Mastery or spark?


Dear Artist,

Yesterday, Jeanne Long of Selby, MN, USA 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.”


“Local Color By Night”
watercolor painting, 11 x 14 inches
by Jeanne Long

Thanks, Jeanne. 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.

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 like Jeanne Long, are open-minded.

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.


When passion is present
by Luann Udell, Keene, NH, USA


“Triptych: Buffalo Moon”
mixed media
by Luann Udell

I am so exasperated by artists and jurors who feel intellectual intimidation, pontification and pedagogy are selling points for art. I shouldn’t be — I know that we each have our own path. But I am always moved by the artist who can get past the how of their work, and connect with the why. That is when the work truly connects with its audience — when passion is present.



Keeping judges’ names secret
by Tedde Ready, Atascadero, CA, USA

I am reminded of some juried events where the first question would-be contestants ask is, “Who’s going to be judging?” Amazing how many of the artists play to the known qualities of the judges. I like the idea of importing judges, as well as keeping a lid on that knowledge until all art has been submitted for judging.


Spark before mastery
by Clint Watson, San Antonio, TX, USA

In terms of art, we believe that spark is more important than mastery. In a perfect world, an artist would, of course, possess both qualities and indeed some of the best do. However, mastery without spark is boring. As we always enjoy telling anyone unfortunate enough to be within earshot, “A painter shows you what he painted, but an artist shows you why he painted.”


Set your brain free
by Pierre V, Saint John, NB, Canada

Your last letter was most appropriate for one of my problems. I sit on a review committee for a Hall of Fame and this year we have an exceptional number of really super candidates for induction. As a result, I was having difficulty differentiating among the top flyers — what with the rarefied number of points I have remaining to award. So, I was looking for a new or additional criteria and your piece was just what I needed to set my brain free from its usual thinking pattern. I showed it to some colleagues and they also had the same experience.


Losing ‘it’ in the process
by Jean Burman, Australia


“Diptych: Alter Ego”
watercolour painting
by Jean Burman

It seems a terrible paradox… that something as clever and transient as the spark (imagination) can be lost in our pursuit of mastery (technique). Maybe it’s a left-brain right-brain thing. Perhaps the left-brainers (analytical by nature) choose to pursue mastery in their work… whilst the right-brainers (imaginative by nature) choose to “chase the spark.” And whilst the somewhat over-ambitious pursuit of “spark,” without the necessary skills, may seem high-handed to the accomplished… in actuality it may well be that “in the doing” the imaginative spark chaser will inevitably catch up in the skills department. The artist need only worry about losing “it” in the process!



Good to be out of whack
by Susan Holland


“Jardin des Tuileries”
by Maillol

Maillol is a good example of a classic artist who had total mastery as well as majestic spark. Remember his huge bronze woman — way out of whack — absolutely a stunner of a work. Remember the peculiar beings in Gauguin’s Tahiti paintings, and the absolutely wonderful heads of Matisse — very much out of whack?


by Henri Matisse


Caricatures were done by everyone from Da Vinci to Sir Anthony van Dyck. It’s their renditions of the human form in out-of-whack style that packs a punch. It’s art — mastery and spark!


by Paul Gauguin







The WOW Factor
by Annette Bush, Augusta, GA, USA


“Yellow Trio”
oil painting
by Annette Bush

Mastery or Spark? When I’m doing jury duty, I love it when there is some of each. I call it the W-O-W factor. When it is easy to categorize what the piece is, the technical mastery is shown by the order of it, and the impact shows why the artist created it — then judging is a piece of cake. Sometimes the offerings simply don’t have all three and the judges are left to choose between a beautifully executed traditional work with little of the artist’s emotion about the subject and a not-so-perfect avant-garde explosion full of the artist’s excitement at the process. That’s when the judges’ experience / knowledge makes the difference.


