Have you ever experienced the feeling of being stuck in a rut, artistically speaking? If you’re comfortable with and proud of your skills – but somehow they don’t seem to be opening new vistas for you in the way that they once did, or you’re feeling frustrated by your inability to break through the communicative wall in your work, then you’re not alone. One of the best ways to get over this creative block is to experiment with new methods and materials. Whether you end up using them in your daily work or not, the experience will reignite your enthusiasm and give you a new way of looking at your art – and the world around you.
Karen Greville-Smith is one of Agora Gallery‘s talented artists, and her work is appearing in Divergent Realities, at Agora October 10-30. In addition to creating art herself, she also teaches others – children who seize enthusiastically on new forms of creativity, elderly people who find reawakening interest in life through the skills she shares, and people suffering from a variety of mental health disorders who value her workshops as providing a fulfilling expressive outlet.
In both her own art and her teaching, she has found that working with unusual techniques – breaking into new creative ground, as it were – can be a powerful way to develop new ideas and gain fresh perspectives which feed into art. In this interview, she discusses some fun and innovative artistic techniques which have benefited her development and that of her students – and tells you how to do it, so you can try it, too!
Where do you get inspiration/ideas for your art workshops?
I go and see exhibitions at various galleries and museums around the UK, looking at fine art, textiles, fashion, ceramics and printmaking shows. Shops, including their window displays such as those in Anthropologie, can be very inspirational as well. I pick up ideas from chats with fellow artists, from magazines, books and postcards, visiting gardens, travels, going on courses and workshops as well as looking and playing with new materials in my local art shop. Getting emails from art manufacturers such as Derwent announcing new materials can also be very informative. Don’t overlook even the mundane; be alive to the fact that inspiration can come from anywhere, as you deal with your letters or walk down the street.
Do you have any general pieces of advice for artists looking for something ‘new’ to inspire them?
Exploring the work of famous artists is always worthwhile for me, and I often introduce well-known works to my students at the start of a class. You can encourage yourself, or others, to look for either the obvious or for details which you might sometimes overlook. For instance, I’ve brought to past classes the works of Emil Nolde (watery splashes of colour), Jasper Johns (splashes of colour with letters and words), Helen Frankenthaler (colour staining on unprimed canvas), Paul Klee (textures & patterns), Klimt (patterns in the backgrounds of his work), Jim Dine (hearts), Basquiat (buildings & graffiti), Jessica Cooper (UK artist with minimal use of line in her paintings).
I would also say that recording information can be invaluable. I encourage everyone to use a sketchbook, even young school children. I think of sketchbooks as visual notebooks so that they can include drawings, painting ideas, tear sheets from magazines or drawings or patterned/textured papers etc – it can become a very personal journal. I think that these books can contain a variety of different types of information and don’t have to be all on one subject unless it is intended to have a theme – a specific holiday journal, for example.
I encourage people to get creative with their pages – stain pages using tea or coffee, or pre-paint some pages, or stick in coloured paper (e.g. brown postal paper) to offer an alternative to the white or off-white paper pages in sketchbooks.
I suggest that they have a variety of sizes of sketchbook – portrait, landscape, large and small – including little ones which are easy to carry about. I personally like a square sketchbook as I love this format.
A camera is another handy tool for recording information as sometimes there isn’t an opportunity to sketch when you are out and about. But remember to go through the images and save the good ones afterward!
In fact, it’s important to make a habit of going through your sketches, photos and so on from time to time, and especially, turning to them when you’re looking for new ideas. You’ve created a treasure trove of inspiration, but you have to remember to use it!
What techniques have you used for your workshops?
There are so many great options! I’ll share some of the techniques I’ve found best for adding new life and inspiration to art, both for myself and my students.
I learnt this technique from a very talented UK textile artist, Cas Holmes, when I went on one of her weekend workshops at West Dean College.
* Tear pages from magazines. Don’t use glossies like Vogue as the paper mustn’t be too thick. Sunday newspaper colour supplements are ideal. Experiment with other types of papers.
* Scrunch up magazine page. Pour a little ordinary cooking oil into the palm of your hand and place the scrunched up magazine paper into the oil in your hand.
* Open up the page and scrunch it up again then open it up and scrunch it up again and keep repeating this so that all of the magazine page starts to absorb the oil. After a while the paper takes on a fabric-like quality. (Don’t use too much oil otherwise the paper will be too greasy.)
