Category: Creativity

Doodling matters

I have a small confession: I am self-conscious about doodling, but I really want to do it.

I can approach many illustrations or paintings with a degree of confidence, but the thought of making a page of doodles makes me balk. Not because I am prejudice against doodling, but because I was convinced I couldn’t do it; that I didn’t possess the skill or imagination to do even a passible job. It is a shyness I’ve found difficult to overcome.

What do I mean by doodling?

Sunni Brown, a creative superstar and author of The Doodle Revolution, which I am currently enjoying, rejects the dictionary definition of doodling as absent-minded scribbling and defines it as “making spontaneous marks (with your mind and body) to help you think”. This definition suits me better too and does go some way to demystify the act.

As much as I love getting lost in tight drawings, becoming engrossed in the fine details of a complex illustration, they can be rather stressful and time consuming. They require a particular state of mind and while they are challenging, they don’t necessarily challenge me to expand my drawing skills, nor do they utilise my expertise in daydreaming. They can be predicable, which is convenient, but lazy.

I picked up Sunni’s book in order to help me overcome my shyness, but it is also helping me redefine my attitude and expectations about doodling. It’s also helping me discover where some of that shyness came from. Unfortunately I grew up in an era when doodling in your exercise book was considered vandalism. These same adults pushed the notion that drawing was only for those with “natural talent” to be executed at appropriate moments in appropriate formats. Basically, doodles were ugly, unsophisticated and a waste of time. Even if I never adopted that belief about other people doodling, I felt I would be judged for my clumsy scribbles and no one would take me seriously. Fortunately maturity has a way of, not only changing the way you see of yourself, but also the way you feel about how you’re seen by others.

In other words, other people’s judgements aren’t my problem.

So I’m going to doodle and daydream.

I started out doodling just with a black fineliner and a black coloured pencil for shading, but felt I was boxing myself in using only one colour. The idea is to be loose and spontaneous. So I tentatively started adding colour without really caring about the consequences. I hope it will be filled with rainbow flavoured connections by the time I’m done with this notebook.

Kermit would be proud.

Good art days and art expectations

I feel like I have’t had too many good art days lately – those days where reality comes close to meeting expectation; when more things go right than go wrong with a piece of art; where you can put down the pencil, pen or brush and be satisfied, even a little bit happy, with the marks on the paper. This is probably because I generally prefer do a lot of detailed art and am always pushing myself to refine and achieve a certain level of work. But art, like most things in life, can become unfulfilling when the frustrations outweigh the positive outcomes. (I hesitate to use “failure” and “success” here as they are both subjective).

Here’s the wonderful thing about the creative mind though: it’s incredibly flexible. There are no parameters save for the ones we set ourselves. With that in mind, I decided to set aside my very limiting expectations, and just have fun. The only rule was that the process was more important than the outcome.

Below are three postcard-sized bits of art that didn’t turn out as expected, but I like them anyway. Mostly my goal was to test some new watercolour paint, use up some scraps of paper and jog my creativity. I had some idea of what I wanted to achieve, but decided it was best to remain flexible about the outcomes. Initially, the top card was meant to be some sort of watercolour blob creature in watercolour, to which I was going to add pen and ink on top. It ended up being a bunch of weirdly misshapen critters that I didn’t know were there. You have to love the brain’s ability to detect patterns in chaos. I especially like the gorilla on the trike on the far right.

The second card was going to be a blob bee, but ended up being a blob-hippo-rabbit-thing. I can also see a rhino-rabbit-thing. Finally, the card on the left was always meant to be a rainbow lorikeet, inspired by the noisy many around my neighbourhood at the moment. I was going for an even more loose looking blobikeet, so I didn’t expect it to look like a bird, much-less a lorikeet. I don’t mind how any of them turned out; they were never meant to be accurate or detailed, rather just a chance for some creativity that didn’t demand much input from the inner over-thinker.

I had a good art day. It was playful, enjoyable and pleasantly surprising. A good art day happens not when my art expectations are met, although those days are important too, but when I accept the unexpected.

A beautifully illustrated chronicle of now by illustrator Vic Lee. Wow!

I came across The Corona Diary, by illustrator Vic Lee while rummaging around the internet looking for illustrated diaries. The video below is a flip through of the limited edition printed book with commentary by Vic Lee himself, found on his own YouTube channel. I am as much attracted to the typography as to the accompanying illustrations. This graphic-novel-style diary seems to be taking the internet by storm, and well it should. It takes a lot of faith to publish a personal account of such troubling times of uncertainty and division. This looks to be an impressive chronicle of six months of the year 2020.

The book won’t be available in Australia until January 2021. Nevertheless, I will be very keen to get my hands on a copy.

The video link is from Vic Lee’s YouTube channel.

