In a recent interview, the wildly successful film director Brett Ratner said, “It’s more difficult to make a commercial film that works than a pretentious art movie.” Unfortunately, the more successful his work, the more the poor fellow is put down by the critics. Such hits as Rush Hour, Red Dragon and X-Men 3 are panned. I’m not saying they’re good (or bad) movies; I’m saying they’re his movies. We’re not talking about relative value; we’re talking about relative difficulty. Ratner likes a challenge. He feels his talent is for action, suspense, and the kind of visual energy and complex plot it takes to hold viewers. He probably agrees with Andy Warhol: “Good art is what sells.” Ratner’s observation about commercial films expresses a central dilemma in all the arts.
It may be the degree of difficulty that holds the interest of many realistic and figurative painters. These artists often see abstraction and conceptual work as arbitrary and lightweight. To quote a common complaint that comes into my inbox, they find it “too easy.” They are, rather, drawn to developing traditional notions of composition, drawing, colour and subject-specific knowledge. They realize these sorts of skills are achieved by practice, self-training, and sustained effort. While not demeaning the challenges of abstract work, when meaning and sensibility are added to the conservative mix the task becomes doubly daunting.
Degree of difficulty may just be an artist’s best friend. Think of the struggle evident in the work of Rembrandt — light, chiaroscuro, composition and surface quality, all mixed with psychological power that grabs.
Imagine developing skills so profound and distinct that no one else comes near. It may be difficult, but it just might be worth it. Here are a few possibilities:
Identify weak areas and self-workshop them.
Repeat unique methodologies until they are mastered.
Explore personal nuances and make them yours.
Push on when you’re pushing your limits.
Trust in ideas and follow your intuition.
Find out where your new strengths are.
Learn to be your own challenger and advocate.
Know that quality is always in style.
Dont worry if things turn out to be commercial.
Laugh on the way to the bank.
PS: “It’s the pretentious art movies that get the praise, even if they’re not good.” (Brett Ratner)
Esoterica: Perhaps there’s something to be said for general popularity rather than critical approval. In the shelf life of art and criticism, its the criticism that spoils first. Even with modest popular approval, the pleasant flow of long greens makes persistence possible. Furthermore, the art and craft of overcoming difficulties is the root of a great deal of satisfaction. Overcoming unique difficulties makes unique art. Not necessarily “good” art, not necessarily “bad” art, but your art.
The necessity of income
by Edward Vincent, Sydney, Australia
I have always been perplexed as to why making money out of art has been frowned upon; there’s nothing inherently wrong with money, we all need it to enjoy even the basics of life. This apologetic attitude is often simply hypocritical. It has become almost traditional to decry receiving money for art, while at the same time negotiating with galleries for higher returns. Are we not beyond that?
Practice for quality
by Peter Lloyd, Blacker Hill, England
I happen to love the pencil drawings of John Singer Sargent, so these became my standards of excellence. At life class, I am constantly being told to “loosen up,” but that’s not what I’m striving for, I’m trying for accuracy of line, ability to suggest volume and convey different lighting. Sometimes I do “loosen up,” just for the hell of it, and my fellow students and teachers say “There you are, isn’t that easier/quicker/more effective/just gorgeous?” But I can’t get through to them that being easier, or quicker, or even “just gorgeous” is not, for me, what this is all about. I want to capture the line, the heft, the shadow, the light playing round the edges of that body, accurately and just with a pencil. And that needs technique, which means practice, practice, practice.
Use your talent to pay the bills
by Karen Lorena Parker, Richmond, BC, Canada
I have always found that the people that “know nothing about art” still have a good sense of what WOWs them. Taking ‘criticism’ from many sources has its advantages; everyone gives you another glimpse into your work that you may not have seen before. When it’s easy to lose the objectiveness in your own work, I don’t mind taking the back seat to listen to the viewer. I enjoy helping them find the words to explain their thoughts, helping them express what it is they see, because I understand my art and the language around it — it helps me see what they see. It’s like teaching art students — you learn from their eyes, as much they learn from yours. Commercial or non-commercial is a concept about paying bills, not necessarily integrity. I’d prefer my paintings pay the bills, rather than working at some undesirable job to afford my painting habit. Use your talent to make a living. I’d agree with Ratner and Warhol.
