This post is by Jack White, regular contributing writer for FineArtViews. Jack has enjoyed a forty-one year career as a successful fulltime artist and author. He has written for Professional Artist Magazine for 14 years and has six art marketing books published. In 1976 Jack was named the Official Artist of Texas. He has mentored hundreds of artists around the world. Jack authored six Art Marketing books. The first, “Mystery of Making It”, describes how he taught Mikki to paint and has sold over six million dollars worth of her art. You should submit an article and share your views as a guest author by clicking here.
It’s amusing to see how frequently artists refer to a piece of their work as a masterpiece. This is the most misunderstood term in the artist’s lexicon. In the days when art students worked in an atelier (studio) under a master painter/teacher, they first learned to draw from plaster casts. They then progressed to copying black and white posters. Live models were provided only when the student became proficient in draftsmanship. The models cost too much money to be capriciously used. Finally, when a student’s skill reached a level the teacher was satisfied with, they were allowed to use color. By then, apprentices knew a lot about grinding stones into a fine powder to make the colors because they had been mixing the oils for the master. After their knowledge had reached a high level and time came for the artist to leave the studio, he was asked to paint a piece showing all he had learned. When finished, the artist presented that piece to his master, thus the Master’s Piece. An artist can only paint one Master’s piece in his lifetime. Note I did say he. Very few females were allowed to train in an atelier under a master. Those of us who are self-taught can never produce a Master’s piece unless we paint one for ourselves. That word is reserved for those who studied at the feet of a master artist, which eliminates a great deal of you reading this article.
The saddest commentary on our industry is that today’s modern masters no longer share their knowledge. There is no apprentice system that allows the beginner to learn at their feet. I’m not being critical, I fully understand why. Today’s artists need to spend their time in production, promotion and distribution. The art world is now very complex. We don’t have a patron system anymore; we have to sell our stuff in a competitive market.
About now one of you is probably getting ready to challenge this last paragraph by citing Dale Chihuly. I will grant you, Dale employs a large number of helpers, giving them the opportunity to learn the craft of working with glass. He has a production system to assemble his giant pieces of art. Some think after he lost an eye in an auto accident, he began to bring in assistants. Others say he began working with a helper when he teamed with William Morris, a man of great talents and physical strength. Morris did the majority of the work and Chihuly got the credit. But his primary program is to produce Chihulys, not to teach others to become competitors. Most of his key people have been with him for a long time.
Dale didn’t start at the top; he was introduced to glass blowing at the University of Washington where he took courses in Interior Design. Then, he went on to the University of Wisconsin where he studied glass blowing. Moving to the Rhode Island School of Design, he hooked up with another student, Martin Bland, who became his gaffer. Martin was a genius in lighting and particularly skilled in movie sets. Martin was a perfect fit for the projects Chihiuly envisioned. The key to his sculptures is the lighting. While at RISD Chihuly received a Fulbright Scholarship and studied glass blowing in Venice.
We have seen several of his exhibitions. The one in the Miami Botanical Gardens was interesting, but his major piece in the Bellagio at Las Vegas is well worth the trip.
Thomas Kinkade hired more helpers than any living artist, or did before his recent bankruptcy. He owed one gallery three million dollars and some others a million. His operation was in Morgan City, CA, where he leased a 100,000 sq. ft. warehouse. His bio says he has sold over 25 million pieces of art. His staff of “highlighters” is not learning the secrets of painting, but what strokes to use on his prints. I’ve communicated with a couple of his ex-highlighters. One girl was so disillusioned she wanted to give up on art. She left her Kinkade job with suicide on her mind. She felt like she had been part of a swindle. Buyers were led to believe the highlights were done by Thomas. Luckily, I was able to show her life was worth living. We heard from her last year telling us she was in her first art gallery.
The next challenge by several readers will be, “Many master artists are teaching workshops.” I totally agree but a week, five days, is not enough to learn the basics of painting. I saw a YouTube video about an artist who boasted she had attended 47 different artist’s workshops. Can you imagine how confused that lady is? She is not there to learn, but so she can use those famous names on her bio, hoping that will help her career. Of course, the names of her instructors won’t help her move up the value meter one notch. The art buying public doesn’t care with whom or where you studied, they are only interested in what you make and if it connects to their heart.
Several years ago, a good friend and excellent talent felt he needed to take a workshop under William Reese. He wanted to paint looser. He was like a sponge. His style and palette totally changed. His work became much too loose to sell in his market. His galleries didn’t want the new extremely impressionist style. What seemed to work for Reese, failed for him. The following year he was off to Montana to spend a week with Ovanes Berberian, an excellent Armenian painter taught by his father who, himself, was a master artist. At the end of the workshop Ovanes asked his students to paint a piece for the final party that night. When Ovanes saw my friend’s work he said, “There is a rope in the wood shed. Loop the rope around your neck, toss the end over a tree limb and stand on that bucket. Then I’ll kick the bucket out from under you.” Maybe he wouldn’t have kicked the bucket out, but he was telling my friend to give up making art.
