The other day I happened to be paying a visit to one of my galleries. I noticed a guy moving slowly along a wall — his nose almost dragging on the paintings. “He’s an art student — comes in here all the time,” said the dealer. “He’s studying all the artists and trying to figure out their secrets.” The guy was making notes, lost in his own world.
On the way back to my studio, music turned up real loud, I realized that if someone had an invention, or had developed a new cure for something, the first thing they might do would be to head for the patent office. But it’s difficult to patent a style. A clever lab technician could certainly grind up and reverse-engineer a new pill, but, as that fellow in the gallery was finding, it’s difficult to grind out the real secrets in someone else’s work.
I believe that every one of us has the right and the responsibility to create something that is a bit unique — to develop a look that may be somewhat private and difficult for others to unravel. With all the permutations and combinations possible, I also think there will always be enough uniqueness to go around.
While secrets can sometimes be fairly clear and on the surface, at most times they’re mysteriously subtle. For the artist-inventor who discovers them, they are often hard won. They appear by a variety of means. This includes the order in which work is built, the process and execution, reference methods, self-crit techniques, personal mythology, learned and inherited tendencies, attitude, and a host of other factors like palette, equipment, format, lighting, etc. More than anything, secrets have to do with personal habits and the conscious or unconscious prejudices of the worker. Repetition also plays its part and is a valuable contributor.
An outsider, cruising a wall of art, is stuck with the problem of getting into someone else’s skin.
For those of us who regularly toil at art, it’s clear that glimmers of secrets regularly flit before our eyes. Like butterflies, they need to be netted and examined. This evolved “knowledge” is what electrifies and inspires the better artists — and puts a mark of distinction on their art. Knowing something special, something a bit different, even hazily, means you can claim it. That’s the secret.
PS: “Let each man exercise the art he knows.” (Aristophanes, 450-385 BC)
Esoterica: For the developing artist — and we’re all developing — a state of honest curiosity is at the root of creative secrets. Like lab technicians, we look to the possibilities of what might happen when we mix this with that. As in most human pursuits, it’s often useful to avoid one-sided answers to many-sided questions. It’s okay to doubt. It’s important to test. The way to discover secrets is to be a student of your own efforts. “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.” (Confucius, 551-479 BC)
A nose for technique
by Neeman (Neil) Callender, Israel
As a certified ‘Nose dragger,’ I learn more about technique in five minutes than fifty blind attempts. I was just in the Lake District in northern England on a watercolor painting vacation. I was feeling stuck. I went into Heaton Cooper’s (1864-1929) gallery and nose dragged a couple of his originals. I was amazed by his work. Secrets? No. Technique? Yes. And the rest of the vacation, I knew where to aim my technique. Definitely not copying. Just moving into my own style.
Provoking a valuable world
by Jan Verhulst, Belgium
Your description of the search for secrets gives me the idea of a never-ending play with combinations and permutations, each a little bit different and more or less virtuoso. I believe that the secret, at a certain point, is no longer in “Knowing something special, something a bit different, even hazily,” but in the ability of the artist to provoke a world in their work which for others is valuable and meaningful.
The Aunt Gertrude Syndrome
by Doug Mays, Stoney Creek, ON, Canada
When instructing in watercolours, I often talk about ‘artist cloning.’ I’m sure you’ll agree that some styles are more difficult to imitate than others. For instance, my own loose, impressionistic style is harder to copy because the medium takes off and paints itself to a point. That being said, I chock up our individuality in styles to what I call “The Aunt Gertrude Syndrome.” Simply put, my Aunt Gertrude or any other person introduced to me at an early age helped me mould my personality and made me different from other individuals/artists. You can give us all the same materials, same conditions and same composition but the one thing that makes us different is that my Aunt Gertrude is different from your Aunt Gertrude.
