Fine Art Tips Feed

How to Get Better at Talking about Art

I remember the exact moment when I knew I was an artist.  It wasn’t as a child.  Art was the friend I set aside when it was time to be a grown-up.  No, it was much later, when I was well over fifty.  I don't know why it took so long.  But in a way, I'm glad that it did. 

We all experience life in ways that prod us toward such realizations.  Eventually, we find ourselves talking about that progress.  When I first got out of art school, I was invested in the philosophical influences I had learned.  I relied on Art Speak, a lot.  I spent most of a decade painting and explaining while eyes would glaze over until I had lost my audience.  And in the end, I lost my confidence.

While the process of learning can be uncomfortable, you can’t always fix your inexperience through art speak.  It is not an effective way to control the impressions people make about your work.  But you can learn how to better engage your audience.  I have discovered at least three keys to effective Art Speak: these insights might be helpful to you.

Key 1:  Start by nurturing the human connections.  People are curious about their attraction to art.  They want the story.  What were you interested in depicting?  Why did you pick that subject?  Through this shared conversation, something interesting happens.  The viewer becomes invested in the work, making their own connections.  It is no longer a work that must be justified.  It becomes a form of collaboration.

Key 2:  Discuss the entire canvas.  The example of developing the entire block in before the focal point applies here.  While it's obvious that your painting is about a child sitting in the shade beneath a tree, by pointing out how the loose abstract in the background helps to describe the dappled light, or the thickness of the paint on the folds of the shirt provide dimension - it's the details that add richness to the visual experience.   At a recent art walk, I enjoyed a long conversation with a group of college students. Their curiosity ranged from questions like ‘what is this about?” to “how did you achieve that and why?”  I finally asked if they were art students.  To my surprise, not a single one had ever taken an art class.  They just found the discussion interesting, seeing the art with new insight. 

Key 3: Be curious about what others see when they look at your work. This isn’t always comfortable for the artist.  I remember standing in front of a self-portrait, listening to someone say it would probably look better upside down.  He was probably right, and he had no idea I was the artist.  But the experience reinforces an important point.  Most people want to connect, but human experiences are not unilaterally universal.  I have always found the best insights this way, realizing that I was too focused on getting something perfectly right when most people saw the work in a different light. 

If there is isolation for the artist when creating work, there is also the need for connection.  At some point, you will be asked to talk about your work.  It may feel awkward to walk up to a stranger and start a conversation, but in the end you are both after the same result. 


Second Thoughts on Artistic Style

I recently participated in an event that prompted me to reevaluate my thoughts on style.  The show was available online and when viewed this way, I felt my painting style did not easily "fit" with the general feel of the show.  There were many excellent paintings, all versions of the prevailing visual appearance, and it made me question whether my ideas about personal style ought to be reassessed. 

I have always felt that style developed over time as the artist found his visual language.  The way we mix the paint, hold the brush, the direction of the stroke or the ideas behind the composition are all part of style.  I still believe this.  But I want a richer understanding by expanding on that idea.

The standard advice for artists has always been to develop a style that identifies you, so that your work is recognizable.  So the question is how far can the artist stray from the norm before their audience becomes confused as to the style they are expecting?  It should be easy, but it’s not.

The definition of style, which you can read in full here, is straightforward:  Innovation in style rises through the work of a single or small group of artists, and those that follow are said to be working in a similar manner, or the school of, where essentially they are taking the ideas and expanding on the body of work, but not necessarily changing the trajectory.  So an artist must eventually decide where he fits within a particular school (or set of ideas) and work in that direction, or risk being labeled as disorganized and confusing.

But how broad can that direction be? Where is the boundary, where this side you are safe, and that side you are at risk?