* The resulting momigami paper can be used in various ways – collage, surface for stencilling, it can be stitched into either by hand or by sewing machine. I’ve stuck momigami paper onto a page in a sketchbook and then machine stitched into it – ‘drawing’ using a sewing machine thread.
Collage, white gesso and carbon pencil
The idea with this technique is to create a background then add an image only after that. You are working in reverse from the usual starting point of planning the composition of a picture first by plotting in elements. It might sound counter-intuitive, but it can really get you thinking from a fresh perspective.
* Place pieces of torn patterned and plain papers randomly onto a piece of mount board (or similar thickness of card such as back of a sketch book or ‘beg’ for off cuts from your local framer from his mount cutting).
* Stick papers down in position.
* Brush over the whole surface with diluted white gesso to ‘knock back’ the patterns/colours of the papers.
* When gesso is dry, draw an image/composition using a carbon pencil e.g. a simple still life or landscape suggested by the stuck down papers.
* This will result in a black drawing over a textured background.
Creating patterns using Indian fabric printing blocks and other textured surfaces
* Place tissue papers (coloured, white or white painted using coloured inks) on top of the little wooden Indian Fabric printing blocks which have images of animals, flowers, leaves, patterns etc on them.
* Rub over the surface of the tissue paper using coloured and metallic coloured pastels such as Caran D’ache Neocolor I, Neopastels or Neocolor II to create a series of patterns.
* Create collaged pictures, sticking the tissue paper down using a glue stick. The resulting collages can then be stuck down onto black card for display.
* Other effective surfaces to use are the patterned soft rubber plates used in ceramics to create decorative surfaces in clay. Textured wallpaper can be used as well as the backs of leaves and tree bark. (Look at Max Ernst and his frottage works!)
* Cut squares or rectangles from a sheet of ‘Funky Foam’ (available from Hobbycraft)
* Draw shape or image into the ‘Funky Foam’ using an HB pencil and then stick the ‘Funky Foam’ onto a piece of mounting board (or thick card) which is the same size as the ‘Funky Foam’ using PVA glue to create a little printing plate.
* Roll printing ink (water based) out onto a sheet of Rhenalon (transparent acrylic sheet) and then, using an inked up roller, ink up the surface of the printing plate.
* Place the inked printing block onto a flat surface, inked side upwards, and place a sheet of paper (110gsm) on top, pressing it gently down with your fingers. Roll over the surface of the paper with a clean roller or use the back of a dessert spoon to rub over the back of the paper.
* Peel back the paper from the printing plate to reveal the image (print).
* Shapes can be cut out of the ‘Funky Foam’ using scissors or a craft knife and stuck down to create patterns.
(You can also use the polystyrene base of a pizza in place of ‘Funky Foam’.)
* Create a printing plate using ‘Funky Foam’ and thick card as above.
* Spray the surface of the plate with water.
* Use inktense blocks (Derwent) to add areas of colour to the surface of the plate.
* Place a sheet of paper (110gsm) on top of the plate and rub gently over the back of the paper using fingers, then roll over the paper using a clean roller or the back of a dessert spoon.
* Peel back the paper to reveal the print.
* The wetter the printing plate is, the more the print will have a sort of watercolour quality to it.
* Place a simple line drawing under a sheet of Rhenalon (transparent acrylic sheet).
* Dip a wet brush into some squeezed out printing ink (water based) and ‘paint’ the outline of a drawing onto the Rhenalon sheet.
* Use other printing inks to add colours to this image. Work relatively quickly while the printing ink is ‘open’.
* Place paper (110gsm) on top of this ‘painted’ image and rub over the back of the paper gently using fingers then roll over the paper using a clean roller or the back of a spoon.
* Peel back the paper to reveal the print.
* Using a pencil, draw an image onto the back of some white tissue paper which has been placed onto the surface of a very thinly rolled out layer of black printing ink on a sheet of Rhenalon.
* Very gently rub over the back of the tissue and peel back to reveal a monoprint.
* The ink must be very thinly rolled out. Pressure marks from your fingers can appear on the print but it all adds to the ‘printerly’ look of the final result.
* You can also use 90lb (190 gsm) smooth hot or soft press light weight watercolour paper and once the printing ink is dry watercolours can be used on the print.