Don’t be afraid to share
by Mary Moquin, Sandwich, MA, USA
I have artist friends that try so hard to keep their secrets to themselves. As artists, I like to think we are all tapping into something larger than ourselves — something that is then uniquely filtered through our beings. We shouldn’t be afraid to share our technical secrets, because no one will be able to recreate our individual soul experience. It is like when lookers-on ask us what brand of brush we are using, thinking that will unlock the mystery, if they purchase and use the same brush! We all look to artists that have traveled on before us for glimpses into what they discovered and experienced. Sometimes their discoveries help us on our own journey. It is through the search that we discover what is important in our own work. Ultimately we decide what we like and keep of their methods and incorporate new ones we discover along the way, by accident or divine guidance. This eventually helps us define our own unique style. So, I say look all you want. That may indeed be part of the secret.
Same lesson, different results
by Pamela Simpson, Woodstock, CT, USA
When I am teaching a workshop I really enjoy working with each student, helping them to discover and amplify their own unique voice as a painter. I am often humbled and amazed by the variations. My husband, David Lussier, and I start with teaching or refreshing the basics as we understand them and then work with each student to bring out their unique style. I love to view the works at critique at the end of the day. It is amazing to me that we are teaching everyone the same lesson, yet in the end every painting is so different and beautiful. I am also mentally exhausted, as it is hard work to try to get into the head of each student and help them become themselves. But I find this a lot more rewarding than teaching them to be clones of David or me.
Machinations of learning
by Tracey Mardon, Edmonton, AB, Canada
I began painting at a school where they use the technique of starting every student out with a very limited choice of subject and the student attempts to reproduce an image on canvas, looking for only shapes and values. Over the course of the first 3 paintings, they are allowed to progress to painting in a looser style and while painting those first 3 they begin to develop their own style. In fact, as they lay on colour in the first one, their own stamp begins to show up on it. I don’t think time is lost in the machinations of learning. It is all part of the path.
by BJ Adams, Washington, DC, USA
Yesterday, when I walked into the new exhibit at the National Gallery of the six foot Constable paintings, I was blown away for a couple of reasons. As you see one of these large landscapes from a distance you see so much detail. Rather than trying to find the secret of a painter’s work, I am one of those who get up to a couple of inches from paintings to see how the details appear not to be detailed at all but blobs or strokes of color. The ability to be able to paint with that stroke, that from a distance looks like a detailed person’s face or animal, is more than a secret.
The other unusual aspect of Constable’s work in this show is the same size oil painted canvases that he called ‘sketches’ for the finished work. They were framed as elegantly and were side by side with the finished painting. There were some small compositional changes and usually the sky was different, but to me, the sketches were as wonderful as the finished works. Not looking for secrets, just full of admiration when I go so close.
The nature of the pursuit
by Pierre Vachon, Saint John, NB, Canada
It seems to me that your art student is just doing what thousands of others have been doing for hundreds of years: he is simply looking for something more practical than a “unified theory of art.” At a recent workshop I attended, we were shown how to reproduce a whole bag of visual effects and, to be honest, I learned more about painting technique in those few days than I ever have with grand theories. As with the art student mentioned earlier, one has very little to lose and much to learn by trying to replicate what your own eyes show you that obviously works. Though this approach looks to be never ending, one has to accept that this may well be the nature of the pursuit one has chosen. If the preceding reasoning is right, then the uniqueness of one as a painter would be the result of the mix of visual tricks one learned to master over the years, coupled with the subject matter that was attractive to you as an artist.
Secrets of a master forger
by Nancy Bea Miller, Philadelphia, PA, USA
Some time ago there was a television program on a PBS station about art forgery. One of the forgers was so good, it was hard to tell his work from the original master’s, hence his amazing success. In fact, I thought he could have had a legitimate career by calling himself “Workshop of…” the long dead master! The lab people, who had discovered the forgery through various rigorous lab tests, bent their skill and knowledge on seeing if they could replicate the forger’s results. Nope. They had all the knowledge, materials and even skills, but were missing the main ingredient: an artist’s heart.
More to see in others’ work
by David C. Benjamin, Montana, USA
One of my favorite pastimes while visiting museums and galleries is looking closely. However, I do not expect to find all, or even most, of the secrets. Those that I am looking for are more the artist’s techniques, e.g., brush strokes used for individual objects or background in the painting, the use of color and light. I am not trying to look into his soul or mind for reasons as to how or why the artist did what he did. We all see the same thing differently and how we express that vision and feeling is so personal that few, if any, will be able to fully understand the “true story” behind a given painting.
