Last night, Catherine Stock of Rignac, France wrote, “I wonder if you could write a letter on how to elevate one’s work beyond the “So what?” level. That’s where I’m stuck. I can draw and paint pretty well, but–so what? I would imagine there are a few of us out there with this problem.”
Thanks, Catherine. You’re right. “So what?” is universal and as insidious as studio termites. Here are a few thoughts:
Deus ex machina, according to Wikipedia, means “God from the machine.” It’s a literary and theatrical plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly solved with the contrived and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability, or object. Roughly translated as “God made it happen,” it’s primarily used to move the story forward when a writer has “painted himself into a corner.”
Using this concept, you need to ask yourself what extraordinary thing could be made to happen in your picture. It could be, among many things, a burst of light or an unlikely inclusion. You need to think of something just a bit magical. An engagement of imagination brings a shot of emotion, drama or surprise. This visual epiphany, devised or not, is key to entering the sensibilities of others. Artists who merely rest on their drawing or other facility are forever condemned to the back room.
Another valuable blah-reducing ploy is to do inventive things with your surfaces. This might include adding crusty impasto (a la Lucien Freud), flinty fidges of gradation and zip, (a la Paul Cezanne) or smears and smudges (a la Francis Bacon). But it’s the nuances you invent and make yourself — embedded in your processes — that neutralize creative boredom and give energy to carry on. “This is mine” chisels out your claim. Your embellishment may not even be very good, but it will be yours. “A poor thing, but my own,” is a line attributed to Shakespeare. A unique design, mannerism, or touch of your own is worth more than any rich thing that belongs to someone else.
PS: “A work of art is the unique result of a unique temperament. Its beauty comes from the fact that the author is what he is.” (Oscar Wilde) “Common objects become strangely uncommon when removed from their context and ordinary ways of being seen.” (Wayne Thiebaud)
Esoterica: There’s a natural human tendency to lean on and repeat that which we do well. This is okay if we’re cranking out donuts or widgets. But as self-anointed creative artists, our daily joy and progress rest on our ability to jump beyond our safety. Look steadily and imaginatively at the blah in front of you. Given time and contemplation, your new level will stealthily appear. When “So what?” strikes, we ask ourselves “What now?”
Technique is not enough
by Nicholas Pearce, North Saanich, BC, Canada
There are many struggling artists whose total focus is on technique. Their idea is that the artist who paints the most perfect duck/ wolf/ horse/ person/ mountain/ tree/ stream wins. This is akin to the belief that the best writer is the one who can spell flawlessly and knows every rule of grammar. Or the best composer is the one who can play an instrument perfectly. A painting that has perfect technique alone is a definite “so what.” Art, as with writing or music, goes beyond technique; in fact, good art transcends technique. Technique is just the tool we use to say what we believe, either through painting or writing or whatever our artistic medium. When we get in touch with what we believe about the world and express that in our paintings, there is less danger of someone feeling “so what” about our work. There is no substitute for solitary exploration: This is where artists can connect with their true self and come up with work that transcends “so what.”
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The price of teaching
by Olivia Maritz, Richards Bay, South Africa
Thank you for this answer… it echoes my sentiments regarding my work at the moment. I’ve reached the stage where I’m tempted to break my brushes and try, of all things, scrap booking! That should be an indication of how desperate I am. I find myself tweaking the work of my students with my own ideas and leaving myself starved when it comes to my own work. So I go back to the familiar and the known… safe places, instead of taking my work to a new level. I’m afraid if I don’t stop teaching I may die a good teacher and nothing more.
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Synchronicity among artists
by Aleta Michaletos, Pretoria, South Africa
I smiled when I read about Deus ex Machina, as earlier this week I re-discovered an image of painting I made in 1987 with a similar title. I’m very interested in the concept of Synchronicity and, for me, this was just another brilliant example! I suppose one could say Deus ex Machina is the intervention of the gods into human affairs.
Problem with newly found originality
by Alex Nodopaka, Lake Forest, CA, USA
Your reader’s letter is a very serious questioning matter for most artists. We have a plethora of skillful artisans and a paucity of creators. You handled her question with tact and surgical precision with appropriate responses. I’d like to add: be careful of gimmickry! That means do not be overly repetitive with the inclusion of a newly found originality.