Spark comes from within
by Mary Moquin, Sandwich, MA, USA


“The Forest”
oil painting
by Mary Moquin

Thank you for putting into words a battle I have been waging at our local art association. It would be so nice if there was a simple litmus test we could apply to all art — this is good, and this is bad. But, the bottom line is that it is so very subjective to the belief systems and experiences we have accumulated in our personal quests. I once would have looked for mastery, but now that I have achieved a certain level of mastery myself, I realize that it can be taught to anyone with moderate potential. However, spark is impossible to teach. Spark comes from somewhere within the artist. So, now I look for spark first, but the true masterpieces contain both. There is spark, but there is the obvious knowledge that the artist has also mastered the medium and has impeccable drawing skills, he has learned what needs to be shown, and what can remain hidden.


Illusion of movement
by Kris Shanks, Rohnert Park, CA, USA


“The Road Home”
oil painting
by Kris Shanks

Vision and Art: the Biology of Seeing by Margaret Livingstone, puts a new twist on the debate for me. She points out that we take in much of a scene with our peripheral vision; there’s only a very small part of our visual field that has high acuity. We build up a more complete picture of a scene in our brain by shifting the center of our gaze. Artists exploit this all the time by creating dynamic compositions that lead the eye around the painting. Her argument is that the paintings of the Impressionists can seem more alive to us because the disjointed dabs of color exploit how the brain processes information from the eyes to create an illusion of movement.



Leave it to regular people
by Debbie Boon, St. Augustine, FL, USA


“Purple dancer”
oil painting
by Debbie Boon

I have heard many comments over the years about a well executed painting or piece of music lacking feeling or “spark.” Often I find that people are making assumptions that simply because the piece is technically good that it could not possibly be inspired or emotional. However, I find that mastery of an art form does not preclude it from being expressive and full of spark. Nor does the lack of technical ability guarantee a piece is emotional, and vice versa. Personally, I don’t like the idea of creative endeavors being judged in shows. I like the idea of people just looking at the art and making up their own minds as to what they do or don’t like. Since art is subjective, why would one piece deserve a reward and not another?



Momentarily, the spark flashes
by Anne Hightower-Patterson, Columbia, SC, USA


watercolour painting
by Anne Hightower-Patterson

This week I judged a show — and from my point of view mastery and spark are not mutually exclusive. I found entries that were not only masters of their medium and rulers of design, but also were filled with spark. I also found some pieces that had neither. I firmly believe that our job as artists is to experience the journey as we try to grow in all these areas. If, ultimately, I evoke an emotional response and lend my talents to changing the viewer’s world, if only momentarily, then the spark has flashed.


Questionable selections
by Deborah McLaren, Mystic, CT, USA


“Apple or Cider?”
oil painting
by Deborah McLaren

I appreciated your explanation of why jurors pick the art they pick. It’s now much clearer why certain art gets prizes. Many times I attend shows scratching my head wondering “Why in the world?” and “How on earth that piece of art won a prize?” I’m still of the opinion that draughtsmanship and craft are essential and cannot be understated. The spark, of course, is important, but must we reward a less accomplished piece of art and overlook the dedication, education and effort that has gone into a much more sophisticated piece of art? Would it not make more sense to acknowledge the “spark” with a juror’s mention and give the prizes to the pieces that are more credible?


Balance mastery with spark
by Charlene McGill, Chatham, ON, Canada


“Fired Up!”
original painting
by Charlene McGill

This particular letter reached into my soul and squeezed it a bit! As a watercolourist, I’ve been striving to improve my skills in colour theory and technique. Over the course of time, I have come to realize that my work is becoming quite good from a technical perspective — that is, I rarely have problems with my composition, my colour isn’t muddy and I can glaze, wash, charge, etc. quite successfully. Because my focus has been aimed at learning as much as possible, I’ve also begun to lose some of my creativity or my “spark.” In fact, I’ve become a very good copyist. Surely, there’s a way that we can balance mastery with spark. I believe that spark is akin to emotion and when it’s evident to our viewers, it says something about the art itself. It’s the emotion that bares our souls to our viewers and makes them take a second look. Once in awhile, my spark surfaces of its own accord and I let myself go with it.