In this article at quartz.com, we learn that art collectors at the high end are looking for artistic rigor, work that challenges the status quo, communicates ideas, displays outstanding technique, a distinguishing narrative – all while playing “outside the rules.” There is no real surprise here from the art sector that believes in preserving high culture for our society.  Art that is intellectually challenging, while reflecting the bones of art history beneath innovation and contemporary approach is meaningful at this level. And while attitudes at the top eventually filter down to the lower tiers, the collectors outside the auction houses have different expectations. They are more interested in ideas around the beauty and artistic prestige of a particular work, the emotional connection or narrative depicted, and a sense of recognition between collector and artist on a subtle level.  But one idea that will not change no matter what group you are talking about is that people bring their experiences and expectations to the artwork, and they want to understand what they are looking at - and the strongest, easiest mode of communication is style. 

Style does evolve organically, but the argument can be made for the artist to fit their work between the fine lines of innovation, expression, and expectation.  This is especially true if you are trying to get your work accepted into prestigious shows or important galleries.  While there is leeway, there is also a strong pull toward "fitting into the whole presentation."  While looking at your own portfolio, there may be a strong sense of continuity, of work that is easily identified as yours.  But when that work moves out into the group shows, what is better?  To fit in with the group or to work at the edges?  Does your personal style fit close enough to the expectation of the audience or does it feel discordant? Are you too sensitive to your own voice, too insecure with the acceptability of your style that you over-react (always possible), or does it signal the need to step back and reassess?

It comes down to the artist deciding what their work is about and how they want to develop the ideas, and then how and where they want to present that work to the marketplace. The reception is going to be risky no matter whether you are following the traditional path or the “play outside the rules” path.  Art has always been about problem solving, and risk is part of the artist’s development.  It is said that art at any level can find a buyer, but most serious artists I know are also looking for high artistic achievement, producing the best work possible, improving their technique, and then translating that into recognition and eventually sales.  I hope I am opening a discussion, and look forward to other artist's thoughts on this subject.  Please add your ideas through the comments section. 

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IMG_1772 sm copyI'm very humbled to announce that Moonrise (over Desperation Ridge), 8 x 10, oil,  was awarded Best Nocturne in the August/September Plein Air Salon. 

The story behind the Desperation Ridge paintings: there is no specific geographical place called Desperation Ridge, although seeing parts of the Oregon Outback I am sure more than one gold miner, or short-cut following wagon train called one or more of the volcanic ridges and gullies by that name - or others more colorful.  While not totally born of imagination, Desperation Ridge reflects many emotions artists experience when a painting does or does not come together as intended.  And not just artists.  We all have the obstacles we are determined to overcome at all costs.  There is beauty in that quest. 

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Grids: The difference between dynamic symmetry and perspective as a means of organizing space

In all styles of painting and photography grids are part of the discussion.  The big three are the Rule of Thirds, Linear Perspective, and the Golden Mean or Dynamic Symmetry.  All of them function as a means to organize pictorial space, and the more experience you gain with composition, the more you might become curious about the reasons why artists rely on these concepts.

Since composition can be discussed in terms of finding a satisfying solution to visual challenges, it’s useful to study the differences between common concepts.

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  The Rule of Thirds, and a similar division of space using a 5:3 ratio (above), are often used as quick placement guides for major lines, horizon lines, or center of interest. It divides the space unequally and avoids static placement of elements, but does little for emotional content or eye movement.

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The easily understood concept of Linear Perspective draws eye movement up, across, and "into" the canvas by creating the illusion of three dimensional space, then back out and down again.  This is true regardless of subject matter, unless you are working in a style that embraces the flat, 2-demensional aspect of canvas with the express purpose of eliminating all idea of space. I would argue that even the most vocal advocates for eliminating the window into space idea could not completely avoid the visual sense of space without eliminating overlapping form or color contrasts.  We are hard wired to place our bodies within our environment, and the brain will always translate visual sensory as dimensional space. 

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Dynamic Symmetry is about spatial relationships, the distance between things, balance, and as a means of directing eye movement through space that emphasizes what the artist feels is most important.  It is about mathematical proportion, not limited to realistic painting, the nautilus shell,  or ancient Greek ideals: Abstract artists were also concerned with the role of mathematical proportion, most notable Agnus Martin, who was obsessive about it in her goal to create abstract line relationships that were aesthetically pleasing. There have always been artists working with proportion, and those seeking to obliterate it as a response.  Dynamic Symmetry is a tool that can be used beyond simple placement or illusion, and is important enough that artists should consider adding it to their accumulation of skills. 

