Descriptions do not have to be in words. Lines, textures and colour speak faster than words to convey qualities like form, temperature, chaos and cohesion; or emotions like hate, discord – or love and harmony.

Whatever we say in words can be conveyed in the lines and shapes of an artwork. It’s a different sort of  shorthand. Not necessarily quicker to create – but often quicker to read through. (Though not out loud.) And if it's really good you can keep dipping into it to find out more.

Simple images that last a few seconds or maybe only a second can stop you in your tracks. The way a shadow splits a white dove in half, or the way the sun's rays create a wall in a wood. You can immortalise them in an image.

Sometimes it’s not easy to explain what you see when you notice a man and woman arguing on a street, or a little boy in tears, or a smiling girl leaning out from an open window or a sun-dappled stone wall. Interpretation through any tangible art form - a painting, textile, sculpture, ceramic piece, jewelry or glass - can translate that moment of alarm or delight into something tangible and lasting. Then it becomes a statement.

Through art you can get beyond the object to the feeling of it.

So what have you described lately?


I’ve seen school leavers and college leavers with impressive business skills – for example school entrepreneurs sell fantastic homemade products at a farmers’ market. Yet some people seem to miss out. I’ve met people coming out of art college who say that they are unprepared for the business of art or the art of business. I’ve also read blogs where art college leavers post that they do not know what should be on an invoice. I’ve also met students who don’t have the basic keyboard skills to type a letter. If you have missed out on fundamental communication, business and marketing skills then put together a plan for yourself to catch up. The earlier in your course or working life you start acquiring and improving business skills the better.

Blog thought...

Business basics, bookkeeping, social media anyone?

What does your local college offer in the way of business help and support? Hertfordshire University have just recruited 3 Employability Champions as there are now international employability league tables where universities vie with each other to produce the most employable students. So if you are on an arts course look out for opportunities organised by this team or the careers unit on posters around your university buildings, events brochures and studynet.

It’s also worth Googling. Search for bite-size topics, such as business basics, book-keeping, social media and marketing. If you don’t already have wordprocessing and spreadsheet skills then learn these too and start using both at every opportunity as part of your course work.

Online courses can be a good idea. You can do these alongside your arts degree if you find you have some spare time but you really need to keep focused and committed to succeed. If you meet the eligibility requirements such as over 18, and a UK citizen, much of this training is free. Vision2Learn is just one example of a provider. There are many more. Before you give this type of site your contact details, set up another email address, such as a hotmail account that you can use specially for these type of registrations, as it can be hard to stop their email ads coming once you register.

Prefer to work it out for yourself?

If you can’t afford the time for free courses, then at least know where to get the information you need to create the right business processes to support what you do. Local business support can be found at your county council website. Also, the British Library have supportive business services and good networking opportuniites.

No recommendations here… just tips

I’m not specifically recommending any of the above suppliers just giving examples of the sort of things to search or look out for. The earlier in your course or lifetime you gain these skills the better. You could have crucial business skills under your belt by the time you attend your work experience. Push yourself to get these skills up to a professional level, concentrating on good layout and content that you draft, spell-check and proof-read for a good final result every time. Then when you graduate with an arts degree you have also given yourself a head start for getting work and/or starting your own business.

Information was correct at time of writing – but links may be lost and other information such as costs or funding may change over time. 

I’ve been talking about sketching on and off on this blog. And over the last few months I’ve looked enviously at other people’s sketch books often filled with perfect drawings...

Personally I’m not a great sketch-booker. I sometimes do sketches on white cartridge paper and throw them into a box – then refer back to them years later when I’m in need of an animal, a body or a pattern. I also create sketches in Photoshop that I save in a folder on my PC - which acts like a virtual box. If there is any likelihood other people are going to peer at these then I admit I feel rather self-conscious. But recently I had this experience which has changed my attitude.

I saw Stephen Chambers’ Trouble Meets Trouble  Exhibition at the Wills Lane Gallery, St Ives in October this year – and was blown away. Inspired by Chambers’ imagery and techniques I set about trying to find out more.

I’ve been lucky enough to find this YouTube video, Stephen Chambers – Artistabout his sketching technique.  It all starts with the sketches which Chambers always does on thick water colour paper and then he throws them into a plan chest.

