Rubbing Shoulders with Art Ghosts

Down this historic alley in Victoria, British Columbia, there is a door to my past. Yesterday, I strolled along on a quiet January Monday rubbing shoulders with the ghosts of time. 



Sure enough, the name of my favourite art teacher is still on the door of his old studio. For a moment, the door opens in my mind. 

We shuffle up the steep steps with our portfolios, arrange ourselves elbow to elbow on the easels provided. We take off layers and visit companionably while we wait for the model. I search the room to see if I can discern what this brilliant teacher has been painting this week. The room is crowded but organized for working. There is the scent of charcoal dust, oil paint, wax and old brick building. Warm lights shine on the platform in the middle of the room and the space heater glows. Then, just as the model takes her first short pose and the teacher gives us his instructions in brief, often unfinished, sentences… the image fades. 

The door reappears. Solid. Closed as a tomb entrance to a treasure buried in a past life. 

Glenn Howarth 1946 – 2009 

Glenn Howarth taught seminars and courses at art schools and universities across Canada after he graduated from UVic’s Visual Arts program. In 1987, he began the Victoria Drawing Academy in his studio in Fan Tan Alley. Howarth participated in both group and solo shows across the country and represented Canada at the Sao Paulo Biennale in 1982 and at Expo 86. (UVic legacy gallery)

I am so ever grateful to have taken several classes with him in the early 2000s. He refined my understanding of what happens between our subject, our bodies as the artist and that of the viewer in profound ways that I am still exploring. 

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Creative possibility comes from getting it wrong.

Studio mess – my home – time to de-clutter. 8’X11″ charcoal quick sketch.

“Oh, I could never draw or paint like that.”

“I’m not a writer like you.

“My photographs don’t compare to yours.”

If I had a dime for each time I heard these comments or others like them, all of my creative work could be used for charity fundraising because I would be independently wealthy. The sad thing is these statements are not true. They are lies we come to believe because we compare our attempts with finished products rather than the process that lead to their creation.

Here is a best kept secret: creative excellence comes from getting things wrong. Yes, wrong. As I commented on Coffee Messiah’s blog this morning, one of my drawing teachers, Glenn Howarth, was fond of saying things like: “It is the shoulder or wrist you struggle to draw that teaches you the anatomy of an arm.”

This is why I have committed to showing you my first morning “awakener” sketch. These first sketches are to engage me in the creative process. My sleepy eyes begin to frame, compose and dig at the relationship between elements I am about to sketch. My stiff arm and hand begin to respond to these relationships. In these first sketches, few mental barriers about “getting it right” have been erected. My judgment is left aside – these are not “keepers” they are “awakeners.”

In a three-hour drawing class, I often do 30 quick sketches that progressively increase in length until it is time to settle into the last hour-long sketch. When I am doing a photo shoot, I may take 150 images with maybe three becoming “keepers.”

Hours and days of exploring “that which is not yet quite right” leads to the creative possibility for success. This is where we discover our unique creative expression. This is where we learn our craft. We learn what is possible by getting it wrong.

My first quick sketch of the day is to inspire you to say to yourself – “hey, I can do that!” And you can.

Here is the last of my chosen three out of 150 shots of mist…

View and purchase full resolution image here.

Sprout Question: What do you do to strengthen your creative possibility?

p.s. Glenn Howarth was the most outstanding art instructor I have had the pleasure of working under. I am forever grateful for the few short years I was in his figure drawing classes. Glenn Howarth died last year at the age of 62. Very little of his thinking and work is on-line but here is an article he wrote that was published in  Canadian Art and Art Resource Directory: “Pictophile – Plein Air Painting”

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