At no time in our progress do we stop wondering what the secret is. Sometimes I think just knowing that there’s more than one way to paint a tree is the main part of it. It’s the idea that every work of art has to be worked out in its own way. It’s possible, of course, to keep doing anything in a tried and true manner. But we always have choices. With the artistic alternative you stand a chance of surprising yourself. You also stand a chance of doing something that carries your personal stamp and unique signature. A little thought, a little contemplation, a little imagination, and you have invention on your hands.
Also, there’s not much wrong with being a legend in your own mind. It’s a matter of giving power to the mind’s artist and allowing him or her to imagine some of the ways a given job might be done. The variations are really quite limitless: Bright primer, mixed media, blind palette, glaze gradations, big dumb brush, scumble, scrape out, roll on, chain saw. You know what I mean.
The artistic alternative also lurks in the interplay of opposites: form and formlessness, simplicity and complexity, contrived and happenstance, tight and loose, big and small, thick and thin, delicate and crude, bright and subdued, dark and light, lost and found. It’s a long list, and everyone has a right to his or her own. The secret? Artistic licentiousness rivets your attention and brings you back for more. Trained, nurtured and believed in, it also opens you to a giddy self-confidence and the feeling that you can go anywhere, anytime, and pull off just about anything.
PS: “There are no rules of architecture for a castle in the clouds.” (G. K. Chesterton)
Esoterica: Applying your personal conception is the greatest buzz of all. If something can be thought, it can generally be done. “Imagination is the power of the mind over the possibilities of things.” (Wallace Stevens) “Imagination rules the world.” (Napoleon)
The following are selected responses to the above letter. Thank you for writing.
Playing with the materials
by Frank Tenniel, Boston
I’m only rising to the bait of your pontifications in the knowledge that you are a working artist who produces daily and for this I have some respect. There is more to art than playing with the materials and equipment. It reminds me of what Mozart might say if he had an opportunity to hear some of the sort of music that is being composed these days. He would certainly make mention of the relative lack of sophistication — perhaps he would mention the lack of skill, the bold-faced simplicity, perhaps even the relative artlessness and even stupidity of the stuff. As you know, great art has a battery of skills — material and spiritual, and it is to this wider range that we ought to be aspiring.
by Angela Jukes
Because your letters and responses are a worldwide phenomenon they possess value that local workshops and seminars do not have. I find some available instructors and well known teachers guard some particular techniques and systems and do not necessarily share everything they know. Perhaps because of the “blindness” of the internet, and the fact that you are dealing with the whole world of artists, and not just the eager competitor down the road, many of your correspondents seem to be candid and willing to mention the most important and the deeper concerns. I have gained more and derived a broader understanding of what I do from reading these pages than from any other source, and I have been painting for 11 years. I also appreciate the considerable effort that you and your people take to edit them.
In a flash
by Ryan G Pugsley, London, England
My most imaginative times occur when I am inconvenienced in some way — just going out, busy at some ordinary but necessary task, hunting for the teapot. It is then that, in a flash and without asking, an idea or a concept springs into my mind. I do not need the tools of art in my hands in order to conceive. But then, like Napoleon, I need to marshal the materials in order to see if the flight of my imagination has any potential and is indeed a battle to be won.
Collection of experiments
by oliver, Texas, USA
Mastery of an approach and “a style” are important. Not being in a rut is also important. How and when to try new things and to what degree are critical… Too soon and too radical a change and you may not master anything or develop a style… I’ve seen artists with a collection of experiments as their portfolio. Not often enough or radical enough the work becomes old, stale and variations on a theme.
Name withheld by request
The concept of “artistic licentiousness” is basic to the pursuit of modern artistry in all its forms. It requires a freedom and release from previous habit paths and tried and true methodologies. While it may have its detractors and may certainly lead to substandard work — it is inevitable that we must explore this way of creating if only for the purpose of liberating ourselves and gaining new experiences. I myself have invented a way of working with colored glue in which I personally roll and then transfer it onto a canvas using my otherwise nude body as the marker. Help. I’m stuck.
