Monty Python alumnus Terry Gilliam was recently bemoaning the current sad state of British film comedy: “The worst thing that can happen to anyone in the movie business,” he says, “is success. It takes away the desire to strive. At the same time it makes one prone to repetition — which is the death of creativity.”
In my modest practice as art mentor (I do it for free), I frequently get letters that say, “Please take a look at my work and tell me in which direction I should go — and, by the way, how do I get into galleries?” I often find myself replying, “You need more consistency. Your work is all over the place. You need to develop one style or another and go in that direction.” In other words, I’m advising, “Repeat yourself.”
In the painting game, repetition is one of the disciplines needed for self-realization. Variations on a theme, however subtle, lead to development and refinement. I’m a believer in the concept of “set.” Making a set or series of any subject or idea is the way to further invent and codify style. The unification of set can be managed by subject matter — for example, all you ever wanted to know about peonies, or pumas, or Pontiacs. As well, format, size, medium, colour and time development are just a few of the other set-makers that invite creative repetition. The benefit of set is to draw an artist along on a purposeful voyage of discovery. Often, when I look at an artist’s collection of works, particularly in early career, it reminds me of a flotilla of unique rental boats tied up at a pier. Any one of these boats could be rowed off in any number of felicitous directions.
Fine art is not like the movie business, where huge amounts of capital and a variety of skills are needed to keep pace with accepted norms and financial risk. Fine art is generally a low investment, individualist industry, where private sweat pays dividends to a self-directed, exploring soul. This takes place with a combination of courage, stick-to-it-ive-ness and character. Not everyone can pull it off. These days there are a lot of distractions. There may also be too much information out there. The current rage for diversity and the perceived need for exploring new materials have spread the virus of dilettantism. Jack of all trades — master of none.
PS: “Freedom is found along the guiding lines of discipline.” (Yehudi Menuhin)
Esoterica: “How do I get into galleries?” is not always an appropriate question. Many of us just want to feel the joy of a job well done. But for those who ask, part of the answer lies with my first concerns about consistency, style, and the willingness, like Yehudi Menuhin’s, to keep repeating variations until the work itself rises above the competition. I suppose, implicit in this, a gallery must feel that if an artist is capable of making exploratory sets, then an artist must be capable of ongoing, dedicated work. In the words of my late friend, the painter Egbert Oudendag, “If you want to be an apple vendor, you’ve got to have apples in your apple cart.”
Repetition or rehearsal is about growth
by Ruth Phillips, Bedoin, France
I have just come back from working (playing J. S. Bach’s Art of Fugue — another rather good set) with the dancer and dance teacher Amanda Miller. She told her dancers all the time: “It’s not about repetition. It’s about growing.” Living in France, I am thinking of the French for rehearsal — répétition — and wonder also if the word rehearsal is derived from re-hearing, or in your case re-seeing?
Repetition shows a path
by Claudia Roulier, Idledale, CO, USA
Finally a subject I totally agree with you on! I think that repetition is a most excellent tool to explore almost everything about a subject from color, design, format, etc. I can’t think of any negatives about repeating themes, subjects or subjects and media. It’s a quick way to explore. There is something very nice about seeing different aspects of a “blue dog” hanging on walls or gracing the floor, it brings immediate appeal to the buyer by showing a path and viewer by showing consistency and links.
Thread of consistency
by Deirdre Fox, Chicago, IL, USA
While many artists ultimately may not pull off multifaceted exploration of different materials and media, this process of exploration remains valuable in developing individual artistic direction, as is attention to the nuances of craft. Process is integral to directing my art, and my exploration is not chaotic. An underlying thread of consistency runs through good work by an artist, even across media.
Unified ‘set’ of good work brings success
by Susan Avishai, Ottawa, ON, Canada
When I was a young illustrator trudging my portfolio around, one of the most useful pieces of advice I got was to develop and show only one style (or at the very most, two). “Leave the Art Director with a firm and clear idea of what you do.” The neophyte that I was wrongly assumed you benefit by coming off as able to do everything. Once I had a polished ‘set’ of good work, unified in medium/style, even market sector, the jobs started coming in and I didn’t get asked to do as many jobs I felt weren’t using my best skills.
