Last Sunday I gave an artist’s talk. There was standing room only in the small museum where my retrospective exhibition is being held. Some people had to stand out in the hall where they couldn’t hear, so I’m giving it a repeat this coming Sunday.
I’ve tried to figure out the usefulness of the talk convention, and what others might be getting out of it. Most who attended were artists, but there were quite a few collectors as well. I kept my talk to one hour — including spirited audience interaction. To me, the main value of these events is to put a human face on creative comings and goings.
There were note-takers who asked about brands of paint, and how early in the morning I got started. (Golden and early.) And then there were those who needed anecdotes about specific paintings. (I keep ’em short.) As usual, when I offered to help and mentor people, the keener ones left their cards and said they would send me their jpegs. As I give my advice for free, no one complains about the price.
By Monday night there were a dozen packets of jpegs in my inbox. Some people included platinum prose with high-aiming personal ideals and visions; others were merely looking for practical advice. Here, in part, is one of my responses:
“It’s only an opinion but I find your work a bit stiff and pasty. It might be improved by loosening up and softening some edges. Perhaps estrange yourself from the camera for a few dozen paintings. I consider them to be competent and professional — good commercial-type illustrations — but perhaps more magic and intrigue are needed. A background in commercial art can be a detriment if you are on a search for feeling and creative impact. Go for a while with instructors who don’t paint as you do. Regarding your questions on marketing, keep painting and try to perfect your personal direction and creative processes. Good luck, and please feel free to send more at any time.”
A bit tough, possibly, but it is, after all, only an opinion. The weird thing is that I sent very similar responses to four different painters. In light of the big picture and the long history of art, how valid are these opinions? Am I guilty of mouthing some current fashion or — worse — my personal prejudices? What’s going on?
PS: “Dream lofty dreams, and as you dream, so shall you become. Your vision is the promise of what you shall one day be; your ideal is the prophecy of what you shall unveil.” (James Allen)
Esoterica: The convention of the artist talk employs two-directional curiosity. In this age of individual empowerment, the art-talker looks out at a sea of fellow sailors. The interaction business is a ship unto itself. We trade each other’s moxie and lean on the supposed wisdom of perceived authorities. The brotherhood and sisterhood is alive and well. Knowledge is power, and the desire for the joy of private creation is viral. Getting out of the rat race is now a religion.
Don’t need advice!
by Malgosia Chelkowska, Ottawa, ON, Canada
I don’t need advice, because I know what I’m doing, and most important, I am not treating myself very seriously! Only this way you do real stuff! This idea will speak only to a few, but who cares! The opinion of others is only like music which passes by… and fulfils your vanity. You need it sometimes, but it doesn’t mean anything. Obviously you like music and words of others are like music. The answer is to search inside! Don’t copy others, because it isn’t you! Yellow sky! You cannot teach a feeling!
Feedback, if you please
by Atiya Nadeem, Muscat, Oman
After reading your letter, I feel quite emboldened to take the liberty of asking you for your feedback about the standard of my work, if I may… See, you keep ‘telling’ us about your openness about the matter… and then I wonder… oof! such a busy artist, and he has the willingness to do this too. Though your offer was for people who were at the gathering, I live across the world but through your letters, I know, that your ideas and recommendations always ‘feel so right.’ Hence, sir, your point of view would mean a lot to me, but if this is an intrusion on your time and space (which I’m quite afraid it is) I’m sorry.
