Lynda Barry on Creativity

When thinking about inspiration and creativity I always turn to cartoonist, artist /illustrator, writer, teacher and all-round creative superstar, Lynda Barry. Her unique style and body of work reveals an innovative, but relatable mind, and it always gives me great pleasure to listen to and observe her work. I could write pages expounding her extensive career and many skills, but I feel I’d just be repeating the many good articles already written about her. Besides, she is a person best understood in her own words and pictures.

If you have an interest in where creativity comes from, or why we do it, Lynda Barry has a few ideas. Watch her 2012 Inktalks presentation.

Barry has produced a number of books including illustrated novels, collections of her comics, and books on creativity. Here are two flip-throughs from the YouTube channel Art Book Walk-throughs & Reviews.

Lynda Barry Syllabus flip through by Art Book Walk-throughs & Reviews
Lynda Barry Making Comics flip through by Art Book Walk-throughs & Reviews

Book arts. Part 2

The advent of visual diaries

During medieval times, handmade reference books, or “model books” (also “pattern books) were used as a source for teaching initiates and as examples of lettering, flourishes and ornamentation, which could be copied by scribes in illuminated manuscripts. Loosely, these could be considered early visual diaries.

Around the 14th century artists hand-bound their drawings in to model books, or albums, such as the one created by Italian architect and artist Giovannini de’ Grassi, which contains drawings of animals, as well as lettering. Two fine examples of early sketchbooks are the 13th century Portfolio of Villard de Honnecourt, an artist about whom little is known, and 15th century Italian architect, painter and writer Fransceso di Giorgio. It wasn’t until the late 15th to early 16th centuries that artists began to bind books with blank pages specifically for their purposes of recording notes and drawings relating to their studies. Some of the more famous examples are the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, which contain drawings, diagrams and notes on scientific investigations.

From left to right, Villard de Honnecourt, circa 1230 CE. Wikimedia. From a notebook of Francesco di Giorgio Martini, 1470, Wikimedia. Leonardo da Vinci’s Old Man with Water Studies, c. 1513 Wikimedia

These blank books quickly became a mainstay for artists, inventors and naturalists, as such many fine examples of sketchbooks and notebooks exist in museums and galleries around the world. A notable example, are the hundreds of volumes of drawings and travel sketches produced by English painter J.M.W Turner (1775-1851), now hosted at the Tate gallieries in the UK..

Despite the digital age, visual diaries are still a popular form of expression, not limited to professional artists and inventors, nor are they limited to architectural, botanical or anatomical studies. They come in a vast array of mediums, styles, and themes and while, for some creative people the codex is still king, the format for creative workbooks is as diverse and fluid as the work that goes in to them.

Experimenting with new ways to collect visual creativity is a popular practice and in today’s media rich world, an art journal can be a hard or soft bound codex, usually stitched or glued, a wire or spiral bound book, a ring binder, index cards, or even a stack of pages in a box. Visual diaries can also be digital. The point is not get hung up on the format; it’s the content and the process that matter.

What is a visual diary?

The term visual diary (also art journal or art diary) is an umbrella term used to describe a collection of informal, personal artistic work, created by one individual, more often in a bound format. It can include drawings, paintings and collage, as well as writing. Images are not limited to hand-drawn renderings, but can include printed or photographic material. The emphasis is often on collection, presentation and layout of material. Visual diaries can be used for practice, creative expression, recording insights and events, or for collecting ideas and inspiration.

Definitions and differences

Defining all the different kinds of visual diaries is complex and often the terms seem interchangable. These should not be confused with themed visual diaries, which I’ll cover in another post. Following is a list of some different kinds of visual diaries and their uses:

