The college art classroom was extraordinarily messy with easels, open shelving, unfinished canvases stacked upright, props for still-lifes, and high windows with brightly-diffused light from northern exposure. The 64-year-old Edgar Ewing, a wonderful man and artist, was my first art teacher. I was seventeen, and he taught me an art lesson I will never forget.
I was trying to finish a still-life of pale-beige animal bones, white cups, and dark shadows on an ultramarine blue cloth. Mr. Ewing told me a few times to paint the central bone stronger, and I attempted to do that three or four times. Then, in a kindly manner and with a twinkle in his eye, he asked me to give him my painter’s palette. He held the palette and spent a few moments summing up the painting from six feet away. He then walked up to the painting, dipped his thumb in the titanium white oil paint and spread a dollop of it on the bone’s end. Something special happened: that highlight enlivened the tones and hues of the whole painting.
Good art has a broad scope to it—basics are at one end and advanced practices on the other. With over 125,000 hours of making fine art, I have created tutorials that will help turn a dull work into something special. These tutorials will provide you with distilled essentials, which demand hard work, but they will enable you to experience freedom, confidence, and fulfillment in your art.
Like my teacher did for me, I hope to transmit that kind of wizardry to you.
Being an Artist: Approach Art Like a Child
1 Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, Creation of Adam, detail, 1512, fresco. Sistine Chapel, Rome. Wikipedia Commons.
Can you remember a time…when you made sandcastles by dripping watery sand into fortified walls and towers? …when hours would go by unnoticed and how shocking it was to have your concentration broken by suddenly being called home for dinner? That fully-focused feeling of being immersed in a project is the stimulating call of art.
Expressing artistic vision, aside from all the technical stuff, is no more difficult than a child creating sandcastles. At the highest levels, da Vinci and Michelangelo went beyond the confines of being craftsmen to establishing themselves as artist-creators, but what they did was simply continue what the child does.
2 Michael Newberry, This Little Light of Mine, 1992, charcoal on Rives BFK, 29×21″.
It is common that between that kid and da Vinci many artists get lost. It is easy to be led off course by dealers, critics, friends, and people who wish you well. (The impulse to direct your talents is irresistible to them.) Financial considerations, to be popular on social media, and to be “in” with the art world can also diminish the artist within you. There is one aspect to being an artist that is not negligible. To paraphrase Shakespeare, the spark is the thing. Your artist’s voice is something to handle with great care, like preserving the light of a candle when it is the sole source of lighting your way.
Here are a few suggestions to keep your spark alive.
Quickly Sketch Your Ideas
It is essential to get away from everything and to be alone with paper and pencil. Give yourself absolute freedom to jot down visual ideas or concepts. The ideas can come from a thought, feeling, or visualization. For example, if you have a recent death in your family, draw anything that comes to your mind. Off the top of my head, I would draw a gravestone, a black crow, and a beautiful sunset. The process is to sketch as many one- or two-minute drawings as you can, at least 20 or more.
Those little pieces are your voice. It is a fun kind of therapy—your sketched ideas become a window into your soul, yet you see it outside of yourself.
3 Sue Johnson, Self-Portrait, charcoal.
After sketching several concepts, patterns begin to emerge, and you will begin to find recurring themes. I usually find that, after drawing lots of them, I will have a top choice. I will then develop that one further.
One of my favorite sketches by a student is Sue Johnson’s Self-Portrait study. It shows the artist in a T-shirt and pants by a mirror with her hand meeting her reflection’s hand. But the reflection has a different pose and clothing. The idea is the woman in the mirror, the Goddess of Empathy, Quan Yin, is Sue’s alter ego. It is a many layered concept, which makes us ponder reflections, alter egos, self-image, and attainability.
I have a dear friend and student, Chan Luu, who is a well-known designer. She has a way of collecting sparks. She has fine-tuned what she likes about things and what gives her a jazzed feeling. Once she surprised me by how delighted she was by the taste of her cooking. Then I realized that was how she became successful as a designer. She follows the things that spark her excitement.
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 it does not, it is guaranteed not to inspire yourself or anyone else. The solution is simple: if you do not 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 are dangerous to your self-esteem. 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 require of you. Not only that, but once you create a “successful” commission, people will be knocking at your door, and your dream of realizing your personal visions will be buried under layer after layer of forgettable works.
Beware of Photos as the Source
Another spark killer is relying on photography as a starting point. Photography can be helpful as a reference, but it is crucial to use sketching as the driver of your vision.
Experiment with it yourself. Compare a sketch from life or from your mind with a sketch of a photo. And ask yourself: Which is more alive? And which is more uniquely me?
Never take your spark for granted. Approach art like a child. You will be rewarded with a lifelong joy of being an artist.
Note: Energize Your Art is my upcoming book for artists on all levels. Look for it on my Amazon author page in November, 2022.