Here is a list of books for further study in the area of grids in composition.  Some are easier reads than others, but I have them all in my resource library and I can recommend them:

Elements of Dynamic Symmetry by Jay Hambidge

Mastering Composition by Ian Roberts

Abstraction in Art and Nature by Nathan Cabot Hale

Classical Painting Atelier by Juliette Aristides

Classical Drawing Atelier by Juliette Aristides

Pictorial Composition An Introduction by Henry Rankin Poore

The Power of the Center by Rudolf Arnheim

Composition of Outdoor Painting by Edgar Payne (deals more with composition than grids, but valuable)

Composition by Arthur Wesley Dow (deals more with notan, line, and basic design principles)

 

Resources on the Web that provide quick visual concepts:

LeicaCameraMonkey.com

Photography Composition Articles:Golden Mean

Google Golden Ratio Calculator and you will find on line tools that will calculate proportions for you.

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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.

 


One Idea That Can Strengthen Your Design Skills

A painting can be a replication of what is seen, or it can be something more.  The difference is in the design.  And the best way to strengthen your design skills?  Spend more time planning than painting.

You can develop a structure to planning easily by considering these ideas:

Understand concepts in your own way.  In art, many approaches can seem vague and esoteric, and artists are not always effective in explaining what they mean, or even demonstrating it in a way that the student understands in his own mind.  It may take you months of study to finally gain your unique understanding of color harmony, the function of pattern, light versus shadow interest, or the idea of orchestrating a painting,  but until you have that understanding, your work will continue to feel uncertain.

Understand the conflict between emotional and logical thinking.  Logic comes first.  Emotional is last.  Think Sargent, wearing a hole in the carpet as he walked back from his canvas to check sight size, then forward for one stroke of paint, and then back again, before giving the final flourish.  As addicting as the emotion can be, save it for the end and remain disciplined as you build your structure.

Know the risks in combining too many visual approaches.  You can blend painting styles to create your own visual vocabulary without confusion: but when you try to combine too many ideas the viewer gets lost.  As you plan out your painting, decide your visual approach and maintain that throughout.  If a subject is better expressed with Impressionism, keep your style and the principles of Impressionism consistent to the end.  Check yourself: we don’t often realize when we’ve slipped into a different approach because, halfway through the painting, another idea occurred that seemed better than the first.  If going for a chiaroscuro instead of the close value/color harmony idea is actually better, rework the entire painting, or start a new one.  Just don’t flounder between hot and cold. 

Return to the basics. Use thumbnail sketches, grids, and compositional structure ideas to plan the placement of your shapes and center of interest. Determine what the finished surface quality of your painting will be before you start painting, and build up the paint, decide on mediums, determine brushes and knives accordingly.  Be clear in your mind what the painting is about, and how you will emphasize that – center of interest, color contrast, linear elements or abstract shapes – no matter what your style of painting, it is important to successful design planning to know clearly what you intend to accomplish. And be methodical in the steps, once you have decided. 

It may seem like planning takes all the fun out of painting.  Certainly painting can be fun.

But it can be a whole lot more. 

 IMG_1120 sm copyIf you are struggling with painting concepts, devise a method of study that works for your temperament.  Find two or three artists whose work exemplifies what it is you are trying to understand.  Write about what you see them doing, mark up copies of paintings with directional lines to determine placement and possible grids, keep exploring the ideas that seem most compelling to you.  Where I could not wrap my mind around the musical analogy many artists use to describe orchestrating a painting, I did eventually develop my own way of understanding the concept and to put it into practice.  It is always an ongoing process, no matter where you start you will never stop finding nuances and higher understanding - and that is what makes painting a lifelong exploration. 

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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.


“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.

