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The Ship Builder

by Keith Bond on 11/8/2010 9:15:14 AM

This article is by Keith Bond, Regular contributing writer for FineArtViews.  You should submit an article and share your views as a guest author by clicking here.


Let's draw an analogy between your art and an ancient story (from about 3000+ years ago).


According to the story, a man was told by God to build a boat (no, not Noah – someone else). The man followed the instructions of God perfectly. The boat or ship was functional, watertight, and lightweight.


But the man realized that there were a couple of problems. He went to God and said, "There are no openings to provide fresh air."


God then told him to cut a couple openings. When they suffered for air, they were to unstop the holes. But if water entered, they would stop up the holes again. This the man did.


He then went to God again with the second problem. There was no light in the ship. "Do you want us to travel in darkness?" he asked his God.


To which his God answered, "What do you want me to do? You cannot have fire, nor can you have windows."


The man gave it some thought. He then gathered a number of white, translucent stones. He went to God and asked him to touch the rocks. "If you do," he said, "they will lighten our ship."


He did touch the stones with his finger and they were illuminated.


Before we draw some lessons from the story, let's talk a bit about your art.


Somewhere along the way you had to learn your craft. You are probably still learning. But some of you are just beginning your journey. I write as if addressing you who are new to your art, but the lesson is for us all.


What kind of instruction do you seek? Do you learn from an instructor, from books, from dvds etc.? Perhaps a combination of all those things? If you do have an instructor, does he or she teach you the fundamentals or simply put a brush in your hand and tell you to express yourself? Does learning the fundamentals hinder expression? Do you try to build a ship without any blueprints?


Could the man in the story have figured out how to build a ship on his own? Perhaps. But it would have taken much, much longer. Much trial and error. Would the end result have been as good? Who knows.


But the question for you and your art is this: do you waste years trying to learn your craft on your own because you do not have any blueprints - because you don't learn the fundamentals first?


For arguments sake, let's say you do learn the fundamentals. At first you may follow the fundamentals perfectly – just as the man followed instructions to build the ship. Just as the ship was functional – it could float – so would your work be a creation that functions as art.


But, just as the ship, your art would lack "air". It would be stale and stuffy. The art would lack life. It would lack spirit. As you are learning, you would go to your instructor and ask for guidance. You could also find answers in books and dvds, but guidance comes easier from a good teacher.


If you follow the instructor's advice, you will improve your skills and gain more knowledge. Your confidence in your abilities will grow.


But, your work will still lack "light". The light is your inspiration, your voice. It is your own solution. It is your own expression.


You may not realize what your work needs. A wise instructor will encourage you to seek your own inspiration. He or she will not give you the answers, for the answers can only come from you. These are the things that must come from within. The good instructor will not abandon you, but would be there to validate your solutions, your inspiration, your light.


Thus, you will have grown and progressed, just as the ship builder, to have confidence in yourself. You have all the tools you need to create your art. But beyond the blueprints, you now know how to give it life and light. You will have learned how to problem solve. This is what leads to originality in your artwork. This is what leads to freedom of expression.


Creating great art is best achieved when there is a firm foundation AND when there is inspiration. Great art is achieved when you know how and why the fundamentals are what they are, but when you also know how to problem solve – when you know how to deviate or modify or explore in order to express your own vision.


It baffles me that so many artists wish to take a shortcut and freely express themselves without learning anything of the fundamentals first. They cite artists who abandon the fundamentals and create light-filled works of art. But, they forget that most truly great innovators in the arts built upon the foundation of the fundamentals. They knew how to create life- and light-filled works because they first knew how to build a ship.


But to those who wish to take a shortcut and bypass the process of learning, you risk wasting the most exquisite light to illuminate a leaky ship.


What kind of ship builder are you?


Best Wishes,

Keith Bond


PS Seek a good instructor. One who will first teach you the fundamentals, but will then teach you how to find your own inspiration and expression. A good instructor shows you how to find your own answers.


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Topics: FineArtViews | inspiration 

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Helen Horn Musser
Great analogy, Keith, fundamentals are necessary and create meaningful art. Building a painting in the beginning is more work than play and then comes the playful part to put your inspiration into the piece. What a joyful journey

Michael Cardosa

An interesting analogy! As someone who never went to school for art and am trying to make up for lost time, I think your posting is right on the money.

