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Dead Artists Don't Paint - But They Still Speak

by Carolyn Henderson on 3/29/2011 9:31:26 AM

This article is by Carolyn Henderson, the managing half of Steve Henderson Fine Art. She is a Regular contributing writer for FineArtViews and her  freelance writing appears in regional newspapers, online magazines, and her humor blog, Middle-Aged Plague.


I am reading a book called How to Become a Famous Writer before You're Dead by Ariel Gore, who has not, I am afraid, written a similar tome, How to Become a Famous Artist before You're Dead.


However, the journey is the same -- you know, the hard work, the agonizing over why that persona has "made" it and you have not, the wondering if you're good enough, the ups, the downs, the rejection, the hope, the dropping into bed at night and losing yourself in an Agatha Christie novel.


In one mental interview between the hypothetical aspiring writer and the actual published one, Gore outlines the question:


"Do I have to read everything from ancient to modern to all the schlock in the journals? Worse yet, do I have to understand it?"


I'll translate this into Visual Artist Speak:


"Do I have to look at everybody else's paintings/sculptures?"


In answer, Gore passes the baton to Garrison Keillor, of Prairie Home Companion Fame, who says:


"Ignorance of other writers' work keeps me from discouragement and I am less well-read than the average bus driver."


While I dispute the narrow field of the average bus driver's literary expertise (there seems to be a lot of wait time in certain driving careers), I appreciate the sentiment.


Constantly looking at other people's stuff and comparing it to your own -- while done with the goal of learning from the "masters" and improving your own craft -- does, indeed, risk the result of discouragement for many reasons:


1) Their stuff may be so much better than yours that you see no way of ever reaching that height. Maybe so, especially if you are a rank beginner. While an initial foray into discouragement at the onslaught isn't such a bad thing -- after all, there are those of us who are a bit too overweeningly confident in our every ability --  too much bogs us down to a point of inertia.


2) Their stuff may not actually be that good, but their income may be fantastic. "Is this what SELLS?" we ask ourselves. Who knows why some things sell and others don't -- but what we can know is that we never win by denying who we are in order to produce something that we think others want. Second guessing the market is not a science -- witness the stock market -- and for an artist, it can drive one to insanity.


3) We can spend so much time looking at, studying, and learning about other people's work, that we have no time or inspiration to do our own.

There is a balancing act between continuing to learn -- being the student -- and continuing forward -- being the artist, and the percentage of time we devote to each adjusts as we progress on our journey.


That being said, by the time an artist reaches an intermediate level of competency, looking at other people's work becomes not only more limited, but specific as well: "That is an incredible way of looking at light. What was she doing here?" You may be able to figure out the technique and modify it to your own experience; then again, you may not, since so much of what artists do results from the way they see, and not everyone sees the same.


When the Norwegian Artist started out, he spent a lot of time with his dead artist friends -- the Great Names and the Overlooked But Excellent painters of the past -- and he was able to review everything from great art to not-so-great art that had survived the test of time and stood more on its own than on the marketing prowess of the artist or his manager.


There was also no economic discouragement factor – okay, so this artist brought in $25,000 a year in 1835. As long as you didn't do the math, it wasn't so unreachable.


Night after night, while I read Agatha Christie, the Norwegian Artist pored over museum collections and works of individual artists -- analyzing, reviewing, studying techniques, identifying true good art from bad, and internalizing the lessons so that they could be brought out, consciously or subconsciously, in the next day's paintings. Only after much time with his deceased colleagues did Steve look at the work of living artists, and then only when one caught his eye enough for its superb treatment of the subject or the medium.


C.S. Lewis, one of the 20th century's few Christian intellectuals, prefaced his anecdotes and advice with these words (paraphrased):


"If this works for you and makes sense, then pursue it. If it makes no sense to you, however, and it actually makes you regress, then by all means do not feel pressured to apply it to your situation."


So, as far as looking at other artists' work to improve your own: if it works for you, go for it. But if it doesn't, and you only feel a sense of discouraged lassitude afterwards, then give it up already. There's never enough time to paint as it is.