If you have any fears about your sketches looking a bit basic, or if you worry about how to talk about them at interview or during critiques of your work in a class, I think this video will help. What the artist sees in a few sketchy lines is far more than another onlooker could ever see. The sketches are there to supply what he needs for his work. He says, ‘Drawing is a kind of nutrition for the work that I make.’

Many of Stephen Chambers’ works are prints. In another YouTube video – Monoprinting with Stephen Chambers RA - you can see how he builds up monoprints and how some of his sketches relate to and feed his imagery. They become the characters that inhabit his work. For example, the rough outline of a horse becomes a solid shape in the finished work. So the sketch represents the possibility that the artist sees and later acts like a prompt for the idea - all Stephen Chambers needs to summon up his art.

So now I just accept that a sketch is a blurry snapshot of some scenery on the way to somewhere more defined, where I will linger longer over detail. If it prompts my work, or if I can visualise beyond it to the final work, or if I need the sketch to feed my work – it’s valid and important to me. And that’s all that matters.


Whether you’re a student who has to have a sketchbook or journal – or you are an artist who wants to revisit this habit -  here are some things you could think about and try…

Establish the boundaries - get the guidelines

If you need the journal to pass an exam check that what you are thinking of doing is alright to submit. Establish the boundaries of your sketchbook or journal project before you begin to think about the form it could take.

Why do it? What will you get out of it?

What do you personally want to get out of the sketchbook or journal activity? It helps your focus to decide why are you doing this – and write it down. 

  • Do you want to develop your observation – and show progress in your ability to draw what you see?
  • Do you want to convey emotion – deliver meaning through line and shape?
  • Do you want to develop ideas for your art works - concentrate on one particular subject area?
  • Do you want to store ideas to refer back to – you just keep getting ideas and you need somewhere to put them?
  • Do you want to get into the daily drawing habit – sketching anything in your surroundings on a daily basis?
  • Or is it more of a story habit – a daily journey into the art of storytelling?
  • Is it more of a journal about some sort of exploration for yourself - or about yourself?

There are any amount of reasons for keeping a sketchbook or journal. Really understand what you want to get out of it before you start. If you are on a course – establish what the examiners want to see and learn about you or your work from your journal or sketchbook.

What is the life-cycle of your sketchbook?

I think it’s quite nice to think about the future of your sketchbooks or journals up front. As your career as an artist spans over the future years will your sketchbooks be a constant source of reference, readily to hand on your bookshelf? Will they be a matching collection of traditional Moleskines that fill your bookshelves over time? Or at the other end of the spectrum will they be more novel and different – perhaps made by you and taking on all sorts of different forms and textures?

If you are creating your own sketchbooks or journals they could be recyclable. Perhaps you envisage an end of sketchbook ritual where you tear the pages up by moonlight and sprinkle them over a bed of roses as mulch. Or will you bury each book you finish in a garden or some wild place? Will you mark the spot with a pebble, a carved wood marker or pottery artifact?  Is it for someone to find on some bleak moor? Or is the idea for it to biodegrade and meld with the landscape – in which case you might be interested in paper made from elephant dung.

Alternatively if you bury a book of paper with flower seeds in it you can photograph it a year later transformed into a bunch of blooms bending in the breeze.

What sort of sketchbook or journal?

All that thinking will get you to the point when you are ready to choose your sketchbook. If you just want buy it and start drawing this YouTube video by Diana Trout shows you different options. She uses 3 different journals – one for sketching, one for writing and one for colourful watercolours and collage. She looks at the traditional sketchbooks from Moleskines to cheaper options. I’d add Paperchase as an possible place to buy one.

If you want a more novel approach consider what might suit your purpose and reflect your subject matter or a metaphor you are working with. For example if you are hooked on still lifes of food – sketching and collaging through a pile of white IKEA napkins might be interesting.

Other options could be swatches of re-used fabric you draw or print on that you piece together at the end as a quilt. Alternatively a roll of wallpaper lining is a big inexpensive surface that you could work across until you get to the end - though it’s quite big to carry around. You can paint or draw on everyday objects like coke bottles and bean cans with things like left over emulsion, model paint and nail varnish. But if you do, think about safe handling –for example tape rough edges. What objects would tie in with your aims and your interests?

