“A piece of art is never a finished work. It answers a question which has been asked, and asks a new question.” - Robert Engman
I've been using the phrase "Visual Vocabulary" for a great many years now in discussions with other artists, peers, and students. When I speak about it, I always envision an actual enormous tool chest (mine looks rather pirate-y), filled with a grand plethora of images, shapes, colors, marks, stories, ideas - not to mention a variety of mediums, techniques and tips. All of these things are the accumulation of my own artistic lifetime and they are all available, at the ready, every time I sit down with a pencil, a paint brush or a saw blade. They are all the the things I've leaned, the experiments I've tried (with both success and failure), the inspirations that have come, and the pieces I brought forth to full creation.
We all have a visual vocabulary, whether or not you've thought about it in these terms before. We all have a stock pile of memories, experiences and creations that both inspire and inform the work we make. I believe the more conscious we are of this "tool chest," the more we are able to utilize it's contents.
Your sketchbook is the tangible, handheld equivalent of your tool chest: The more we fill it with lists of ideas, observations and inspirations, the good drawings and the very bad ones, half-baked doodles, abstract colors, detailed sketches, photos, educational notes, even mathematical equations, the richer our visual vocabulary becomes. It's a way to keep all those thoughts down on paper, to create, as we've said before, a grand reference tool. Every new thing you learn and see (build those synapses baby!) has the option to go into your personal tool chest - even if you don't use it right now, even if you have no idea how it may manifest in the future. This also means everything you are playing with in this course has the option to become a permanent part of your own vocabulary - to try it on and see if it fits, and to let it go if it does not.
We're going to be exploring a variety of facets within this topic for the next two weeks, but before we move forward, I'd like us to glance back at where we're coming from. I'd like you to begin by thinking back at the work you've made in the past - now this can be just the writings and sketches from the last two weeks or it can be the body of your work spanning the last thirty years. It can contain drawings, completed paintings, your first jewelry pieces, the textile work you did last year, but it can also contain the favorite photos you've snapped or the writings you've put down in journals. Spend a little time thinking on all these things, looking at them if you have the sketchbooks, journals, photos and work to do so. This is purely an objective observation - we are NOT here to judge anything we've created in the past. What we're here to do is look for patterns, for the themes that continually crop up, for ideas we loved and may not be "done" with yet, for the things that were Important to us in the past, that may still hold importance now.
In last week's Q&A session we talked a bit on what it is to draw inspiration from looking at the work of others. How one way we can do this with integrity is to ask questions: What are the most distilled elements I can find that really speak to me? What are the visual components that I am drawn to? What are the implied themes or the unspoken emotive feelings that I respond to? We're now going to turn those questions upon our own work. Even if you have a very small body of your own work (or even if you feel it's "old work"), I'd like you too look at it and ask these same questions. Again, no judgement in any way, we're truly here as researchers, compiling information. As you look back, notate repetitive patterns and themes that still interest you. Add a new list into your sketchbooks. This is one way we build upon our own work, a way we can incorporate what is already in our huge tool chests with the brand spanking new.
As I looked back at my own work, here are a few past items that jumped up at me and how I notated the thoughts that arose as I wrote them down:
- Halos (taken originally as a loose reference to Renaissance paintings, morphing now into a symbol for anything holy or sacred. I'm ok with them becoming more literal than they were in my past work)
- Windows (about a decade ago I did a whole series on windows in abandoned buildings, as transitional planes. Now they feel even more liminal, like passageways or portals between ordinary reality and non-ordinary - even as astral planes)
- Turquoise (I just still love it. That's enough of a reason)
- Venation patterns (A few years back I held a show by that name and wrote a piece on the idea of life force flowing though all those tiny vernacular systems. I don't know what it is now, I'm just drawn to draw those patterns again)
- Moths (So much work and writing on moths as light seekers... I don't know if I even still need the moth, but I do need the idea of seeking light, light as a life line and a path)
Observe, ruminate, notate what stands out and add it in to those sketchbooks - your list of current inspirations just might do some growing...