Productivity: J. M. W. Turner

December 22, 2008


Above: John Mallord William Turner's 1840 oil painting: Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On).

Today "my shoes feel funny" (read on to understand that) and I am going to be running around all day, so I have pulled up a small piece I wrote for my students in February 2007 on my now defunct update list and made some additions. Any time is a good time to think about our own productivity, but I find it particularly helpful to do so when it is cold outside and as a year draws to an end. What are my goals for next year? What is my assessment of this year's goals and my productivity? How can I tweak my process?

I've been reading about Turner (British painter born in 1775, loose watercolors, man Ruskin turned into a household word, that Turner, Joseph Mallord William Turner, who died in 1851).

Seems he did 1,600 watercolors, almost 600 oil paintings, and over 19,000 colour studies, sketches and unfinished watercolours (let's stick with the British spelling).

If you do the math (and I didn't, I had to hire out for that) it means that he was doing roughly 3 colour studies (including sketches and unfinished watercolours) a day!

It also means that each week he was completing a watercolour (and most of these are pretty large).

On top of this he was completing one oil painting a month (these were also often very, very large, measurable in square feet).

He was doing all this in a time when there was no electricity (so evening-hour work sessions were by candle light if at all). And while he was the most successful painter of his time and earned a lot from his paintings, and would have had domestic help of some sort to do what we consider "mundane" stuff, he was very frugal (some say miserly) and didn't over indulge in that way. (Besides which, today we have electricity and 10,000 devices that are labor saving and two that aren't: Game Boys and TVs; but I'm not going to say anything bad about TV because I watch more than any 3 people! And as for Game Boys, surely science fiction movies have made it clear numerous times that the fate of the earth will ultimately be decided by a youngster who has logged mega hours on some video game because only that child will have SKILLS.)

My point is Turner was really working all the time, from his childhood on. By the time he was 15 he was exhibiting with the big boys and wasn't in the Academy only because there was an entrance age limit of 24 years old. (Note: My reference tells me this. Wikipedia claims he was admitted at 14.)

Through all this he was also a tireless self-promoter who thought, from an early age, consciously about how he wanted his art career to go and made it happen (very Deepak Chopraesque before there was a Deepak).

And he created a fund for starving artists who hadn't done as well as he had; a fund he created with his own savings (not a telethon urging others to give). Perhaps this was survival guilt (he always believed his friend Thomas Girtin, who died in 1802 was the better painter) or plain humility and generosity?

And he traveled all over the place, because of course there were wars going on and tourism was hampered and travel paintings sell. He was getting the job done.

There's a lesson in here somewhere. (Will Roz ever get out of the nineteenth century? At this point it seems doubtful.) In fact many lessons. We can look at this talent and productivity and be totally cowed, or we can see in it inspiration for our own efforts, our own callings, our own passions.

Turner saw life as a Game Boy, and he was determined to have a high score, using everything he was dealt, including his dumpy, frumpy body, and pimply complexion that all his critics are quick to point out. (If you can't attack someone on the essentials of talent, craftsmanship, and intellect I guess they didn't have much else to grasp on to. A 19th century equivalent of tabloid press.)

When my own productivity dips for whatever reason (hangnail, favorite TV show gets cancelled, my shoes feel funny) I like to think of Turner (WWTD: What Would Turner Do?) and just suck it up. Of course sometimes I think of that other Victorian powerhouse of productivity, Dickens. With those two to inspire me it's a wonder I have any energy left to watch "House, M.D."

But when you're thinking about your own path, career, calling, passion, I hope you spend a thought or two on Turner, toiling away, painting a volcanic sky (using fugitive pigments despite the pleadings of his colorist—and that is not a Victorian term for hair stylist), getting the job done. Like the other Romantics he was interested in the process of creativity. He organized his work (all his works including the unfinished pieces and sketches) so that it could be presented as a whole, so that his creative mind could be understood. And because of that we can see the struggle and joy in his work and know he loved the process—just not to the detriment of product. We see balance.

He could have been a raving lunatic as well, but it doesn't matter, because in the orchestration of process with productivity Turner has given us a template of balance we can adapt to our own work. I just hope this balance allows for enough time to catch episodes of "Living with Ed."

Simon Schama's Power of Art has an episode devoted to Turner which is vastly interesting. Look for it in reruns on PBS or purchase the entire collection of DVDs at the link I provided. (There is a great episode on Caravaggio too.) Schama talks about Turner's use of laudanum ("an alcoholic tincture of opium") and its effects on his personality and artwork.

In Turner's Footsteps, by David Hill was one of the books I was reading when I first wrote this in February 2007 for my students.

The Tate in Britain has an online collection of Turner's sketchbooks which everyone should look at. You'll get a sense of how great his visual memory was. Often he didn't record much but the barest outline, perhaps interrupted or he had what he needed?