Slap in the face
by Bronwyn Shimmin, Ashburton, Canterbury, New Zealand
Earlier this year, I had left my portfolio of work with an artist for an hour or two, at that stage with the view of exhibiting with her. Imagine my surprise when I went to an opening of an exhibition last night and came across a painting which for all the world could have been one of my own, my technique, my use of colour, even the composition was almost exactly the same as one of my own paintings. The real slap in the face was that she won a prize for this painting. It left me wondering just how artists protect their uniqueness.
Coke does not tell its secrets
by Heidi E. Hehn, Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada
I have seen people ‘cruise’ my work with their noses on it in the expectation of being able to ‘crack’ my code. They often come to the wrong conclusions. Not only are those conclusions erroneous, but they are very harmful to my work and reputation as an artist. So I am asked to defend myself and my work by revealing my secrets gratis to people who are not committed enough to do the work that they need to do to find out for themselves. I respond: Coke does not have to reveal its secrets, so why should I? I have only confirmed their false convictions of my work and methods. Maybe the problem is that the magic is gone. People no longer recognize or respect the wonderful forces that come together to create a piece of art — nor the artist who ‘channels’ them.
Don’t want to learn anyone’s secrets
by Wes Giesbrecht, Mission, BC, Canada
I got sidetracked and never made it to art school. I wound up becoming a furniture maker and working with wood. This led to the development of an art style of my own. I cut wood into little tiles and mount them on fabric to create mosaic wall hangings. Lately I’ve been fooling around with colour. I don’t want to learn anyone’s secrets. I want to create my own. To me, it’s all about discovering what I can do and not worrying about what anyone else is doing or has done in the past. I realize this isn’t the road for everyone, but it’s an approach that gives me the greatest satisfaction.
Secrets hard to shed
by Kim Fancher Lordier, San Francisco, CA, USA
The secrets that artists unveil during their pursuit of getting better are actually a personal calligraphy. We study works from life, pour over publications and observe nature, inhaling what has been done before. We experiment and copy and ultimately find our own way to put paint on the canvas. Our secrets are really our uniqueness, and I believe very hard to shed. An important aspect of finding and understanding our secrets is actually getting out of the way in order to allow the secret to be revealed. That is how an outsider is able to recognize an individual artist’s work, and that is what helps to hold a body of work together.
Use of the copying tool
by Skip Rohde, Mars Hill, NC, USA
One of the common teaching methods for artists is to copy another artist’s work. I’ve found it to be most enlightening. I could copy parts of a Lucien Freud painting, for example, with a fair degree of accuracy, and it taught me a lot about how looseness contributes to a painting’s liveliness. Odd Nerdrum, however, is much harder. His paint layers are much richer than Freud’s in texture, color, and surface quality, and I haven’t come anywhere close to Nerdrum’s quality yet. But my own painting is much better for trying.
I used to do the art festival circuit, and there are a number of artists who do not allow anyone to photograph their work. They’re afraid of being copied. I’m not at all worried. No matter how good their camera, they can’t paint that picture. Actually, I can’t, either — I’m not the same person I was then!
Copying is good in that it can give you insights into somebody else’s process, which may help you to a new level. But copying is a Tool, not an answer in itself.
The computer’s place in art
by Peter Hemmer, Melbourne, FL, USA
I’ve been working digitally in my profession for 15 years as a technical illustrator, graphic designer and now illustrator. I think it’s preposterous for someone to think that the computer does the work for you or that, in the work, part of the human is skipped in the making. All of the rules of art, like color, composition and form, still apply. Yes, the availability of computers makes it easier for people to create digital art because of ease of acquiring the tools. However, there is a lot of bad art being created out there by people who have a lack of talent and training or both. For me the computer has become just another tool or medium. Would you accuse a watercolorist of not possessing the same artistic talent or skill as an oil painter solely because of the medium that they chose? That is the same type of sentiment that I’m hearing about me and my art. As far as computer art being copy-able, well, every work of art is copy-able.
