Competence and incompetence


Dear Artist,

My friend Joe Blodgett came into the studio yesterday. He took a look around, studied a 20 x 24 for a minute, and then said, “Bloody incompetent, this one.” As a matter of fact I had been watching it for a couple of days in the hope that it might miraculously cure itself. “What’s wrong with it?” I asked. “Can’t say, actually — maybe a bit too illustrational, too stiff,” he said, “But more than anything it’s just not competent like you usually are.”

Joe and I got to talking about N.C. Wyeth. I remembered a Wyeth quote that went something like, “By the late twenties and early thirties my easel pictures were being shown and somewhat admired. Critics used the word ‘illustrator’ as a denigrating label. I resented the implied barrier between illustration and painting but I was too busy to enter into controversy. Both illustrator and painter are artists who are in pictorial communication. Both should be measured by their competence — not by artificial compartments contrived by critics.”

We agreed that these sentiments — echoed by many others—held some of the seeds of both joy and success in the arts. John Buchan had said, “The highest happiness is a sense of competence.” It’s the feeling of competence that keeps us at it. It’s the discerning of competence and the fingering of incompetence that allows us to pick ourselves up by our own boot-straps. After Joe left I started to think about N. C. Wyeth:

His work was seen and admired.
He kept himself busy.
He valued communication.
He valued competence in himself and others.
He respected the unique vision of others.
While critics irked him, they made no difference to the standards which he set for himself.

I took my incompetent work into my hands. I didn’t even save the stretchers.

Best regards,


PS: “The great ones zealously learn the craft of their profession so they can release the power and the depth of their imagination and experience.” (Leonard Bishop)

Esoterica: At one time Joe and I were painting in the south of Portugal. It’s his habit to bring half-finished watercolours back to the hotel and stew about them. One night, in pitch darkness and out of nowhere, I heard the distinct sound of 300 pound Whatman being shredded into strips and then delivered to oblivion by an antique but powerful water closet.

The following are selected correspondence arising from the above and other letters. Thanks for writing.


Hammer it
by Theresa Bayer, Austin, Texas, USA

I don’t mind destroying a bad painting if I can still salvage some of the materials. With clay sculpture, it’s a different story. It’s a wrenching experience when a graceful piece of sculpture comes out of the kiln with a bad finish on it. Sometimes I’ll put the sculpture aside for a few weeks, then look at it with fresh eyes — and the finish will have miraculously improved. Other times I’ll give the piece another firing and it’ll improve; but a few pieces will still turn out bad. There comes a point when I know I have to smash a piece, and when that happens, nothing will be salvaged. I always have to psyche myself up for that. In my moments of reluctance, I remember a phrase that popped into my head once as I was smashing bad sculptures: “The hammer is my friend.”


Straight shooter
by Bryan Dunleavy, Southampton, UK

How lucky you are to have a friend who will be frank about your work. Perhaps every artist needs a Joe Blodgett in his or her life. Too often we have to settle for the inference of a no comment or the “Oh, I like this one!” while quickly passing by a painting which we know (but were hoping not) is rubbish. I don’t suppose I am alone in spending hours tweaking, teasing, modifying, trying to breathe some life into the corpse of a dead painting that would benefit from a dismissive Joe Blodgettt comment.


Exalted opinion?
by June Raabe, Ladysmith, BC, Canada

I worry constantly over my competence, but combined with that I have this absolute inability to destroy anything I have done. I don’t know whether it’s the cost of the paper, or whether I may have an exalted opinion of my possessions and myself! When a friend saw a reject (one of three attempts) and said “what’s wrong with that? I gave it to her! My philosophy is that paintings need homes that want them more than I need to be paid for them. Not that I give away many paintings, I don’t. I am quite stingy! The upshot of this ramble is the delightful vision of an artist shredding expensive paper and flushing it “down an ancient water closet.”


Illustration and Warhol
Bill Cannon, Santa Barbara, CA, USA

Few know or care to know that Andy Warhol was one of the best commercial illustrators in history. I cannot erase from my mind Andy’s rendition of a woman’s shoe for a shoe company. It had the trademark of someone who needed to break out of illustrating shoes. That shoe was really exquisite, and any artist who either wants to use illustration as his base, or feels that illustration is below him, should take a look at Andy’s commercial work.


Merely perception
by Ron Stacy, Sidney, BC, Canada


by Ron Stacy

Being somewhat of an illustrator myself, who also makes non-illustrative paintings, I’ve spent some time stewing over the perceived difference between the two categories. Illustration can be loosely described as an image created to be used in conjunction with text. I say loosely because, when coming up with definitions for almost any concept related to art, there are many fuzzy areas and exceptions. You could say that almost every image created prior to the Impressionist era was an illustration. Michaelangelo illustrated stories from the Bible on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Other artists illustrated battles and religious events. They were considered craftspeople, like any other, although when it came to portraits and other works which would define the patron, some were given higher social status than others because of their associations. The impressionists gave the perception of shedding the skills they had laboriously acquired, thus equating an ‘artist’ with a ‘craftsperson’ just wouldn’t do. It had to become an intellectual exercise with pretensions to supernormal creativity and sensibilities. The commercial work, illustration, was left to those who needed to earn their living, so it remained merely a skill, carried out by mere workers for the book and poster trade. Michelangelo, daVinci, N.C. Wyeth and Norman Rockwell were all illustrators who could never be classified as ‘mere.’ There is, however, a profusion of ‘fine art’ painters who could easily be classified as ‘mere.’ If the viewer deems it to be art, then, to that viewer, it is art. In ignorance, everything is black and white. The more one explores a subject, the grayer it becomes.