Switching genres pays off
by Karl Leitzel, Spring Mills, PA, USA
I focused for a while on painting highly realistic wildlife art. I had some degree of success, but began to feel trapped by the narrow genre, with a desire to loosen up as well as try other subject matter. I actually had to take a few years away from any fine art painting to re-energize and refocus. Since returning to the field two years ago my painting is much looser, mostly landscape, and more concerned with light, color, and strength of abstract pattern. It is beginning to sell better than ever before, at similar prices, and with only a third the time invested in each piece. Does this make them less genuinely valuable or less technically proficient? I don’t think so. The fact is, I can draw when I need to and I can paint fine detail when I want to. I simply prefer to emphasize other aspects of visual depiction in my work and it happens to be quicker to paint, though no less demanding of “knowing what I’m doing.” I’ve always believed that there is a qualitative difference between the work of an artist who is able to paint detail well but chooses not to, and one who does not because he cannot.
Not quitting when it gets too hard
by Mary DuVal, TX, USA
Both value and difficulty are indeed relative, from both the viewpoint of the artist and the viewer. The passage you point out between the two intrigues me and I often look at another’s painting (and my own) first for aesthetic or story value and then ponder on its difficulty of execution. Degree of difficulty often gives me pause (the work, the time, the effort, the struggles that must have ensued!). It’s interesting that in casually drawing with children, they often give up a drawing or are dissatisfied with it when it becomes too difficult for them to execute. I encourage and try to inspire, but often, once they’ve decided it’s too hard, they are done. I always disliked giving up on a drawing when I was a kid. Degree of difficulty becomes a personal challenge. A new adventure! I feel the only way I can truly improve as an artist is to strive to up my degree of difficulty; maybe not each and every painting, but there must be a willingness to stretch. If I’m not trying something difficult, I’m not growing.
The journey to abstraction
by Susan Avishai, Toronto, ON, Canada
You are constructing a dichotomy not between good and bad art, but, you say, between art that’s hard to do and easy to do. So far so good. But then you plot figurative art on one end and abstract on the other and I want to say — huh? As an artist who has spent nearly all of her 50 years producing highly realistic drawings and paintings and who has recently moved into abstraction, I must insist that the struggle, and the difficulty, is every bit as present, and your list of skills every bit as relevant. I’ve actually found abstraction demands more. Instead of reproducing something outside of me, now I go inward and use everything I’ve learned thus far in my life. I once felt the completed painting was the point of the exercise and sometimes, like hours on the highway, the trip got a little tedious. Now there’s not a moment I’m not completely engaged, right there at brush-point, as I have no idea where this path will lead and what subtleties, risks, and skills will be demanded of me to get there.
Applauding the value of both
by Alan Soffer, Wallingford, PA, USA
I hope you don’t agree with the muddy thinking that places abstract above representational or vice versa. They each have their own difficulties. As an abstractionist, who ventures into representation now and then, I realize that it is nice to have a solid object to grab hold of with a set-up composition and lighting effects. Of course, then I have to deal with drawing skills which tend to get rusty. On the other hand, there is so much more bad abstraction out there because the work is not satisfying color and compositional requirements to the fullest. When little defects exist they are magnified in abstraction since we don’t have a narrative to carry the day. One also sees so very many boring representational pieces, lacking in creative spirit, and passion, but loaded with clichés. What’s with all these flowers and barns anyhow? Yet the abstractionist needs drawing skills and objects in his head to fabricate exciting art and the realist needs some expressive skills and basic formalist notions to succeed. Let’s agree to applaud the value in each.
Commercial realism sells
by Odette Nicholson, Saskatoon, SK, Canada
I do not agree at all with this supposition about the grand difference between realistic art and abstract art — except that it’s true, commercial realism sells (no matter how poorly executed!). People tend to like/buy what they understand, the least challenging the better. The mass public likes imitations of known things and straightforward direct line in-your-face approaches. To encourage them to look at something unfamiliar requires some effort.
