Yesterday, I visited an energetic fellow who has produced his first ten paintings during the past three weeks. At his request I gave him my dollar crit — my best, most thoughtful, encouraging and circumspect. Every artist is different, I told myself — the best a crit guy can do is to be empathetic. As I drove away I remembered how I might have saved him a lifetime of trouble by just telling him a few particular things that he was not to do. I’ve often thought this. But I dislike the word “don’t.” I don’t like to use it. Down deep I think there shouldn’t be a “don’t” left in the world. In some ways, in art, there isn’t. So at the risk of sounding authoritative, I’ll just whisper the word:
Don’t do watercolors on cheap paper.
Don’t use fugitive inks.
Don’t put your brush in your mouth — or smoke.
Don’t think it’s going to get easier.
Don’t lock yourself into anything.
Don’t try to sell your work right away.
Don’t sweat the small stuff; go for the big picture.
Don’t worry when somebody says your work is not so hot.
Don’t worry when somebody says your work is great.
Don’t take yourself too seriously.
Don’t be afraid to do something over and over.
Don’t listen too much to perceived authority.
Don’t be afraid to listen to your own intelligence.
Don’t try to please anybody except yourself.
Don’t be either too vain or too modest.
Don’t talk about what you’re going to do.
Don’t be afraid to look at other people’s stuff.
Don’t think you’re an undiscovered genius.
As well as “don’t,” don’t use the word “can’t,” “won’t,” and “shouldn’t.”
Don’t give up.
PS: “Anyone who conducts an argument by appealing to authority is not using his intelligence; he is just using his memory.” (Leonardo Da Vinci)
Esoterica: Now that’s done, here’s this: By eliminating the “d” word and its partners from your vocabulary you can put a positive spin on yourself and those around you. Informed optimism is the flood that lifts and carries seemingly impossible projects.
The following are selected responses to the above letter. Thanks for writing.
by Eleanor Blair, Gainesville, Florida, USA
Your list of don’ts got me laughing. It pleases me to see that there are so many of us all over the world that seem to be on the same wavelength. Here is a copy of the instruction sheet I handed out to students for a workshop I led last month.
What to bring on Saturday:
The Rules When You Paint Outside:
Don’t look into the sun.
Paint only what you see.
Don’t “fix up” your painting with imaginary details.
Don’t wipe half-finished paintings off the canvas.
Don’t compare your work with others.
Keep the paint off your hands and away from your face.
Don’t pour medium on the ground.
Do have fun!
Any of that sound familiar?
by Andrea Pratt, Delta, BC, Canada
I’ve noticed that artists have complicated egos. They have to be a fair size to even do what they do, yet they are often as fragile as they are large. If an artist requests input from an admired expert, they’re probably not looking for an ego boost. Often they really want an objective and practiced eye to help them sort through their obstacles, and have already spent time working up the courage and gritting their teeth before even asking.
Don’t ignore the request to critique someone’s art. It was often a hard one to make. Silence always sends a negative message to a fragile ego.
Don’t ignore glaringly obvious faults in a person’s work or gloss over them, even if they only exist in the subjective mind; the artist wants or needs that kind of fresh “third person” input (but Do tread lightly).
Do find something positive to remark on.
Do give one or two practical suggestions that the artist can “sink his/her teeth into.”
Don’t share your opinion on an artist’s work with others until they have achieved some measure of “objective” success.
by David Lloyd Glover, Beverly Hills, California, USA
Don’t give away too much of what you’ve learned through sweat and life experience. Every artist needs to discover what’s it all about on their own. There are no shortcuts.
by Attila Keresztes, Athens, Greece
One of the greatest possibilities of being an artist has been to share my winnings with other, particularly blossoming new artists. To your list of don’ts I happily add: “Don’t price your paintings too low,” and “Don’t get into bed with only one dealer.”
Do be serious
All of these “don’ts” made perfect sense to me until I got to the one that said, “Don’t take yourself too seriously.” Is that the same as taking your art too seriously? I belong to an “arts and crafts” group in my small town. The majority of people in the club are crafters or hobby artists. There are about 8 of us that are really interested in improving our art and making a contribution to the arts, if possible. Recently one person said to me, “You take your art too seriously. I’ve noticed that about you. Just have fun, sell a few pieces if you can. None of us are going to be great — there’s too many of us.” The attitude has really disturbed me, as to what it says about the group I belong to. I’m afraid an attitude like that can hold back those who want their art to be more than a hobby that they do once or twice a month. An artist who does not take their art seriously is just a hobby artist, in my opinion. With this kind of hobby attitude, no one in our group will become anything but a hobby artist.
Setting the parameters
by Mario Buscio, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
Your last letter was very encouraging. For myself I feel much more free when I have parameters that are clearly established. When one wants to go on a trip one needs to choose one place over another, thus establishing a parameter. Choices we make establish parameters on things we can and can not do at that moment. Setting parameters gives us the liberty of exploring many possibilities. After one feels that they have done all they can in that realm, then one chooses another avenue with new parameters, new “don’ts.” Don’ts are a good thing, they keep us grounded.
