Unskilled art


Dear Artist,

A friend asked me to help him with a painting. He had laboured over sketches depicting a saucer-like ship with a metal causeway disgorging green aliens on a petrified human population. It was the humans that were giving the trouble. In order to contrast with the aliens they needed to be somewhat anatomically correct. Transposing and tracing life-drawn pencil drawings to a large, half completed canvas — then attempting to render them in a relatively realistic manner defied his skills. While I gave him my best, to my eye the whole thing was a task beyond even Leonardo’s capability; a bridge too far.

An unskilled artist operates with a unique set of values. Very often he marches to his own tune. He may be wild, primitive, abstract, visionary, idea-driven — he may even in his heart of hearts long to be skilled. He may take courses from skilled practitioners, be highly educated, erudite, driven. He may also be the sort of person who is content with the act of being there — joyful enough with the play and child-like qualities that all artists, skilled and unskilled, see as a basis for creativity.

Since post-impressionism we have the democratization of art. With the freedoms we enjoy and cherish everyone has a right to express themselves at will. Anything goes.

Can unskilled art be sold? It is — every day. There are two main ways. Because unskilled art is frequently the product of interesting, or goofy, even celebrity-type characters, it’s often sold on a direct basis. The collector of such work measures it with other than the usual criteria. A suspension of judgement occurs and he collects the artist’s unique personality and passion. Another economic route for the unskilled artist is through a cutting-edge gallery or gallery system. Well-motivated, well-remunerated and particularly slick dealers can often create a mystique around an unskilled artist — catering to those collector instincts other than the standards of taste, craft, quality and skill.

Recently my friend phoned to say he was still at work on “Descent of the Aliens” and was now seeking advice about a suitable frame, and also the name of a dealer for its “placement.”


“Exotic Landscape
by Henri Rousseau

Best regards,


PS: “We all admire the wisdom of those who come to us for advice.” (Jack Herbert)

Esoterica: Henri Rousseau (Le Douanier, 1844-1910), a hobby painter who became the most celebrated of the early naïve primitives, endured years of ridicule. He took sarcastic remarks as a form of praise and never faltered in his sense of self-worth.


Childish dreams
by Betty Newcomer, Mt Gilead, Ohio, USA

I wonder what is the reason for this alien painting? I would tell him to get some drawing instruction if he wants to portray real humans. I could understand if he was commissioned to paint this for a book cover, or whatever — but for his own pleasure? Art work is hard enough to promote, when it’s GOOD. Why does everyone want to be an Artist? Sure can’t be for the money! People need to know there is a difference in Abstract Art [creative design]and drawing some nightmare from their mind. In some national contests in magazines, I see people win big prizes with kindergarten work, and beautiful art does not even get mentioned. A child can dream up new and creative things, but that doesn’t make it good.


Debate meaningless
by oliver, Texas

The opposite of the unskilled artist is the technical master whose work leaves you flat as being uninspired, imitative of others and otherwise boring. It has become more than a little difficult for me to judge art, yet I find I must — every day. However much I want to accept all “art” as good — I can’t. I struggle with concepts of documentation of the world, mind or emotion, beauty and ugliness and the role of the creator presenter. At the end I usually chuck the debate as meaningless and try to do and collect things I like. Personally, I like things that are beautiful, that inspire me and that challenge my perceptions. I do sometimes have to put things in context, especially where technique is important. Just think about what it means to be an impressionist painter now as compared to the late 1800s.


Under arrest
by Jack Teasdale, Birmingham, UK

You are being a gentleman when you call your friend “unskilled.” Probably he is a subscriber and you genuinely wanted to help him. It’s as if unskilled art is a legitimate genre. It isn’t. Its proper name is “bad art” and it’s now everywhere worse and more common than ever — even in the Guggenheim and Tate Modern. Taste police should be dispatched to fine individuals and institutions that hang it, and practitioners ought to be more severely dealt with; imprisoned, hung, etc.

(RG note) Bad art is actively collected: See MOBA site (Museum Of Bad Art — Art too bad not to be ignored) at http://www.museumofbadart.org/


Include saucers on your horizons
by Moncy Barbour, Lynchburg, Virginia, USA

Funny about the alien painting. I saw a UFO in 1977. It landed 600 yards from my house in broad daylight, amazing. I wrote an essay on the subject of UFOs and my professor shrugged it off, but I got an ‘A’ on the paper none the less. I CAN NOT limit my horizons only as far as the sunrise & sunset — there is much more to be discovered in God’s vast creations.


Need for useless art
by Mary Jane Mailloux, Canada

A friend complained that there was too much useless art in the world. I countered that there is not enough. If a person waits until they can do everything they want to attempt, till they become skilled, they may never try. I never would have. Once I watched someone agonizing over drawing and painting the human form. His proportions were all wrong and his use of colour was complicated and dark, I wondered why he wanted to struggle so at something that was so hard for him. However, I’m sure when Cezanne first started painting, his work would have looked something like that and not the delicate proportions that Mary Cassatt created. Cezanne might have been satisfied in expressing his inner vision. At first the public would have seen him as unskilled. Van Gogh is another.


