To go it alone?

15

Dear Artist,

Yesterday, Candy Crawford Day wrote, “Is it better for an artist to go it alone or is camaraderie advisable? Lately, I’ve lost a mentor who greatly influenced my work. Other influences don’t seem to have my best interests at heart. At what point, if any, should one break away and stand on her own two feet? And how would you advise one to garner the courage to do so?”

Raphael Weill School, San Francisco, 1942 Gelatin silver print by Dorothea Lange (1895-1965)

Raphael Weill School, San Francisco, 1942
Gelatin silver print
by Dorothea Lange (1895-1965)

Thanks, Candy. Your decision whether or not to go it alone has a lot to do with your temperament. The good news is that the greater Brotherhood and Sisterhood of Artists works for both the extrovert and the introvert. Regarding influence, anecdotal evidence suggests that those who struggle privately tend to become stronger. Funnily, many artists have a pile of friends who have interests and vocations other than art. For some, there is little or no artistic camaraderie. The best approach is to achieve a balance — work independently and play with others. The good life is both art and people.

We artists need to be travellers on paths less travelled. “What is genius but the power of expressing a new individuality?” said Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Iconoclasm and eccentricity may be part of the trip. “Certain defects,” said Johann Wolfgang von Goethe “are necessary for the existence of individuality.” Apart from hard work, craft, technique and the eager generation of ideas, artists need this independent personality. “If you have anything really valuable to contribute to the world,” said Bruce Barton, “it will come through the expression of your own personality, that single spark of divinity that sets you off and makes you different from every other living creature.” As for the courage to go it alone, you need only look to others who have done it and are thriving. And what about the threadbare spectre of poverty? When the artist trusts her sensibilities, her creativity and her hands, fear is banished. The real fear needs to be for the mediocre life. I know of precious few individualist artists who have one.

Best regards,

Robert

The Road West, New Mexico, 1938 Gelatin silver print by Dorothea Lange

The Road West, New Mexico, 1938
Gelatin silver print
by Dorothea Lange

PS: “The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.” (Friedrich Nietzsche)

Esoterica: I used to own a few rental properties. The painter Ruby Brown Shand was one of my tenants. As a young woman she had worked briefly as a teacher, only to decide she needed a life in art. Dining alone on wild mushrooms and dandelions, she paid her rent infrequently and indulged an outsized appetite for painting in pastels. She worked daily like a demon possessed. Known for her spontaneity and her flowing white cloaks, she regularly phoned her landlord to drive her out to some picturesque location where she might pay with a song. When she died she left two thousand works to the Lions Club. Though she’s now been gone some twenty years, the Lions and Lionesses are still selling them off for the love of her.

Dorothea Lange in Texas, circa 1934.

Dorothea Lange in Texas, circa 1934.

This letter was originally published as “To go it alone?” on November 25, 2011.

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“It is no accident that the photographer becomes a photographer any more than the lion tamer becomes a lion tamer.” (Dorothea Lange)


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15 Comments

  1. This letter really speaks to me. I find that my art is rooted in an essential aloneness and solitude, yet I also feel a desire for community and connection that is partly my own real need but partly a response to the constant push of the culture. As an artist I am nothing without that solitary space and quirky individuality, and I struggle to find ways to share my work and connect with peers and mentors without diluting that introverted essence. There is so much out there these days that goes against that, as difference gets homogenized in its very celebration. So I appreciate Robert’s words and I know I’ll be reading them over again.

  2. I probably posted a comment on this letter in 2011 when it first appeared. This is a constant struggle for me. I’m getting better. I find the adventure of discovering techniques through trial and error sometimes frustrating but more often very exciting. I understand so much of what I learned from Robert through these letters over the years (at least 20). I’m a better painter. Taking more risks. Too much discussion with fellow painters kind of bursts my bubble. Description and discussion tend to minimize the joy of discovery. It is a long process, but ultimately one really goes it alone. This is a good forum for sharing one’s journey.

  3. I recommend the book “Quiet” by Susan Cain . Knowing that I work best alone, yet feeling uncomfortable with that knowledge, her book helped me understand myself and just go with who I am.

  4. I’ve painted alone for years. An art tv show or artists on the web make good ambiance. And yes it’s better than painting with a bunch of people who have other priorities.

  5. I very much prefer to paint alone, although in the beginning of my art journey, it was necessary to be in the presence of other aspiring artists taking many art classes and workshops. I learned the basics: drawing from life, design, perspective, value and the importance of composition. Now I am happy to “go to my room” and create. Thank you, Robert, for your informative letter and a big thank you, Sara, for reposting it.

    • I very much prefer to paint alone, although in the beginning of my art journey, it was necessary to be in the presence of other aspiring artists taking many art classes and workshops. I learned the basics: drawing from life, design, perspective, value and the importance of composition. Now I am happy to “go to my room” and create. Thank you, Robert, for your informative letter and a big thank you, Sara, for reposting it.

  6. Yet again I feel so connected with the artists who have spoken here. I agree with all of you about the need to create and grow alone. This newsletter is perfect for me and I can’t thank you all enough.

  7. I do my serious painting alone. However I have found that sometimes, in groups, I spontaneously come up with something really good. I think that conversation sometimes engages a part of the brain that can get in the way of creativity

  8. As an artist by heart and a physician by training in April 2020 I had to self isolate for 14 days-I d walked into the ER that morning- was pulled aside , swabbed for possible Corona 19 and sent home . My life s companion , best friend and wife of 50 years was stuck in lockdown in our home country and unable to return- for the first time in a busy medical life I now had 14 days alone to paint ,A busy career which included family ,rural practice ,a doctorate and teaching had allowed at best 12 hours of painting per week. I now had 12 hours per day! . It was the most rewarding time of my painting life. My passion to paint and draw was indulged to the full.The energy and discipline generated by this creative hiatus then overflowed into my working day after I tested negative and returned to clinical work.I I learnt again that solation is necessary for creative development because when you re alone your creative consciousness has free reign and is not interrupted by social and professional responsibilities,, My friend Vinod created a website
    Thank you Robert and Sarah for weekly wisdom which is endlessly encouraging The aspects of art which you write about so well reflect the likemindedness of the art conscious community .Welldone and may you continue to share for many more years

    • Elwin, I hope that as an incredibly engaged practising physician – likely well into your 70s – that in those 14 days of isolation you discovered life goes on without you on the front lines. You can forgive yourself if/when it is time to paint 12 hours a day into eternity. I have a 74 year old nurse colleague friend who prides herself on continuing to work in the ER, all the while giving lip service to not having enough time for the things that she loves doing. (Money is NOT an issue.) And she is always exhausted!

      Maybe it’s time for you to ‘plan’ an existential crisis. I had one when I turned 70 and highly recommend it. Best of luck to you.

  9. Agree with Elwin Buchel , above. This pandemic has had some amazing unexpected gifts that my more extroverted friends have struggled with. More serious studio time being one of them.

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