WORKING ART: Dancing in Public
by Greg Ruth
|That time at IMC around 1am when the schoolyard bullies, iain McCaig, Dan Dos Santos, Greg Manchess, Scotts Brundage and Fisher stole my ink and brushes and we all made bad drawings together.|
Making art is ALWAYS a private event, not matter who is watching. It is however something else entirely for everyone who makes it, especially when we are asked or invited to draw in front of others on purpose. For me, it gives me the palsy. But we live in the era of dvd extras for everything now and there is a heightened expectation to reveal oneself behind the curtain more and more beyond usual realms of academia. Folks really do love to see artists at their craft, and frankly so do I.... however, this is not such a simple and easy thing when seen from the other side of the lens. Drawing and painting in a room full of people, on stage, or via video is not for everyone and everyone has their own combinations of limits and coping mechanisms. This post is inspired by a conversation I had with Vicki WIlliams after I responded to a request to film my process by essentially cry-dancing panic with some mild hiding under the table with my hands over my ears. Despite the drama, what came out of it was a really great discussion about how we all see these two forms of public dancing so differently and so I set out bothering some friends for their input on the subject. I thought I had carefully chosen a small enclave of artists I like that would provide a wide range of viewpoints, and as always was surprised and happily had those presumptions tossed to the wind. (Except for Iain McCaig who if you've ever seen him draw in public know he delights in it purely, perfectly and without ego). Turns out this is hard for all of us, and the question then becomes about how far to take it and how to cope with such an event. The end result was a confirmation that making art is for others as is for me personally: a deeply private and intimate affair not always meant for others.... but sometimes.
ON DRAWING IN FRONT OF OTHERS & DEMOS
"I never expect brilliance of myself in a demo- what I rely on more is showing my basic skills as a draftsman / thinker in the hopes that I'm bringing some good things to the table- just putting the faith in my own experience and that I am going to deliver some valuable info even if it's not my most focused A game. As the A game can really only happen for me in am In and un-distracted place in the studio."
"I never START a gallery intended piece as a demo- I only work on it once the idea and major drawing and conceiving is well underway.
Once that part is done- I can be almost anywhere. But also I don't plan to get a LOT done while doing a painting in front of people - just enough to teach some stuff thats important ."
"I almost never draw in front of people. Doing location drawings, demo for figure drawing class, or drawing in sketchbooks (latter, I seldom do) is not an issue. It is about actually inking the final drawing that is my illustration, I don't do in front of people.
It is so much so, when I go on a business trip out of town, I don't draw. I seldom ever draw outside of my studio. I have to have the perfect light (which I adjust neurotically with my desk lamp setup), and all the tools has to be there and there in order. Then, I can do my real drawing.
I may be a neurotic one. But when I do school visit, I clearly tell them up front, I do anything, but I don't do drawing demos."
"I am neurotic perfectionist, so the beginning of drawing (again, the real drawing that will become illustrations, and not sketches or life drawing, etc) is always hard. I get really stressed out until the drawing is on track. You know, sometimes, especially in the beginning, things are not looking so smooth, and you feel like you are about to ruin it or save it... So, I can't really have anyone around. I may be in a bad mood, and I can deal with it myself. Not with other people..."
"I have mixed feelings about demos. On one hand, I love the feeling of helping students...peeling back the layers of mystery for those who have trouble with traditional media. It is very rewarding to help those who feel lost and are searching for their voice. I searched for a long time for mine and watching demos as a student helped me see what was possible.
I enjoy the act of drawing and painting in front of others in a no pressure situation, but when it's a scheduled demo, it gets tricky for me. I usually have to have a rendered pencil drawing ready to go. I've gotten flack for that, but my defense is usually that I'm demonstrating how to layer media, not how to render with pencil. The truth is that I'm usually so nervous that my hands sweat, and then the pencil won't blend, and then the water media won't soak into the paper because of the oils from my hand. So my process works a lot better when I can just paint in front of students. That being said, I'm usually still nervous. I've done about 7 live demos...some go well...some not so well. My mindset is "I'm here to help the students". That's it, if I accomplish that, that's all that matters. I don't need a good piece in the end.
I'm not sure what it is, but I usually just rely on muscle memory to do the work. I'm usually talking the whole time, answering questions, and my brain just shuts off to what I'm doing. I've learned to cope with that by doing an image that isn't that difficult for me, one where I know the possible outcome. If I can take away some of the pressure, the image usually turns out okay. Sometime though, it's a mess, I'm a mess, and I can't wait to get the hell outta there."
"You mentioned "public performance" and I guess that's what it is. It's like a party trick or a game. I can't do 'real' work in front of people. I tried that at IMC last year and it was a horrible failure. I need to be at home in the studio with all my stuff around me, the TV on and the freedom to pace around and talk to myself. I need to be alone in my nest with the voices in my head. Drawing for people at shows or IMC--When it works best its a game--like a challenge--Draw this odd thing and have fun doing it. The best drawings I've done have probably been the most fun--Like a Canadian Dragon or a couple really unmentionable one. Those are the things you would never do on your own and have no idea how you would do them till you start the drawing. Drawing Hellboy or one of my other characters--With stuff like that you get a variation of a drawing I've done a zillion times before--It will be safe but maybe a little lifeless.
