Innovation is a branch of invention that makes changes in existing systems. These changes need not be dramatic. They may not even be seen as improvements. In the art game they need only to be different.
Yesterday, while I was looking into the innards of a public gallery, the work of Charles John Collings (1848-1931) caught my attention. Collings was well trained in English watercolour methodology. Immigrating to Canada in 1910 at age 61, he spent his last twenty years honing a unique style. Collings soaked the sizing out of relatively smooth (hot-pressed) paper. This caused the pigment to “bloom” to varying degrees — something like the effect one would get with blotting paper. Further, with the use of spatulas and burnishing tools, some passages had colour intermittently obliterated, textured, or entirely removed. The result was a sugary softness of enriched greys and impressionistic sophistication. “Collings lays his prepared paper variously on a sheet of slate, glass or cork to preserve moisture,” wrote fellow watercolourist Walter J. Phillips. “He paints with pure pigments, mixing them only on the paper, and removes any superfluity, or reduces intensities, with a clean brush.”
Vigorous and active into his old age, he settled at beautiful Seymour Arm on Shuswap Lake in British Columbia. He needed to be far from the madding crowd. Several significant rumblings take place in the minds of this sort of creator. Taking little heed of conventional wisdom, they have an innate need to innovate. Further, the free-standing artist requires of himself the personal mastery of a personal innovation. Collings pressed his wisdom into the service of an already dignified spirit and evolved sensibility. Looking closely at his work, you discover order and rationality evident in every passage.
Innovation is its own satisfaction. The feeling that one’s efforts are unique and different from the rest is impetus enough to continue. In my experience, innovators tend to be stubborn — in the sense that Edison, Ford and Banting were stubborn. This somewhat dated attitude is easy to miss in today’s cookie-cutter society. Collings held his methodology close to his chest, sent his polished gems to a distant market in England, and listened to no one but himself.
PS: “His masses of floating colour, where they meet and combine, often create forms and hues of great beauty, fortuitous perhaps, but coherent.” (From an unpublished manuscript, Wet Paint, by Walter J. Phillips, 1928)
Esoterica: How to innovate? Look at your current work and ask how you might bring it more in synch with your vision. If you don’t have a vision, keep asking yourself for one. If you ask long enough, you will receive. Ask “What could be?” This is how taste is raised, uniqueness is achieved and style is born. Get stubborn. If you happen to be one of those artists driven by curiosity, you’re on your way. Innovators are lone wolves, rangy and independent. “What’s the point,” they ask, “in doing things like everyone else?”
Charles John Collings (1848-1931)
“Collings “cuts out” with a sable brush. Instead of building up form with superimposed washes of colour, or even of defining form with brush strokes, he achieves all his middle and higher tones by lifting the pigment which is floated all over the paper in the earlier stages of painting. There is practically no evidence of dry painting. The result is a diffusion of soft and graceful effects. Always the elaboration of a natural theme, his colour is a transmuted and extended harmony, a symphony in pigment. He does not use colours that spread unevenly, such as French ultramarine or cerulean blue.”
“His paintings are done indoors. A pencil drawing that embraces the facts of a landscape, and suggests an adequate arrangement, is all that he needs. Thus his imagination has free rein, unhampered by masses of detail in tone and colour.” From Wet Paint, an unpublished manuscript by W. J. Phillips, 1928)
How to be different
by Brad Greek, Mary Esther, FL, USA
As a plein-air painter I’ve grown in many ways in a short period of time — starting with the need to paint faster and with less use of details. I’ve learned to express the scene with fewer brush strokes. But over the years I’ve also noticed a pattern that most of us plein-air painters get into: Our work starts to all look the same. That’s when I started asking myself what I can do differently. What is going to make what I do stand out from the norm? Slowly a transformation occurred: more washes, more texture both visual and physical, limited pallet and changing color schemes, more representational abstract. I’m still letting the painting direct its path to completion. I’m merely the vehicle that gets it there. There is an overwhelming amount of great art and artists in this world, I continually ask myself how or what can I do to be different.
