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  • Writer's pictureGillian Holding

A new way of feeling

I’m entering into day five of a transformative workshop/residency amidst lush sub-tropical greenery on the Atlantic coast of Florida.

I’ve been thinking about making art and “practicing” art in every sense of the word for as long as I can remember, but I’ve never tapped into my inner soul as much as I have been encouraged (and inspired) to do so this week. It helps of course to have hours and hours of uninterrupted studio time, three meals a day prepared and served and cleared away… and no pick ups, school/uni jaunts or tradesmen to hang around waiting for for hours on end. Even more importantly, it helps to be surrounded by other artists making work from dawn to dusk, and grappling with identical challenges.

People outside the art world used to laugh when I said my fine art degree was more intellectually demanding than my law degree. Ditto when I said that figurative painting is infinitely easier than non-objective painting when you’re working without any source or reference materials whatsoever. For me, painting a portrait in simple terms is just a question of looking, seeing and transcribing; Gerhard Richter has described his photo realist portraits as a rest compared to working on his abstract paintings and I can readily empathise with that.

Creating a work out of absolutely nothing except your soul is an extraordinary challenge for someone like me who is never without a sketchbook or a camera for picture making purposes, and that’s why I applied for this residency.

It’s been a bit of a journey, even forgetting the two hour stationary queue in Atlanta to get through customs because of a computer malfunction. Progress is not linear, of course. A giant leap forward one day is invariably followed by a slight slide back the next. I have felt vulnerable and exposed not just because I have never painted this way before, but because I’ve been grappling too with unfamiliar materials. A switch from oils to acrylic halfway through has kept me nicely off balance.

My strange natural reluctance to persist with a successful process (lest it become formulaic and trite) has been overcome. As long as I consider each mark, each line, each colour, with a free mind guided by gut feeling and no specific outcome in mind, I won’t descend into parody.

I don’t need to fear overworking a painting the next day. If I don’t love what I’ve done, there’s nothing to lose by treating it as simply a new surface to respond to, once again with no predetermined outcome or vision.

It’s an extraordinary thing to approach a blank canvas with quite literally no idea of what is to come, and to lose the fear of failure. It is not possible to “fail” if you don’t have a set vision. At worst, a painting may be less satisfactory. And all that means is another surface to work on next time I face it, with the possibility of magic happening somewhere down the line.

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