My late friend Egbert Oudendag used to say, “The best way to help artists is to hinder them.” He had the idea that being tough was the way to bring out their gumption. It was also the key to finding voice, style, and the ego-force to get noticed. “You need to struggle on your own,” he used to say. “No one can help you.”
In many ways I’ve agreed with him. But over the years I’ve also flirted with the idea that the only input an artist really needs is approval. That concept has its disadvantages too. When you are asked and when in your opinion someone’s work is truly lousy, it’s dishonest to sit there and say, “Wow, go for it.” For those who might offer help to others, here are a few ideas that sometimes produce results:
Think empathetically about where the artist is coming from and try to identify no more than three needs. Predicate your input with the caveat, “It’s only an opinion.” Sandwich these needs, as you see them, between two genuine compliments, no matter how minor. Don’t be afraid to be straight up and honest. In some ways Egbert had the “tough love” idea right–if they can’t take it, they’re not on a growth path and need to be abandoned anyway. If possible, give specific suggestions–take this course, go to this school, join this group, go to your room, phone the Guggenheim. Better still, phone the Guggenheim for them. Offering up-and-coming artists a simple connection with a public, commercial or educational venue is one of the best things a helper can do. Then the rejection or acceptance is in someone else’s hands, and they begin to get a feel for the sweet-and-sour nature of the real world.
Having said that, many artists need to drop, at least for the time being, notions of commercial or fame-oriented exposure. Premature articulation is a main cause of disappointment. Artists often need to be gently told to get a daily life inside their own processes. They need to know that in the long run there is no silver bullet–no school, no club, no gallery. Robert Henri, one of the greatest helpers of all time, used to repeat to his students, “All education is self-education.” We owe it to everyone, including those who might eventually support us, the thought that there’s nothing more sacred and beautiful than the private business of trying to get good on our own terms.
PS: “Every artist ought to be an exhibitionist.” (Egbert Oudendag)
Esoterica: Just as the doctor says, “Take this and call me in the morning,” the artist-to-artist exchange can be similar: “Paint a hundred paintings and tell me when you’re done.” Some folks move right on to pharmacy or accounting and are never seen again. But those who respond to this rigorous request are generally the serious ones. They intuitively know that the need to work in series and toward set goals is the main game. The wise learn to set goals for themselves. There’s no other word for it but “character.” In a demanding world where many are fighting for survival, the real goal is “thrival.”
Two types of artist
by Jim Connelly, Jenison, MI, USA
Artists either do lousy work and think it’s great, or do great work and think it’s lousy. The first group is so impressed with their progress they fail to see the faults that still exist in their work. To help this group you have to be honest and tell them they have a ways to go yet. The second group is so aware of how far they have to go, they fail to see that they have made great progress and are truly doing good work. In myself, I find that if I am overly concerned with making huge strides towards mastery it discourages me from painting or I will overwork a painting making it worse. This group needs to be told how much they know and encouraged to relax and have fun painting.
Internalizing the questioner
by Marion Barnett, UK
Artists must be asked specific questions. Get them to talk about what they believe their work is about, what it is achieving, how they believe it will develop, what their intention was in this or that piece. The more they say, “I don’t know,” the more important the question is. Speaking your personal truth about your work tells you, and the other, what you’re about. I don’t believe that people develop from hearing other people’s feedback about their work. They develop from listening to themselves, prompted by an intelligent, sensitive questioner. Eventually, that questioner will become internalized.
Careful with tough love
by Talitha A. Hostetter, Canada
Your friend Egbert Oudendag sounds like he comes from an old school attitude that may have worked for many but for others can be devastating. This attitude permeates many areas outside the field of art. Most artists struggle. They know within themselves what those struggles are. My experience is that a kinder, gentler approach works well. Try encouragement, guidance, support, education (formal or self-taught and the community of fellow artists). Those who paint, paint for the joy of it. Commercialism may also be on their mind but it may or may not be their motivation. Tough love has its place but be careful when using it.
Best teachers often best students
by David Oleski, West Chester, PA, USA
Any artist that asks for advice is interested in doing more, being more, going further. Ultimately there should be a target in mind, and understanding this target is an important part of giving advice. If the struggles are technical, there are nuts and bolts criticisms, if the challenges are conceptual, the discussion will be more about ideas and motivations. Commercial endeavors require yet a different perspective. As artists, we should be attempting to communicate something with our work and sharpen our abilities on different levels, not merely making pictures. Within this framework, we should all see eye to eye on what constitutes constructive input, and a truly objective critique should understand the target, identify the successes, and address the challenges. We’re all trying to learn something; the best teachers are usually the best students.
