The painter’s workshop is over. In the cool gray light of dawn our thirty new friends say good-bye and get on the bus that will take them to the airport and to their homes. For some it will be two days before they’re in their studios. It’s been a slice. There’s been progress here.
Last night Stephen Quiller and I did a comprehensive crit of the best of the two week’s work — three of everybody’s paintings. While there’s value in this, I often feel it’s a bit like Monday morning quarterbacking — “More gradation here would be better, move that tree, fix that house.” Stephen and I agreed on a lot of things — our crits harmonized, reinforced, and added layers that perhaps the artists hadn’t thought about. A lot of the advice can never be implemented — it’s too late. Save the thought for next time. Learn from the errors of our ways and the mistakes of others. The sins of commission and omission. Hard to say — but the best advice is often “Abort — start another painting.” I don’t feel too bad about giving this advice because I’m always giving it to myself.
The idea of all this criticism is to help shift critical faculties to the artists themselves. Outside opinion denies the inherent right to be true to your own vision. If we succeed in giving students the capability to think on their feet — we will have succeeded. What each of us does differently from others is a precious commodity. As creative people we have the right to fill canvasses and half-sheets with anything we want. It’s a mindset. The idea of getting into an instructor’s mindset may be flawed. The idea of following artistic norms may be flawed.
In a way I think a lot of the good stuff happened when we schmoozed in the dining room. Luxurious musical chairs. The group was marvelously supportive of one another. We said, “You’re okay, I’m okay.” We said, “Go for it.” Over the freshly caught salmon we all felt the power of the brotherhood and sisterhood. We may not be a Gauguin, but we certainly talked like him.
Esoterica: There are artists who admit they are on page 4 of a 400 page book. “What should I do here?” takes the place of an artist’s vision. The instructor is faced with a dilemma — to show the artist what might be done, or to leave it in their own hands.
The following are selected responses to the above letter. Thank you for writing.
by Mel Zeoli, Florida, USA
I know I feel energized throughout a class with a “quality” instructor. I also feel a lot of other emotions, inept, inadequate, independent, insightful, and indecisive. They all seem to be emotional responses to: “I wish I could paint like that!,” or “I did OK here!” or “What am I doing here?” In general the ultimate judgment comes from somewhere within my inner being. It’s not always immediate.
I’m sometimes too arrogant to think that I must first envision what it is I am really trying to say about the subject I’ve chosen. My technique will get me by. In the other direction I sometimes go “over the top” in planning and detailing so that there is no spark of freshness to the piece. There are the rare times I just “react” to my subject and if I can get out of my own way it seems there may be hope. It is these rare moments, either in a class setting or in the early morning hours standing all alone facing my life’s work, that I may have tapped into a source stronger than just my self. It may sound trite but to paraphrase Robert Henri, those are the times when I feel their presence of all the great masters before me lending a helping hand. I only wish those events occurred more often, for that is the pure poetry of what I think we try to do. To be able communicate at another level and make a statement that may just last a lifetime or two. Also, it’s important to my artistic intent that I am not alone in what I feel is the ultimate challenge.
by Toni Hermann, Ulm, Germany
There is a hint here that workshops may not be the best venue to achieve true artistic vision. I believe this to be true. You frequently mention that the secret is to “go to your room.” I think that a group invites a sort of group thinking that may not be healthy. Romaire Beardon said: “Painting and art cannot be taught. You can save time if someone tells you to put blue and yellow together to make green, but the essence of painting is a self-disciplined activity that you have to learn by yourself.”
Nothing wrong with copying
by Reiner Wegg
Here in Europe we are allowed to go into galleries and make copies on certain days. To set up one’s easel, particularly in the company of other painters who have made a life of this is very satisfying. While there is no intent other than to learn and improve one’s technique — one realizes what must be done in order to achieve some degree of proficiency. Figuring out how a master made certain colours and achieved certain effects is difficult enough — the end result is knowledge, if only partial — and as far as I can see there’s nothing wrong with that.
by Cassandra James, Texas, USA
I find a brief daily critique at the beginning of each workshop class to be most effective. We look at work from the previous day before the new day’s efforts. It accomplishes several goals; enriches their vocabulary for talking about art early on, allows them to see the best work in the class compared with theirs, de-mystifies the ‘critique’ so it’s not some huge deal — just a discussion, and gives them time to put the lessons to work while they’re fresh in mind. It takes painting time, but my students say it is the best thing I do. I encourage them to put up unsuccessful canvases without necessarily identifying them, so we can all learn from the problem canvases. We don’t learn nearly as much from the successes, just get a nice boost from them. Last summer I asked students if they would rather paint the last day or have a full-class critique as was scheduled by organizers. They all opted for the extra day of painting after a brief critique.
