Earlier this year, a subscriber suggested I read Art and Fear. It’s by two professional photographers, David Bayles and Ted Orland. Of course, we are interested in painting, but the artistic process is roughly the same across all mediums.
I found the book to be profound and I wish I had read it earlier on my art journey. In this report, I’ll share some key excerpts from the book along with my brief commentary. If you haven’t read the book, you might want to do that first then come back and read the report. I don’t want to spoil it for you.
"THIS IS A BOOK ABOUT MAKING ART. Ordinary art. Ordinary art means something like: all art not made by Mozart. After all, art is rarely made by Mozart-like people — essentially (statistically speaking) there aren't any people like that. But while geniuses may get made once a century or so, good art gets made all the time. Making art is a common and intimately human activity, filled with all the perils (and rewards) that accompany any worthwhile effort. The difficulties artmakers face are not remote and heroic, but universal and familiar." Page 1.
On making art:
"MAKING ART IS DIFFICULT. We leave drawings unfinished and stories unwritten. We do work that does not feel like our own. We repeat ourselves. We stop before we have mastered our materials, or continue on long after their potential is exhausted. Often the work we have not done seems more real in our minds than the pieces we have completed." Page 1.
Many artists understate the difficulty of creating art and the vulnerable state it puts you in. When something inevitably goes wrong, they beat themselves up rather than acknowledging that creating art is hard. And it is that challenge that makes art exciting. If it were easy, it wouldn’t be so rewarding when it works.
On skill and talent:
"ARTMAKING INVOLVES SKILLS THAT CAN BE LEARNED. The conventional wisdom here is that while "craft" can be taught, "art" remains a magical gift bestowed only by the gods. Not so. In large measure becoming an artist consists of learning to accept yourself, which makes your work personal, and in following your own voice, which makes your work distinctive. Clearly, these qualities can be nurtured by others. Even talent is rarely distinguishable, over the long run, from perseverance and lots of hard work. It's true that every few years the authors encounter some beginning photography student whose first-semester prints appear as finely crafted as any Ansel Adams might have made. And it's true that a natural gift like that (especially coming at the fragile early learning stage) returns priceless encouragement to its maker. But all that has nothing to do with artistic content. Rather, it simply points up the fact that most of us (including Adams himself!) had to work years to perfect our art." Page 3.
"Talent, in common parlance, is "what comes easily". So sooner or later, inevitably, you reach a point where the work doesn't come easily, and — Aha!, it's just as you feared! Wrong. By definition, whatever you have is exactly what you need to produce your best work. There is probably no clearer waste of psychic energy than worrying about how much talent you have —and probably no worry more common. This is true even among artists of considerable accomplishment." Page 26.
"For every artist who has developed a mature vision with grace and speed, countless others have laboriously nurtured their art through fertile periods and dry spells, through false starts and breakaway bursts, through successive and significant changes of direction, medium, and subject matter. Talent may get someone off the starting blocks faster, but without a sense of direction or a goal to strive for, it won't count for much. The world is filled with people who were given great natural gifts, sometimes conspicuously flashy gifts, yet never produce anything. And when that happens, the world soon ceases to care whether they are talented." Page 27.
There’s no secret recipe for becoming a great artist. It usually comes down to meaningful practice, self-reflection, and learning theory—lots of it.
I’m sure talent exists to some extent. How else could you explain the mastery of Sorolla’s or Velasquez’s brush? But there’s no way of knowing you have talent until you have made a red-hot attempt at it.
So, recognize that some people might be blessed with an inherent talent and leave it at that. Don’t let it determine what you do or don’t do. I’m sure there are far more master artists who got there through sheer effort and determination than those who got there through pure talent.
It’s also worth noting that, even if you do have talent, you must still work to harness that talent. It's not a golden ticket.
On loneliness and recognition:
"For the artist, that truth highlights a familiar and predictable corollary: artmaking can be a rather lonely, thankless affair. Virtually all artists spend some of their time (and some artists spend virtually all of their time) producing work that no one else much cares about. It just seems to come with the territory. But for some reason —self- defense, perhaps — artists find it tempting to romanticize this lack of response, often by (heroically) picturing themselves peering deeply into the underlying nature of things long before anyone else has eyes to follow.
Romantic, but wrong. The sobering truth is that the disinterest of others hardly ever reflects a gulf in vision. In fact there's generally no good reason why others should care about most of any one artist's work. The function of the overwhelming majority of your artwork is simply to teach you how to make the small fraction of your artwork that soars." Page 5.