(RG note) Thanks for your genteel application, Atiya. And thank you to everyone who sent jpegs. Your confidence in my perspicuity temporarily doomed my computer. But we put a man on it and eventually downloaded them all. I have undertaken to get at them a few at a time over the next month or so. If you don’t hear from me just consider that your work is outstanding and needs no suggestions because you already know what you’re doing. Here are a few quotes from our own Resource of Art Quotations:
“The only crit an artist needs is praise.” (Joe Blodgett)
“Material things aside, we need no advice but approval.” (Coco Chanel)
“We ask advice, but we mean approbation.” (Charles Caleb Colton)
“When we ask advice, we are usually looking for an accomplice.” (Marquis de LaGrange)
“You can’t give advice to an artist.” (Louise Nevelson)
“No one wants advice only corroboration.” (John Steinbeck)
Bias of modern success
by Barrie Cote, Cowichan Bay, BC, Canada
Critical acclaim is not an indicator of artistic merit. Commercial art” is often used as a rude dismissal of another’s creative effort and usually cited by those with poor drawing skills or sloppy work habits. Consider that two centuries ago blurry landscapes submitted to a show or gallery would have ended up out by the dustbin. The advent of “modernism” led to the worship of personality over real artistic excellence. Financial success is drooled over by artists and non-artists alike in the modern world. This has more to do with art fashion and the dictates of gallery owners/bankers than the production of good work. Were you guilty of mouthing current fashion and personal bias? That and more.
Preferences of art teachers
by Elizabeth Nees, Long Beach, CA, USA
Sure it’s your personal prejudices. How could it not be? Every art teacher I ever had, had their preferences. I especially recall one in particular. The class was an upper division “independent projects” course. The teacher’s own work was artist’s books. Her artworks were intimate, hand-held objects. Not surprisingly, she encouraged me to work much smaller — she said my small paintings were more successful. Were they? I don’t know. But it’s 17 years later and as I am writing this I’ve got an eight-foot painting going in my studio. She was unable to help me because she didn’t understand what was truly important to me. But then, the artists who came to you obviously admire your work, and they want their work to look more like yours. So I imagine your advice to them was sound.
Caught in our collective time warp
by Laurie Sain, Lander, WY, USA
How can you not give an opinion that doesn’t in some way reflect “current fashion” or “personal prejudices”? We’re each caught in our collective time warp. This is not to say that your opinion isn’t valid. But it seems obvious that you’re not able to give a professional opinion as if you were a colleague of DaVinci or Breugel. We’re in the 21st Century, and our experiences of art in this century color everything we see and value.
On the other hand, any artist who asks for an opinion, without stating what kind of opinion he or she wants, must be ready to listen and learn. Just because you say it, doesn’t mean the artist has to change. What it does mean is that the artist must compare his or her intent for the reaction the art is supposed to create to the reaction it actually does create. If an artist needs something specific — like emotional support — at some point in the game, it’s also valid to say, “I need encouragement. What are the good things you see in what I produce?” There’s always time later for the whole enchilada of criticism.
Fans of our own work
by Elisabeth Arthur, Hayward, WI, USA
We all have our opinions. I tend to hold back from letting others know what I don’t like about their work, also from making suggestions to improve it. Other artists can get a little bristly and competitive! Still, I want to know what others actually see when they view my paintings, and I want to know what is distracting or distasteful as well as what is good, or interesting. I read the faces, and non-verbals, to get a sense of viewers’ reaction to my work, more than listen to their words. I’m a little wary of great enthusiasm or total apathy.
A little criticism can be more useful than a lot of advice, in my opinion. It can be ignored or considered by the artist. Today, you inspired me to seek greater honesty in communication with other artists. I doubt many of us are great fans of our peers — too wrapped up in our own process! Ultimately we must be fans of our own work, hence, I agree with your advice to do our best.
Then don’t ask
by Kathy Funderburg, Bryan, OH, USA
I find your responses fantastic! If I was sending you samples of my work, it means that I should really want your opinion! If we as artists keep asking for advice from productive, competent, masterful artists, then we sure as hell ought to be open to take their advice. If you don’t want the truth, don’t ask the question! Yikes, we all need input and it is only to help fellow artisans that we all give it openly and honestly. Hoping to help, not hurt.
by Heidi Rolla, Roswell, GA, USA
Art is subjective and it’s impossible to not apply our own prejudices and likes to any given piece. For me, one of the most frustrating parts of earning a college degree in painting was the critique. While they were always offered with encouragement, never in my life had I felt pulled in so many directions. Various instructors would offer criticism and praise on the same piece and they could not have differed more from each other. What I came away with is that classes and advice are effective and important while you are learning the basic skill sets you need to get your idea out of your head into the light. What you do with those abilities is completely up to you and there is no right or wrong, no good or bad. If one person does not relate to a specific style, color, or subject, then another will. I think the bigger question may be, why did the artist ask for the opinion?
