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Posts Tagged ‘Advice to Young Painters’

 

 

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“It has always seemed to me that so long as you produce your dramatic effect, accuracy of detail matters little. I have never striven for it and I have made some bad mistakes in consequence. What matter if I hold my readers?”

― Arthur Conan Doyle

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Who would have thought that the creator of Sherlock Holmes would have some good advice to offer to artists?

The words above from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle about how he he would sacrifice accuracy of detail in order to gain greater dramatic effect in his work are very enlightening.

And reassuring.

I have been going through a lot of older work from over twenty plus years back when I was still in a formative stage with my painting. I hadn’t read these words from Doyle but one of the first conscious decisions I made about my work was that I would not be a slave to detail, that I would slash away as much detail as possible while still conveying a sense of what was being represented. Oh, I would use smaller details when they served the greater effect of the painting but the fewer the better.

One example from this early work is the piece at the top that is from around 1997. I was surprised when I came across this small painting in a file folder that I hadn’t examined in many years. It was a solid example of the work I was doing at the time, mainly in watercolor with the beginnings of my relationship with the acrylic artist inks that have long been a staple of my work.

It is sparsely detailed with little consideration to trying to replicate natural color. It just allows the colors and the shapes do what they will in communicating a sense of place and feeling. It works pretty well for what I want from it.

Over the years, I sometimes have strayed from this credo of spareness but I always find my way back to it. There just seems to be more space for the expansion of feeling when details are cut away. It’s a good thing to keep in mind.

So, thanks for the reminder, Mr. Doyle. I can use all the help I can get.

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A blog post that ran here a couple of years back with some advice from poet e e cummings is consistently one of my most popular, always getting a number of hits. For example, there was quite a pop in its numbers yesterday. I don’t know what brought it on but it made me want to revisit the post. Reading it again made me appreciate even more the words. Even though it was aimed at potential poets it rang equally true for me as a painter, especially when I substituted the word painter for poet, paint for words, and painting for poetry.

I thought I’d replay it today doing just that. Where there is a word like [thiswith brackets, I have substituted an equivalent word. And if you’re not a painter, feel free to use any word that describes what it is you do to express yourself.

I think you might find it inspiring.

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Whenever I am asked to speak with students I usually tell them to try to find their own voice, to try to find that thing that expresses who they really are. I normally add that this is not something that comes easily, that it takes real effort and sacrifice. It is a never-ending struggle.

The great poet e e cummings (you most likely know him for his unusual punctuation) offered up a beautiful piece of similar advice for aspiring poets that I think can be applied to most any discipline.

Or to anyone who simply desires to feel deeply in this world.

I particularly like the line: To be nobody-but-yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else-means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting. That line alone speaks volumes.

Take a moment to read this short bit of advice and see what you think– or feel.

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A [Painter’s] Advice To Students

Borrowed from (e e cummings)

A [painter] is somebody who feels, and who expresses his feeling through [paint].

This may sound easy. It isn’t.

A lot of people think or believe or know they feel-but that’s thinking or believing or knowing; not feeling. And [painting] is feeling-not knowing or believing or thinking.

Almost anybody can learn to think or believe or know, but not a single human being can be taught to feel. Why? Because whenever you think or you believe or you know, you’re a lot of other people: but the moment you feel, you’re nobody-but-yourself.

To be nobody-but-yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else-means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.

As for expressing nobody-but-yourself in [paint], that means working just a little harder than anybody who isn’t a [painter] can possibly imagine. Why? Because nothing is quite as easy as using [paint] like somebody else. We all of us do exactly this nearly all of the time-and whenever we do it, we’re not [painters].

If, at the end of your first ten or fifteen years of fighting and working and feeling, you find you’ve [painted one part of one real painting], you’ll be very lucky indeed.

And so my advice to all young people who wish to become [painters] is: do something easy, like learning how to blow up the world-unless you’re not only willing, but glad, to feel and work and fight till you die.

Does this sound dismal? It isn’t.

It’s the most wonderful life on earth.

Or so I feel.