Avebury and Stonehenge

Stonehenge and 3 menhirs from Avebury

Everyone knows about Stonehenge, but less well known is Avebury henge, the largest stone circle in the world. A larger prehistoric circular monument, called Marden Henge, located between Avebury and Stonehenge contains no stones, but has massive earthworks. It is much bigger than Stonehenge and Avebury, and is the largest henge in the British Isles. The Stonehenge and Avebury monuments are part of the same UNESCO World Heritage landscape in Wessex, UK, however Marden Henge sits outside the zone¹.

Monuments in the Wessex landscape date back to at least 5,000 years ago. For good reason, they attract a lot of academic and public attention. They are splendid, there can be little doubt of that, but they are also proof of sophisticated cultural and social systems in Neolithic and Bronze Age Britain. They give some insight in to ceremonial practices, as well human relationships with astronomical features of the sky. They provide key insights in to how ancient groups of people interacted with their landscape and changed it, and they are architecturally and technologically impressive works which would have required a great deal of raw ingenuity as well as resources.

Today we have a lot of evidence and a lot more conjecture as to the original purpose of the monuments. Some of the sites are so conspicuous in the landscape, and so awe-inspiring to behold, even after thousands of years, it is impossible to ignore their importance to prehistoric people. Their construction, use, maintenance, and eventually even their disuse, were all deliberate acts that required significant resources and effort. What a sight to behold the landscape must have been to ancient pilgrims.

The mystery of Stonehenge, Avebury and their associated sites endure, and that makes me happy.

References

  1. https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/archaeology/0/steps/15261

Further reading

Red ochre revolution

It’s impossible to put an exact date on when art emerged in prehistory, especially since we don’t know if the first attempts were on rock, or some other, less enduring medium, such as wood, bone, in the dirt, or even on the skins of the makers. At best we know ancient people were using ochre pigment at least 300,000 years ago and that our species was not the first to take advantage of the vibrant colours offered. We can only guess at how and why they were using it. It is still used today in a number of different ways across the world.

The “Creative Revolution” – fact or fantasy?

Much has been made of the “creative revolution” (known as the Upper Palaeolithic Revolution hypothesis), which seemed to want to trace the origins of creativity to a single location in place and time, namely Europe 40,000-45,000 years ago. But looking beyond Europe we can now see that migrating groups of humans inherited the creative spark from much older ancestors, perhaps in a land far away. For example, the First Australian’s were using ochre 65,000 years ago according to recent evidence. By the time we see the earliest evidence of rock art in Australia some 28,000 years ago, it was already developed and distinct, suggesting it was not a young practice even then. Most of the earliest rock art in Australia that survives are petroglyphs (engravings in rock) and these are notoriously difficult to accurately date. Nevertheless, I don’t think it is such a giant leap to say the First Australian’s were making art before they arrived in Australia.

In Indonesia, the oldest known figurative art is about 44,000 years old (hand stencils discovered there could be as old as 52,000 years). In Spain, the oldest art is about 64,000 years old and might have been made by Neandertal’s. In a cave in South Africa, modern humans were creating art on stones of silcrete about 73,000 years ago, and engraving lines in to pieces of ochre at least 100,000 years ago, possibly much earlier. Neandertal’s were using ochre pigment in the Netherlands about 250,000 years ago and in Olorgesailie in East Africa, circa 307,000 years ago, early humans, possibly very early Homo sapiens, were using red and black pigment.

Even if the very first artistic work was discovered and it was recognised as such, there would be little agreement on its meaning or its significance. We might not be able to date it reliably or associate it with one particular species of hominin. Many might not even accept it as the first art. Some will refuse to give up the search for the elusive piece of indisputable evidence of the beginnings of symbolic behaviour. All we do know now, is the prehistory of art and the origins of the human creative mind is much older than previously thought and the idea of a creative revolution is becoming less tenable. No one single group of people can claim to be more related to the first artists. All humans are creative and we have been for a very long time.

Note: Most of the dates listed are based on confirmed dates using reliable dating techniques. Many more ancient sites exist than I haven’t listed, but their dates are either controversial or the exact dates are not able to be reliably established.


Further reading/references

Prehistoric use of Ochre

Australian Rock Art of the Pleistocene

A Journey to the Oldest Cave Paintings in the World

A Radical New Theory About the Origins of Art

Great Southern Land

I acknowledge the traditional custodians of country throughout Australia and pay my respects to their elders, past and present, and extend my respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples today.