Tongue has limited palette
by JP Bex, Montreal, QC, Canada
Taking the dialogue you have between your head and your heart and translating it into a language your mouth can participate in is incredibly difficult and very personal. The artist combines what is a very limited palette of notes, colors and materials (and even words!) to translate an emotion. And that is when we realize how limited a palette our tongue has to work with. Thelonious Monk said, “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.”
Reaching beyond competence
by David Schwindt, Tucson, AZ, USA
One of my teachers, Milford Zornes, prefaced a workshop with the statement that he could only share what he knew personally about painting, and that in his workshop one should try to do it his way. If workshop participants were there to paint only in their own way, then they would not get much out of the experience. This certainly parallels your advice to work with instructors who do not “paint as you do.” I think most creative artists want to reach beyond their competency level, and working with other artists is a good way to challenge oneself.
Art of learning
by Gail Ingis Claus, Fairfield, CT, USA
Your letter today speaks of a great truth about “the critique.” To critique and to be critiqued is one of the most important processes of being an artist; mind you of any kind, architect, designer, dancer, musician, painter, writer, the list is endless, and probably the most difficult process to do or to receive. At some point in my artistic careers, (that is a plural) I gave up experiencing the pain that goes along with this process, because baby, that’s the best way to grow! My background is architecture and interior design, so I am coming from illustration training, similar to the good commercial-type illustrations that you describe. It took much study and lots of workshops with artists who do not paint that way to “loosen up” and get “some intrigue” into my art. I now call myself “painter of soft realism.”
Real criticism, not sugar coated
by Brian Petroski, Schuylerville, NY, USA
>As an artist looking to go somewhere, I constantly seek out “real” criticism since most people tend to stroke the artist’s ego in order to not hurt their feelings. I would (at this point) rather hear what others dislike, rather than what they like, since most tend to like the same things. Artists should not be seeking “sugar coated” compliments, especially from professional artists and others (critics or gallery reps) in the industry. Babying them with those sorts of comments does nothing to improve their technique or artistic maturity.
If artists are serious, they learn that everything is just an opinion and that they need to learn for themselves what opinions to consider and what ones to shrug off. You cannot change your artwork based on every opinion that gets tossed your way. Seek real criticism, be honest with yourself, don’t let others’ (compliments) stroke your ego (too much), and know that not everyone will like your artwork!
People buy it
by Anne West, Santa Barbara, CA, USA
My sister, who was educated as an artist (but now works for the City and does hardly any art), always tells my friend ohn Grandfield to loosen up and get away from the camera. John, who makes his living as an artist, paints every day in his living room studio. He stretches his own canvas, makes his own frames, and sells at only one place, one day a week — the Sunday beach walk art show in Santa Barbara, CA. John has been successful as a painter, and sells between 3-5 paintings every Sunday, 52 weeks of the year. People love his work. It is realistic, and although maybe other artists don’t see the value in this, it resonates with his buyers, who often come back for more than one. How can we judge his art as insufficient in any way if he is making his living in one of the most beautiful places in the world, selling only one day a week? People buy it. Isn’t that the point?
