NSW Education LIVE – Ben Quilty

This page is a transcript of the video NSW Education LIVE with Ben Quilty.

Duration – 15:25

Acclaimed contemporary artist Ben Quilty invites us into his studio to discuss finding inspiration and the artistic process.


Ben Quilty

Hi, guys. I am Ben Quilty. I'm an artist, even though there's many, many people, including some teachers who told me not to go to art school. I did become an artist, and I'm welcoming you all today here into my isolation, my studio.

Just quietly I've been hoping to be isolated in my studio now for about 30 years. The place I wanna be as an artist is in my studio. The place I've dreamt of being stuck for many, many years is my studio, and finally, I get to be here. So today I thought I would talk through a few of the simplicities of being an artist. And I'd like to say before we go further into my isolated studio, that for any of you who are considering a future in the visual arts, I have the best job in the world. There's a few others of my friends – filmmakers, authors, writers, actors, all of them are in the arts – and they all fight with me about having the best job in the world. Art is a pure, beautiful healthy and incredibly powerful way to respond to the world. And when you start the practice really, really evolving, you get to have a voice. People will listen to you.

For you young guys, if you think about art as a way of simply responding and documenting your experience of being human, you've got it. It means it will be unique. No one has the experience of you living your life except you. Therefore, it is totally unique. So I went on through Year 12 and at the end of Year 12, got into art school, and the rest is history. Of course, I had to have day jobs for many, many years, and it took some time. In fact, I was around 30 years old before I gave up my day jobs and practised full-time as an artist. But I always thought because everyone had told me it's not a good idea to go to art school that art was my hobby. And by the nature of a hobby, you protect it. You don't let people come in and affect it. I never did commissions. Nothing came in the way of my hobby. And by protecting it like that, I built it as a practice. Now practice gets misused in art education. Practice is like yoga practice or football practice. Practice is literally just doing that thing over and over and over again. Now if you practice art, if you practice making paintings about yourself being sad or the next day paintings of yourself being happy, the more you do it, the more obsessed you become with it. And I am living proof of it, and all my mates, all my mates who I went to art school with are all obsessed with the idea of practising their art.

So let's go into the studio. And now I should point out my studio is my visual arts process diary. My studio is like the inside of my brain. So one of the first things that I realized, and it took me many, many years, so you don't need to get this right now, is that one of the great myths about art is that you are meant to be making something that is a masterpiece. You're meant to be sitting down now as a 17-year-old and preparing to make your Streeton's 'Fire's on' or Pablo Picasso's 'Guernica'. That's crazy, ridiculous. When I talk about practice, I mean practice, and practice, and practice, and practice. And the art is in all of the practice. Not one single piece.

And this profound and deep theoretical piece is a perfect example of what I'm talking about. Yesterday I was in the studio. Every single morning I come to the studio and I feel like I have not one thought in my head. I remember working for a plumber years ago who said, "When I get to work, I don't get plumber's block."

I get writer's block every single morning. When I got to the studio yesterday, I thought, "I'm isolated, I'm on my own. It is really, really, really cold in this great big shed in the middle of the snow. What am I gonna make a drawing about?"

And I literally drew this odd-shaped thing which is the way I felt. It's not a great drawing. It's a hand joined to hip joined to a leg. And then I sat back and contemplated it for hours and hours. I didn't actually. I contemplated it for about 15 minutes, and the key to that idea of practice is to keep going, is to keep pushing. So I picked up a paint tin, an empty scotch and coke tin that was in the gutter outside, and a lighter, and I started putting them on to this picture plane to try and come up with a new idea about nothingness for me yesterday. The idea of trying to put onto the canvas that sense of isolation, a futile nothingness.

Now, I should say, this is the very beginning of this painting, and when you have a studio or a visual arts process diary, visual arts process diary means you can have 20, 30, 40 ideas happening at once. My studio walls have several ideas happening at once. So this painting will most likely become far more complex and complicated, but maybe not. Maybe if I can contain my urge to destroy this simplicity, it might stay like this. But my point is, is that you don't set off at the beginning of Year 11 trying to create a masterpiece. There is not such thing. A masterpiece comes from a life of having the hobby that I have – of having an art practice. So let me show you some more works over here on this wall and to explain further about the idea of creating images by forgetting that you have writer's block. There is no such thing as writer's block. You come to the studio every morning and you start drawing, and you start painting. This little thing here, if you can see, there's a figure lying across the canvas there. And then in a stroke of genius, Guernica-like, Fire's on, Arthur Streeton genius, I put Santa's face on the top of that body. Deep, deep. Deep and philosophical.

The idea is to have as many ideas as you can. Every single idea is important. If you've had a really bad day, it's a fantastic thing to make art about. If you've just won a Grand Final, that's an equally fantastic thing to make work about. If your parents are going through a divorce, which is an intense thing for a young person' brain. I often think adults underestimate how intense it is for us, for young people – us, young people, for you, young people – to go through. It's an equally important, profoundly important thing to make art about. Art is about everything. It's about being human. It's about responding to the world. It's about feeling the world, and then it's about talking to the world, and it's about talking to other people.

