I recently undertook an assignment to produce a piece of artwork as part of Democracy Street – a national art initiative to get people thinking about the democratic / parliamentary links with road names.
I went to a workshop for Democracy Street in Fareham with artist Jon Adams and it really inspired me to find out more, and having a project is a good discipline for me so I decided to work on it when I got home. I thought I would share what I learned.
I investigated a local street, Grafton Close and since it is close to Portsmouth Harbour and there are was a frigate of the same name, I assume it was named for HMS Grafton. In turn that was named (in a long line of ships) for the 3rd Duke of Grafton, who was Prime Minister in 1768. He led a very colourful life and his ancestors and close family provided a rich seam of anecdotes but nothing grabbed me as an art piece.
I started looking at HMS Grafton, but the last one (it’s been decommissioned now) didn’t do anything particularly interesting so I went backwards until I got to HMS Grafton, a destroyer in WW2. HMS Grafton was part of the fleet that rescued troops from Dunkirk, she stopped on the way back to rescue survivors from a torpedoed destroyer (which lost over 700 lives), and then, minutes later, was herself sunk by U-boat U-62. Fifty people died (and a great many were injured), and a further 700 were picked up by yet another ship and finally did reach safety (as one eyewitness account said “I can’t decide if it was a good day or a bad day”). I had an instant emotional reaction to those troops who must have thought that they were safe on the destroyer, only to be sunk on the way home.
How to reflect this in a piece of art?
I have tried many ways to reflect the feeling I had when reading about their story. I wanted to have a feeling of doom and lurking danger with the U-boat. I wanted to depict the loss of life….. I don’t usually paint figuratively, so I needed to work out a way of abstracting this first.
I started by doing a few digital art pieces on my tablet, a fantastic medium for working through ideas quickly, each less figurative and more abstract than the last. Below are a few of my initial workings – none of them quite hit the button or conveyed what I wanted to say. Obviously I am not totally unhappy with the pieces here (although there were some dreadful ones that I am keeping to myself!), but they didn’t hit the mark for me.
After each one, I would sit with it, and consider what worked, what didn’t work. I considered if I had achieved my aim to convey certain feelings. If not, then rather than keep trying the same thing, I changed style, genre or medium in order to kickstart different ideas. So after the digital, I moved into watercolour and did three or four large watercolours (one is the featured image above, the other below) but couldn’t get it so I was happy with it.
At each stage, as soon as I realised I was heading down a blind alley, I went back to the internet and did some more research, or changed genre or medium. Or l left it for a few days.
I probably did, (sketches, digital paintings and watercolours) over two dozen pictures, but I felt there was something I had to say. Normally I know if something isn’t going to work quite quickly, and stop after two or three attempts, but this time I persevered.
After the watercolour didn’t feel right, I went back to digital. I did the picture below, not as a final piece but to illustrate what I wanted to say. I spent all day on it!
I filled pages in my sketchbook…. After several more attempts at abstracting, I still wasn’t happy…..
I even tried simplistic, childlike version, not intended to be the final version but doing something like that helped me to break out of my previous line of thought and find something new.
Each time I thought about what I was trying to convey, and held that feeling whilst I worked. I realised that I hadn’t thought about my other medium, photography. I considered some of the wrecked ships in Portsmouth Harbour but couldn’t get the inspiration I was looking for.
Until I did a little more research which brought the story full circle. The wounded from the Dunkirk evacuation were taken to Haslar Hospital, Gosport (although I have no proof that the wounded from HMS Grafton were). I photographed the memorial gardens there recently, and this picture is one that I took – it is a military grave from some point in the last 200 years or so. I worked it up to give it a much darker feel. It says what I wanted to say about the fate of HMS Grafton. As soon as it was done, I knew I had found it.
I found this exercise very very valuable, not only am I pleased with the final results, but I found out a lot about myself and my creative process as I went along. So thank you Jon! I learnt how to recognise a dead-end, how to recharge the creative flow with new angles and how to trust that feeling that there is something worth finding. And I really enjoyed having a subject, it was a great challenge.
A day or so after I finished, I was reading “Think like an artist” by Will Gompertz and read the following:
“Artists don’t fail….. If at first you don’t succeed, don’t try exactly the same thing again. You won’t succeed again. Instead, have a think, evaluate, correct, modify and then try again. Creativity is an iterative process.”
I could not have put it better.