Starts with a dream
by Kittie Beletic, Dallas, TX, USA
Innovation usually starts with a dream. We are inspired, yes, and sometimes by the smallest flutter of a butterfly, the deepest hurt we can imagine, the simple joy of turning the corner and there is our dream, hanging sparkling and clear. Inspiration often comes while we are hard at work avoiding it. Sometimes we simply have to begin, to dig through the trash, work through the muck and mire to find it. It is there, waiting like an infant waits in the womb, like a Spring green shoot waits below the ground, like a musical note suspended in a lengthy phrase waiting to be resolved. The denoument. Aaaaaaahhh yes. Innovation takes Inspiration. It also takes Tenacity and Flexibility, Honesty. What you get in the end is beyond the original imagining and completely satisfying. What Color is Your Dream?
Distance yourself from others
by Ni Elli, TX, USA
One of my greatest joys in the past was going through multitudes of galleries and seeing the skills and talents of others. But it did not take long for me to realize that I had one of those minds that is able to copy the ideas of others. Sadly, this was not my goal, but since that time, I have carefully distanced myself from the wonderful work of others… if I were in the process of creating art at the time. I know it defies logic, but my right brain just warps into doing what it wants and many times I stop a work until I can get a little left brain involved in the outcome.
Value of isolation
by Darrell Baschak, Manitou Beach, SK, Canada
Thank you again for the illuminating letter about Charles John Collings. How fortunate you are to be in a place where you have access to such lovely work. The images posted on your site are beautiful but I cannot help but think that to view them in person would be an inspiring event. I am fortunate to live in a beautiful part of Canada, that being North Central Manitoba, but we rarely get to view original art of this caliber unless we travel for 6 hours west or south. Maybe one benefit of being somewhat isolated is that your art making is not influenced so much by outside forces, and a person can feel less constrained and can be innovative in his/her approach.
The unusual invigorates
by Nikki Coulombe, Lewisville, TX, USA
Every single product in the world today originated in the mind of an Artist. Bridging the gap between idea and product calls for a person who’s willing to step out into the rather unstable realms between concept and reality, hence our reputation for being nutty. While it’s decent advice to say “pick one thing and learn it well,” this also easily promotes tunnel vision, where each piece of work looks almost like the next. For some folks, trying something new takes as much discipline as specializing does for others. Each new work of Art presents a distinctive set of decisions to be made, and any experience in other areas of Art can help resolve them. It can be frightening to take a leap off the page, either to experiment a little or focus more, but stepping out of our usual work, even for a moment, to try out an idea that you have no clue where it’s leading to, can really be invigorating.
Elements of chance in watercolour
by Susan McCrae, Brampton, ON, Canada
After painting in watercolour for many years, I moved ‘on’ to acrylics, mixed media and print making, all of which I enjoy. I find myself returning to watercolours after their ‘absence’ — or mine perhaps, of five years, especially to do what we now refer to as ‘wet-on-wet.’ That seems to be the technique of Charles John Collings which Walter J. Phillips described in his essay. It’s wonderfully challenging and freeing at the same time, as the elements of ‘chance,’ as well as serendipity, are always present. Combining watercolour with collage adds yet another dimension.
Comparisons got on Collings’ nerves
by Raymond H. Lindsay, Sidney, BC, Canada
C J Collings is in the collection at the University of Victoria, in Victoria, B.C. near where I live. In the University’s write-up they note that Collings didn’t like his style being compared to others, even if it was to that great innovator J. M. W. Turner! According to the University, it was exactly those comparisons, the views of critics, and the influence of other artists that led C J Collings to move to far away Canada, where he felt he could innovate in peace. His reclusiveness didn’t extend though to where he sold paintings. And he continued to sell mostly through a well established London Gallery!