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Topics: FineArtViews | inspiration 

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mimi torchia boothby watercolors
good advice, thank you.
I have noticed, I can get a lot from some people's work, and from others, only frustration as I try to understand them. J.M.W. Turner is a good example. I absolutely love his work, but if i try to replicate it (a good learning tool) I am always frustrated. There is magic in his paintings and as of yet, I have not discovered how he did them. I have been able to reproduce (to some degree) other artists' works, but I always go back to Turner, wondering "HOW did he do that??"

Virginia Giordano
Love this article! It covers 3 of the main thoughts that go through my mind pretty regularly. Re looking at other work, as you point out - we see from where we are in our own development as artists. So if we look at favorite pieces over time we'll see different things, techniques, and our feelings about them may change also. The magic in art is our individual energy that transfers through our spirit. Jasper Johns made flags, unlike any other!

Lori Woodward
Carolyn, thanks for writing this post. As I ponder over decisions about where to take my career this morning, your words are helpful.

I especially am taking the quote by CS Lewis to heart. This weekend, I was drawing/painting with the Putney Painters - a group that Richard Schmid formed. I asked Richard for help for placement of the eye of the model we were painting, and he gave me what he called, his "Grandfather" speech. It wasn't pleasant to hear his stern words, but I realized he was right.

At first, he said I as lazy, but then he changed his idea to - "I don't think you actually care about your paintings - If you cared, you'd take the time to measure and make sure you did it right".

While being mentored by Richard and Nancy is a wonderful opportunity, I'm beginning to wonder if I should give up my spot to one of the other "invitees" - one comes to mind who is really doing well.

I do not wish to imitate Richard's style - just learn the principles of fine art from him. My greatest wish is to pass on what I've learned to those who have more of a passion to paint than I do.

What I do have a passion for: teaching, mentoring, and helping others achieve success with their art. Not necessarily spending 40 hours a week, alone... painting.

What does this have to do with your post this morning? It made me think... ponder... I do get discouraged by looking at other artists' work - being mentored by a master does indeed make me feel artistically "little". But perhaps being primarily an artist for art's sake is not my role.

Don't know the answers, but thanks - you are a GREAT writer, and I'm glad to see you're now regularly writing for FAVS!

Lori Woodward
Now I'm feeling a bit bad about revealing my soul on Carolyn's blog - not wanting to get away from her primary message:

I get inspiration from Hudson River School painters:
William Trost Richards, Hugh Bolton Jones, Olive Parker Black, Alfred Thompson Bricher, Sanford Robinson Gifford.

Funny how they all had three names in those days.

Debra LePage
I really enjoyed this post, Carolyn. I do get a rush of emotion viewing great art-whether the artists are dead or alive-but I no longer take workshops or classes as it just seems to muddy things up for me creatively. Only by going behind closed doors and experimenting/exploring have I felt more true to myself.
Lori, you are very brave to state what so many of us think. Indeed, working 40 hours a week alone can be very isolating-which is why we find ourselves on these forums. Human beings need to connect more often than just the occasional public exhibit or open studio.
I appreciate these connections very much.

Carolyn Henderson
Lori -- do not feel bad about revealing the thoughts within your soul -- few are courageous enough to do so, and your example strengthens those around you.

While it can be good to learn under a "master," if you find yourself chafing and discontent, then perhaps it is time, as you say, to move on.

Feeling "little" is counterproductive, and is not the same as learning with humility and grace.

You are an accomplished artist who has moved to a level where the direction you want to take is different from that your teacher wants you to go. And you recognize this. The agony is in the decision.

I don't know if this is a possibility for your situation, but the Norwegian Artist and I took a sabbatical from an entity that we were unsure about. We didn't know if we were ready to leave it or not, but we did not achieve satisfaction and growth from staying in it.

So we took a six-month sabbatical and moved in the direction that we felt drawn to. Six months turned to a year; a year turned into two -- it's been three years now and we have fully severed our ties to this entity, and we're not looking back!

The journey has not been without the Tsk Tskers and people murmuring behind their hands, but part of the growth has been discovering and accepting who and what we are, how we do things, where we want to go, and what we want to accomplish. One by one we clip the ropes that fetter us to the moor, and right now we're out in the current, moving.

"Do you have a paddle?" I ask the Norwegian Artist.

"I was just going to ask you the same thing," he says.

Adventures wouldn't be exciting if they were predictable!