Now the other thing I would like to say, which is also a part of the sense of what isolation is for an artist, and why I said at the beginning that I celebrated and couldn't wait to be isolated, the problem with the visual arts process diary for all of you studying art, you will be asked to have one, you'll be asked to have a diary of your ideas and your images, is that it has to be a private document. It's not for anyone else. My studio is for no one else. I'm letting you in here today on the proviso that you don't tell everyone else you've been in here. It's a very private thing. If it's not private, it's impossible. If I showed everyone every single step of what I do, I simply couldn't do it. The only way I can make art is by making it private. Now at the end of that privacy, at the end of the isolation, you'll have the opportunity to exhibit those works. But in a sense, the artist is not there. The artwork has come out of me and is on the wall, and that separation is why I am so lucky, and why I believe I have the best job in the world. Because I can indulge in my hobby, but then when the exhibition part comes, the public part, I can be as far away from that experience as I want. I can choose to be there and sip fine champagne or I can be on a beach down the South Coast spending time with my kids and my family, and ignoring the fact that the painting, which is a part of me, deeply a part of me, it's a very personal thing to make art if you make it well, can be out there in the world without me.

So I thought what we should do as well is a little bit of drawing. If you come around here, all my paintings rely on drawing. So paint for me, paint is like, is the handwriting. So all of you have a signature. Painting for me is like that idea of a signature, of the handwriting of an artist. The way I apply colour and paint is an armature that I put on drawings that becomes my unique written, visual handwriting. And that's what you're aspiring to. So that's another point as to why you can't show other people. If you really wanna find your unique visual handwriting, you need to do it on your own. Because the more other people see it, your friend sitting next to you on the left or your other mate sitting on the right, are gonna look at those drawings and they're gonna judge you. And as soon as you're judged, and I'm included. If someone comes in here when a painting's half-finished and judges, and gives me any feedback, negative or positive criticism. It can also be positive criticism saying how fabulous that is. It affects the way I finish that painting. And therefore, it's not staying true to my unique sense of what my visual language is about, and that's the key. You have to do it for yourself in the privacy of your own space. Individual process diary at school so you can shut it, and that book is private, and no one should go near that book.

So I thought we'd do a few quick drawings, and I have shown these drawings before. But one of the most simple things that anyone should learn and for those of you in high school, someone I hope should have shown you by now, is about the simple anatomy of a head. And this is anatomy. It's medical, it's the shape of our skull, that 50% halfway down from the top of the skull to the bottom of the chin, exactly halfway, sits the centre of the eyes. And then another quarter of the way down sits the bottom of the nose. And then an eighth of the way sits the very centre of the mouth. And then you have eyebrows. You have your ears. You have hair. Now that skill is like copying a photograph. I know those rules in my head, which means that this has really nothing to do with an art practice. It has nothing to do with finding my unique visual language because all of you should know that skill. So in the one sentence, I say, "Learn that skill."

At the same time, I think it's important to forget the skill. To know it so innately that you don't need to recall it as you draw a human face. The next thing is about looking. Simple looking. Now, I'm a painter and I rely on very old techniques. You know, sense is a very traditional way of making art. Some of my favourite contemporary artists, Caroline Rothwell's a fantastic sculptor making these crazy objects out of pewter and steel and bronze. Shaun Gladwell's a video artist making some of the most profound contemporary works about our Australianness that I've seen in recent history. And Joan Ross makes contemporary, incredible, vivid videos about our colonial past. But the key for me, for my art practice, and I think a skill that most artists know, Shaun Gladwell knows it, Caroline Rothwell knows it. In fact, most artists know it, is how to draw. Drawing is not, for me, art. Drawing is a skill, like taking a photograph is using shutter speed. Shutter speed is drawing to painting. So if you're looking at yourself, you're literally looking using your hand as a tool to tell. Your eyes tell your hand literally where they have to go, and that's as simple as that.

That's what a visual arts process diary should be for. You need to do it over and over and over again, and once you do it a few times, you become completely, as I said before, obsessed with it. It's fun. It's a lovely thing to do, and the one thing that most Australians will deny is that it is easier to learn how to draw than it is to ride a bike. Now that's really upsetting for people to hear because they like to say, "I can only draw stick figures." Well, they've never tried to draw anything else.

If you try to draw and you practice it, like anyone practices football or practices cooking or practices anything in the world, you can draw. And it's an easy thing to do, and it's a fabulous thing to do. And if you then use this skill and add paint to it, you can start to tell the world how you feel. And the more sensible people with big brains telling the world how they feel means the place will become a better place to live. So I'm gonna load up my palette, and I'll leave you after I've loaded up my palette to take away some of these ideas and some of these skills and tell us adults in the world what you think about. The other thing that's so important is at your age, you're at the cutting edge of everything contemporary, everything contemporary. Contemporary music, contemporary subcultures, contemporary fashion. You guys know it. I ask my kids who are 13- and 14-years-old to tell me what the most contemporary music is. Without them, I have no access to it. You guys take it for granted that you understand those things. The rest of the world needs to hear it from you.

Guys, good luck. I'm gonna leave you now. I wanna see what you guys come up with. Practice the drawing, and then put some colour and pigment to it. You can use watercolour. You can use textures. You can use aerosol. You can mix oil with dirt. There's materials everywhere for you to start telling the world how you think and what you think, and my goodness, the world needs to hear it from you lot. Good luck.

End of transcript.

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