World wide sharing of methodology
by Vivian Anderson, Sydney, Australia
I am completely overjoyed with the friendship and willingness to share that I have experienced since I began reading your twice-weekly letters. Because of your inspiration and that of your correspondents I was able to think outside the square and have had helpful interaction with the American painter Leslie Montana. Here are some recent thoughts from Ms. Montana: “I will share that the way I best see the roses is to look at them with an impartial eye. In that way I never know what to expect in any given moment. It removes the thinking mind from the process. When I engage flowers this way they reveal themselves in a kind of continuous visual sentence that becomes the painting. Simply opening to the place my eyes focus upon and giving that my attention I can know the “shape of the color” I am seeing. Then it just flows. Nature’s inherent wisdom is constantly communicating through form and color in ways that your hand and brush can follow with just a little training. Just let your heart paint, and let your head take second place.”
The challenges of realism
by Jane Freeman, Bemidji, MN, USA
I found this letter to be a confirmation of what I’m doing. So often in realism we are put down. I enjoy looking at abstract art but those who work exclusively in abstraction rarely enjoy looking at realism. I began as an abstract artist but then I was schooled in the late ’60s to early ’70s where that was all that was acceptable in college. But I was never happy. Slowly through the years my work has gotten progressively more realistic and I love the challenge. I work in watercolor and so I find a double challenge as I am unable to go back in to put in the highlights but must consider them from the beginning. I wonder if it takes a certain personality for this. I enjoy puzzles and things I have to figure out. All I know is I now truly love what I do and the results I’m achieving. I hope to learn until I am 105 and then I will write to you about all I know. It seems I have only just begun to understand and see with my eyes what is really there. It is so worthwhile to spend the time developing this because it also translates into my personal life. I see the world through ever expanding eyes and some days I’m just overwhelmed by the beauty I see.
The agony and the ecstasy
by Mary Wood, Egbert, ON, Canada
All of the colour, composition and design, and value theories are, if anything, even more important in good abstraction than they are in realism — and — although there can be ‘happy accidents’ that make a good non-representational piece of work, most often it’s the artist’s knowledge and competence that make it sing. I believe that this is especially true for large bodies of conceptual work over which I agonize for months and sometimes years, loving and hating the agony but unable to abandon it for the surety of realism. As David Bayles says in his wonderful book Art and Fear, knowledge of your materials and techniques are your tools and uncertainty is a virtue. I encourage all of my students to buy this little book and I often read passages from it to classes along with excerpts from Emily Carr’s Hundreds and Thousands.
Content prevails over high-budget gimmicks
by Max Pruneda, Albuquerque, NM, USA
All of the so-called “art movies” are not pretentious, nor would that have been the purpose of making such films, but that doesn’t excuse commercial films from being themselves pretentious, overbearing, forgettable and hardly worth the price of admission. Content, point of view and intention sometimes count above artistic abilities or gimmicks, also, like an excellent meal, it’s the flavors lingering after the last bite worth the partaking, not just how pretty or towering the food appears on the plate.
by Cheryl Lobenberg, Sacramento, CA, USA
I’m a representational artist for sure. Painting what’s out there before my eyes and doing it in my own interpretive fashion is always a challenge. I love it! I have dabbled in abstract painting, and compared to representational, I find it just as challenging and sometimes more so! There is nothing to look at. To overcome this, I like to sketch out a very rough idea. Do I want a hard line look? Do I want soft or blended edges? Do I want vibrant colors? Muted colors? Monotone? Rhythm cutting diagonally across the format? Symmetry? Do I want texture in spots? Mystery? Anger? Do I want a striking highlighted element? I could go on at the expense of boring the reader. The point I am trying to make is that these are the same questions one asks and grapples with when doing representational art. Anyone that thinks abstraction is child’s play is way, way off the mark!
All artwork has elements of abstraction
by Marty Pinkus, Austria
I’m disappointed to read that your inbox is filled with letters complaining that abstract art is “too easy.” When I started out in art school I disliked abstract art, thinking a kindergartner could do it. As my drawing skills developed I slowly began to understand that we all abstract the subject matter to one degree or another — look around a classroom if you’re in doubt. I grew to not only appreciate abstract art but to work this way almost exclusively. At times I swing back toward the representational, but I find that pure abstraction is the most difficult thing to do successfully. That said, I think there are vast quantities of “bad” abstract art out there where the artist isn’t skillful enough, the work isn’t developed far enough or is too safe. Maybe this is what’s viewed as “too easy.” Abstract art done well is sublime.
