What sparks the creative process for artists?

Steve Butt ARBSA, explores his thinking process in creating a recent self-portrait. Steve has three paintings in the RBSA online exhibition, Remote Access.

Nosferatu of the bus stop, Steve Butt ARBSA

Artists work in strange ways; sometimes a whim or sometimes a serious philosophical concept can be the nucleus for a piece of art. Often the desire to just expand a colour range or use a different technique can bring forth surprising results. In this small essay I have tried to explain some of the process that goes into my creative thinking when making a painting.

It may be considered that the lone figure at a bus stop in the work may have some bearing on our current lockdown situation, but the work was completed in December 2019 when the world was in a different position. If viewers do find any parallels I consider this to be a bonus, the American Pop artist Jasper Johns once said, ‘when a work is let out by an artist the intension loosens, occasionally someone will see it in a way that even changes the significance for the person who made it’* this I take to mean that interpretation is possibly in the eye of the beholder and can even effect the artist so in that respect is a worthwhile consideration and one on which I base my comments.

I rarely indulge in self-portraits but when I reached the age 65, I thought it would be of interest to record images of myself at that time. This also coincided with my intention to include more figures or animate creatures in my work which was then, as now based on the relationship between nature and the urban environment,

Through the use of mirrors and photographs I undertook a series of drawings and coloured sketches, recording myself in various attitudes. I wanted a sense of movement in the figure and I also needed the portrait to feel part of a situation.

One of the pieces I was also working on at that time was of a bus shelter in a rural landscape; this was part of the on-going interest I had in painting the juxtaposition of nature, atmosphere and the city. After completing most of the work I felt it lacked an interesting compositional focal point and thought this would be an ideal situation to include a figure or portrait in.

The drawing of myself in a winter coat, (from a photograph) and my head, (drawn from life) fitted perfectly into the area of the bus shelter and so I scraped some of the existing paint back off the canvas and reworked the composition to accommodate a figure. Observing myself in the work , (now over 65 and with shaven head) I was reminded of how much I resembled the actor, Max Schreck who played a vampire in the 1922 German silent film, Nosferatu, one of my favourite films. With this revelation in mind I indulged in a course of imagination and decided I would paint in an atmospheric gothic horror background with an orange and blood red sunset, a must for any true Gothic horror aficionado!

I also noticed that if I extended the shoulders and collar on my black/blue overcoat I could subtly create an angular style reminiscent of the sets used in expressionist cinema or, the wings of a bat. A painting which started out with just formal concerns about atmosphere, artificial and natural light and structure and randomness now presented itself as a work with humour, oblique reference and narration. As mentioned, the initial object was a purely formal investigation, now, as Jasper Johns indicated a ‘loosening of meaning’ had taken place which allowed something of viewer participation into what was going on in the work. After taking all this into consideration I felt a humorous and provocative title was called for to extend this participation.

This is just one example of how the creative narrative of art extends reassesses and contradicts itself. Sometime this comes about unintentionally at other times it is recognized and acted upon. Of course, there is work which has one singular intention and does not allude to anything but the artist’s first premise; I would consider certain types of minimalism in this category. Perhaps the final say should go to one of the greatest exponents of change and chance in art; Pablo Picasso who once stated, ’one should have an idea, but a loose idea’*, this axiom allows both artists and spectator a flexibility when indulging in artistic practice.

Steve Butt: 2020

*paraphrased from ‘What is Pop Art?’ Interview with eight painters, G R Swenson, 1964

*Picasso on Art, Dora Ashton 1972

About Us

The Royal Birmingham Society of Artists (RBSA) is an artist-led charity which supports artists and promotes engagement with the visual arts through a range of exhibitions, events and workshops.

The RBSA runs an exhibition venue – the RBSA Gallery – in Birmingham’s historic Jewellery Quarter, a short walk from the city centre.

The gallery is currently closed due to Covid-19.

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