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.
Newly graduated artist’s syndrome?
by Brian Crawford Young, Forres, Scotland
I am one of those people who attempts to paint from internal process rather than external stimulation. After 4 years of doing this at college I feel direction-less and blocked post-graduation. My technique has not been worked on enough to enable me to sit down and just do what I feel like doing. “Somewhat abstracted works” was my starting point 4 years ago, but I now have conceptual tendencies (not necessarily a comfortable place for a painter to be). My brushes got bigger and bigger, and my inhibitions got smaller and smaller, but somewhere along the road I forgot how to paint in a painterly way. Trying to get back to where I was at a few years ago seems retrograde and defeatist, and yet I feel I have to rekindle my interest in the beauty of the world around and in front of me, instead of the ideas and conceptions that occupy my mind. Is there a “newly graduated artist’s syndrome”? Am I going through what all graduates go through?
The eternal student
by Dwight Miller, Boone, NC, USA
For a painter, sculptor, wood turner, or anyone striving for greater skill in the arts, failures are painful. For a pilot, they’re often lethal. A friend, who has logged over 50,000 hours as pilot-in-command had this to say: “Anyone who considers himself anything other than a student pilot, ever, is simply asking to die.” To watch Harry in an airplane is to watch poetry. But if you know what to look for, you notice that he never strays far from the basics, ever, even when doing aerobatics. More accurately, especially when doing aerobatics. This is why I think your urgings that we return to basics is so very sound. I think it can help those of us who strive for skill in the arts to avoid a creative death, which would be a hard thing to live with, indeed.
Working at the professor’s pace
by Gwyneth Sleuth
Recently, I decided to go to Art School at a good local university and “live my dream” very late in life. I feel I’ve missed the boat on the learning curve for art, which is very steep, but I don’t want to give up. Foolishly, I thought that school would immerse me in the drawing world but I’m in my 4th drawing course and I am about to surrender! Your words have comforted me and I’ll keep practicing even though these classes are more “You probably already know this…” and the professor does a few quick “demos” and you have to do the rest on your own!
The material projects are numerous and not given much time for completion, and I’m slower than these jet-propelled young people and they DO know a lot. But I really thought I would get more intense knowledge and practice from the professors, although I don’t push the blame on them completely. Well, back to the Drawing Board!
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Avoid being a one-trick artist
by Sandy Bonney, Brookings, OR, USA
For many years I was involved in International and Olympic Dressage. (For those who know nothing about the equestrian world, it’s what was performed during the Olympics, when horse and rider seem to ‘dance’ together.) During the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles we would watch the world’s best horses and riders practicing the same movements that are used to teach beginning riders learning Dressage. Without this firm foundation, the horse would be doing ‘tricks’ and the performance would eventually fall apart. It is the same with art. Without the ‘basics’ to build a firm foundation as an anchor to grow, art will become static. The artist will be stuck, repeating the same ‘trick’ over and over and over.
Skill precedes mastery
by Cristina Monier, Buenos Aires, Argentina
The majority of the most brilliant painters of the 20th century, Picasso, Klimt, Mondrian, to name but a few, started as absolutely realistic painters, with the academic skills that went with it. They went on to create the most fantastic revolutions in art that one could imagine. It is my firm conviction that you should learn to crawl and walk before attempting to run and that skipping the basics will never result in satisfying work.
Rounding out the artist
by Mary Anne Tateishi
Although I now paint distinctive abstract work, I originally set out to become a better technician, and went back to do a BFA as a mature student. I initially found art school to be more focused on concept than technique. By carefully choosing the right instructors I was slowly able to improve my drawing and painting skills. I was never interested in doing abstract work, but one innovative instructor declared firmly that nobody should be allowed to graduate from art school without being able to do a decent still life painting and a good abstract painting. I began to experiment in that area, and found that by producing a series of representational paintings one atop the other, I was able to produce an interesting abstract painting. What is important to me is that I have the choice to paint realistically or abstractly, and am not forced to do abstract work because I can’t draw properly.
Success without formal training
by Jon Taner, Fair Lawn, NJ, USA
I find that as an artist aiming to bring together certain aspects of what is real in a somewhat abstract form, and to convey a sense of place, an emotion, a mystery, etc., I must be in touch with “the basics.” This doesn’t apply in the work of the most revered “outsider artists.” I am not speaking of the so-called outsiders who have latched on to the style and are cashing in on a movement. More specifically I am referring to the likes of Joseph Garlock. The former store keeper took up painting late in life and with very little training produced a tremendous body of work that demonstrates an innate sense of composition, color, and emotion. It is fascinating to see a signature style that is so enviable come from someone who was not so grounded in what is commonly called the formal elements of good art. I find that when first approaching the blank canvas (it is almost formulaic), I must clear away the basics, forget the formal, and let the expression come forward. It is only later that those things come back into play.