 

 


How Paint Quality Impacts Emotional Content - Lessons from Rembrandt's Blood Stain

Lucretia_1666Rembrandt - 1666 version of the Death of Lucretia


Every student of art encounters Art History at some point, and finds himself either overwhelmed or trapped by the tenants of one style compared to another. Perhaps it is inevitable, in that picture making is always influenced by what has been previously produced. But in this modern world, the visual image as a form of communication has been dissected, manipulated, and used to the point where we are eye blind, much like the student on a museum tour who goes in star struck and comes out with a nonchalant shrug saying, “Oh, another Michelangelo.”  Sometimes a work of art translates into a powerful emotional experience, but more often than not, there is a five second glance of disinterest and lack of connection.

So how, then, is the artist to overcome that five second glance? Many competing concepts must be put together to create a successful painting, extending beyond just understanding how to achieve certain results. Throughout my art development I have been guided by a quote attributed to Lee Krasner: “I like a canvas to breathe and be alive. Be alive is the point. And, as the limitations are something called pigment and canvas, let’s see if I can do it.”

Great artists from the past achieved high levels of this sense of “aliveness”, and one of the ways they did it is through paint quality. The temptation to use Rembrandt’s self-portrait as an example of paint quality is a persistent one. With the artist’s thick swirls of paint that appear sculptural, you see basic concepts of thick impasto contrasted with thin layers of delicate color. But using this painting as an example traps the artist in a sweeping generalization. It isn’t only about the contrast in paint thickness, or the differences in the brush stroke.

I recently came across an article by Simon Schama, exploring the idea behind How Rembrandt Dressed Women for Death, which directed me to Rembrandt’s 1666 painting, The Suicide of Lucretia.  The paint quality in this painting jolts the viewer between the sumptuous depictions of fabric and textures in Lucretia’s dress, to the visceral impact of the blood stain on her bodice: edges of the stain, where the plasma has separated with a lighter tinge, highlighting the weave of the delicate fabric that could not protect her body, as the deepening red depression sinks visually into the flesh, turning a dark crimson in a ragged knife blade shape. That, for me, is visual impact achieved by a master of paint quality

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If painting is more than a flat visual perception, then the artist must find some understanding of what that means. I believe that art should not be limited to what the eye sees but how to depict through the senses what the eye sees. And while I might be a toddler in terms of art, having just learned to walk and now exploring my environment on uncertain legs, I understand that artists mistake generalizations for fact and rework ideas that are worn out. Avoiding generalizations might require the artist to assess his core intentions, what is meaningful to his work, and how his subject and technique addresses both his personal freedom and the impact the work has upon the viewing public. And as a consequence, an artist’s personal style will evolve and change over time as realizations and concepts become internalized and expressed effectively.  We should expect it. Reach for it.

Reach for the understanding and ability to come as close as we can to the perfection of Rembrandt's blood stain.

 


River Road and Aesthetic Conviction

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River Road, oil, 18 x 24, 2015

 

In my last post we were talking about aesthetic conviction.  While I find this concept easier to understand when discussing figure or portrait painting, my passion is landscape.  I wanted to share some of the thinking that goes into a painting such as River Road. 

Why did I paint this:  In 1908, two competing railroad companies began laying track on opposite sides of the Deschutes River on a route that ran from the Columbia River to Bend.  One was the Oregon Trunk Road, on the west side of the river, the other was the Deschutes Railroad.  At several points along the way both needed the same land.  Conflicts erupted, including blowing up of supply lines, skirmishes and gun battles, injuries and death.   There is currently one working rail track in use today, but the remains of abandoned rail beds are still present and used for recreation.   It's a little known element of Oregon's wild west history.

 

What this painting is about: While I was attracted to the story, this is not a historical painting. The warm winter light, the red and ocher and sage, the reflections on the river are a metaphor for optimism and a sense of adventure in the face of uncertainty.  The landscape is the message.  It speaks of endurance, and the transience of  human experience. 

Thank you to Oil Painters of America, for awarding River Road an Honorable Mention in the 2015 Fall On-Line Showcase. 


The Importance of Gravitas

Back in 2001, when I began to study art seriously, I asked how gravitas could be achieved in painting. The answer differed depending upon which teacher I asked. Some said it was subject matter. Others based their assessment upon technique. Still others said only the Old Masters achieved gravitas. None of these answers were particularly helpful. While they skirted around the question, no single point of view could explain gravitas, because gravitas is a word that attempts to define emotional connection.