Big dumb brushes
by Ellen Brownell
I am a proponent and a practitioner of the big dumb brush school. The brushes that artists habitually use are much too small most of the time and certainly much too expensive. Just because it’s fine art doesn’t mean they have to be fine brushes. Big calcimine brushes left around by wall painters and cheap varnish brushes with plastic handles give a vitality to most types of work. For much of my work I use old, expendable brushes against the grain, show them no respect, push, shove and drag.
Can of worms
by Cindy Schave, Platteville, Wisconsin, USA
I agree with Sherry J. Purvis’ comments regarding “Political Correctness” in the last responses. If one studies the lives and paintings of other artists, visits museums and galleries, goes to art fairs, reads books and magazines, networks with other artists, or even just enjoys their company as friends, it is impossible not to be influenced by them in some way. Many artists have had the experience of learning by copying masterworks — I never enjoyed doing that myself, not because I didn’t love the works, but because it was difficult for me to paint something that I had not personally experienced, something I had no “passion” for. But in endeavoring to learn about the use of color, bypassing the additional challenges of subject matter and composition by copying masterworks freed my mind to the task at hand. Copying a painting for our own education, understanding, or enjoyment is one thing… copying it to sell (perhaps because that painting has been a financial success for another artist) is a violation of the “fair use” law, and should never be tolerated. On the other hand, bringing to the easel our passion for what is meaningful to us (which is naturally influenced by all that we have experienced to this point in our lives) is our right as well as our responsibility in utilizing the gifts we have been given. If we succumb to the political correctness type of thinking in the art world, we are opening up a can of worms that would have been best left untouched… and we will all suffer as a result.
by R K Berg, Koln, Germany
The greatest advantage of the attention-riveting system you mention is that it keeps you on the job. When a feeling of invention and personal linear accomplishment overtakes an artist there can be no limit to the expenditure of time, energy and treasure. You might remember Caracticus Potts coming in and taking the scuttle from the fireplace because he could see a potential for it in the construction of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. The excitement generated by the possibilities creates a private world and an inner life in which anyone can see it is good to live. This is preferable to any other worlds and you might say is our calling.
Art as healing
by Deborah Putman, Vancouver, Canada
The alternative for me recently has been to share the joy, insight and discovery of art making with those who usually don’t! It has been a grand delight to discover the innate creativity in all adventuresome souls who come to my “Paint Yourself Wild Playshops.” I provide the paint, canvas and brushes, sponges, sticks, natural objects, etc. I create a “safe psychological environment,” then talk the group through a guided visualization. The group is transported to the alpha state where they can make the transition to painting more easily… and they do! The silence of a previously animated group is deafening as they wander in their personal world of imagery. The results are always unique, surprising and often cathartic. My belief in art as healing has soared as each group shows me once again how powerful the process is for all, artist or non-practicing artist.
by Alain Valet, Arlon, Belgium
At the beginning were the drawings of my earliest youth. Little colored squares put side by side to form what my brother and I used to call “magazines.” It was my first primitive art, full of innocence, plenitude of a little boy’s concentration upon his work. After, there were school art courses which seriously broke into this primitive innocence. My work as an artist is like a tentative recovering of the child’s joy in front of colours. Over the years it has also become a means of exploration and of communication. I have the same joy while realizing my modern marble paintings.
by Helen Gardner Graf
I recommend exploring the potential of glazes. With a little stretch of the imagination most areas to be tinted can be painted in white or a variation of same. Glazes (I’m using acrylic) can then be painted over in waves until the right degree of color or gradation is achieved. I mix my glazes using mostly water and medium and a small amount of pigment so that I can creep up on the tone I want. I then rub on and take off in the areas I want with a rag and use a soft brush for the delicate areas. Glazing energizes paintings and makes it easier to catch and isolate the light and shade relationships that are somewhat more difficult with opaque-only work.
Legend in his own mind
by Chuk Wu
I am a legend in my own mind. Everybody notices it and remarks about it. My self-delusion knows no bounds. I hardly acknowledge that there are any other artists. I act as if I am the only one and close my mind to other influences. I will not even listen to anyone who maintains that such and such a person has potential. That anyone else might be as great as me is an impossibility. It is a good system.
(RG note) In Salvador Dali’s autobiography he says something like “When I was four I wanted to be a cook, when I was five I wanted to be Napoleon — and my ambition has been growing ever since.”