Galleries that avoid series work
by Brian Kliewer, Rockland, ME, USA
I was recently chosen to show in NYC. The curator asked me to do a series. The thing that interests me is how the galleries here in Maine never seem to want work in this way. Paintings that are too similar are often rejected or just one of a series is accepted. I’ve been accused of ‘being all over the place’ in the past as a result. My work is closely related to the seasons and time. So a great variety does appear in my work. The seasons are quite sharply etched here where I live, thus, a great variety of subject matter is available. I’m going to be showing in NY again… so I guess I’ll have an audience for my “series” work even if not here in Maine. Or perhaps the answer would be to show in more galleries, dividing up these series works in that way.
Take a direction
by John Fitzsimmons, Fayetteville, NY, USA
When I was in school I was blessed and cursed in my ability to do just about anything, academic figure drawing, no problem, action painting? stand back, realist glazed chiaroscuro? Caravaggio watch out. So I touched on all this stuff, which my school (The Art Academy of Cincinnati) encouraged for a good thorough foundation, probably more so than most schools in the ’70s. However it was not until I started painting again a few years ago on a serious level that I understood that I had to force myself to develop a style, which was difficult to accept. I think that art allows and requires you to take a direction and force your way down that path, way beyond where you think you should go. In retrospect, the point you wanted to stop seems to be the point were you were really just beginning. Any apparent consistency is just a segment of the progress. Forcing a style gets a bad rap when artists think they are doing that, but are in fact just repeating themselves or are stuck in a rut — there is a big difference!
by Collette Fergus, New Zealand
I too mentor and for free. It gives me immense satisfaction helping someone overcome hurdles that I had tripped myself up on over the years and to see one flourish like a butterfly from a cocoon. Some artists disappoint me in their lack of ability to be diverse within their particular style, so you can often have the opposite extreme from what you actually mean and end up with mass-produced themes lacking in inspiration and/or creativeness. I see some artists who think that, ‘Hey that sold, I’ll paint another and another and another,’ taking away the originality of the piece that possibly attracted its buyer in the first place. One such artist even developed templates which resulted in a scary array of paint-by-numbers-looking pieces. Some exhibitions I have attended over the years are a blur of the same painting on twelve or so different canvases, lacking originality and disappointing the viewing public. But I do understand what you mean. I, too, did just such a thing with my early works, lots and lots of chopping and changing to create the flotilla of varying looks. To be quite honest, I think I still do that, but certainly not consciously. It’s fortunate that others seem to know my work and easily recognize it because I feel I’m still ‘experimenting’ within my work and themes and hope I always will.
Standardization is typical of mass media
by Adam Cope, Lanquais, Dordogne, France
In my experience, the type of people who are surprised by diversity and changes of direction in an artist’s oeuvre tend to be the same type of people who ask, ‘How long did that painting take to paint — how many hours?’ Maybe these people are stuck in jobs where their performance is measured by an hourly productivity rate. Standardisation is typical of mass media and industrialisation. Too much re: re:re:re:re:re:re:re:re:repetition?
But shouldn’t art be an area where individuals are encouraged to experiment with their creativity? (Okay, repeating in series is good practice and can be helpful as it cuts out many variables and thus allows us to really focus in on and improve upon certain elements of painting. Last summer I had a job painting in a park, the same view over the summer, teaching whilst painting — it was interesting to have painted the same view maybe about sixty times). Changes of style are central to the history of painting. “La peinture est tourjours à reinventer.” As in life, as in art, some moments are more ‘magical’ than others — when things seem to fall into place of their own accord. As in life, as in art, we change over the years but certain core elements remain and hold their fascination over us. My standard response to the change of style query is ‘an artist isn’t a photocopier.’
Living the creative life
by Laura Parrish, Glen Allen, VA, USA
For decades, Leonard Wolf taught his students at San Francisco State a set of 12 lessons about living the creative life, including “Use Your Imagination” and “Do Nothing Without Passion.” Leonard believes “everyone is here on earth as an artist; to tell his particular story or sing her irreplaceable song; to leave a unique creative signature.” His daughter, Naomi Wolf, elaborates on Leonard’s points with anecdotes from her own work as a teacher, insights gained from building a tree house for her daughter and, best of all, stories from Leonard’s colorful life. Personal and inspiring, it’ll make anyone wish they had a Leonard in their life.