Don’t use “should” either
by Elsha Leventis
Thanks for reminding us about the “D” word. I’m sure we’ve all had the experience early on of producing work we loved on cheap paper. Ouch. Fortunately one of my earliest teachers drummed into us that we should always work on the best quality paper we could afford because you just never know… Of course, that could mean a lot of immature and bad work on good paper, but that’s better than one great piece on bad paper. A word as bad as “don’t”, or perhaps worse because it comes from those really bad guys, our inner critics, is the word “should.” Replace it with “could,” and the element of choice becomes more apparent. That makes it easier to stop shoulding on ourselves — at least it should.
A great book for artists and anyone… is Oh the Places You’ll Go by Dr. Seuss. Yes… he wrote this as a convocation address for college grads and it’s a great empowering piece for all those who are knee-deep in “don’ts” and “shoulds.”
Smelling the paint
by Cathleen Perkins, Bozeman, Montana, USA
I loved this letter! I entirely agree with your whispered ‘don’ts’ — it was a good reminder for me. I am an oil painter who has taken a side exploration into paper arts, jewelry making, journaling, clay, assemblage — but I so miss my painting. It’s part of my soul. When I return to my painting, I will be a whole new painter I believe bringing my new insights & experiences with me. Your letters encourage me so and I remember the joy of just smelling the paints — keep them coming please!
Not a quitter
by Helene McIntosh, Qualicum Beach, BC, Canada
I had to laugh at your list and the use of the word don’t. You sound just like my aerobics instructor!! I have a love/hate relationship with her (and myself) but I continue to plug along. I feel so much better once I have done the daily routine as I know deep down that I am not a quitter and the only person who will actually benefit from anything that I do, is me. I will never be a famous artist but I will definitely achieve my goal to be the best that I can be and by working at it, I am truly enjoying the process!
Soul has wings
by Monique Duguay
With all these don’ts flying around, I realize that my thinking is askew, and it is time for a different attitude and approach, about art, yes, and also life in general. A lot of re-thinking needs to be done! I am looking for a part-time job, to free up that place in me that says, “You are always depleting the small reserves you have on art.” Maybe if I add to the pot, I will feel justified in creating the large paintings I so love to do. Yet in my heart, I know that the depletion is only a financial one, because I experience a sense of connection with the universe, and my soul has wings when I paint, or create, in whatever medium. The child in me emerges and flies! What I would do if I had lots of money would be to paint my heart out for my whole life. How to marry the two, and find a balance within? It is not in the doing, but in the being, that we become one with all. We are human beings after all, not human doings. Can’t help thinking of robots when I say that. Today I am painting the laundry walls and sending this message with my hands, shorts and tee-shirt full of paint. What’s new, I like to be covered in paint! I DON’T need to be called an “artist” either. ha!
Don’t drink paint thinner
by John Kelley
Why bother with the qualification of “I dislike the word “don’t”? It is obvious by your list that the inclusion of “don’t” contributes to a positive lifestyle. There is a positive outcome when we don’t do certain things. A well thought out “don’t” can bring very positive results. For instance if I don’t drink paint thinner but do drink water I’ll most likely live longer. We need the word.
by Chris Pfouts
The expression is truly great: “fugitive inks” — like a half-dozen colors dressed in stingy-brims, wraparound shades and wifebeaters (rolled cuffs on their Levis, skinny ankles, Stacy Adams over white sox) blasting down a straight desert highway (boiling hot dry day — you can see the heat rising off the dead land out between the road and the distant mountains) in a stolen ’64 Impala with peeled paint; a couple colors checking and reloading their gats in the spacious back seat, driver keeping a sharp eye for bulls in the rearview, shotgun passenger poking idly in the glovebox to see if the rightful owner left anything interesting, but just: some old Texaco road maps, a couple Handi-Wipes, two spare fuses, three sticks of stiffened Blackjack gum, a stray Allen wrench and an 1157 taillight bulb; sweaty tattooed hand rolls the chrome AM radio knob looking for crisp norteno brass, maybe lucking instead onto Rosie and the Originals or the Ronettes bopping through the ether … hot tires singing over the rough desert blacktop; no towns not even any signs out here and the gas gauge hovering at half mast … lamming it after a cheap-paper disaster. Well, fun’s fun, but, pray tell, what is fugitive ink?
(RG note) Dr Martin’s Dyes are a good example. Made for going through an airbrush and nothing else. Sunlight for a few days and they’re outa here. Toast. Good name for a rock band too.
You may be interested to know that artists from 91 countries, as well as every state in the USA and all provinces in Canada have visited these sites since January 1, 2001.
That includes Dan Raymond of France, who says “In your Russian version I saw myself as in a dream tableau and at the end of the film I was the principal actor.”
And Sandy Sandy of Tabernacle, NJ, who sent a batch of don’ts, including “Don’t believe all you hear, spend all you have, or sleep all you want.” Of the nine artists who wrote to report that they use their mouths as brush-holders, John Evans insisted, “I must disagree; when I run out of hands, the mouth is the perfect spot for a brush.”
And Ralph Papa of Putnam Valley, NY, while still using his teeth, got half a point for giving up smoking while painting. And D. Djeeling, from somewhere, who wrote that the only brush for his mouth was the tooth one.
(RG note) Of particular concern is the habit of “tipping” the brush with the mouth. This was apparently popular, even fashionable, up until about the 1950s. It is not recorded how many tons of arsenic and lead might have been ingested by this method over the course of art history.