Flute and Painting: Finding Inspiration for Music in Visual Art

(As a preface to this slightly long post, I promise if you read to the bottom you’ll see some actual original artwork from me and not just words!)

Lately I’ve been going through a bit of a rough patch as far as motivation. I didn’t realize until I returned to London for Christmas just how much the atmosphere at the Academy constantly motivated me. I won’t lie, sometimes the motivation was fear; fear of not being prepared for rehearsals, fear of being yelled at by someone teaching a masterclass, fear of losing face in front of classmates, fear of falling behind. I practiced constantly for these reasons more than I’d like to admit.

Sometimes though- and this was when I was really at my best- my motivation came from the people around me. I would sit in a performance class and hear someone give a really fantastic interpretation of the Dutilleux Sarabande et Cortege for piano and bassoon, where they would really take all the risks as far as tempos and dynamics and phrasing, and think to myself, “Wow, I wish I pushed myself like that more often!” Or I would be in a rehearsal with Seungwon and get bored playing through a particular piece, and would be really ready to find a way to make it exciting again, in a way that pushed the boundaries of what we were already doing. This was the type of motivation that really made me excited to pick up my flute every day, and it was when I was inspired in this way that I really had the best part of my year.

Needless to say though, I’m just not feeling quite so inspired now.

I think part of the reason for my recent apathy is that I haven’t done much playing with other people (although I’m trying to change that now!). Being new on the freelance scene back home means I need to forge connections anew, and that just takes time.

The other part might be that I’m just not inspiring myself much at all either! When I begin to discover new sounds and techniques, I get so excited, but lately I’ve been doing a lot of the same old. When I was at the Academy and feeling this way, I would begin practicing out of fear. Now that I’m not under the constant crush of conservatory life though, that fear has dissipated, and I’m left with not much motivation at all.

Yet I realize I’m never going to get anywhere with my goals as a musician feeling so uninspired, so I’m now on a personal mission to rediscover how thrilling classical music (and the flute) can be!

I’ve begun saving my money for the massive Taruskin anthology on Western classical music, and I’ve started texting people to play with, as well as planning some concerts to attend. This is all well and good, but not necessarily so immediate. So, as with many things, I’ve decided to start in a slightly unconventional place- with visual art. And not just with any visual art, but with my own art.

For a few years now I’ve found that I’m having trouble feeling excited about music in general, doing my own visual art really jump-starts something in my brain. I’m not sure quite what it is about it that really gets me (although it’s probably something to do with thinking about contrast in both a visual way that gives a little kick to the aural part of my brain).

Whenever I had a lot of trouble in London I would take a walk from the Academy down to the National Gallery to stand and look at the paintings for a few hours. The impressionist section was always my preferred spot for pondering. My favorites, to this day, are still Turner and Monet. Both of these artists still strike me for the same reasons- simplicity of palette and brush strokes, and subtle shading that creates shapes without them actually being there. Both painters are actually incredibly simple in their own way, and I always wanted to go home and try to recreate their paintings using their techniques on my own!

J-M-Turner-Rain-Steam-Speed-The-Great-Western-Railway-1844-fine-art-26516999-2560-1900

Turner’s Great Western Railway. Somehow I can distinguish between sky and horizon and water without there being an actual line. Likewise, the train doesn’t really look much like a train on close inspection, or the bridge a bridge… and yet somehow we know both those things exist! The mind boggles…

Of course, trying to replicate Turner made me realize how difficult it really is to paint, and how much thought needs to go into planning and finishing any piece of art. My paintings never seemed to have as much visual appeal. There wasn’t enough contrast between light and dark, or my color palette wasn’t anything particularly original; my proportions were off, or I couldn’t get the right blend or shading in certain parts.

Eventually I would get frustrated and be done for the day, but not before realizing that I actually DO have the ability to do all that contrast and shading… but on my flute instead of with paints. If one of my drawings was boring because there wasn’t enough contrast, the same was probably true of a frustrating piece I was working on with my flute. No difference between dark and light a boring painting makes; no difference between loud and soft a boring performance makes, right?

I decided to sit down today with that aim in mind. Normally when I really struggle to connect with the emotions in a piece of music (as I have been lately) I think of colors instead, so I chose to go for a really colorful medium.

I started out with a new pastel set I found at Michael’s, playing it safe with the colors:

Pine Tree Covered in Snow, Pastel on sketch paper. An original Kate Bateman.

Pine Tree Covered in Snow, Pastel on sketch paper. An original Kate Bateman.

… and then wound up trying acrylic paints, which are totally new to me. Because I’m unfamiliar with how to actually use acrylics I just watched a couple YouTube tutorials and copied a few paintings from other artists I really like. Here are the results:

First attempt. Here’s the tutorial for this painting, for anyone who’s interested: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ik2gwIAgS1U

First attempt. Here’s the tutorial for this painting, for anyone who’s interested: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ik2gwIAgS1U

Attempt number two, with bolder colors. Here’s the inspiration: https://www.etsy.com/uk/listing/156208818/village-scene-landscape-oil-painting?ref=favs_view_20

I can’t really say this time that after a day of painting I’m suddenly absolutely inspired with my flute playing yet, because I honestly think I need to just go back to the basics for a while and play with simple things like my sound and articulation before I really feel like I have all these resources at my fingertips for whatever I choose to play. I DO feel more inspired to play with different color palettes though, and experiment with how they affect the mood of a finished painting. Likewise, maybe I could begin to think about certain combinations of vibrato and tone colors as a music palette. I dunno, we’ll see.

I find acrylics a little hard to work with because I’m not used to them, and the normal things that I find really inspiring to think about are instantly made a little easier. I normally struggle the most with finding ways to make contrast and visual interest in my paintings and drawings, probably because I work with mediums like charcoal, pastels, and watercolors, and I also find it useful to think about this in relation to music.

If you’re painting with watercolor or drawing with charcoal you have to really plan how you’re going to layer and shade your paint, because once something dark goes down on the paper it’s the only thing in that section you’re going to see. With acrylic paint this struggle is taken away a bit because you can just add layer on top of layer without regard to how dark or light it is. On the other hand you do get a lot more texture with acrylic, which is maybe something I need to experiment with.

Overall I haven’t been jolted out of my apathy just yet, but I have plenty of things to think about! Perhaps tomorrow I’ll go back to watercolors and maybe I’ll get somewhere with it eventually! One thing is for certain though, and that’s that whether it’s with paints or charcoal or on the flute… I could always use a little more practice.

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