Developing My Skills

From when I left off in my previous post until I was diagnosed with Sjogren’s Syndrome, I didn’t have the burden of arthritis to hold me back, and it was a great journey in learning oil painting.  Having no teachers, and not being able to afford any even if I wanted lessons, I used to go to the public library a lot and look at Cezanne, Picasso, Van Gogh, and Modigliani to try to figure out their processes, and aesthetic theories. Here are some of my efforts:

white cup laying 2006

2 apples 2005       vermeer copy 2002


I also took the time to experiment a bit:

bar code boy 2005

bust of woman on blue 2005

rough idea 2000 for web      dancer 2004


I was just showing these works at local cafes. I was living in the inner city then, in a bedsit for a while, and then in a very grungy flat on Peterborough Street, apparently only a few houses away from where Phillip Clairmont once lived.

Being unemployed, I used to try to save money by turning the hot water cylinder off (which meant cold showers in winter), never using heating, hardly ever cooking,and skipping breakfast.

My daily routine consisted of going to a cafe, ordering a latte bowl, reading and writing poetry, and once I had the caffeine hit, I would go to the library, look at paintings, and then return home to paint for the rest of the afternoon. At this time in Christchurch, if you were an unemployed artist, you could get what was called the “Artist Wage”, which was overseen by the charitable trust known as “Creation”. If you were on it you had to be actively engaged in artistic projects and meet each week with organisers and fellow artists to discuss your progress.

My projects weren’t about the painting though, they were about self publishing books of poetry, and I managed to turn out three books while on the artist wage. Not that I’m very proud of that poetry now, but going through that process was indeed educational.

I should mention here that the epileptic seizures I was having were really starting to take their toll, so much so that I tried my first medication for it, Epilim, which seemed to be working, but what it was doing was delaying the seizures, so that I would have one every two months, and even more fierce than before.

I was put on what was known then as the sickness benefit, and I stopped taking the Epilim. Feeling pretty disillusioned with the options for epilepsy meds, I decided to again go without, but the art development continued:

collage #1 2008_resize    3 apples in a bowl 2008 resize

5 roses 2008 resize cup and green pot 2006 resize     woman with vase of flowers 2008 resize

2 circles 2008 resize

b&w sunset 2008_resize


It wasn’t long before a seizure would give me a back injury, which would see me bed-ridden for a few months, and having about 6 months of physio, where I learnt some basic Pilates to strengthen the core muscles to where they needed to be.

I opted again to try epilepsy medication, this time 600mg of Tegretol, which thankfully stopped the seizures, but also saw the introduction of fatigue and dryness. I had already been experiencing rheumatism previously, which was the result of taking Roaccutane, a medication which was prescribed for me to clear up acne, which I would get on my neck and back quite a lot. Before taking Roaccutane I had a blood test, which showed an antibody which meant that I could get a form of Lupus around the age of 40. They told me that taking Roaccutane could bring this on sooner, but I wasn’t bothered, and opted to take it anyway.

The memory of this was what helped the doctors know what to test for when I was getting the symptoms of dryness, fatigue, and arthritis. It wasn’t Lupus, but another member of the auto-immune family, Sjogren’s Syndrome.

When the diagnosis came, I was told that it was incurable, which was very depressing when I tried to consider how I would be able to write and paint. But at least now I had some understanding of what was happening to me. I accepted that I needed the Tegretol to stop the seizures, but was more wary now than ever of harmful side effects of pharmaceuticals, so decided against taking meds for Sjogrens, hoping to find a better way.

The Slippery Slope: How I Fell for Painting and Poetry

For my first blog I thought it best to give some background on how I got into art.

I was brought up in the port town of Timaru in the 1980s which was devoid of any inspiration for a kid to become an artist of any kind. When I was about 6 years old I can remember at the end of class, on a friday, the teacher told us that on Monday we were all going to draw trees. I walked home looking at each tree on the way thinking “How could anyone draw that?”.

On the Sunday evening the anxiety which had been building up all weekend could no longer be contained and I burst into tears. I told my mother the reason, and she, knowing dad could draw a bit, got him to give me my first drawing lesson. Begin with the trunk, some branches from that, and smaller branches from those, and it’s done. I fet like something magical had happened. I could now create my own trees!

I went to school on Monday full of confidence, but to my disappointment, we just had to collect leaves and do rubbings of them in crayon.

It was around that time my interest in comics began to grow, especially in UK comics like Whizzer and Chips, Beano, and Whoopee. In learning how to copy their styles I was learning how to create my own people, and hence, my own worlds.

In High School art classes they taught us how to sketch and shade objects from life. I was a very timid drawer, with my whole focus being on accuracy, and not wanting to make a mistake.

They also tried to teach us to draw in a cubist with charcoal, which I hated. I also hated painting with the crappy brushes and poster paint acrylics they gave us.

I had been told enough times that you can’t make a living from art anyway, so I turned my attention to commercial art. I wanted to be like those illustrators I was seeing on movie posters etc at the time, and decided to apply for a three year diploma course in graphic design and illustration.

I had to move to Christchurch to attend the course, which was the proverbial cutting of the umbilical cord. It wasn’t long into the course that I started to realise that I enjoyed the creative problem solving process of graphic design more than illustration. We were also taught to use the standard software of the time, such as Pagemaker, Freehand, Illustrator, and Photoshop.

I used to love using photoshop to layer up textures from photos and photocopied stuff and play around with transparencies and filters. Dave McKean’s Sandman illustrations were very influencial then, as were David Carson’s experimental deconstructivist Raygun designs.

They also taught us a brief history of Modern art, and we had drawing tutors who were thriving local artists in their own right, such as Sandra Thompson, Dee Copland, Graham Bennett, and Cheryl Lucas. Drawing became something far more than sketching, and I realised my tendency to be so obsessed with accuracy and to make timid marks needed mending.

I became interested in oil painters of the past such as Cezanne, Turner, and Giacometti. I could see how oil painting allowed for a kind of layering up akin to what I was doing in Photoshop, except that it would be a stroke by stroke, intuitive method which produces a one off original work.

I was a bit disillusioned with the reality of being a graphic designer, and decided to teach myself oil painting by looking closely at those painters from the past that I suddenly had a great appreciation for.

Here are a few of my earliest efforts:

woman in red 2002 for web     self-portrait 2000 for web

I now also had time to begin reading and writing poetry, performing it at open mic nights, and self publishing books printed out on a deskjet printer.

The funny thing is that poetry was really my first love, and sales of paintings were really only intended to fund the self-publishing of poems.

It was while the diploma course that I began having tonic clonic seizures at night, and once the course was over I went and got the diagnosis that I was dreading, but resisted the doctor’s suggestion to go on medication for it, thinking that I would either live in spite of it, or just think of it as a natural part of me which shouldn’t be suppressed.

This meant that I couldn’t get a job, which meant I was poor, which to me, meant that I was on the right path to becoming a decent poet/artist in the bohemian mould, like these guys:

Arthur Rimbaud      Van Gogh self portrait