Be apprenticed to your craft
by Nick Stone
I am entering what I would like to be the last in a long line of careers. Two years ago I completed a Fine Art degree to learn something about art today. One of my tutors felt that “there is no place for drawing, painting and sculpture in contemporary art.” Needless to say, I have had to unlearn most of what I needed to gain a degree. On the Net however I have found a fantastic community of artists who all recognize the loneliness of this long distance struggle to paint. Without exception, they see the need to learn the basics. Whether it is Baroque drawings, copying old masters or simply picking up pencil and paper, the daily slog of working, working, working to gain a skill which can then be applied to making art is understood. I wanted to do this when I was 16 but lacked both the motivation and the vision. After learning a variety of different skills, glassblowing, carpentry and welding, and earning a living from them, I understand perfectly that you have to be apprenticed to your craft, perhaps for years, until you have the means to express yourself. If someone asks me how long it took to do that painting, I already answer: “Sixty years, but I expect to get better soon.”
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A catalyst for originality
by Susan Collacott, Port Credit, ON, Canada
Many artists flounder when it comes to understanding or arriving at a concept for painting because they lack an in-depth knowledge of art history. Art history enables one to understand where those traditional design elements came from: how they came to be, why they were/are rejected by modern masters, what the universal subjects are. How can you know that you are doing something original if you don’t know what has gone before? The paradox is that art history can be an amazing catalyst for originality.
A good way to understand the traditional language of visual art is with the great teacher of the Bauhaus, Johannes Itten. He has provided exercises and examples that make learning challenging and fun. His books include, The Elements of Color, The Art of Color: The Subjective Experience and Objective Rationale of Color and Design and Form: The Basic Course at the Bauhaus and Later.
Invest the time and energy needed
by Dustin Curtis, Decatur, AL, USA
This is the kind of information that is not popular in the current “Art Scene,” but it is right on. In fact, one master artist (Richard Schmid), who wrote one of the books you suggested, says that poor drawing is almost always the problem for artists struggling with painting. He points out that most artists blame their problems on not having correct color, or values, etc., but it is usually a lack of drawing skills. It is the same as a great singer having to go back to the basics and training their voice. If we artists would look around and see, we would notice that any person who is very good at anything practices the basics and is very good at them. Tiger Woods practices the basics of golf. The same goes with Warren Buffet and investing. I could go on with endless examples. To get very good at anything a person has to be good at the basics. Richard does point out that he is referring to artists who paint in a realistic/impressionistic style. However, it sounds like you’re saying even abstract artists need to have good skills in the basics. If we don’t want to learn the basics and invest the time and energy needed to get good at them, we have no right to complain if our art is not taken seriously.
Other art fields must master the basics
by John Gargano, Lakewood, CO, USA
Abstraction was born of the desire to go beyond that which was mimetic. But it was first successfully done only by those who had previously reached a level of uncommon mastery in depicting reality. Many artists who had ushered in the era of abstraction, like Willem de Kooning (eight years at the Rotterdam Academy of Fine Arts and Techniques) and others of his ilk, were indeed formally trained and had very strong basic technical skills. It was only after they mastered the basics in rendering tangible objects and scenes with the utmost of expertise that they ventured into rendering feelings, emotions and other intangible or abstract concepts. To make an effort at rendering that which is abstract without first having studied the basics in rendering, would be the equivalent of studying creative writing before obtaining the basics in spelling or grammar.
In any other field of creative endeavor, such as dance, music, theatre, film or architecture, it would be considered beyond absurd that one would achieve an advanced level of attainment without first having mastered the basics. Consider athletics, science, business, or philosophy. Savants and prodigies certainly exist, but they are limited to one or two every three or four centuries. What we have in much of visual art today, are conceptual works being executed by those who have observed abstract paintings and wanted to make works ? “just like that.” The world of art now abounds with abstract works done by students that are basically copying what they have seen and heard praised — is this not the quintessential practice of mimesis? We commonly call it abstraction, when now it is really nothing more than extrapolation. And yet it goes on.
The depths of abstraction
by Alan Soffer, Wallingford, PA, USA
As an abstract painter it’s quite infuriating to see such high volumes of really bad abstract work. The feeling is that you can slap a mish-mash of primary colors, spin a wheel, and voila, a Pollock will occur. The logical use of color and composition are at the heart of all art. The ability to make ‘marks’ that come from practicing one’s draftsmanship plays a large role as well. And boy, it is very hard won because when there isn’t a face, body, landscape, object to fall back on, these basics better be right on. Unfortunately, there are very few good teachers of abstraction out there; so people struggle to find their way. For those that practice representational expression in their art, I would suggest that they will progress more solidly by studying abstraction than by staying entirely in whatever they are drawing and painting. Abstraction forces you to reach the highest level of the basics.
