Jim the plumber — a man with a high profession by any standards — travels with a complex kit. He drives afull van. Pipes, pumps, ball-cocks, flapper-valves and roto-rooters fill out a palette for his subterranean artistry. By contrast, a scene-painter’s box can be pretty simple. I was unstuffing my basic travel-easel when a new friend phoned: “I want to be a successful artist,” he said, “What do I need in my kit?” That made me think that a kit might not have much to do with tubes and brushes. I asked him how many paintings he had made so far toward his planned vocation. “About a dozen,” he said, “I’ve filled up my studio under the basement stairs.”
I told him he needed six items in his kit: time, space, series, media, books and desire. This is how I laid it out for him:
Time: Set aside a time every day. It should be at least an hour, preferably a lot more. Include weekends and statutory holidays.
Space: Find a space that is always yours — where you can set up and work in continuity. It need not be large, but it ought to be yours.
Series: Do a series of explorations toward tangible goals — say 100 pieces of work in one direction or another. Then start another series.
Media: Choose a medium that intrigues you. Realize that the potential of all media is going to be greater than at first realized. Be prepared for frustration.
Books: “How-to” and art-history books are better than ever. They are your best teachers and friends. With books, you can grow at your own speed and in your own direction.
Desire: Know that desire is more important than any other factor. Desire comes from process. Process reinforces desire and desire becomes love. You need love in your kit.
Getting back to Jim the plumber — there’s no question that he’s an artist in his own right. But he mostly just wants his job to be done and then he wants to get paid. What he really wants is to go to the cabaret. With life-minded artists — time, space, series, media, books and desire — that’s the main kit. And, in the case of my new friend, that space under the basement stairs can be its own cabaret.
PS: “Painting is a self-disciplined activity that you have to learn by yourself.” (Romare Bearden)
Esoterica: No matter what a budding artist’s background, education, or point of view, he or she must ultimately go to a room and become an inventor. Only in quiet moments of struggle will both success and joy manifest themselves.
This letter was originally published as “Tool kit” on April 18, 2003.
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