Revisiting Earlier Drawings by Jeannine Cook

The tang of mint, the fragility of a lily - botanical drawing teaches about so many aspects of plants. Yet it is interesting to measure that as I have evolved as an artist, those earlier drawings have led me on to learning so much more about trees, rocks, environments, places. Seeing two exhibitions of my botanical metalpoint drawings up now in Berkeley and Oakland at the same time is both a celebration and a realisation of how the world can teach us artists so much more, all the time.

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When Art and Embroidery United - Part 2 by Jeannine Cook

Visiting master embroiderer Alain Dodier in Sainte Valiere, Southern France, was like straying into a medieval scriptorium, save that Alain is very much of our time Nonetheless, as he creates intricate vivid scenes in silk embroidery threads, using Bayeux stitching that harks back to the 11th century, his passion and dedication to historical detail and fidelity reminded me of the slow and painstaking creation of illuminated manuscripts that tell stories of great import to Western culture. His seven-meter panel about the Pilgrims’ Route to Santiago de Compostela is one such work.

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A Passion for Drawing by Jeannine Cook

Three exhibitions in New York, each by a superb artist in a different century, but all united by a lifelong passion to draw, draw, draw, anything and everything. For an artist, these current exhibitions are a wonderful reaffirmation of the central role drawing potentially plays in the development and creativity of an artist. Gainsborough, Delacroix, Wayne Thiebaud - three very dissimilar artists, yet they are all on the same page in a drawing book.

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Camille Claudel, so talented, so heart-wrenching by Jeannine Cook

Camille Claudel lived in Nogent sur Seine as a teenager, and from there, she was launched into her career as a sculptor, her talent carrying her to Auguste Rodin’s studio and into another complex world. The recently-opened Museum in Nogent sur Seine holds an important number of her sculptures, and offers a fascinating glimpse into the world of late 19th and early 20th century French sculptors.

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Creativity by Jeannine Cook


Everyone uses the word. Everyone feels that intuitively, they know what "creativity" means. Everyone also knows that it is a highly desirable quality to possess. Yet the definition of creativity is not so easy. The Oxford English Dictionary succinctly puts it as "The use of imagination or original ideas to create something; inventiveness." Wikipedia gets broader in concepts: "' the production of novel, useful products' (Mumford, 2003, p. 110). Creativity can also be defined 'as the process of producing something that is both original and worthwhile' or 'characterized by originality and expressiveness and imaginative'." The article goes on to add that there are countless other versions of definitions.

Of course, in the art arena, creativity is deemed indispensable if the artist is in any way to be successful. Yet, as we all know, there are so many versions of artistic expression that most are considered creative only by a few viewers. Only the truly exceptional are heralded by most people, and until very recently, the culture of each country also played a part in the degree of appreciation of the work created.

What set me off thinking about the concept of creativity was a wonderful expression I read in a marvellous new book, "The Churchill Factor" by Boris Johnson (Mayor of London Boris Johnson). Discussing Winston Churchill's amazing abilities, particularly in the World War II period, Johnson says, "he (Churchill) also had the zigzag streak of lightning in the brain that makes for creativity."

It is so often just that aspect, the "zigzag streak of lightning in the brain", that allows for unorthodox approaches, solutions that come out of left field, images configured in a wholly novel way, vivid writing that none else has achieved.

In art, for instance, every generation has had truly creative people who have broken out of the mould and done things differently. The Renaissance was full of artists - think, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Durer, Titian - developing linear perspective, depicting landscape in naturalistic fashion, executing portraits of people in realistic fashion, modelling with light and shade. Later generations perfected oil painting, shifted the focus of Western art to Mannerism - such as Tintoretto or El Greco.  Then the Baroque artists flourished, like Caraveggio, Rubens or Rembrandt, and on the artists marched. Look at some samples of the different ways artists worked down the centuries.