I’ve been spending quite a bit of time re-acquainting myself with, and journaling about, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural history. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are part of diverse and complex cultural histories that span at least 65,000 years. I could fill a few sketchbooks with the amount of cultural evidence that exists, but sharing all of it would feel like a trespass on what is often sacred, personal and private – not to mention a massive undertaking, since Aboriginal people across Australia were, and continue to be, culturally and linguistically diverse within and across regions. Instead, I’ve chosen to share three pages of some of the oldest evidence for human habitation in Australia. By no means is this exhaustive, and some things are not included out of respect. For example, I decided not to include sketches of human remains, such as Mungo Man, who has been the subject of much debate, and whose removal from his ancestral home 40 years ago caused distress to local Aboriginal communities. Even though I was trained in forensic anthropology, and I was happy studying old bones during my studies, I am aware of the ethical issues of removing ancient human remains from burial sites. I believe the consideration of indigenous communities needs and wishes should take priority over scientific knowledge.

Point of interest: Mungo Man’s remains were returned to his ancestral home for reburial in 2017 in a casket made from 8,000 year old red gum wood.

Further reading: Two of my university text books from almost two decades ago.

Playing with my favourite pen and subject

Claudia Nice is the first artist that inspired me try working with pen and ink with several books, including Drawing in Pen and Ink. I like to engage fully with what I’m doing and ink requires a level of commitment that appeals to my nature. I like detail and I enjoy how tight and clear I can get with ink. Which is probably why it is a common medium for scientific illustrators, especially botanical. But pen and ink can also be very flexible. True, you can’t rub it out once its on the page, but that doesn’t matter if you’re sketching loose drawings for practice or wanting to capture the shape of a species of tree. Ink also plays nice with a lot of other mediums, especially watercolour. Claudia Nice has also written many books on creating texture with pen and ink, and watercolour.

European silver fir – Abies Alba

The Lamy Joy, pictured above, is my favourite tool for sketching in pen and ink. The nib glides smoothly across the paper, depositing ink evenly and the tapered style feels good in the hand. I use fountain pens for 80% of the inked artwork I create. I use an ink converter, with De Atramentis Archival black ink. I have had no problems with it drying it our clogging the pen.

Make ink and see what happens

In this day and age computers are kind of hard to avoid. I saw my first computer when I was about nine years old. It was a Commodore 64. In those days all you could do was type and print using a dot matrix printer and play rudimentary games. Even then I knew I wanted to write and could see the benefit of typed notes, because I hated my own handwriting. At 12 I commandeered my mother’s typewriter and started hammering out page after page of stories. By 16 I had my first computer, which was given to me by my uncle because he knew I wanted to be a writer and my current electric typewriter had kicked the bucket. It was a time when home computers were still relatively rare so I felt pretty grown up. The computer was bootable from a compact floppy disc and I remember having to insert one disc to boot the operating system and a second which contained all my files. I only had a finite number of space for saving the screeds of writing I was doing every day after school. I was in heaven. Most of the time I would scribble out notes on paper in my own shorthand scrawl, and then type them in long form, checking for spelling and grammar as I went. I have never been without a computer since, but I always kept a free-form notebook too. I now realise those notebooks were where the real magic was, not the pages of printed matter. My notebooks were dogeared, messy and organic, with its pasted clippings, and folded and half torn pages. Nevertheless, at the time I was embarrassed by them and kept them to myself; eventually I threw almost all of them out. Whatever remains is still hidden in boxes of ephemera in the garage.

This way of working served me well when I was younger – I could handwrite for extended periods of time without much fatigue, and most of my essay’s for university were handwritten before they were typed. After graduation I worked as an editor and proofreader for a medical research centre, where everything was digital. From then on it was easier to forgo the notebook and surrender to the speed and efficiency of the computer. I suppose that is one of the computer’s greatest attractions. Unfortunately, quick and easy isn’t necessarily creativity’s best friend, complexity is.

The digital world can be a trap if we let it.

It was only when I took up art that I returned to hard copy notebooks and sketchbooks and rediscovered the magic of the pen. I still don’t keep as many handwritten notebooks as I used to, though I carry a small one with me in my handbag and keep one on my desk for story notes. Nowadays I rarely use paper for doing drafting bigger art pieces. I use Procreate first or a similar app because it saves on a lot of paper and for the very appealing undo button. I keep gigabytes of information in databases, folders and storage devices, all easily searchable and accessible with a few clicks. Admittedly that is one of the greatest appeals of having computers – no untidy filing cabinets or masses of paper, and everything is at your finger tips. It’s all very easy and convenient, but I have to admit, all those files and folders and fancy apps don’t spark joy quite like a book of hand-drawn scribbles or handwritten notes. I’m not an either/or kind of person and believe in balancing digital and analogue, but sometimes I need to rest one and favour the other. This week I decided to rest the computer and show up with my pens and pencils to my notebooks and sketchbooks. Somehow brainstorming feels more organic and thus more gratifying with a pen. It’s a good way to refresh the creative reservoir.

When you have a piece of paper and a pen/pencil and your imagination, you have everything you need. It’s just the three of you. No distractions, no complications, nothing to click. Just make ink and see what happens.

