The Illusionists

“It is dangerous to let the public behind the scenes. They are easily disillusioned and they are angry with you, for it was the illusion they loved.”

– W. Somerset Maugham

I couldn’t resist this quote when I saw it as it is a perfect continuation of the discussion in my last post that started with the topic of talking about our art. The public in general does not really have an idea of what it is like to be an artist – I don’t think this is totally due to some unique quality such a life has. I know I don’t really have any idea what it is like to be a surgeon, lawyer or butcher. In many cases, I also idealize those professions in ways that real practitioners of those trades would roll a cynical eye at. Any career, even the most glamorous, has it’s share of drudgery or downright unpleasant work to do.

It is almost impossible to understand any role unless you have been in it yourself. I remember in a prior career when I moved into management (who had always been the adversary and who it was easy to be critical of), I became aware of the realities of making imperfect decisions in the midst of imperfect information. I realized one should always be wary of assuming insight into what others do, why they behave as they do, etc.

I think there is a real reason, however, to support the “illusion” the public has about being an artist. It may inspire them to explore their own artistic side – less likely to happen if you are moaning about some of the tedium involved. It may allow them greater enjoyment of your art – if you complain about what it took to make something, it casts a pall on the piece itself. And it may just allow them to be happy for you, in their belief that you’ve achieved the “good” life. Why steal that away?

There are too few ways in this world to offer something to others – why not honor the illusion that others take pleasure in? Who knows, maybe it we’ll start believing it ourselves and wouldn’t that be a good thing?

Knowing, Thinking and Looking

“Thinking is more interesting than knowing, but less interesting than looking.”

– Goethe

An interesting hierarchy.

I agree with the first part – knowing means there are fewer possibilities, and possibility is what keeps our interest. Some people may believe knowing is supreme, but as an artist, I think it leads to stagnation.

The second part is less obvious to me. Which would you prefer to do, think or look? Both contain endless possibilities. Thinking involves our imagination, a realm that has vast potential. Looking is such a rich experience and often we see things we could not imagine.

As an artist, I believe both are crucial and need to be developed. When I want to explore my creativity I will often look at my work and think about how I could change it, what concept I want to explore, what techniques I want to use, what I am trying to express, what should I strive to make different, etc. This thought process usually feels more like a contemplation than thinking, but it is an active use of my mind. At times like these I also pay more attention to what I’m looking at, how I’m looking, where I’m looking, etc. Without focusing on looking in this way, I lack the raw material my new work will need.

I guess I’ll continue to try to be a thoughtful observer in search of a few more pieces of art…

I think, therefore…

“You can’t look at abstract art without thinking.”

– Patricia Cole-Ferullo

Yeah, much of the time you are thinking “What the heck?”…

But seriously, I think this is an interesting and perhaps controversial statement. When looking at something abstract, we start trying to find something familiar or recognizable. We start trying to figure it out, to find some way to relate to it. This is certainly one mode of “thinking”. Since we may not have any familiar forms to look at, we start to pay attention to other aspects of the piece – the colors, design, patterns, shapes, etc. We have to work a little harder to find something about the piece to like (or dislike).

The controversy of the statement is the implication that other types of art do not require thinking. I don’t really agree with that, though I do believe that our minds become engaged in different ways with different types of art. When we see representational art we do not have to work so hard to understand what we’re seeing or what the artist is saying (perhaps). It is given to us more obviously. These images may evoke memories and emotions, or we may become intrigued by the artist’s technique, or the objects may be depicted in new or unusual ways that cause us to consider them more carefully. We may be less likely to examine the piece from the perspective of color, form, etc. since the familiar image itself is so inviting and distracting.

Personally I enjoy the kind of mental engagement abstract art results in. It’s a little like a puzzle that I have to figure out. And I get to make of it what I want. It’s a challenge and it’s liberating, at the same time.

A Day at the Lake

I am an artist who, for forty years
Has stood at the lake edge
Throwing stones in the lake,
Sometimes, very faintly,
I hear a splash.

– Maxwell Bates

We produce so many pieces of art over so many years and, occasionally, we hear the splash. Most importantly, we hear the splash “very faintly”. After all, it’s a very large lake – countless artists have thrown their stones into it.

