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Can you express what you really feel?

Guest ford hallam

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Guest ford hallam

Greetings all,


I've just reread the thread Janel was remarking on and have been musing further on a couple of comments which were unexplored at the time, and as is often the case my own thoughs wandered off on a tangent to the direction of the original discussion.


Jim asked the very pertinant question with regard to the technical virtuosity often seen in antique Japanese work, " is there a need?", by which I imagine he was asking if this sort of approach was valid today. ( I hope I've represented you accurately there Jim ). I think this is indeed a delicate question, and one which we would do well to consider very carefully.


I am quite a fan of the classical guitar, but despite an ernest desire and deep well of feeling for the music I am only able to abuse the art form in the privacy of my own home. The reason for my singular failure to produce anything remotely musical is firstly, my lack of technical training and secondly, my very limited musical talent. Interestingly, I have a young cousin ( 24, ish ) who is an absolute wizard on the guitar. He takes great pleasure in "demonstrating" to me his fluency on his axe. His fingers flash unerringly up and down the neck of his electric guitar producing a barrage of very precise notes and effects, in perfect immitation of his rock heroes. He is even reasonably proficient on the classical guitar ( thankfully, he can't carve metal for toffee, and I'm not going to show the little bugger, just in case! :huh: ). However, despite all this proficiency and technical skill I have yet to hear him play a piece ( personal taste aside, mine are quite chatholic anyway ) of music that I felt he was really feeling. Now, we will note that he is still young and that with time he may mature and develop a more sensitive approach to his playing. In which case his skills will allow him to more ably express that which he feels.


One only has to listen to a recording of the great John Williams, or even better, see and hear him up close to recognise that whether he's playing a classical piece or one of his own wonderful contemporary compositions the musicality and expression is absolutely dependant on his complete mastery of the instrument. As a result of years of dedicated study this artist is able to pluck notes from the stings of his intrument which can touch us in the most intimate way. The expression of his art is able to communicate those feeling which we can't put into words, in fact are diminished by any attempt to do so.


So, my question is, are you satisfied that your technical skill level ( sensitivity ) accurately conveys that which you feel with regard to your own productions. I suspect that none of us is satisfied yet, so I wonder how you are exploring this issue, what are you doing to give your audience more of your soul?


I am well aware that this a very sensitive subject and one which is made all the more difficult when one factors in the need to make a living. I would contend though, that ultimately, the artist must do their work firstly for themselves and that any shortcomings in their approach will only impoverish themselves.


Any takers?


and now we must host a birthday party for a squad of 5 year olds :D , I'll see what they think. :)


as always, Ford

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I'll bite. Glad to see you back stirring the pot Ford. :D It's such a complex issue. At any given time one can be operating from such a variety of motivations/influences. Last night we watched the Hitchcock movie, Marnie, with DVD commentary, and his biographer commented how his films were not natural; that every take was thought out to the last detail and choreographed to convey a precise set of images. They are extraordinary films in this way, and his sense of lighting, camera angle, dialogue are so developed and rich. One might be persuaded that there is no subtlety involved but imbeded in all the drama are small details of facial expression and nuance of dialogue. I'm not sure what my point is. I guess that he had extraordinary technical skill and used it in a very precise, dramatic way, but still brought the humanity and depth of his characters to the work.


I think we're all trying to find that balance of technique and expression. Being unique, flowering creations, each of us will have our own glorious, painful, fragrant, surging, tentative, but inevitable opening.


More power to us all! :huh:

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Guest ford hallam

Hi Jim,


thanks for jumping in. I reckon you are absolutely right about how our motivations and influences are constantly in flux.


The point Hitchcocks biographer made about his movies not being natural surely applies, in the way he suggests, to all our creations. I know my work does'nt happen by accident! :) , I imagine that we are all striving to achieve that apparent uncontrived expression though. I'm not particularly familiar with Hitchcock, too much of a scardy cat :D , do his films seem contrived? or does his mastery transend his skill?


I think we're all trying to find that balance of technique and expression.


I am very intrigued by this comment of yours. Correct me if I'm misunderstanding something but I get the impression that you see technique as being in opposition to expression. You talk of balancing the two, as if too much emphasis on one will outweigh the other. I think I understand your concern but I've always felt that ultimately one may be able to use very refined technique ( I'm obviously using the term to encompass skill as well as specific processes ) to the extent that it is invisible and merely a vehicle for ones unconstrained expression, the idea of limiting ones processes in any way seems to me to be counter intuitive.


