Expressing artistic vision, aside from all of the technical stuff, is really no more difficult than a child, left to his imagination, creating a little universe out of paper and crayon.
On the other side of the spectrum, da Vinci and Michelangelo went beyond the confines of being craftsmen to establishing themselves as artist-creators. What they did was simply do what the child does, but on an advanced level, thereby dramatically elevating the furthest reaches of art.
Newberry, Light of Mine
It’s kind of strange that between that little kid and da Vinci masses of painters sweep aside their personal visions. It’s not only easy to get lost in the big universe of art, but it is encouraged by dealers, critics, friends, people who wish you well, and mothers. The impulse to direct your talents is irresistible to them.
If you are not resolute and clear-headed enough, genres, financial considerations, and popular opinion may also contribute to the confusion of what it means to be an artist.
Having watched students, painters, and sculptors struggle with fulfilling their intimate, personal dreams and cringing at seeing some of the paths they take, I think I can be helpful with some practical and ideological suggestions.
To paraphrase Shakespeare, the spark is the thing. Your personal vision is something to handle with great care, like holding a point of light in the cradle of your hand.
For many of you there are so many thoughts, recommended paths, and uncertain visions floating around that the “spark” is nowhere to be found, dashing any hope that you will be able to take care of it.
Whether or not this is the case, it’s always great to get away from everything and to be alone with paper and pencil, noting your visions down as you allow yourself to dream.
I don’t mean anything like finished drawings, rather just little doodles of ideas.
When I am thinking up an idea for a painting I might do this 15, 20, or 30 times–simply jotting down the visuals that pop into my head.
Those little pieces are your personal visions or sparks.
I think of creating a painting as a succession of sparks. Every color, every setup, every gesture, every subject should give you some excited feeling. If what you are looking at, or imagining, doesn’t make you feel anything, you are guaranteed not to inspire yourself or anyone looking at your work. It’s simple really: if you don’t feel it, keep hitting the “delete” button until something takes–and that is your signal to go that way!
The map of art is riddled with dead ends and painful detours. Commissions and photography should be labeled with the warning: Spark Killers Ahead Proceed with Extreme Caution.
Sue Johnson, one of the several studies for a self-portrait.
If you are concerned about nurturing your love for art, do not take commissions. The lure of a healthy payment will never make up for all the compromises that commissions promise. Not only that but once you create a successful commission, sitters will be knocking down your door and your dream of realizing your personal visions will be buried under layer after layer of forgettable portraits.
The other spark killer is relying on or using photography as a starting point. I know it offers conveniences, but the cost of it is that you will never connect your fragile spark with your perceptual awareness, i.e. with being there. Photography is a ruthless and unforgiving tool for a painter; it will leave its mark on every aspect of your painting, forcing you to abandon your spark for its lurid, frozen flatness.
Don’t just trust me on this, experiment with it yourself. Do a piece from some exciting living example and do something solely from a photograph–and compare them with this question in mind: which of them is more alive?
Far too often painters take their spark for granted and take paths which simply cannot lead to their personal happiness in art. Don’t make this mistake. Approach art like a child and take great care with the fountainhead of your art. You will be rewarded with a lifelong joy of being an artist.
I hope you enjoyed this little trip on seeing art in a fresh way.
New York, December 13th, 2006