Easy to execute, difficult to master
by Sue Smith, Redmond, OR, USA
When realists think of conceptual painting as being lightweight or too easy I believe they are missing the complexity that is found in any successful work of art. Where the challenge of mastering subject-specific material can be satisfying, mastering the communicative depth of non-subject specific material is equally worthy. I paint both realistic landscapes and experimental, non-representational abstracts, and I use the same skills in developing both forms of art. In fact, each mode of thinking and seeing strengthens the other and at the end of the day, the degree of difficulty is the same.
The grazing of the goats
by Charles Peck, Punta Gorda, Florida, USA
For 20 or more years I painted in the so-called abstract expressionist mode (really an oxymoron) while my income came from commissioned realism. I guess the reason I changed is that questions of composition, color, and value had been answered as best I could in reference to the ideas I was working to express and still maintain a purity of purpose. The fire went out I suppose.
One of the beauties of art is the no compromise posture — in the end it is all in the artists mind. Both realists and non-objective painters have been known to fake it. I know way too many facile realist painters who are performing a safe form of robbing banks — selling what in their mind is junk (I know as a result of our conversations) because they just don’t have the courage to live life on honest terms. For me, realism creates a struggle to not be satisfied with just getting a passing resemblance to some object and really “get” the feeling I respond to while looking at it. In the end it seems to me all that is required is that the artist struggle with the work at hand to make it the best they can possibly do. Doesn’t matter what “ism” it falls under. The outside world just doesn’t count when it comes to what one does when making art. Sure, one has to feed their charges — secure cash for sustenance, but that has nothing to do with art. That’s just another animal making its living. Not unlike a goat grazing
Searching for sanctuary
by Robert Erskine, Harrow, Middlesex, UK
I must agree with your recent analysis about working in small places. It so happens I live where Byron first wrote his poetry, at England’s famous Harrow School in London. I have a very modest sculptor’s studio, 120 sq ft, in the centre of Harrow Town. I know precisely what you mean about one’s self-appointed sanctuary. Most sculptors work in little corners, and do not work out of huge studios 24 hours a day. As children we work in small spaces feeling secure and safe. Perhaps the reason has something to do with returning to the womb!
There is 1 comment for Searching for sanctuary by Robert Erskine
Catboat 5 – Wing n Wing 2
acrylic on canvas
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, 2013.
That includes Angela Treat Lyon of Kailua, HI, USA who wrote, “In the end, it’s the painting or sculpture that lasts, and the words of the critic are as dust on the wind.”
And also Penny Collins of Auckland, New Zealand who wrote, “On the topic of lively greys, I recommend reading these posts by John K, the creator of the cartoon show Ren and Stimpy: Color Theory — neutral or natural colors, Color Theory: Pee and Poo colors versus Colorful Greys.”
And also Cathryn Kapp who wrote, “Brett Ratner should compare the difficulty of making a commercial film with an unpretentious art movie.”
And also Brad Michael Moore of Perrin, TX, USA who wrote, “Brett Ratner’s statement only suggests he doesn’t understand art films. One should be happy that one can create, ‘anything,’ that sells – but Brett, don’t put down art films because making them is beyond you.”
And also Anthony Emmolo of China who wrote, “I live in China — where skills are taught. I need to build my skills, but I also need to remember to hold to what makes my art ‘my art.’ ”
And also Dennis Marshall of Paterson, NJ, USA who wrote, “I am reminded of this quote by Paul Burlin: ‘In the process of making a painting in an abstract way, the painter is in search of a reality. Not one of realistic objects, but of the complete end result. The painting is experienced as a whole, and must evoke in the painter the absolute conviction that this is how it should be and no other way. Then a picture has existence — when it has its full meaningful expression, that is its reality.'”
And also Dave Wilson of White Rock, BC, Canada who wrote, “If an art work waltzes with the mind of its viewer, time and again, who cares for comparisons and expertise?”
And also Sinead Cliffe from Ireland who wrote, “You seem to be working on a level of intuition with your emails that just ‘hits the button.’ As a film maker, designer and teacher I’m struggling with my work. It’s all so distracting doing the ‘art’ that pays the bills. I just want to do what’s lying inside my head.”
Enjoy the past comments below for Difficult passages…