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GC Myers- Jumping Off PointWhenever I am asked to speak with students I usually tell them to try to find their own voice, to try to find that thing that expresses who they really are.  I add that this is not something that comes easily, that it takes real effort and sacrifice.  The great poet e e cummings (you most likely know him for his unusual punctuation) offered up a beautiful piece of similar advice for aspiring poets that I think can be applied to most any discipline.

Or to anyone who simply desires to feel deeply in this world.

I particularly like the line: To be nobody-but-yourself-in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else-means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.  That line alone speaks volumes.

Take a moment to read this short bit of advice and see what you think– or feel.

 

A Poet’s Advice To Students

(e e cummings)

A poet is somebody who feels, and who expresses his feeling through words.

This may sound easy. It isn’t.

A lot of people think or believe or know they feel-but that’s thinking or believing or knowing; not feeling. And poetry is feeling-not knowing or believing or thinking.

Almost anybody can learn to think or believe or know, but not a single human being can be taught to feel. Why? Because whenever you think or you believe or you know, you’re a lot of other people: but the moment you feel, you’re nobody-but-yourself.

To be nobody-but-yourself-in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else-means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.

As for expressing nobody-but-yourself in words, that means working just a little harder than anybody who isn’t a poet can possibly imagine. Why? Because nothing is quite as easy as using words like somebody else. We all of us do exactly this nearly all of the time-and whenever we do it, we’re not poets.

If, at the end of your first ten or fifteen years of fighting and working and feeling, you find you’ve written one line of one poem, you’ll be very lucky indeed.

And so my advice to all young people who wish to become poets is: do something easy, like learning how to blow up the world-unless you’re not only willing, but glad, to feel and work and fight till you die.

Does this sound dismal? It isn’t.

It’s the most wonderful life on earth.

Or so I feel.

 

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nopeI spoke informally with a group of college students yesterday during their visit at the West End Gallery in Corning.  I was asked to speak briefly about a career as an artist and the absolute need for hard work in achieving this.  Whenever I do these things I come away feeling that there were many points that I failed to make, that I somehow left out that one little bit of advice that one of them might find crucial in moving ahead.

I know it’s foolish to think that way.  You can’t possibly put all the things you want to get across into a fifteen minute belch of words and even if you could, how much would get through in a meaningful way?

While I did focus on the need find something they can express with passion and the need to work hard, I forgot one thing that I really wanted to stress– the sacrifice that is required for excellence.  The sacrifice that requires one to learn how to say “No” to many things.

To that end, I thought I would rerun a post from a few years ago that features a most enlightening article.  Hopefully, one of those students will read this and find something in it:

noThere’s an interesting article on the website Medium by tech pioneer Kevin Ashton (best known for coining the phrase “the internet of things“) called Creative People Say No.  In it he talks about how productive creatives —productive is the key word here–  understand the limitations of their time here and as a result weigh every request for their time against what they might produce in that time.  It immediately struck a chord with me as I have known for many years that my time as both a living human and artist are limited and that for me to ever have a chance of capturing that elusive intangible answer that goads me forward, always just a step ahead of me and just out of sight, than I have to mete out my time judiciously.  We have X numbers of hours and doing something other than that which I recognize as my purpose  represents a real choice.

no 2Ashton echoes my own feelings when he  writes:  Time is the raw material of creation. Wipe away the magic and myth of creating and all that remains is work: the work of becoming expert through study and practice, the work of finding solutions to problems and problems with those solutions, the work of trial and error, the work of thinking and perfecting, the work of creating. Creating consumes. It is all day, every day. It knows neither weekends nor vacations. It is not when we feel like it. It is habit, compulsion, obsession, vocation.

So, over the the last 15 years, I have wrestled over every choice that takes time away from the studio, in most cases declining invitations to all sorts of functions and putting off travelling and vacations.  Even a morning cup of coffee with friend or family requires serious debate.  For a while I thought I was agoraphobic but I know that’s not the case.  I just view my time here on Earth as extremely limited and shrinking at a constant  rate with each passing day

no 1It reminds me of a conversation I had with a painter friend a number of years ago.  He had brought up the name of a well-known artist whose work he admired who was incredibly productive.  My friend bemoaned the fact that he himself wasn’t as productive and wondered how this person could do so much.  In the conversation he told me about all the activities that his life held– traveling , classes, music sessions with friends and time with his kids.    I couldn’t bring myself to point out that he would have to start sacrificing something in order to be as productive as this other artist.  It was obvious that his X amount of hours were spent differently than the other artist, who I should point out also had a studio staff with a manager and several assistants to boost  his productivity.  My friend made the choices that he felt were right for him and who could argue that his kids didn’t deserve even more of his time?  

