In the process of making art you need to ask the quality questions. Every stroke, every minute, like bits on a digital disk, are made of tiny but important decisions. Every piece of evolving art is a march of “What could be?” “What if?” and “What’s next?” Our contemplative eye sees alongside our working eye, asks the questions and sometimes gets the answers.
I like to compare it to “trying on.” To me it’s one of the most satisfying parts of the creative process. I do it consciously and subconsciously through all kinds of devious processes: Half-closed eyes. A separate chair. Screaming Mozart. Mirror looking. Changing brushes. Sanding off. Putting away. Mixing and matching. Going back to reference. Thinking and doing. Showing and telling. All of these and more, but for me the greatest of all is “sheer plod.” Sometimes, almost completely stymied, it’s necessary to do only what you can do, and wait for the Creativity Goddess to bless you in her own sweet time. And it’s good to keep in mind that those methods that you discover and claim uniquely for yourself can become the most precious and give the best results of all.
Then there are the better questions. These are the ones that elevate your work and take it away from the ordinary. They are “idea” questions that have the side benefit of making the artist’s life and work more effective. They are deeper and more philosophical: “What’s the spirit?” “What’s the real subject?” “What’s going on here?” In some ways the answers are not as important as the questions. Claude Levi-Straus said, “The wise man doesn’t give the right answers, he poses the right questions.” It’s arbitrary anyway. What you’re coming up with is something that’s strictly “you.” All else ought to take a secondary role to this understanding. An artist does well when he constantly reminds himself: “It’s my business.” As photographer Jerry Uelsmann noted, “In the arts there are many right answers.”
PS: “Quality questions create a quality life. Successful people ask better questions, and as a result, they get better answers.” (Anthony Robbins)
Esoterica: When you think of the variables of palette, tools and support, there are plenty of combinations. Add to that your experience, technique, subject matter and mood — and there’s a rich brew of possibilities.
The following are selected responses to the above and other letters. Thank you for writing.
Discard rules and exploit mistakes
Beverley McInnes, Nova Scotia, Canada
I am working on a teaching proposal at the moment and the title of the workshop is “What If, Indulge Your Passion and Pushing Boundaries”. I open my own thought process on this subject by stating that if one discards rules and exploits mistakes, the attainable goal is to leave the workshop with ideas swirling, enthusiasm fired and boundaries stretched individually as far as possible while maintaining the integrity of each person’s work. What if only one idea is taken away from the workshop then, the student/participant is the winner! I like this kind of thinking.
Is nothing finished?
Faith Puelston, Germany
Approaching a blank sheet of paper, a canvas, a lump of clay or piece of rock is much like birth and rebirth. Recycling, recreating and hopefully, achieving whatever target we have set ourselves by whatever means are available. I personally often get really “bogged down” in the quest for something permanently illusive – perfection? I don’t stop trying. My own dilemma is how to define what it is I am searching for. Why do I need a definition? Why do I need to make excuses for the imperfection of what I have managed to achieve? I find myself saying: “Oh, it isn’t finished yet” to people who see something I have painted, even if I secretly think it is. I suppose it’s much like saying: “Don’t murder my unborn child!” It seems to me that nothing of mine is finished. Conflict, Correction, Criticism, Conquest. Does that put it in a nutshell? I experience great familiarity with the first three Cs, and great respect for the fourth.
P R Pitt, UK
I’m glad you finally mentioned that the deeper, more important questions should be asked. So many artists these days are blindly roaring along making light-weight kitch for the decorator market. Also, so much of what we call ‘modern’ is bereft of any lasting significance. The pretty picture school is hardly any better. Artists need to go to a bit of trouble to figure out what they are doing. From your quotations pages: “What are you? What am I? Those are the questions that constantly persecute and torment me and perhaps also play some part in my art.” (Max Beckmann)
Hans Younger, Austria
Georges Braque said that every painting ought to have something disturbing in it. He also said that any work of art without that quality was not a work of art. It’s my opinion that a percentage of art should at least try to challenge the comfort and complacency of middle-class existence, the power mongers and the status quo. Artists are supposed to be the eyes and ears of a civilization, and many who could do better are abdicating.
It’s wonderful to be in a profession where there are many right answers. If all art performances were to be judged by a panel of experts, and gold, silver and bronze were to be awarded by an averaging vote—our lives would be in ruin. Happiness in the visual arts exists because it’s a free-for-all, and those with the most natural talent, quality work-habits and chutzpah are the winners.
Live in the art
By asking the quality questions we open ourselves up and move toward raising the standards of our work. Everyone in our profession has his or her own idea of what represents quality. It’s not universal. What your letter implies is that at minimum we must take ourselves seriously and “live our art.” To be truly effective as artists it is necessary to visit and revisit the sources of our inspiration and the foundations of our value systems.
Loss of desire
Have you ever gone for long periods of time with no desire to paint or draw? What causes me to just more or less give up and not even try? I love to paint and draw and have had excellent teachers and workshops and have a BA in Art. I am also in the medical field and the two compete for my time.
(RG note) A common reason for lack of desire is a perceived lack of proficiency. Conversely, when you feel you are really doing a good job, you tend not to be able to get it stopped. Like so many things in life, you do well and often what you do best. So the idea is to become at least a little pleased with your art and the process of making it. This takes passion. Developing passion takes a degree of commitment and seriousness. Yes, it happened to me once. My work was lousy. I thought I might quit. I didn’t want to but I thought I might. I solved my problem by going to a lonely cabin for almost a week and I did nothing but read about art. A big university-type survey textbook, The Art Spirit by Robert Henri, a biography of Salvador Dali and picture books of the artists I loved — Sargent, Sorolla, Rockwell, Vermeer, Turner, Constable, O’Keeffe. While stoking that fire late into the evening I became part of the brotherhood and sisterhood. It made me realize that it was a worthwhile idea to get better at my work. It made me re-dedicate myself. Incidentally I didn’t take any materials to the cabin. That week I built a tsunami of desire. I’ve never forgotten it.
Me and my art
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 97 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2002.
That includes Alan R. Taylor, up in the Swan Valley, near Condon, Montana, USA who says, “I’ve not consciously thought about asking the quality questions, but think I must have been doing so — haphazardly.” And Margreth Fry who wrote, “I was under the impression that it was THE PAINT-FAIRY that visits me sometimes at night, as I am surprised what I accomplished the night before. I can’t imagine how my paintings will look when The Creativity Goddess finds me.” And Hendrik de Jager who writes, “When I visit a museum and look at the old masters I sometimes wonder what went on in their minds. Every brushstroke could tell a story. It almost looks too private to go into. Someday we may have a machine to do that for us, but in the meantime we can only wonder.” And Marianne Mölgård of Skarblacka, Sweden who wrote, “My first work of art was when I was only one year old. One Sunday morning I sat on the kitchen table drawing on the wall with my mum’s red lipstick. Just imagine the reward I got from my parents when they woke up. Maybe that is why I became so interested in painting.” Marianne is the first artist to enter the “Free Painting Workshop with Robert Genn in France” contest.
“If one were to ask a painter what he felt about anything, his just response — though he seldom makes it — would be to paint it, and in painting, to find out.” (Robert Motherwell) Contributed by Max Flegel.
“Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.” (Groucho Marx) Contributed by Droogs.