Ideas for approaches to sketching could be from visiting galleries and museums. The British Library have 130 prints and drawings on show at the moment in a free exhibition called Recent Acquisitions that runs until 1 September 2013. Must go and see it myself.

Web options are weightless and free

Free web options include Pinterest, Facebook or Blogger and a video journal on YouTube or Vimeo is also a possibility. The great thing about these is that they are weightless and accessible from anywhere. You can video temporary art to make it permanent. For example art that you create in the garden before the rain - or on a bread board with seeds, rice grains and spices you happen to have in the cupboard and before you make a good curry - might make an interesting video.

I quite like this weekly online journal by Johanna Basford… she alternates photos of activity with pictures of enormous artwork – one image per week. Simple but effective. The things she learns on this creative rollercoaster jump out from the pages. See what you think… (Use the link to get to the Digital Arts site, then search for Johanna Basford to see her the collection of articles.)

A note for teachers

Teachers might be interested in this Sketchbooks Best Practice course at the BritishMuseum in November costing £100. 

In the next post I’ll be looking in more detail at what people put in their sketchbooks…

Design affects every aspect of our lives. Bad design affects us badly - good design feels so right it can be taken for granted and even unnoticed!

Some environments are more design oriented than others - offices are a case in point. Architecture, furniture, technology, interior design and other design elements can combine to enhance creativity and productivity.

I came across this film on the OnOffice website, put on YouTube on 5 June 2013. It's about the importance of 'making' at school - with a view to a design career - or any other career for that matter!

Making means doing. And doing is what work is about. Therefore making at school helps you prepare for a career - especially in design. See what other people think... here's the link.

Most art or design courses demand a sketchbook or journal as part of the final submission. Yet from what I’ve heard and seen it doesn’t suit everyone. I know plenty would disagree with me! I just don’t think some people have the right temparement for it. So this article looks at the personalities of some who have - and some who haven’t - had the habit…

Does everyone do it?

Robert's sketchbook

I ask many artists I meet at exhibitions whether they keep a sketcbhook. Some say yes, immediately pull one out and start flipping through the pages. Some say no. Many confess that for their course they pulled it together the weekend before they had to submit their work. And I can understand that!

If you fail to keep a sketchbook or journal does it mean you’re not a real artist or designer? I don’t think so. Sketchbooks are a relatively new invention. Forty thousand years ago cave artists didn’t carry sketchbooks with them  – and look how brilliant they were! However, if your course demands it, you’re not going to get away with not producing one or the other – a journal or sketchbook.

If you come forward in time to the Renaissance, sketchbooks did exist around 400 years ago. The most famous are probably Leonardo da Vinci’s. He was not just curious about how to draw – but about how everything worked too. He captured anatomical detail from dissecting corpses – and was intrigued by the hydraulic engineering of muscle and bone. Not only that, he used the sketchbook discipline as a way of exploring his creataivity – from weapons to helicopters. His sketchbooks were clearly a discipline. They literally show us how his curiosity and inventive mind work together.

Caravaggio, a painter at around the same time was a bold, often violent and vivid personality. He killed someone, escaped from a jail in Maltaand after several other adventures died at the young age of 38. According to an article in the Telegraph, when his body was found in 2010, experts thought he may have been murdered. 

His approach to painting was as unconventional as his approach to life. The traditional artists of the day would have drawn out their composition before painting it. But there is no existing evidence that he made any sketches at all. He worked from his mind’s eye and painted directly onto his surface, possibly helped by the latest technology of the time – camera obscura.  His resulting draughtsmanship was technically brilliant and the stories his paintings told were more violent and dramatic than anything that had gone before. In those days artists employed several people and like any business today were always looking at ways to cut overheads. Sketching surfaces, like stretched goatskin, were hugely expensive. He probably saved both time and money with his approach.

Does everyone take to it?

If we leap forward again to the Victorian era you find that art education had changed from Renaissance times. People who wanted to be artists usually attended art school. Sketchbooks do feature. I looked to my two distant Welsh cousins Gwen and Augustus John  for more information. Did they keep sketchbooks?

