Imagination without follow-through is mere fantasy

If not now, when? If not you, who?

The Late Bus, 6X8, oil on canvasboard, $435, available through Camden Public Library this month.

“Imagination without follow-through is mere fantasy,” pastor Quinton Self said on Sunday, making me almost drop my sketchbook in a shock of self-recognition. I have a good idea nearly every day. I’ve learned to ignore them and focus on my core mission (painting) but for decades I was bedeviled by ideas I couldn’t execute.

Until I was 40, that included painting itself. I was too tied to making a living to have time for my life’s work. How my husband (and cancer) helped me escape that is a story for another day. However, I do know the intense longing of staring through the shop window at the world of art and longing to be allowed in.

Owl’s Head early morning, 8X16, oil on linenboard, $722 unframed.

There are many reasons why we defer our creative dreams. Greatest among them is fear of failure. Somewhere in the business of learning a discipline, we face the fact that what we create will never match what we’ve dreamed. In our minds, we’re all brilliant artists; in reality, we’re all somewhat impeded. That’s a good thing, too, because the gap between what we see and what we execute is what the world calls ‘style’.

Nevertheless, the fear of mediocrity stops many people from starting at all. They defer their dreams to some future time. Their most common excuse is that they’re too busy right now. There’s a meme that reads, “being an adult is just saying ‘But after this week things will slow down a bit again’ to yourself until you die.” I’m not saying that our responsibilities are not real, but, to some degree, we all insulate ourselves in a cocoon of busy-work.

Lonely Cabin, 8X10, oil on canvasboard, available through Camden Public Library this month.

We’re all mediocre when we start—if we’re lucky. Some of us are truly terrible. You have to get through that phase in order to start being good, and you have to get through being merely good in order to be great. That’s the nature of every worthwhile venture.

We never know, when we start, where we’re going to end up on the continuum between awful and greatness. That’s played out over time. As a teacher, I can’t tell either. But I can tell where a person will end up if he never picks up a tool and starts working: he’ll remain a fantasist until his dying day.

Nocturne, 9X12, oil on canvasboard, $869 framed.

Painters hear the same comments over and over from people who stop to talk to us, so much that there is a small cottage industry of jokes about them. The one that strikes me as terribly poignant is, “I used to paint, but then…”

My father, in a sense, was one of those people. He had a scholarship to art school, but enlisted for World War II. He became a photographer and then a psychologist and painted on the side (and taught me). He intended to pursue painting in retirement, but by then the fire had been damped by tragedy.

I recently put a deposit down for a walking trip along Hadrian’s Wall in Britain. Yes, I know that travel restrictions are tightening; we live in uncertain times. But as I explained to my daughter, I don’t have any guarantees that in two years, or five, I’ll be strong enough to hike 75 miles. None of us are guaranteed a future.

I am reminded of two questions asked by a former pastor, Tony Martorana, that have resonated with me over the years:

“If not now, when?”
“If not you, who?”

Of course, pastors Tony and Quinton were talking about something far greater than mere art, but the point is universal. What are you going to do with the next year?

I can’t leave this subject without a plug for my workshops and classes; sorry about that.

Who taught JRR Tolkien to draw and paint?

Rivendell, by JRR Tolkien  (Tolkien estate)
The other day, I found the above picture of Rivendell for a friend, and it struck me anew that J.R.R Tolkien was an accomplished illustrator. He could have worked as an artist had he not had an even greater facility with the written word. “Who taught him to paint?” I mused.
Turns out, it was his mother. After their father’s death in 1896, she moved young Ronald and Hillary to Sarehole, a hamlet that has now been absorbed into greater Birmingham. Mabel Suffield Tolkien was a capable artist and passionately interested in botany. “Ronald can match silk lining or any art shade like a true ‘Parisian Modiste,’” she wrote to her mother-in-law in 1903.
Those lessons ended tragically young, since Mabel died of diabetes when her young sons were 10 and 12. She entrusted his care to Fr. Francis Xavier Morgan of the Birmingham Oratory. This put him within visiting distance of one of the most important collections of Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood painters, that in the Birmingham Museum.
Fangorn Forest by JRR Tolkien was originally done as a Silmarillion painting in the late 1920s, and reflects the current aesthetic. (Tolkien estate)
That the medieval fantasies of the Pre-Raphaelites would appeal to an adolescent of Tolkien’s temperament seems obvious, but we have a scholar’s word for it. Humphrey Carpenter, author of Tolkien’s authorized biography, wrote that Tolkien associated his childhood gang, the TCBS (Tea Club, Barrovian Society) with the Pre-Raphaelites, indicating that he and his pals were certainly aware of them.
Tolkien began to make visionary pictures after he went up to Oxford in 1911. These included scenes that would later be expressed in words. For his story Roverandom, conceived in 1925, Tolkien made at least five illustrations. In the late 1920s or early 1930s he produced a picture book, Mr. Bliss, in colored pencil and ink. These pictures and others, however, were for his own and his family’s amusement, not for print.
His illustrations for The Hobbit, however, were intended for publication. The first printing of this book, in 1937, contained eleven black-and-white illustrations and maps. Full-color plates were added to later editions.
Tolkien used drawing as a means of understanding the complex topography of his imaginary world. He made many sketches and drawings during the writing of The Lord of the Rings. These have subsequently been published, but his intention was not to illustrate the novel, but to aid in his writing.
Lamb’s Farm, Gedling, (c. 1914) represents a real farm, owned by Tolkien’s aunt. (Tolkien estate)
“In human art Fantasy is a thing best left to words, to true literature,” wrote Tolkien. “In painting, for instance, the visible presentation of the fantastic image is technically too easy; the hand tends to outrun the mind, even to overthrow it. Silliness or morbidity are frequent results.”
Tolkien continued to paint and draw all his life. His home was supplied with “paper and pencil and a wonderful range of coloured chalks, paintboxes and coloured inks. We knew as we got older that these things gave him particular pleasure, and they continued to do so right through his life,” his daughter Priscilla recollected.
His work was in the style of his times—realism with lashings of the Art Nouveau of his childhood and the Art Deco of his young manhood. 
To answer my initial question, Tolkien learned to paint from everybody and nobody. His initial instruction was that of a good, bright, home-schooled lad of his time. He then built on that as an autodidact, absorbing the architecture and art of the world around him. How he applied that to his own inner vision was, of course,  his own unique gift.