Category Archives: musings

Ten thousand things

I came across the term ‘ten thousand things’ recently…and promptly wondered why I had not encountered it before.   The ancient Chinese used this phrase to refer to the unfathomable multitude of beings in existence.

The idea of ten thousand things representing a number beyond belief also occurs outside China.  In Buddhism it is used to refer to the uncountable number of ways in which life force or Buddha-nature exists.   The ancient Greeks had a word for it, myrioi, and this has come to us in English as ‘myriad’, which literally means ten thousand.

In ‘The Zen of Seeing’, Frederick Franck refers to the ten thousand things as being worth seeing and drawing; “It is in order to really see, to see ever deeper, ever more intensely, hence to be fully aware and alive, that I draw what the Chinese call “The Ten Thousand Things” around me.  Drawing is the discipline by which I constantly rediscover the world”

And so, when we take the time to look, whether it is with pencil, paintbrush or camera in hand, there is so much around us that we realise we just pass by on a daily basis.  How much do you really see?  Make time to look – you will find it’s worth the effort!

Breaking the rules of watercolour

Much is said of the rules of watercolour.  You must paint light to dark, it must be transparent, you mustn’t use white…or, heavens forbid, black, you must sketch first, you need a limited palette, the list goes on.  The rules of watercolour seem to cause such an outpouring of emotion by those who feel confined by their existence, that there is now quite a rebellion at hand, to break down the rules of watercolour and find a new way.  Quite often this new way leads to an exploration of mixed media, which is of course a whole new topic in itself!

Having immersed myself in watercolours relatively recently, I have met this flood of changing perspectives head on.  I have always been book lover and my natural reaction on learning something new is to buy a book on the subject.

After some initial attempts at throwing caution of the rules to the wind, I sought solace in some older books aimed at beginners.  Here I learned the dreaded rules that are at the foundation of many heated arguments on the subject.  I actually found it quite reassuring and by following these rules I made considerable improvements.  This came because I began to understand how the paper, pigment and water worked together to create the painting.

It makes me wonder how many of these rules are actually quite sage advice, that helps beginners to understand the medium and learn to work with it. Once we have this understanding we can begin to explore further and try new things.  That underpinning knowledge will help us to be successful in our attempts and to understand what may have gone wrong in our failures.

If I cannot draw a flower accurately I am unlikely to be able to create a convincing abstract interpretation. And if I don’t understand my pigment choices I am more likely to create the dreaded ‘mud’. By questioning and assessing for myself, I can learn the rules that work for me and the ones I want to deliberately break. I begin to know what restricts me and what supports my development.

Both yoga and Buddhism teach us to question and find our own answers.  As is so often the case, a mindful approach to the matter at hand leads to greater progress in our journey.

Creativity as cure for boredom?

A friend recently told me that their job would soon be changing from full-time to part-time.  Being a freelancer who always has an extensive ‘to do’ list, on which the fun things are endlessly being crowded up by work activities that spill over into what could have been leisure time, my immediate thought was Yes, please! That would be great! All that extra time to do the fun things I that I never get round to!

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if work was confined to just 4 days a week (or less?!), with 3 days for ‘me’ time!  However, it turned out that rather than looking forward to the change, this friend was actually worried about getting bored; what would they do with the extra time?

This set me wondering about nature of boredom, and its relationship to creativity.  I can honestly say I am too busy to be bored.  As fast as I tick something off that list, more things are added to the bottom.  The more essential, mundane tasks gravitate to the top whilst less urgent ideas tend to sink to the bottom.  What is most definitely not lacking, though, is things to add to the list.

I think that once you open yourself up to the idea that you have time to do stuff, ideas of what you might do start popping up.  A friend who was due to retire expressed similar concerns; what would she do with herself all day every day without work?  Now, a couple of years later her social schedule is so busy she is rarely at home.

Sometimes we need a little mental space away from the demands of everyday life in order to come up with ideas.  When I was working in an extremely pressured environment I felt that my creativity was stifled.  I could do the essentials, but please don’t ask me to think!

As a freelancer, I recognise that I sometimes get myself into this situation and then it’s time to take a step back, to come up with a plan that will allow me to feel on top of things again so the suppressed creativity can rise to the surface again.  In the meantime, I will keep adding things to my list…

Love the one you’re with

I came across an article a while back which struck a chord with me. It was by Eddie Ephraums, on the use of phone cameras. He suggested that using the camera on a mobile phone can lead to a more relaxed approach to photography. His idea was that ‘image making becomes freer and I take pictures that feel closer to how I see.