Spontaneity mentors unique phenomena
by Chris Bolmeier, Omaha, Nebraska, USA
I love figurative art but for the most part, I’m an abstract painter. For the last few months I have been painting designs that imply trees. I can’t help but think that this is symbolic of my process. Since there isn’t much planning involved in my work, it’s not symbolic in a “can’t see the forest for the trees” way of seeing. What I feel is that since I am the creator of the forest I can find my way because I am the only creature that can paint my way out. I must work this way because it feels so good to work from the inside out. I can’t follow directions, not even my own! And that’s why I paint as I do.
There is 1 comment for Spontaneity mentors unique phenomena by Chris Bolmeier
Be careful of innovation
by oliver, TX, USA
Be careful, or at least self-aware, about innovation — sometimes it can lead to places where it is hard for the “salon” and collectors to understand you. Most call my work paintings. I very much work in the mainstream of modern photographic tools. I’m sure you all now use it (or at least know someone who does). Camera, Computer with photo editing tool, printer. A well respected photographic preservationist said in the past couple of weeks, “We need a new category for what you do.” I explore the full range of the modern tool set, and indeed have many references to various painting schools. I set out to make Art – not necessarily photographs. I’m hoping my stubborn thing works out. I’d like a wider audience for my current work showing at the Kaunas Picture Gallery, National M.K. Ciurlionis Museum in Kaunas, Lithuania.
Rolling on my own
by Norman Ridenour, Prague, Czech Republic
Having spent most of my life going against the flow I have a well earned reputation in three countries for “eccentricity.” I teach English these days to support my body and my art. I teach mostly in the business world, i.e. a world which preaches innovation. I tell you if any of these people woke up with an idea of any sort it would send them screaming for help. Ideas are scary and one mighty function of normal society is to eliminate them or at least limit them to the “useful.” Your story of Collings is wonderful, up there with Monet and his water lilies. I am blessed here with no mentors, so I roll on my own. No shows, I am different, but I roll on.
Pirates of the Caribbean
Regarding your letter about cruise ship art auctions, we were unable to get a second opinion while on a cruise and went ahead and purchased anyway. We spent more than ten thousand dollars on art we soon discovered (on eBay) to be virtually unsalable at any price, and the shipboard con-artists will not return our money even though we have refused delivery at our door. We get no satisfaction contacting the Park West Pirates and wish to warn others of their perfidy. This type of art sale gives a bad name to all legitimate land-based galleries and their artists who are willing to take art back that turns out to be unsatisfactory.
(RG note) While paying high prices for art that you can’t live without is part of the game, the business of ramping up values and talking investment art when it does not exist is outright fraud. Cruise ships may finally be doing something about this demeanor. There is an excellent forum. A printout of this forum should be on every chair before anyone sits down at a shipboard art auction, and fresh copies ought to be served with every glass of champagne.
watercolour, 11 x 15 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Moncy Barbour of Lynchburg, VA, USA who wrote, “Stubbornness is a gift or a curse. Just know the difference.”
And also Paul Kane of Bloomington, IN, USA who wrote, “To me, innovation is really just doing what you have to. You know it by what you feel.”
And also Tomm Fennell of Blairstown, NJ, USA who wrote, “If brushes were watermelons, I could not draw flies. My art is sales.”
And also Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki of Port Moody, BC, Canada who wrote, “Every innovation needs first adapters.”
And also Janet Toney of Greeneville, TN, USA who wrote, “I am stubborn about my art and how I want to do it. Sometimes it’s a good thing, sometimes actually it’s NOT! But, whatever, it’s just the way I make my art — my way!”
And also Marian Bingham who wrote, “There is hidden conscious/unconscious scaffolding. In all of life! There is so much we aren’t even aware of or can comprehend even a fraction of it. Look at science! Amazing. Wondrous. We are just a tiny bit of what holds everything together and we are the ones that at the same time are able to reveal it for all to see. What a gift art is!”
And also Margaret Mair travelling by sailboat who wrote, “The desire and ability to look critically at the results produced and not fall in love with the process and risk losing the goal is important.”
Enjoy the past comments below for Innovation…