Esther J. Williams
Carolyn, your article read like a familiar friend, I am used to observing, analyzing and crunching the technique of other artists both living and former. Since I have done it for a few decades, it has helped me evolve. I do believe it is a necessary step for all artists. Exception, the little prodigy artists that are being hailed at four years of age. As soon as someone shows those young ones some of the bizarre Picassos or any other well known museum artist`s works, they will be sure to imitate. Then they will join the ship of a life long struggle as we all have. Just who am I? An artist and their art they produce are highly individualized. A mature artist has the ability to intellectualize, differentiate and squeeze out the information or influential factors that do not fit into their scheme of things. Whereas a young child is still in the developmental stage and can be tainted or swayed by a mere visual of another artist. That is why children need to be taught fundamentals of art, just the basic elements so their minds began to understand design, the underlying element to all art besides expression. Let them learn color, values, line, texture and composition, shape and form without inserting some famous painting in front of their faces. The old saying, "See, this is how it`s done" can ruin that virgin expression. I have been thinking about teaching children art and that is how I decided I would go about it. If adults look at others art in the objective of design, it is then possible to learn much from it and not be discouraged. Sure technique is a strong element also and the harmony of all that stuff combined comes from a master into a painting will be made more powerful by emotional connection of the viewer. We can`t help but to be moved by the works of art. My tip is, after you feel your socks are knocked off, study the process that built that painting, the design, the composition, the colors, values, lines, textures, shapes and why it all created a harmony. Then you will learn and evolve. I still buy books from dead artists in hope of discovering secret techniques that will help me to develop more. Once we discover, it is no longer a secret, we own it and feel equipped to create more masterful artworks. But we use it to develop our own artistic voice, unique to others. We need to own that ability, we need to own ourselves as an artist, we need to own our art.

Lori Woodward
Debra and Carolyn, thanks so very much for your response. I was looking for some direction today, and you're providing it.

Just an FYI - I don't want to walk away from the "PP's" altogether because I'm helping a couple of members sell their work, and I'm also setting up an important show for this group with Legacy Gallery in Scottsdale... and a Putney Painter instructor week at Scottsdale Artists' School - to take place the same week. I do need to be present, but not necessarily take up a painting space.

One thing I have done on occasion is document the groups process and record everything Richard and Nancy teach during the day... everyone seemed to appreciate that. Richard is not upset with me, he is just noticing that my heart is not in the artwork as much as it is in communicating art principles, writing, teaching and helping others.

He actually feels bad when he gives speeches like these, and he does it quietly. Richard is a father figure to me, and I so appreciate all the wonderful principles he's taught me, but I always look at them as things to communicate and pass on to others. I'm not a full time artist at heart. Most of what I do get done is for the purpose of creating tutorials.

OK... I need to get outside for a walk and ponder a bit. You have no idea how much I appreciate your words, advice and encouragement.

With gratitude,

Esther J. Williams
Lori, I think you are a lucky woman, I would stay with the Putney Painters if I were you. Think how you would feel if you stopped and missed some more secrets or influence. We can not all paint like Richard Schmid, I wouldn`t even try to. But the knowledge he passes onto you is priceless. You are a great artist, tell yourself that everyday when you wake up. I wish I were in your shoes, or a fly on the wall! :)

Lori Woodward
Oh, just thought of something else...

You mentioned it might be time to move on. That's exactly what I've been considering. It would make more time for what's truly important to me.

There is no taking a sabbatical with this group. If you don't attend on a regular basis, they'll open up the spot to someone else. HOWEVER, Nancy Guzik has invited me to study with her regularly, and that feels right. I just feel relaxed/myself around her.

Laurie Finkelstein
I enjoyed your post and take the position that we do not live in a bubble and therefore we should immerse ourselves in our craft all the while observing the craft of others both past and present. How sad it would be to not admire the works of the masters - to see color theory at work, brilliant composition, or dramatic use of light and shadow. To witness innovation and creativity at its best is a treat in itself. We all get discouraged at one point or another, but the bottom line is a creative soul needs to create regardless of what may seem impossible to achieve, or worse, what may seem as a joke become a world sensation.

Debra LePage
Lori, you have a valuable and precious mentor in Richard Schmid. The relationship may be more important than techniques passed along.

