Saturday, April 10, 2010

An Open Letter To Andrea

Hi Andrea,

Thanks for your email and your request to use one of my paintings as a model. Your request is something that fits well into my artistic philosophy, and for that matter my life philosophy. I have believed, since I can’t remember when, that all knowledge, skills, and ideas should be shared. Otherwise I think there is a great ability for the development of “Prima Donnas” and God knows that I’ve had my share of them in life. So, where do I begin with all of this?

One of the good things that came from art school was being around a variety of people and seeing that they had a variety of ideas and practiced a variety of techniques (unless they were trying to suck up to the teacher). To roughly paraphrase Picasso, “A good artist borrows, a great artist steals.” If you go to Europe it is not uncommon to see people set up easels and painting supplies, in one of the galleries, and proceed to make a copy of a painting. In the USA people consider this to be “Cheating” because you are copying and not being original. One of the important things that I learned in art school is that there is nothing new under the sun. It’s all be done before in various ways and we just haven’t discovered it yet. I always encouraged my students to copy the works of “The Masters.” Copy a Degas drawing and it is like studying with Degas. Copy a Rembrandt and it is like having Rembrandt at your side teaching you.

Many years ago I did a pastel painting, as a gift, for a therapist who was helping my wife and myself. She requested a piece that was thematic of a mother and child in a loving relationship. I immediately thought of the artist, Mary Cassatt. I did not copy one of her pieces. Instead I researched photo references of mothers and children and did a composite sketch. But before I started the painting I surrounded my easel with books and images of Mary Cassatt paintings. I wanted her spirit in my studio so that I could learn from here and be guided by her. At a certain point in the painting these images were put away, because I didn’t want to duplicate her, but I wanted to put my own mark on the painting.

Whenever I’ve taught I’ve always brought in my own materials and would work along with the students. For me, it’s easier to visually show someone how to do something than to try to explain it verbally. I guess that’s why I always did well when I apprenticed out in a building trade (I learn better from watching and doing). I would get comments from others, some artists and some not, that by doing this, showing them my techniques, I was essentially teaching them how to do what I could do. That I could be taking sales away from myself. My response was pretty straightforward and simple.

Unlike so many college art teachers I do not see making art as a mystical and magical thing. I see it as a craft (I come from a blue collar working class family). I have long told students that I can teach them to draw and paint but I cannot teach them to be artists. Drawing and painting are crafts like being a carpenter, plumber, mechanic, doctor, lawyer, or whatever. We learn our craft and then we practice it. If we want to be good we practice it a lot. You have to teach yourself to be an artist because it is an internal expression but that expression is difficult, if not important, if you are not skilled in the craft of what you are doing.

As for someone else making paints just like mine, well they can’t because they are not me. Our art comes from the experiences of our lives. To duplicate my art, the shapes, forms, colors, compositions, intensity, and sensibility, then you would have to duplicate my life, and God only knows why anyone would want to do that. Our life experiences lead us all to different places. We have different encounters and interactions. Because of our personal history we understand the world around us differently. The theologian and scholar, John Dominick Crossan, has taught that you can have 4 people all standing together witnessing the same event at the same time and they will all come away with different memories of it. This is because we all filter the events of life through our own personal lens of history.

So, when I say that no one else can make paintings just like mine I’m not being vain or arrogant. I’m being pragmatic. I’ve taught students that our art is a reflection of our personality. Going again to Picasso and paraphrasing him, every work an artist does is a self-portrait. If I am neat and meticulous by nature, my art will be that way. If I’m a sloppy person my paintings will be sloppy. As for me, my paintings are a reflection of me and my mental illnesses.

They are tightly constructed but I try to disguise it with a feel of being casual (my need to try to hide who I am). They have a certain tension because I am a very tense (and intense) person. Because I am filled with oddities and eccentricities, so are my paintings. What is not seen on the surface is that I may have labored for hours or days to get a color or stroke just right. Now I don’t like to have people around when I paint because I’m afraid they’ll rip me off. Rather it is because, for me, painting is a very intimate activity that requires my full attention. It requires me to get lost to everything but the task at hand. I think by nature most visual artists are solitary creatures.

That doesn’t mean that I think artists shouldn’t share ideas and techniques. Quite the opposite is true. I think that artists need to collaborate more frequently with each other. As artists we are not really competing with each other and we should be helping each other with sales, marketing, exhibitions, materials, techniques, and so on. If you sell a painting it doesn’t mean that I’ve lost a sale. The person who bought your work did so because they liked your style and content as opposed to mine. When one artist succeeds we all succeed because someone bought an original work rather than a reproduction or a poster. Maybe someone sees your work but it just isn’t quite what they had in mind so you suggest they look at my work and I sell a piece. Again, it isn’t that you lost a sale (because you never had it) but that a sale was made. Commercial galleries understand this, which is why major cities have gallery districts. It draws a variety of people, with a variety of tastes into a centralized location where they can see a diverse group of works. The best place to open a new gallery is in an area with existing and established galleries.

Well, my mind is tired. I hope I didn’t ramble on too much and that this was somewhat helpful. Also, if you want to quote anything from this for your blog please, feel free to do so. I think I will be using this as my next blog posting.

Post Script

The French artist Ingress once commented to a young student, "Learn perspective then forget it." The same idea applies to composition and yes, even colors. You learn the theory, the mechanics of it and you practice it over and over again, ad nauseum, until you no longer have to think about it consciously, you're able to "forget it" and just do it. It just becomes part of you. Once you are so disciplined in form, composition, color, etc. that you no longer have to think about how to do them then you are finally free to create (including the emotional aspects). The internal chatter dies away and you have an "AHA!" moment. As a painter I can respond and react to what is in front of me visually without having to over-think it. Because of this I am free to follow the rules or to break them when circumstances call for it. I am free to let the painting tell me what to do and what changes are needed. And yes, Paula, an artist's palette is somewhat of a signature mark, just like we choose styles and colors of clothes because we like them and they fit.

And Andrea, you mentioned thumbnail sketches and I agree with their importance. I have learned, however, that what works at 3” doesn’t always work at 36”. I have to constantly re-evaluate and readjust as circumstances call for it. Again it is learning the rules and then having the freedom to break them when it’s right.

The first piece is titled “In Advance Of Winter” and measures approximately 4.5’ high X 7.5’ wide X 4’ deep and is made of mixed stacked wood. I have been spending a lot of time cutting up dead trees, splitting the wood, and stacking it so I can burn it and heat the house next winter. I’m good for about 2-3 hours a day until my arthritis overwhelms me and I have to stop. The next 3 pieces were done on a recent trip out to San Diego, CA to see our daughter. I learned how to not frustrate myself and use available resources and spaces. Two are part of my “Boundary Barrier Series” and they measure 14.5” X 20.5” and 20.5” X 14.5”. The third is titled “Dark Marsh” and measures 20.5” X 14.5”. All are done with artist crayons on paper. Finally is a thumbnail sketch of one of the Boundary Barrier pieces. It is graphite on paper. I’ve included my color notes.