Every year about 900,000 North Americans buy brushes and paints for the first time. Every year, often after a prolonged bout of frustration, about 800,000 folks decide painting is not their thing. These figures are confirmed by the statistics of artists’ colourmen and art materials stores. Apparently, at any given time, three percent of the population is trying to paint.
On the surface, painting looks easy, offers mounds of personal satisfaction and has the potential of big bucks. But then again, so does golf. And we all know that golf makes grown men cry.
When closely examined, high-aimed painting is difficult, loaded with disappointment and the dubious benefits of poverty.
My basic idea is that pretty well all motivated persons can become realized painters. But it’s a tricky, deceptive path with lots of sink-holes. Certain personality types, in my observation, have a better chance than others. To test yourself against my findings, give yourself a score of one to ten on the following twelve items. You don’t have to score well on all. Out of a possible score of 120, if your score is over 70 you’ll be a likely candidate for a life in art.
— self-motivated, entrepreneurial
— loner, non-joiner, outsider
— hard worker
— individualistic, resistant to prior programming
The personality traits listed above all sidestep the possibilities of innate talent. Curiously, many with loads of talent don’t make it. Talent only completes the equation. While many may have some primal facility in drawing, color or composition, talent may be more the combination of some of those twelve personality traits. In the words of Louis Armstrong, “If ya ain’t got it in ya, ya can’t blow it out.”
Our main job in life is to try to find out what we’re good for. Life is a school. We keep taking tests. If we pass a test, we move on. If we fail a test, sooner or later we are given the test again. Failing or succeeding, wise artists know themselves and quickly move through the tests. In art, it takes a lifetime of moving through the tests. Fact is, they never stop coming.
PS: “To be what we are, and to become what we are capable of becoming, is the only end of life.” (Robert Louis Stevenson)
Esoterica: Many of us are urged in our youth to choose a lifetime field. Recent research following the lives of a wide range of people found that many life directions are cast in bronze by conditions or remarks made back in high school. In a recent Time Magazine article, Annie Murphy Paul noted, “High school is a formative life experience, as social as it is academic, in which students encounter a jostling bazaar of potential identities — from jock to prep to geek [to artist]— and choose, (or are assigned) one that will stay with them for years to come.”
Lack of closure
by Gary Simmons, Hot Springs, AK, USA
My explanation is that art is a life with a built-in lack of closure. When we open one door we find two more and behind either of them are three more and so on. I think a large part of the thrill and the frustration for us is this never-ending quest to destinies we can’t see or define. A corollary to this is the lack of finite description for what we do. I see our place in the world as a large slot through which we might enter in a number of ways and places rather than as a pigeon hole with very specific dimensions and shapes. As a result, unlike the accountant who knows the exact steps needed to reach his goal, we are self-defined and must discover our own route. This is one of the reasons artists are often late bloomers since they have little help from the culture in reaching these defining moments. Like artists in any other discipline we must work through that period of maturing our craft rather than just coming out of school and hitting the ground running. I have been a professional artist for more than 40 years and still find myself struggling with issues of direction, confidence, and standards in spite of my awareness that these issues come with the job and with the breed. When talking to young artists I try to remember that it was passion that got me though the early stages.
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Revved up by daily painting
by Carmen Beecher, Satellite Beach, FL, USA
I began my full-time art after retiring, though I have always painted. While many of my friends are relaxing and doing book clubs and going to Europe, I am a daily painter on Dailypainteroriginals.com and that challenge has me really revved up. I am not making a lot of money, and I do ask myself occasionally, “What am I trying to prove?” However, my work improves all the time with all that practice, and you yourself know about the high you get when the painting comes out like you want it. After much self-analysis, I think I am trying to catch-up with what I missed out on by having to work 31 years to survive, instead of doing my art. I’m thankful for the pension I live on, but I paid dearly for it. P.S. I scored over 70 on your test.
A study in tenacity
by Sandra Noble Goss, Owen Sound, ON, Canada
I’m at the Idyllwild Arts Sumer Program in southern California about to teach a one week jewellery course. I agree totally with your comments that it isn’t just talent that one needs to be successful in the arts — and probably in most things. My husband and I are both jewellers/ designers/ makers. This past winter I gave a lecture to the Metal Arts Guild of Canada on our jewellery/metal careers and called it “A Study in Tenacity.” I, too, have seen many talented artists and craftsmen give up along the way and have come to realize that talent isn’t enough. You have to want to do it and want it enough that you will put up with the hard times. Years ago we were partners in a craft gallery called Makers. We were 14 young craftspeople in the early years of our careers and filled with optimism. I remember one conversation where we were all trying to outdo each other in a perverse pride of how little money we made and boasting how many years it had been since we’d paid income tax. One young fabric artist exclaimed that she would LOVE it if she made enough money to pay income tax. She soon went back to school to be a teacher. Of those original 14 young artists, only my husband and I are still making our living at our craft. The attrition rate in the arts is very high.