None of our work is going to make waves in the lake – at best a small splash. But that is as it should be. We are members of an uncommon family, one that has congregated at this special lake for centuries, adding their contributions to the water one at a time. We are members of the family of artists…

The lake is larger than any of us throwing our stones and accepts each throw with equal consent. Not too long after the stone has broken the water’s surface, the lake returns to it’s earlier calm and patiently awaits the next toss. It teaches us that there is no need to hurry, no need to become attached to our stones, no need to take aim when throwing. Listen to the lake…

I, for one, intend to continue to visit this lake. The sound of that faint splash is all I need to know that I am where I belong.

Artistic Courage

“Don’t wait for inspiration. It comes while one is working.”

– Henri Matisse

For the past two or three weeks I’ve been frustrated with my monoprint making. Lots of interesting starts that went nowhere. Either I couldn’t figure out how to finish them, or I tried and ruined them. I felt like I was regressing in my work since for a while I had been happy with a number of my pieces and then, poof! Nothing for quite a while.

But I kept working at it, almost be-mused by what had become of my muse. And then, suddenly, the other night I had a spurt of about 45 minutes where everything I was doing was working. i was able to finish off to my satisfaction a number of pieces – more in that short interval than in the preceding three weeks.

I’m sure this is a common experience for artists but why does it happen? Why do we suddenly stop producing to our own satisfaction when it feels like we’re doing essentially what we had before? I’m not sure we’ll ever know why, but the more often it happens, the easier it becomes to continue working through these fallow periods, because we can trust that they will end. Our repeated experience gives us the courage to continue in the face of our own failures. Of course, they are not failures, but only what is needed to create the current piece!

Identity Crisis

“Nobody can be exactly like me. Even I have trouble doing it.”

– Tallulah Bankhead

As an artist, I frequently have to make conscious decisions about the artistic style in which I’m working. Do I attempt to create a “look” that is recognizable as me, or should I continually try to explore new styles and subjects? There are experts that say that you will be more successful in juried shows, galleries and exhibits in general, if there is a consistency to the work that makes it recognizable as your own. A distinct style, as it were. On the other hand, as an artist I want to try new things, experiment in ways that will cause my work to evolve and improve. How do you reconcile these viewpoints?

I suppose that part of the answer lies in what your motivation is in making art, what your goals are and within what range of artistic endeavor you find creative satisfaction. It is probably true that having a body of work with strong consistency makes it more marketable (I’m assuming that the quality of the work is also high – consistency alone isn’t enough!). Too much variation confuses buyers, galleries, collectors, etc. However, doing similar work over and over may feel to constraining for you.

But I think an important factor in this balance is that each artist must decide how much variety is needed for them to feel creatively satisfied. For some of us, we have to use different mediums, styles, techniques, subjects, etc to avoid feeling bored, stultified or stifled. For others, it may be sufficient to explore subtler variations within a more constrained style to get that same satisfaction. I believe we all must feel we’re being creative – it’s just that the requirements for that feeling to exist can be very different for each of us.

I tend to be the type that needs a greater range of variety to feel creative. I guess I have trouble being exactly like me…

Never mind…

Having finished Alan Watts’ wonderful chapter on Zen and the arts in The Way of Zen, I wanted to share a couple of other thoughts.

We’ve talked here before about the need to develop technique to the point of mastery so that you can then abandon, or go beyond, that technique. Watts says,

“The brush must draw by itself. This cannot happen if one does not practice constantly.
But neither can it happen if one makes an effort. Similarly, in swordsmanship one must
not decide upon a certain thrust and then attempt to make it, since by that time it will
be too late. Decision and action must be simultaneous.”

In order to reach a deeper level mastery in any aspect of our lives, it is essential that we get past the mind. It is just so with making art. The freshest, most exciting art we make is when we are not aware consciously of what we are doing. If we have practiced our craft enough, to the point where it has become second nature to us, the mind can let go of trying to control things and then other dimensions of our being can emerge to guide our efforts. Herein lies the true fountainhead of creativity.

Practice is one path to overcoming the mind. My youngest son is learning to drive at the moment. It’s an interesting process. At first, it is fiercely mental – you try to keep aware of every little detail of driving. Paying attention to every road sign, checking the mirrors and blind spots, your speedometer, the other drivers, etc. It is a real struggle to mentally manage all these details at once. At some point, however, you’ve done it enough that it becomes less of a conscious activity and you can relax – you become a better driver because the mind has moved aside.