This is a confronting truth of art. Most of what we create will not be seen or appreciated by the rest of the world. This work is still important, as it forms part of the practice of art and without it, you cannot hope to create work that is seen and appreciated.
On not quitting:
"THOSE WHO WOULD MAKE ART might well begin by reflecting on the fate of those who preceded them: most who began, quit. It's a genuine tragedy. Worse yet, it's an unnecessary tragedy. After all, artists who continue and artists who quit share an immense field of common emotional ground. (Viewed from the outside, in fact, they're indistinguishable.) We're all subject to a familiar and universal progression of human troubles — troubles we routinely survive, but which are (oddly enough) routinely fatal to the artmaking process. To survive as an artist requires confronting these troubles. Basically, those who continue to make art are those who have learned how to continue — or more precisely, have learned how to not quit." Page 9.
The world would be a better place with more artists. But most quit before the going gets good. This isn’t surprising, as the art journey is rocky and treacherous.
Why do we do it? Because every now and then, we get to experience those brief moments of pure joy when brush, paint, and mind are perfectly aligned. If you have painted for long enough, you’ll know what I mean. If not, then those feelings will come! Keep it at.
"Surprisingly, the dropout rate during school is not all that high — the real killer is the lack of any continuing support system afterwards. Perhaps then, if the outside world shows little interest in providing that support, it remains for artists themselves to do so. Viewed that way, a strategy suggests itself:
OPERATING MANUAL FOR NOT QUITTING
A. Make friends with others who make art, and share your in-progress work with each other frequently
B. Learn to think of [A], rather than the Museum of Modern Art, as the destination of your work. (Look at it this way: If all goes well, MOMA will eventually come to you.)"
One of the reasons I started the DPA Inner Circle was to combat this issue. I want to provide you with the much-needed month-to-month support, inspiration, and motivation required to keep you painting (or stop you from quitting).
"Making art is dangerous and revealing. Making art precipitates self-doubt, stirring deep waters that lay between what you know you should be, and what you fear you might be. For many people, that alone is enough to prevent their ever getting started at all—and for those who do, trouble isn't long in coming. Doubts, in fact, soon rise in swarms:
I'm not an artist - I'm a phony
I have nothing worth saying I'm not sure what I'm doing
Other people are better than I am
I'm only a
I've never had a real exhibit
No one understands my work
No one likes my work
I'm no good"
If you create art and put it out in front of the world, you are brave! The response might not always be what you want, but take comfort in the fact it takes bravery to put yourself out there.
"Imagination is in control when you begin making an object. The artwork's potential is never higher than in that magic moment when the first brushstroke is applied, the first chord struck. But as the piece grows, technique and craft take over, and imagination becomes a less useful tool." Page 15.
Your first impressions are powerful! The Impressionists knew this and focused almost entirely on it. Nothing is more pure and exciting than your first impressions of a subject. The challenge in art is holding onto those ideas throughout a painting and resisting other urges as they arise.
On completion of an artwork:
"That moment of completion is also, inevitably, a moment of loss —the loss of all the other forms the imagined piece might have taken. The irony here is that the piece you make is always one step removed from what you imagined, or what else you can imagine, or what you're right on the edge of being able to imagine. Designer Charles Eames, arguably the quintessential Renaissance Man of the twentieth century, used to complain good-naturedly that he devoted only about one percent of his energy to conceiving a design —and the remaining ninety-nine percent to holding onto it as a project ran its course." Page 16.
"As Stanley Kunitz once commented, "The poem in the head is always perfect. Resistance begins when you try to convert it into language."" Page 17.
This is an interesting idea. The creation of your artwork comes at the sacrifice of your initial idea or vision. That can be an uncomfortable feeling, as the artwork rarely lives up to the pureness and honesty of that idea or vision. When it does, that's surely once beautiful artwork.
"But where materials have potential, they also have limits. Ink wants to flow, but not across just any surface; clay wants to hold a shape, but not just any shape. And in any case, without your active participation their potential remains just that —potential. Materials are like elementary particles: charged, but indifferent. They do not listen in on your fantasies, do not get up and move in response to your idle wishes. The blunt truth is, they do precisely what your hands make them do. The paint lays exactly where you put it; the words you wrote — not the ones you needed to write or thought about writing —are the only ones that appear on the paper. In the words of Ben Shahn, "The painter who stands before an empty canvas must think in terms of paint."" Page 18.
"Your materials are, in fact, one of the few elements of artmaking you can reasonably hope to control." Page 19.