Labour vs. spontaneity
by Linda Muttitt, Fort Langley, BC, Canada


original painting
by Linda Muttitt

This is such an interesting argument, and it’s one that takes place inside me about my own work as well. There are pieces that I create that seem to fly together onto the paper as if expressed from beyond, as if I am only the vessel. Then there are those pieces that I labor over, the ones that demand every ounce of effort and focus. Their creating and final birthing is both painful and elating. My feeling about both, once they are done, is usually one of great satisfaction. It’s like recognition that the magic of doing art is not lost, but found again through another creation. I had an interesting talk with another artist this past weekend who agreed with me and said that the best painting he’s ever done was one that he completed under the pressure of time and that burst onto the paper in only half and hour. We both mused on how that was possible, and should we be less laboring in our other work. I think both are full and valid expressions of the creative process.


Curatorial control
by Peter William Brown, Oakland, CA, USA


“Shallow Lake”
digital photograph
by Peter William Brown

As a curator and exhibit designer I always had problems with juried exhibitions. They usually end up looking like the county fair — simply a bunch of unrelated pieces of art, stuck up on walls. And while it is rather fun to see a potpourri every once-in-a-while, most juried shows provide little to think about the next day. I tried to find ways of changing this. It was a policy of the municipal gallery where I worked to have one competitive exhibit each year. I found a couple of ways to succeed in creating real art shows.

One of our open shows was all media, but we proscribed the subject matter to animals. The show that resulted was a gem. One year, I was asked to do a juried woman’s show. I struggled to find a thematic hook. Eventually, I talked the gallery director into a show called “Men by Women.” Suddenly, the gender bias of “women only,” made perfect sense. The resulting exhibition became one of the most interesting presentations of my career. My point is that there are ways through which the sponsoring institution can assist a jury — by creating a structured platform. The show can be open and competitive and still provide an exhibit with context — something to think about later.


Seeing with foreign eyes
by Chantell Van Erbe, NJ, USA


“Wise Vigil”
mixed-media on pastel board
by Chantell Van Erbe

Having served as an assistant to various art organizations, I’ve seen my fair share of inequities. Usually there is a pattern. When artists familiar to an association sit on the panel of adjudicators, they continually pick and award works similar to their style. Or they choose their own students’ work, leaving little opportunity for other modes of painting. I’m uncertain if this is a conscious decision. Occasionally only one person is accountable for the outcome of an entire exhibition. It takes a very special someone to successfully handle that responsibility. I’ve also witnessed open-minded individuals at the helm. But more often than not when a newcomer enters the fold, all bets are off. Shows need to be juried by outsiders with no previous knowledge of status and preferred styles.

As artists we must look at the outside world with foreign eyes. We should attempt to look and think forward, knowing that the creative data we’ve acquired will always stay with us. Acceptance of all fashions broadens our minds and talents.


Pin judge’s back to wall
by B. J. Wilson, Irvine, CA, USA

I sure don’t agree with your thought that three judges do the best job. You know what happens? The first two chosen represent “modern-contemporary” and “traditional” viewpoints so all works will be considered (they think). The third is a middle-of-the-roader — and the result? A meeting of all three minds at the lowest common denominator. Instead of this way, an art league, for instance, should get the best single person they can find for a fee they can afford — and then someone like the president should pin that judge’s back to a wall and explain sweetly, “We understand that everyone has personal preferences. Our idea of a good judge is one who can set his preferences aside and consider the quality of each individual work. Can you do that?” Of course he/she will say yes but in that positive mind-state, the judge will actually consider everything. The league gets a better job.


Here I am — look at me!
by Bill McEnroe, Tumwater, WA, USA


pastel painting
by Bill McEnroe

I too have had baffling moments jurying art shows. One is instantly struck by the pieces that bear examination and those that are cookie-cutter, run-of-the-mill dross. If technical mastery screams at me, I give a nod and say to myself, “Get a camera.” If “spark” energizes the piece then I think, “Whoa, are you being honest?” Some art is dreary just because it is so technically proficient — with no inkling of the artist’s mark — that it has no life. At the other end of the scale some seem radical just to be radical — “Here’s a pie in your face,” it says, “Eat it and like it.” “Phooey,” say I, “there’s got to be a sense of intelligence behind this thing.” When I judge a show, I look for that fresh, magical presentation that shouts, “Here I am, look at me — I’ve found a way to use all the old tricks, but I’ve carved a new road that expresses exactly where I’m going.” Those paintings are very few and far between, but when seen, they outshine everything else and get “Best in Show.”