The visually naive
by Dianne Mize, Clarkesville, GA, USA
My teaching career spanned 43 years, crossed over from the laissez-faire college art classroom into today’s world of self-expressionists. Both, in my mind, means “leave me alone and let the purity of my creative spirit guide.” I have met young and not so young artists who honestly believe that training will contaminate their styles, that they will be formed in the “style” of their teachers. Not knowing what they don’t know, they cannot see the flimsiness of their efforts because they lack the basics for looking with a critical eye. They remain visually naive.
I don’t know why visual artists get a pass on training. A violinist certainly doesn’t get that kind of pass, neither does an ice skater. When I hear Itzhak Perlman play, I know it is he. When I see Kristi Yamaguchi skate, I recognize her style and expression without seeing her face. Both spent many hours learning and practicing the basics of their craft. If there’s one message I’d like to communicate to the art world it is this: “Learning skills, techniques and design enables your unique expression, and gives you the freedom to be creative.”
Uneducated and uninfluenced
by Steve Reinhart, New York, NY, USA
As an uneducated abstract painter, I have asked myself many times, “What am I doing?” I agree an artist needs to know the basic fundamentals of their trade but do not think it is a deal breaker if they are not educated. Abstraction has been examined and worked in so many ways by educated professional artists for over 100 years — what else is there to accomplish — in terms of being educated? Our art educational systems do not teach us how to feel, dream, explore, ignore what works for others or how to see the inner self discoveries that exist in all of us.
True commitment and passion for what you do does not require an education. My work has developed into something I am proud to call my own and I achieved this goal by ignoring the past (artist accomplishments) and not allowing outside influences to dictate the direction my paintings wish to take me — pure freedom. In short, I believe there is a higher level of “education” artists can achieve through the self-discoveries each painting provides us with, now that’s an education!
Driven to achieve perfection
by Justine Osborne, London, UK
In 1954 Lucian Freud said, “A moment of complete happiness never occurs in the creation of a work of art. The promise of it is felt in the act of creation but disappears towards the completion of the work. For it is then the painter realizes that it is only a picture he is painting. Until then he had almost dared to hope the picture might spring to life. Were it not for this, the perfect painting might be painted, on the completion of which the painter could retire. It is this great insufficiency that drives him on. The process of creation becomes necessary to the painter perhaps more than it is in the picture. The process is in fact habit-forming.”
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Continuous practice makes the artist
by Patricia Ryan, Beavercreek, OR, USA
When I first started painting abstracts, I got a couple of really nice flukes. Then I flailed around making a lot of lame or unpleasant works for quite a while before I had to admit that there was something going on in the good ones that I really didn’t understand. Of the basics you mention, I vote for design as the most important. I don’t want to make a realistic landscape with a weak design any more than I want to make a flabby, pointless abstract. It’s like the difference between playing a beautiful melody, and puttering around on the keys because I just like the sound of a piano.
There’s a saying something like, “Everybody wants to be an artist, but nobody wants to become an artist.” First off, if you don’t enjoy painting enough to enjoy doing the work to become skilled, then if I may ask, what exactly is it that you are trying to accomplish? Your desire by itself is not what makes a great painting of any style, it is the total sum of abilities you bring to the work consciously or unconsciously, to use that part of your brain that connects your eye to your hand and your hand to your heart. It’s during those long hours of work on the thousand works of apprenticeship one may execute that that magical connection is forged within the body. When I started painting seriously, I thought when I had done a hundred paintings I would be “good.” I was on roughly my hundredth painting when the light went on for me and I knew how important it is for me to acquire every bit of knowledge I can about color, light, texture, form, dynamics, and the tantalizing language of design — and do it by painting. In a way, making paintings stopped being the goal for me then, and became a means to acquire understanding of both myself and the universe. Only nine hundred paintings to go!
Enjoy the past comments below for Back to the basics…
A Fair Affair
watercolour painting, 11 x 15 inches
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 Hans Mertens of Holland who wrote, “We live in a world where everybody thinks they can paint.”
And also Terrie Christian of Plymouth, MN, USA who wrote, “It took me years to morph from realistic to abstract.”
And also Roberta Faulhaber of Paris, France who wrote, “I can recommend The Natural Way to Draw by Nicolaides. It is certainly true that his “method” requires a lot of work, but hey, what a lot of fun too…”
And also Jennie Rosenbaum of Springvale, Australia who wrote, “You have to know the rules in order to break the rules.”