“Be disciplined,” Leonard said, again looking up from his class notes. “Do you want to know how to become a writer? It is not romantic.” Then he glared from under his white brows and almost harshly said, as much about life, it seems, as about writing, “There is no revising a blank page. Keep going… Even when you do not feel like it — especially then — go on.”
I think our community might like this book.
(RG note) Thanks, Laura. Naomi Wolf’s excellent book about her father is at Amazon.com: The Treehouse : Eccentric Wisdom from My Father on How to Live, Love, and See. More books by Naomi Wolf.
Consistency of style and medium
by Casey Craig, Wimberley, TX, USA
I was just discussing this very topic with a fellow artist. We concluded that consistency of style and medium is probably more important than subject matter. However, if you are still searching for that consistency of style, I agree that repetition is the way to find it. Many galleries are more lenient about what you paint, (flowers, animals, landscapes) as long as there is a consistency to the work and it all looks like it came from the same artist. I’ve found that one way to combat the boredom of working with one subject is to alternate between themes. Paint some peonies, then a puma, then a Pontiac, repeat, repeat, repeat. Eventually you’ll have 3 nice collections with a common theme.
by Alex Nodopaka, Lake Forest, CA, USA
I am puzzled and disappointed by your advice to repeat oneself in art. I read this as a suggestion that once you find yourself through a repetitive gimmick in technique, style and subject matter, your art becomes a signature recognizable from a distance. This is a sad idea unless it is in everything you do. I believe in the opposite of being a Jack-of-all-trades. I believe in striving to become a King-of-all-trades by fulfilling one’s life as an artist creator through diversity and to hell with the financial rewards. It is a shame to copycat oneself because of recognition by creating your own fad. However, I recognize that recognition comes with repetition. In effect we, creators and viewers, become squirrel prisoners in our own cages, a Catch-22. How boring it is to eat only apples during a lifetime.
Variety is the spice of life
by Alan Soffer, Wallingford, PA, USA
Finding a style is different from finding a direction or topic. For instance, one can apply a painting style to landscape, figurative, or abstract and still be on point. In short, variety is the spice of life. Galleries and historians like an artist to plow one field for sales and ease of compartmentalizing, but most artists work on various topics. It is important for the exploration process to mine various veins. My galleries seem to pick a direction they need or, in a few cases, they allow me free reign.
Narrative series requires planning
by Beverly Claridge, New Zealand
I used to do whatever would inspire me and only occasionally would end up with a wow! Now, I find myself planning my painting series sometimes months, even a year ahead. And I keep doing what has been successful, but keep it fresh by changing my approach to a particular series. I find this is giving me a sense of accomplishment and purpose and the results have been outstanding. My forte is narrative scenes involving people. I discovered this by repeatedly doing narrative. Eventually, I was approached by an important local gallery to do a by-invitation solo exhibition. This successful exhibition, which just closed in April, featured a series of narrative scenes to celebrate the Sesquicentennial of our Province. I have already in place plans to continue doing narrative series, but now am adding a more visionary aspect to it.
Art in the cart
by David Wayne Wilson, White Rock, BC, Canada
The range between mindless dilettantism and dedicated work is vast. Somewhere near the pole of such dilettantism must surely be “creative repetition.” The pre-requisites you would impose or advocate on someone’s progress would choke a horse! Your suggestion that “consistency” is desirable, of course, is an extension of the idea that fine art is some kind of an “industry,” somehow different from the ‘entertainment business,’ but at once the same, in its tendency to recognize popularity over originality. I don’t want to ‘sell apples.’ I don’t want to trade a basket full of clones for my sustenance. I don’t want to be a machine, and I don’t want anyone to tell me which way to go. I am a human being who is not self-realized, artistically or otherwise, but who at least has wit enough to know that asking another painter, “Which direction I should go?” is like asking a drug addict what he does for a good time. It is when we require dollars and accolades that we go awry. Is it really so difficult for an artist to decide what to paint? How to paint? What on earth can his/her objectives be? Not those of a creative soul! Why on earth do so many ‘artists’ continue to dream of making money as an artist? The better my work becomes, the less I want to trade it for mere money. If you want to be an artist, you’ve got to have Art in your cart.