  • Sketchbook – a workbook used to support the creative process and to improve drawing and/or painting skill. These can be themed, used as a reference for further work and are used by new artists, doodlers and professional artists alike. Though they are seldom intended to be finished works of art, they contribute significantly to the volume of artwork on the internet. Sketchbooks are flexible in their contents and format. The do not need to be themed, or topic heavy.
  • Field journal – a journal used for recording observations on nature and science, architecture and culture or other relevant topics.
  • Travel journal – similar to a field journal, but designed for recording written and illustrated observations of experiences while traveling, as well as tracking trip progress. It is usually chronological and offers a portable and handy way to preserve the highlights of a trip.
  • Mixed media journal, sometimes known as an art journal – a multipurpose art journal which utilities a number of different art supplies (such as paint, collage, ink stamps, stencils, fabric and so on). It often incorporates writing, or typography and are usually expressive and colourful. Most mixed media artists utilise the entire page. Emphasis on layout and overall presentation. The process is equally important.
  • Scrapbook – loosely a scrapbook is a blank paged book for sticking other pieces of paper in to. Early scrapbooks were called commonplace books for keeping letters, recipes, drawings, reading notes – almost anything that could be stuck on the page. Modern scrapbooking has evolved to become an industry unto itself, where all manner of albums, embellishments, pre-printed background papers, and even kits can be purchased. Pages are often themed and richly decorated. In recent years digital scrapbooking has become a major digital industry also.
  • Gluebook or paste book – similar to a scrapbook, but dominated by collages of images taken from magazines and other printed material.
  • Smash book – a combination of scrapbook and gluebook, though it requires less expensive materials.
  • Junk journal – these appear to be handmade journals made from found material, bound in to book format. They are often quite decorative, incorporating many different types of paper, fabric and stitching. The point of the junk journal seems to be the use of scraps to create a piece of art in the form of a book.
  • Bullet journal – a method of visual personal organisation, which uses abbreviated notes for planning and can incorporate illustrated logs and trackers, and copious amounts of washi tape.
  • Omni journal – a hybrid journal which can include a planner, such as BUJO, an art journal and a scrapbook, or any other type of visual journal, all in one.
  • Sketchnote – a form of visual notetaking that uses text, illustrations and symbols to enhance notetaking, develop ideas or summarise important information.

I hope I have covered the most common types of visual diaries. It is not meant to be an exhaustive list, but a beginning to understand the many ways we present our visual creativity. I hope it inspires you to take one up yourself. The possibilities are endless.

Further reading

Medieval Super Models
Giovannino de’ Grassi and His Animal Notebook

Nature on the net and in my sketchbook

Horse chestnut

European larch

If it isn’t obvious from the page of trees in pen and ink that I love trees, my tree sketchbook will leave you in no doubt. I have one sketchbook devoted just to sketching trees in pen and ink, mostly using a fountain pen with black or grey permanent ink, and occasionally Copic fineliners, or with a bit of colour added from India ink brush pens. I enjoy the process of finding the shapes and forms of different species, experimenting with ways of reproducing all the different types of bark texture, practicing rendering leaf-clumps to see what works best for and honing my observation skills. Every species is different and feels like a new experience, so I never get bored of rendering trees.

Since I live in the subtropics, there isn’t an abundance of deciduous trees, which are among my favourite, so I have to rely on photographs for practice. If I ever want to draw a eucalyptus or paper bark, I need only look out my living room window, or walk a few minutes to the nearby park and creek. Here there are koalas, though they’re difficult to spot let alone draw from nature, bearded dragons, which rarely stay still long enough to sketch, turtles, flying foxes and all manner of birds. But, being that it it’s now winter, it’s cool and windy and the ground is wet from a recent shower, so today I’ll stay at my desk and find nature on the net.

Book arts. Part 1

I’m a sucker for hand-illustrated books, whether they are published books or sketchbooks and art journals. I spend a good amount of time combing Pinterest and YouTube for photos and flip-through’s, or enjoying my modest collection of illustrated and decorated books. I get most excited when I see a unique compositions and illustration styles, or unexpected content, but I am also fond of the oldest handwritten/hand-drawn works.

Before the codex (bound book) writers and artists recorded their work on a number of materials, including stone, ceramic or wax tablets; on bark, cloth or leather, and scrolls made of parchment or papyrus. Early Chinese writers used bone and shell, bamboo strips and eventually rice paper. In India, early script was recorded on pillars and walls, copper plates and tablets. In the Americas, early works were inscribed on objects, monuments and bark, such as the Pre-Columbian folding books created by the Mayans. Sadly, few of these survive today, but they comprise some of the most stunning creative works (see the image of the Dresden Codex in the slide panel).

Following is a very small sample of some of the earliest forms of written and illustrated material.

The Codex

The oldest known multi-page book is thought to be the Golden Orphism Book, which consists of six 24 carat gold pages, bound together with gold rings (see image in slide panel). The gold sheets contain illustrations and writing in Etruscan and dates to around 660 BCE.

It wasn’t until many hundreds of years later that the codex, as we know it today, replaced scrolls and tablets, at least in Europe. Most early codices were handwritten religious texts, although rare examples of non-religious scholastic texts exist, such as the exquisite 6th century Vienna Dioscurides (see example page below). Illuminated manuscripts developed from these early texts and would become the first illustrated codices. The bound manuscripts contained ornamented borders and lettering, as well as elegant illustrations.

