We’re all familiar with the problems associated with Sunday Painters. Cranking up the old machine once a week may be okay in the vintage car hobby — but it’s bad news in the creativity game. The steady worker who applies his craft daily is more likely to make creative gains than an intermittent one. Even when tired, or even because of it, the rolling creator can generally squeeze further.
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A recently retired schoolteacher shared her career-long response to students complaining of boredom: “Only boring people are bored.” I strained to think of an artist who had ever complained of being bored. I wondered: Are artists innately gifted with a love of time? Are they anointed with savvier powers to daydream, to reflect, to be curious, inventive, doodling and self-reliant? Do they possess a diminished need for pastimes and entertainment? How did they get here? Are artists born not bored?
Last weekend I attended an exhibition of the work of a wide range of painters. A lot of it was photo-derived — some of it really crackerjack — others not so hot. Why is it that some people can take photographic reference and make it exciting, while others only succeed in reproducing a photo?
A lot of it has to do with the analysis that an artist gives to the reference prior to picking up the brush. Here are a few ideas you might find useful
Near Sydney’s Circular Quay, a set of stone steps wanders through the historic foundations of Australia’s first European settlers. Here, convicts and pioneers of 1788 erected new lives amid gum trees and sandstone. “The Rocks” or “Tallawoladah,” as the Aboriginal Cadigal people called it, swirls today with ice cream lickers and city slickers, though its colonial past still pokes from behind the doorways of its remaining terrace houses. Across from the cutting-edge Museum of Contemporary Art and its Aboriginal masterworks nods the dusty entrance to the Julian Ashton Art School.
More than a few of us report that our first inspiration to pick up a brush was Les Automatistes of Quebec or Kandinsky and Der Blaue Reiter. Fast, intuitive strokes invite access to a spontaneous and visceral creative experience — an appealing prompt. Others first fell under the spell of the carefully planned masterworks of Neoclassicism, the incremental chiseling of a hunk of marble or the specific strategy required by conceptual art that leaves the end fabrication to a team of minions. This slower system, set in stages with rules and requiring concentration, focus, observation and accuracy, may have felt the most natural.
As a little girl in South Ohio, Nova Scotia, Maud Dowley suffered from juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, which kept her small, with almost no chin and other physical differences. She spent her childhood at home with her parents and brother, and when her mother encouraged her to make hand-painted Christmas cards, Maud found that she could fashion a world of her own and depict the abundance of rural life.
Among the new and old friends who came to Banff last Saturday was a burgeoning painter who told me about a recent switch from oil to acrylics. “Those acrylics, they dry too fast,” he said. “How do I get that stopped?” I glanced over his shoulder at a painting done by my dad while sitting in the sunbeam of a glacier not far from where we were standing. “At first, they dry too quickly,” I said. “With time you may find that they don’t dry quickly enough.”
“There is no such thing as an amateur artist as different from a professional artist,” wrote Paul Cezanne, “There is only good art and bad art.” And so a better question might be, “How can I make my work more professional?” Besides the game changers of working every day, using quality materials and being vigilantly unafraid to trash stuff that doesn’t measure up, professionalism emerges through refinement and intimacy developed over the course of a thousand conversations with your process. You might even say that when it comes, you’ll recognize it immediately.
The way I look at it, a work of art requires the presence of two spirits. The first is the spirit of the subject matter — the object or thing that the work is based on — Nature’s spirit. The second is the spirit or interpretation the artist brings to the object — the unique style or manner that only the individual artist can give. Subject matter alone — the slavish copying of nature — does not make art. But art also falls short, in my opinion, when it doesn’t lean to some degree on the stimuli of place or subject.
There are all kinds of envy — including the kind that Freud thought he detected. The kind I’m talking about is called professional jealousy. Some artists have it bad. Salieri had it for Mozart. Who wouldn’t? It’s supposed to be one of the main sins. I’ve had lots of confessional letters from artists. They’re jealous of the success and talent of others. It happens everywhere — at art schools, with the artist next door, even sharing the same studio. One woman wrote to say that the envy she felt for her friend’s paper tole drove her to stop working in the medium.