Responsibility and vulnerability
by Mark Hope, Wasaga Beach, ON, Canada
I think opinions are two-way streets. The opinionator and opinionatee must remain open. The opinionator has a responsibility to make constructive and HONEST suggestions wrapped in an understanding that the opinionatee’s soul is being laid bare here. The opinonatee has equal responsibility to accept criticism, not as an attack on their ego but as a helping hand to hone their skills. People looking for approval will always be damaged by honest critiquing. Particularly if the work is lacking in some way. People who offer opinions to simply build their own egos are equally dangerous. Opinions of the kind you speak of, Robert, are valid if the rules of the road are observed… Sounds like you did. My personal experience is I want to hear the honest critique because in the long run it will make me a better painter and in the long run more emotionally resilient.
Art mirrors life
by Liane Wakabayashi, Tokyo, Japan
It’s my belief that a stiff and pasty painting style would be better remedied by encouraging the artist to “soften the edges” not in his next choice of painting technique or teacher, but in his approach to life. Sometimes a good early morning stroll can do more for an artist than the chance to study with an award-winning painter ever will. Surround yourself with loving people, positive thoughts, and pleasant scenery and your art can’t help but to mirror the reality of your life. Breakthroughs in art come from breakthroughs in living.
Challenge of another medium
by Jon Henderson
My mother, a glass artist, signed me up for your letter. My father works in encaustic wax. I am a tile-setter who merely takes other people’s art and sets it upon walls, though I am experimenting with my lifelong desire of stringed instruments and making them in my garage. Not being bound by convention, I am pushing the limits such as I might find. The challenges of each medium/trade can be different because of the technical aspect of how the medium responds or what is required of the work by the trade. Still, I have found an explosive personal growth by taking what may be a challenge to another medium and applying it to my own, irrespective of whether or not it poses a challenge to my medium. In doing so, I have found that elements that I have taken for granted because they pose no problem have been elevated because my attention has been redirected to them.
All of us on a journey
by Louise Corke, Australia
I have found that the folks who ask for critiques are the ones who are prepared to hear what needs improving and really do want an honest appraisal. They want real advice, real opinions from someone more experienced. What they do with that advice is up to them. Some weigh it up and decide that it has some pointers of merit; sometimes they don’t agree and move on. For my students I usually couch my critiques with “this how I feel about your work… others may feel differently, if something is useful in my comments then that is great, if you disagree that is okay. We are all on a journey… the perfect painting is yet to be done… none of us are there yet.”
Software for Paint-o-gram
by Annette Waterbeek, Maple Ridge, BC, Canada
I loved your Paint-o-gram. Your computer in the picture looks like a Mac. Where could I find out how to link my Mac to my Canon?
(RG note) Thanks, Annette. The Mac is my son James’s, as is the Canon. He uses software called Final Cut Pro. My computer is a PC, and my camera is a Nikon, although the video camera we’re now playing with is a Canon GL1. The software Im using for the PC is Adobe Premiere Elements 3.0
photograph (created from negatives of mineral slices)
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Ljiljana Lazicic-Putnik of Pula, Croatia who wrote, “Your letters are about the art, imaginations and reflections of the art, quality thinking and passion of the art.”
And also Robert Cerins who wrote, “How are you painting right now? Are you pleased and exciting yourself? Or maybe just coasting? Do you go up and down with your moods? Right now in my life I’m getting calmer and stronger with each stroke I lay down. I am enjoying the ride. Life’s great as I love every Pixel of this world! Honesty is Sexy.”
And also Laura Wilhelm of Lynn, MA, USA who wrote, “As an Expressive Therapist and an artist, I’m always curiously mesmerized at our personal perspectives and how they seem shape almost every action, thought, and emotion at any given time during any given day? Who IS to say what’s right or wrong?”
And also Karen Lorena Parker of Richmond, BC, Canada, who wrote, “When I try to think of the relative worth of my art practice I think of John Lennon. We as artists can fulfill an inspirational role in society, which may be the best way to measure our success.”
And also Sandy Nelson of Kitty Hawk, NC, USA who wrote, “When I ask for advice from an artist whose works I admire, I ‘listen’ and try to see what I do through their eyes; sometimes it is a humbling experience, sometimes validating, but I need to see what others see with fresh eyes when viewing what I do.”