Actually, just rereading this last passage it dawns on me that we are skating around those concerns which seem to be the contemporary art establishments view regarding classical apprenticeships. Namely that too rigourous a training may suppress an aspiring artists creativity, as if too much discipline and skill may stand in the way of the students development. Perhaps this is precicely why the art world is flooded with banal, self referential, self indulgent and irrelevant "expressions". :huh:


My feeling is that it is through the acquisition of skill and technique, none of which is easy, that one learns about oneself and ones response to ones medium. It's only then, with a reasonable facility in ones medium, that we stand a chance of conveying what life has shown us and what we feel about it.


I'll stop rambling at this point and save the rest for later.

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I don't think we ever stop acquiring skills and polishing old ones. Skill sets are like paint on the palette.


I have found that it get more difficult to introduce something totally new because it takes time to develop it to the point where it is on a par with the other work. Carving is a good example for me. It has been a slow and thoughtful process.


Technique can dictate the work and I have to be careful to work consciously. Each element, line and form should have a purpose.


Interesting subject, will have to give it more thought.


Thanks Ford.

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I'm a beginner carver, but I have been playing the guitar for 6 years. On guitar, I am familiar with all the fancy tricks and such, but have never gotten deep into them and the technical playing as much as I thought I should have, but I really don't care to because I love playing the way I do now. It sounds like technique is the only way your cousin knows how to play, and in that he has demonstrated how technique and expression are two independent things. Classical technique may be better at expressing some things, while electric rock may be better at expressing others. Relying on technique can be extremely limiting. Something doesn't have to be technically brilliant to be enjoyable and expressive. A simple chord progression can be expressive, and so can an exhilarating electric guitar solo.

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I've been playing guitar for over forty years, pretty much blues and blues-derived sub genres-- rockabilly, jump, blues with a jazzy edge and so on. But my own style is an amalgamation of disparate elements and includes a lot of stuff copped from piano players, Professor Longhair and Otis Spann in particular. Not that I play exact transcriptions of their stuff, which is impossible, but I want that feel... Longhair for the bouncy stuff, Spann for the badass stuff.


Your cousin, at this stage of the game, sounds pretty much like what more experienced players call a wanker. They are entranced with a limited definition of technique. They tend to mistake the ability to play with near perfect articulation at blinding tempos with technique as a whole. Many also know theory inside and out.


This kind of virtuosity would have made him a star thirty years ago. Now it's nothing special. There are hundreds of thousands of others who can do the same, and there is always a faster gun. The primary characteristic of wankers is that they don't know how to breathe in their solos. They don't know when to shut the hell up (one of the few virtuoso rockers who does know how to do this is Joe Satriani). Many of them are unimpressed by Hendrix and consider him to have been a sloppy player.


In a word, despite the lip service many of them pay to Bach, most really want to be Paganini. They really have nothing to say, but they say it exceptionally well.


I get along fine on the fretboard. I can go plenty fast when I want to. But there is more to technique than chops per se. BB King can say more with one note than most players can with ten. This is a skill, just as much as the ability to play endless barrages of thirty-second notes at light speed. Pierre Bensusan, the greatest virtuoso to employ the DADGAD open tuning exclusively, once put it this way-- "Every note weighs a ton."


The world is full of great guitarists. But very few of them are also great musicians. It is of course perfectly possible to employ monster chops, as players call them, in the service of music. Paco de Lucia does. So does Brian Setzer, though he did so more with the Stray Cats than he's been doing with the Brian Setzer Orchestra. So do such classical players as Williams (who you might be surprised to learn, Ford, is considered a rather cold fish in the classical world compared to some, for example Manuel Barrueco... I don't agree).


Among luthiers, calling a builder a great woodworker is an insult, not a compliment. It's the same with any other kind of art. Lalique was without peer as a jewelry technician, but his technique was always subserviant to artistic coherence.


As for what drives me to continue exploring, it's pretty simple-- I get bored easily.


In both music and art, a balance between chops and content is indeed necessary, but I try to remember that perfect balance is just another name for static.

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I am very intrigued by this comment of yours. Correct me if I'm misunderstanding something but I get the impression that you see technique as being in opposition to expression. You talk of balancing the two, as if too much emphasis on one will outweigh the other. I think I understand your concern but I've always felt that ultimately one may be able to use very refined technique ( I'm obviously using the term to encompass skill as well as specific processes ) to the extent that it is invisible and merely a vehicle for ones unconstrained expression, the idea of limiting ones processes in any way seems to me to be counter intuitive.


Hi Ford,


I don't see technique and expression as necessarily at odds at all. To me, they should be present in a, dare I say, balanced(whatever that means to the individual) relationship. My goal is to be open to the muse, as much as possible. This could (and does to me)mean very different mixes of technique, materials, lavishness, restraint with each piece.

I have no quarrel with anyone following whatever path they choose creatively. If someone is following a certain direction that may seem stiff and technical, who knows when the muse will strike and they may produce the most extraordinary, heart-rending, tear-pulling opus.


