christianity and that recently I felt he'd tricked me into attending his church for what turned out to be a long and arduous day. I'm surprised when he initially refuses to take my clapped out brushes saying “Oh, I can’t take these, they are far too precious.” Nevertheless I persuade him and next day he turns up at my door with the painting you see below, desperate to reciprocate my “too precious gift.”
Ever since, I've wished I’d given him far more or at least given with a more generous heart. Maiduguri is now infamous as Boko Haram’s centre of vindictive schoolgirl kidnappings plus heaven knows what else and I have no idea what has become of Jacob and his family, or any of the people I knew there.

Jacob's Street Scene

Jacob's street scene.

Nowadays his painting hangs on my stairs, the bright blues and greens badly faded, but every time I pass I'm reminded how lucky I am to have access to unlimited art supplies whenever need them. So this is why, when artists and teachers try to reassure stressing students and colleagues by saying “....remember it's only paint on canvas/paper/panel”, I want to yell “No! It isn't. It isn't only anything. It is Paint on Canvas or Paper or Panel.” Precious, precious stuff.

Now this doesn't mean I'm not capable of getting through vast quantities of paint myself, in fact when I look back over the last few months I'm astonished how much acrylic I've sloshed around. But I do always appreciate the fact that I have a healthy supply of art materials and that I can afford to buy them whenever I need (not so when I was a child). Even during Corona, human effort has somehow kept them arriving on my doorstep. Just to think of the miners, processers, transporters, chemists, paint manufacturers, distributors, people who make the plastic pots, packers and postman who are required to put a pot of paint on my table, is dizzying. Back in March, when other people were worried about loo roll and and bread flour, along with other artists I fretted about titanium white and parchment paper for my palette. OK, after 3-months some items were out of stock or not available in all sizes but on the whole the art companies have achieved a minor miracle. A big, big Thankyou to them.

On the bookshelf
Art as Therapy, Alain de Botton


Art as Therapy, Alain de Botton and John Armstrong.
Despite the title it isn't about art therapy. It's a novel look at what art might mean to us, whether we make it, study it, or enjoy looking at it. I always find Alain de Botton a lucid and engaging writer. In this book we are asked to examine why we like the art we do and why we don't like the rest....and we're offered suggestions as to why our personal taste has ended up this way.

I love the section where the authors challenge art galleries and museums to completely rearrange their collections emotionally instead of by Schools or Centuries, in order to better help us cope with life's vicissitudes. For example, there might be a floor called Tenderness to help us "....understand what this quality is and why it is so hard to preserve in the conditions of daily life". An excellent little book, just heaps to enjoy and to set you thinking.