Study for Big Pine, detail
Oil on canvas mounted to board, 12 x 9 in.
November 25, 2017 42 Comments
What success does best is make you complacent and egotistical
~ Keith Cunningham
I've never known an artist who painted for fun or relaxation.
I've never known an artist who didn't want to become great.
Most painters are driven. Seriously driven.
My 86 year-old father paints 8 hours a day, standing.
I was plain nuts during my first ten years as a painter.
Most of you want to become great, your reason for reading this and other fine art blogs instead of watching TV. And I congratulate you. I admire your ambition.
But let me ask you two important questions:
Are you actually striving to become great, or are you trying to look good?
Do you want to paint masterpieces, or do you want to become a master?
Powerful questions and the answers aren't so clear even if you are self-aware.
The self-conscious need to prove one's talent is a trap. Because working hard at your craft isn't the same as working toward growth.
Working toward growth means taking big, scary chances with your art, and risking failure. It means falling flat on your face and looking ridiculous in the process.
It will also cost you some sales if you make a living from your art.
Not sounding so hot, is it?
Now you know why painters avoid risk.
I often say, and this will sound judgmental and cruel, that some career painters spend thirty years perfecting a technique and producing variations of the same piece.
Understandable, given the pressures.
Pressure from galleries,
Pressure from collectors,
Pressure from peers and from students,
Pressure from oneself.
The fear of looking bad is your worst enemy. When it takes over, you might as well be painting with handcuffs.
The good news is that thanks to some tough and wonderful teachers plus a few ruts of my own, I've developed these five habits to keep the learning going whenever it stalls:
Paint Some Crap.
Make the decision to do the worst painting of your life.
Go all in and make it horrific (it's harder than you think).
Then put it against the wall and smile at it. Celebrate. Embrace the crappiness (Yes, readers, I've painted crates o' crap).
Think of it as a young child who's a little out of control, and give it a hug.
If you pay close enough attention you'll notice something remarkable...
The world hasn't ended.
You're still here. You haven't died.
The clunker you painted hasn't changed you, artistically or personally. Except that you're now a little more fearless than before.
Now, take a break and start another work, but this time, take a different approach:
Do the Impossible.
Dean Fisher, Still life From Above
Get in over your head with a project, a subject, or a technique that you know you couldn't handle in your wildest dreams.
If your largest work is 30 x 20 in; then do a 72 x 60 in.
Addicted to sables? Lock them up in a drawer and paint with a knife. Lose the fan brush too.
Pick up a big roll of paper and draw something enormous. Or sketch people or a pet while they're moving.
Make the game harder. Attack something, anything, that scares you to death.
Yes, the results will look horrible. Yes, you will feel like you're going backward and you will feel humiliated.
So promise yourself in advance not to show the experiment to anyone. Hide it in the vault for eternity, even if that ends up being a few months.
stretched by a new idea,
never regains its original dimensions.
~ Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.
Look at Bad Art.
Go to museums. Learn from the great masters. Advice drilled into us from day one.
But do you know what I find even more valuable? Looking at art that I dislike. Which isn't only about learning from other people's mistakes although that's a nice bonus.
Looking at bad art highlights the habits, tendencies, preconceptions we all share, regardless of experience. The differences vary only in degree.
- Putting too much light and detail in the shadows,
- Filling the space with unresolved details,
- Little or no variety in the edgework (too hard or soft),
- Too much or too little control in the paint handling,
- Working too hard—great paintings look effortless.
So treat yourself to a nice dinner at your favorite local restaurant and learn from their art.
Artists are among the hardest-working people on the planet. Often to a fault.
Because painting isn't physical work and it isn't a hand skill, although it involves both. Painting is mental work.
The miracle of absorbing and deconstructing visual information happens in the eye and in the brain. And these elaborate organs don't respond to pressure. They need the freedom to be curious and playful with ideas.
If you doubt that then just try, right now, to come up with a great idea or a creative solution to a problem you might have.
Not happening, is it?
Now consider all those wonderful Ah-ha moments you've had when your mind was free to roam (my best insights emerge while driving).
Long periods away from your art are critical. So take a week or even a month off. Go ahead, get rusty and start over. Chances are you'll return with something you didn't have before. Your skills will come roaring back and your bad habits will weaken.
Rearrange Your Studio
It never fails to surprise me when I visit the studio of a friend and see nothing's changed since my last visit.
We artists are visual creatures that thrive on visual stimulation. When that stimulation dies in an unchanging environment, so does creativity.
So move stuff around.
Throw stuff out.
Change the wall color. Add color if there is none. White and grey as studio wall colors is not the law.
Keep a pad within reach and sketch what you find in the chaos. I find this far more exciting and real than a tabletop covered with carefully-placed objects.
The Bottom Line on Progress
Amemones for Prince
Oil on panel, 11 x 16 in.
You won't enjoy dramatic progress by putting in a lot of time alone.
That may work in other fields, but not in art. You'll grow for a while, level off, then start to decline.
The decline usually hits when you're at the top of your game, so you don't see it coming.
And it's quite a blow when it does.
Put another way, an artist's motto/cliche shouldn't be, Practice makes perfect.
It should be, If you're not getting better, you're getting worse.
So shake things up while you're on top.
Let yourself screw up, and then learn to love the screw-ups.
Learn how to get out of a jam while keeping your cool.
Quit killing yourself trying to become a great painter and commit to becoming a badass editor.
In my experience, the ability to self-teach–more than inspiration, more than talent–is the greatest asset an artist can have.