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.