From time to time there’s a letter in my inbox that asks, “What shall I paint?” The question popped up again this morning. Fun. I love to put my mind around questions like this. Like most of us, I ask it every day.
Alexis Carrel noted, “All of us, at certain moments of our lives, need to take advice and to receive help from other people.” It’s been my observation that artists are a pretty unpredictable bunch when it comes to taking and giving advice. Some would not be caught dead actually picking up a snippet of someone else’s knowledge. Others keep file cards of found and solicited advice and put a remarkable trust in advisers.
We live in a time of democratization and the primacy of the individual. These days art is often expected to be boldly unique and the product of an unfettered and uninfluenced mind.
There’s even a premium on naiveté. There are art schools that make it a point not to give advice on very much other than lifestyle. I also have to report that there are schools where students are presented with a seemingly impassable wall of challenging techniques and insider advice of all sorts. Let’s say that the making of artists has always been a bit of a mystery. Sometimes I’m of the opinion that the only advice artists need is approval.
For those of us in the workshop and guru business, questions such as how to stretch a canvas or varnish a finished work are fairly straightforward. The answers are quantifiable and verifiable. Other questions such as, “What shall I paint?” and “How can I make my mark?” are of a separate order. These are questions where an artist must reach within his or her soul to find the answers. It’s not always easy. It’s safe to say that many will never find their direction. The key to getting the big art advice is to clearly state and understand the big art questions. Here’s my advice: Teach yourself the acquired art of digging around in your passions. Re-run the dream-worlds of your childhood. Dance in the joy of your personal successes. Depersonalize advisers. Avoid messiahs. Be philosophic about what others do and have done. Talk long and hard with the wise one who knows you better than anyone — yourself.
Esoterica: Right now I’m going for a few days to a remote island. I will sit at the edge of a mysterious forest. I’m going to ruminate on “What shall I paint?” If I come up with anything new, you’ll be the first to hear about it. Just before closing the door of the studio, this quote came in: “Quit now, you’ll never make it. If you disregard this advice, you’ll be halfway there.” (David Zucker)
The following are selected correspondence arising from the above and other letters. Thanks for writing.
Discovering your voice
Kelly Borsheim, Cedar Creek, Texas, USA
Before I started sculpting — and was just painting — someone asked the question, “What is it you are trying to say?” I was stumped. You mean I have to SAY something? I thought I was challenged enough just and creating compositions with the figure that I found interesting! Years passed as I occasionally pondered the question while I kept working. At some point people started to tell me that they could tell my painting from others — that I had a certain style or voice. I looked back over the body of my work and realized that I had been saying things all along. It came from painting what moved me and stopping work on any composition that I lost interest in for whatever reason. Now, as I mature as an artist, I have been trying to apply my voice to actual words and concepts in my head. I have many undone works that collect dust as the more interesting ideas take precedence. Understanding my ideas and figuring out how to display them in a visual language is a journey of growth. It also has the fringe benefit of helping me create artist’s statements and titles.
If you have to ask…
Anne K. Swannell
If a person needs to ask, “what shall I paint?” he or she might just as well not bother. If you aren’t deluged daily with the urge to paint this view or that dream or a certain object, place, or being, you haven’t got the eye for it, and you’d better pick another occupation. Or, at very least, another medium!
Creativity needs a studio
I think the best way to handle the “What shall I paint” problem is to go to the studio every day and look at stuff or clean up stuff and soon you will be inspired. Look at books; think about a problem you would like to solve…do technical studies, soon the muse will come. But it will never happen if you are not in the studio so be there a lot, even if you are not painting! Being a printmaker I never paint, but I am trying to figure out how to get some texture in a print, still, it will lead to nothing if I am not ever in the studio.
Open our minds
Having only started to paint within the last four years, I have gotten desperately annoyed with myself at times, with not knowing what to paint next or even wanting to continue painting. I have at times wanted to quit the art but something in me wants me to keep going. I am traveling quite a lot these days, and everywhere I look, something catches my eye that beckons to be painted. We live in a beautiful big world where there is so much out there to give ideas, we have only to open our minds and our eyes to this beauty.
