Mastery or spark?


Dear Artist,

A subscriber wrote, “In judging an art fair this weekend, I found myself utterly affected by the input of a fellow juror. Suddenly my picks seemed wooden and overworked. He was looking for spark. I was seeking mastery. In my search, I lost my yen for a purity of expression. He brought it back again by describing his delight in seeing a single line applied with élan! I’ve been changed by this occurrence. I can see that my own future work will grow from the exchange.”


“Self-portrait with palette” 1894
by Paul Gauguin (1848-1903)

For those of us who perform jury duty, pass judgment on the work of others, or simply give thought to what we do, mastery often picks a fight with spark. Actually, in recent art history, mastery and spark represent “The Great Divide.” It would be easy to say that those who have no mastery tend to value spark, and those who have no spark tend to value mastery. But there’s more to it than that. In a recent show where I was one of the jurors, there was a magnificent semi-abstract rendition of a horse. On close examination all the jurors agreed that the animal was way out of whack. The painter really had no idea what a horse looked like. And yet the thing had spark. An argument followed — in less civilized times there would have been a lynching. The pseudo-horse galloped off with second prize.


“Portrait of Madame Matisse” 1905
by Henri Matisse (1869-1954)

As we tend to find virtue in our own prejudices, one might think it important to pry open and educate the minds of jurors. But really, in the subjective business of artistic value and creative quality, that’s what juror-variety is all about. Parachuting jurors in from other villages broadens viewpoints and neutralizes artistic incest. One has also to watch out for what I call “unnatural spin.” This is where jurors are so stultified by pedagogy, fashion, expectation, or garden-variety ignorance that they are untrue even to themselves. With these lovely folks, one watches a mind-bending circus that includes fresh breakouts of The Emperor’s New Clothes.

Genuine creators with a range of styles and genres make the best juries. A slate of three or more is best. What blows me away is the frequency in which “spark” jurors favour mastery, and “mastery” jurors favour spark. I can only conclude that genuine creators have a fine degree of humility, are themselves in a state of learning and are open-minded.


“Portrait of a Young Man with Cornflower” 1890
by Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)

Best regards,


PS: “Under democracy, one party always devotes its chief energies to trying to prove that the other party is unfit to rule — and both commonly succeed, and are right.” (H. L. Mencken)

Esoterica: In 433 BC the Greek lyric poet Pindar noted, “Convention rules all.” In the art game, however, there is now no rigid convention — no rigid gospel. Modern art has become a do-it-yourself religion. In the name of democracy, these days the conventional wisdom is to give first prize to the work with both spark and mastery. Speaking as a frequent juror and a regular painter, I would say that works with both spark and mastery are hard won and hard to find.

This letter was originally published as “Mastery or spark” on August 11, 2006.

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“Exaggerate the essential; leave the obvious vague.” (Vincent van Gogh)



  1. I have assisted jurors for art show competitions who were curators at major museums and the standard for judging whether an art work should be exhibited was the juror was concerned about their reputation and look of the show .
    NOT the quality of the work. If the juror had a preconceived idea what the exhibition should look like . If they supported figurative work , abstract works were generally omitted, If the juror was inclined toward abstraction and formalism, figurative work was excluded ,

    How do you define Mastery, Van Gogh, Raphael, Giacometti, Rodin ? Carl Andre————did the artist actually do the work or was it done by an assistant –Jeff Koons

    • You’re quite right, Harry, about the line taken by curators of museums – they seem to have a vision (if that’s the right word) of how they want the exhibition to look. Anything that doesn’t fit is shown the door whether it’s good, bad or indifferent.

  2. I am one for knowing what you are going to spark. I know that most all the great masters such as Gauguin and Matisse and Picasso, had first learned the basics and then departed from them to use their imaginations and get that spark. They had a firm base on which to build. I think people make a mistake in thinking that they can skip over the basic working from life and go directly to what these masters did. They first had to know what a horse looked like before they distorted it or painted it in an expressionist style. It may have been distorted but you can see what they knew, what they had learned. All those crazy wild figures Picasso did were based on a firm knowledge of anatomy. sometimes, just a change in color palette makes a huge difference. I feel as if people are faking it if they do not know anatomy. But I am not fooled.

    • Can I draw? Of course I can. But I never cared enough about representational art or realism to master that. But give me a ruler and a protractor and I can crank out mandalas on a daily basis- because hardline drafting work gets me- well- excited. So don’t try to suggest there’s only one kind of drawing. I have a professor friend who I got into a discussion with about the term: Abstraction. She- thinking abstract meant that you had to have something real from which to abstract from. Me knowing I’d been creating purely abstract work with no connection to- or reflection of- realism in it anywhere- my whole life. Neither of us was actually wrong- be we had definitions that occupied 2 different sides of one coin. The abstract periods of the past freed me to never ever care about representing anything other than the work itself.

    • Wonderful point, Donna…And relevant in this discussion where some might feel that technique and mastery can be overlooked, while others feel that slavish representation is the end achievement.

      Thanks so much for the letter Robert, the SPARK is the element that makes a piece of music a masterpiece, a play a moving event and a painting the experience you hope to share. I look forward to these letters, each contains its own spark, and I thank you for sharing them.

  3. What a pithy and timely comment from 2006 in the ps. by Menchen. The United States should be struggling to free itself of this divisive political tactic!
    As for judging art, Robert gets it right on…Spark and Mastery! Originality, commitment, skills.

    I remember the quote about the piano teacher who ‘comes every Wednesday to bridge the awful gap between Susan and Chopin’! We all have ‘gaps to bridge’ in mastering our medium!

