antidotes for creative constipation


Miriam Louisa Simons: detail from scroll - Mu

220 x 220
Detail from a scroll  (980 x 355)

torn Khadi papers, acrylic paint, light-reflective paint, gauze
ceramic fragment, textured card


I’ve been pottering away with color and texture, dyes and pigments, paper and textile, for almost half a century.  Mostly incognito, outside the commercial circuit.  And, by great good fortune, with astonishing students to guide me.

Two things have driven my practice.  First and foremost, an addiction to the mysterious movement of creativity as it takes over and renders me (artist-designer-me) redundant.  Then, and this is a flow-on from the former, inquiring into what steps – if any – can be taken to invite, encourage, cajole or coerce that movement to come and play.

Now that I’m longer in the tooth, it’s obvious that my preoccupation with a kind of religious experience – which manifested for me in the studio – was a crucial part of my wider search for non-dual understanding.

My life took me down the via negativa.  I ended up with teachers like Krishnamurti, Nisargadatta Maharaj and Wei Wu Wei, who unpicked my felted fantasies with their ruthless questions.  And as far as the specific topic of creativity was concerned, it was David Bohm who was my mentor – not a visual artist, but a physicist!

This little preamble is my way of explaining that I’ve always been more interested in what sabotages or prevents creative working and thinking, than defining what it might be.  I now suspect there’s no computable answer to the latter.

Over the years I’ve experimented with many activities to see which ones might be effective antidotes to the creative constipation we call block.  When I’m in a painterly mood there’s nothing better than simply getting out the tubes and mixing hues.  Simply mixing, mind you.  No plans, no designs.  I just mix; I make tonal ladders and color ladders.  I simply worship and celebrate color without any agenda.  By the time a morning (afternoon, day, sleepless night) has passed, I’m overflowing with ideas.  Color does that to me.

If the painterly mood is awol I tear things up.  Sometimes I tear up ho-hum work and weave it into – whatever.  Sometimes I tear up lovely hand-made khadi papers from India, or washi and tenguji from Japan.  Then I collage them down, avoiding figurative temptations, just overlapping and juxtaposing.  Sometimes the fragments are already colored, sometimes not.  But I find they will always ask for light and shade so out come the tubes.  Color goes on.  Breathstrokes might float across the surface.  Stitches too.

The names come much later.  As E H Gombrich always insisted: making always precedes matching.

color for its own glorious sake


Harold Cohen, Untitled 1966
Oil on canvas
30.4 x 30.8 cm

English artist Harold Cohen is famous these days for being the author of the celebrated AARON program, an ongoing research effort in autonomous machine (art making) intelligence.  But back in the flower-power days he was painting fields of colored dots that were alive with shimmering energy.

Basically he would cover the canvas with areas of color and then place colored dots all over the surface.  It’s a project that always fascinated my students, opening their eyes to the unpredictable and errant ways of color.  You might like to try it as a step on from the weaving project; a step into painting.  No drawing skills required, no figurative representation allowed, just color for its own glorious sake.

Take a large canvas, canvasboard, or heavy sheet of card.  Using acrylic paint or tempera, cover the surface with areas of color – try to avoid suggestions of landscapes and so forth.

Now mix some fairly thick colors – keep it simple, only a few – and use a 1.5cm round bristle stencil brush to daub circles on the colored ground.  Work all over the surface leaving only a little space between your dots; follow your fancy and watch what happens.  Resist the urge to correct or adjust.  Just play with the project.

Cohen said this of his work at that time:

I wanted to arrive at a state where the color was as unequivocal, as positive, as the drawing.  The moment you’re that interested [in color] and you start your exploration it becomes increasingly obvious that until you have stripped everything else off, you’re never going to know what color is going to do or what it’s capable of.