Also when drawing in public there is a very good chance the drawing will be bad--Hopefully not terrible, but there is that risk. So you really have to be prepared to be spontaneous and hope for the best. For me it's just a whole different thing than working at home on 'real" stuff."
"I think I got wired wrong on the people-making conveyer belt. I LOVE drawing in front of people (and public speaking and washing dishes, so there were a lot of screw-ups in the wiring department). I love drawing by myself too, and that beautiful focus you get when it's just you, the paper, and a good piece of music. But when you draw in front of people, you have the gift of umpteen free models, all in fascinating poses and infinitely poseable too. I don't worry about screwing up--I expect to screw up as part of the process--letting people watch that is all part of the fun. But the really enjoyable part--alone or with an audience--is that moment of revelation, when two plus two equals something more than four, because the collision of ideas and honest-to-god-hard work just produced magic. If I just replicate that experience in front of an audience, the magic always shows up there too (though sometimes only in the last few thrilling seconds!). Ray Bradbury described it as jumping off a cliff and building your wings on the way down. And I wouldn't miss it for the world."
"I've only ever done one weekend type class and a few short videos online. It's very difficult for me to do. When I work I want to be isolated. I believe I could easily manage living on a space station if I could just work (except for my wife and kids). My process seems much the same as many others but there is always a portion... When things seem to magnify and it's just me and the work communicating back and forth. That part... I've never been able to demonstrate in any meaningful way. The few demos I've done are really me just repeating conversations I've already had.
"I'll also add that working in a room where everyone else is also working feels different to me. I was in Toronto in a room not much bigger than a cubicle but we (5 of us, elbow to elbow practically) were all very focused on our own work. That kind of energy is kind of invigorating in a way."
"Drawing and painting outdoors from life is as crazy and risky as wingsuit diving, except that you can't get hurt. Whenever you paint outdoors, people think you're putting on a show, and come up to talk or watch.
That can be a problem, as I explain here:
Usually when I'm starting out on an outdoor painting, my confidence level is fairly low, and the piece doesn't look like much, so it can make me a bit squirmy to be out in front of people. But I figure they're just curious, and they probably admire someone who is willing to try. Unless they're coming to kick me out or shut me down, which has happened plenty of times.
Here are my ten tips to deal with curious spectators:
Drawing in front of an audience as part of a planned event is another thing. It's really a kind of performance. I've done everything from Vaudeville style chalk talk gags for bored first graders to oil portrait demos at art schools. For both, I lower my expectations about how good the painting is likely to turn out.
That's because I have to fire up both brain hemispheres so I can talk and draw at the same time, something I'm not as accustomed to doing as art professors are. Also I can't predict the outcome because I don't have a single tried-and-true system of painting. My procedure is all over the map and I may come at the subject with pencil, watercolor, casein, gouache, or oil, depending on how insane I'm feeling.
Sometimes I do a lame drawing, sometimes I get lucky and it turns out OK, but I figure that the talk and conversation is as important as the results, and people get something out of seeing your rig and your palette and all that"
"I've done them before and I'm sure I will again, but they're a real pain to set up (prepping something to work on, transport of materials, and the unpredictability of how productive those couple hours will be, the distraction of a crowd, conversation, and working in a strange space). They're of limited value (how many people can realistically be there to see it, how much can you achieve in a couple hours real-time). The plus side of a live demo, from an educational angle, is that they're potentially interactive so you can answer specific questions as they occur. Also, people can maybe get in close and really see what you're doing.
I don't much enjoy live demos. I've survived two where I had some kind
of materials crisis (one where my painting had been left in a cold space
and the underpainting was still wet, one where the venue didn't have
any solvents and I had to paint with industrial turpentine found in a
supply closet). Live demos are always stressful because so much can go
"I get this asked a lot. I don't have any issues with filming my drawing process, if I don't have to do it in front of people, including the camera crew. We can't make all the random social media followers happy. As to make a record of the creative process, filming is a really good option. I just get annoyed when strangers casually expect us to provide for their entertainment purposes."
"I will share sketches and and some process pics occasionally -
But for many many reasons I don't give the whole kit 'n kaboodle to everyone on insta and FB
I feel like there are things that I want to reserve for just the people who are most passionate and connected to me personally.
Opening up my process to thousands of people - picking apart all of my process and or making comments on it "oh this reminds me of x artist" can be too much .
Comparisons are SO odious. I try actively never
To compare one artists vision to another.
It only feels good to be compared with another artist when your an amateur - not once your well into your vision and intention- then is just feels kinda awful- at least to me.
