May 9, 2000
The feeling of competence is the first evidence of professionalism--that
lovely space that comes when we can look at a job well done and
can say that it fulfils or exceeds what was first envisioned. Professionalism
is where we take ourselves seriously and are more likely to be taken
seriously by others. It's not won overnight. Competence through
professionalism is a form of labor, but for us it's a labor of love.
If you wish yourself well you must teach yourself the habits to
bring it along. Here are a few of what I've found to be the elements
Workmanlike approach: A strange attitude to
some--it's boilerplate to others. A project might
run like this: Assembly of reference material and
ideas. Contemplation. Production of sketches.
Contemplation. Preparation for the art event.
Contemplation. Confident execution.
Contemplation. Reparation. Final vetting.
Respect for time: "Clock" is the secret
device of many professionals. Time is not to be
wasted or haphazardly dreamed into oblivion.
Self-orchestrated deadlines are planned and met.
Projects are neither under-timed nor are they
dragged out. There's the full and profound
understanding that in the bigger picture the
great life-project is ticking and ebbing.
Respect for space: The tools of the trade are
ready and set to handedness and efficiency. Most
everything is right to the artist's own devising.
The place and atmosphere is conducive to
work--right down to your idiosyncratic and
personal details--privacy, music, light, health,
There are of course other factors that lead to
competence, and I'll allude to these in future
letters. Funnily, many of these seemingly minor
ephemera are what makes our often frustrating
profession a continual and unqualified joy.
If you would like to see selected correspondence relating to the
previous letter "Blocked," please
PS: "The artistic temperament is a disease which afflicts amateurs."
(G K Chesterton)
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Just as Joe DiMaggio
was competent at hitting home runs and runs
batted in during the '39 season, many bush
league boys couldn't get over 250, and so it
is with artists. Some are more competent than
others. Competence is more than just talent or a
giftit's an application and dedication
which in the case of artists may take a lifetime
to develop. Like DiMaggio, it takes a strong
desire to win and a diligent practice to get
I found your comments on professionalism
interesting but also somewhat disturbingly confining. When I have
finished with a sculpture I never find myself with the feeling of
'a job well done' and certainly it never 'exceeds what was first
envisioned'. However, if I achieve an approximation of what I had
envisioned at the start, I feel reasonably happy. I grant you that
as an artist in different disciplines we may have different approaches,
as a painter we can scrape off what we do not like and repaint and
do this over and over again as long as the canvas will last, but
if you are a sculptor the rock is unforgiving, once chopped away
it can not be put back. I will keep on chopping!
Chris Rose, British
I hope you are enjoying this effulgent,
lush, and verdant springtime. Sometimes on hikes nowadays I can
feel the trees' pulse along with my own thumping heart. The geology,
the hints of strata below, have never been more beautiful.
It seems so many of us homo sapiens are
making radical and courageous changes in our
lives these days. Love, friendships, spiritual
practice, work, health, fitness are getting a
fresh appraisal and approach. Out with the
useless, the dead wood, and on with the new. Go
P.S. "Well-behaved women rarely make history."
(Perhaps the same can be said for men.)
What amazes me about
time is how it slips away when I am at the easel.
To me it is a dream-like state where small
problems are presented one after the other and as
they are solved the mind moves on to new
problems. I consider this state to be really
quite beautiful. I often ask myself how I got
this way. Workers in many industries are watching
the slow progress of the clock for hours of every
day. My only concern is that time moves too fast
when I am painting.
I do like to keep
track of my time as I work. Using time well and
carefully is a science, and when you say respect
you're right on. But I think there's a
proper time to be loose with timeletting
the segments fly by without remorse when
you're into those golden periods where time
stands still and the work itself takes over.
These "timelessnesses", if that's
a word, are worth working for.
No minimum wage here
It amazes me is how
little time it takes to do good work. I'm
one of the artists who feel freshness is almost
more important than anything else. Also by
learning to be fast and loose within the time I
have allotted to do the work I surprise myself by
how much my actual hourly wage is.
As Faith Baldwin
said: "Time is a dressmaker specializing in
alterations." I always think about this when
I'm making afterthought alterations to an
otherwise fairly decent work. If the time is
there I'll fill it up with alterations and
that's not good.
Mary Sue McGrath
My worst problem was
dreaming my time away while I was supposed to be
working. Anything would do: doodling especially
(I called it sketching). I just went to work and
conquered the habit although I still smoke and
drink Coke and coffee while I work.
Asleep at the switch
"He who saddens at thought of idleness cannot be idle, / And
he's awake who thinks himself asleep." (John Keats)
I improved my
efficiency by simply moving my palette to a shelf
on my easel, directly under the painting. I have
since realized that many artists use this
configuration. Any time and motion expert would
spot this onebut some artists are still
using hand and side-table palettes.
Plants and animals
time their activities to a natural cycle based on
light and darkness, etc. Humans also have circadian
rhythms where food, sleep habits, sexual
cycles and other factors influence efficiency,
mental, physical, and creative activities. One of
your previous writers mentioned taking advantage
of the sanctuary of the night. The inner clock
varies between human individuals. There are other
factors based on sex, age and health, as well as
energy levels. Artists should come to know and
understand themselves and their relative stamina,
persistance of judgement, and levels of care and
craftsmanship in order to extract the best from
themselves. "Know thyself."
Time and motion
F.W. Taylor (d 1915)
was an American engineer and efficiency expert
who first studied the work habits and movements
of men and machines. Each step in a factory
process was clocked in order to find the best
positioning of personnel and tools. This led to
improvements in all fields where cost, time and
quality were a factor. To my knowledge no studies
have been done on self-employed artists although
creative workers in such places as Waterford
Glass in Eire and English Potteries have been
looked at. Common sense tells the individual
artist what he or she may do to improve
efficiency while still maintaining traditional
and enjoyable work habits.
J.K Field, UK
The last word
I paint at all hours
in a state of chaos and make over 300K per year
and those ain't kopecs.