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Staff tips on observing

Ken Smith
Ken Smith by Osian Grant 2007

This page contains advice about inspiration, gallery visits and observation from staff members in the Faculty of Art & Design. Take some time to read through the responses offered here by practicing artists and designers to gain insight into developing your own art practice.

  • Where do you derive inspiration from? What inspires you?
  • How do gallery visits influence your practice?
  • What questions do you ask yourself during a gallery visit?
  • How do you record your observations?
  • Tips for recording your observations
  • Apart from gallery visits how do you learn from others?

Where do you derive inspiration from? What inspires you?

"Inspiration comes from numerous sources: the history of graphic design (poorly documented, but nonetheless there), the fine arts, product, interior and architectural design... Clues to how people think and respond in an ever-changing visual environment. The sources of these are personal observation, magazines, television, online sources, books, and largely the discoveries made by students within the studio environment."

—Gene Bawden, Visual Communication

"Stories inspire me, everyday things I see in the street, poetry, song lyrics."

—Rodney Forbes, Gippsland Centre for Art & Design

"Observations of buildings, interior spaces and how people respond to their environment. Books and journal articles. Theoretical resources that help validate and interpret observations."

—Jo Dane, Interior Architecture

"My feelings are the prime source of inspiration - my emotional experience in response to people, events, observations. Ideas are important, but it is the emotion which is the response to the idea, which is the force behind my visual or written work. This is true even for more academic writing - papers, books."

—Professor Bernard Hoffert, Graduate Studies

"Observation of nature, plants and animals, weather, movement (such as walking and yoga), reading fiction, looking at art journals and books, exhibitions, radio, the touch, look and feel of various materials."

—Susan Purdy, Gippsland Centre for Art & Design

"From being alive and beholding the unending wonder of the visual world."

—Ken Smith, Department of Fine Arts

How do gallery visits influence your practice?

"They are important as a demonstration of expression; they show the ideas and emotions which have formed the basis of others' art"

—Professor Bernard Hoffert, Graduate Studies

"It's good to see what's happening in the public sphere and what one's colleagues and contemporaries are doing. Seeing something really fantastic is a challenge to work harder and be more inventive. Seeing a run of uninteresting exhibitions can make me feel as though I have an important and worthwhile contribution to make."

—Susan Purdy, Gippsland Centre for Art & Design

"They allow me to see what colleagues are doing in their own practices and to help me gauge the success of my own efforts."

—Ken Smith, Department of Fine Arts

"Graphic design is a largely anonymous profession, and not often presented in a gallery context. However, it derives its inspiration from a variety of sources including exhibited arts and performances. Maintaining a grip on contemporary thought and popular culture is vital to design practice, therefore it is important to maintain contact with as many sources of these as possible, including galleries."

—Gene Bawden, Visual Communication

"In this sense, any space (interior or exterior) is considered a 'gallery' that is capable of influencing my practice and research. I become aware of my emotional and cognitive responses to space and question what causes such responses."

—Jo Dane, Interior Architecture

"They keep me in touch with the physicality of artworks because too much of the art we see is in magazines and web pages. I like to be surprised and see what people are doing right now."

—Rodney Forbes, Gippsland Centre for Art & Design

What questions do you ask yourself during a gallery visit?

"Who is the person making this work and what are their concerns? Do they relate to my interests? Can I learn anything here? Why would someone want to make work like this? What is useful to my practice here? Are there any ideas or techniques I want to use or extend upon myself?"

—Susan Purdy, Gippsland Centre for Art & Design

"Often: Wow, how did they do that! Sometimes: Wow, how did they get away with that!"

—Gene Bawden, Visual Communication

"How has the work been presented in the gallery context? What materials and processes has the artist used and how successful have they been? What is the work ultimately saying?"

—Ken Smith, Department of Fine Arts

"What was this person trying to say in the work? How did they do this technically? What cultural perspective (class, gender, nationality etc.) is the artist coming from? What aspects of this work could inform my own work?"

—Rodney Forbes, Gippsland Centre for Art & Design

"What is the real content of the art - the feelings, ideas, experiences which have generated it? What are the issues behind the images which are represented? Most art does not depend on the literal content, the images represented, but on the interpretation of these. The images are symbols or metaphors for the more abstract dimensions of feeling and thought."

—Professor Bernard Hoffert, Graduate Studies

"What is it that causes me to react to a space in a particular way (volume of space, form, colour, light, content of space, activities within etc.)? Are other people responding similarly? Is this space comfortable, dynamic, lonely, exciting, dangerous, passive etc? Why? What are other people DOING in the space? Do they seem aware of their environment? What was the architect or designer's design intention for the space? Is the space working as it was conceived to?"