  4. I really love this letter. I understand now that many who “judge” art will have difficulty with work that does not conform to rules , thinking perhaps that the artist has not learned the rules and is therefore not ” acceptable” . I am also much more confident when I look at a piece of art why it is so compelling to me – in essence , because the artist has captured something “magical” – that spark …. that connects me to the work and thus to admire the artist.’s ability to put that something special on canvas. I fight constantly in my head between conforming to rules and throwing the rules out the window. I am making progress in that regard. I try to follow Robert’s rule in this regard – ” Go to your room and paint”…. When I am alone with my paints and canvas I don’t hear any silly noise – and then painting is magic. Searching for the spark is like searching for one’s own true self ….. something every artist inevitably comes to grip with in their own work.

    • ‘Go to your room and paint’ is an excellent room. As a student, David Hockney had a sign in his bedroom which was positioned so that it was the first thing he saw each morning. It read, ‘Get up now and work.’

  5. Spark can happen at any point in an artist’s creation experience- but mastery takes time and the desire TO master something. We do not live in a time where mastery is the reason people begin. And that’s because today- any and everything can now be called art- and whether or not it’s any good is a total judgment call. I learned a long time ago that nobody would like every piece I’ve ever made- yet someone has always liked every piece I’ve made. And so many of them have been judged into exhibits that even judges agree that whatever it is I’m making- it’s exhibit-worthy. So along the way I must have mastered something AND there must be some spark in it somewhere.
    “Virtue in our own prejudices?” Hilarious. “Mind-bending circus?” The state of the USA’s election. Mencken IS right on! “Artistic incest?” Pretty well describes the relationship I’m in. So…
    “Modern art has become a do-it-yourself religion.” And it’s the only religion that is real- or true- or relevant.
    I turned 53 the day this letter appeared… always makes me laugh when I find one posted on my birthday!

    • I believe the spark happens more often to those that attempt to master their medium and their thematic development. But this doesn’t mean that it happens more or less often for creators of representational or realistic work as opposed to creators of non-representational or abstracted work.

      It is not the case, as seems to be implied above, that non-representational or abstracted work needs to rely upon “the spark”, while realistic or representational work needs to rely upon “mastery”.

      Excellent works need both, and artists need to feed both of these creative fires. They reinforce each the other.


  6. I wonder if all jurors understand the difference between jurying and curating a show.

    The way it is understood in our art group is that jurying means that, to the best of their ability, jurors are to pick THE BEST of the works submitted, keeping an eye out for special spark. That is, not paintings by the painters with big reputations, or those who have been well known to win prizes, or by their colleagues/friends- just THE BEST of the paintings entered in the competition.

    Curating on the other hand is creating a show where the paintings hang well together. I understand that this means that the curated exhibition can be more about the curator than the paintings submitted and that if there is , for example, only one worthy landscape painting amongst many figurative works, the landscape will be rejected as not fitting.

    • True, but how relevant is the situation where the jury selects the best of the paintings submitted, where the resulting show is neither cohesive nor compelling? This is the reason many juried shows have a brief of some sort that the jury takes into consideration in selecting works. Where there is a jury involved, the jury is often a fundamental part of the curatorial process, whether the curator that hangs the show likes it or not.


      • I suppose it depends on the reason for the exhibition. There is not often a theme in my experience. It is usually an organization or gallery’s yearly juried exhibition. The exhibitions I have been involved in have been strong exhibitions in terms of art quality but there is not what I would call “cohesiveness” except as results from the actual hanging. I believe that the word ‘curate’ is being misused.

        Here is a description of what ‘curating’ is meant to be from the Milwaukee Art Museum Blog : “Curating an exhibition of artwork requires editing and “picking things out,” yes–as an art museum curator, you’re searching your own museum’s collection for what would be appropriate for the idea of your show, and you also search other museums and private collections for supplementary pieces. But curating in a museum also requires research, idea development and refinement, project management, budget management, programming considerations, educational training,decisiveness…”
        So those who arrange or ‘hang’ the works selected for the show are not curating. Perhaps there is another term for them?
        In summary, the ‘jurors’ are not meant to be acting as ‘curators’. If this is the case, then it is rather unfair to the entrants who don’t have the information to determine the criteria for acceptance other than quality. Sorry for going on. haha for what it’s worth.

        • I could not find any consistent interpretation of the role of the curator in a brief search. It seems clear that there are several interpretations of what a curator does, depending on whether we are talking about a museum, an art museum, a public gallery, a commercial gallery, or an artist-run-centre. One thing is for certain, if I ever get asked to curate an exhibition, I will no longer assume I know what they are asking. Thanks for the educational post! Cheers.

  7. This really ‘hit the nail on the head’ for me. A fellow artist /friend challenged me to Inktober this month and, as a brush and ink artist and calligrapher, I plunged in. For those familiar with the medium, similar to watercolor, anything too meticulous – no matter how masterful – usually falls short in the final analysis. The first attempt always has this amazing energy – spark – but also comes with issues. Trying to correct it leads to overworking and do-overs lose the spark. The whole thing begins to fall apart, until you finally hit the balance of spark and mastery. The only way to solve this is by continually honing one’s skills. But the spark is what makes it all worthwhile.

  8. Back in the day when I was in college I entered the annual art show and learned afterward from my art teacher the show had been judged according to a pre-conceived theme. (It was not a juried show.) The theme–or I should say criteria for winning an award– was the notion of boldness of execution. There was not one piece in that show that came close to being bold whether in color or shapes or line. I more recently attended an art gallery that had watercolors and other water based media of perhaps two hundred pieces that were chosen. Those chosen for the juried show–every one– had spark and considerable unique expression; that caught my attention. The jurors chose many masterful pieces for view that were highly detailed but in the end it was each painter’s aesthetic vision that made the experience a joy.

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