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April 2011

Maybe It's Not You

Practice makes perfect, my mother always said, but it leaves out something far more important than mere practice.

It's what you practice with.

Now obviously paint manufacturers understand this, because they offer two grades of product - student grade, and professional.  Canvas manufacturers offer three - good, better, and expensive.  These are not labels aimed at identifying the inherent qualities of what is being offered, they are pricing strategies aimed at how artists see themselves and think they can afford. 

1) I'm practicing, and will probably throw these out when I'm done so I want the cheapest I can get.

2) I'm finishing more than I'm practicing.

3) Maybe I can afford some of the good stuff just to see if Belgium linen is worth the price.

Here's another way to think about this.

1) I don't take myself seriously so the quality of my materials doesn't matter.

2) I sort of take myself seriously but the quality of my materials still doesn't matter.

3) I'm tired of frustrating myself trying to master a new technique so it really does matter.

Once you get into any art medium deep enough you realize it's expensive.  And that's sort of the point where the paint hits the fan.  You have to decide whether you take yourself seriously or if you're happy enough having a good time just the way things are. 

If you are happy with the way things are then maybe you've found the right combination of inspiration, perspiration, and the crucial ingredients to produce great art consistently.

If you're frustrated, if you've been working diligently on your skills and wonder why your colors do not sing, or your brush marks disappear on the surface, well, maybe it's not you.

Take a look at what you're working with.  If you want to see improvement in your work, invest in the materials you use, even if you think you're "just practicing."  Because you can't "practice" what you can't produce using substandard  or ineffective materials. 

And that's really throwing away your precious art dollars.






Getting Over The Am I Lucky Syndrome

I was having a nice visit with a friend of mine.  She's a fiction writer, and we like to commiserate - how's the book coming, how was your last show, that sort of thing.  As she was preparing to leave she said something that left me hanging: " Well, you know we're just doing it for the internal satisfaction..." with her unspoken addendum being "because the market doesn't value what we do."

What she seemed to be saying - and what I seemed to be accepting - was an idea that isn't true: that doing it for internal satisfaction is somehow settling for less than what we should be settling for.  I mean, isn't that the ultimate justification for not achieving your goals - I do it because I get some intrinsic value? 

As uncomfortable as it is, our society reinforces the belief that value in creative work comes from external acceptance and reward.  And this is wrong.  Especially when research suggests that we're more likely to interact with something like art over the long term if we're motivated intrinsically, rather than through the external promise of a gold star.  In this article on the overjustification effect, when we pay more attention to the incentive (reward) than to the satisfaction and enjoyment we get from the activity, we actually lessen our interest in the activity over time, particularly if there are fewer and fewer rewards.

I've decided to call this way of thinking the Am I Lucky Syndrome.  It's a trap that's totally about the reward, whether we get it or not, and why.  It comes from an insight I gained after reading this article by John Yau on The Brooklyn Rail, titled Jean Crotti: Inhabiting Abstraction.   Jean Crotti was Marcel Duchamp's brother-in-law, and since I've always been fond of Marcel, this small Duchamp quote jumped out at me:

"A painting is made not by the artist but by those who look at it and grant it their favors. There is no outward sign explaining why a Fra Angelico and a Leonardo are equally 'recognized.' It all takes place at the level of our old friend luck."

I won't argue here against Duchamp, because he makes a valid point about luck playing a role in success. But it is a trap, none the less, to connect art and the artist to the luck of market, because it leads to thinking like this: why do this if I'm not lucky, if I didn't go to a great art school, if I don't live in New York, if I'm not a man, if I'm too old, if my work isn't right...and on and on...

This is why I have a private argument with every success book that comes along, because - however well intentioned and fully informed - the reinforcement of success in terms of external circumstance ultimately works counter to the stated goal: of achieving success.  That is, if the research is right, and we do tend to lose interest in something faster if we are motivated by the desire for that (eventually meaningless) gold star reward and don't get it.  