No matter what your goals are, build a boat, produce art, write a book, there are fundamentals that can't be ignored if you expect to produce something in that "others" might have an interest. The only reason to ignore the above would be if you truly didn't care what others thought and your creations were simply for yourself AND "you" were happy with the results as they were...

thanks again,


Susan McCullough
Great post Keith, so many new artists think that they can somehow bypass the hard work (fundamentals) it takes to truly succeed. I think that they end up hurting themselves in the long run.

Tom Weinkle
I fully support free flowing expression(without causing harm to others) as a way to achieve happiness.

I also believe that you are right, to be “all we can be” and to create our best works, a strong foundation is a must.

Even so, You can get from point A to B stumbling through, but i ask why waste the time. Life is so short.

I'd like to think I am an artist who honors the idea of foundation, but i encourage everyone to stretch themselves to go beyond and learn or test new ideas. We always have to quest for knowledge, or we'll fall flat on our faces at some point.

Thanks for a provocative post.

Sharon Weaver
A knowledge of the fundamentals is essential for successful images and the understanding of light, color, composition and technique take a lifetime.

Durwood Coffey
It' always good to have God on our side.

Bonnie Samuel
Thoughtful and good post, Keith. Art classes with good instructors has been since childhood. I've been in a weekly class with an excellent artist/mentor for the past 3 years-not only do I enhance fundamental skills and hone techniques, but learn from the exchange with other artists too.

There are so many new products coming on the market and our class shares their experience with different paints, etc which is also helpful.

Teresa Tromp
I agree with you, Mr. Bond.
In order to break artistic rules, you must know what the rules are!

Well, yes, I think you identified that it is indeed, broadly speaking, a 2 part process. No one would expect an athlete to develop into a full blown, seasoned professional without good training. But the athlete also has to bring something or her or his own into the endeavor. I would say that's true of many things.

Richard Christian Nelson
This is a lot to consider. It seems that deep planning and spending a long time doing the fundamentals is not a strong aspect of our go-go culture. I feel very blessed to have had some of the instruction I've had, but each step seems to bring with it the realization that there is so far to go, and often the path is not clear.

Carol Lee Beckx
If one wanted to learn a new language you would not get very far without mastering the basic rules of grammer and vocabulary.
Yet many aspiring artists assume that they don't need to learn the basic grammer of visual art.

There is also much to be gained from watching fellow painters when working in a group environment.

Excellent blog. As one who didn't go to art school, but is trying to get started following a life long dream I've realized how much I have to learn. I've taken some workshops and without exception they all keep refering to learn the fundamentals. The hard part is living in the suburbs of a city like Chicago and not being able to find an artist who is willing to instructor or mentor.

Jim, it's been many, many years, but I took Saturday classes at the American Academy of Art in Chicago. They focus on the fundamentals and you might check into it. I started out taking classes full time there for a semester, but the train commute was difficult so I changed to Saturday classes.

Deborah Weinstein
Art teachers have different ideas about what is "fundamental" to making good art, and it is just as easy to drown in a sea of instruction as it is to miss the boat (as it were, haha) by not having enough of it.

Ah yes, the fundamentals!

What exactly are they?

As soon as I know that, I intend to go out and get me some.

Carol Schmauder
Thank you for the wonderful article Keith (I love the story of the brother of Jared, by the way). I am still in the hard work and learning stage. I am an older person and may not live long enough to perfect my art but I am sure enjoying the process.

Barb Stachow
This is interesting, don't all good things in life that are worthwhile take hard work? I am finding that out this week as I work on a painting that has already taken me approximately 100 hrs. to produce. Hard work and great rewards!

Richard Christian Nelson
As a representational artist, I think of the fundamentals as (in no real order) concept, design, drawing, anatomy (if you work with the figure), understanding your media, art history, perspective,...

This is an incomplete list. Perhaps the most important fundamental is the hunger to learn and grow in our ability to express ourselves.

Richard gave a good list of what most people agree are fundamentals. I would add color theory, something that I think is often overlooked--and a fascinating subject, to boot!

Stede Barber
Great article Keith. I started learning in the era of "do your own thing," and had to pursue the basics on my own...with the resounding advice from college to leave fine arts and go into commercial art and illustration. Interesting to note that many of today's fine artists worked in illustration first...honing their skills in drawing, composition, color, etc.

The love of learning is a huge part of art, as there is so much to learn and work toward mastering. I add to the list values, brushwork, edges, guiding the viewer's eye through the painting, warm and cool, good drawing...

It seems to me that we automatically develop our own voice as we put focused miles on the paintbrush. Our own way of seeing and interpreting the basics comes through in the doing.

