Artists' Antennae / by Jeannine Cook

While listening to the BBC World Service on the radio today, I heard an interesting interview on The Strand programme with South African composer Kevin Volans. He was discussing the multiple influences on him and sources of inspiration for his compositions.

He made the remark that a musician needs to have his ears open at all times to all the sounds around him, because he is thus "fed" and inspired - I am paraphrasing. I thought it was the perfect reminder to me, as a visual artist, that artists' antennae should be up at all times, our eyes open and registering actively and our senses receptive to the world around. No one ever really knows what will stimulate some new creative idea.. that is perhaps what makes being an artist so endlessly interesting and exciting. Volans was talking of living in South Africa and listening to Zulu being spoken on the street all around him. When he went to Germany and heard German being spoken, it made him very aware of the differences in sound and in fact, drove home to him his links to Africa.

I relate to that statement, because I grew up with melodic Kiswahili being spoken all around me, and somehow those sounds still mingle with brilliant African light and tropical colour in my mind. Antennae, for artists, don't just register visually; rather, we all should be aware of sounds, light, colour, motion or stillness... the world around us in multi-dimensional form. Sharpening one's powers of observation always brings rewards, because whatever the artist is seeking to create comes across more powerfully and authentically when there is knowledge behind the creation.

Thinking about artists' antennae being up and registering actively makes me think of those wonderful examples of Albrecht Durer's work, the watercolour studies of humble aspects of nature that became great art because of Durer's keen attentiveness. Perhaps my favourite example of this is his Great Piece of Turf, on the right (image courtesy of the Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna), done in watercolour and gouache on paper. How many artists, then - in 1503 - or now - would think of painting a small sample of the grasses in a field, let alone be so aware of the exquisite details in the turf? In the same way, Durer's awareness of the beauty and intricacy of this Muzzle of a Bull is amazing. (Image courtesy of The British Museum.)

Durer painted this study in watercolour in 1523, many years after he painted the turf, but he was still looking very carefully at nature. In fact, Albrecht Durer was so noted for his studies of plants and animals that in the years after his death in 1528, those were the aspects of his art that were most admired and emulated by fellow artists and subsequent generations of artists.

Perhaps part of being an artist, in any discipline, is to have one's eyes and ears really working. Certainly all the great artists confirm the need for these well-honed antennae.