Monthly Archives: August 2015

The kids are alright.

So why are some marks good and others bad? The answer is they’re not. None are bad and neither are any good. They just are. Their ‘quality’ is subjective. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but how does the beholder know how to determine good and bad? And how can they trust their judgement at all when the subject is so completely subjective? Good and bad are abstract notions determined by comparison. This painting versus that one versus all the others. The more one has seen, read about and discussed, the better position they are in to judge.

But, what if one were able to forget everything and abandon any frame of reference for good or bad painting? If everything we saw was not compared on a qualitative basis but just accepted as existing? And what then if one could make work without the restriction of context, comparison, knowledge and experience? Short of a catastrophic case of amnesia it can’t be done by anyone reading this. However there are people who can do it.


Young children make the best marks for exactly this reason. They have no concept or context of the way a painted brushstroke is judged in the art world. They have no knowledge of hundreds of years of painting. They don’t compare the marks they make with the things in the museums and the galleries and so they are free to make whatever gesture they please without the debilitating disappointment of knowing it won’t be as good as something else. There is no ‘should’. No right and wrong. No good and bad. No originality, reference, context, concept, historical background, critical theory or any of that. It’s just coloured liquid that they instinctively move about exactly as they want. It is carefree in the truest sense of the word.

As soon as figuration develops – when that first crude face appears – creative innocence begins to dwindle. It is not lost immediately, but as soon as it becomes clear that painting can exist as a tool and not just a phenomenon there grows an inclination to use it as such. The point at which the importance of representaion supercedes the tools developed to achieve it will be reached quite quickly. Where once the painted mark was whole, now it is just a cog in a larger machine and alone is incomplete. That purity of painting for painting’s sake begins to decay and is slowly replaced by a desire to paint to communicate and not to indulge.


Now, I’m not saying figuration is bad. Far from it. Good figuration is wonderful (bad is not and is sadly far too common). My point is that the purity of the abstract mark never used as description is something that cannot be retrieved once it is lost. One can attempt to look back and seek it. To make ‘mature’ marks look like childish marks is perfectly possible, but that nonchalant movement can never be  consciously rediscovered. However close we get, we will always be pretending.

Admittedly this problem is equal in severity to your local supermarket running out of mini ciabatta. Which is funny* because it’s a problem not entirely detached from the pressing issue of an unexpected lack of uneccessary novelty baked goods. It’s a product of a (comparatively) well funded and strictly monitored middle class education system. What art teacher could get away with telling their students not to draw pictures of things? What parent could for that matter? It’s impossible to imagine such a situation. In my experience children are taught to draw and paint and interpret and describe the world around them in these media as long as they are in primary school and secondary school. They are encouraged to learn to draw as well as possible. But, then they come to higher education where, if one assumes a natural progression and that the reasonably formal teaching that has come before will be consolidated with strict technical instruction and pursuit of mastery of ability. But no. The road bends and the emphasis suddenly shifts almost entirely to self expression, concept, and theory over technique. From an education that promotes technical ability and spans more than a formative decade, students are suddenly spat premature into the exact opposite. All possibility and no direction. All emotion and no education. All talk and no trousers. The result then is a student with mediocre technical ability (leaving aside rare prodigy), being asked to redirect the efforts of over ten years down a completely different road. No one comes out of a foundation course having mastered a skill. One could strongly argue that these days those coming out of a Masters course aren’t anywhere near either.


This sounds like a tangent, but it isn’t. It is relevant in that I believe we choose to teach children to approach image making in a certain manner but we only take them the first few steps and then tell them to find their own way. It takes time to master the ability. It also takes time to mature to the point where you can understand the value of being able to contradict it. You need to know the rules so that when you choose to break them it’s worthwhile. You need to know how to read the map before you can navigate on your own.

Before we start teaching, children already possess an innate desire to make marks. They love to paint long before they understand that it can do things and not just be things. When we start teaching them discipline is at the expense of instinct. We destroy the natural, existing and critically complete understanding of painting and replace it with a pursuit of the unattainable.

If you’ve reached the end of this post, it will come as little surprise that the 3 paintings illustrated are by a 3 year old.

* note that I have to make it explicitly clear when something funny that I say is funny. It’s a gift