Leaving aside the technical problems, the biggest problem for me over the past couple of years is that once you do eliminate the drawing, how the color is going to behave is totally unpredictable because you don’t really have the experience … I find with what I’m doing now you put down two colors, and what you see at the end doesn’t really have much to do with either of them …

We’ve known for a long time that if you put down one area of color next to another area, something peculiar happens at the edge, but nobody’s ever done much about it, except do it at the edge.  And I think that in a way what I’m doing is taking that edge and putting it all over the canvas, and it really does become very peculiar then …

The essential thing about the dots for me is that they go all over the surface of the canvas in a completely undifferentiated way …

I’d like to get to the state where the painting disappears and just leaves color.

– Harold Cohen, excerpts from a recorded conversation.

Quoted in Natalie d’Arbeloff,  An Artist’s Workbook: line, shape, volume, light (London: Studio Vista)

weave your own color magic


Sheri Smith weaving - Cogs, detail

Sherri Smith, Cogs (detail)

Like painters and designers, weavers know about the tricks colors can play in juxtaposition.  Some artisans and painters have made the journey into color their entire practice.  It’s a journey with no end!

If you’re curious to try creating visual magic for yourself, a simple weaving is a great place to start.  Why?  Because a weaving doesn’t have to portray anything, so we can by-pass the inner critic who likes to tell us how our work isn’t ‘right’ – ever.

Take a large sheet of strong colored cardboard. Pick a color you like, not too dark or too light.  One color only.

Placing it in the portrait position, cut strips in the card 1.5cm wide without cutting completely through at the top and bottom.  No ribbons, the sheet stays intact.  Use a craft knife.  These strips will be the warp.

Find or make strips of fine wood or heavy card for the weft.  Strips from a bamboo blind work well.

Paint the strips with white undercoat and allow to dry.  Then apply colored paint (acrylic) randomly along each stick.  Don’t use too many colors at first.

Weave the weft strips in and out of the cut-out card strips – one over, one under, or in whatever pattern you like.

Notice the way the colors dance when juxtaposed.  Think about how you could choreograph that dance by placing the colors on the weft sticks in strategic places.  Try deliberately causing odd perceptual effects in the tone and hue of the card color – similar to what we’ve seen in the last two postings.

Have a close look at the Sherri Smith’s hand-dyed and plaited fiber works, just to supercharge the creative juices!

I’m sure you’ll be up and away with a host of ‘what-if’s and ideas to explore…

color is a true magician

The ‘blue’ and the ‘green’ hues in the believe it or not image were one color posing to perception as two – because their neighboring hues affected the way the brain ‘read’ their wavelengths of energy.  The way the eye/brain actually reads things as they juxtapose and relate to their contextual influences as well as the projections from our memory is endlessly fascinating.  It isn’t difficult to imagine how significant this effect is for artisans who work with color in any way.

Color is a true magician.  In this image we are tricked into believing its tonal qualities appear to be different.  It’s called ‘the spreading effect.’



image source – Art and Illusion by E H Gombrich

One tone of red and one of blue are the only colors used.  No one has been able to explain why, when those hues are juxtaposed with black or white they appear to be different tones.  It seems that “we see the whole pattern as one and attribute its total brightness or darkness to its elements.” (*)  We don’t see the ‘ground’ as an isolated spread of color, and we can only accept that the colors are really unbroken stripes of a single tone by tracing a path along the strip.

(*) Gombrich, E. H. (1988) Art and Illusion(Oxford: Phaidon)

This example of just how stitched-together our version of reality is comes from my e-book

believing is seeing … the amazing artifice of perception

It’s one of nine free e-books in the series: empty canvas: wondering mind

See the e-books page for more information

Artifice is the clever use of tricks and devices. – Collins Dictionary

believe it or not …




… the blue and the green are one and the same color!

Try an experiment like this for yourself.
Take one color and experiment with laying others adjacent
in such a way that your one color appears to be two.

What does this amazing optical illusion tell us about
the color-composed ‘world’ we inhabit?

source –