What do you hope to gain when you study the work of a great artist?
Perhaps an insight into their ‘secret’ techniques for painting light?
Or a glimpse into the components of their special colour palette
Or maybe you’re trying to understand how they draw with such fluidity?
But while all these are invaluable lessons, following another artist’s footsteps can mean a lot more than this.
Bridging the Centuries: Revisiting Turner's Tourism
Contemporary British artist Kurt Jackson recently retraced the route travelled by master artist J.M.W. Turner through Devon and Cornwall over 200 years ago.
Jackson visited 12 locations from Land’s End to Exeter depicted in the work of Turner, investigating and recording the changes in the landscape that have taken place between the 19th century and the present.
The result? Jackson created a diverse and personal body of work in a variety of media which consciously echoes Turner’s engravings yet stands on it’s own.
Jackson’s work also serves as a bridge: making Turner meaningful and accessible to a new generation of viewers.
So just how was Kurt Jackson able to follow so closely in Turner’s footsteps and yet make work so uniquely his own? And what can we learn from this about using someone else's art as a jumping off point for our own work?
Launceston, Cornwall - Above: Engraving from drawing by J. M. W. Turner, 1838
Below: drypoint and carborundum by Kurt Jackson 2016
Looking for Intersections
To find answers to these questions, I visited the exhibition where Jackson’s work hung alongside the original Turner engravings.
What I discovered was:
1. Jackson connected with what is transcendent in Turner’s work
He tried to find the very spots where Turner stood to make the sketches which he later turned into engravings.
This was no mean feat: The Devon and Cornwall topography has suffered from the inevitable changes of the centuries. Plus Turner often ‘edited’ his landscapes to make them more like he wanted them to be - eradicating certain features or adding in others.
Despite this, although the landscape has changed since Turner’s time, the landmasses remain the same and in most instances, Jackson was able to get pretty close to the same spot where Turner stood.
He literally stood in Turner’s footprints!
This helped him to viscerally connect his experience of the landscape with Turner’s own.
Bucks Mills to Clovelly Bay, Devon - Above: Engraving by J.M.W. Turner
Below Mixed media on linen by Kurt Jackson 2016
2. Jackson plugged into what his own work has in common Turner’s work
Jackson did not try to emulate the master’s style but looked for where his own creative practice intersected with Turner’s.
Turner harnessed the magical energy of the weather when he was sketching outdoors. He famously once had himself tied to the mast of a ship in order to get up close and personal with a storm at sea!
When he went back to the studio he looked for ways to bring this vital energy of the natural elements into his art. One of the ways he did this - as I mentioned before - was by editing out any features that disturbed his vision.
Experiencing the intensity of the climate is also intrinsic to Jackson’s work.
His very personal way of exploring the landscape’s energy, is to work his paintings in situ - laying a large canvas or paper on the ground and painting on it there and then, whatever the weather.
Sometimes he begins the painting on location and finishes it in the studio. Other times, he begins it in the studio and then takes it out into the wild.
Mixed media artist, Kurt Jackson working in his studio and on location
“It is necessary to mark the greater from the lesser truth: namely the larger and more liberal idea of nature from the comparatively narrow and confined; namely that which addresses itself to the imagination from that which is solely addressed to the eye.”
J. M. W. Turner
So the next time you study the work of a master in your field as a way to grow your own creative work, ask yourself these questions:
What is it about this work that transcends the time, place or medium in which it was created? How might I bring that essence into my work?
What does my creative practice have in common with the work of this master? How might I amplify this or explore it more deeply?
Scratching can look like borrowing or appropriating, but it’s an essential part of creativity. It’s primal, and very private. It’s a way of saying to the gods, ‘Oh, don’t mind me, I’ll just wander in these back hallways…’ and then grabbing that piece of fire and running like hell.”
Twyla Tharpe, The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life