Of course we know that there are many overlooked stories of artists who work for decades and produce stunning bodies of work that are not widely recognized until late in the artist's career.  These stories are often characterized by the artist's fidelity to his or her own artistic vision throughout the years. California painter Karl Benjamin is profiled in this 2007 New York Times article, written by Jori Finkel, which reads in part: 

"Except for the immaculate condition of the brushes, there is no sign that the artist, now 81, stopped painting in 1995. 'A bad back, a bad hip and years of drinking too much,' he said, made handling the canvases difficult. 'I started getting too creaky to haul these things around.'

And yet, after decades of "painting prolifically and selling sporadically," Mr. Benjamin's work was featured in a retrospective at the Claremont Museum of Art. 

In another article from The Brooklyn Rail, titled Emily Mason: Recent Paintings, by Phong Bui, there is a related story about contemporary artist Emily Mason, daughter of Alice Trumbull Mason, where the author offers this:

"I have perused Mason’s work for 25 years, and after all this time I am still struck by the way she manages to carve out an in-between space that cherishes—while resisting—all of the above ideas and ways of thinking about form and content, and other related issues that contributed so indelibly to the painting culture that she was brought up with; how she allows her own internal rhythm to harmonize with the demands of painting’s process."

All this leads me back to how I am defeating that purpose if I buy into the Am I Lucky Syndrome and don't focus on the intrinsic values that motivate me as an artist.  It isn't always easy, and sometimes it takes more fortitude than I expect to stick to what I know to be true - at least for me.  Somehow we must find ways to keep the process at the forefront, to find a path and maintain fidelity to our unique vision. Here is another quote from Karl Benjamin:

“As an abstract painter, you’re always flying in the face of your country’s values,” he said. “All of a sudden Louis [Stern Fine Art] is selling a lot, but I’ve never made a lot of money. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about getting the colors right.”

So here's another quote for the Ancient Artist Manifesto: It's about getting the colors right.


Now it's your turn:

How do you keep your vision alive?

In Search of Creativity

Creativity only goes as far as you are willing to take it.  Or are able to take it, depending upon the level of your craft.  There are few things more frustrating than to find an idea that excites your passion and then struggle with the process.  Over time I have realized this experience brings up two points.  The first is what we perceive others are doing, and the second is what we think we are doing - or not doing - well enough.

This desire to get things right is part of the learning process and one that can trip an artist up in subtle ways.  Every color choice is second guessed, every brush mark repeated until the original idea is totally lost beneath layers of what we think other artists might have done. 

I've gone through - and continue to flirt with - many such periods over the years: my Wolf Kahn period, the Richard Diebenkorn period - all of which served small purposes but not the large issues we ought to really care about.  Like how we learn from other artists without trapping ourselves.  And by trapping I mean repeating only what we see - or think we see - without thinking about it on our own.

So in the beginning we find ourselves duplicating what we see and sometimes we get so good at this we don't see any need to change.  Until we come across those ideas that just have to be painted - but aren't, because we don't know how.  Maybe we don't know how because our influences have never painted similar subjects to provide us with a guide.  Or we don't know how because we're afraid we can't paint it to the art world establishment's expectations.  Either way creativity becomes limited to what we know, believe others know, and fear. 

A few years ago I changed the way I learn from other artists.  My reasoning had to do with my desire to call myself an artist, to take ownership and responsibility for my art as it relates to my personal growth.  Now when I study a single artist, or two and three at a time, I am looking for knowledge: how did the artist layer his paint, or use values, or direct my eye around the painting?  What was he - or she - trying to communicate and how are the elements in the painting contributing to the whole? Conceptually, how can I apply this to the way that I work and paint?

Yes, there are times when I feel the idea for a painting is slipping away from me, and I wish someone else would solve my problems.  But now I take more time to plan.  I use thumbnails more, paint several studies and view them in reverse using a hand mirror.  This gives me distance, and a different sense of the abstract arrangement so I can settle on the strongest approach.  I think about the concepts as I understand them, and my creative vision for the painting.  Then I start to work. 

Sometimes a painting is successful, other times there are flaws that ultimately contribute to the learning process.  But I work toward that day when I can feel the knowledge move from my inner vision through my hand and the brush, and on to the canvas. As a consequence, my relationship with art is changing, and with that change the fear is being replaced with creativity.  I wish the same for all of you.

DSC07175 sm copy
The Big Empty, 16 x 20, oil on linen © S F Smith 2011