Yesterday my studio computer jingled with a question that concerns a lot of us. Antonia Mitchell wrote, “While I’m an established artist, I still have a problem. I’m continually compelled to experiment with different forms of art. When looking at your work and that of others, I’m impressed by the distinct styles, and wonder if I need to settle on some one thing. The last teacher I had at The Art Students League in New York City, said to me, You need to choose.’ I chose, in a fashion, but I hip-hop. Do you have any thoughts on this?”
I sure do. With my near-fatal combination of ADD and the persistent delusion that I’m Leonardo da Vinci, my chronic scatterings have become a way of life. But I know I’ve got company — a lot of us find that hip-hopping comes with the territory. Of course, a few iron-willed souls specialize intuitively — others are what I call “specialists by default,” — their natural range just happens to be fairly narrow. But scatterbrain rabbits also thrive, and may just happen to lead interesting lives.
In the long run they may contribute more, as well. By trying more, they may end up doing more. Also, when an artist lives in her chosen processes — however many — and gives them the blessing of time — focus tends to come automatically. When you feel yourself doing well, you find yourself doing more of what you do well. I’ll swear on a stack of Leonardo’s notebooks that it doesn’t have anything to do with cash flow. For many of us, there’s nothing sunnier than a land of challenging variety and a flirtation with uniqueness. I agree with the old hippie who said: “If it feels good, do it.” Style will find itself in its own sweet time. And, for sure, style discovered gives more joy than style appropriated.
My advice? When you are going in a certain direction, go hard. Give it everything you’ve got. Also, look at your focus work as exploration, not product. When your flame burns down, smile, start again on another. Leonardo knew that finding yourself is not one of the main things you have to do — it’s the only thing you have to do. It may take longer than you think. So what?
PS: “My work became intuitive and interpretive. Work demands an absorbing concentration and takes you away from a self-conscious, arbitrary style into work that is really your own.” (Beth van Hoesen)
Esoterica: A problem I’ve found with hip-hopping: When no satisfaction is immediately gained, “between-inertia” can set in. A curious lethargy and inaction prevails. Going guilt-free is best — I’ve found it important to press on and quickly prime the next pump. “Iron rusts from disuse, stagnant water loses its purity, and in cold weather becomes frozen; even so does inaction sap the vigors of the mind.” (Leonardo da Vinci)
Returning to a form
J Bruce Wilcox, Denver, Colorado, USA
In 1978 I began a series of hand-quilted, stretched, painted & framed pieces that would take me through the end of the 1980s. Though my first art-quilt in 1977 was “pieced,” it would be 1990 before I returned to that form. Since then I have created about 100 pieces, many quite large, and been juried into Fiberart International 2001. I know that, even to me, this seems like a small number, but what I do is labor intensive, and if I create 10 pieces in a year I’ve completed a lot of work.
How good it feels
Anna West, New York, NY, USA
“Giving it everything you’ve got,” eliminates some of the hip-hopping — you have to spend the time/money to really concentrate on the new medium. I was an established photographer for 20 years when my husband mentioned that I seemed to enjoy painting them rather than taking them. I realized he was right and dove into oil painting. It is amazing how much I love painting with oils these last four years and how good it felt to be a beginner again. Do not be afraid to try something new.
Donna Brower Watts, Aloha, Oregon, USA
I, too, have been told that I need to choose one area and stay with it. But there’s a whole wide world of possibilities out there. And who knows — the next thing I try just MIGHT be the thing that is really, really ME!! Luckily, I have had instructors who lend credence to that. They give you lots of things to try with the admonition to use what works for you and pitch the rest. Who knows, you may come back later and discover that what didn’t grab you this time will “take” next time. I live for the possibilities.
Let nature take its course
Marney Ward, Victoria, BC, Canada
I think it’s dangerous to appropriate a style too quickly. My students are always trying to reach the point where they have a recognizable style, but I tell them to let nature take its course, and their style will eventually develop. If they consciously maintain some particular technique because they think it has become their signature, this technique can become an albatross around their neck, preventing them from growing and evolving as artists. Even Picasso had his various periods, each distinct from the others. If a characteristic is truly coming from the soul, it will persist through our work unconsciously, without us deliberately adopting it. To quote William Blake, “The man who never alters his opinion is like standing water, & breeds reptiles of the mind.”