—Jo Dane, Interior Architecture

How do you record your observations?

"By consciously responding to the above questions - depending on context. Writing or drawing a response. Discussion with peers and/or students."

—Jo Dane, Interior Architecture

"For imagery I usually rely on my memory, which weeds out the unremarkable, although I do collect invitations and catalogues of material I want to remember. I stick them in my journal and enjoy coming across them later. I do write down names and quotes I want to remember."

—Rodney Forbes, Gippsland Centre for Art & Design

"Notes or sketches, mainly memory and the recollection of how something made me feel. My emotional life is the record of my senses; it documents the feelings I encounter and becomes a resource to draw upon for art and writing."

—Professor Bernard Hoffert, Graduate Studies

"Usually as memories, sometimes as diary entries, occasionally as drawings."

—Ken Smith, Department of Fine Arts

"Personally I prefer the observations of others. I maintain a file of commentary on various aspects of design, art and culture. Newspaper journalists and commentators are tremendously candid about their observations... much more so than the more cryptic academic journals."

—Gene Bawden, Visual Communication

"I keep several ongoing journals. One records sightings of bird life within 1 km of my home and into which I paste feathers as an aid to bird identification. Another is a kind of workbook where I stick any paper based ideas and cuttings from my research that informs or feeds my work and where I keep lists of ideas I can use in my artwork. Another records feelings and thoughts related to my emotional life and records significant moments, interactions and responses. This helps me unpack, get some distance and objectivity from the intensity of the feelings, and see patterns."

—Susan Purdy, Gippsland Centre for Art & Design

Tips for recording your observations

"Journal keeping is not for everyone, but if you get into the habit it can be a very enjoyable experience and it becomes an invaluable resource for an art maker. I find it conserves energy for my work, so that when I want to get some work happening, rather than dissipating energy going on a search for some ideas, a quick flick through my journal reconnects me with those juicy possibilities I have been saving up and has me excited and feeling keen and inspired immediately."

—Susan Purdy, Gippsland Centre for Art & Design

"Focus on how a work makes you feel and not just on what it means, who did it, etc. We concentrate so much on the external factors which identify what is important that we neglect placing attention on the inner life which responds to all that we perceive; instead of looking for meaning we should seek experience from what we observe. It is the experience which lasts long after the image has been eclipsed and which becomes the source of inspiration."

—Professor Bernard Hoffert, Graduate Studies

"Observe everything and take nothing for granted. I'm shocked at how many students live in a major international city and do not engage in its cultural activities."

—Gene Bawden, Visual Communication

"Become disciplined at carrying a notebook for recording observations and reactions of any space that you find interesting. Question your own emotional response. Observe other people within the space. How are they reacting to the space? Become disciplined at noticing your environment, regardless of whether you are in the supermarket, walking your dog, visiting a friend or an exhibition."

—Jo Dane, Interior Architecture

"Do document artists who excite you. Think about having a 'top 10' list which you regularly update. Check out who they looked at, what they read."

—Rodney Forbes, Gippsland Centre for Art & Design

"Regularly visit art galleries. They are as important as attending art school."

—Ken Smith, Department of Fine Arts

Apart from gallery visits how do you learn from others?

"Books, journals, conferences."

—Professor Bernard Hoffert, Graduate Studies

"Humbly. I'm constantly amazed at how much there is to know; even after 20 years in design there are new approaches (and old forgotten ones) that I am still to discover. Other designers and artists are a great source of inspiration. Conferences like the AGIdeas bring together a mass of designers from across disciplines. Each year I come away both inspired and a little overwhelmed at the greatness of others."

—Gene Bawden, Visual Communication

"By being willing to engage in discussion with peers on the things I observe. Debating the positives and negatives of places I have visited, people I have heard, things I have noticed."

—Jo Dane, Interior Architecture

"Talking to other artists about their practice, constantly reading books, journals, newspapers, accessing the web, watching films."

—Ken Smith, Department of Fine Arts

"You need to set up structures which get you talking to and collaborating with other artists and writers - collaboration projects, shared shows, sharing resources."

—Rodney Forbes, Gippsland Centre for Art & Design

"Reading, listening, radio, conversation. One of the best things is getting a bunch of art magazines and sitting in the sun with friends, drinking coffee and each reading a mag and talking about what we find."

—Susan Purdy, Gippsland Centre for Art & Design

You can enjoy more great staff tips on experimenting here.

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