Ann Witheridge of London Fine Art Studios looks at relationship between the artist and their materials, arguing that the more one works, the less art is about the subject matter or the final product; indeed the deeper the relationship an artist has with their artwork, the more it is about the art materials and the creative process.
Words by Ann Witheridge
The more I teach and practice my craft, the more I realise that the most important aspect and the one that gives me the greatest joy is the creative process itself and the understanding and mastering the tools we use; The relationship between the artist and their materials. As with a musician, knowing your instrument is key. I have spent many years practising and teaching drawing and oil painting. When I work with a different medium, I still have the visual knowledge of values, colour, form and this helps reduce the complications of a new medium. Recently I have been working with clay and glazes and though there is much to learn, the knowledge acquired using drawing materials and oils is still so relevant.
The History of the Word ‘Art’
Interestingly the word Art comes from the Latin word ARS meaning craft and technical skill. Our studio logo has the words “Ars Lunga, Vita Brevis’ – ‘Art is Long, Life is Short’. The quote was used by Hippocrates, the great physician, to imply that there is so much knowledge to acquire, and our lifetime is not enough; our artistic goals and study will outstrip our lifetime. Artists have adopted the words, for our art will exceed our lives. Artists were seen as craftspeople, learning skills and techniques, much like scientists, musicians and writers. The craft side of painting and the artist materials were essential. As craftspeople, the artist’s lifetime endeavour was honing one’s skills.
Understanding materials is key to the creative process. The more fluent we are with our materials, the easier it is to translate our artistic vision, whether this is a figurative subject working from life, an imaginative piece or an abstract artwork. The artistic language of values, colours and edges is a philosophy of seeing and translating what we see in life or in our mind onto our canvas is the process. The greater the knowledge of our materials, the simpler the process of translating our artistic ideas. The hours of doodling in class were not in vain, it is not the materials we use, but how we use them that expresses our skill as an artist.
Knowledge Acquired Through Artists Studios
Painting is a craft and traditionally artists worked in botteghe, workshops, learning from their master. The tormented artist working alone in their studio is a 20th century concept. Art has more commonly been a group activity, artists learning off each other. Even Vincent Van Gogh, the personification of the tormented artist, desperately sought the attention and companionship of Gauguin. For art is as much about the production of artwork, as it is about the sharing of ideas and techniques. When I am teaching, most of what I am sharing is knowledge I have acquired from fellow artists, teachers, friends, often stories from fellow artists of their experiences with teachers. For most artists it is not the completion of an artwork, but the study and process of art that brings the greatest satisfaction; the creative process trumps the product!
The Creative Process
Art history loves to define artists by their genres and their approach to painting. However often our approach and our subject matter choice has much to do with commissions, financial pressures or the world around us. An artist brought up in the city is less likely to be drawn to pastoral scenes. And as much as one might love dogs and children, when doing commissioned work, it is really for the client and not the artist.
I am fortunate enough to teach and therefore indulge in the world of study and discussion. I am not an abstract artist but the more I paint, the more I am drawn by the colours, the values and the paint itself. The subject is of secondary importance. What draws me in to paint a subject is the relationship of values and colour. Ironically the more representational a painting appears, often the more abstractly the artists have viewed the subject. – The more we paint, the more it becomes about the paint and the surface, rather than the subject matter; The creative process.
The Artist and Their Materials
The concepts, narrative or subject matters of a painting become secondary to the use of paint and art materials. When we first approach our subject, whether it is a landscape, portrait or figure, we are dependent on their shapes and forms, but soon the paint takes over, and it is the materials that we are handling and enjoying. The lyricist gives a springboard for the musician to write their piece. Likewise the subject matter gives the artist a starting point and inspiration for them to then manipulate their tools whether it is with clay, oils, watercolour or drawing media. The artist is dependent on their materials; the synergy is not between subject matter and artist, or product and artist, the true synergy is between the artist and their materials.
About Ann Witheridge
Ann Witheridge has been teaching painting for over twenty years. She read History of Art at Christ’s College Cambridge before moving to Italy to study art full time. She returned to London in 2004 and founded her own art school London Fine Art Studios. She has written articles for many art periodicals and given painting demonstrations and workshops in museums across London including the National Portrait Gallery, Dulwich Picture Gallery and Leighton House Museum. She has also been invited abroad to give workshops in Paris, Addis Ababa and Charleston, South Carolina. She loves teaching and painting in equal measure.