A subscriber wrote, “Some of my painter friends insist that I don’t have a unique angle in my work. I feel all I can do is carry on and paint as much as I can and not worry about it, and eventually it will come. To force it would be easy as I’m a professional designer and illustrator. It would also be shallow and dishonest, do you agree? Do you have some advice on this?”
My friend Sam emailed some work from her latest series. Before I knew it, I was writing back, “You need a show.” “I was going to contact you about that,” she replied. “Maybe you can help me a little bit with the foreign language of portfolios and galleries and what to do.” No problem, Sam. Here are a couple of time-tested ideas:
There’s a marvellous painting by John Singer Sargent called An Artist in his Studio. It shows a balding man in obviously reduced circumstances, his canvas half onto his mussed bed. He’s attempting to match colours from what appears to be a postcard.
The painting is bitter-sweet, and in a way, sad. By the window’s clean light, the old fellow is trying to get it right. It’s even sadder when we realize that these days “trying to get it right” is in danger of becoming a lost art. We are in the days of anything goes. Verisimilitude is often suspect, and many artists bend toward fashion
When travelling as a girl with my dad to workshops and demos, I noticed that he always brought a frame. At points throughout the painting process, he’d clip in the canvas and place it on a secondary easel, a few meters from where he’d set up. The idea was to get the composition stopped and distance the maker from his object. In this sliver of detachment, problems could be addressed, decisions made and the potential treasure imagined.
A subscriber wrote, “It has been pointed out that all of my paintings have a center of interest on the right-hand side. Generally there’s a dark blob on the right because that seems to be how I like to compose. Is this something to do with one side of the brain? Do other people have the same problem? Is it serious and in need of correction? I’m sure it occurs entirely unconsciously.”
You don’t have to be an introvert to be an artist, but adopting the qualities of one could awaken your slumbering masterpiece. Extroverts may schmooze the salons and First Thursdays, but art is an inside job. Lone wolves eschew social distraction, the safety of institutions and domestic busyness in favour of ripening ideas independently. Unsung aloneness is where your process is permitted to take root and grow, unfettered by outside influences. Let your skill, style and work develop over time in the company of your cold, hard grit.
Like a lot of us I get quite a few calls from beginning artists in need of advice. Sometimes it starts off with a technical question that leads to larger, more motivational questions. Yesterday a neighbour lady, Carmen, phoned and wanted “general, overall mentoring” leading to “guidance on what she wanted to do.” She had painted part of a painting that very morning and wondered if she could bring it over. I gave my usual: “Paint a hundred more and then bring them over.”
Recently, my sister-in-law, New York playwright Laura Bray, made a short film with two collaborators about what it’s like to audition as a woman. In Casting Call, The Project, actors read aloud the character breakdowns posted on casting call notices, exposing the stereotypes and clichés that pollute female film roles – it’s all about gender, sexuality, race, age and body type. Intended as a conversation among performing artists about the need to be their own storytellers, the project has taken off — several hundred thousand views within 24 hours of being posted on social media.
Allen Sapp, one of Canada’s most collected aboriginal painters, was given encouragement and support in his youth by a young doctor who believed in him. He was supplied with burnt sienna, ultramarine blue, yellow ochre, black and white. Allen worked with this palette for some time before he found there were others available. Today, forty years later, his color range is still modest, but his imagination is great. I think that the remarkable strength of his painting is at least partly due to the self-training that took place under this early limitation.
My friend Ross was a firefighter for nearly three decades before retiring a few years ago to paint full time. He says riding the city streets for countless hours on a fire truck gave him not only a thorough look at the district but also a special perspective. After a shift of two days and nights at the firehall, he’d spend two days in the studio making art. This cocktail of co-operation and teamwork spiked with solo, creative problem-solving became his life. The studio time, he says, was a way to quietly debrief the life-and-death emergencies of firefighting.