Inspiration in unplaces.

Have you ever felt out of place in a familiar spot? I don’t mean socially awkward or anxious, just given the sense that you’re in a place that shouldn’t be — like a shopping mall before the stores open, inside of a school at night, or somewhere else divorced from its usual context by some small, important detail. They are a familiar place, easily made into a strange-seeming unplace.

There are two times of year in this area, one in spring and one in autumn, where the light around four PM turns everything a lovely orange-gold, but the angle of the sun creates stark shadows of a particularly surreal length and sharpness. With a clear blue sky, it reminds me of Dali’s “Landscape with Butterflies” — colors too bright to be real, shadows too long and forbidding to be welcome.

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Salvador Dali’s “Landscape with Butterflies”

The idea of unplaces fascinates me, the way something so minor can make the familiar so strange. I think part of it comes from when I was a little kid, in an area where we largely had to make our own fun. I spent a lot of time in an abandoned school behind the house I grew up in, and, once I was a little older and could hop a fence, sneaking around storm water basins and drainage culverts. It’s a bizarre feeling, ducking under a pulled-up bit of chain link and stepping into a wet, wild world where the spongy turf and overgrown trees suddenly and strangely block the sights and sounds of traffic. There are no more sidewalks, no more streetlights, just murky ponds of massive snapping turtles and every quietly resentful goldfish that’s ever been loosed down a toilet. It is a small shift, just a chain link fence and a few strides, but it’s an important one.

I remember riding the train across the country a couple of years ago. I lived in Delaware at the time and, having saved up enough for a seat on Amtrak, decided to give it a go. As we passed through the million shades of the desert, from persimmon orange to the blinding, glittering white of Utah’s salt flats, I could see occasional islands of abandoned humanity. There were no towns around them, no yards, fields, or fences — as if some capricious and malevolent giant had plucked them from their foundations and left them there like forgotten toys. Just the occasional roofless husk of a deserted homestead, sometimes with a scrap of dry-rotted cardboard abortively tacked over a window, even less occasionally with the rusted corpse of an ancient car sinking slowly into the sand around it. Even in the safety of the train, sitting in a cushy seat just wide enough for me curl up to sleep in for the four-day journey, they gave me goosebumps.

In Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, there’s discussion of a place being uncanny, or, in German, unheimlich. But unheimlich isn’t used there in the passive sense of being merely unfamiliar, where an observer can gain understanding with time and effort. Instead, it’s used in the sense of a place being “full of not-knowing,” where gaining understanding may not be possible, helpful, or even safe.

It’s surprising how little it takes to make a place unheimlich, into what feels like something you were never meant to see. Sometimes it takes strange geography, like an average, suburban-looking house seemingly transplanted to the middle of the desert at random. Sometimes, it’s something as minor as a shift in schedule or a change in weather that turns the familiar into the uncanny, or even the unsettling. It’s this that can help us see a place with new eyes.

There’s a lot of strange magic in the places you don’t belong.

Find the unheimlich.

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The process.

“Aw, crap. I have an idea.”

The trouble is, it’s probably midnight.

I’ve noticed my time definitely goes in cycles — early mornings, I have the most energy for writing. Late at night, I get most of my ideas for making things. Ten, eleven PM? I want to redecorate my apartment, learn to weave, and paint a triptych.

I’ve read that everyone naturally has times of day where they are more productive than others, and you should try to find yours and work with it. (This is, unsurprisingly, not much help for people who have to be at a job at 9 AM regardless of how productive they may or may not be feeling.) I try to work with mine, but that isn’t always possible to do while still being considerate to those around me. Luckily, my S.O. doesn’t seem to take much issue with me bringing my sketchbook and a set of pens to bed like a cup of tea and a good book.

Sometimes, I’m struck by an idea just as I’m nodding off to sleep — right when my brain starts to decompress, and I can catch my thoughts starting to follow strange paths on their way to dreaming. I end up waking up again, reaching to scribble something down that probably won’t make any sense in the daylight.

