Last night, Catherine Stock of Rignac, France wrote, “I wonder if you could write a letter on how to elevate one’s work beyond the “So what?” level. That’s where I’m stuck. I can draw and paint pretty well, but–so what? I would imagine there are a few of us out there with this problem.” Thanks, Catherine.
You’re right. “So what?” is universal and as insidious as studio termites. Here are a few thoughts: Deus ex machina, according to Wikipedia, means “God from the machine.” It’s a literary and theatrical plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly solved with the contrived and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability, or object. Roughly translated as “God made it happen,” it’s primarily used to move the story forward when a writer has “painted himself into a corner.” Using this concept, you need to ask yourself what extraordinary thing could be made to happen in your picture. It could be, among many things, a burst of light or an unlikely inclusion. You need to think of something just a bit magical. An engagement of imagination brings a shot of emotion, drama or surprise. This visual epiphany, devised or not, is key to entering the sensibilities of others. Artists who merely rest on their drawing or other facility are forever condemned to the back room.
Another valuable blah-reducing ploy is to do inventive things with your surfaces. This might include adding crusty impasto (a la Lucien Freud), flinty fidges of gradation and zip, (a la Paul Cezanne) or smears and smudges (a la Francis Bacon). But it’s the nuances you invent and make yourself — embedded in your processes — that neutralize creative boredom and give energy to carry on. “This is mine” chisels out your claim. Your embellishment may not even be very good, but it will be yours. “A poor thing, but my own,” is a line attributed to Shakespeare. A unique design, mannerism, or touch of your own is worth more than any rich thing that belongs to someone else.
PS: “A work of art is the unique result of a unique temperament. Its beauty comes from the fact that the author is what he is.” (Oscar Wilde)
Esoterica: There’s a natural human tendency to lean on and repeat that which we do well. This is okay if we’re cranking out donuts or widgets. But as self-anointed creative artists, our daily joy and progress rest on our ability to jump beyond our safety. Look steadily and imaginatively at the blah in front of you. Given time and contemplation, your new level will stealthily appear. When “So what?” strikes, we ask ourselves “What now?”
This letter was originally published as “Beyond ‘so what?’” on October 5, 2012.
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“Common objects become strangely uncommon when removed from their context and ordinary ways of being seen.” (Wayne Thiebaud)