Believe in yourself
by Debbie Sierchio, Trinity, FL, USA
Back in 2004 I painted a 2′ x 4′ canvas with acrylic paint that was, to me, just a wave on the beach where the horizon met the sky. I was very proud of my accomplishment. It was a commissioned work and several of my friends told me that it looked like a photograph. I was very pleased. The patron was also very pleased in that he stated when looking at it for the first time, “Wow I want to be in that painting right now!” However, one of the co-directors where I worked at Out North Art House and Production Theater in Anchorage, AK looked at it and said, “So what!” The other co-director then said, “Oh yeah, that’s a great way to encourage artists.” I then was inspired to paint a Triptych, titled River of Grass, since it was from my imagination of a scene in the Everglades of Florida. The same co-director who didn’t understand my wave then said, “Now we are talking!” Criticism — constructive or destructive can be turned into appreciation if the artist believes in his or her creative talent and artistic skills.
New barn painter on the block
by Dorothy Gardiner, Lake Buena Vista, Florida, USA
As a plein air painter, doing only landscapes and trying to leave people and buildings out, I was done. But recently I was commissioned to do a painting of a barn built by the WPA, in south Florida. After hemming & hawing – and puffing & panting – in heat & humidity, it was done. What a journey – mentally & physically (it is 3 hrs. south of my home). It was too much like work – but oh so rewarding. The history could be felt. Those old Seminole cowboys were a presence to be reckoned with. Capturing the light shining through the broken boards, painting rotting & decaying wood. What a challenge. Now I’m a barn painter, on a whole new and exciting quest!!!
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Dilemma of a photographer
by Bill Kinney, Yulee, FL, USA
I am a professional photographer who exhibits in a local art gallery. With the advent of digital photography, and the ever-increasing technical quality of cameras and smart phones, it has put artists like me between a rock and a hard place. The problem is twofold. If I produce a well-contrived photograph that is technically good from the standpoint of subject matter, composition, exposure, etc., the “snap shot”‘ photographer thinks, “I can take that picture.” That can be his perception and he will not make a purchase.
On the other hand, if I do a fair amount of image editing (I prefer this word as opposed to manipulation for what I think are obvious reasons) that same person will proclaim, quite adamantly, “That picture is Photoshopped,” look down his nose at the picture and again won’t make a purchase. So what do we do to combat this very troubling dilemma that will do nothing but get worse as time goes by? v(RG note) Thanks, Bill. Our world is undergoing a surge in creative democratization. People in poor countries who could never have afforded processing and development from film cameras now take free photos on their cellphones and show them around to their friends. Further, images of war, destruction, injustice and cries for freedom can be flashed around in seconds. As artists, our traditional and special role as unique creative beings is being tested. We live in extraordinary times. To stand out in a world where everybody thinks they can do it, and many can, and the people have more power, we need extraordinary work, extraordinarily conceived, extraordinarily presented.
by Michael Epp, Vancouver, BC, Canada
I first encountered the phrase at architecture school, when a student went through an elaborate explication of a not-very-good project, only to have a professor say “so what?” at the end of it all. My feeling is that most of us are fated to produce “so what” paintings most of the time. I think it is worth remembering that all paintings go through a protracted so what phase when they are being created, which may imply that any painting can transcend so-whatness if it is nurtured long enough. I think composition is critical, and I remember that many, many artists, including [and perhaps especially]the most famous, recompose radically on the canvas as they work, and often restretch the works after completion to improve the composition and proportions of the piece. As in music, a gift for composition is innate for a lucky few, and for more of us, may be given to us after we have sweated over our work long enough.
No artist produces only masterpieces. When we think of Cezanne or Picasso chances are we are still thinking of only a few pieces culled from a vast body of work.
It may sound perverse, but I think the fact that Catherine has that “so what?” question dogging her is actually a gift that will impel her to keep moving forward in her work. Children draw and paint and are happy with what they produce, but when we become adults, we put away childish things. We are fated to look, question, and feel dissatisfied. I know many painters, including me, sometimes put up work that we feel is still unfinished or inadequate in some way, only to have buyers fall in love with it. Sometimes I wonder whether the struggle to transcend and to feel one has fallen short doesn’t communicate itself in some way and actually add to the humanity of the work, which is what it’s all about.
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Featured Workshop: Lisa Mozzini-McDill
acrylic painting by Eleanor Lowden Pidgeon
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(RG note) Thanks, Salinda. Perhaps small facets of broken colour — or short, interactive blends that give an abstract intrigue.
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