On Tuesday, Fred phoned from the art school. “I graduated,” he said, “I want to get an idea where you think I might be going.” Then last night he brought some of his paintings to my studio. He gave me an enthusiastic preamble about his growth in the last four years. Then he pulled his works from their wrappings. One by one we put them under the light. They varied in practically all ways: size, medium, style, approach, philosophy. From Van Gogh to Pollock, with some Rembrandtesque engravings thrown in. “I guess I’m lost,” he said. I suggested that the job of art school is to introduce freedom and show the range of possibilities. “There’s promise everywhere in these,” I assured him. I’ve known Fred since he was a kid. He’s talented and he’s moody. I couldn’t help thinking of Franz Kafka: “You are free and that is why you are lost.”
Over a few single-malts Fred and I tried to figure where he might be going. We talked of artistic freedom, the artist’s life, being happy, being alone, making a contribution, making a living. There was a lot to cover.
Apart from the basic question which all creative people must ask themselves — “What do I want to do with my art?” — there’s the need for limitation. We talked a lot about limitation. Somewhere along the line an artist needs to teach himself to set up parameters. These projects need not be forever. They can be by subject — teapots, cucumbers, marsupials. They can also be by medium, support, size, concept, idea. They can be pretty specific: “Ruined Cathar castles in acrylic on 8″x 10″ mahogany panels.” “Visionary childhood fiction using mainly nouns in 1000 words.” “The full potential of dribbling.” Then I mentioned that in a pinch a project might be suggested by someone else: “Fill up the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.”
“That’s what I need,” he said.
PS: “Art lives from constraints and dies from freedom.” (Leonardo Da Vinci)
Esoterica: Professionals achieve passion by squaring off the rules. “The greatest enemy of art is the absence of limitation.” (Orson Welles) “To enjoy freedom we have to control ourselves.” (Virginia Woolf)
The following are selected responses to the above letter. Thanks for writing.
Several artists inside
by L. Irwin, Mission, BC, Canada
Does the line “Don’t lock yourself into anything” apply even to style? Is it wrong for an artist who has set himself or herself the task of painting in a impressionistic to realistic manner to one day jump for a sheet of paper and do total abstract? If we don’t try a little of every style how can we be sure the way we are painting and have been for a time is the only one for us? Can we be greedy and paint in two styles that are at opposite ends? I believe in working an idea to completion and that sometimes mean in a certain style. Several canvas along one theme. But that seems to work for a time then the urge rises to do a complete U-turn and down a different avenue. Is it possible to have one artist at the canvas but several artists inside? Which day each one surfaces can sometimes be a mystery. Holding one back while the other leads can be difficult. Can the freedom of abstract and looseness not carry benefits over and back to the impressionistic and realistic works? Freedom to pick a color completely off the side of the wheel we would normally pick, or the swish of a stroke that would normally be perfect.
(RG note) Asking the right questions goes a long way toward glimpsing the right answers. You are asking the right questions. In the land of style nothing need be forever — The idea is to find a balance between self-indulgence in variety and the consistency that leads to pride and success. You’re not alone. See letter below.
Bonds of freedom
by Julie Rodriguez Jones, San Pablo, CA, USA
Freedom is a most difficult issue. Since we are very honest in these letters, I confess that I struggle with the bonds of freedom. Jack White, one of your regular contributors, also stresses early on in his book, The Mystery of Making It, the issue of “voice” and one’s work being recognizable in a group. I do recognize the value of this but as Monique Duguay so eloquently stated in the clickbacks to Don’t, “I experience a sense of connection with the universe, and my soul has wings when I paint.” Jack says that even this cannot and must not stop us from sticking to a recognizable style. So, how do I do what lets my soul sing, yet be recognizable in a crowd? Can I or should I categorize my work, such as “digital astronomical art” or “pencil works?” Is that a solution? What have successful artists done about this? (Both styles of which, for me, have recently made it into juried shows and both styles so very different!) I would like to hear either from readers or perhaps have another Genn letter that further explores the issues and solutions to the bonds of freedom.