Really, my process goes something like this:

  1. Get hit with an idea.
  2. Realize I should’ve been asleep two hours ago.
  3. Decide whether it’s something that would work better in ink, or if it requires the precision (and ability to erase) of pencil, or the looseness of paint.
  4. Set up my materials, including a tiny spotlight I keep for just this occasion.
  5. Begin making whatever guiding lines I need. I may open up several tabs on my laptop or phone full of references, but, if it’s some strange dream-creature, I may not.
  6. Sketch until I’ve reached the point where I can begin inking, blocking out colors, or erasing my guiding lines, darkening, and shading.
  7. Either go to sleep, or
  8. Look at the clock, realize it’s almost sunrise anyway, make a cup or two of dandelion coffee, and press onward until I’m satisfied.
  9. Do something else, come back, see my work with fresh eyes, and realize I’m not actually satisfied at all.
  10. Repeat steps 8-9 ad nauseam.

Occasionally, this somehow yields a finished work.

Coping with “Artist’s Block.”

Work in progress by Jecca Vanderbeck.

Everyone has run into a creative block at some point or another. It could be the fear of  blank page, a jam session where nothing seems to come together, or the vague discontent of not having anything to wear.

It happens to everyone, and it’s always temporary, but that doesn’t make it any less distressing when it occurs. Sometimes, it can feel like blocks are firmly in place more often than not — while it’s a great feeling to hop out of bed bursting with energy and with a head full of ideas, accompanied by gentle beams of sunlight, distant birdsong, and the wafting aroma of fresh coffee, this is very rarely the case. Even if you absolutely love your life and what you do, it is rarely the case. Can you imagine if it was? It’d be exhausting.

One thing I’ve found that has helped me flatten my back against the wall, suck in my stomach, and sneak my way past creative blocks is having a muse, of sorts. When I have no ideas, when a blank page seems to mock me with its flat, white stare, I can at least draw or paint that. 

For me, they’re carrion birds.

Raven painting by Jecca Vanderbeck.

They snuck their way into my imagination shortly before I became very ill, when I had a constellation of vague symptoms and no answers. Finding ways to make vultures, ravens, and carrion crows bright and beautiful became a kind of obsession. If I could do it for them, I could make myself okay with the specter of death.

Work in progress by Jecca Vanderbeck.

In this case, overcoming artist’s block came along with healing other unresolved fears I had. While not really a personified force, they nonetheless gave faces to my thanatophobia — they made it knowable and face-able. Could I have found a muse without having to go through that? Maybe, but having them has made it possible for me to overcome my fears of artist’s block and loss and death, all in one fell swoop.

“May the key of inspiration unlock your dungeon of creativity.”
― Kevin Ansbro

Pencil and permanence.

To be honest, I don’t really like sketching with pencil.

It has its advantages, sure. You can’t really erase pen, pastel, or paint, for one. Plus it’s buildable — ink is sort of the same color, no matter how lightly you press. These are the very same reasons why I don’t really like it, though.

I have a harder time with things when they leave me an “out.” If I have the ability to erase, I will erase, and erase, and erase until I can do something perfectly (spoiler: that never happens). In the end, I’m always way less content with whatever I’m working on. If I’d just erased one particular line, if I’d just gone a little further back, everything would be perfect and I’d be happy.

A work in progress.

If there’s the opportunity for me to erase my first mistakes and try again, I’ll do it endlessly. If there’s a chance to second-guess, I’ll make an obsession of it.

Ink doesn’t offer me the luxury of starting over. If I sketch something in ink, I have to commit — build on what I’ve done, accept the mistakes, incorporate them, and let whatever happens, happen. Without the ability to erase, I’m inevitably much more pleased with the finished product. Ink doesn’t leave room for regrets.

It’s a pattern that carries over into the rest of my life. If there’s an opportunity for a do-over, if there’s something that pretends to place perfection within reach, it will become a source of obsession. Placed in a position where the stakes are higher, where I have to build on every mistake I’ve made, I’m much more relaxed. It was true when I left home as a teenager, swearing I’d never go back. It stayed true through every move I’ve made, from traveling back and forth across the country, to leaving a stressful, well-paying job for the uncertainty of working for myself. The higher the stakes, the happier I am.