Lori S. Lukasewich, Calgary, AB, Canada
A few years ago a well-known art dealer told me that if collectors were to see the full range of my work they would not believe that it had all been done by the same person. True story. At the time I was somewhat baffled and confused. My thinking was that it should be the dealer’s job to point out to the collector that this kind of versatility was a desirable quality in an artist. I still think that. I often feel that I am not productive because I am torn about what I should be focusing on. I am constantly wishing just to be IN my work, whatever it is. The positive side of this embarrassment of riches is that I do have broad knowledge and experience to pass on to my students.
Tricia Migdoll, Byron Bay, Australia
As a new painter, I have a million ideas in my head — and some just burst forth & dominate. That’s the way I am going to go — being true to myself and dismissing the viewer as irrelevant. The beauty of it is, that when I paint — I LOSE myself in it — “I” disappear … there is no “me” — just the painting. Lord knows I attempt things that are way beyond my ability, but who cares?
I do what I feel
Judi A. Gorski (JAG), California, USA
I thought I would never develop a style of my own. I had a multitude of styles. Every class I took or teacher who influenced me resulted in paintings I produced that appeared to have nothing to do with each other and didn’t look like the same person painted them. This changed when I began painting full time. For a couple of years now I have been absorbed painting the surfers and the beach life in my neighborhood. I live at the southern west edge of San Francisco, with the Pacific Ocean across the street from my studio/gallery/home. Every day I see surfers at their cars preparing their surfboards, or changing in and out of their wetsuits with big colorful beach towels wrapped around them. I have become fascinated with all the work that is involved in that sport, a sport I don’t do myself, and suddenly there is a series of paintings, all having a lot to do with each other, all in the same realistic style that has become mine. If you wander through my gallery, however, there are the abstract mixed-media paintings, and impressionistic paintings, from another time. Every now and then, tired of painting details with a tiny eyeliner brush, I’ll paint an abstract piece with textures and objects stuck in it. I’ve decided that it’s ok for me to do what I feel like.
Sara Genn, Vancouver, BC, Canada
Picasso was a guy who hip-hopped his whole career and managed to make everything he was appropriating his own, with “Studied Carelessness” (Sprezzatura — still one of my favourite recent letters), play and imagination. You have not mentioned him in this letter but I think he is the master of it. He is the ultimate success story of the artist who is all over the place and not only survives but thrives on it, owns it as his own style’ and has longevity to boot.
(RG note) Sprezzatura is at Sprezzatura
Visible signs of conflict
Faith Puelston, Wetter, Germany
Leonardo is said to have actually finished only 12 paintings, so busy was he exploring and discovering and probably changing his mind. I don’t know if that’s a false claim, but it’s what I tell people when they are flipping through the stacks of canvasses that are gradually taking over all my floor-space. My personal relationship to a self-made artwork tends to shift once it’s finished. I quite often consign it to the devil. If someone buys it, fine. Then I have more space for new works. My unfinished paintings are — to me — visible signs of conflict, and it is the conflict — the challenge — that counts. Finding that horse locked inside a block of stone, seeing a mountain appear in all its glory on the horizon of a 30×40 canvas. Artists are a privileged species, usually to be found somewhere between Scilla and Charibdis, the devil and the deep blue sea, with the Damocles sword hanging over them, because they constantly put themselves on the line. But then again, who wants an easy life? You’re a long time dead.
Style just emerged
For me sculpture had been attractive and electronic art in one fashion or another remains my bread and butter, but acrylic painting on canvas is what I love. Once I discovered that the painted surface was such a dynamic thing no other form has distracted me. As to style, I never adopted any style, but in my effort to unify each painting into a thing on its own (a totality with organic impact), a kind of style has emerged which people often comment on. I guess it is jerry-style.
I agree that being an artist involves constantly exploring how to be creative. Unfortunately I haven’t found one commercial gallery yet that approves of this part of the creative process. It’s because commercial galleries are there to make a profit and they only want a recognizable product. Not a new and different one every month. All the gallery owners I’ve talked with want a certain style, or what’s currently in vogue, in other words what will sell. Creativity is not a concern of the business world. Profits rule the day. This has always been a problem for me with every new medium I try, as my “style” doesn’t dictate how I’ll use that medium but the medium does. Thus my oils are different from my acrylics which are different from my watercolours and my prints, etc… My only thought that I can add to yours about exploring creativity is have fun exploring while being true to yourself.
Too many points
I have recently started studying with a well-known impressionist painter. He pointed out that I’m all over the place, have too many focal points and thus lose the intensity of a single powerful statement. I agree. I fall in love with each corner of the canvas, and when I’m outside painting, I fall in love with the central tree, the street behind, the background which then stops looking like a background, and the lovingly painted shadows and fallen petals in the foreground, etc. I need to keep it simple. That’s where FORM comes in. I’m trying to simplify my compositions, make my statements, and sacrifice other (beautiful) areas of the canvas in order to keep my focal point POWERFUL. By flitting all over the canvas and rendering details subordinate to my central point I was watering down the power of the image.