A universe of ideas

As a child, at least as early as I can remember, I believed ideas were absorbed from the universe, that our brains were receivers, picking up on the tangible experiences and events of real beings who lived beyond our solar system or in another dimension. What it meant, basically, was that somewhere in the universe there were elves, gnomes and dragons, but also vampires, werewolves and trolls. In my mind Middle Earth was a real place, which Tolkien had the honour of viewing remotely and the genius of portraying in exquisite detail. I don’t know where this notion came from or how I developed it, but I was so confident with this idea I never questioned it; I always had a conveyor belt of ideas rumbling through my mind and I couldn’t comprehend how my small mind could create it all. As an adult I now realise the hypothesis was quite ingenuous. It couldn’t work. Consider all the half-baked or silly ideas any of us has ever had – the universe would be a mess, with half-baked beings and silly scenaros.

I’m still fascinated with where ideas and innovation originate, but I’m now further away from understanding it than I ever was as a child. I want to understand, but do I need to in order to continue “receiving” ideas?. In my wanderings around the internet, trying to gather information on theories of the origin of ideas, I came across the wonderful Ted Talk by Eat, Pray, Love author, Elizabeth Gilbert. I read Eat, Pray, Love when it came out and enjoyed it, and I recall seeing this talk ten years ago. It resonated with me then and it still does today. In the talk, Gilbert discusses the almost “paranormal” feeling of the creativity process and so it seems appropriate the talk here.

If Elizabeth Gilbert is right, and we “just need to show up”, then I’ll keep showing up for however long I can.

The Sense of Wonder

Do not grow old, no matter how long you live. Never cease to stand like curious children before the great mystery into which we were born.

Albert Einstein

The sense of wonder is a theme that comes up often when I read about creativity or biographies and memoirs of creative thinkers. Awe and curiosity drove Albert Einstein’s scientific and philosophical thought and led to some of the most inspired insights in our understanding of the world. He understood the importance of a sense of wonder and advocated it often. Leonardo Da Vinci definitely possessed a developed sense of wonder. His skill in artistic rendering were matched by his enthusiasm for observation and note-taking, which themselves inspire a sense of wonder in modern readers.

A sense of wonder is not only the feeling of being amazed at something, it is a whole body reaction, which can bring on goosebumps and shudders, leave you breathless or speechless and lead to feelings of reverence and even a sensation there is a magical quality to the experience. D.H. Lawrence described the sense of wonder as the sixth sense, “the natural religious sense”. There is little doubt humans have been experiencing the sense of wonder for many thousands of years, at least. We can see it in prehistoric rock and cave art, in the architecture of the ancients and in their writings. It is why we still cherish those ancient places, ruined though many of them are. Consider the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World; this list has been around since antiquity, despite the fact that only one is still standing – the Great Pyramid of Giza. Modern lists of wonders of the world include both human-made structures and natural wonders, but they have much in common with those of antiquity: they awaken in observers to a sense of curiosity, awareness and delight. The feeling is magnetic and in this we are still very much like our ancestors who lived millennia ago.

Many years ago I visited Newgrange, and was quite enchanted by the place. However, not everyone felt so enamoured. Some visitors complained the site lacked authenticity and that it had been ruined by modern interpretations and aesthetics. I had a degree in archaeology and palaeoanthropology and had read up on megalithic sites in Europe, but even I wasn’t sure what an authentic Newgrange was supposed to feel like, after all, we were all 21st century tourists, with sensitivities and expectations specific to our time and world views. I had suspended my expectations before arriving at Newgrange, but I began to feel as if I was being naive, romanticising the experience. Yet as I wandered around and through the monument, a sense of wonder and curiosity kicked in and I began to enjoy the experience without micromanaging it. While others questioned the guide on the ugliness of the facade, I gave in to reverie. I understand that some people felt no connection to the monument, or indeed the surrounding area, but does that mean connection is impossible for others? Newgrange, like many ancient monuments, is a commemorative place, but it doesn’t mark a single moment in time or represent a single person. It is a place with special meaning for people in the past, and though we might not agree on the nature of the meaning, we are predisposed to honour it. It’s human nature. The fact that Newgrange has been part of the Boyne River valley landscape for over 5,000 years is enough for my unpretentious sense of wonder. For me it’s about continuity, and a confirmation that we are part of something greater than ourselves. The sense of wonder is an intuition that engages the mind, but it’s also an affirmation that there are still mysteries in the world. A great many things would not be possible without it. The sense of wonder begets creativity.

On the summit of the precipice, and in the heart of the green woods . . . there was an intelligence in the winds of the hills, and in the solemn stillness of the buried foliage, that could not be mistaken. It entered into my heard and I could have wept, not that I could not see, but that I could not portray all that I felt.

James Holman
From A Sense of Wonder: How a Blind Man Became History’s Greatest Traveler, by Jason Roberts