(RG note) My reason for categorizing and pre-determining direction is to better understand self-motivated limitations and the parameters of your current muse. “Name it and claim it.”
When genius rears her head
by Jennifer Garant
In my years of painting there have been many bouts of uncertainty and confusion and questioning my own ability and art direction. The balance for me is the equally rewarding breakthrough. When you are sitting in your studio alone and somewhat tickled pink with yourself and your painting. And for the moment when sheer genius rears its head. At that moment you appreciate being alone for the excitement, praise and understanding of the journey and that the struggle is appeased by you and only you.
Just do it
by Sherry Purvis, Kennesaw, Georgia, USA
I have waffled for quite some time on the subject of what to do with me and this stuff I call art. Big decisions. Lots of questions. None of which, have a clear and precise answer. I do know that in order for me to feel like I have a direction or a purpose, I must stay within certain boundaries. Don’t misunderstand, these are self-imposed and what others think or feel really doesn’t play a large part in it. We have to search ourselves out and know that consistency in our direction is vital. That is not to say that you can’t change direction, but to do so you need to delve into the change long enough to look like yourself. I have found that the best solution for me in art and in my life in general, is that old Nike slogan “Just Do It.” Again and again and again. We are free to try and do anything we choose in this art world, but to spread out and do it all, which by the way is what we would love to do tends to confine and confuse. Just listen to yourself and just do it. That is what is important.
Look for function
by Albert C. Reck, Ngwenya, Swaziland
In earlier times art served mostly as decor, ornamentation and symbol for the institutions or some other power constellations; in short, art was not free, it was a servant. Even to enjoy paintings was at the end directed to a purpose, a means to an end. Even the inventor of a free lance art, the Venetian painter, Giorgio Caselfranco, called Giorgione (1480-1510), who painted, because he wanted to paint pictures, was not entirely free. He did not know about painting “only like that.” Rembrandt studied himself in about 60 self-portraits. His purpose was to see his being; he did not paint without purpose. The real “only like that” painter is engaged or is committed to the function and the same time to the “in between,” in the possession with the “in between” the artist in painting himself “as someone.” This means he is interested in the role or in the function he is playing in the society. He shows himself on the paper or canvas as an example or as a parable. The “only like that” painter is looking at a boat in the harbor, for instance, not to be interested by the water or the boat, but for the function. He looks for the floating, that means for the lasting of the boat on water and the carrying of the boat by the water.
by Barbara Mason, Portland, Oregon, USA
Too much freedom is hard to control. I am director of an artist owned and operated gallery in Portland, Oregon. We are just down the street from Pacific Northwest College of Art. We get a lot of students in looking at the work and studying it as if their lives depended on knowing how it is done and why. In every case when I talk to them they want advice on this very thing. They do not realize that this is what they want but as we talk I can see it is exactly what they need. So I advise them to pick any subject, say, “fish” and only work on this imagery for a few months. I explain that this will solve the “what am I going to put on this blank paper” problem and because of this limit they will be free to work on their technique and develop their ability to take a subject and develop it over time. This is the way to make a body of work that holds together and eventually will show well. It will also impress their instructors, this dedication to “fish.” Then after fish is worked to death, pick a new subject and start over. So basically simple and so hard to do, we are all suckers for leaping from idea to idea. Creative people have to harness themselves. When we jury work in the gallery we always look for consistent work. We appreciate that an artist may be capable in 10 areas, but we prefer to see only one and that one developed well, showing us that they are moving forward with some internal direction and not jumping all over the place. It will be very hard to exhibit your work as a new artist if you do not pick a direction. You can always change at some future date and go 180 degrees away, but go consistently and you will like what you do better and you will have a body of work to show for it.
by Jane Champagne, Southampton, Ontario, Canada
As the late, great Carl Schaefer said, “When you find your motif, stick to it.” Otherwise, when you find what you love to paint, stay with it until you’ve rung all the changes — then you’ll know where to go next. Re freedom killing (da Vinci): When a well-known Finnish composer received a grant for life from the state, he could no longer compose.
