A Tender Beginning: or, why I’m not showing you my new artworks (yet)

After talking and blogging and social media-ing about fairy tales and art for a while, I’m getting back into creating new work. I have a couple exhibitions coming up and a book project waiting for me to get back on board, which means I often begin my day like this:

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Not shown: strong black coffee, slice of vegemite toast, existential angst. It’s rare for a photographer to start with a blank canvas. Though, this isn’t technically the beginning of the process for me. I have already photographed the many separate elements and created the silhouettes I need. But it is the beginning of the final artwork. I’ve spoken before about how I create the silhouettes. They are all sitting in the background waiting to be added. If you look closely, you can see some of the file tabs already open behind that blank page.

I’m not sure if I even feel like a photographer at this point. The creation of the final image is a tentative process of layering, pushing and moulding the work into life. Something like painting, sculpting and kindergarten cut-and-pasting all in one.

The Stolen Bairn and the Sidh I (detail)

The Stolen Bairn and the Sidh I (detail)

I usually begin with the silhouettes against a white background, so I can see where they are fitting together, and to make sure I’m not leaving stray bits and pieces when I’m erasing the elements I don’t need. Sometimes, if the background is integral to where the silhouettes are placed, I’ll have it in place, and toggle it on and off when needed. Often, if the background is there simply for atmosphere, I won’t even know what image I’ll use until everything else is in place. Whenever a new layer is pasted in, I alter its blending mode if needed. ‘Multiply’ is wonderful for placing silhouettes with residual tonal detail, as it settles them into the images in a softer way than a direct overlay. They are then scaled and flipped if necessary with the Transform function. (Apologies to those who have no idea what I’m talking about – I’ll be brief I promise). The ‘Liquify’ tool is my friend if slight adjustments are needed to the shape of a silhouette – longer hair, fabric not flowing smoothly, a tree branch not quite reaching the right way. All those layers start to add up, especially when trying alternatives of the same elements and adding multiple adjustment layers. It’s not unusual for the image file to gather 50+ layers and start tipping 3GB in size.

When everything is in place, then begins the long process of standing back, squinting, head tilting and stepping back in to move something three pixels to the left, or dodge and burn parts of the background, or resize a leaf fourteen times, a pixel at a time, before it looks right. The process of tweaking takes at least as long as putting the image together, usually longer. It’s a process of highlighting the important bits, balancing out the composition and making that frankenstein of an image look like a cohesive whole.

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The Stolen Bairn and the Sidh I (detail)

The final piece feels raw and still made up of its separate pieces. It is not yet the sum of its parts; a fragile thing, part newborn baby, part freakish conglomeration of arms and legs and liver and lungs, stitched with careful threads. I look at it and see the separate parts that make it; can’t see the forest for the trees. At this point I try to walk away and let it settle for a day, but usually I can’t help peeking in; a nervous new mother checking on a peacefully sleeping baby. I want to show everyone, to see if they see it like I do, but I feel protective of it too. It needs time to grow into itself, to heal from its stitches and become whole. In reality it’s sitting here on the hard drive, a collection of code, but in my mind it’s coming to life. It was a thing that didn’t exist, and now it does. It belongs in the world, but not yet ready to face it.

~~~

I’d love to hear your feelings about the creative process, knowing when something is ‘finished’, and letting go.

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