If you’re into making art, you probably spend a chunk of your downtime going to exhibitions. Seeing art displayed in its finished form is inspiring – especially when you see famous works in person for the first time. But to fully develop your own creative practice, it’s also important to learn how ideas for art come about in the first place.
Last year, a group of creative arts students from La Trobe did just this. Thanks to an industry partnership with Mildura’s The Art Vault, students spent a week observing professional artists at work in one of Australia’s most unique landscapes, Mungo National Park. They share their reflections on an eye-opening experience.
Observing the creative process up-close
Mungo National Park is an Aboriginal cultural site and World Heritage Area in outback NSW. In the lead up to the 2018 Australian Print Triennial, nine high profile artists have gathered to visually document Mungo’s deep cultural history and sand-swept landscapes through printmaking. Together, they’ll create a major new body of site-responsive artwork. And at their side, as part of an exclusive fieldwork subject, are La Trobe students Erica Little, Jacinta Walsh, Carolyne Rickard, Amy Schulz, Donna Williams, Jeff Ullah, Renae Bennett and Bianca Robertson.
We’ve always just seen art as the end product in a gallery, so being here and seeing the beginning of it is fantastic,” says Erica.
“We’re learning from a part of the art industry that’s not usually available. The artists are here to respond to the site and we’re getting to view how they work. To observe them working – unlike a workshop, where you’re being instructed by them – and then have the opportunity to ask questions about their techniques is extremely worthwhile,” says Jacinta.
Embracing the struggle for inspiration
If you’ve ever held a paintbrush and felt unsure how to start, you’re not alone. A blank canvas can be extremely intimidating. At times like this, take comfort in knowing that the search for creative inspiration is a common struggle – even for the most accomplished artists.
“In the first three days, none of the artists had any idea what they were going to do. They immersed themselves in the situation first. And then all of a sudden – bam! – there was work happening. It was like they just felt the presence of this place. It all happened really quickly,” says Carolyne.
For Amy, seeing artists embrace the unknown was a helpful reminder that it’s okay to not know what you’re going to create.
“While they’re doing their research, they still don’t know exactly what they’re doing. It’s good to know that when we do our research, we can just do it as we go and take it as it comes. We don’t have to know straight away,” she says.
Watching artists collaborate and experiment
Making art can be a solitary process. But if you’re working in a residency environment, you can bounce ideas off other artists, try out new techniques and collaborate.
“There’s no ‘That’s my stuff don’t look’. They’re helping each other and working together. It’s like they’re a band – one instrument doesn’t play well without the other one,” says Carolyne.
For Donna, seeing established artists use new approaches was inspiring.
“Raymond Arnold sat down with some pens and watercolours, which he said he doesn’t usually work with, and showed us three pieces he’d been working on. They were absolutely amazing. And Maureen Reyland (Mor-Mor, a Mungo Aboriginal artist) was drawing circles when all of a sudden other artists are going, ‘This would be fantastic if you used a copper plate, have you used one before?’ And she hadn’t, so they gave her a copper plate and she’s now working on her first print.”
Just as professional artists give each other encouragement, getting feedback from artist mentors can also help improve your work and prompt you to think of new ideas.
I did some watercolours and had an artist comment on them and give me advice. It’s great to get feedback from actual artists. It definitely gets you excited,” says Erica.
Donna believes the place-based nature of the Mungo artist’s residency lends itself to this positive exchange.
“You have nine top artists together in one place. They’ve all been taken out of their place, as have the students. It means you’re all on equal ground. You’re learning about something you love with other like-minded people.”
Image credit: Kylie Banyard (left) and Krystal Seigerman (right).
Overcoming practical challenges in the field
Taking the techniques you learn at university to plein air is a key step in developing your artist self. In the field, you’re forced to adapt to real-world situations that just wouldn’t emerge in the studio.
It’s not only about what you learn in lectures and through assessments. It’s just as important that you have the opportunity to apply theory out in the field,” says Jeff.
“In the field there are a lot of unexpected things. You have to bring experiences from all areas of your life, personal and study, to solve those challenges. No matter how good you are at theory, if you don’t have those practical skills it’s very difficult. These sorts of things become available to you when you step outside the classroom and outside your comfort zone.”
So next time you’re feeling stuck for inspiration or in need of some new ideas, why not take a bunch of artistic friends somewhere for your own mini-residency? You’ll have the chance to explore and respond to a new place, test your process in a new environment, and discover how the other artists around you work.
Hone your artistic process with a course in Creative Arts at La Trobe.