Thursday, October 9, 2014

Stew is Good for You

Mmmmm...this makes me hungry.  Okay, okay, I'm not talking about stew for your body. I'm talking about stew for your mind, your creativity.  Just as the right ingredients and the right amount of time  are needed to make a good stew, the same is true for a good artist.  Have you ever had that one painting that just seemed to happen magically and it possessed a certain something that all the other work you did that week, month or even year did not?

Thomas Edison is quoted as saying: "Success is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration." 

I would say also that probably 10% of what you create is really outstanding from the rest of the 90%. Disappointed?  Well, sorry to break the bad(?) news to you....but that's the way it is. For every painting you see hung nicely on a gallery wall or entered into a show, there are 9 more that just weren't as spectacular.  But if you accept that this may be the nature of reality, then you can look forward to doing those 9 paintings/drawings to get to that 1. The book Art and Fear (which I recommend) gives a fine example on this. Basically, they took a group of college pottery students and split them in half. The one half  were told they would be graded on the perfection of one pot, the second half were told they would be graded on how many pots they created.  In the end, it was the second half that had created some of the most beautiful pots more so than the first half who were concentrated on perfecting the one. 

Now in the beginning,  that gap between 1 & 10 is far more noticeable.  You may think everything looks like total shite and one looks a much better than shite! At least this is how it was for me in art school, especially the first year. The good news: as you progress and you continue to make these shite paintings.... painting after painting, tear after tear, broken paintbrush after broken paintbrush, you pass what I call "the dud stage".  At this point for me, after 7 years of painting after painting it's not that any one painting is really shite anymore. They are all reasonably good, but the stakes keep getting raised. What may have been my best painting 2 years ago, I now see how I could improve upon it or how much I have progressed since then....but overall there is a quality present that should hold up now matter how much you progress technically.

Here are examples of some of my BEST work from the END of the 1st year and I think even into the middle of my 2nd year. (I couldn't actually find any photos of beginning of 1st year)

This discipline and rough treatment are a furnace to extract the silver from the dross. This testing purifies the gold by boiling the scum away.- Rumi

My stew started with art school which really turned the heat on and made me BOIL!  The painful fast chopping up of drawing, painting, sculpting, critiquing, grading, rejection...CHOP CHOP CHOP. I felt like I had been through art boot camp after the first semester and I felt like a big lump of tenderized meat- overly sensitive & sore!  Like someone just beat the shit out of me so I could soak up all the flavors in the stew.   The next 3 years was really an intensive boiling that included a lot of bad art making,  self doubt, constant comparison, persistent attempts, successes and failures.  In the end, I came out  ready to simmer for the long haul.  I had finally gotten to the point where I could make work that was reasonably good....acceptable with small raw glimmers of my own voice/spirit in it.

Works from my 4th year:

The technical leaps in the beginning will most likely be very noticeable, you feel like you're improving at a rapid rate. In this case from year 1 to year 4...then another hard stage comes when the technical improvement seems to level off or you hit a plateau. This can be very frustrating and takes a lot of patient working and acceptance of the slower fine-tuning and maturity.

I would say if you are starting your quest to become an artist, this initial intense learning period is a must if you really want to be successful.  I'm not saying you have to go to an art school, there is definitely pros and cons to that.  I am saying you have to force yourself (which is why art school is handy because you feel forced externally to show up) to make a commitment and also to get outside instruction/mentorship as much as possible.  You are only going to get back what you put in.  So if you are doing 1 workshop a year and painting 10 hours a week, I feel it is going to be a much slower development. Of course, if this is all you can do then it's all you can do. There are so many options available: books, dvds, online courses, getting critiques by email from artists.

  So often, however I feel people have unrealistic expectations and don't really understand the work it takes to do this. Perfect Segway to yet another Edison quote:

 “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”

I have been working for about 7 years now from my first entry into art school and I am just now getting to the point where I feel I'm starting to understand some things. However, I know that I'm really just beginning and I look forward to the next 60 years of honing my craft (as you can see I'm highly optimistic....I plan to be painting when I'm 95!)


I wanted to give you a list of (a few) books in my library that were  my staples in the early days and some I still go to on a regular basis:

  • Art & Fear: Observations of the Perils & Rewards of Artmaking by David Bayles
  • Toxic Criticism: Eric Maisel
  • Mastery: Robert Greene
  • An Artist Teaches: David Leffel
  • Problem Solving for Oil Painters: Gregg Kreutz
  • Oil Painting Secrets from a Master: Cateura (David Leffel)
  • Harold Speed: Practice & Science of Drawing; Oil Painting Techniques & Materials