Great topic!

Joanne Benson
Great Post Keith,
Having attended college for a BA in Art in the early 70's I was sorely disappointed in the lack of fundamentals being taught. I had always drawn and fooled around with variuos media as a child but never had a formal art class until college and it was really upsetting to me that more fundamentals were not taught. Representational art was not in vogue then and the professors pretty much went with the popular the time it was somewhat of a turn off for me...Unfortunately I didn't pursue art after college until 2001 when my kids were leaving the nest....but I'm lovin' it now! And have studied with some awesome teachers and can appreciate much more all that is involved in the creation of good art....we are always learning!

Richard Christian Nelson
How did I not put color in there!?! It is an entire world.

Durwood Coffey
One just has to understand "composition". This is what the Master did and that's why they are Master's.
You can be representation, (like my self) or non-representation. The are rules are the same!
Everyone should take a look at "The Art of Color and Design" by Maitland Graves. This is all about composition. Everything is secondary.

Deborah Weinstein
Thank you for your list, Richard, and Durwood, thanks for the book suggestion.

Having gotten serious about being an artist late in life, I feel I am in a race against time. It's a self-defeating mindset, obviously, as it's a race I can't possibly win. Initially I thought I would simply dive in head first and hope for the best. Little by little I have had to slow down to get a better bead on what I am doing. But I know so many aspiring artists who seem to me to be spending too much time and energy "getting ready," "practicing" and looking for the perfect instructor without ever seeming to get anywhere. It makes me wonder if Clint's post about learning the basics of ship building before building a ship may have more relevance for shipwrights than for artists. It's a good analogy, but not an exact one. I am sure it can be carried too far and often is.

Sue Martin
Thank you for this wonderful metaphor for learning art and balancing creative exploration with instruction from others. It particularly speaks to me as a new instructor teaching my first series of classes to beginner students. And it validates the approach I've chosen to use: instruction in small doses, minimal demonstration, lots of creative play, lots of individual reinforcement and guidance.

Richard Christian Nelson
Deborah- Good luck with everything. I have known a lot of artists who started later for one reason or another. Many have gotten really excellent, and most have seemed to really enjoy the process. I seems that since our minds are always working, we can combine our knowledge and experience with practice to be doing amazing things pretty quickly.

Tom Weinkle
Deborah, A lot of us are in the same boat. We always can learn and perfect. Even the best in their fields. There's nothing wrong with selling along the way, or if your not trying to sell, enjoy the adventure.

Being a tennis nut, I remind myself that the best in the world (federer and nadal, the williams sisters and so on) never stop practicing and working on skills. But they don't let that get in the way of competing. In our case, that may be selling, showing, marketing, or just painting without instruction. Along with developing skillsets, i think we have to factor in mindset, and in our case, it means accepting that we're going to be improving along the way, enjoying where we are.

Carol McIntyre
...and I keep working on the ship no matter how sound my fundamentals are; this is one of the reasons I was attracted to artmaking because there is always more to learn. (However, when I started, I had no idea it would take so long! :) )

I have had many a good art instructor but finding "One who will ... then teach you how to find your own inspiration and expression. A good instructor shows you how to find your own answers." is not easy. I have searched for such a mentor for a long time. To date, I keep looking inside and have discovered inspiration there.

Thanks, Keith

George De Chiara
Jim, check out the Palette and Chisel in Chicago ( They have a lot of great class with very talented instructors.

Catey Luna
I want to, for the first time, comment on today's article, by Keith Bond. Throughout my life, I have encountered "artists" who were constantly "reinventing the wheel". Knowing what has come before and building upon that, to create something new and unique is truly inspired.
To do what's already been done, not knowing the rich history of our beloved field of art, is ignorance and just another pretty picture.

Thank you for opening this subject and giving the reminder of the endless inspiration of images that constitute our glorious history as artists and guides.

We must fill our work with richness and knowledge and understanding of our content, in order to take what's come before and move forward as human beings.

Namaste (from the center of my soul to the center of your soul) Catey Luna

Spencer Meagher
No matter the endeavor one cannot succeed without understanding the basics of what he is trying to do.

Deborah Weinstein
This is for Jim who lives in the Chicago suburbs: I don't know which edge of the city you're on, but if you can get to the Evanston Art Center, on the lakefront North of Northwestern University, they have a WONDERFUL adult education program (lots for kids too). Tons of courses and many fine instructors. Not cheap but worth it.


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