Over the years I have come to believe that gravitas relates most specifically to how well the artist can transform an emotional idea into its visual equivalent. Paul Gauguin is quoted as saying that Degas’s nudes were “chaste. But his women in washtubs! ...just the way it is at home.” This is the difference between illustration and connection.  When we recognize in a work of art the emotion, the sensation, as something familiar, known - this is connection.  And if I were to summarize the descriptions found in books, in lectures from a few Masters, and the student-artists who work toward the same goals I have as a continuing student-artist, I would say that the primary attribute of gravitas is aesthetic conviction - another vague term that doesn't answer questions but raises new ones.

We all set the same goals, to do a better job than the day before. Sounds easy, and on most days easy wins out and the painting is a failure. But we still pick up the brush and try again, chasing the possibilities, as well as the joy. Gravitas, or aesthetic conviction, becomes the goal toward which we struggle, and the thing we don’t see is that our contemporary context also plays a role. The everyday world full of work demands, traffic delays and constant irritation bear little connection to the contemplative world of the artist. We cannot retreat to the ivory tower of the studio. Our work must relate to the society in which we live, to the people who might view it, and that pool of individuals is so vast and so complex it’s overwhelming to think about aesthetic conviction. Whose aesthetic do we appeal to?  This person's, that one, those over there?

So we have no real choice. We must develop our own conviction regardless. And when I paint better than I think I can, I recognize the underlying motive. I am not thinking about being “successful,” or appealing to the public, or a jury, or even trying to make a painting that is better than the one I did yesterday. I am only thinking that this painting is the painting I need to do.

Research demonstrates that Masters achieve their highest creativity either after years of creative endeavor, or through the furious passion of youth. Both speak to the need for technique as well as emotional investment – the soul of the work. Where younger artists might be more impulsive and risk-taking, older artists are equally passionate with greater self-acceptance and depth of understanding. This is the research saying it, not me. But I do know that without one – technique - you cannot communicate the other – emotional communication.  This is true regardless of age.

In my experience, it has taken only moments to understand some artistic concepts, but years to understand them enough to begin to put them into practice. And even now I do not fully comprehend. But the idea that I cannot hope to create something worthwhile if I cannot use the visual language required, remains a constant. To that end, this is what I have found to be important:

  • Decisions are based on thinking, and thinking is based on knowledge, so there can never be an end to learning or practice or experimentation. You must know what you can do with the materials, how to do it to best effect, and why you want to do it. Only then can the artist hope to communicate the qualities of human emotional experience through paint. As for taste, it is a concept that changes with time, but sensitivity is different. An artist who strives for sensitivity becomes expressive, different from the rest.
  • It’s easy to choose a subject to paint. It’s imperative to know what you are painting.  In the book, How I Paint: Secrets of a Sunday Painter, Thomas D Buechner (1926 - 2010), a painter's painter who became the the director of the Brooklyn Museum, has given one of the best descriptions of artistic conviction I have ever read.  He describes his painting of an angular, awkward ten-year-old boy named Ian: "He is the subject, but the painting is really about uncertainty, about not knowing the future...the subject was chosen for a specific purpose, to serve as a metaphor for this confusion, which influenced the pose, colors, shapes, and textures. In other words, Ian was the message."

But this is my list, and it is not complete. Nor is it as important as the one you make for yourself.  Stuart Davis (1894-1964) is quoted as saying, "The act of painting is not a duplication of experience, but the extension of experience on the plane of formal invention." Such is the purpose of art.  It is what we know.  It's the getting there that is hard.

 


Who’s Britain’s best amateur artist? Press Release from Flavours Holidays For New Competition

Information from the great team at Flavours Holidays in Scotland about Their upcoming Big Painting Competition

 

"While there are many painting competitions available for aspiring professional painters in the UK, it is very difficult for amateur artists to exhibit their work. That’s why we’re running our Big Painting Competition – we want to give a platform for these artists to show their artwork and want to find Britain’s best amateur artist!