Your materials allow you to explore your ideas. Your goal is to become so familiar with them that they feel like an extension of your own self. It’s also important to understand and work within the limitations of your materials. For example, if you want to paint with transparent washes of color, maybe acrylics are not the right choice.
On opinions and criticism:
"What is sometimes needed is simply an insulating period, a gap of pure time between the making of your art, and the time when you share it with outsiders. Andrew Wyeth pursued his Helga series privately for years, working at his own pace, away from the spotlight of criticism and suggestion that would otherwise have accompanied the release of each new piece in the series. Such respites also, perhaps, allow the finished work time to find its rightful place in the artist's heart and mind-in short, a chance to be understood better by the maker. Then when the time comes for others to judge the work, their reaction (whatever it may be) is less threatening." Page 40.
I like to paint alone. I find that if I open my studio to outsiders, even my partner Chontele, then my ideas get muddied. Only I know where I want the artwork to go, so until I'm finished, no other opinions matter. They can even be damaging, even if they are correct. Once I have signed the painting, I open myself up to other ideas. If there are criticisms I agree with, then I will consider them in future paintings rather than trying to change the current one.
On exploring ideas:
"For the artist, the dilemma seems obvious: risk rejection by exploring new worlds, or court acceptance by following well-explored paths. Needless to say, the latter strategy is the overwhelming drug of choice where acceptance is the primary goal. Make work that looks like art, and acceptance is automatic." Page 43.
When I started painting again in my early 20s, I remember coming to a crossroads. One path was to continue painting in a safe, realistic style that is easily reproduced. The other path was to explore my newfound interest in Impressionism and color.
The former would provide me with more recognition, especially from those who do not paint themselves. The latter would leave me open to criticism in the short term but might open up possibilities in the long term.
I went with the latter and I’m glad I did.
"THE WORLD DISPLAYS PERFECT NEUTRALITY on whether we achieve any outward manifestation of our inner desires. But not art. Art is exquisitely responsive. Nowhere is feedback so absolute as in the making of art. The work we make, even if unnoticed and undesired by the world, vibrates in perfect harmony to everything we put into it —or withhold from it. In the outside world there may be no reaction to what we do; in our artwork there is nothing but reaction. The breathtakingly wonderful thing about this reaction is its truthfulness. Look at your work and it tells you how it is when you hold back or when you embrace. When you are lazy, your art is lazy; when you hold back, it holds back; when you hesitate, it stands there staring, hands in its pockets. But when you commit, it comes on like blazes." Page 49
The beautiful thing about art is that it is so truthful. You cannot hide behind it. When I’m timid, my work looks timid. When I’m reckless, my work looks reckless. When I feel focused and relaxed, my work looks focused and relaxed. In this sense, art is a reflection of the artist. And it tends to be more honest.
On academic thinking versus instinct:
"Recently, out of pleasure alone, an accomplished visual artist took up dance. Never before experiencing an artform so purely physical, she threw herself into it. Her involvement became intense: more classes, more practice, more commitment, longer hours. She excelled. Then one day several months into it, her instructor asked her to consider joining a performing troupe. She froze. Her dancing fell apart. She became stiff and selfconscious. She got serious, or serious in a different way. She didn't feel she was good enough, and her dancing promptly was not good enough. She got frustrated and depressed enough that she had to quit for a few weeks to sort things out. More recently, back to work on new but shaky ground, she's having to teach herself to enjoy working hard for others at the art she previously enjoyed passionately for herself." Page 50.
I have always found myself balancing rigid, academic thought with instinctive, free-flowing energy. Too much in either direction is detrimental.
If I find myself getting caught up in academic thought and being too serious about my work, I will do a few quick studies to relax my mind and hands. If I find myself getting too instinctive and reckless, I will do some long figure drawing, learn theory, or do some simple exercises to push me back towards a more academic mindset.
On habits and rituals:
"Only the maker (and then only with time) has a chance of knowing how important small conventions and rituals are in the practice of staying at work. The private details of artmaking are utterly uninteresting to audiences (and frequently to teachers), perhaps because they're almost never visible — or even knowable — from examining the finished work. Hemingway, for instance, mounted his typewriter at counter-height and did all his writing while standing up. If he wasn't standing, he wasn't typing. Of course that odd habit isn't visible in his stories —but were he denied that habit, there probably wouldn't be any stories. The hardest part of artmaking is living your life in such a way that your work gets done, over and over— and that means, among other things, finding a host of practices that are just plain useful." Page 61
I often tell aspiring artists not to copy exactly what I do. What works for me might not work for you. Over time, I have developed many habits, some bad and some good, that allow me to do what I do. For example, I rarely clean my brushes and instead leave them sitting in solvent between sessions. This isn’t ideal for their longevity, but it helps me paint more.