Re-master the old
oliver, Houston, Texas, USA
Nietzsche’s uberman theory may shed some light. It was about mastering something and then throwing it over in order to remain fresh and vital. I think there is something to this in the arts. How many artists do you know that get stuck in a rut for years… sometimes because that is what sells, but haven’t really done anything new… The downside is, sometimes what is new doesn’t work as well or is almost like starting over. A risk. However, even if you go back to your roots, you’ll bring the results of the new perspectives and explorations which will tend to freshen and renew your roots. Maybe you’ll include them or maybe you’ll eliminate things; it is unlikely you won’t grow and change on the return if you ever you return… the rut is broken/prevented. Master things and continue to explore new challenges and maybe you need to re-master the old with new perspectives.
The answers lie within
Linda Saccoccio (Radha), Santa Barbara, CA, USA
I felt great joy in hearing that Leonardo gave ultimate importance to discovering and knowing one’s Self. I use a capital “S” for Self because in the yogic tradition our true Self is our God nature. Dedicating our lives to knowing who we are is what allows us to find our unique voice divinely. I have found that what we do outside the studio is as important as what we do inside our studios as far as self expansion and vision go. The more we know our Self the more we have to offer. This is not a stagnant process. It is a lively journey that will evolve and change appropriately. We don’t need to impose a style, we just have to show up and be present to catch its unfolding. For some, the changes will be more subtle and for others or at other times, changes internal will be expressed externally more completely. I think what would be dangerous for any artist is to feel locked into a style. This seems to me to be the opposite of the reason for choosing a life of freedom in visual expression. The so-called style is only vital if we are engaging in it fully. When that love has ended either we come to a new mode of expression naturally or we acknowledge the shift and re-examine our inner shift. I think the answers always lie within.
Janet Warrick, Chicago, Illinois, USA
My choice of painting style is not really a choice, but a compelling need. For as long as I can remember I have been totally enamored of Impressionism. The color, the dazzling light, the rendering of nature that is, to my eye, truer than any other style. It “speaks” to me. In my desire to understand it and the mechanics of painting in general, I have struggled long and hard, often in the dark, sometimes (more often than I care to admit) wondering why I was so dense that I couldn’t “get it”. But perseverance has paid off, for I have recently come to a new understanding of what it is that I’m after and where I want to go. New insights are coming regularly, and are pushing me forward. Though I have far to go, my work can only improve from here. One thing I’m sure I don’t want is a “self-conscious, arbitrary style” that smacks of the cookie-cutter. The kind where every painting looks exactly like every other painting regardless of motif. There are many artists who paint like this and do very well. And sometimes they freely dispense advice to other artists, or worse yet, teach others how to do this cookie-cutter art. I wonder if this type of painting is encouraged by galleries who want to put artists in boxes so they can sell more paintings?
I recently read a great little book that was written by a student of Henry Hensche (Hensche was a student of, and assistant to Charles Hawthorne). The book is called Hensche On Painting — A Student’s Notebook by John W. Robichaux. It’s written in the same style as Hawthorne On Painting and might be of interest to anyone who is a proponent of Hawthorne. In it Hensche speaks of painters who fool themselves by painting pictures that show no study beyond being just pictures.
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, 2003. That includes Mickie Acierno who wrote, “I recently had a piece ‘reviewed’ by a well known artist and it took me a couple of days to process, and then discard most of what she said. I’m learning to thicken my skin!” And Darlene Steele who wrote, “I am a butterfly and would have it no other way.” And also Marilyn Hunt who wrote, “I was a young wide-eyed girl of 15, that leaned towards the hippie mentality. My father stopped by my bedroom and caringly asked, ‘Is there anything that’s particularly bothering you lately?’ to which I replied ‘Well I just want to find myself’. ‘Besides that,’ was his reply. He must have known!!” And Moncy Barbour, of Lynchburg, VA who writes, “If you travel down a path of maples, with all their grandeur, you will also discover new species of trees and plants.” And Sandy Sandy, Tabernacle, NJ, USA who writes, “If variety is what it takes to peek and maintain one’s enthusiasm, so be it! Along with academic artistic study, attitude is key. ‘Don’t stop to paint the material, but push on to give the spirit.’ (Robert Henri, The Art Spirit)