Because this is a bit personal, I’m not using their real names. They’re both about 40 years old.
“Jack” got a BFA and then an MFA from a Midwestern University. He’s visited many of the major contemporary art museums and follows the work of several “important” contemporary painters. He’s written articles on Philip Guston and others. He subscribes to several art magazines and is “the most knowledgeable art-guy in any discussion.” After university he worked for a while in a commercial art gallery. He sometimes writes me long, well-informed letters. He’s painted eleven large paintings (two unfinished) since leaving school. He’s not represented by any gallery. He thinks you need to move to New York and “get lucky” with a dealer who “really represents you.”
“Jill” took two years of art school and then quit. She pays little attention to other artists. She subscribes to no art magazines but has taken several workshops. Her hobbies include bowling and travelling. At one time she also worked in a commercial art gallery. On two or three occasions she’s written to me. She’s painted “approximately two thousand paintings” since leaving school. She’s represented by four commercial galleries in four, well-separated mid-sized cities.
There’s a great story in David Bayles and Ted Orland’s Art and Fear. Here it is:
“The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the “quantity” of the work they produced, all those on the right solely on its “quality.” His procedure was simple: On the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work in the “quantity” group: fifty pounds of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B” and so on. Those being graded on “quality,” however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of the highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busy turning out piles of work — and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.”
PS: “Artists get better by sharpening their skills or by acquiring new ones; they get better by learning to work, and by learning from their work.” (David Bayles and Ted Orland)
Esoterica: Both subscribers Jack and Jill are thoughtful and enthusiastic artists. Art is central to their lives. And while success and “being able to function as a full time artist” may not be important to some of us, their current situations are quite different. Jack rents an apartment and makes $2150 per month (plus tips and benefits) as an airport porter. Jill works daily in her converted garage in a home she now owns. These days she’s averaging $18,000 per month. She has “no benefits.”
Make a lot of mistakes
by Bruce Miller, Stanwood, MI, USA
When I was in high school art the instructor exposed us to The Natural Way to Draw by Kimon Nicolaides. The main take-home message that I had lost until reminded by your Two Artists letter was… “Unfortunately most students, whether through their own fault or the fault of their instructors, seem to be dreadfully afraid of making technical mistakes. You should understand that these mistakes are unavoidable. The sooner you make your first five thousand mistakes, the sooner you will be able to correct them.”
So back to basics for me.
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Just paint 500 paintings
by Bob Pike, High River, AB, Canada
My mentor, Stan Perrot, used to critique our work quite extensively at the Alberta College of Art and Design. (Sadly he’s gone now.) After 2.5 years of art school, I was kicked out for missing some classes (I was working nights to survive), but Stan became a good friend after art school and we would occasionally have a few beers and talk about art. One evening after a few, he told me I was old enough to know the truth and he proceeded to tell me the critiques he gave in art school were a pile of bull dooey. He said the only goal he ever had was to get each student to go home and paint another painting. Then he added, “After 500 paintings, you’re an artist.” It made sense to me.
I went on to become a potter, and Pike Studios, over 40 years, has used over 300,000 pounds of clay.
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The golden secret
by Mary Aslin, Laguna Beach, CA, USA
You can talk about painting or you can paint. Both are interesting and fun. Talking about painting does not make a person a better painter, but painting does. Somehow our psyche can be tricked into thinking we are actually accomplishing the work of painting by talking or writing about it. (I know mine can.) C.W. Mundy said about the life of an artist, “It’s one thing to launch a career as an artist. It’s another thing to sustain it.” I am rather stunned by the lifelong hard work and commitment it takes to be an artist, and to continue to be worthy of the title. I come to this reckoning even in light of the fact that I must paint to breathe.
Further, I often think of Kyle Thomas‘s suggestion when I have both high and low moments in my chosen beloved profession (perhaps it’s something that should be presented to BFA/MFA students…).
“Five things you should do after you finish a painting.
1) paint another piece
2) paint another one
3) and another
4) repeat step 1
5) repeat this for the rest of your life”
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Art and Fear in perspective
by Warren Criswell, Benton, AR, USA
There’s a lot of truth, both inspiring and painful, in Bayles’ and Orland’s book, but picking out that paragraph may not be fair to either Jack or Jill. Both of their approaches can result in great art or worthless crap. It sounds like you’re evaluating their work by how much money they’re making at it. Vincent Van Gogh was a failure financially and Thomas Kincade made a fortune. Herman Melville wrote only one great book, which did not sell well, and he was almost completely forgotten when he died. Fill in your own best-selling writers. It’s really hard to make general rules for artists, since every artist is different and art is all about breaking rules — sometimes to our success, sometimes to our ruin. B & O talk about lawyers and plumbers knowing the rules, and how they do not, like us, “have to spin the work out of themselves, discover its laws, and then present themselves turned inside out to the public gaze.” Jack will no doubt fall down and break his crown, but Jill may come tumbling after.
“We do not long remember those artists who followed the rules more diligently than anyone else.” (David Bayles and Ted Orland, Art and Fear, p. 95)
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A remedy for ‘stuckism’
by Sue Hoppe, Port Elizabeth, South Africa
Having run a community art centre for three years and being constantly in the firing line and trying to form a bridge between academics and contemporary/conceptual artists, hobby artists (Sunday Painters, an expression used by the academics with the requisite scorn in the voice) and professionals like Jill who just get on with it and paint and sell without too much concern for the derision poured on them behind their backs by the first group, I went through a lot of questioning about my own place in the art world. After all, although I fall into the Jill category, I had heard all the scorn, and began to question my direction.