"Good artists thrive on exhibit and publication deadlines, on working twenty hours straight to see the pots are glazed and fired just so, on making their next work better than their last. The urge to compete provides a source of raw energy, and for that purpose alone it can be exceptionally useful. In a healthy artistic environment, that energy is directed inward to fulfill one's own potential. In a healthy artistic environment, artists are not in competition with each another. Unfortunately, healthy artistic environments are about as common as unicorns. We live in a society that encourages competition at demonstrably vicious levels, and sets a hard and accountable yardstick for judging who wins. It's easier to rate artists in terms of the recognition they've received (which is easily compared) than in terms of the pieces they've made (which may be as different as apples and waltzes.) And when that happens, competition centers not on making work, but on collecting the symbols of acceptance and approval of that work—N.E. A. Grants, a Show at Gallerie d'jour, a celebrity profile in The New Yorker and the like." Page 71.
I find there are two sides to the art world.
There is the honest side, where you strive to create good, honest work. You aim to be an artist’s artist.
And there is the "playing the game" side. This includes business, marketing, sales, competitions, awards, and everything else that comes with the art life.
The problem artists face is that you need to consider both sides to do well both technically and commercially. You cannot sit in your studio for years and focus on creating great work and also expect to be recognized by the rest of the world. On the flip side, you cannot focus entirely on marketing and exhibitions at the expense of the actual work and practice. You need both if you want to make a living from your art.
Of course, not everyone needs or wants to make a living from their art. If that’s you, then you are free to focus on creating your best work. It might not be recognized straight away or ever, but it will be your best. Many of history’s top artists painted like this. Vincent van Gogh and Claude Monet come to mind. They created beautiful, stunning art. But this came at a cost. Van Gogh lived a famously troubled life and Monet struggled to support his family at times. At the other extreme, you have artists like Sidney Nolan, who was more a master marketer than a master artist. He did well commercially, but I wouldn’t say he is highly respected by other artists.
"Idealism has a high casualty rate. The chances are (statistically speaking) that if you're an artist, you're also a student. That says something very encouraging about the desire to learn art — and something very ominous about the attrition rate of those who try. There is, after all, a deadly corollary: most people stop making art when they stop being students. Given that rather sobering reality check, our initial proposition —that art education does serve some useful purpose — triggers a flurry of student-related questions. Like what exactly is that purpose? Why study art in an academic setting anyway? Or for that matter, what does it even mean to "study art"? Are you there to contemplate universal truths, explore new artistic frontiers, or breed fame and fortune?" Page 85/86.
Art is strange in that it's both worthless and invaluable at the same time. Worthless in the sense it cannot provide us with shelter, food, protection, or even pay out bills in many cases. Most people certainly wouldn't pick an artist to be stuck on an abandoned island with. Yet, we cannot live without art. It adds something far more meaningful to the world than any material thing. There’s a reason why we hold the master artists on such a high pedestal and hang their work in our most prestigious halls and museums and discuss their work decades or even centuries after their passing.
Unfortunately, society rarely foots the bill of an artist in the short term. It’s only once they are established, successful, and sometimes long passed before an artist’s value is fairly appraised.
I don’t know any solution to this. If you want to create art, you’ll be met with many, many barriers. Much more so than other “safe” career paths. It’s up to you to determine if it’s worth it. I think it is.
On analyzing an artwork:
"WRITER HENRY JAMES once proposed three questions you could productively put to an artist's work. The first two were disarmingly straightforward: What was the artist trying to achieve? Did he/she succeed? The third's a zinger: Was it worth doing?" Page 93.
Before reading this book, I used to analyze art with the first two of those questions: What was the artist trying to achieve? Did they achieve it?
Henry James adds a powerful follow-up question: Was it worth doing? This question is not so helpful for analyzing other artists’ work, but it is very much so for your own work. Just make sure you do not confine yourself to commercial benefits. An artwork might be worth doing for the sole purpose of giving you some kind of brief satisfaction and joy.
On challenging yourself:
"Provocative art challenges not only the viewer, but also its maker. Art that falls short often does so not because the artist failed to meet the challenge, but because there was never a challenge there in the first place. Think of it like Olympic diving: you don't win high points for making even the perfect swan dive off the low board. There's little reward in an easy perfection quickly reached by many." Page 94.