Make the lines permanent.

Go big, or go home.

 

Inside, or en plein air?

An ink drawing of a butterfly and flowers.

I used to have a great portable easel. It folded up small, weighed about two pounds, and was a snap to pack up and carry. I didn’t get it because it was portable, though, but because I was broke — as it turns out, easels meant to be easily taken outdoors are a lot cheaper than the fancy, sturdy ones with built-in storage.

To be honest, when it comes to choosing between working in a studio or en plein air, I’m torn.

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I love working en plein air when I’m doing a landscape. It’s much easier to capture the spirit and life of a place when you aren’t separated by time and a photograph. The way the light changes, how things shift and move in the wind, the way sound and scent can color the atmosphere… These are all things I miss when I only have memories or pictures to work from.

I appreciate the challenge of it, too. I primarily work with ink and acrylic. When I paint, I enjoy working “wet on wet” — something that’s not exactly easy to do when a sunny day wants to speed-dry all of my paint! It forces me to adapt my techniques, or else cobble together new ones on the fly. In terms of practicality, painting in natural light (particularly diffuse light from an overcast day) is a great way to accurately see and mix true-to-life colors. Since most of my artwork will be kept indoors, painting indoors is helpful for seeing exactly how colors and materials will behave in artificial light.

A formal garden.
A small part of the beautiful Brookside Gardens.

On the other hand, I greatly prefer working indoors if I’m working on a portrait, fantasy, or wildlife piece. There’s a level of detail that I feel like I miss otherwise, and not having the added input from my other senses encourages a kind of abstraction that I enjoy. With only a photograph or simple sketch to work from, divorced from the natural context of working outdoors, I feel encouraged to play more. A bird or butterfly in the meadow it calls home is one thing. Placed in a blank field, it can become anything.

A picture of a malachite butterfly hanging upside down from a leaf.
A lovely malachite butterfly.

 

Choosing to work either outdoors or in a studio always means sacrificing some element, some feeling. Outdoors, things are infused with life, sound, breath, and motion. Indoors, the process of making a thing can take on a still, meditative quality. I’ve never been able to work on anything complex outside — I get too distracted. I’ve also had a hard time working loosely indoors — I feel too constricted.

An ink drawing of a butterfly and flowers.

Working indoors also gives me more control over my environment, inclement weather aside. I can play the right music, light the right incense, maintain a tranquil atmosphere that lets me lose myself in whatever I’m doing. But working outdoors invites a certain amount of chaos, and there are few things I enjoy more than looking for patterns and symbols in the buzz of insects, calls of birds, or shapes of leaves that accidentally land on my wet canvas.

The balance is the thing.

How important are archival quality materials?

Honestly, I don’t think anything has put as much of a damper on my creativity as worrying about whether everything I’m using is up to snuff. Acid-free, UV-resistant, non-yellowing, archival quality… It’s exhausting.

There are two schools of thought when it comes to choosing materials. On one hand, there’s the idea that you should do all you can to ensure that your work is going to stay looking the way it did when you first created it, for the sake of whoever collects or restores it in the future. On the other, there’s the idea that making things is more important than worrying about whether they’ll still be around a century from now, and figuring out how to keep your work looking nice is the restorer’s problem.

Some very powerful, beautiful artwork that came out of the 1940s was not made with archival quality materials. Artists used cardboard, not acid free paper or primed canvas. Sidney Nolan preferred to work with latex house paint. Needless to say, a lot of work from that time period has been lost. Colors shift and change. Lines blur. Paint chips, bubbles, and crazes. Restorers tear their hair out.

Unfortunately, you often get what you pay for when it comes to materials. Only a bad artist blames their tools, but there is a difference between cheap materials and their pricier counterparts. (For example, the full set of Sigma pens on sale online for $1 is probably lying about being waterproof and acid-free, and definitely lying about its brand name.) When money is a factor, it can become a choice between not worrying about the future, or not making anything at all.