by Kelly Borsheim, Cedar Creek, Texas, USA
I found this topic of interest, especially since I was recently visited by another sculptor who said he wanted to watch while I worked. And then he kindly suggested that I was limiting myself by trying to create a figure in the stone. He said that I should just “go with the flow” of the stone itself and try not to be bound by reality (another topic in itself). “Creativity should know no limits.” I disagreed and suggested that the measure of one’s creativity is DEFINED by the limitations. Perhaps I was just annoyed by someone telling me what I should not sculpt. However, hoping not to crush his free spirit, I told him we all have limits whether we chose to see them or not. If nothing else, these include: time, the medium’s strengths and weaknesses, size and space, and our own abilities to create what we envision. I do not see these as bad things. I see these as challenges for us to overcome in order to express ourselves. I am impressed when someone shows me what is possible when he is restricted. Problem-solving and a human spirit at its best. What is so awe-inspiring about a “boundless creation”? (Even God is said to have given himself a deadline.)
by Bonnie Lavish
The Freedom letter reminded me of talking to a young artist years ago. I asked him what rules does he set up for himself when he begins a painting. He said he set no rules. I told him I always set some rules for myself before I begin a project. Then it becomes like a game, to see if I can stay within the rules. Sometimes the rules are, I’ll only use white, burnt umber, and blue. Sometimes it’s that the entire painting series will be pointillism… with hidden Morse code. Sometimes it’s to see how many layers of paint and glaze I can put on and still see the bottom. The good part is that they’re my rules, and I can change them.
Mixed role models
by Stephanie Theng, Berlin, Germany
Over the weekend, I had the opportunity to visit Oldenburg and Jade, tiny towns in southwest Germany. I met Petra, a woman who is living what I would call an adventurous dreamy courageous life. She has raised a son alone, paints landscapes, trains horses, camps alone, lives in a farm with her boyfriend and his hundreds of pigeons. Over time, she has managed to still retain her cheerfulness, warmth, sense of adventure, dreams and some of her ideals. She’s close to retiring but one can feel the child very much alive within her. I have lived in the city most of my life. College graduation is this December and then I am probably going to do some administrative and management work in some company. The longer I work, the more calculating and practical I grow. But I dream of looking into the eyes of Mona Lisa someday. I dream of painting my heart out when I go to Rome and falling in love over and over with the ancient buildings. I may lament and even shed some tears. Well, that is my sentimental side. I compared Petra and my mom, who is very much a business woman. Almost similar circumstances, but two have taken different paths. Neither is wrong or right. Given my ideals and dreams and a little bit of encouragement, I would venture the path of Petra. But given my circumstances, it seems I will follow the path of my mother.
by Loraine Wellman
I especially agree on using the best materials that you can. Cheap stuff just doesn’t work the same. If you are going to sell, you owe it to the buyer to use lasting materials — the work shouldn’t fade due to cheap paints (or fugitive inks) and the paper should be acid-free. We also need to educate the buying public by making it clear — “Permanent pigments on acid-free paper, with acid-free matting.”
(RG note) Artists’ colours are often marked and categorized by the makers as “permanent,” “permanent at full strength,” “semi-permanent,” and “fugitive.” While fugitive colors are sometimes appealing to use they do not last as well as permanent colors. Some pigments such as Bitumen and Mummy have other unpleasant characteristics and have been retired from the lists of colormen. Modern synthetic colors replace many outdated pigments. Surprisingly, some popular modern glazing colors such as Phthalo Blue and Quinacridone Gold are fugitive in some compositions. As I mentioned in the previous clickback, illustrator’s inks such as Dr P H Martin’s Dyes (Aniline) are to be avoided for serious artists who would like to see their work around for a while. The most comprehensive current listing of fugitives that I know of is in Artists’ Materials, by Ian Hebblewhite.