Ironically, not trying to be a photographer seems to make me a better one.’  Using a smart phone camera allows me to snap a moment whenever I see it, rather than only when I have made a point of going out to take photographs with my DSLR.

I am also more inclined to share these photos, as I can upload them directly to the internet and am less concerned about theft of my copyright as the image is not of a high enough quality for would-be users to do a great deal with.

My newly developed dependence on this approach was brought home to me recently when I arrived at the venue of a yoga class I was about to teach and was suddenly stuck by the alignment of some elderly railings alongside the car park.

I reached for my phone before realising it was at home on the charger. I have been back several times since but the railings have not struck me in the same way again and I have not again been tempted to photograph them.

Another way in which I have found that using my mobile’s camera encourages me to photograph the world as I see it is that the tiny sensor and short focal length mean it creates a huge depth of field in an image.

This is much closer to the way the human eye sees the world than the shallower depth of field I am frequently tempted to select on my DSLR. I love images with only a small part in focus but if I am honest this is not the reality that I see but rather an image I have created as a result of the shortcomings of my camera’s ‘eye’.

Photographs to paint

This week I have been reading a somewhat elderly book on watercolour painting, by Ron Ranson.  I was interested to see a chapter entitled ‘Using Photography Properly’ and skipped ahead to take a look.   At the time of writing, it appears that painting from a photograph was considered something of a no-no by the purists.  However, apparently even famous artists such as Degas used photographs, so it can’t be all bad.

Ranson suggests that painting from a photograph encourages us to leave in all the details…which might be better lost in the spirit of creative licence.  I can entirely agree with that, as someone who is aiming for greater simplicity in both painting and photography.  When using a camera, I tend to opt for a shallow depth of field to isolate my subject.  The same can work in a painting, with a fuzzy, ‘out-of-focus’ background allowing the main feature to stand out strongly.  This happens naturally in the landscape, where haze causes distant features to be fuzzier, paler and cooler in colour.

This same effect can look a little odd if used in other ways.  I remember looking at a beautiful oil-painted portrait and eventually figuring out that it looked weird because it had been painted with such shallow depth of field that the eyes were in focus and the nose was not.  Whilst this is currently a popular technique for portrait photography, it looked strange as a picture as the depth of field in this instance was a facet of the camera’s functioning rather than how the eye would see.

Whilst Ranson feels that painting has made him a better photographer, I am hoping that photography will make me a better painter…eventually!  Certainly painting from a photograph simplifies the issue of composition as the scene is already neatly framed.  There are no worries about the changing light and shadows and the flower will not wilt or drop petals between sittings.  A quick switch to monochrome and the tones are displayed if I need help, although with my preference for black and white my ability to read tones has improved immensely.  And most usefully, I can paint the same subject several times and try out different approaches in each..  Definitely a match made in heaven.

The one that got away

Don’t so many people have their story of the one that got away?  The fisherman outwitted by the wily (and always enormous) fish, the winning goal narrowly missed, and in this case, the perfect, once in a lifetime, never to be repeated photographic opportunity not to be missed but sadly nevertheless not recorded onto film or sensor.  Perhaps the settings were wrong?  The card corrupted?  Or the moment occurred when the unwitting photographer was just not ready for it.

My moment came when I had just arrived in Dovedale on a very soggy and blustery afternoon in late December.  I have gotten into the habit of leaving my camera in my bag til I have a feel of a place, taking time time to absorb my surroundings before taking any pictures, and this day was no different.  Plus, it was not an ideal day for photography; the light was poor and I was concerned about getting my non-weathersealed DSLR soaked in the frequent showers.

I paused to watch a pair of dippers working their way up the opposite bank of the River Dove, fascinated by their flitting movements and amazed by the beauty of their song, which I had not appreciated before.  Suddenly I realised we were not alone…on a mudbank in the centre of the river next to me,  perfectly still, stood a large heron.  Perhaps the largest I have seen and almost, it seemed, within touching distance…and with no camera in my hand!

