“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.
A subscriber wrote to say that many artists proclaim themselves to be “self-taught.” She cannot imagine that anyone is truly self-taught. She says, “I have learned from books, art exhibits, life, relationships, observations, and conversations with all sorts of people. I hear all comments and criticisms around me. I chew on them. I’m nourished by the ones that I decide work for me and spit out the others.”
I once took a turn as a sometimes player in a New York rock band. The leader, a long-haired, Gibson SG-wielding screamer who also studied Buddhist meditation, told me that in Rock ‘n Roll, making it clear about what you’re against rather than what you love is most effective. With this formula, rockers have successfully defined themselves. By kicking off a point of view, they have united, disrupted and inspired their audiences.
Here’s an exercise that you might try the next time you’re having a bout of creative constipation. I’ll relate it to painting but it works as well if you’re sculpting or writing a short story. It goes like this:
Make a painting that looks like it was done in five minutes, but take at least two hours to do it. Go seriously to work at making the thing and the job look casual and easy. Give it flourish and spin. Get the gestures right with freedom and paucity.
“Everyone has a quest,” a friend once said when visiting the studio. “An artist’s quest is in her work.” I was pulling a number 50 super soft piano bright along the edge of a soaked grey cloud, beguiled for the millionth time by the twinkling and mysterious possibilities of painting. “Without the quest, there’s no epiphany,” I replied. The pursuit of truth, innovation, beauty, surprise, connection — to communicate, propel, report, witness, comfort — these are the timeless commands of art. By renouncing known routes to engage the ache for the ever-truer, the artist begins:
Every time one of my letters disappears from this box, mail comes back with topic suggestions. I really appreciate these ideas. One of the most frequently requested is “procrastination” — a subject of which I’m proud to be an authority. Just as it takes a somewhat recovered alcoholic to stand up in an AA meeting, I’m your guy.
A regular inbox question goes like this: “Your dad wrote that he would gladly give a refund to someone if they weren’t satisfied or had an issue with a painting. How does that work, exactly, for art?” The query kicks a hornet’s nest of grey areas like painting condition, time passed since the original sale, gallery commissions and how much of a cash float an artist needs to keep on hand for refunds. If this idea sounds a bit strange, let me explain.
Innovation is a branch of invention that makes changes in existing systems. These changes need not be dramatic. They may not even be seen as improvements. In the art game they need only to be different.
Yesterday, while I was looking into the innards of a public gallery, the work of Charles John Collings (1848-1931) caught my attention. Collings was well trained in English watercolour methodology. Immigrating to Canada in 1910 at age 61, he spent his last twenty years honing a unique style.
When IBM surveyed the world’s CEOs on how to thrive in business, technology, health and every other industry, the results almost unanimously pointed to one determining factor. More than rigor, management, strategy, integrity or even vision, creativity came out as the top skill. Less than half of senior leaders believe their businesses are equipped for an increasingly complex and volatile global economy, and their proposed solution is to bump up the value of imagination. Part of this plan is to set up projects like “skunkworks” — innovation theorist Everett Rogers’ term for a free-association think-tank on company time. The problem is that committees, by their nature, tend to kill ingenuity in favour of what’s comfortable. And what’s comfortable is usually what’s most familiar. In advertising, it’s called “status quo bias,” and brands rely on it to keep their customers coming back for the mediocre.
Yesterday, I was being curious again about one of my little habits — a habit that some artists might relate to. I like to start a painting off in a mess and then try to harness and control the thing. It’s appealing to me to make something unruly into something ordered. Please don’t mention this to anyone — right now I’m compulsive about it.