Egbert Oudendag’s sharing ways
by Dan F. Gray, Errington, BC, Canada
I am one who has benefited from Egbert Oudendag’s tough love. When starting out I heard from another artist that Egbert had seen my work and thought well of it. Perfect, I thought! One Christmas he appeared at my door to show me a painting “The Hungry Artist.” He was very kind with his time, sharing intimacies regarding his life and art. He has also spoken to me through a gallery owner since his passing. I think of him often and use his example for my own journey. I have only met a few like him and they all seem to be from an older generation.
by Gregory Packard, Montrose, CO, USA
The late Sergei Bongart taught like Oudendag (no beating around the bush with criticism) which he learned from the Russian tradition. Bongart also inspired his students with an abundance of passion and joy for painting, two ingredients that are also very important if not for the betterment of painting, simply for the purpose of painting. Like Henri, Bongart emphasized economy and immediacy in painting. When boiled down all of these good qualities in painting are directly relative to life: focus on what’s important and do it with purpose and passion. Teachers like Henri and Bongart were more than just painting teachers, they were inspirations for a way of living, and their legacies live on.
Positive and negative critiques
by Bev Johnson, Calgary, AB, Canada
I was taking a course in architectural rendering from a very hard-nosed architect. Twenty of us lined up to critique each other’s work. She set the precedent by very negatively picking each piece apart and each student followed. I was about 10th out of 20. This seemed so unlike anything I had ever been involved in. Most artists are at least kind to other sensitive artists. I chose my words slowly at my turn and said, yes there are a few negatives about the drawing however there are some very beautiful things happening in this piece and I brought them to everyone’s attention. I will never forget the reaction and mood of the room. It changed from lowered heads filled with intimidation to each other student speaking up and recognizing the wonderful strengths of their fellow students.
Social worker’s empowering techniques
by Hiria Ratahi, Whakatane, New Zealand
I am a full time social worker by trade and an after hours artist by desire, and I believe both work very well together. Whilst I am working as a social worker I meet with lots of emotions–from sadness, self-destruction to overwhelming joy and celebration with the people that cross my path. On the art side, I’ve noticed that inviting an artist to tell their story of their painting is sometimes better than letting them ask my opinion. It is very empowering to allow people to talk about themselves and their paintings. Often they will find what they don’t like about their own work and what they will do differently next time.
The garden of personal effort
by Jenny Collins, Aotearoa, New Zealand
Apart from working at my art practice, I work part-time as a mentor to tutors who teach basic education courses for adults to help them get employment. The biggest hurdle we all face in this task is the same as the one you outlined for us as artists – indeed I’d say for anyone learning anything – namely that we are prepared to do the hard yards for ourselves. Any learning process takes lots of practice. Some support or encouragement from others is essential, but that doesn’t minimize the need for our own efforts. One of our chief tasks as teachers is to impart our belief in the learner’s own ability to engage with the process. I have found that when the mix is right, new learning bursts out all over, like the spring flowers in our southern gardens. Like gardeners we slowly develop some boundaries, a bit of design and the habit of regular weeding.
Widespread art ineptitude
by Ron Stacy, Victoria, BC, Canada
I often go to art shows and openings in accredited galleries. I see work that makes me marvel at its ineptitude. Try as I may to see value in it, I’m stumped, yet gallery owners show it proudly and people spend good money on it. And that leads me to only one conclusion: I have no idea what I’m talking about! How fortunate for me that I work in an area where that doesn’t seem to matter.
Carriage only takes you so far
by Mary Moquin, Sandwich, MA, USA
As Johannes Itten says in his book The Elements of Color, “Learning from books and teachers is like traveling by carriage, so we are told in the Veda.” The thought goes on. “But, the carriage will serve only while one is on the highroad. He who reaches the end of the highroad will leave the carriage and walk afoot.” We are all on our own journeys as artists. Many can lead us part of the way, but only the artist can truly discover his own potential because it lies within himself.
The fine art of fundamental advice
by Brian L. Jones, Cortaro, AZ, USA
Being tough on someone is a hand-down from the old world European model of kicking people down, especially your own male children. When asked for my opinion I always stick to the most pressing need in the work. One area of improvement per request and always based on the fundamentals. When a student focuses on one thing, often others naturally fix themselves in due course. I have also discovered that students will often be wrong in where they think the problem is. They might complain of a miss-fitting nose, when on review, I see that the real difficulty lies in the placement of the lips instead–and the nose is in fact fine.
Getting good on your own terms
by John Crowther, Los Angeles, CA, USA
The idea of trying to get good on your own terms resonated with me powerfully and in a way that may surprise you. I’ve struggled with subject matter, style, and medium for decades now, never completely satisfied, always questioning myself. Ironically, your letter coincided with a moment of my life when unexpected chance awakened my long-standing love of cartooning. To me cartooning has always been a simple pleasure, not to be taken seriously, but I’ve suddenly had an epiphany. The cartoon brings together many things that are important to me in my life, and I find myself drawing them with a joy and energy and satisfaction that I’ve long missed. If anything, they’ve allowed me to enjoy my painting more, precisely because I’m living and working on my own terms.
(RG note) Thanks, John. We artists must know that whatever we do, we must always try to do well. As you have put it so clearly with your long standing love of cartooning, all branches of art are to be taken seriously. Cartooning is a significant way in which large numbers of people can be entertained, amused, and, yes, influenced. When asked to name their favorite artists, many people name cartoonists. Broadcasting the smile of insight is no small matter.