A thousand paintings within
Sharon Voyles, Amish Country, Illinois, USA
“What is there to paint?” A better question is “What is there NOT to paint?” I too have heard people ask that question, and it amazes me. As a fledgling art student I said, “I have a thousand paintings within me to paint.” Well, I now think of that times 100 and know I will not live long enough to complete all the paintings that COULD BE! I will be always looking for the next painting to be better than the one before.
Paint like an elephant
Warren Criswell, Benton, Arkansas, USA
Painting is one thing but art is another. You can teach an elephant to paint, but you can’t teach it to be an artist. The same goes for humans. On the other hand, that’s a point of view specific to our culture. The Greeks, for instance, made no distinction between craft and art but used the same word for both. We have separated them like the body from the soul. True art floats above us somewhere in the heavens, invisible, indefinable and unattainable. I think that’s the meaning of the message, “Quit now, you’re never going to make it.” Maybe it’s better to just paint like an elephant.
Name withheld by request
I came to the beginning of my artistic voice during my second year of grad school in NYC. The group of students and teachers that year were challenging in their aggressive and competitive behavior. So I turned inward and I also took up yoga. The result was a final semester of work that surprised even me. It was a solid beginning to my relationship with my inner voice as an adult. Four years after grad school I had a child and later I had a second. Although they have enriched my life and inspired my creativity, initially I was thrown off balance and needed to realign myself to really get my work going. I found a yogi/therapist to help me remove blocks that might inhibit my success as an artist. I then realized how passionate I am about what is real but indescribable. In this discovery, my creativity has become more and more natural. It definitely comes from within. Other art and artists can still inspire me, but when I am in my studio, I rely on letting go and centering myself in order to have the freedom to express originally. I have come to realize that I am not bound to doing what others tell me to do in order to make art. I accept that spiritual activity, literature, nature and life experiences feed my art and inspiration. I can now spend less time going to galleries, seeing only a few works that speak to me to reassure me I am part of an artistic lineage.
We are the creators of reality
Nic East, Jim Thorpe, PA, USA
When undertaking any art project, whether painterly, sculptural or verbal, I take on an attitude of adventuresome experiment. Knowing that the learning process is based primarily upon experimentation, for that is how we push back our frontiers, enables me to search for and seize upon serendipitous results. This unexpected discovery of new avenues of pursuit and expression of the results is strongly empowering to any artist who is willing to submit with courage to the use of the unknown as a tool. We who are artists are the true makers of reality, for it is we who are at the nexus of any expression of newness. We are, at the very least, progenitors of life style for all the others who ascribe to our ideals and methodologies. Looking around at our environment will dispel any misgivings you might have regarding this thesis, for everything you see that is man-made has an artist at its beginnings.
One small part
Corinne McIntyre, Ocean Point, East Boothbay, Maine, USA
I went out painting early one morning and thought about my good fortune to sit there by the sea on the rocks with the seagulls crying, the cormorants diving, the eiders tending their young, and the putt putt of a single lobster boat. No one was around. I was in heaven. And best of all…I live here. I have probably done hundreds and hundreds of paintings on this stretch of shore a mile or so long. Never do I tire of it. The sky and sea and rocks are always different. How amazing that such a variety can exist in nature in just one small part of the universe.
Inspiration from Manhattan
Sandi, Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, USA
I just returned from 10 days in Manhattan. Before I left I was at a standstill on what to paint. I was not inspired. I stayed at an available apartment that is across from Central Park West. Of course I walked to all the Museums and around Manhattan and the Park taking pictures. I gathered lots of ideas and now I am filled with inspiration from not only all the artists displayed at the museums but mostly from all the beautiful art displayed in the little niches and alleyways of Manhattan. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to get away but I truly believe if we just walk outside in our own backyards, or travel to a local park or beach we can become inspired. I did not really have my creative eyes open to see the beauty of my own backyard. I am again inspired and ready to paint.
Me and my art
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