I think Gwen John was a quieter personality than her brother. Yet after art college she made her way to Paris, sleeping rough and squatting. She was the muse and lover of the sculptor August Rodin for ten years inParis. Later she had a studio there. So there was an unconventional side to her. But when you look at her work you can see she was a careful artist who liked intricate detail. True, some of her sketches are fast and rough. But she was also happy to repeat similar things and practise them over and over again. Her series of nuns, all in similar wimples and grey habits, with only their faces for individuality, show she didn’t mind repetition. So Gwen had her wild side yet her works show a tightly disciplined approach. According to the book “Augustus John” by Michael Holroyd – Gwen John left behind many sketchbooks. In fact she left behind thousands of sketches – but only about 150 finished works. Edwin John, her executor, sent her sketchbooks to the National Museum of Wales.

Augustus John’s life-style choices and experimental works show us that he was more radical and more of a flamboyant free spirit than Gwen. He was inspired by gypsy life. He had a wife in the conventional sense and a common law wife. The three of them and their children all lived in a gypsy caravan for a while. He was a brilliant portrait artist, not just concentrating on features but body language too. Some critics put his talent on a par with Leonardo da Vinci. His works and lifestyle portray a strong personality, focused on what he felt was important. He developed loose leaf working drawings for specific projects. Holroyd’s book, which has intimate details about Augustus John, does not mention any sketchbooks from his studio at Fryern Court. I have not found any evidence that he habitually kept sketchbooks through his art career.

So here are two artists that some critics have called geniuses. They are clearly different in temperament – yet brought up together, with the same artistic and cultural influences. One of them found maintaining the sketchbook habit helpful – the other probably did not.

What if I’ve got to do it?

I’m not saying that people who don’t do sketchbooks are wild  - and people who do are disciplined. What I am saying is that there are examples of superlative artists in both camps – those who do sketchbooks and those who don’t.

If you'd rather not but you’ve got to do it – because you feel it’s something you should do or your course demands it - then creating a sketchbook or journal is a good discipline to try. Yet for some people, as a course or project goes on, the fear of creating a sketchbook or journal can get worse and worse. In the end the idea holds all the charm of sitting in a bath full of snakes. I believe there are ways to add the habit of sketching or journaling into your lifestyle – maybe not for a lifetime, but certainly for a project or course. If you’re finding it impossible to make a start, or you want yours to stand out from the crowd, then my next blog should help. See you soon!

P.S. I went to the Moore Rodin  exhibition at Perry Green at the weekend. An example sketchbook from each artist was there. Rodin’s sketchbook held his light pencil studies of human bones. Moore used a mix of pencil, wax and water colour for his annotated ideas and studies.

When I put out that question – ‘What is Art?’ - all sorts of links, answers and reminders came up. It’s that Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon. Despite the barrage of information this is the last article for now on that particular question…

The question 'What is Art?'

I came across Seth Godin’s book ‘The Icarus Deception – How High Will You Fly?’ Here the author talks about ‘Your Art’ – meaning ’Your Thing’ – whatever constructive activity that inspires you to get up in the morning. He invites everybody to treat what they do as Art and tell the world about it. So here we have a very broad definition of what Art is – an attitude anyone can adopt.

I attended the Cas Holmes' talk Urban/Nature: Using the Found hosted by HVA. She explained her magpie collector tendencies may be the result of the gypsy in her. In her art she merges found materials - natural and man-made – using both painting and textile techniques. She melds these diverse objects – from teabags to nylon lace - into cohesive works. Galleries find it difficult to pigeon hole her. Clearly Cas Holmes is an artist who is doing ‘Her Thing’ - Her Own Art.

I went to the lecture What Making Does to the Maker by the art historian turned artist Chris Bucklow hosted by UHArts. He spoke about his view that we are still in the era of Romanticism, where humans and human creations are seen as separate from nature. He contrasted this with the Renaissance view which saw human activity as part of and adding the final touch to nature. So it seems that expectations of art and artists appear to change in different times and different places too. The definition of Art shifts with time and place.

Chris Bucklow has gone through many phases as an artist. First plant sculptures consisting of plants he has genetically modified or grafted to create unique combinations which in turn led to film-making. Later, life size photographs of friends and family created by exposing large sheets of photographic paper to the sunshine through pinholes and coloured filters. He calls this series Guests. More recently several series of oil paintings, for example To Reach Inside a Vault. This paragraph is clearly a simplification of a lifetime of work, but indicates the range an artist might achieve in their body of work!

