…Where Do You Get Your Ideas ?
By Denis Taylor
I have been asked this same question many times about my paintings and to be honest, I’ve never answered it to my satisfaction, let alone to the person who asked it of me.
The question resurrected itself recently when I was casually reading through one of my art books and I came across various statements by Henri Matisse, some of which were made when he was quite elderly. I’m quoting one of them below that I found to be particularly intriguing:-
Was this the answer that I was looking for, an answer which I could glibly quote to get me out of a tight spot next time someone asked me that infernal & annoying ideas question?
What exactly did Henri mean by it? Matisse was in his last years of life when he made this incredible statement, so you would think he knew what he was talking about. I mean he had been producing Art for decades upon decades and surely he was very sure of his own artistic thinking about such matters.
Firstly I think we have to separate the term ‘Artist’ from ‘Painter’. In the 21st century an artist is someone who makes Art from any item or material and exhibits that art in a public forum. A painter is a person who chooses specific tools to create a two dimensional Art.
-Portrait d’Henri Matisse
As a painter myself, Matisse’s confident explanation of where artists ideas come from holds particular resonance.
With art and artists there is always a but – with a capital ‘B’ – And so I decided to try and decipher Henri’s words with the advantage of hindsight and the help of my own work from the last 30 years. I was born in 1951, so according to Matisse I should have had my ‘one’ idea for a long time therefore I should know this ‘idea’ well. In fact, I should know it intimately. But do I?
OK, so if we take the concept of a ‘single art-idea’ acquired at birth literally, then it is clearly incorrect, I mean everyone, including artists, have hundreds if not thousands, of ideas over a lifetime. I know I have. I decided to meditate for an hour or two and go as far back as I could, right back to my early childhood, just to see if I could recall my very first [serious] piece of Art. That first painting where I held a pre-determined concept, before I made any marks with paint & brush. This thinking-back exercise not only had surprising results but exposed some hurtful feelings, ones that I had hoped and thought I had buried and had long forgotten about. I’ll explain…
…I was six years old when I created a ‘deliberate’ conceptual painting. My junior school teacher (who was a creative herself) asked a few in the class to paint something from a story book she had read to us. It was the [true] story of Captain Robert Falcon Scott, better known in the UK as Scott of the Antarctic. He was a British hero who had perished bravely in Antarctica in 1912. They were dejected returning to base camp, having been beaten as the ‘First Men to reach the South Pole’ by Ronald Amundsen and his team of explorers.
If you know the whole story then you will appreciate the drama and adventure that a boy, like me at the time, would have seen in it. So, that was my concept – snow, ice and men – the idea for the painting, you could say.
In my meditative state I relived the passion and excitement of recreating a scene from this epic story the teacher had read to us. I remembered, in graphic detail, painting furiously and without thought as to what I was actually doing. I recalled how all my energy was directed, not by my brain, but by my mind. A mind free from terra firma restraints. A mind floating in a three dimensional visual inside my head, a visual that was desperate to get out. The mind of a child, one that knew nothing about Art theory, Art styles or anything whatsoever connected with culture and visual art.
Perhaps it was because [at six years old] I could not express myself in any other way, other than with painting. I was probably still perfecting the alphabet and penmanship to form coherent sentences, ones that others could read and make some sort of sense of. Maybe that’s what Picasso meant when he said “paint like a child” – An impossible request today. I believe our modern education systems tends to stifle ‘born’ Artists.
Artists tend to be educated & learn from experts how to ‘exist’ (sic: market themselves) as a professional Artist, especially over the last 20 years or so. An artist lives in his brain probably more than his mind, in today’s world.
The more I thought about it the more I came round in the Matisse way of thinking. The ‘one idea’ dogma he had promoted need not be a concept at all. What if the ‘idea’ was ‘how’ to paint. To create a work of art that was beyond the normal view of things. Did the idea of ‘how to paint’ form itself when I was born? A sort of pre-determined genetic inheritance of our species, an incredible ability we had to communicate, before we formed language.
What was surprising is that I realized I still paint as I have described more often than not. And I have indeed spent my entire life trying to develop it and allow it to be set free to breathe, just as Matisse had said.
“The idea of Artists is not really what they paint, but it’s how they paint.”
I think that is the nearest and simplest way I can give to explaining the Henri Matisse statement. At least it gives me a considered answer when I am asked that tricky question…where do you get your ideas?
Footnote: if you are wondering what was that ‘hurtful feeling’ was- when I had recalled it in meditation. – And in reality when I was six years old? – Ok, I’ll tell you even though it still hurts a little to write the end of the story.
That first serious piece of Art [that I painted in 1957] was selected to be entered in an exhibition within Manchester & Salford City Art Museum, along with a few dozen of the kids from around the suburbs of Manchester.
My junior Art teacher took me to the opening day along with two classmates whose paintings had also been selected for entry by our School headmistress. We walked round the exhibition for some time until my teacher said to me:
“Well Denis, it looks like you are the only one Not to have your painting on display”.
I was crushed. I think I may even have cried inside, if not on the outside. There was no real explanation coming from the selection committee when my teacher made inquiries, other than they pointed to the ‘rule’ that the ‘painting’ had to be the work of the Child Only and without Parental or Teacher help.
A rejection syndrome could have sat with me for many years. I was lucky to be so young to enable a quick recovery from the slur on my artistic integrity. It made me even more committed to creating paintings. 5 years later I was enrolled at the Manchester High School of Art. I never give up believing or enjoying the magic one person can do with a blank space, a brush and some paint. And I never will…. Because it’s a great idea!