I'm kinda curious where other weigh in
Of course I don't dislike people for saying the things-I understand it comes from a desire to relate-
Their intentions is GOOD- that's the saving grace- but man nothing can take the wind out of your sails and fuck with your process when working on a body of work for a show -when your feel like you've made something special and possibly a reflection of your soul in the moment- and get "Looks like ....x"
In your comment window.
Yet one more reason to keep a few things precious ."
"Nope, not vertigo-y fear or excitement, just joy. Joy from the magic of making.
Your social media question got me thinking, though. I don't post any WIP and rarely even finished work on social media. I've never stopped to question why, but maybe it's 'cause social media taps into the opposite dynamic from live drawing. The latter binds an audience together into one shared experience; the other (social media) seems to be a soap-box thang, good for rousing discussions and argument (when people behave), bullying and bickering (when they don't).
I love to share the joy and the process I find in making stories or drawings, but that's not really the time for discussion or argument, and it's never the time for bullying or bickering."
"Truthfully, I don't mind anyone watching me make stuff, anytime, anywhere. It's NOT sharing that's hard--all this 'can't show or talk about it for several years' that drives me bananas.
But as you know, there's a lot of trial and error in concept design, and it's often as exciting as watching the grass grow. Demos are more like pieces of entertainment; even recorded sessions are heavily edited and enhanced (as in my Gnomon DVDs, which were sped up in post to Superman speed).
Like you, I love watching recorded demos and workshops, even though it's mostly the outside stuff that we see and not all the blood sweat and inspiration whirling about inside. That's where I'd like to be!"
"It's much easier for me to record because I can forget that the camera is there... But I've only recorded small sketches... I should mention whatever I've recorded I've done for Vicki. She wanted to try and experiment in terms of social media and reach. In our situation it worked rather well. It does feel like someone watching you get undressed a bit though. But I do like seeing other people's process even though I know a person's process is not their "art".
"I'm actually all for video demos. I think they neutralize pretty much all of the downsides of a live demo: you have control over your environment, control over time (editing and shooting time lapse to allow multiple stages of a process), you can reach a potentially infinite audience, and you only have to share the results if you're happy with them. They may be less responsive without live Q&A, but I think the ability to manipulate time more than makes up for that and you can always answer questions in the comments.
The principle downside to video is that it's a lot of work. I happen to enjoy shooting, but setting everything up and then editing and possibly recording voice over is time consuming, and dramatically more so the more in depth you want to go. Quick instagram videos and short youtube clips are relatively easy. Full process DVDs are a major headache. Everything in made easier if you have someone helping you, but that costs money.
One thing I will add, particularly with video and social media sharing, is that the promotional reward from doing demos is also worth considering. I've found that, for things of quality or with unique character, the more people can see and understand the creation process the more they like it. It's like watching shows on food network. When I see an episode for somewhere I know and learn what goes in to making the food, I enjoy it more. Hearing about the ingredients, seeing how much work, care, or thought goes in to it, and maybe just seeing that someone cares enough to record and present it, all makes it more enjoyable the next time I go in (or gets me to go in the first place). Hearing someone speak passionately about what they make makes me like it more. Understanding how a thing came to be makes me like it more. So, seeing how an artist works tends to have the same effect on me."
For my own part, I find the entire idea of creating work in
public an exercise that can be accurately described as sweaty-making. Since I was a kid, making
art has always been the thing I do for my one square inch of pure
freedom, and a place I absolutely must keep as such to continue. Drawing in public makes me feel too vulnerable and that can make me tighten up and be nervous, and as such make for bad drawings. I've never made one I like in public for this reason and likely never will except by perhaps following that whole monkey with a typewriter writing Shakespeare thing. Maybe.
done publicly can be really fun, and should be... No one wants to see a grown ass man crying in front of others. When they come to see you draw they look to you for hope and encouragement, and even some mild deferential crying can be a part of that, but really I find it's best just to dive in and not expect too much from one's self. I, like Yuko, rarely ever draw outside of my studio. Like Mike, I need my studio cues and things that let me know I'm safe in my creative nest. Like Edward I get greasy sweaty hands and things go wrong with the materials after. But like Iain and Jim, I hope to get better at it.
However, this new age where we all get to see more of each
others' personal lives doesn't afford an obligation to do so or to be so. It's
always best to ask and when getting an answer know all answers are the
right one. This is a very personal thing you are asking of an artist and while I envy those who can freely perform their
artmaking in front of others, I am comfortable with my own mania against it generally or at least have to come to accept it- moreso now that I hear I am not alone in this. Good to leave some magic and mystery to it all out there.
deepest thanks to those who contributed their time to this, and sharing
their insights. It represents what this new age of social media does
best: celebrate the variety of our differences as a value. Thanks to
Yuko, Iain, Rebecca, Allen, Vicki, Ed, Dave, Mike and Jim for making this
possible despite their busy schedules/running from local law enforcement. Without you, I would have been required to write my own post this week.