The competition will open on the 28th September and close on the 31st October. 5 winners will be selected by our art tutors and selected participants will be invited to exhibit their work here in Edinburgh."

For more about the competition: 

 https://www.flavoursholidays.co.uk/competition-terms-and-conditions/

https://www.flavoursholidays.co.uk/blog/flavours-big-painting-competition/ 

Painting1-m7hbejn94xzfnh2lt05tvyk257bt3leegg0zfb16ea

Flavours Painting student in Tuscany

With a team of inspirational art teachers our Italian painting holidays are great for all levels.

Find out more about our painting holidays: https://www.flavoursholidays.co.uk/painting-holidays/

Read what Jenny Eclair wrote in the Daily Mail here

About Flavours

 Our painting holidays offer a unique blend of expert teaching and free time where you can be inspired by Italy’s dramatic colorful landscape. Flavours offers week-long stays in Tuscany, Venice and Sicily with our inspiring painting tutors.

Flavours Holidays - Authentic. Inspiring. Passionate.

 

 


Creating a Nurturing Environment: Tips for the Self-Mentoring Artist

Years ago I went to the Impressionist Exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum, where I discovered the artist Marie Bracquemond.  The reclusive Marie had great talent, but her career was brief.  She was married to the famous conservative engraver, Felix Bracquemond, who, according to historical records, was resentful of Marie's friendship with Impressionist greats such as Monet, Degas, and Gauguin. Over the years Marie endured intense artistic criticism from her husband, and became discouraged over the constant strife.  Her painting, Portrait (Lady in White),  was exhibited, along with On the Terrace at Sevres, in the fifth Impressionist exhibition in 1880, but she exhibited only one more time with the Impressionists, in 1886, before she ceased painting altogether in 1890.  According to the art critic Gustove Geffroy, Marie was "one of the three great ladies of Impressionism," but she eventually succumbed to her husband's disapproval.  Consequently, there are few Bracquemond paintings in public collections.

Life as an aspiring artist is complicated.  With all the misconceptions about an art career, or success, or authenticity, it's impossible to navigate the pitfalls without some kind of comfort and support. Partners can be our staunchest supporters, but they also present our biggest challenges.  Emotional conflict is uncomfortable, requiring us to be our own best mentors, navigating between a passion for art and a passion for family.

  • Painting is an extension of who you are.   While the drip drip drip of disapproval from others can be demoralizing, unless we acknowledge that art is not a priority for everyone, we will never be able to escape the need for approval.  The work you do in the studio isn't about impressing your partner.  It's about your humanity and your ability to express that in a visual form.  Focus on the value in what you do: prioritize it the same way others value traditional wage-paid work.
  • Honor your partner's needs, but ask for honor in return.  It's not easy for those who don't understand the intense drive that keeps the artist at the easel.  Art can be consuming.  But it's also beneficial to break from the work and enjoy the company of those around you.  Keeping your life in balance will help you keep your successes and failures in balance, and give you the resiliency to carry on. 
  • Work toward a simple form of financial security.  Take small steps to set aside the financial reserves you need to cover the cost of the materials that will allow you to create for a six month period.  If this means working and saving more, the pay-off is the lack of worry over money, as well as the independence of not needing permission to use joint resources if your partner is not supportive.
  • You define the value in your work.   By it's very definition, competition is a comparison of your work to that of others, and it can be exhausting.  Altering your mindset away from running after the successful artists and paying more attention to understanding your own intention will allow for greater growth.  Get feedback from those you admire, enter competitions, but for heaven's sake don't use it as a negative judgement of your own work.  Tell your insecurities to find someplace else to live, you have work to do. 

There is a seductive romance to the story of being an artist.  Life, though, is as real as it's going to get right now.  It is the daily effort, the small steps you take that matter, the personal relationships you honor and develop along the way.  Making art is part of what makes you human.  All the successes, support, discouragement and failures make up the steps in your journey from here to there.  It's at the heart of being an artist, the act of paying attention to what matters in the world, then showing it to others. There will always be mediocre work that gets attention, and great work that passes by unacknowledged.   But while it is about the work, it also isn't. It's about the purpose of life that isn't easily explained.