Individual beliefs
by Annette Waterbeek

Illustrator or Painter… this could be a very hot opinionated topic. Like Mac or IBM… like Ford or Chev. Is it in the eyes of the beholder? What about projecting a slide onto a surface and then painting it? Is that a painting or illustration? What about masters who used the grid system, on a frame while the live model was behind? What about painters who draw with a brush first, then paint in the elements? Who was more respected… revered… important? If I remember correctly, at the end of Wyeth’s career he was very depressed because he felt he had failed.


Distinctive definition
by David Lloyd Glover, West Hollywood, CA, USA


painting by David Lloyd Glover

Illustration or fine art? Who of those that have admired Norman Rockwell hasn’t pondered that question? Even Norman himself felt stung by that label, always wishing to be regarded as a fine artist. My own beginnings in art were as an illustrator. Day after day I created editorial illustrations for the daily newspaper. They communicated an idea gleaned from the written article the image supported. That was an illustration in the classic definition. Art that has the appearance of an image in support of an idea or narrative does indeed look like an illustration. An illustration is that which has been cast to be the visual support of another idea outside of the drawing or painting. A painting (fine art) is created for its own purpose. Simply, the illustration is a picture for hire created to help the mass market visualize (or sell) an idea, a painting is for the pure sensibility of the artist. To become “Art,” only time reveals what is and what isn’t.


Get over yourself
by Jane Lake, Boulder City, NV, USA


painting by Jane Lake

I thought Phyllis Floyd’s comment on the Wyeth family was comical. She was doing just fine until she added the last comment, “I believe it is accurate to say that most of the painting community in New York does not take them seriously.” New York is obviously one of the most important art centers in the world, but it is not the “be-all, end-all” to art, nor is it the last word. Everyone is entitled their opinion, as is she, but to speak for the painting community of an entire city? Laugh! I sense way too much superiority in that remark and all I can say to her is, “Get over yourself Phyllis! I think your nose is so far in the air you might drown in the next rainstorm!”



Travelling with paints
by M. Turnbull

I have recently returned from a painting trip to France. I flew from Vancouver airport to Frankfurt. Everything was packed in one suitcase, no solvents. I was never questioned anywhere and had no problems. The suitcase was checked with my luggage.


Best way to photograph and send
Cissy Gray, Mercer Island, Washington, USA

What is the best way to photograph and send pictures via the computer? Maybe there is a book that you or someone could suggest. I scanned a picture of mine from a gallery card and was not pleased with the results. I would rather spend time creating than trying to use the computer but it is a fact of life and I guess I darn well better get used to it.

(RG note) Go to the Kodak Digital Learning Center, for example a page on the parameters of sending at

Another useful place to go is “Scanners and How to Use Them” by Jonathan Sachs. It’s at

A recent book that covers the whole spectrum is Digital Photography! I didn’t know you could do that, by Erica Sadun. It’s a frustrating business at times. Perhaps some of our readers might be able to offer further guidance to artists who don’t want to waste a whole bunch of time on this subject, but nevertheless have to do it.


Labeling of different types of art
by Yaroslaw Rozputnyak, Moscow, Russia

With regard to the recent discussion about fine, decorative and folk arts, I must note that in the Russia this problem exists also. The definitions “fine” are not objective, sometimes not sincere — instead of indicating of mistakes, disadvantages some art critics announce all full field (for example, work that depicts flowers) as “kitch” — from that German word about very bad work. We were upset a while because of these “forbidden” fields for “real art” (flowers, animals, children, afrodites, bright colorful landscapes, and if any simple real images are present in a picture), but then I left that forever for pleasure of art critics and now I use a simple independent scale of work demanding efforts (physical & spiritual) for positioning of our own art works and knowing the real price of our and other artists’ works.


How do you become a professional?
by Nancy Sands, Los Angeles, CA, USA

I teach high school art and have not really spent time developing my own skills and, therefore, still feel like a novice painter. How does one develop paintings to the professional level? How do you know when you have reached that level? I have asked this question of professional artists and have never really received an answer that I could apply to my own work. Perhaps you can supply me with the answer.

(RG note) There’s a long and a short answer to this frequently asked question. Here’s the short one: There’s a difference between professional competence and professional expectations. In the expectations sense, professionalism is a badge that you award yourself. Passion, economics, anger, desperation, the wish to communicate, or an overwhelming sense of joy can hang it on you. Some artists hang it on themselves before they know what they’re doing. Others never hang it there, though they may be deserving. Actual professional competence is difficult for a lot of us to achieve in only one lifetime.







Curtis Long

Cape-Blanco-lighthouse 2

“Cape Blanco Lighthouse #2”
by Curtis Long


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 100 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2002.

This includes Barbara Mason from Aloha, Oregon who says, “Unhappy work deserves to die and I have always thought artists made big mistakes selling less than “happy” work.”


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