The impressive Santa Fe easel, the Julian easel for outdoor painting, paints and brushes, canvases and boards lay unused in my studio, reminding me for over two years that I had given up. The fire to paint had reduced itself to an ember and my attitude was one of discouragement and futility. The latest recession had hit most artists hard. Galleries were closing everywhere and it seemed everything arts-related was retreating and folding into itself including any belief that my art mattered, even to me.
I had not stopped making art, turning instead to a new technique in printmaking that I had learned in workshops over the course of more than a year and starting to explore paper collages. It seemed the printing kept me interested and curious about the possibilities of ink and paper and kept my imagination churning away. Still, I could not bring myself to paint.
The most difficult barrier for a serious artist to overcome is self-doubt. We see the art in galleries and publications and think “This artist is being promoted. Maybe I should try that.” It is good to experiment, to push oneself in other directions and new techniques but assimilating current trends in your own work is not the answer to overcoming self-doubt – it is a symptom of it. If the art doesn’t work, if it doesn’t feel right or look right and it leaves you feeling as if you are just thrashing around in deep water then leave it in the studio. Appropriating subjects and styles from other artists makes it look like that is what you are doing. Trying to duplicate the flavor of the month will leave you frantic. The only thing you should be taking away from artists you admire is to aspire to the high standard of quality in the work and their example of a disciplined work ethic if it is there.
I recently re-read an interview in the June 2012 issue of The Sun (thesunmagazine.org/issues/438/water-water-everywhere). Ran Ortner, a painter based in New York, won the first ArtPrize in October 2009 for his “Open Water No. 24” painting, selected from 1,260 other works. He was interviewed by Ariane Conrad. Ortner had a lot to say, backed up by thirty years of painting, a lot of living hand to mouth and doing his research by reading about art and philosophy. Here is a quote from Ortner: “When you ask collectors what they’re looking for, they say they want to fall in love, they want to feel. But the academics are leery of feeling, and they make the rules, so the contemporary art world is cerebral and favors conceptual approaches. I don’t oppose the emphasis on intellect and concept – in fact I like it very much – but I do feel the passions are underrepresented. Humans are deeply emotional beings. We don’t rationalize our way into love, we fall.” Ortner’s well thought out and perceptive comment reflected what I felt but could not articulate as well as he has.
As an artist and collector, you may have visitors to your studio or gallery or encounter a work yourself that elicits a visceral reaction to it. People will say they “love” a piece and they very often mean it. It strikes them like a bolt of lightning and their eyes light up with the delight of recognition. As Ortner proposed, you cannot rationalize love nor do I think there should be an attempt to elicit love or twist emotions out of people through manipulation. If you do try for an emotional response it may not be what you counted on, especially from an informed viewer. Personally, nothing turns me away faster, to name just a few examples, than sad-eyed puppies, children in vintage clothes and those galloping horses in Day-Glo colors which have been way overdone.
On either side of the art fence, conceptual or realistic, trying too hard for a reaction – shock, disgust, nostalgia, sympathy or sentimentality – is not an honest or sincere appeal to the audience. The appearance is that of an artist trying too hard – subjects and themes chosen by some artists look as though they think they have figured a way into hearts and minds without knowing their own hearts and minds. You simply cannot predict the feelings or tastes of a viewer. As Ortner states: “Our job as artists is to become powerfully personal in our work, and if we touch the source, the most central wound, the deepest of wells, we actually touch the universal.” To be an artist you must explore the personal – question yourself, your motives, what matters to you.
If you are an oil painter you may remember the joy you first felt when you took up the medium that gave such luscious color and texture and the startling realization that what was in front of you could be rendered on a canvas and emerge as some resemblance, depending on your talent and execution, of what you saw. You could paint for years like this. However, there is a next step in the maturing of an artist and that is to think deeply about your paintings and their subjects. You must be ruthlessly honest about why you are doing what you are doing in order to gain the confidence needed to go on. I can think of some questions you should ask yourself and answer from that “deepest of wells”: How do I (the painter) feel about this painting? Can I look at it every day and not grow tired of it or cringe a tiny bit in the center of my being when I look at it? Do I love it? So much so that it would be hard to let it go? Am I painting for an imagined market?
When I finally picked up a brush again, at the urging of a supportive painter friend, I looked back on all the paintings I have done over the years, the ones I was most proud of and in love with, the ones that no matter what anyone else said I knew to be good paintings. I looked into at least one of the wells and experienced quiet and saw the simplest and seemingly emptiest of places. When I look out at the endless space or the loneliest bend in the road, the shadows of clouds moving over the landscape and the life that exists without my interference, I realize that this is what I love to paint. The feelings of self-doubt were generated by the marketplace of art but it was really self-questioning that I needed to process and which helped me better understand myself and where to start again. By doing what I actually love I can leave behind the “if” and “maybe”, those crippling uncertainties.
We are never really complete in our evolution as artists nor can we be. Creative minds are constantly turning over and producing ideas. My experience has been that if an idea sticks for a year or ten years then it is saying something about you and to you and should be addressed in some way, in some medium, through your art. When viewers stand in front of your work, they are not saying “I want to rationalize or try to understand the message of this art”, they want to be moved in that “deepest well” of their being and recognize that part of the universal that includes all of us.