Transcending the restrictions
by Norm Tucker, White Rock, BC, Canada
Repetition and recognition and consistency are the bread and butter of a conservative society, in which we live. It’s based on fear. Fear of creativity and chaos. It comes from linear thinking and living in and being directed by linear-hierarchical organizations. So an artist who expects to sell needs also to pander to the conservative elements. If the artist doesn’t, his or her genius is likely to be recognized posthumously.
The problem or the challenge — indeed the opportunity for the real artist — is to transcend these restrictions. Success results in a powerful and vibrant culture that raises a society beyond its narrow reality of conformity and susceptibility to live in the past surrounded by rules, restrictions, commandments. True art is humanities affirmation to creativity and to life. Without art, humans are essentially animals with an overdeveloped and underemployed brain. You offer the following advice: “Repetition is one of the disciplines needed for self-realization. Variations on a theme, however subtle, lead to development and refinement.” It is advice that follows the pattern of Ancient Masters whose basic three rules are obey, cooperate, diverge. Obeying is essentially imitating, learning techniques. Cooperate is continuing the evolution of the master’s work. Diverge is moving on to create something new and fresh. Accept, apply and adapt is another way of looking at this teaching approach.
I think it’s at the point of divergence that true art and true personal expression begins. I also think it also needs to be unbound and unbridled and occasionally chaotic. As a result true art will transcend craft.
Let’s change the standards
by Deborah McLaren, Mystic, CT, USA
I’ve seen artists’ work that looks the same as it did thirty years ago, instantly identified as theirs. That’s uninteresting to me. Once I’ve mastered a technique or style, I like to experiment with something else to stretch and grow with my art. If developing one signature style, easily recognizable to everyone is the “fine arts” standards, perhaps its time to change those standards. Life is too short to do the same thing all the time.
digital painting (Maya, mental ray)
by Laurent Ménabé, France
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2006.
That includes Jim Pescott of Canada who wrote, “Would it not be more helpful to bring thoughts to the table on how one might discover aspects about their creative endeavors that deserve more consistent focus? There is a world lost in the subtle things if we don’t single them out and allow them treasured value.”
And also Kim Rody of Stuart, Florida, USA who wrote, “I did a series in art class in 1998 and it became my career. That year I painted 100 fish, which was the foundation for my new life as the ‘fishartista.’ Be careful with doing a series, it may change your life.”
And also Anil R Nene of India who wrote, “Your e mails are in synch with my thoughts. Could you kindly condense them more?”
And also Jean W. Morey of Ocala, Florida, USA who wrote, “I work in a myriad of different styles depending on the subject and necessity of the written work I am illustrating.”
And also Salma Shakir of Dhahran, Saudi Arabia who wrote, “I am currently the President of Dhahran Art Group. We have a membership of 250. We are a multiple discipline, self-sustaining group. Our building provides tools and workspace for pottery, painting, glass and woodwork. Your letters are just the right mendicant for ailing artists.”
And also Linda Anderson Stewart of Twin Butte, AB, Canada who wrote, “Young painters don’t realize the sweat equity that is required to get to be a great painter… it’s hard, thankless, and the pay stinks (for most of us)… even if you are in galleries. The only way you are going to find your voice is to listen to your heart. Paint about what matters to you so that you enjoy the process and don’t get pigeon holed too soon.”
And also Travis Kurtz who wrote, “You have inspired us to open a Church called the Church of Robert Genn. We would like you to be the leader of it and to inspire us more.” (RG note) Thanks, Travis. This is going altogether too far. But then again: “Verily I say unto thee, repeat thyself. But in thy repetition be not a bore to thyself or to others.”
And also Bob Abrams who wrote, “You are way off base. If you’re telling your readers to jump in a rut and stay there you can take me off your list.”