The art of development
by Carolyn Newberger, MA, USA
No one is “good” or “bad,” in my opinion, but either moving or stalled in their development. Comments that support or unblock that process are far more helpful than judgments about their work or their “talent,” and can provide needed tools for fresh perspectives or techniques. When I was 18, my first and last art professor in college let me know that I wasn’t talented. I abandoned art for 44 years, only to discover accidentally at age 62 that I am indeed an artist, and have been working hard, passionately, and successfully for the past three years. You never know where a person may go, so always encourage the journey.
A story of fire
by Marni California, Abergele, UK
A serious young violinist who wanted to make sure he didn’t waste his life asked to play for an older maestro, to gain the expert’s opinion of his ability. When the lad had finished his piece, the old man responded airily, “You haven’t got the fire.” The lad thought, “Fair dues,” and buckled down to learn accountancy. Ten years later he’d built up one of the biggest accountancy firms in the country. One night, at a gala fund-raising concert, he ran into the maestro, now elderly, who had listened to him play the violin. He said to the maestro, “I must thank you, sir.” “Why?” asked the maestro. “Well, years ago I played the violin for you, to see if I had what it took to be a great musician. You told me I hadn’t got the fire, so I dropped music and studied accountancy. Now I am very successful in my business and it’s all thanks to you.” “I told you that you didn’t have the fire?” The old maestro waved a hand, “Oh, I say that to everyone.” “My god!” cried the accountant, “You’ve ruined any chance that I could have had a career as a musician!” “Of course I haven’t,” said the maestro, smiling gently. “Because if you had had the fire, you wouldn’t have listened to what I said.”
What do I care about?
by Nina Meledandri, New York, NY, USA
No matter how much talent/skill/promise a person has, if you have a choice, if there is anything else in this world that you feel you can do, do that. In my opinion, the life of an artist requires an unshakable commitment that comes from beyond desire, which comes from the survival instinct. In my experience this sort of blind faith that you are on the right path, because nothing else makes you feel complete, is necessary to combat the many perceived obstacles and difficulties inherent in the life of an artist. Ultimately your primary resource is what is inside of you and pushing that to the nth degree is the only thing that will set you apart from the many, many other competent artists out there. The further you are willing to go out on that limb of asking that fundamental question, “What do I really care deeply about?” the more your work will develop a truth and a power that is all your own.
How to catch a mental illness
by J. Bruce Wilcox, Denver, CO, USA
Again and again I’ve found myself mentoring individuals who are caught up in patterning related to negative cultural belief structures. And what I try to impress on them is so simple, yet so profound. Just create. Create beauty. Give everything you can to creating. Give everything you have. No matter what you have to do to get by each day, never stop creating. If it is an actual art form, you will likely master it. But if it is just how you live, you’ll be very alive and far happier. For an artist, not creating is a direct path to mental illness. And our negative cultural patterning will only change when all of us realize that living and manifesting creatively in all aspects of our lives is the single most important thing going on.
Name duplication of artists
by Mary Bullock, Memphis, TN, USA
Late one night I was googling my name and to my astonishment up popped my name in an unfamiliar gallery! Now I have often run into people with my name before, but never another namesake who is also an artist. The problem is that this other “Mary Bullock” is in a gallery, and I am in a different gallery. How does a collector know I am the right one, or in other words, if they google me and find the other “Mary” like I did, they could be buying her work, thinking they are buying mine. Anyway, have you run across another Robert Genn who is an artist and is exhibiting in another gallery?
(RG note) Thanks, Mary. Since the advent of the World Wide Web this problem comes up all the time. It’s really tough for the Mary Smiths of this world. The recourse to middle names–Mary Drucilla Smith–puts her on a page of her own. Right now there’s no other Robert Genn that does what I do–but who knows about the future? I can see the time when pretty well all of us will have to make adjustments to our names. Like the Hispanics, our names are going to get longer.
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 Gordon J. van Vliet of Rochester, NY, USA who wrote: “Crutches will not improve our own work.”
And also Dianne Middleton of Calgary, AB, Canada who wrote: “The more an artist seeks to achieve public recognition based solely on commercial gain, the greater the potential for disappointment.”
And also Cecilia Price of Opelika, AL, USA who wrote: “I have grown more in the last several months than I did in a much longer time when I was working with a large group.”
And also Odette Larde of Berkeley, CA, USA who wrote: “Artists need practical information. They can be helped by exchanging practical ideas on, for example, what brushes to use, what mediums are good, what works and what doesn’t work, and what we’ve recently discovered.”
And also Jay Hambleton of Whitehorse, YT, Canada who wrote: “Egbert was visiting Marg and Gordie Bryenton and Marg had just bought a painting and asked Egbert to have a look at it. Egbert walked up to the painting with Marg at his elbow, looked closely at it and said, ‘I zink zis is a piece of shit.’ ” Tough love.
And also Adolfo McQue of Cape Town, South Africa who wrote: “Paint (draw, sculpt, write, play, compose) what you love and work very hard for the sake of the work. If your aim is only money, well, remember bad also sells.”
And also Alfred Muma who wrote: “The creation of art is a continuous journey of self-discovery and learning the craft of illusion. Perfecting it, we only discover there’s more to it than meets the eye.”
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