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December 2010

More on Influences: Joining the Conversation

There are five or six good reasons why you should think about influences but there's only one reason that really matters.  It's the necessity to see your effort not uniquely isolated, but part of a larger whole. 

When I graduated from the university art program there were perhaps twenty other students graduating with me.  They all had ambitions about their art careers, but over the years most if not all of them stopped painting.  They...just...stopped. 

I remember an English professor explaining the research process to her students who didn't know how they could come up with any original ideas.  She started by saying, "Think of yourself as entering a room.  There is a spirited conversation going on.  Other people enter, join in the conversation, and then leave.  But the conversation continues." 

As an artist, I've come to understand that I must join the conversation.

By the deep waters levitan02sm The image at the left is by Isaac Levitan, titled "By The Deep Waters."  Isaac Levitan (1860 - 1900) was a lyrical Russian landscape painter. Levitan found his initial inspiration in the Barbizon School of French painters, as do I, but what influences me the most with Levitan is the conversation that he's having with his viewers. I appreciate the technical "words" he uses, but discovering how he can awaken human emotion in a way that has been described as poetic, philosophical and psychological - this is my challenge.  My influence.  This is the conversation that I want to join.

You can think of artistic influences any way you want, but I've discovered there are levels of thinking more productive for me than others. And I have to wonder if the reason why my fellow students stopped painting was because they never thought about it - finding a conversation they could join.

Autumn Road in a Villageslevitan70"Autumn.  Road in a Village."  Isaac Levitan, 1877. 

Images courtesy of Olga's Gallery.


What Are Your Art Influences?

It’s a funny thing about influences.  How many zillions of impressions bombard our minds on a daily basis, from what flavored coffee to order in the morning, to the sound of footsteps when we get home at night. And yet somehow our brains seem to filter out the extraneous material and save what’s important.  Or maybe it’s our soul that recognizes what’s important, what to keep and what to throw away.

I like to think of influences as unexpected friends we keep running into, over and over again until we know their names and recognize their faces on sight.  And maybe this is the way it’s supposed to work.  While we’re busy running around with our lives and worrying about what’s for dinner, something else keeps track of what ought to matter.  A painting that jumps out while you’re searching the internet.  Another that shows up in a magazine, and more paintings and more until suddenly you realize that, hey, the same guy painted all of these.  Or the same bunch of guys.  Somehow, while we were worrying about our artistic style or how to game the market, something else was taking notes and pointing out time and time again what we were really supposed to do.  And sometimes it just takes seeing another artist’s work over and over again until we realize that there’s probably a good reason why our paths keep crossing.  And that’s an influence.  The good kind.  The kind we shouldn’t take for granted when we finally recognize it.

All this thinking about influences came about because I was cleaning my studio.  I have stacks of magazines, going back years. Dog eared copies of Fine Art Connoisseur when it was still called that, American Art Review, all of them with these colorful post-it flags marking the pages I wanted to remember.  And over and over the same artists kept appearing – Isaak Levitan, Fechin, Bongart, Wilson Hurley, William Merritt Chase – and contemporary artists, too.  This was back in the day when I couldn’t have pronounced these names in a conversation, let alone think about my painting style. But something kept prodding me to pull out the little post-it flags and mark the page.

In this world of ours, when you think about the millions of ripples of influence sent out by all the human interactions, the odds of something just randomly showing up in your life more than once are pretty slim.  To have it show up enough to recognize it, and give it a name ought to give us a reason to pause.