My favorite paintings are those where I felt challenged going into them but rose to that challenge. There’s a sense of accomplishment to those paintings. I think it shows through the work. There’s a hint of pain and stress that adds to the painting.
On old work:
"In routine artistic growth, new work doesn't make the old work false —it makes it more artificial, more an act of artifice. Older work is ofttimes an embarrassment to the artist because it feels like it was made by a younger, more naive person —one who was ignorant of the pretension and striving in the work. Earlier work often feels, curiously, both too labored and too simple. This is normal. New work is supposed to replace old work. If it does so by making the old work inadequate, insufficient and incomplete — well, that's life. (Frank Lloyd Wright advised young architects to plant ivy all around their early buildings, suggesting that in time it would grow to cover their "youthful indiscretions.") Old work tells you what you were paying attention to then; new work comments on the old by pointing out what you were not previously paying attention to. Now this would all be smooth and lovely except that new work can turn to old work in an instant —sometimes, indeed, in the instant immediately following the work's completion. Savoring finished work may last only an eye-blink. This is certainly unpleasant—but it's a good sign." Page 99/100.
The way I perceive my own work is not constant. As a painting gets older and older, it tends to look more and more amateurish to me. Mistakes that I was once naive to start to rear their heads. This is an uncomfortable feeling, but I have come to accept it as a sign of my progression rather than a sign of my more amateur self. I even have a whole wall in my home dedicated to my early work.
"Once developed, art habits are deep-seated, reliable, helpful, and convenient. Moreover, habits are stylistically important. In a sense, habits are style. The unconsidered gesture, the repeated phrasing, the automatic selection, the characteristic reaction to subject matter and materials —these are the very things we refer to as style. Lots of people, artists included, consider this a virtue. Viewed closely, however, style is not a virtue, it is an inevitability— the inescapable result of doing anything more than a few times. The habitual gestures of the artist appear throughout any body of work developed enough to be called a body of work. Style is not an aspect of good work, it is an aspect of all work. Style is the natural consequence of habit." Page 103.
I'm often asked “how do I develop my own unique style?” My answer is always the same: Don’t stress over it. Your style will develop naturally over time.
Every stroke you make, every decision, and every habit you develop will contribute to your style. It’s not something you should force unless you are doing so as a strategic decision (perhaps you want to corner a certain art market).
Focus on painting well. Your style will follow.
On becoming an artist:
"Equally, there is no ready vocabulary to describe the ways in which artists become artists, no recognition that artists must learn to be who they are (even as they cannot help being who they are.) We have a language that reflects how we learn to paint, but not how we learn to paint our paintings. How do you describe the [reader to place words here] that changes when craft swells into art? Artists come together in the clear knowledge that when all is said and done, they will return to their studio and practice their art alone. Period. That simple truth may be the deepest bond we share. The message across time from the painted bison and the carved ivory seal speaks not of the differences between the makers of that art and ourselves, but the similarities. Today those similarities lay hidden beneath urban complexity — audience, critics, economics, trivia —in a self-conscious world. Only in those moments when we are truly working on our own work do we recover the fundamental connection we share with all makers of art. The rest may be necessary, but it's not art. Your job is to draw a line from your life to your art that is straight and clear." Page 115.
This is what makes the art life so challenging. There is no blueprint for it and anyone who tells you otherwise is lying. We are lucky in that we know how previous artists lived and created their work. But what worked for them, might not work for us.
Artists need to be flexible in their outlook on life. Look for opportunities and be ready to take them on a whim. Take risks, meet people, travel, and expose yourself to opportunities.
"Today, more than it was however many years ago, art is hard because you have to keep after it so consistently. On so many different fronts. For so little external reward. Artists become veteran artists only by making peace not just with themselves, but with a huge range of issues. You have to find your work all over again all the time, and to do that you have to give yourself maneuvering room on many fronts — mental, physical, temporal. Experience consists of being able to reoccupy useful space easily, instantly. In the end it all comes down to this: you have a choice (or more accurately a rolling tangle of choices) between giving your work your best shot and risking that it will not make you happy, or not giving it your best shot — and thereby guaranteeing that it will not make you happy. It becomes a choice between certainty and uncertainty. And curiously, uncertainty is the comforting choice." Page 118.
I’m not sure where exactly you are on your art journey, but I urge you to continue even through those lonely and treacherous times. There are always good things on the horizon for those who create. And make sure to give yourself a pat on the back. Creating art is hard and revealing and it takes bravery to pick up a brush.
Thanks so much for reading. Again, this report is not meant to replace the book. It is to complement it. If you haven't already, I suggest getting yourself a copy.