If in doubt

7 January 2022

“Oh, it’s okay for you to say what you want from me
I believe that’s the only way for me to be”
— Wilco, Handshake Drugs

When I was on the Turps off-site programme last year, Phil Allen gave a talk about his painting practice. At one point Phil spoke about a period during which he had found success as a painter, only to have it evaporate very quickly after the 2008 financial crisis (as happened to many artists). He became despondent at the lack of enthusiasm about his work and started doubting whether the paintings he was making were any good. He felt that he needed to stop the trajectory he was on and start making new work from scratch:

“I just thought, ‘Right, I’m going to have to do something else…’ So I just began to draw a lot. You know like when you have a hangover, you go for a long walk? So I just drew, drew, drew.”

It was interesting to watch in a sped-up way how these drawings then led Phil to making new types of paintings that he was much more satisfied with. His talk struck a chord with me recently because I’ve been feeling similarly hung up about my own work. I’m sure every painter encounters this problem sooner or later, though everyone handles it differently. I tend to retreat into reading and writing rather than actually making any work. Sometimes I’ll just flip through an artist monograph in the studio and hope that something interesting jumps out. When enough time has passed, I’ll muster the energy to mix a few oils together to start a new painting. But that feeling of doubt, of needing to start all over again from scratch, always sits in the back of my mind and never completely goes away.

In The Creative Habit, Twyla Tharp’s guide for building a structured creative practice, she stresses the need for daily routines and rituals: “It’s vital to establish some rituals – automatic but decisive patterns of behaviour – at the beginning of the creative process, when you are most at peril of turning back, chickening out, giving up, or going the wrong way.” The ritual can serve many purposes: to kick-start a creative process, to add shape or structure to the day in the studio, to act as a Rubicon crossing. But Tharp argues that the key to having the ritual is that it has to be conducted daily: “After so many years, I’ve learned that being creative is a full-time job with its own daily patterns. That’s why writers, for example, like to establish routines for themselves… They might set a goal for themselves – write fifteen hundred words, or stay at their desk until noon – but the real secret is that they do this every day.”

If in doubt, draw.

I do wonder if there isn’t more to it than just showing up to the studio every day, even with a goal in mind. The hard part for me has never been showing up to the studio, even when it’s pretty baltic and I haven’t got a single idea in my head. The problem is knowing what to do when I get there. One of the interminable challenges about being an artist is needing to have a sense of direction: knowing where to take the work, or which direction the work needs to go. It’s almost as though any momentary pause, any period of inactivity, allows the mind to start to doubt what it’s doing. And in those moments, the best I can hope for is that I’ve got a decent record playing in the background to drown out those thoughts.

Music I’ve been listening to lately:

  • Wilco, A Ghost is Born
  • Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
  • Aphex Twin, Selected Ambient Works 85-92
  • Basic Channel, BCD
  • Lana Del Rey, Ultraviolence

Books I’ve been reading:

  • Robert Macfarlane, Mountains of the Mind
  • Jon Krakauer, Into Thin Air

In other news, I’ll be taking part in a group exhibition with Emily Mary Barnett, Ollie Guyon, and Henry Tyrrell at no format gallery in Deptford in early March. I’ve also got a few works on paper for sale on my Instagram account.