The incurable artist
by Terry Mason, Sarasota, FL, USA
Someone recently asked me to tell them the difference between a hobbyist and an artist. I thought a moment because I know some pretty serious hobbyists. But I guess, for me, the answer had to be pretty personal. The hobbyist, I answered, can paint if they want to and not paint if they don’t want to. The artist has no choice but to paint. Maybe your categories help explain that. All I know is that if a brush doesn’t touch my hand in 48 hours I get a tad twitchy and remote. Said another way… my spouse says that the only thing that will keep me happy if I am not painting is if I am talking about painting. I don’t think being an artist is curable. Not that I have tried to be cured.
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Motivation and talent
by Barbara Lussier, Putnam, CT, USA
I have always believed in the motivational aspect of success. When I attended Art School, it was suggested I drop out as I did not have the “talent.” Being philosophical, passionate, obsessive-compulsive, self-motivated, entrepreneurial and at times a total loner, I responded that, well, “I was going to do it anyhow,” and I have. Yes, I did drop out of that school and floundered a bit in my youth, but painting has been my life’s work and passion.
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The discovery of deep satisfaction
by Anitta Trotter, Whitby, ON, Canada
Your letter had me laughing out loud! I was told by two teachers along the way that (1) I had no talent and (2) I should never “waste the time of the art teachers” because I had no talent. Then, three years ago a friend gave me his old chandelier made of Austrian crystal. I began to create works of art out of these in combination with my woodcarving. I discovered that working with beads and wire satisfies many deep needs (light, beauty, ability to shape, design, create, etc.) — altogether a very interesting process. The works that are mulling around in my head are going to blow the minds of the men in my woodcarving guild! At long last you have provided me with confirmation that this is what my life has been leading up to.
Living in instinct
by Gary Eddington, Baltimore, MD, USA
I always thought that when I got to art school, then, I would fit in. Well anyone who knows Art College knows there is no place to fit in. Each person is an individual and is seen as such; in fact if you do fit in you are out. I finally did get grades that made my parents proud but I certainly did not fit in. I did, however, know I was in the right place and did not feel outside as in high school. Even in HS I found friends who also were outside-insiders. We were thought of as cool but not centered. Now I am very comfortable with myself and love living in my instinct where I reach for a color and brush, wanting to see a certain image appear and revel in the joy of watching it happen and wondering, “How the heck is that happening?”
Artwork is like skiing or motorcycle riding or, more to my liking, skateboarding. We live in our instinct and are happy there. Once one gets over knowing one could lose what is involved, the sky is the limit. That is why it is good to use newsprint paper. Once I realized that I was not using my eraser I switched to ink. Once I realized “mistakes” could be swallowed up by intentional strokes, I never worried about them and learned to make a work of art. It must contain the experience and history of every impulse and decision made through the process.
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The innate motivation to create
by Lin Stepp, Knoxville, TN, USA
As I read your letter “The school of life” and the statistics on the personality type that tends to persist and develop as a painter, I couldn’t help thinking that some of the same facts are true about developing successfully in any artistic field. I paint in watercolors and do illustrative art — but my greater artistic focus in these last years has been in creative writing, with three Smokies set books out and several more in the mill with my publishers.
I can confirm that the writer’s journey, too, is — as you say — difficult …and “loaded with disappointment and the dubious benefits of poverty.” Statistics suggest that 1-2% of people who write books get published by a recognized national, regional, or small publishing house. Like hopeful artists-to-be, who buy art supplies and take art classes, hopeful writers-to-be buy writing guides, laptops, attend workshops, and begin penning stories, articles, or book chapters… only to also drop out when the personal commitment, persistence, time demands, and work isolation needed to become an author become too challenging.
Curious about this, I googled several sites to see how similar the characteristics needed to develop as a good author are to the characteristics needed to develop as a good painter. They were remarkably similar! Sites encouraged traits needed for good writers to include: patience, passion for the work, an active imagination, discipline, ambition, stubbornness, and attention to detail. They also stressed studying the work of others, disciplined work to improve the craft, perseverance, a healthy ego, a thick skin, and the ability to meet deadlines. Many emphasized how the striving writer needs to be able to work alone, with a determined schedule — without ongoing praise or recognition. Writing, like art, is a lonely occupation… and, as you noted, painters — and writers, too, I believe — must be self-motivated entrepreneurs to develop their talents and succeed in the artistic field. On an interesting note, one site added that faith, hope, and gratitude can help the developing writer — and, certainly, these traits cannot hurt an individual in any creative endeavor.
Perhaps Albert Einstein had an edge on this topic when he wrote, “True art is characterized by an irrestible urge in the creative artist.” There has to be an innate motivation — coupled with strong purpose and personal discipline — for an artist to develop and persist beyond the “wishing-and-hoping” stage in any creative endeavor.
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Enjoy the past comments below for The school of life…
La Pieta, Venice
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Warren Criswell of AR, USA, who wrote, “Damn! I score 120! The very things that make us artists also make us antisocial pariahs. I love it.”
And also Sydney Metrick who wrote, “I got 84, but I coach artists. I don’t paint. Maybe I should put down the phone and pick up a brush.”
(RG note) Thanks, Sydney — and all the others who reported their scores. They ranged from a low of 30 to a high of 150. (Some gave themselves extra points for egoism and obsessive-compulsive behavior.)