Virgin of the Rocks, 1483-1486, Leonardo_da_Vinci_- (Image courtesy of the Louvre)

Virgin of the Rocks, 1483-1486, Leonardo_da_Vinci_- (Image courtesy of the Louvre)

Bacchus and Ariadne, Titian, 1520-23, (Image courtesy of The National Gallery, London)

Bacchus and Ariadne, Titian, 1520-23, (Image courtesy of The National Gallery, London)

St. Martin and the Beggar, 1597-99, oil on canvas, El Greco, (Image courtesy of the Widener Collection, National Gallery, Washington)

St. Martin and the Beggar, 1597-99, oil on canvas, El Greco, (Image courtesy of the Widener Collection, National Gallery, Washington)

Portrait of Susanna Lunden(?) ('Le Chapeau de Paille') probably 1622-5, Peter Paul Rubens, (Image courtesy of the National Gallery, London)

Portrait of Susanna Lunden(?) ('Le Chapeau de Paille') probably 1622-5, Peter Paul Rubens, (Image courtesy of the National Gallery, London)

By the 19th century, art needed some more innovatively creative artists and the Impressionists came to the fore, with Manet, Monet, Renoir and Pissarro leading the way. Creativity certainly flourished with Gauguin, Van Gogh and Cezanne, as they laid the groundwork for 20th century artists to find entirely new paths to follow in creating art in tune with their tumultuous century.

Tahitian Woman with a Flower, Paul Gauguin, 1891 (Image courtesy of NY Carlsberg Glyptotek)

Tahitian Woman with a Flower, Paul Gauguin, 1891 (Image courtesy of NY Carlsberg Glyptotek)

Mont Sainte-Victoire with Large Pine (c. 1887), Paul Cezanne, (Image courtesy of Courtauld Institute of Art)

Mont Sainte-Victoire with Large Pine (c. 1887), Paul Cezanne, (Image courtesy of Courtauld Institute of Art)

Perhaps another aspect of creativity as it zigzags through the human brain is that it very often has, as a springboard, the social and cultural context of the time. To me, creativity is partly a spontaneous phenomenon arising in some wonderfully imaginative human mind, but it is also like a seed that has been planted in soil fertile and well watered enough for the seed to germinate, grow and flourish so that others see and appreciate it.

Only when Churchill was at the helm during World War II could his multifaceted creativity flower so successfully as he led his country out of peril and to victory in 1945. In the artistic world, the Leonardo da Vincis, Titians or El Grecos needed the powerful patrons of the land and Church to enable to give successful expression to their creative skills.

Later artists have had a harder time finding patrons and supporters to allow them to create and to live decently, a situation known to most artists at one point or another. And does creativity flourish as fully and successfully when the artist is worrying about the next meal or the next rent payment? In every field, from art to architecture to engineering or technology, the same considerations pertain - how to ensure the optimum conditions so that human creativity can flourish. In truth, our collective future depends in large part on that zigzag flash of creativity in the human brain.

Environments that Help Artists by Jeannine Cook

Every artist instinctively seeks an environment that helps them create their art.

It is not always so easy to find either the place, nor the time and serenity to create, however. Every artist knows those stumbling blocks. Sometimes they are easily surmounted, other times it is not so easy.

Sometimes, luck intervenes too. In my case, Lady Luck definitely came calling this summer.

For a multitude of reasons, it has become difficult to have the time to spend in my studio, so I have been fortunate enough to be able to slip away for a while to different art residencies that I have been awarded hither and yon. This year, I had a magical two weeks in spring in Portugal.I was then able to have time at another residency, La Porte Peinte, in Burgundy, France, a country I adore anyway.

It is of course always a bit of a gamble going to art residencies.

It may be a wonderful place, with good studio facilities, but the area may not sing or the people who run the residency may not be terribly compatible – there are so many variables.

Until you get to the place, it is difficult to judge accurately whether you will be able to be truly creative there.

Even recommendations from other artists are not always an accurate gauge for one’s own needs.

La Porte Peinte, in Noyers sur Serein, in north-east Burgundy, near Auxerre, proves to be the most wonderful place in which to create art.

I have just spent the first half of a month’s residency there, and it was the most supportive, comfortable and welcoming place I could have dreamt of.

For a start, the medieval village is a delight.

You enter from the south over the Serein river.

At the entrance to Noyers sur Serein, photo J. Cook. 

At the entrance to Noyers sur Serein, photo J. Cook. 

And these are views from my eyrie perch window in my room.