I had never seen him so depressed; his idol had just given him the death sentence. His artwork was not worth living for. I was concerned for his safety. That night I took him and his wife to dinner. We found a quiet corner where we could talk. I pointed out how well he had been doing before the two transformations. I kept going on until he could finally smile about Ovanes’ suggestion. From then on, my friend always referred to Ovanes as the “Little General”. After a few weeks he was able to laugh about the incident. I strongly suggested he forget what he had learned in the past two workshops and focus on his own style. I’m happy to report his galleries welcomed the old style back and the last time we spoke, he was getting ready to attend his 30th year celebration show in New Orleans.
If what you are doing is working, DON’T change just to be different. Just get better.
The problem I find with workshops is the impossibility of learning all that’s being taught. I watch Mikki writing her oils up on her canvas. If she were teaching classes the students would think, “That looks so easy.” In truth, it takes a lot of practice to get good. Better yet, you need a lot of perfect practice to become skilled. It’s not enough just to practice. You can practice bad habits, which will impede your progress.
An artist is lucky to find a few useful tips in a weeklong workshop. Not that a tremendous amount of information is not given, it’s difficult for the brain to separate and collate that knowledge. The best teachers are those who pick a theme a day and hammer that point home. Most of us can learn one thing a day.
I’m reminded of the story about a traveling evangelist. Back in the horse and buggy days, he traveled from ranch to ranch preaching the Gospel. He stopped at a spread near Alpine, in West Texas. The old rancher and his wife attended his sermon. The preacher spit Hell, Fire and Brimstone for about three hours. After he finished preaching, he asked the old rancher, “What did you think of my sermon?”
“It was pretty good. But there is just one thing I’d change.”
Bracing for a theological argument the preacher asked, “What would that be?”
“Well preacher, when I go to feed the cattle and only one old cow turns up I don’t dump the whole load.” Those of you who teach art give some thought to narrowing your focus to the vital things your students need to know. Show that you are interested in them learning. Speak in simple terms. Forget the big words that make you appear smart, teach valuable information and they will know you are intelligent.
An old African preacher told me how he preached his sermons. “I tell ‘em what I’m going to tell ‘em. Then I tell ‘em. When I’ve finished, I tell ‘em what I just told ‘em.”
When teaching Mikki to paint, I would wait until she finished a piece, I had boxed it and the art was shipped. Then, the next day we would look at the photo. I would find one place where she could improve. Taking a tip from the old rancher, I didn’t dump the entire load at one time. She would complain, “How could you let me ship that?”
I would reply, “You’ll fix it on the next piece.”
The most important thing I did while teaching Mikki to paint was to tell her, “I don’t want you to be a Jack White clone. I don’t want my hand on your brush.” Slowly, over time, there was nothing left for me to teach her. The student had passed the teacher. We accomplished this; one lesson at a time, one painting at a time.
Taos ~Jack White
You can spot a David Leffel or Richard Schmid clone when you see their first painting. It’s interesting to thumb through art magazines and see artists copying these and other masters. Copy is all they will ever do, because they will never reach the level of their master. I don’t blame the teachers for being so powerful; it’s the fault of the student not to seek their own level. No matter how well you paint David’s style you will always remain a copy. Your voice will belong to your teacher. Those who stand out have their own original voice.
Like in math, there are things we need to do to get our paintings correct. We know 2 + 2 = 4. Yet when looking at paintings, we see so many landscape pieces with no light and only a rare few have a threshold across the foreground. Painting a landscape is more than copying nature. We have to know what to leave out and what to add in. I recall viewing one painting of a tranquil lake with ugly telephone poles marching across the open field. I asked why? His answer, “It was there.” I argued, “You are omnipotent. You have the power to make changes, move things around, toss in a cloud in the sky.
A locavore is a person who only eats local foods. Be an artist locavore, learn close to home. Don’t think you have to fly to Hawaii, Montana, France or Italy to learn to paint. Do like I did, I learned solo. What’s the Frank Sinatra song? “I Did it My Way.” You can do it your way.
And I’ll leave you with one final thought. If you are self-taught or had very little art training, then what about making a master piece for yourself? You are your own master. I painted a piece a dozen years ago that had the emotional and technical elements I was striving for. We decided not to sell the painting. There have been several offers to buy, but we’ve declined. I now have my Master’s piece.