By the time I was able to remedy the situation the heron had taken flight for a safer perch on the nearby hillside and my only shot is of a blurry ghost.  Even so, I could not bring myself to delete it and here it is, my personal reminder of the perils of being unprepared.

Each moment of each day brings something new and in order to record those special moments we need to be ready.  But who knows when they will happen?  Maybe we are not able to preserve that moment in time with our camera, but we can still be present to experience it as it happens and store the memory away to cherish in the future.  Despite the photographic user-malfunction I experienced, this was still an amazing moment and I have learned a few important lessons!

If taking photographs has become so all-important that we are too busy snapping away to enjoy it the moment as it happens perhaps there is a benefit to taking a break and spending some time just seeing, with our senses to experience and our memory to record the moment.

Rule of thirds or rule of thumb?

The great photographer Edward Weston suggested that “following the rules of composition can only lead to a tedious repetition of pictorial cliches”.  Read any book or magazine article about composition and you will be presented with a selection of accepted ideas which are claimed to improve your composition; the rule of thirds, the golden section, using leading lines, diagonal lines, balancing the image, symmetry, using patterns and frames…the list continues!

They are all intended to help you to compose the image in a way that is appealing to the eye and indeed, they do have a proven track record.  For example, the Golden Section is based on Leonardo da Vinci’s investigation of our ideas about beauty and harmony and uses principles that can be seen in art from ancient civilisations.  Using these tried and tested formulas is inevitably mechanical to start with, rather like learning to drive a car.

But with time and practice it becomes more instinctive, and my question is, how do we then distinguish between photographing what we see and photographing what is attractive as a result of our subconscious application of one or more of these principles? Or indeed the deliberate misuse of one, such as the deliberate placement of a subject too close to the edge of the frame to create tension?  Once learned, are these ‘rules’ inevitably leading us into pictorial cliches and hampering our creativity?  Suggestions welcome…

Serendipity

What a lovely word serendipity is.  I think it has to be one of my all-time favourites.  The dictionary defines serendipity as meaning ‘happy accident’, something fortuitous that comes about when we were not specifically looking for it.  According to Wikipedia, the word was invented by Horace Walpole in the 1700’s, after a fairy tales about three princes from Serendip (Sri Lanka) who had many of these lucky accidents.

You will often hear photographers speak of the importance of luck; the happenstance of being in the right place at the right time in order to create a stunning image.  Of course, this sort of luck occurs much more often when you invite it in through dedication and perseverance.

Much of my contemplative photography is serendipitous.  Spending much of my work time in a structured way, I find I don’t want to restrict my time out with a camera in the same manner.  I rarely have a plan, or a goal, and these days I try to minimise the amount of gear I carry with me.  Of course, I need to choose a destination, but this could as easily be the back yard as a mountain a 4-hour drive away.  Yes, I will admire the view and store it up in my mind’s memory card, but you are then as likely to find me crawling round in the undergrowth attempting to persuade a grasshopper to pose before the sun goes in, or checking out the rain splashes in a nearby puddle.

I suppose some people would think I am a bit strange…

Having decided where to go, I like allow myself to be open to the possibilities that the day presents.  Without any preconceptions about what I will photograph that day I remain curious about all that presents itself.  I might spend hours or minutes on one subject.  Who knows what that day will bring?  That, for me, is the wonder of it!

A colourful visitor

Hanging out the washing last week, I was delighted to see this beautiful peacock butterfly enjoying the flowers of my buddleia bush.  This is the first wild butterfly I have seen this year that isn’t a cabbage white, so I just had to dash inside for a camera, any camera.  The first one to hand was of course my phone and thankfully it was behaving for a change, or else you wouldn’t be looking at this picture now.  The startling eyespot markings on the wings that make the peacock so striking to look at are actually intended to deter predators.  In this case they attracted my camera!  This beauty was happy to bask in the strong morning sunshine and by using my phone camera I had no worries about getting sufficient depth of field to focus on my subject.

Considering the delicacy of a butterfly, it is amazing to think that the peacock is able to overwinter as an adult, getting a head start  on other species the following spring.  They go on to breed, laying eggs in their hundreds on the underside of nettle leaves.  All the more reason to leave the weeds alone!  After the caterpillars have feasted on the nettles and formed a chrysalis they emerge in August as an adult to start the cycle again.  I am guessing that this fabulous visitor was one of those new adults, seeking substance in preparation for the winter to come.