Kept for a rainy day
by LPS, Dorchester, UK
The advice I most frequently give myself is “Abort — start another painting.” I don’t throw the poor or unfinished ones out though. I keep them for a rainy day and after I have given them a long time — sometimes several years — I go back and find sometimes surprising things in them that I like after all.
As the parties involved will know of what I am talking please do not publish my name. Our art group employs a well known local artist to come by every few months and give us a criticism of our latest work. Almost without exception this man singles my work out for improvement while at the same time praising the work of another member of our club. Our work is very similar to each others. As a matter of fact there are some members of the club who have said that she is copying me. I am the older artist of the two of us and have been working in this style and genre for years. The other woman is a relative newcomer. To make matters worse she is quite attractive and flirtatious. She has a nice figure and is always made up to the nines and lingers afterwards with anyone and everyone she sees as being in a position of power. What do you think of this?
(RG note) Critics should always be blind to everything but the art. To be otherwise is socially inept and politically unacceptable. It’s impossible for me to comment on the relative quality of your work. Your group cannot go wrong by having a turnover of critics, particularly ones who are unlikely to know the artists.
Work through your own problem
by Sherry Purvis, Kennesaw, Georgia, USA
For a long time I let critiques change my creative process. I did this until I realized that to some degree the information I was getting was based on how other artists viewed their own styles. Now I will let everyone have a look, once, and say their piece. When I go back to the studio with my work, I go back over everything that was said. If I found it to be a valid error on my part I change it, but if I didn’t agree then I simply say to myself a few choice words and leave it like it is. I find that for the most part now I leave others thoughts out of my work. I don’t know if I have ever aborted a painting. I do know others who do this, but I find that the real learning experience comes from making myself work through the problem areas. It may not be a great piece when I’ve finished, but there is much to be had from the pain of it all. Sometimes there are great revelations to be had, mostly there is the realization that I just forgot to keep looking at what I was trying to paint.
by Annette Waterbeek
I’ve always felt that you learn more from a critique if you are given negatives rather than positives… “You have a nice painting. I think you have succeeded.” This tells a student nothing… your colors work but the scale of the piece needs to be larger… this says something… then if the student asks why… he or she is really listening… and if the student is independent… he or she will take in the info or discard it as they see fit. Just like a jury there is the personal twist to the critic’s view this again must be remembered by the student. So when it comes to workshops one should take in the fundamentals of what it takes to create a good piece of work but don’t lose yourself in the process.
Energy to transmit
by Ray Rayada
The main job of the instructor or the teacher of art is to rouse the expectations of the student artist. A beginner knows without knowing that there is an almost religious mystique to art. He has only a hint of its difficulty. He seeks to probe it. Particularly at the beginning of his study he only has a small idea how deep that probe might be. A strong teacher, a passionate teacher, has knowledge that the student needs to hear, and above all he has his accumulated energy to transmit.
by Stewart Turcotte
The letter on Gyotaku was very interesting and seemed to be a very reverent way of recording life. It was mentioned that the fish could be eaten afterwards. Can it? Are there not some potentially lethal heavy metals in some paints that could be absorbed into the skin and then the flesh of the fish? I think back to the Japanese silk and ceramic painters who used to tip their brushes in their mouths and later in life they found they had kidney cancer. I could be wrong but I thought I would ask you. This could rival fugu
in level of risk.
(RG note) Every year in Japan an average of 10 people die within a few minutes of eating Fugu (Blowfish) This delicacy requires extreme skill and knowledge in preparation. Dying of Gyotaku takes longer.
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 93 countries world-wide, including Afghanistan, have visited these pages since January 1, 2001.
That includes Lorna Quigley who is “riding on a wave of inspiration.”
And Noory Masliyah and Norma Parker who both “hope that our ways will meet again.”
And Derek Franklin, one of the truly great contributors to our Resource of Art Quotations, who can’t remember who said, “One must go through life, be it red or blue, stark naked and accompanied by the music of a subtle fisherman, prepared at all times for a celebration.” Was it Frantisek Kupka or Francis Picabia?
“I deny that art can be taught, or, in other words, maintain that art is completely individual, and that the talent of each artist is but the result of his own inspiration and his own study of past tradition.” (Gustave Courbet)
“I’ve taught, and the first thing I did when I taught art, was not to teach art.” (Louise Nevelson)