If your intention is to make unique, somewhat abstracted works with a distinctive style and a unique personality, you may not be able to go directly there. Indeed, some accomplished artists insist that you can’t reach a significant level of distinction without a solid grounding in the basics. By basics we mean that a person is comfortable and somewhat proficient with academic drawing, composition, colour control and other technical skills. This means the development of processes and techniques where design achievement works hand in hand with applied knowledge of perspective, aerial perspective and other devices, as well as familiarity with concepts of form, colour selection and the confident understanding and application of light and shade.
To go directly to the works of our dreams can be like trying to shove a piece of string up a pipe. Weak abilities and floppy understandings constantly contrive to set one up for disappointment. The cry, “I don’t know what I’m doing,” is generally the sign of academic shortchanging. And when a work or an area of a work conceived under this admission turns out well, it’s largely a fluke. But flukes of a more unpleasant kind tend to outnumber the pleasant flukes, and the artist becomes mired in an interminable and unredeemable gumbo of painterly problems.
The widespread distaste for going back to basics has always been of interest to me. It seems that many young artists have a fear of producing something too standard or ordinary. They fail to understand that by producing a few academic exercises they might put themselves on a swifter path to their creative dreams. It may be that some are intrinsically lazy or just buying the promise of automatic inspiration that’s so common nowadays. They may also be suffering some form of poisonous pedagogy or the presumed expectations of the avant garde.
And in some ways you can’t blame them for trying the direct path. Academic mastery is hard won. Many fail at it. I continue to feel that it’s more difficult to produce work with strong academic qualities than it is to produce your average abstracted or “modern” piece. On the other hand, when I look at what I consider to be masterful abstraction, I also see an underlying understanding of conventional academics — in other words, a hard-won grasp of the basics.
PS: “Genius is the capacity for receiving and improving by discipline.”(George Eliot)
Esoterica: How to go about grabbing these basics in as short a time as possible? The answer lies in any number of excellent beginner’s guides. While it may be beneath a student’s dignity and lofty formal education to attain and employ one of these guides, the use of one of them for even a short period of time, may, in the long run, be fortuitous. Below, we’ve posted five of these guides together with my very short reviews. They are not the only books available — they may not even be the best ones. They just happen to be the ones I’ve found useful.
This letter was originally published as “Back to basics” on September 26, 2008.
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“Never knowingly leave anything wrong on your canvas.” (Richard Schmid)
Join Ellie Harold for “Intuitive Painting: Permission to Paint Expressively,” designed especially for mature women artists of all skill levels who wish to explore this medium for soulful exploration. The retreat provides attractive accommodations (your own room!) along with lightly structured activities for centering, relaxation and low stress art-making. You’ll have plenty of free time to muse, paint, write and reflect while enjoying the colors, textures and flavors of San Miguel. This Retreat has the potential to transform not only your art but your life! You’ll return home with a specific art “care plan” to assure support for further creating. Details at www.EllieHarold.com.
Painting is my passion and joy. My process is intuitive, though informed by good composition and design principles. I paint what I remember, or think about, or feel, or just what comes off my hands to the brush to the canvas. Texture and color are of primary importance to me. I typically choose my support, texture it, select my palette, and go. There is nothing more satisfying to me than watching paint run and move. I love the surprises. I experiment and learn constantly. It is a remarkable journey. One I am pleased to share with you.