I think of this conversation quite often when I am faced with a choice other than spending time in the studio.  Even writing this blog entry is gnawing at me because it has exceeded the amount of time I want to spend on it this morning.  That being said, I am going to stop right here and get back to that thing that I feel that I have to do.

Read the article.  It’s a good essay.

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I am preparing for my first experience as a teacher when I lead a two-day workshop next month.  I’ve been thinking what I want to say to the people who come to it.  And what I don’t want to tell them.  Mainly, I want to stay away from telling them that they should or must do something in any one way.  I will show them my process and my techniques but will stay away from all subjective judgments.   While I might like to see them render something in one way, their work should be their own creations with its own visual vocabulary and style, all based on their own perceptions.

This reminded me of a post from several years ago that addressed just such an issue.  It is one of my favorite stories about the late Ralph Fasanella, the one-time union organizer turned urban folk painter.  His enthusiasm for maintaining his personal vision is something I hope to impart to the folks who might be attending the workshop.  From back in 2011:

Ralph Fasanella- Stickball

Ralph Fasanella- Stickball

I came into the studio this morning and immediately sat down to read my emails.  Among them was the most recent post from  AmericanFolk Art@ Cooperstown titled Ralph’s Take On Rembrandt.  It concerned the late and great American folk artist Ralph Fasanella and his reaction to criticism and unsolicited advice.  I finished reading and burst out laughing.  Boy, did it hit close to home!

Over the years, I have been approached by several people who think they are doing me a great service by telling me that I should change the way I paint in some way or that I should try to paint more like some other artist.  Early on, when I was first exhibiting my work, I had another more established artist tell me that I should change the way I paint my figures, that they should look the way other artists paint them.  I responded to this artist and the others who offered me their advice with a smile and an “I’ll look into that.”  But  that one time,  I also mistakenly heeded the older painter’s words, being inexperienced and seeking a way as I was, and stopped painting figures for a while before realizing that this was not good advice at all.

Here’s the post about Fasanella and his response to such advice.

Ralph Fasanella had trouble painting hands. A lot of trained artists do too, so it is not surprising that a union organizer who turned to drawing suddenly at the age of 40 would struggle with hands early in his career. But he did have something that proved better than years of formal training: he believed that he was an artist and that what he was doing – painting the lives of working people – was a calling that deserved his complete attention and all-consuming passion.

And that made him react when anyone suggested that his paintings weren’t up to snuff. He said that he was painting “felt space,” not real space. His people and the urban settings he placed them in were not realistic in the purest sense of the word, but they sang with spirit and emotion. As Ralph said, “I may paint flat, but I don’t think flat.”

Rembrandt- The Jewish Bride (Detail)

Rembrandt- The Jewish Bride (Detail)

His most memorable quote, and the one that says the most about him, occurred very early in his artistic career, when someone told him that his hands looked like sticks. He ought to study Rembrandt’s hands, they said, in order to get it right.  His response is priceless: “Fuck you and Rembrandt! My name is Ralph!”

I may not really adopt Ralph’s approach but you can bet his words will be echoing in my head the next time someone says “You should paint like…”

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gc-myers-1994I am ridiculously busy this morning, with several imminent deadlines and tons of work to be taken on in the next several weeks.  I am not complaining.  It’s a good busy.  But having done this blog for so many years now, I felt obligated to post something this morning.  However, I couldn’t focus  so I went to the archives and immediately  came across the post below that addresses the hard work that it takes to reach the full potential of one’s  abilities.

Without the effort, potential is a hollow nothing.