When I am painting, I am usually happiest with my work only when I suddenly become self-conscious again and stop to consider what I’ve done – if I’ve been self-conscious all along, it’s usually become a muddle.

When the brush draws by itself, good things happen…

Friend or Foe?

At the excellent suggestion of Danu, I am reading a chapter in Alan Watts’ classic “The Way of Zen” entitled “Zen in the Arts”. Watts talks about how in the West artists can have an almost adversarial relationship with their materials. He quotes Malraux who said we strive to “conquer” our medium, much as we’d conquer a mountain. I suspect we have all felt this at some point, particularly when a painting isn’t going as we want. We may feel that if we could just get rid of all these brushes and paints and let our vision shine through, we’d make better art. It can feel as if our materials are our foes in the struggle to make art.

Watts says that in the East this view is not understood at all. He says:

“For when you climb it is the mountain as much as your own legs which lifts
you upwards, and when you paint it is the brush, ink and paper which
determines the result as much as your own hand.”

I love this metaphorical explanation of how the very thing we may view as our adversary plays a crucial role in our endeavors. In fact, without that with which we struggle, we would achieve nothing.

I will remember that the next time my brush, paint or paper seems to have a life of it’s own. They are taking me where I am going…

Art for Art’s Sake?

I’m back from a week in British Columbia helping my college freshman son start his new life in a university – looking forward to getting back to some art-making and art-discussing!

I’ve thought a lot about what the process of making art consists of for me. There seems to be a line that is either crossed or not by each artist – the one I’m talking about is showing your work to others with the intention of selling it.

I know of some artists who practice their art and never cross this line. They are happy to paint, photograph, etc. without ever having a show, putting a price tag on the work, sometimes even putting the work in a frame. Each piece is completed and then put away in storage or tossed or ???

In some ways, I envy folks like this – for some reason, I have always felt that the art-making cycle was incomplete with this approach. For me, sharing the work with others, having them experience it, is required for me to feel that the work is done. Of course, I have a lot of art that I’ve shown and never sold – the sale isn’t the piece that completes the puzzle, it’s the showing of it, the sharing with others, that closes the loop. Of course, there are pieces that aren’t of sufficient quality to show but those are not candidates to close that loop anyway.

This does place an extra burden on the process of making art and showing your work to the public can be a very humbling experience. So I am a little jealous of those who don’t feel the slightest need to take that route – somehow they’re dodging a bullet that I can’t seem to dodge. Perhaps there is a pathological need to acceptance behind all this. I won’t deny it…

When I started playing the piano 4-5 years ago, I made a conscious decision at the beginning that I would never play for anyone else. I don’t even let my family hear me (though they probably do hear something from the other room while I’m practicing). But I wanted to keep this activity to myself, for my own selfish enjoyment. It helps that I’m not good enough at it to be tempted to reverse my earlier decision about this! And this has worked for me so far with the piano.

Perhaps this topic has come up now because I am preparing for a large show next month – nothing like that to stir the pot!

Simple Things

“In mathematics the complicated things are reduced to simple things. So it is in painting.”

– Thomas Eakins

I found this quote as I was contemplating simplicity and immediately thought of our friend, Miki. She is that rare union of mathematical and artistic passion in the same person. So this post is dedicated to her…

As I work on these abstract monoprints, I am constantly trying to decide what needs to be included and when I’m done. There is a lot of ability to layer and to remove with this technique, so I can keep going on a piece – often until I’ve made it way too complicated. My favorite pieces are those that have some strong patterns or shapes floating in an interesting field of color and texture. I often reach a stage where I like what I’ve done, but something seems to be missing. This may that “crisis” point in a painting that Danu has talked about, the point of departure for many pieces, where they either head in the direction of “success” or the direction of permanent storage, or worse.

Simple doesn’t necessarily mean fewer elements in the painting. I think that each piece has a natural order that it can handle – some pieces may have more going on in them, but for each there is some point at which it is not longer “simple”, where the fundamental nature of the piece has been exceeded in some way. I know intuitively when that has happened, usually fairly soon after I’ve reached that stage (it’s a disappointing realization!). I don’t think this is a rational process, but one more of feeling, based on the inner motivations, inspirations, intentions and reactions the artist has toward the piece.

In mathematics, reduction of complexity to a simple and elegant proof is described as “beautiful”. So it is in painting…