If you can find a copy of the show catalog, Judging by Appearance: Master Drawings from the Collection of Joseph and Deborah Goldyne, you'll find an exquisite painting of a Mackerel from one of Turner's  sketchbooks, made between 1825-1830. It looks wonderful in the book, in person it will make you cry. Now I know what it is to covet.

    • kiri
    • December 22, 2008

    thanks for the link to turners sketchbooks.

    • Roz
    • December 22, 2008

    Yep, I hope you enjoy them Kiri. They are pretty wonderful to see. Also as a book binder they are interesting because you can see the wear and some construction details on some images.

  1. Reply

    to visit
    for a feast of J.M.W. Turners

    The Turner Museum

  2. Reply

    great post :>)

    I went to an exhibition of Turners sketchbooks at the Tate a few years ago now, it was magical, they were so contemporary – could have been done today, free, loose, experimental and personal – I too know what it is to covet!

    • Roz
    • December 22, 2008

    Folks who go to the above link: The Turner Museum, will have to have plug-ins of various sorts enabled on their computer and I don’t like to turn such things on without an OK from my computer guy.

    Even without the plug-ins though, you can click to enter and see a nice, short video of some images of Turner’s and a bit of narration by Jeremy Irons (I could listen to him talk all day long!) probably from some longer show I would love to see!

    I’m a bit confused by some elements on the website that I can actually see without the plug-ins, but there are some interesting comments about some of Turner’s images.

    I’m not thrilled about music playing on websites, and was short on time, but if you click to enter and get to the gallery and “Cosmic Moments” you will see a lovely detail of one of Turner’s dogs.

    Sadly, the best way to see Turner’s work is in person. I say sadly because that means a lot of us aren’t going to see it much at all. I have been lucky to see several pieces here at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and on a trip to London years and years ago.

    Look about and see what art institutes in your area are scheduling and then plan your trips to include overlap!

    To see a Turner oil painting in person is breathtaking. To see a Turner watercolor, especially if you work in the same medium is eye-opening, humbling, and delicious.


    • Roz
    • December 22, 2008

    Vivien, I think your comment about how free and loose his images are is key, they read very “contemporary.” And you see growth in his work to the impressionistic expression. To me there is also a cinematic quality to his work, by which I mean, as a child of the moving image-age I find his works engage me in a similar way.

    It amazes me on so many levels!

    • Roz
    • December 22, 2008

    Here’s a website reference with some interesting information:

    Though the exhibit was this year (and so I’ve missed it) I think it might be the same one that was in D.C. (which I also missed, unable to travel at the time). This site mentions the catalog of the exhibit. Sometimes these can be found in art institute gift shops even if they don’t host the show. The Tate is creating this book so we know it will be definitive. Something to look around for if you are interested in a book showcasing his work. Will take you to the Dallas Museum of Art’s overview page which has a lovely selection of Turner’s work.

    The DMA site also gave a link to Turner on Line at the Tate

    I recommend that if you are interested in Turner’s work you ferret around at that site for a bit.

    It was there that I found the link to which is a book by Hockney on Turner’s watercolors. (Or just an exhibit of his selections of Turner’s work, and a book on the watercolors by someone else. It is confusing to me, but go check it out yourself if you are interested in books on Turner.)

    I have to stop!

  3. Reply

    Thanks for the link to Turner’s sketchbooks! I’m always fascinated by other artists sketchbooks.

    • Roz
    • December 23, 2008

    Sydney, it’s dangerous to have the sketchbooks on line! I can spend way too much time looking. Like you I am fascinated with what gets recorded in a sketchbook

  4. By coincidence I’ve been reading “In Turner’s Footsteps” and hearing interviews on NPR about “Outliers”….both incredibly fascinating. How on earth do you fit in TV with your incredible productivity? Are you really a team of people disguised as “Roz”??
    I continue to mine your old posts for wisdom and encouragement. Thank you!

  5. Reply

    jeanette: wait ’til you read my post later this week (Sept. 2010) about the new TV season—though I have been housebound with pneumonia, but I would have watched it all anyway!

    Ha, you’ve caught on, there is a team Roz, just me and my EVIL twin, we keep her under control by making her watch all the TV!

    (Evil twins are a long standing family joke.)


  6. Please tell me you watched Detroit 817 (numbers may be wrong since I don’t know what they mean). I grew up in teh Det. suburbs and watched but did not recognize anything! My husband saw some recognizable sites though.
    Were we separated at birth? At my old job (just retired) my running joke was my evil twin, who kept leaving more and more redlines (corrections for draftspeople) on people’s desks at all hours of the day and night!

  7. PS – You really know how to work a cold! Feel better soon!

  8. Reply

    Jeanette, I wish I had a cold!

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