I recently went to a highly respected artist in our area for a mentoring session, and while nearly all of his advice, critiques and encouragement were valuable, he said one thing that I disagree with: stop comparing yourself to great masters and just let you be you.
In the context of our conversation this made perfect sense. I had been talking about my sense of disappointment because I could not solve a visual problem - visual logic that I could see and articulate in the work of others, but could not translate into my own painting. At first I felt relieved - just stop comparing myself to impossible standards. But soon I found myself in a philosophical argument about this idea - and I wondered if there wasn't another side to the "let you be you" suggestion.
Artists come to their work with various motives, and their level of personal enjoyment and satisfaction stems from just as many unique sources. For me, while I do enjoy the physical act of pushing paint and color around, my joy is fueled by a desire to understand aspects of painting and visual intelligence, and to translate that knowledge into my own ability to create paintings that meet seemingly impossible standards.
Sometimes this means my painting is going downhill, that my effort to discover a visual truth leads to surfaces that are over worked and paintings that are scraped down and re-painted. It means that at the end of a long day I step back and look at the work and feel totally discouraged.
And if I were willing to tell myself, just let you be you, I might settle, copy, play it safe, feel I was ruining perfectly good paintings because I felt dissatisfied.
Left: Walters Plums, first version. Right: Walter's Plums, reworked
When I finished the first version of Walter's Plums I felt I had been able to move forward, visually. But the more I studied this painting, the more I felt that it was visually - and intellectually - unfinished. That I was only a few steps across the bridge instead of safely on the other side.
And the issue was agrivated because I had already posted this painting and received a lot of positive feedback. So the argument became whether with version one of Walter's Plums, I should just accept "me be me," or whether I needed to put it back on the easel and push myself further into what I was trying to do.
The idea of me being me is as much the desire to seek a higher expectation as it is to accept the current limitations of my understanding of craft. My commitment to painting has always carried with it several layers of meaning, trying to understand what carries the message. How does the artist translate an intellectual, emotional idea into something concrete and visual? What makes this work beautiful, and that work mundane?
So I put Walter's Plums back on the easel. I decided not to stop halfway without trying to find a better solution. Pushing myself is as much a part of me being me as accepting that I have a unique style of painting that isn't going to look like everyone else. But it is a style that will continue evolving toward a higher level of visual intelligence, no matter how difficult.
It may feel difficult to evaluate advice you receive because you understand the underlying truth. But it is just as necessary to listen to your own advice and follow your own path.
Here is another painting from the "Plums Series" - which will last as long as the plums...