Exercise 2.4, was more important to me than any of the individual samples I produced. The exercise made me consider some of rules I have constructed about my work over the years. In addition I began to question the role that sampling plays in my practice.
Realisation began when I discovered this stack of off-cut factory waste paper in my stash. I loved the shapes and patterns the holes made and I could see the potential for exploring the dichotomy of space and negative space. However, something inside me told me this would be ‘cheating’, I should cut the holes myself. I challenged this preconceived notion by first thinking about a conversation I had had about Gregor Henderson, runner-up in Sky Arts Landscape Artist of the Year 2016.
I really enjoyed Henderson’s work, I thought it was a fresh way of reproducing the landscape, challenging the traditional scenes I associate with landscape art. I liked the layering and sensitive use of colour, my parents were fascinated by the reductive technique he uses. This is where things came apart- I could see the skill involved in cutting the layers and reconstructing the image in layers but he used a photograph! That voice inside me started screming, ‘that’s cheating, what happened to drawing?’ (As it turned out in a later episode Henderson demonstrated excellent observational drawing skills).
I had a similar experience when I recently visited the art college I attended many years ago. As I looked around the studios I saw a student making some large scale drawings of a fennel plant, her approach shocked me too. She had placed the plant in front of a sunny window and was tracing the shadow on the opposite wall. ‘Wow, no wonder its so good.’ As well as beginning rather impressed at her ingenuity, I was secretly rather appalled and believed she should be drawing ‘properly’. I don’t know where or when I formed these rules about drawing, I am convinced they exist only in my head. Surely as artists we must use all the tools available to us?
Many people believe that rules are only there to be broken (I’m possibly rather dull in my adherence to them!) so I gave myself permission to use the pre-cut holes. I would like to tell you that I did so with a sense of liberation, but actually I still felt apprehensive about this ‘short-cut’.
Did the results of the sampling change my perception? Yes, to a degree. I really enjoyed making it, the exercise became more about the materials and possible effects. What did I learn? Not to limit myself by dismissing ideas without trying them.
Once I had traced an appealing composition, I decided to cut the new distorted flower shapes myself. I started to look for a suitable piece of card or paper large enough to fit the entire design. I had a sudden moment of realisation- ‘I don’t have to cut the whole design, I can make a sample!’ This may seem obvious to most but it was honestly a revelation to me!
I think my learning here was assisted by reading K Greenlees’ wonderful book: Creating Sketchbooks¹. This was the second time I had borrowed the book and this time round it was this passage from P35, that had stuck with me:
“Whether you use sampling as a sketching process or as an extension of that process, it is important to consider the place that it has in your work. Is it a major vehicle for expression? Is it an ‘in between stage’ of problem solving and exploration? Or perhaps your ideas blur those boundaries. However you use sampling, try to understand what it contributes to your personal practice and development.”
Initially, I found I that despite having adopted sampling in to my practice during ATV and realising its value, I still couldn’t answer WHY? Why do I sample? Hand on heart here, I will have to admit to producing samples because the coursenotes say: ‘produce 8-10 samples’. This apparent lack of understanding on my part made me feel quite cross with myself! ‘I did it because I was told to.’
At first I thought this attitude demonstrated passivity and a failure to take responsibility for my learning. However now, as I type this, I wonder if what it really shows is that I trusted in the course. Even when I wasn’t sure where things were leading I embraced the exercises and took what I could from them. If I were truly ‘passive’ I guess I wouldn’t be writing this!
So, (returning to the point) deciding to sample a small area of the distorted flowers, rather than the whole design, was a monumental moment. In the past, I would have gone out specifically to purchase a great big piece of paper, marked it up, started cutting, realised it wasn’t going to work, got fed up, cast it aside and never, ever finish it. No wonder I never used to finish anything! No wonder I have a pile of unfinished projects (that drive my husband mad). Each and everyone of those UFOs feels like a failure, each one feeds my fear that I am no good. If I sampled an idea before jumping in too deep I could avoid this!
In all the years I knitted, I never made a tension square, regarding it as a waste of precious materials. This now seems counter intuitive: if problems are solved during the planning (sampling) stage, much less material is wasted and the end product is successful (in that it is finished and not cast aside).
I find the constant cycle of sampling for OCA courses exhausting. I still feel frustrated when things don’t go right but actually given the quantity of time and materials invested in each sample it isn’t a huge failure after all. Strangely, I have observed that I sleep better since beginning the courses. I think sampling allows me to download some of my ideas, to reject some that that are doomed to fail and all without adding to my UFO pile. Knowing this I can afford (both emotionally and financially) to be more experimental.
Whilst I miss producing properly realised and finished pieces, perhaps I can take more enjoyment from sampling now that I can answer the Greenlees quote above?
¹GREENLEES K, Creating Sketchbooks for Embroiderers and Textile Artists (2005) Batsford