Yes, there is something tactile missing in digital painting because you can’t feel the brush bending under the pressure of your hand (although a bendable stylus tip is being developed), or smell the paint (some people would say this is a blessing). Although the computer is my primary art tool at work, I still like to sketch and paint with traditional media, both as a means of keeping in touch with those skills and the tactile sensation it allows.
Every new art movement is met with skepticism, but like it or not the digital age is here and touches every aspect of our lives including the arts — painting, photography, movies, writing, etc. Just because I create art on my computer does not mean I have any intention of throwing the baby out with the bath water. I doubt that the computer will ever replace traditional media, but it deserves a place in the modern art world as a valid tool for creating art.
The secret of killing mold on canvas
by Bonnie Bledsoe
I stored some stretched canvases out in a shed and it was moist out there over the winter. In the spring I took them out and they have mold on the canvas — flat round shapes, sprinkled over the back, a little on the front (on top of the oil paint). What can I do to take this mold off?
(RG note) Thanks, Bonnie. Try spraying the moldy areas two or three times — over a couple of days—using a can of Lysol disinfectant spray. After that the mold will be dry and dead and you can dust off or vacuum away the residue. Do it outdoors, wearing a mask — you don’t want to inhale too many mold spores — even if they’re dead. If the mold has been on the work for a long time, there could be serious damage. If relining, (adhering another canvas to the back) spray the adjoining surface with Lysol first. A good idea is to spray your storage areas with the Lysol product, particularly in damp or humid conditions. I like to shoot a bit of Lysol around the studio, particularly if I’m going away for a few days. I do not work for Lysol, am not on the Lysol payroll, nor do I hold any stock in Lysol (perhaps only inadvertently a bit through mutual funds or income trusts).
How we reach the revelation
by Ron Gang, Kibbutz Urim, Israel
“The Secret” reminds me of a 1919 Kandinsky “Fauvist” landscape painting in the Tel-Aviv Museum that would blow me away with its amazing luminescent colour. While a student, I made notes on the colour transitions, convinced it possessed a key secret. Indeed that work seemed to glow above and beyond everything else in the room. Marcel Janko, the Dadaist, in his old age, was interviewed on Israel television around the same time. When asked by the interviewer what advice he had for young painters, he said: “Work, work and work again.” Well, I don’t think I ever worked out Kandinsky’s secret. But there must have been something there that my developing sensitivity picked up on. Over the years something must be growing in my work… people seem to find something there, yet for me I still feel to be far away from my elusive goal. It seems to me that the formula must come after the discovery… the description occurs after the fact. Once we intuitively know what it is, then we can talk about it, yet let there be no mistake — we reach that revelation in a non-verbal manner, and only once that has been obtained can we chatter about it.
Dreams of a distant City
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 Mike Gross of Liebenthal, KS, USA who wrote, “Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles is the most important book an artist can read concerning this subject. Required reading. It changed my life and inspired me to accept my own ‘signature style’ of artmaking.”
And also Roger Marz of Bath, MI, USA who wrote, “I am told that my style is unique and unmistakable. To those who say that, I always reply, ‘Good would be better.’ ”
And also Judy Elliott of Franklin, TX, USA who wrote, “The secret may be that ‘quality’ is a word that assumes all parties have the same point of view. If technical and compositional elements are in place, the secret of quality rests upon something intangible. Maybe it’s just grace.”
And also Laura Higgins Palmer of Baltimore MD, USA who wrote, “Just as our eyes and minds truly focus on only one thing at a time, the root observation of Quantum physics is that certain properties are complementary and can’t be measured simultaneously. In the words of Albert Einstein, “Once you can accept the universe as being something expanding into an infinite Nothing which is something, wearing stripes with plaid is easy.”
And also Dave Kellam Brown of Dallas, TX, USA who wrote, ” ‘I don’t know what I don’t know,’ is a most useful truth — at its core, a paradox. In fact, it is sort of a self-generating paradox, like a mental Möbius strip which, after many steps tread along its path, becomes spiritual and very, very soothing.”