Cheers, Jim

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Guest ford hallam

Thanks Gents, for your considered responses.


there are some interesting aspects that have been raised and I would like to go into a bit more but a busting headache is scrambling my brain right now. :(


Daniel, you mantain that technique and expression are two independant things. I would suggest rather that they are inter-dependant. I don't think you have much chance of expressing anything without some form of technique, however basic or crude it might be. Watching Pop Idols on telly should convince anyone of that! :D I prefer to think that technique, skill and experience in your medium ( be it clay, music, wood or whatever) all informs and expands the expressive possibilities available to the artist. Just think how much poorer so much of the worlds great literature would be if the authors had a much more limited vocabulary and less sensitive understanding of the words they chose.


It also seems to me that these kind of discussions tend to be persued as though there were some sort of heirarchical evaluation of skill and technique. While at first this may appear obvious I would like reiterate what has already been pointed out, that mere technique will never be enough. In the same way relying solely on feeling may be similarly doomed to mediocrity, this is I suppose the apparent balance that has been alluded to.


Consider some of the most ancient cave paintings that our ancestors have left to us, some are profoudly sensitive expressions and are in no way diminished by very basic technique and a rather limited pallette. Perhaps that is part of the secret of their appeal to us today?


My question remains however, Musket, you mentioned that you've absorbed elements from musicians who's style ( expression ) you like and made them your own, this is what I was specifically wondering about. Oh!, and I only chose Williams as a name non-musos might recognise, simply for the purposes of my analogy. I actually quite like Paco and Al di Miola, a lot.


With my own studies I have admittedly been on a long learning curve getting to grips with the wide range of technique utilised in the classical Japanese metalwork tradition. Along the way I have been very strongly drawn to a very small number of specific artists work. Their way of handling metal and their quite destinct modes of expression seemed to resonate with me. My initial pieces were often aimed at emulating them in an attempt to absorb something of their approach. At this point I reasonably happy with that process, I feel I'm beginning to work from within my own "true voice" and am slowly creating my own vocabulary, so to speak. I want to stress though that in my mind this is exactly how a tradition is kept vital and alive.


now my head really hurts....later then ;) , Ford

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Actually Ford, I don't consider the technique of the paintings at Lascaux and Altamira basic at all and it's still considered perfectly legit to use a limited palette, though not by necessity as it was then. If you know what you're doing, you can go a helluva long ways with only three colors... perhaps a yellow ochre, a burnt sienna, and ultramarine blue.


Tremendous skill went into those paintings. They have more artistic life in them than all the hyper realistic wildlife paintings that have ever been done put together, in my book. This is what I mean by too limited a definition of technique. Those guys knew how to see. They knew how to reduce things to their essence and of course, they knew their anatomy cold.


Being able to do effective composition, for example, is just as much a technical skill as being able painfully render every friggin' hair of a wolf's pelage. I mean, an ukiyo-e crow by Koson has got more crowness in it than any crow Audubon ever painted. Mushashi had a way with shrikes that has no equal in Western art.


Far as my playing goes, I've spent forty years absorbing all kinds of influences and melded them into something that sounds like me. But I consider it more an incremental thing, a minor variation, than anything goundbreaking. Let's face it, there is really nothing new under the sun and I think that's about the best anyone can hope for, at least in any "traditional" art form. I once thought I had come up with something really original until I heard a tape of Hubert Sumlin, Howlin' Wolf's guitarist for many moons, playing at a private party courtesy of one of the jocks who used to host the incredible blues show on MIT's radio station.


Nope. Old Hubert beat me to it. He didn't sound just like me, or me just like him (that'll be a cold day in hell), but the concept was pretty much the same.


It's the same with my sculptures (again, although carving is part of what I do, I don't think it meets the proper definition of carving per se). I've obviously been influenced by the great bird carvers, both past masters such as John Scheeler and contemporary masters such as Floyd Scholz and Keith Mueller. For an example of what Keith can do (and he can do a helluva lot more than this)--


Quetzal Miniature


I forget the exact size of this thing, but to qualify as a competition miniature, the bird sans tail must be less than six inches long. All of the dappled light and shade is painted. Though the bird is obviously separate from the base, the whole thing is wood-- the outrageously long upper tail coverts of this species are holly. Actually the whole piece may be holly, rather than the usual, which would be tupelo with the long feathers grafted in. Not sure, haven't spoken with Keith for awhile. He is also a walking encyclopedia of decoys and perhaps the premier maker of same in the world at this time. Anyway this is watcha call pretty damn strong design and composition, as well as monstrous chops.


But I've also been influenced by Lalique, in terms of combining fancy and common materials in my hummingbird pieces. I will eventually be working metals into them as well as the lapidary elements. Again, just a variation on a theme as it were.


