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May 2016

“Unless it kills you…”

There is a quote from Alice Neel that I have in one of my journals:

“You should keep on painting no matter how difficult it is, because this is all part of the experience, and the more experience you have, the better it is…unless it kills you, and then you know you have gone too far.”

I’ve always felt a darkly humorous reaction to this sentiment, because yeah, this gig can certainly kill your motivation.  I find optimism in her sentiments, too, though, and it’s more valuable to explore the positive, rather than indulging in self-limiting humor.

The longer an artist creates the harder it gets, because of knowledge gained, mistakes seen, and a tendency toward intense self-criticism.  The counter argument says artists must learn to reach “good enough,” and realize when to accept a painting as finished. Both views are correct, and recognizing when one serves you better than the other is a skill worth cultivating. 

In studying today’s great artists, there are two areas that are most important to the success of their work.  The first is the concept, the idea or what the painting is about, and the second is the total design, a far more technical idea.  Too often, paintings that fail do so because of weakness in one or both of these areas. 

I believe that women are generally more intuitive about the concept, while men are more intuitive about the design, but any artist focused on craft understands both concepts.  If I were to generalize further, technical mistakes benefit from scrutiny and criticism, while concept is more subjective and best left to the “good enough” category once a single idea takes dominance.

So what do artists mean when they talk about concept and design? 

Concept is the emotional idea: what specifically is the painting about, what single area, or object, do you want the viewer to focus on to “get the idea”?  Too many competing ideas weaken the overall message, but the sensitive use of color and value can correct this during the painting process.

Design is closer to the idea of Notan: there is design underlying everything. It relates to the way our eyes see, and the way our brains interpret meaning.  A strong abstract design is critical, so critical, in fact, that if it isn’t clear from the beginning it is very easy to lose, and once you spot a design failure, it’s better to start the painting over than to try to “fix” it. 

Design works with words like underlying structure, value range, interesting shapes, grids, placement, while concept works with words like color harmony, pleasing brush work, and subject matter. Concept is also subjective, open to interpretation by the viewer as they decide what the painting communicates to them.  Design is not subjective: it is either strong and pleasing or weak and ineffective. 

My favorite tool to keep me on track with both design and idea concepts is my resource binder.  Whenever I come across an interesting example of either idea, or articles written by artists on these subjects, I put them in a large notebook. Over the years I have used this resource to identify areas of weakness, as well as strengths, when critiquing my own work.  This is empowering, especially when I lose my design pattern half way through a painting and waste precious hours trying to fix something that is really a fatal flaw.  Because, as Alice Neel warns, I would rather not have this gig kill me. 

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It means a lot to me that you have taken my words, and my art, into your lives.  So I would like to thank and welcome the new subscribers to this blog, and those who have also subscribed to my newsletter.  In my newsletter I write more about art technique, my motivations behind specific paintings, and occasionally offer paintings for sale at special prices.  Here is a convenient link to subscribe to my newsletter .

I would also like to thank those of you who have purchased my book, Ancient Wisdom: Emerging Artist: the business plan (not just) for the mature artist, over the past month.  I hope this book helps you with the intrinsic motivation, as well as offering practical ideas and a bit of humor at the end of the day.