What I do miss from not taking classes or workshops these days is the companionship. Painting alongside a friend may be just right.

Lori Woodward
Esther, thanks! I've been more than a fly on the wall for 7 years now. I consider Richard a friend as well as mentor.

But there are several artists who have been waiting for a new spot to free up. I could be that fly on the wall and continue to learn, but not take up floor space.

Getting back to Carolyn's premise.... there are times when I actually get depressed while looking at art magazines, and sometimes Facebook. Seeing all those art images on a continual basis sometimes overwhelms me... and yes, I do compare my status and work to others - and it sometimes makes me think... "Whom am I kidding"?

Sometimes it's good to stop looking at other contemporary artists' work and get down to the business of saying what I want to say with my work. Many days, I look at my paintings and think, "What crap". Then on other days, I set my work out and look at it as though it were another artist's, and know what? I think, hey I like those paintings. In fact, I'd even buy one of them.

And it's true, looking at dead artists' work gives me only inspiration.

The other thing that looking at art magazines and works by contemporary masters does - it confuses me. I think, well, I could do that! Well.. sure I COULD, but the real question is, do I WANT TO paint that? I'm so influenced by other styles and subjects that I come away with scattered priorities.

What Carolyn is saying here needs to be said. Sometimes comparison helps us grow, but other times it can be a deterrent to growth... both with self-esteem and artistic merit.

Joanne Benson
I can relate to all 3 items you have written about. I think #3 is the one that gets me bogged down the most! I can look and research and ponder and the time just flits away......And I don't have that much time to begin with. I guess I'm in good company!

Lori Woodward
Carolyn, I'm curious about your deciding to leave the entity. Without mentioning any names, perhaps you might share a bit more about why that decision helped you (in your case).

What steps has your Norwegian Artist (HA, I never spelled Norwegian before)... what steps has he taken to grow aside from the entity. Has it been primarily by studying works of dead artists? Does he experiment or copy those dead master works? I'm just curious, but only share if you want to or feel it's appropriate for his sake.

Barb Stachow
What a fantastic topic! I have been working on improving my skills for the past few months, and I have been using my evenings to search the web for "good and bad" art. It is a humbling experience to see how well others paint in comparision, not to mention those that "don't quite make the grade" making me feel better along the way! In doing this type of exercsize one must pick and choose what they like or don't like about each piece they view. I myself have found even the "big" brushes, to have good and bad in a painting.
A person can while away the hours doing this exercise, but the positive outcome is it has helped me go up a notch in my paintings too!

Carolyn Henderson
Lori -- spot on!

"Sometimes comparison helps us grow, but other times it can be a deterrent to growth... both with self-esteem and artistic merit."

All of the artists commenting enervate this sense of growth and movement and striving and accomplishment and falling on the face and getting back up again -- and all, because they are individuals, do this differently. We need the freedom to look at what works for us and pursue it -- despite what others say or think.

Regarding the "entity" -- here is a link to The Something Club, the article I wrote as Middle Aged Plague describing the experience: Club

Groups are groups, and sometimes they work, and sometimes they don't; some people thrive in them, and some people don't; ultimately, however, it all comes down to the individual, who is the only person rattling around in his mind and body, who must take all of the resources, advice, and teaching, and best apply it to his life and his situation.

Steve teaches workshops, and one of his primary goals is not that his students paint like him or think like him, but that they paint and think like themselves, and that they question and analyze to the point that they can grow without anyone looking over their shoulders. He encourages them to ask and answer their own questions -- kind of like an analyst -- in the belief that until we discover the answer for ourselves, it means nothing to us.

Somehow, I think there's a link here to Dorothy and the ruby red shoes, but I don't want to infuse too much literary meaning into a charming children's story!

Jill Banks
What a great post and string of comments. I reach out and look (magazines, web, galleries, museums) when I need and am ready for inspiration. It seems that in the last couple of years, the quality of work created by contemporary artists has skyrocketed. That observation has the ability to discourage (when it seems impossible to keep up) or encourage continued growth (as the only way to keep up). We need to be masters of our own artist's life, doing what's best for our art and mindset.