Expression, well I don't think that can be taught, or at any rate not easily. It's the ne plus ultra for me. Without it, the rest is just dross. I suppose it's a technique but I don't really think it can be reduced to just a matter of proper measurements (I rarely use measuring tools) or proportions. It's either there or it isn't, and I'm not sure how I even go about getting it.


Here for example is a goshawk head study I did awhile back. Not really small scale, about 3 1/2" high. and at this stage it only had a coat of lead white paint on it (I later gilded it). It has the power, enough so that to my delight, certain people actually found the finished piece somewhat disturbing in its intensity. It has a vibe somewhat reminiscent of Egyptian funerary art, though they would have portrayed a falcon and not a hawk.


But how I got the power into it, I really don't know.





A lot of it is just knowing how to see, and I'll bet any number of people here will notice that the outer edge of that scoop on the right isn't quite a fair curve. There was a big difference in grain hardness in that area, and try as I might, I just couldn't get it any better. ;)

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  • 4 months later...

This is a topic I have just spent the last 6 months studying for myself. Starting in Sept of 2004 with a flood (I forget the hurricane's name, over 4' of water in my studio) and a series of unfortunate events I was unable to work for 18 months. In that time I had to reshape, redefine and redirect my business. The conclusions I reached have been very enlightening.

When I started this work there was plenty of passion and plenty of creative outpour with very little technical skill. The need to express myself (jeez, I was in my 20's) was not constrained, I did not really think I just did. Successful Expression was a hit or miss proposition.

Over the next 30 something years I concentrated on technique trying to acquire the skills to convey my feelings. I did reproduction work, production work and worked in a great variety of artistic styles for my clients. This was done 8 hours a day, 5 days a week. Concentration was on speed, learning the tools and what they do. Had to make a living.

I practiced "creativity on demand". A client walked into the studio and within 30 minutes or so a rough design was decided upon . From that point on it was just fleshing out the design. Art styles went from art nouveau to early American to Chinese landscape but the designs were always mine..

All the time I thought I was expressing myself with some degree of success. In hind sight it was still very much hit or miss.

When I started back to work in a new studio, I started to carve and there was no hesitation, my body remembered how to stand and how to move. Years of work had made the use of the tools second nature. This discipline allowed me to concentrate on the carving not the process of carving. This gives me tremendous freedom to push my limits and explore without worrying about technical failure.

The focus now is about conveying my feelings. My view was "feelings" are really a combination of sensitivity and vision. How deep is your understanding of the subject before you start or are you making up some of details as you go? Can you really see what it is you are trying to do? Are you sensitive to the subtleties? You are really just training yourself to see. Rodin taught and demanded this from his apprentices. These are technical skills of the mind but skills all the same. They still don't get me there.

These skills are tools or words in a vocabulary. So if you can see it and have the skills to make it then why doesn't it always succeed. Because of Passion! There has to be an underlying passion behind every cut of the tool, behind the pencil doing the design. When you get lost in that passion, the work goes smoothly, the outside world disappears, And you don't want to stop! I had got lost in the "business" of carving and the passion got put on the back burner.

My plan is on trying to pursue my passion while refining and adding to the technical skills. I have noticed the work done since this decision was made has a greater response from people, has pleased me more and has come closer to expressing how I feel. There are more "successful" carvings. Of course I will never be satisfied with my work and I hope not to be...that is certain death! I do believe you can express what you feel but not through purely technical means.

Lets just hope this pursuit feeds me when I am hungry for food!

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  • 3 months later...

I just stumbled upon this thread, as I'm still exploring the wonderful layers of this fine forum. In response to your guitar playing comment,Ford, in which you said that you are trying to emulate classical guitar stylings reminds me of this paraphrase on music by no less than Paul McCartney. Many of the Beatle songs, (which I can safely say influenced generations), were the attempts by Messrs. Lennon and McCartney to imitate other popular musical styles. They've both said in interviews, that songs that became signature Beatle hits were their attempt to play and sing like Smokey Robinson, Buddy Holly and, yes....Elvis, etc. But that creative thing came into play and it became uniquely their own sound. I think it's often the same in the other arts as well. You might be influenced by a certain painter or carver, but unless you are truly copying what they've done, then you've contributed to the evolution of the art. I know who inpires me, but I often get a kick out of hearing people's comments about my paintings or drawings, because their take on it is from their own perspective, Perhaps they even might imprint their own influences on it. Then it takes on a life of it's own and becomes more than it was. As far as carving goes, with me. I'm just trying to make it work. I don't think that I've got the skill sets developed yet, that many of you do. However I might just be "trying to imitate Smokey Robinson" and come up with something new and ultimately, my own.



Ivory carved knife handle:


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