Prior to the invention of the printing press in the early 15th century all books were written and illustrated by hand and thus, not widely distributed. Not only were they time-consuming to produce, requiring significant skill and resources, they were large and often very heavy. Owning one was considered a privilege. The invention of the printing press meant texts could be mass-produced, with woodcut illustrations, and later, illustrations produced on metal plates. By the end of the 15th century books were smaller, more portable and produced in greater numbers across most of Europe.

Early codices were not produced for the single purpose of generating pretty illustrations or conveying vast amounts of text; they were engaging communities, and in the case of religious texts, enhanced religious devotion. More than this, though, the considerable time and resources devoted to producing such works, and the way in which they were protected and preserved (or in some cases destroyed), is itself an homage to their creators.

Handmade creativity

Today, the books are a source of wonder and a popular topic for writer’s and artist’s alike, not to mention bibliophiles (of which I am one). As an artist and an observer I am mindful of my own reactions to early illustrated volumes. While they do not hold spiritual significance for me personally, I am not ignorant of the the sacred nature of the works. I think handmade creativity, especially illustration, for a lot of people, is a sacred act, or at least meditative. It’s part of the reason we can’t stop doing it, or stop looking at it. We want more because we are moved by handmade creativity, and we are moved because we’re predisposed to be. The desire to illustrate our thoughts is as old as art itself. It is a shared habit and is what keeps creative folk scribbling in their sketchbooks and art journals. It moves us toward creating our own illuminations.

Part 2

Image attributions

  1. The Kish Tablet, José-Manuel Benito Public Domain https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kish_tablet#/media/File:Tableta_con_trillo.png
  2. Book of the Dead: A sheet from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, circa 1075-945 BCE, Image: Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sheet_from_a_Book_of_the_Dead,_ca._1075-945_B.C.E.,_37.1699E.jpg
  3. Golden Orphism Book, Ivorrusev CC BY-SA 4.0 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Golden_Orphism_Book.jpg
  4. Soghaura inscription, Asiatic Society of Bengal, 1865 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Soghaura_inscription.jpg
  5. The Dresden Codex – Public Domain https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dresden_Codex#/media/File:Dresden_Codex_pp.58-62_78.jpg
  6. The Vienna Genesis, Public Domain https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vienna_Genesis#/media/File:ViennGenFol12vJacob.jpg
  7. Vienna Dioscurides, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:ViennaDioscoridesFolio483vBirds.jpg
  8. The Codex Amiatinus, Public Domain. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:CodxAmiatinusFolio5rEzra.jpg
  9. The Barberini Gospels, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:ViennaDioscoridesFolio483vBirds.jpg

Creative renderings: early evidence for creative minds

Some examples of archaeological finds described as art. Top: Trinil engraved shell. 540,000 years BP Henk Caspers/Naturalis Biodiversity Centre (CC Attribution Share-Alike 3.0) Bottom, left to right: Cupules from Chief’s Rock, 290,000 years BP. Auditorium Cave, Bhimbetka rock shelter, India. Image by Dinesh Valke (CC Attribution-Share Alike 4.0). Blombos engraved ochre. 73,000 years BP. Henshilwood C.S et al, public domain. Bottom row left: Panel 78, La Pasiega gallery, 65,000 years BP, D.L Hoffmann. Lubang Jeriji Saléh Cave painting of a bull, circa 44,000 years BP. (image via Wikimedia)

Early messages

Creative thinking is universal to humanity. We’ve been doing it for a long time, longer than previously thought. One of the earliest bits of evidence for creative thinking comes in the form of engravings on a fossil shell from Trinil in Java. The shell was found in close proximity to the remains of a Homo erectus individual, an extinct species of hominin (bipedal primate) considered to be antecedent to modern humans. The purpose of the cut marks is unknown, but the deep geometric marks do suggest humans were thinking creatively at least half a million years ago. The shell has been dated to between 540,000 and 700,000 year old, making it an extremely early example of a deliberately engraved object (Joordens et al, 2014).

Between 290,000 and 700,000 years ago in a cave at the rock shelter site of Bhimbetka, central India, archaic humans created cupules (circular depressions on the surface of a rock) on a large boulder. While the intention and purpose for the cupules is unknown, they have been descried as a common form of rock art (Bednarik, 1996). Very ancient cupules, all many tens of thousands of years old, are known from the Africa (such as the Kalahari desert and Sudan), Europe, Asia and Australia.

From Blombos Cave, along South Africa’s southern coast, early modern humans created geometric engravings on pieces of ochre. These small artefacts have been dated to between 100,000 and 70,000 years ago. From the same site perforated shells were found, as well as a 73,000 years ago stone flake with ochre markings. This piece has been dubbed “the world’s oldest drawing” (Blakemore, 2018). The finds at Blombos cave were older and more sophisticated than previously thought possible for their age. They are evidence for the deep roots of creative thinking.