So what is Art? Maybe it’s the brave steps along the high wire of our curiosity, our quest. Who knows what it is that sets an artist off on a particular string of projects? That’s the subject of another blog!

Following on from the ‘What is Art?’ question I just wanted to take a peek at the power of art to transform.

Take a powerful subject like genocide. What can an artist do?

Here is one artist's vision explained. 

Here is the invitation to other artists to join in.

Here is a website to support the message.

Here is the installation in New Orleans.
This is what will go to Washington in June 2013.

The artist supports the art project with a skilled use of media. For example, YouTube is used every step of the way to ensure the message is accessible globally.

Pen drawings of white bones on black background

It may be tempting to think that working on a small scale in your home or workshop, you are not in the same league. You could even think you are failing to make this kind of impact. Or maybe that transformation is not what you are about anyway. I disagree.

It seems to me that for many members of HVA, and other artists across the country, art is about sending up a prayer of appreciation. I don’t mean that in a religious sense – but in a  human spiritual sense that every race, colour and creed could understand. Each landscape, botanical flower, still life, and portrait is a lighted beacon for the beauty that surrounds us. Such works could also be understood as a thanks for the power of observation and the skill to render it. Each imaginary picture, whether abstract, or surreal or expressionist – or works in different media such as fabric, wood, stone, print, metal, glass, photography - are also about appreciating human qualities like creativity, ingenuity, imagination plus the full array of human emotion including humour. All of these (often small) things add up to something that is hugely important in a language that everyone can understand.

So, when Herts Open Studios arrives in September and artists share their shows, the sheer mass of this appreciation creates an enormous county-wide installation. Looking at the world through the value of appreciation is constructive. And as we go about our daily local business maybe what we don’t fully appreciate is how globally important that is. Yet, we understand we are all connected.  So we know that  such a constructive and positive example has the potential to spread. Not as a literal copy of Open Studios, but as a feeling that all over the world our spiritual needs are best met through creative actions and constructive approaches. The possible ultimate conclusion is that much of the negative and most of the truly awful side of human nature would be softly conquered over time - and quietly and invisibly laid to rest. What power that is.

Diary date reminders – on the subject of making

HVA present Cas Holmes, textile mixed media artist and author, with a talk entitled: ‘Urban/Nature Using the Found’ about making plus travels in Japan and India.
At North Herts College, Cambridge Road, Hitchin, SG4 0JD.
On Wednesday, 27 February 2013, 19:00.
HVA members and students FREE; visitors £5. Do book in advance to secure a seat.

School of Creative Arts and UH Arts, University of Hertfordshire, present Chris Bucklow, art historian and sculptor talking about ‘What Making Does to the Maker’ from a psychological perspective.
At Room A166, Lindop Building Herts University, College Lane Campus, College Lane, Hatfield, Herts AL10 9AB.
On Tuesday, 5 March 2013, 13:00 – 14:00.
This is part of the Art Talk SeriesTwo  which includes a range of weekly events( running from 5 February to 19 March) that HVA members are invited to attend FREE of charge. Times and locations can vary from week to week.

A Valentine's day card with the question: So What is Art - Look around to Know.

Happy Valentine's Day to art lovers

This is apparently a question some students get for a dissertation. (Another one is "What is the difference between art and design?")

Is this a useful question?

From an artist perspective the act of creativity feels as necessary as breathing. But how do you explain that to someone who doesn't share this quest?

From an arts organisation perspective it's handy to have the answer to put in proposals and funding requests. And this is probably the case for artists too.

Maybe Herts Visual Arts members should be ready for the question - in case anyone ever comes up to you at Open Studios and says "So what is art exactly? And what's the point of it?"

Some very good answers to this question can be found in a Culture Show Special on Ice Age Art. This is only available for a couple more days, until 6.29pm on Saturday 16 Feb. It's a fascinating programme where you see human cave art from nearly forty thousand years ago. You can see precursors to Picasso and Van Gogh in these amazing pieces. If art has survived this long there must be something to it!

The programme includes a preview of the British Museum Ice Age Art - Arrival of the modern mind exhibition, which is now on: 7 February to 26 May 2013.