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Joleen Flasher

Growing as an Artist (Part I)

posted by marrael 2011-11-03 02:02:09

OK, so there's a bit to be suspicious of my tackling this subject when I'm not exactly at the top of the art heap (is there an art heap? how do I get on it?), but this occupies my mind a lot: How to get better at making pictures. This might actually be the easiest part of being an artist, compared to challenges like how to make money, how to make a living, how to find your audience, how to keep going, how to balance painting with marketing... you get the picture. Trying to become technically better looks (almost) straightforward.

Except I know it isn't, because all artists have different reasons and processes as to how and why they make art. Some may be in it for relaxation, self-expression, pleasure, or all that in any combination. Growing as an artist isn't something that comes up until.. well, the day you're looking at your own work, then at your inspiration (a photo, a live portrait sitter, or masterpiece you're emulating), and wrinkling your brows and wondering: why do I suck? (Or, why doesn't my work resemble that?) The more varied and good art you look at, the more you may start, annoyingly, to discover your weaknesses: likeness, or composition, contrast, use of colour, design,  painting skills, or anatomy, or dynamism. (Though, at the same time, you may also realise every artist has strength and weaknesses. It would just be nice to have more of the former than latter, and have the strengths be really awesome, and the flaws invisible...)

Sometimes an image occurs to you that makes you say: I want to make that, but I don't think I can. It's too hard; I don't have the skills or patience. Those images are important. Those images are the ones that must be attempted. Over and over, if need be, because they are the ones that help you grow. Whereas the ones you churn out with all confidence, or that you KNOW you can do... it's not that they're not worth doing (and they may help pay the bills), but if, even before you start, you know that you know every step of the process and what the result is going to be, that's a strong sign that art-making has become rote-work instead of trial and discovery.

There's a story I often think about (likely fictitious!) about a Chinese brush-painter who was commissioned to do a large brush painting of a mountain landscape. After the art patron described the painting he wanted, the painter considered, and said, "Come back in a year." One year later, the patron made it back to the artist's mountain studio, and the painter said, "One moment." Before the patron's eyes, he proceeded to paint, his ink brush creating forest-covered mountains and valleys and rivers and mists and clouds, just as the patron had asked for, a year ago. The painting was completed in no time, and the patron accepted it in amazement, then suspicion. "If it only took you this short time to complete this, why did you ask me to wait a year?" In answer, the artist brought the patron to the back of the studio, where stacks and stacks of earlier and clumsy attempts at the same painting lay in evidence of the artist's one-year toil.

Personally, attempting the same painting 365 days in a row would drive me bonkers, but I love the story. There's modesty, perseverence, the pursuit of excellence (or at least improvement), and pragmatism in it. Modesty in that the painter knew he wasn't capable of the image he wanted to produce yet, persevering because in time he knew he could be, and pragmatic because,  hey, one year is a pretty generous deadline for any one image. Would that we could all be hermit painters living in the mountains with endless supplies of paper.

The "Why do I suck?" question always precedes improvement--so asking it is a good thing. But learning something new requires treading into unfamiliar territory, which often isn't a comfortable process. Compliments, on their own, rarely tell us what we need to do to get better--yet criticism alone isn't enough either. It also takes courage, loads of it, and yep, perseverence.

I'll talk about venturing out of comfort zones in my next post.

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