I differ with you regarding the makeup of juries. Three people in a jury is unmanageable because there is always the gut-wrenching necessity of compromise. Two judges are about as bad, so I won’t accept an offer to judge unless I am the only one. That way, the show is a broad spectrum of what I (at the moment) think is first rate, and if the artists have a gripe, I’m the person to wrestle.


Vermeer’s Camera found
by Victoria Brown, Ohio, USA


Vermeer’s Camera

It is a really old wooden box, about 8 inches high, 8 inches wide and 5 inches deep. It splits open in half, and is held together with a brass strap and an accordion-like piece of leather to keep you from opening it up too far. Each half has a round concave glass piece about an inch and a half in diameter mounted in a little sliding window-like contraption. The inside of each half box has a piece of glass that is slanted at an angle, maybe 45 degrees. The top is frosted glass. I can home in on the reflection of an image like the flower in my window box and see the image quite clearly. There is a very old and delicate paper label on the side which reads, Vermeer’s Camera, Patent Applied for. One paragraph tells how to use the “camera” by placing the painting a few feet to the right of the model and at such a distance from your eye. Adjust the two finders at such an angle that the images will be placed in, the same way on the glass screens. I actually found how to use it by accident by using the great light in my kitchen. The bottom part of the label is missing but I can see: K K. CROSS ART SCHOOL, INC. BOOTHBAY HARBOR, MAINE. Have you ever seen anything like this? I have taken it to many art professors, the local museum and antiques experts and no one seems to have seen one of these before.





Mountain and clouds

oil on linen painting
by Katherine Kean, Los Angeles, CA, USA


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2006.

That includes Paul Kane of Bloomington, IN, USA who wrote, “The struggle between art and mastery is like and relates to the struggle between spontaneity and persistence. When they become one, it is indeed rare and hard won.”

And also Joy Gush of New York, NY, USA who wrote, “To be able to listen to you, Robert, in your marvelous writings each week, I feel uplifted and able to continue painting with my gift of talent. A talent given to me at birth to grow, and work with, to bless mankind with my unique way of creating whatever I find is pleasurable to the soul.”

And also Susan Sammis of IN, USA who submitted a quote from Twyla Tharp: “Without passion, all the skill in the world won’t lift you above craft. Without skill, all the passion in the world will leave you eager but floundering. Combining the two is the essence of the creative life.”

And also Adan Lerma who wrote, “Fix the form and lose a little zazz, spice the zazz and the form fades a bit. Back and forth. Ying yang, stop start. ‘Til I hit that balance, that moment of ahhhh.”

And also Gayle Lee of Springfield, VA, USA who wrote, “Are we confusing spark with freedom of expression? If one draws the subject precisely only then can the freedom of brushstroke be achieved.”

And also Kim Rushing of Port Townsend, WA, USA who wrote, “My list: Does it make me feel something? Does it make me think? Both Mastery and Spark combined? That is the mark of the pinnacle of an artist.”

And also Kathleen Jones of Milwaukie, OR, USA who wrote, “Are we, out here, who do not paint on canvas, but paint in another form, not real artists? Do we not have spark? The spark and beauty is larger than just paint and canvas.”

And also Linden Morris who wrote, “While I may love the recognition an award or a first, second or third place brings… I know better than to put my ultimate creative worth or value in any one else’s hands but my own!”




Leave A Reply

No Featured Workshop
No Featured Workshop

Robert and Sara Genn Twice-Weekly Letters

Subscribe and receive the Twice-Weekly letter on art. You’ll be joining a worldwide community of artists.
Subscription is free.