Here’s what I wrote several years back:

I had a nice email from a gentleman who told me about a prize his 16 year old daughter had recently won for one of her paintings.  I took a look at the piece and responded to him.  It was nice painting, nicely composed and had strong lines and color.  It was far ahead of anything I was doing at that age, especially by the virtue that it was complete.  I could see this young person doing more with their talents in the future.  I wrote him back and told him this but with my standard warning, one that I have written about  here before:  Potential  must be actively pursued with constant efforts and a consistent pushing of one’s abilities

I wrote him to tell him this, to let him know about some of the young talents I have seen come and go because they felt their talent was something that was in them and could be turned on and off with the flip of a switch.  I told him to tell her to look at the work required as a musician looks at rehearsals.  Perhaps even look at their talents as being like those of a musician, talents that need constant exercise in order to stay sharp and strong.  For instance, even if you have great innate talent, you can’t expect to play the violin like Itzhak Perlman if you don’t devote your talents in the same way as he does. A great part of his life is in nurturing his abilities.

I always feel like a sourpuss when I’m giving this advice.  Nobody wants to hear that they need to work harder.  Everyone wants to think that they have this great talent born within them and it will flow like a spigot whenever they so desire.  If only that were true.

I think you will find that those who succeed at the highest levels in any field are those who understand this need to constantly push and work their talents.  I’m sure there are exceptions but none come immediately to mind.  I wrote about this in a blog post when I first started this, over two years ago.  I wrote about something author John Irving had said about competing as a writer as he competed as a wrestler, putting in the same sort of work as though he were attempting to be an Olympic wrestler. 

Hard work.   It’s not glamorous especially in this world of instant gratification but it is a proven entity .

I’m showing the piece above to highlight this.  It’s a small painting that I did before I was showing in any galleries, in 1994.  At the time, it pleased me very much and I could have very easily kept painting in that style and been pretty happy, without much effort.  But there was a little voice in me that kept saying to push ahead and work harder, to see what I could accomplish with greater effort.  It became not an end but a stepping stone to move ahead.

That is how I hope this man’s daughter see her painting– as a stepping stone.  She may think it is the best thing she has ever done but if she is willing to push ahead and put in the effort, she will look at it someday as a mere step in her journey.

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GC Myers-  ExplorerAnother thing from the Out of Bounds interview that I wanted to expand on was my answer to Tish Pearlman‘s question as to what advice I  might give to aspiring artists.  I said that I thought that they should paint the paintings that they wanted to see.  I think there needs to be a little more depth to that answer.

Earlier in the interview I had said that I was influenced by a wide variety of imagery from other great painters and illustrators to advertising and film and television.  Any visual input had some influence.  I spoke of   deeply saturated colors that I had seen maybe 25 years ago in a Coke ad on TV, colors that still dwell in my mind.  There are hundreds of little nudges that push at the buttons for the perfect, idealized  image that you maintain in your mind but is never quite fully captured.  I know that’s how it was for me.

I would go into museums and look at great works of art and absolutely love so many of them yet still felt that none was exactly an expression of what I was feeling or who I was.  There was always a lingering feeling that there was work that was closer to the hazy criteria my mind presented, work that I still wasn’t seeing.  It was this feeling that led me to the conclusion that I would never find what I was looking for by trying to paint in the style of other painters.  If their work was what I was looking for to begin with, why even paint?  It seemed to me that too many artists are satisfied by simply doing work that resembles other work, safe in the accepted pack, rather that taking the gamble on stepping away from it.

But I wanted to step away and to do so I would have to assess what I was as well as what I wasn’t.  By that, I mean I would play to what I felt were my strengths and not waste too much energy on my weaknesses.  I knew that anything that would be close to what I wanted to see had to come from a total belief from within and that trying to do things that were not who I was, which would be a weak area in my abilities, would diminish the whole thing.  No, it needed a total commitment from myself.

I guess what I am saying it that aspiring artists need to focus on what they believe they want to see and use their strengths to try to achieve that end.  By concentrating their efforts on their strengths, a natural  style or voice will evolve.  If they accept this voice with a real belief in its validity, it will soon be as natural as signing their name.  They will soon be able to celebrate the things that make them different  than others, rather than striving to be like them.

I don’t know if any of this is making sense this morning.  I’m sure some of the above will ring true to some and ruffle the feathers of others.  That’s art  for you.  It’s more mystery than science.  I might, be right, wrong or both.  Depends on who’s looking…

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