The decision of whether or not to use archival quality materials can also be driven by ego rather than necessity. Should I assume that my work is going to survive long enough to even need to be restored? Should I leave the burden of restoring it on whoever’s trying to preserve it, or try to make their job easier? Should I assume that anyone is going to try to preserve my work in the first place?

And then there’s the question of sustainability. The trouble with archival materials is that they are not environmentally friendly by definition. They are supposed to last in a pretty much unchanged form — at least, as unchanged as paint, panels, ink, and paper can get — which runs counter to the desire to have a small ecological impact. Even if you use natural materials, all of the fixatives and varnishes out there are designed to keep those natural materials from degrading.

Most of the time, I leave the decision up to whatever I’m making. While I might prefer to use acrylic paint and primed canvas for some projects, I don’t worry about preserving others (especially natural materials). I can save enough of my projects in a digital format as it is, and who wants to deal with fixatives and varnish fumes?

At times, I even enjoy the mutable, capricious nature of materials that aren’t intended to last. Inks boiled from flower petals react with sunlight, moisture, heat, and acids. Homemade paper, in turn, reacts with whatever is placed on it. Chalk and charcoal blur and shift. Sometimes, half of the fun is seeing whatever I’ve made become something I never imagined.

Besides (piggybacking on Tuesday’s post) it’s just more fun when I don’t have to worry about whether everything I’m working with is strictly archive-worthy. Not worrying about a theoretical restorer in the future is pretty freeing.  (And, let’s face it, there’s no guarantee that anyone would even be interested in keeping my work around that long to begin with!) Artwork made as an offering also tends to work out better when it is something that can be safely burned, dissolved, or left outdoors for nature to take its course.

Let go, and let rot.

 

Remembering how to play.

A little while ago, I read Sandra Ingerman‘s Soul Retrieval: Mending the Fragmented Self. I was previously unaware of Ingerman’s work, and was intrigued when a friend recommended her to me — particularly this book.

Ingerman has a unique talent for combining the same principles used in magic and shamanism with many of the self-help and psychological healing ideas espoused by John Bradshaw. The core of Soul Retrieval is pretty much analogous to the idea of healing the inner child, placed in the context of shamanism. That said, while Bradshaw is credited as being the “Father of the self-help movement,” actual soul retrieval is not a DIY procedure. It requires an outside party who knows what they’re doing. Otherwise, it can be ineffective at best, and dangerous at worst.

All of this is to say that there was one idea that kept coming up in Soul Retrieval: relearning how to play. People “lose” fragments of themselves due to trauma, and that takes place during childhood. Because of this, it’s not uncommon for someone in need of soul retrieval to have lost childlike characteristics like their zest for life and ability to play.

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Retaining the ability to play isn’t just important for enjoying yourself — it’s the seed of creativity. Play is experimentation. It’s the kernel that generates new ideas, the thing that allows you to toy with unfamiliar concepts without judgment or pressure. In any artistic discipline, it’s important to have a solid foundation of skills — you have to know the rules before you can understand how to break them — but if you don’t know how to play, can you create art?

On the other hand, it always makes me a little sad to hear someone lamenting what they see as their lack of artistic skill. I know what it feels like to be frustrated when something doesn’t turn out “right,” but even a bad painting can be made beautiful by memory and even a flawless painting can be painful to look at. Does the product matter if you aren’t enjoying the process?

I try to keep that in mind when I do what I do. I enjoy the process more, and there is no disappointment on those occasions when a piece doesn’t turn out the way I intended. I can play with combining materials and techniques without worrying how it will look, or whether it will still be “archival quality.” Even if something turns out badly, I can cut it apart to play with the pieces. One part of a drawing can find its way into a collage, part of a canvas might become a patch. It makes it easier to let go.

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Lately, I’ve been playing with mixing oil pastels and acrylic. Impasto creates texture, the black acrylic stands out in peaks and valleys. A sweep of oil pastel highlights them, giving them the texture of shiny feathers. I don’t know if I’m really married to the idea yet, but that’s okay.

It’s all in good fun.