The discussion with the friend and your letter have both confirmed the decision I took, which was to withdraw from the gallery and get back in my studio in reclusive mode, doing my own thing happily. Today my Facebook update on “Stuckism” gives me the idea that I am not alone in feeling all the scorn, pretension and criticism of the contemporary art world might be a form of the old idea that “Those who can, do and those who can’t, teach”… Okay, it is a generalization, but it is nice to come across an entire art movement dedicated to just getting on with it and producing worthwhile artworks that are not just about novelty and witticism. And the lovely tongue in cheek manifesto highlights that we don’t really need to worry about labels and isms at all, just get on and do what we do best… Paint!
Does an artist seek a muse?
by Judith Sanders-Wood, Ridgefield, WA, USA
What helps you and inspires you in your daily work? Is it a person? Music? Place? I know that for me it is having a person like my husband who is greatly supportive. Sometimes I get in the mood with music or when I am traveling a place. I like taking an “Artist Walk” and meditating on my surroundings to cleanse my spirit and mind. I also find going to workshops and continuing with classes, interacting with fellow artists is also inspirational. What is your artistic muse?
(RG note) Thanks, Judith. All of the above. Thanks for the reminder. A dog is good too, and helps with the artist’s walk. I think also, for a lot of artists who have been at it a while, working becomes both a habit and a need. Because of this need we tend automatically to get going — and we don’t feel so hot when we don’t. A good day of work gives a good night’s sleep. Work and well-being are codependent in more ways than one.
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Difficult to budge
by Joy Preiss, South Africa
I find the content of your letter “Two Artists” very thought provoking and also very true. I teach adolescent boys, some of whom are particularly neurotic about getting things “right” and who, in the process, lose all the joy of art making and make contrived, safe work. The more spontaneous, brave students are the ones who take risks and who produce exciting, original “off the wall” artworks which engage the viewer and which lead to more and more exciting art being made. It is always my hope that they will effuse the other students with a new energetic risky attitude, however it seems that individuals create according to their personalities and conditioning, for it is here where they feel safest (especially teenage boys!). I make a huge effort to create a safe place for the perfectionists to take risks and to make use of mistakes. I know, however, that the peer pressure at this age is so huge in their lives that they rarely are able to break out. I also believe that the fact that work is being done for assessment purposes is a great inhibiting factor in the minds of high school children, and it is my greatest wish that they would get past their concern of, “Is it for marks?”
In your experience, do you find that one’s personalities, upbringing and past conditioning largely affect the type of Art one does, and also one’s attitude to the making of Art? And do you think, as one matures, one is able to change?
(RG note) Thanks, Joy. This is one of those superb questions that sometimes gets me prowling around at night. Yes, just as there are tabby-cats and marmalades, personality, upbringing and past conditioning have a major effect on the artist, his art, and his realization of progress or defeat. I’ve also observed that some breeds have a much more difficult time evolving and becoming competent. And, from knowing hundreds of artists, both fat cats and kittens, I’ve noticed that some leopards do change their spots.
by Katrina Weber, Huntsville, AL, USA
You have kept me company for many years now — I looked back at my saved quotes, and the first one is from June of 2005. I have been a silent reader — have composed many letters to you in my head as I went about my daily business; but I’m always way behind on “getting things done,” and there are always so many others who write to you, that I have never got around to it.
I prize your letters — they are a wonderful mix of practical advice, endearingly rambling philosophizing, and wondrous wit. Always, what shines through is that you are an authentic person and a true artist who loves doing what you do. I am very drawn to your art, and I also enjoy your skill with the pen. I have also gone to the websites of artists who have responded in the clickbacks, when I am attracted to the example art you show, and have discovered several excellent artists whose work I check on from time to time with great pleasure (also silently).
I watch my budget pretty carefully, so the opportunity to receive one of your books by doing something attractive brought me out of my silence. I have long had a link to your Painter’s Keys on my “links” page, but this morning my web guru husband added a quote to my bio page as well. I don’t know if we were fast enough to win an autographed copy — I hope so! But I am already excited about getting the book.
Thank you for what you do, for who you are, and for your generosity. My husband and I have become way too cynical these last few years, and in addition to providing much stimulation for my art, your voice has reliably soothed and bolstered me, reminding me that there are indeed good people in this world!
(RG note) Thanks, Katrina. The reason we’re offering this free book is that we think there are still artists out there who might profit from the letters and other features of the Painter’s Keys site. We’ve found that the best way to do this is to ask current subscribers to copy what they might think are valuable letters to their own sites, blogs, etc, and to permanently put up one of the little link logos available for downloading from our site.
For subscribers who would like to have the free book and do not have websites, blogs, or other appropriate connections, we ask that they send us the names and email addresses of eight creative or art-interested people so we can start sending them the free Twice-Weekly letters. You will need to check with your eight friends to see that they are willing to receive it and that they are not already receiving it. Please send your list to this address and we’ll see that they get subscribed right away and, with your mailing address, we will mail your book right away as well. Incidentally, I’ve decided to sign all the books we’re gifting at this time. On Sunday it was raining all day and I signed 270 of them.
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Enjoy the past comments below for Two artists…
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 Linda Leonard Hughes of Livermore Falls, ME, USA, who wrote, “$2,100.00 and $18,000.00 is a very big difference.”
And also Lillian Kennedy of Boulder, CO, USA, who wrote, “Jack and Jill went up the hill, but only one got water.”
And also Marie Lyon of Summerside, PEI, Canada, who wrote, “I have been using the word ‘ideate’ for many years and have read that one thinks better in a horizontal position because of more blood going to the brain. PERFECT! A great excuse for having ‘awake’ naps. My family sees me in a horizontal position and says, ‘She’s ideating.’ I think it works.”