Further, extremely significant evidence comes from the 65,000 year old cave paintings from La Pasiega cave in Spain. A remarkable feature of these paintings – aside from the fact they predate the famous Chauvet-Pont d’Arc cave art from France by some 30,000 years – is that they predate the arrival of modern humans in Europe. This means the most likely creator of the abstract paintings were Neandertals, since there is no evidence modern humans were in Western Europe before 42,000 years ago (Wong, 2018). This revelation forced some archaeologists to rethink long-held assumptions that modern humans were the first and only hominin to create art.

The discovery and acceptance of very early art forms that predate modern humans adds a new dimension to our understanding of the evolution of hominin cognition. They have far-reaching implications for understanding the relationship between evolution and the creative mind and how creative expression has been a significant driver in human cognitive development. New dating techniques also means we are constantly expanding the timeline, thus deepening the relevance of the art habit.

As an artist and student of archaeology, the deep origins of the creative mind, and in particular art, are fascinating and go some way to explain its appeal. The reasons why we started doing it in the first place, and its early role in cultural development, would require many volumes of books to do any justice to the topic. My purpose is not to explain the evolution of creative visual thinking, but to reveal it in all its diversity and to show that it is, and always has been natural, instinctual and immortalising.


References

Bednarik, Robert G. (1996), The cupules on Chief’s Rock, Auditorium Cave, Bhimbetka, The Artifact: Journal of the Archaeological and Anthropological Society of Victoria, Volume 19, pages 63–71 http://www.ifrao.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Auditorium96.pdf

Blakemore, Erin (2018) 73,000-Year-Old Doodle May be World’s Oldest Drawing, National Geographic

Joordens, J. C. A. et al. (2014) Nature http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nature13962 

Wong, Kate (2018). Ancient Cave Paintings Clinch the Case for Neandertal Symbolism, Scientific American https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/ancient-cave-paintings-clinch-the-case-for-neandertal-symbolism1/

Further reading

An excellent resource for information pertaining to palaeolithic archaeology is Don’t Maps.

Another excellent resource for rock art enthusiasts is the Bradshaw Foundation. This site contains information for rock art across the world.

For more in depth discussions on early and prehistoric art, see The Encyclopedia of Art (www.visual-arts-cork.com). In particular Earliest Art of Prehistory

“The Final Passage” – a modern story about ancient story-tellers

Narrated by Marianne Faithful, The Final Passage is a short film from the Rock Art Network which aims to take us on a virtual tour of the cave art of Chauvet-Pont d’Arc cave in France. The film is haunting and thought-provoking, without letting us forget the art itself is the story and the gift.

The film is available to view for free until the 7th of June, 2020 so I thought I would post it now while I work on my next post, which, coincidentally, is all about the first creatives and the images they made. Turn off the lights, maximise the browser window and wait for the goose-bumps.

Only two more days left to view the film.

Bigger on the Inside

The Cave wall as sketchbook

Many thousands of years ago early artists scratched, hammered and stained marks on rock, bone and shell (and probably wood too, though, with a few exceptions, wooden artefacts don’t preserve well). Those engraved and pigmented masterpieces, as well as the people who created them, were a source of wonder for me, one which led me to study archaeology and human evolutionary biology (palaeoanthropology).

Interpretations of what that early art meant to its makers are as numerous and subjective as the minds that created them, but I think it’s fair to say the impulses that drove their creativity are the same for us today. Those early images reveal much about the prehistoric environment, but more importantly, they reveal how like ours the minds of the creators were.

The timeless nature of the ancient rock art reminds me of modern sketchbooks in that they are, among other things, illustrated records of our internal lives. Like a contemporary artist’s journal, rock art wasn’t only ornamental or fun; it was intentional and it was meaningful. It provided an outlet for the very human penchant for story-telling. It was creativity illustrated. 

The point of this blog:

I am a full-time artist, deeply committed to pen and ink, and watercolour for my professional work, but I spend most of my time with my head in sketchbooks and art journals – my own and other peoples. I am fascinated by illustrated creativity and how incredibly diverse the methods and formats are, and because it is timeless. I also have an academic and personal interest in the material remains of past and present people, particularly with respect to creativity.

This blog is mostly about pictures (the illustrated kind) and how we use them for story-telling, self-expression, visualisation, reflection, and recollection, and to impart information and to entertain. I created it to explore both traditional and digital media, but also ways for combining the two.  

This blog is in honour of all the illustrators, past and present, who remind us constantly that there is no correct way to illustrate creativity.

I hope you will join me on this visual tour.