Debra LePage
I do think we take things from our instructors and make them our own. From Don Andrews, I learned how to paint through the value scale and from Tony Couch, how to let the juicy colors mix on the paper....and on and on. At a certain point, we have to put all of that together for ourselves and let our own style develop.

Lori Woodward
I started taking workshops in 1990. I have a bachelor's degree in art, but the university wasn't the best place for a traditional fine art education.

For the last 20 years, I've been studying with a variety of excellent teachers. I personally enjoy combining principles from each of them - folding those ideas and techniques into my own work as I please. These masterful mentors have agreed on the basic principles of art making, but each has contributed this info from a slightly different point of view... being their own.

It's funny, how a few of these mentors seem to want to take credit (alone) for my education. (not talking about Richard here) It's almost as though they want to own a part of my success.

Recently, one of the artists I've been mentoring has gotten stuck in the middle of her agents/gallery owners. One of the agents thinks he is responsible for this artist's success.

My response to this idea of ownership of an artists' success is: You don't owe anybody anything. You paid them a commission when they sold your work, you followed the advice that made sense to you, and then you worked-and-worked to develop a style and garner national awards. A "Thank you" is appropriate, but no one gets anywhere in this business on their mentors' coat-tails. Only hard work, along with good education (even if that means self-education) is the way to success and fame.

I've mentored several artists through the years, but the only ones that reached national recognition were those who worked the hardest, studied art history, and created such a phenomenal body of work that it couldn't be ignored.

In a way, whether we have mentors or instructors, we're all self taught. At some point, we need to take what we've learned and go our own way with it. How many years do we need to study with someone before we "get it" and leave the fold?

I've known some artists who've studied in an atelier for more than 8 years - and they are afraid to leave and sell their work for fear that they'll find rejection.

OK.. it's my "tired" time of day and I'm getting a little fuzzy-brained, but I wanted to ask these questions because I ponder them often... even if for my own career.

Another excellent, thought-provoking post! And lots of great comments. I would add, though, that when we compare our total reality - failed attempts, miscalculations and all that we know from the inside - to others' "greatest hits" that we see from the outside, it's inevitable that we feel that we're falling short.
In other words: when we look at an artist's work on the wall or in a book, we're not seeing all the failures that led up to it.

Elayne Kuehler
Excellent article. Thanks so much for the advice which I believe is very important to remember as a teacher of art as well! My goal is to do everything I can to encourage the artist!

Lori wrote: "...At first, he said I as lazy, but then he changed his idea to - "I don't think you actually care about your paintings - If you cared, you'd take the time to measure and make sure you did it right"..."

Hmmm...there must be a better way to point out an issue with a fellow artist than calling her names.

Lori Woodward
Hi Kim, I didn't take offense because Richard is generally complimentary. He has often stopped by my easel to let me know I'd done a tremendous painting.

However, he knows me really well - he would never say what he did to someone he wasn't pretty close to. I actually thanked him because I knew that he was right, and he said it in a kind way. But you'd have to hear his voice and see his body language to know that the words were delivered with actual care.

When he says "lazy" what he means is that one should be slowing down, taking more time to look, measure and make sure the drawing is accurate. I've heard him give another artist the same speech and I agreed with him about that artist's work. I think RS showed me something about myself that I've been thinking about ever since, and I'll continue the discussion with Richard in the future.

I'm seriously considering altering my role with the Putney group... continuing by taking notes and photos, documenting the activities of the group. Richard has asked me to do this in the past, and I had a lot of fun.

Didn't mean to make him sound like a mean person, but I guess I did. He's really very gentle and kind.

when someone really insults me, and has no business doing so - I don't take that for a second.

I understand, Lori! At any rate, more and more I rely on something I heard and it always makes everything crystal clear: you have but one life to live. Good luck with whatever path you choose!

Lori Woodward
Thanks Kim, I'll certainly keep your "one life to live" words in mind.

Donald Fox
There seem to be two ideas at work here. One is learning from the past, i.e. those dead artists. A lesson there not mentioned is that some artists who were very successful in their time are now forgotten. Some not recognized have now become masters. The other idea is comparing one's work with the successful artist or 'contemporary master.' Again, what may be fashionalble today might not be tomorrow. Better, perhaps, to find someone to trust for guidance and try to create a solid base of knowledge upon which to continue building.


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