Slaves of our inabilities
by Christine Ritchie, Detroit, Michigan, USA

An artist can only remain unskilled for so long. He or she will either be found out or will find the need to become skilled because of the personal need for ones’ work to continue. I tell my students they must earn the right to be “abstract” artists if they so wish. All of the great artists could draw from life… no matter which direction their “vision” took them… a new kind of self-assurance is gained when we know as artists we are not limited by our lack of skills and therefore we are masters of our own work rather than slaves of our inabilities.


Harmless activity
by T W Foder, Ulm

Just like the Russians can’t build a decent automobile there are all kinds of perfectly nice people that can’t do art that is any good. They have the right to do it all they want, however. It is harmless.


Professional’s dilemma
by David Lloyd Glover, Beverly Hills, California, USA

As any of us professional artists know, we are so often stunned by the wild successes of those with so few actual skills of draftsmanship or technique. Being an artist that lives off sales income means that I exist in the realm of commercial galleries. Therefore I see the results of the barely gifted rising far above that of the true artist to become such economic successes. Manipulative marketing to be sure! Unfortunately our slick art dealers are clearly without the eye for pure craft or otherwise you would not witness them gushing over such amateurish renderings. Fortunately, my work appeals to enough like-minded collectors to remain a sales success in spite of the lack of hoopla. Mind you, one could imagine the new levels you could reach with a dealer that would invest an equal sum in the advancement of skill over what is the flavour of the month. The answer I have gotten to my request is essentially the same “We don’t have to promote your work as it sells on its own.” But how to answer that oft posed question, “So what do you think of this artist?” Do you tell them the truth and risk appearing jealous or judgmental, or do you give them my stock answer. “Well they have a following and after all you have to buy what YOU like.”


Point of view
by William Band, Ontario, Canada

This past weekend I attended an International Art Fair in Toronto. Much of the work was questionable. Some work was extremely good. This also depends on what I feel is good. When a piece of work jumps out from all the others I stop to really study why it is so appealing. In one case it was the work of Mary Pratt — some jars — in oil paint from NewYork. Since I teach perspective I especially appreciate skill in balance, structure, colour balance, etc.


Get in the play too
by Eleanor Blair, Florida, USA

Those of us with facility and technical knowledge have often sacrificed an essential element; joy. Along with careful observation, and subtle esthetic considerations, deep intellectual honesty and cutting-edge originality, I believe that the state of our heart at the moment of applying paint to canvas gets into the mix somehow. And beyond all our fancy tricks and relevant subjects, what our audience actually ‘gets’ when they regard our work is simply that; how we felt while we were doing it. I think this is why everyone loves children’s art. No matter how brief and distorted any child’s scribble is, we respond with interest. I often say the real reason I had kids was to get some children’s art of my own. I have it hanging all over my house and studio. When kids do ‘art’ they are in it strictly for the fun. They are enjoying themselves, and the minute they lose interest, that’s it. They stop. The bliss of simple play is there, in the work, and that feeling touches us and echoes in our own hearts. “Unskilled” artists, those unconscious of art history and their own technical limitations, have an audience for their work because, in spite of their limitations, they are always enjoying themselves. And that pleasure is present in the work. As professional artists, it’s easy to get caught up in schedules, show deadlines, the nine-to-five mentality, production quotas, and that’s okay. But we need to find a way to hang on to that essential element of play. We just have to be glad to be here. And then our paintings will really be worth something.


Going Gauguin
by Kim Rody, Dallas, Texas, USA

When does one cross the river to the “skilled” side? How does one know if and when they make it? I would wager that Mr. Flying Saucer truly believes himself to be “skilled,” which brings us back to the differentiator: talent — vs — non-talent.

I’m about to pull a Gauguin. Retiring at 41 leaving a lucrative financial career to become an artist. Part of me thinks I’m an idiot. Most of me sees no other alternative. Do I have the skill and the talent to do this? Over the past two years I have painted 100 paintings of fish in my spare time (i.e. in the middle of the night). I have sold 28 of them. Is this the talent indicator? I’ve gotten in shows, won contests, been in print. Are these the things I must use to gauge my ability to “make it” as an artist? Or am I like the Martian painter, deluded with illusions of “Kim the Great Painter”? How can one assess if they possess true talent?


Golden stations dept.
Betty Mills, Maine

Driving, Talking to underprivileged children about art, Helping children paint, Doing demonstration of clay modeling, Moving car (parking problem), At grocery market, Starting new class of older people, Going around making suggestions here and there, Painting on one of my (quite unskilled) student’s paintings, drinking coffee, driving, cooking, dining with Mike (my husband), painting.

(RG note) I’m sending a free copy of “The Painters Keys” to the best reported “Golden Stations.” Betty gets it this time for her “artistic altruism.”


You may be interested to know that artists from 70 countries have visited these sites since October 31, 2000.

That includes Al W., moving around somewhere in Egypt, who says the first mistake artists make is to be concerned with what other artists are doing.

And Jason Fell of Wisconsin who says that the implied question asked by all artists, skilled and unskilled, is “Why are they buying that junk when they could be buying mine?”

And also “painter of light” Mohammad Kaddoura of Beirut, Lebanon who would like to have a dealer in North America, and Kim Brosemer of Pine Grove, California, who asks. “Now, how do you place ‘skilled art?’ ”



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