Place de l'Hôtel de Ville, Noyers, photo J. Cook

Place de l'Hôtel de Ville, Noyers, photo J. Cook

Up the street from La Porte Peinte, photo J. Cook

Up the street from La Porte Peinte, photo J. Cook

L'Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall), Noyers, photo J. Cook

L'Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall), Noyers, photo J. Cook

Michelle Anderson, the Executive Director of La Porte Peinte, is not only the most gracious of people, but her very international approach and wide knowledge of people and places make her able to help in so many ways. She also knows a lot of local people and that means that an artist has suddenly all sorts of insights and introductions into other ways of life in the area. That is beyond price. Her husband, Oreste, runs their elegant and diverse Gallery and does a million other things to make life at La Porte Peinte so pleasant and constructive. And yes, La Porte Peinte is situated in rue de la Porte Peinte - how about that for destiny!

The more I spend time at art residencies both in the United States and Europe, the more I realise that the atmosphere created by the people in charge is critical to an artist’s ability to create, explore new horizons and grow as an artist.

There is a subtle difference between being left to one’s own devices, to work in peace, and being left to be independent but at the same time, being offered the opportunity to involve oneself in the local cultural world, to meet other artists of all descriptions and disciplines and to be psychologically supported as an artist.

The Passion to Create by Jeannine Cook

Recently, I was listening to an interview Diane Rehm did on public radio with David McCullough, Jr.  At one point, he remarked that creative passion cannot be taught.  It can only be caught.  I thought that was so true.

Everyone needs a passion to create something; it is the fire that burns to get one going, to get one out of the bed in the morning.  A dear friend of mine, alas, has lost any passion for anything, let alone anything creative, and she is seriously adrift.  Another friend reminded me this week how important a passion for needlepoint was for her.  Not surprising, as she creates the most wonderful art with her skillful needle.

Perhaps artists of all descriptions are very fortunate to burn with a passion to create.  It gives coherence and meaning to life, even if it does mean that one is driven by a sometimes stern taskmaster. I am not sure that such passion even implies that the artist has clearly defined objectives on all occasions.  Sometimes one blindly gropes, only knowing that you have to start work on creating something.  With time and experience, the artist knows that that small inner voice will help with the creative process, acting as guide and critic.  Nonetheless, it is the energy from passion that motivates and drives the artist to work.

There are so many examples of artists, in all disciplines, who are driven by their passion.  Degas, for example, was single-minded in the extreme; he devoted his entire life to drawing and painting, even as his eyesight hindered him more and more. As he remarked, "No art was ever less spontaneous than mine. What I do is the result of reflection and of the study of the great masters; of inspiration, spontaneity, temperament, I know nothing."  But he drove himself. His series of studies of dancers was a huge part of his opus, a passion to which he returned again and again.

Dancer adjusting her shoe, 1885, Edgar Degas, pastels

Dancer adjusting her shoe, 1885, Edgar Degas, pastels

  Edgar Degas, A Dancer at the Bar, charcoal and white chalk.

  Edgar Degas, A Dancer at the Bar, charcoal and white chalk.

Passionate or obsessive - sometimes it is hard to differentiate for the outsider who is observing the artist.  The drive to create can sometimes seem like an extreme - think of Beethoven as he composed magnificent music whilst struggling with his deafness.  I am sure that the passion/madness of Vincent van Gogh is one of the most famous of cases of visual artists driven to go on working.  The years 1888- 89 were the example of a time when Van Gogh was into the most astonishing mark-making, requiring such energy and application.  Clinging to his art, he worked and worked at these drawings, in the sunlit countryside around Arles, mostly using a reed pen and ink.  Here he was returning to his belief that drawing was "the root of everything." 

Vincent van Gogh, 1888,  Garden with Flowers,  pen & ink

Vincent van Gogh, 1888, Garden with Flowers, pen & ink

Vincent van Gogh,  The rock of Montmajour with pine trees , 1888. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Vincent van Gogh, The rock of Montmajour with pine trees, 1888. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Vincent van Gogh,  Olive Trees in a Mountain Landscape , black chalk, brush, brown ink, Saint-Rémy: June 17 or 18, 1889, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Vincent van Gogh, Olive Trees in a Mountain Landscape, black chalk, brush, brown ink, Saint-Rémy: June 17 or 18, 1889, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

As one's own passion to create is sometimes dimmed by the quotidian, with daily life chipping away at time and quiet, it is good to remember that the flame inside can still burn.  It may burn less brightly at times, but it is still there.  That makes life very special.

The Journey that is Creating Art by Jeannine Cook

As any artist quickly finds out, creating is a journey fulls of twists and turns.  No matter how clearly the artist envisages the work ahead of time, things never work out exactly as planned.  Perhaps that is the addictive, enriching part, or maybe the maddening, humbling part!

There is always the wise advice of doing quick - or detailed - preparatory sketches, whatever the medium in which the artist is working.  That is fine, but I personally find that nothing ever quite correlates in the finished work, even if you go to the lengths of griding out the preparatory drawing, or even tracing the outlines. Something, somewhere, changes, even subtly, and so you are dealing, in essence, with a different creation. It does not seem to matter, either, that you might have done something very similar before.  Each time, you will create something unique, because you have altered a little or a lot, the time and circumstances are different and thus the creative journey is changed. ("Don't bother trying to look for something new: you won't find novelty in the subject matter, but in the way you express it", counselled Pissarro in a letter to his son, Lucien.)

Flexibility, serendipity and a blind confidence that the work will turn out alright in the end seem to be necessary ingredients in creating art.  The journey can be an anguishing one, full of hiccups, misgivings and general doubts.  Or else, like any journey to another land or a new city, you can view the whole process as a challenge full of interesting wrinkles, a learning process and an opportunity to do something new and exciting that could enrich not only your own life, but also, In sha'Allah, that of someone else.

I was reminded of this aspect of an uncertain journey in art-making when I read of Louisa Gillie's approach to creating beautiful works of art in glass. This young English glass artist was featured in a 2006 book on Fifty Distinguished Contemporary Artists in Glass, with examples of her kiln-cast glass that are then polished and textured.  As she works with the glass sculpture, the process becomes her inspiration.  I quote: "Nothing is ever straightforward with glass and it is this unpredictability that she loves. She never quite knows how a piece will look until it is totally finished.  The titles of many of the pieces often refer to the journey it has taken from drawing and original idea to finished piece."

Cosmos , Louisa Gillie, glass, (Image courtesy of the artist)

Cosmos, Louisa Gillie, glass, (Image courtesy of the artist)

Labyrinth , Louisa Gillie, glass (Image courtesy of the artist)

Labyrinth, Louisa Gillie, glass (Image courtesy of the artist)

Andrew Lambirth, the wonderful art critic in The Spectator, wrote an interesting comment about the Tate Modern exhibition in July 2012, Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye".  He remarked, "But painting is not just about ideas - unless it be that poor relation, conceptual art - it is also about the materials: the canvas and the coloured mud and the marks made with them." To me, that remark is a way of saying that the creative journey is full of twists and turns.  How you  conceive of a work, how the actual execution of it turns out when you are dealing with the materials, your sureness of  hand-eye coordination, your state of mind – so many factors that enter into the creative equation.

Ultimately, nonetheless, as artist all know, that journey, however challenging, is addictive - we all go on trying to create more art!

More Thoughts on "White Page Fright" by Jeannine Cook

Having blogged about the situation that all artists encounter, sooner or later, of having "white page/canvas fright" and being unable to get going on creating a piece of art, I discovered that the blog resonated with people. 

What I had not expected was to find that Eric R. Kandel, in his superb book, "The Age of Insight" (about which I have previously written), indirectly addressed this situation.  Discussing why unconscious thought, or distracted thought, helps creativity, Professor Kandel cites studies carried out by Ap Dijksterhuis, a Dutch social psychologist, and his colleague Teun Meurs, which show that we all work best in terms of creativity when we don't consciously think about the problem.

Three groups of people were asked to perform various mental tasks, lists of activities or places, for instance. The people had to generate the lists immediately, after a few minutes of deliberately thinking about the lists or after a few minutes of being distracted by doing something else entirely.  Surprise, surprise – the groups all made the lists required, but the group that had produced the lists after being distracted, and thus being made "unconscious thinkers", made lists that were far more creative, interesting and full of differences.

So all those "strategies" of tidying up one's studio, taking the dog for a walk, ironing shirts, or whatever - are totally valid means of becoming creative. Artists have found all this for themselves, but it is interesting that carefully quantified studies validate all these strategems for becoming creative.  Professor Kandel details out the many insights into unconscious processes happening in the brain, and how it all works (pp.470-71).

As he states,  "distraction, letting the mind wander, may not only encourage unconscious (bottom-up) thought, but also, as evidenced by the emergence of a new solution, recruit a new top-down process from memory storage."  In other words, relax - the inspiration will come for that next work of art - when you least expect it.  But it will come - just trust that wonderful complex brain of yours!