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.
Much Obliged to Suzie Cox the wife of CA President Tim for the idea on this column. I would be high and dry without the help of friends like Suzie and Tim.
When I was a barefoot, cotton headed boy I can recall hearing American Bald Eagles screaming as they perched on a tall tree down by the creek. Their screech made my blood coagulate. I can also remember a pair of eagles mating in the open sky over our barn. I thought they were fighting. The big birds were tumbling in a ball of feathers, over and over, with their giant wings spread like a fan. And to think Ben Franklin wanted us to use the wild turkey as our national symbol (Smile).
The greed of man came close to exterminating these wonders of nature. Without interference by humans, an eagle will live 70 to 80 years. It’s against the law to even own an eagle feather but a few of these magnificent birds are still killed every year by brainless men. The only exception is a few Native Americans using the eagle feathers in religious ceremonies.
Eagles are enormous survivors. When a storm is threatening, the wise eagle flies above the clouds until danger passes. He doesn’t get rained on due to his powerful wings and natural instincts to get out of the way. No other bird has the strength of an eagle. There are a few artists that have the eagle’s ability to mentally soar over depression and discouragement when bad things come our way. I tip my hat to you.
Others seem to enjoy misery. I work with one artist who wouldn’t be happy if he won the mega lottery. He would complain about having to pay so much tax on his $2 ticket investment. I’m not totally sure - I think the character was in Dick Tracy - but he was a miserable guy walking around with an ominous cloud over his head.
I’m not saying we need to be perfect. I have major flaws. Even Mikki has one or two. Part of being human is having weaknesses. The Prophet Daniel wrote in the interpretation of his dream of Nebuchadnezzar, the King of Babylon, the following description, “His head was of fine gold, his breast and arms of silver, his belly and thighs were brass, legs of iron, but his feet were made of clay.” He was addressing mankind in the Book of Daniel. We all have feet of clay. I admire Billy Graham. He would never ride in an elevator with just him and a lady. He made sure others were also taking the ride. He knew the chances of someone making a false accusation were high or perhaps he might make a mistake, after all he had feet of clay. He shunned all opportunity for evil.
Lately, I’ve been giving advice to an artist from Holland. She had a scammer from France try to cheat her. When she didn’t give in to his con-artist demands, he threatened to do her physical harm. She had made one small mistake, she gave the scum her home address. I advised her to give all the correspondence to their equivalent of the FBI. The con-artist doesn’t want to talk with the police. She has to fly like an eagle above the clouds. Her safety is paramount. She can no longer communicate with the scammer.
Eagles have amazing eyes. They can see a rabbit from a mile away. On a perch one thousand feet high, the eagle can see small varmints in a three mile radius. What a stark contrast between eagles and artists. All too many artists can’t see the mistakes in their own art standing only three feet away.
For a while, I tried to help an ego driven artist. He thought everything he did was superior. He told me Mikki’s work looked like a cartoon and if I’d put him in the same galleries with her, he would sell just as fast and for more money. This is from an artist who can’t even get $25 for a piece of his work on eBay.
Like the eagle, we must be able to see clearly. The eagle is dependent on his superior eyesight for survival and so are we. Without question the biggest problems beginners, and some seasoned painters, have is the ability to see their work as others do. Until you can clearly see your own mistakes, then learning will never happen. For a few years, I’ve helped an artist, who by the way has made vast improvement, but since day one he believes every piece he finished to be sensational. He will send an image with the heading in the email, “This is the image of the magnificent painting I did of Niagara Falls.” He has a lexicon full of descriptive adjectives to define his work. I finally gave up the fight and accepted he would never have an eagle’s vision. You can’t learn until you have an eagle-like view of all you do. An eagle will not swoop down on a cow patty, even though it may be shaped like a rabbit. Close is good in horseshoes, but not in art. We have to dip down and do our best every time. Should trouble be on the horizon, they fly higher.
In reading the life of Leonardo Da Vinci, I came across how he judged his work. He placed a mirror behind his easel. By looking into the mirror, the image of the art is switched in our brain from the creative side to the analytical side. The mirror allows us to see our own flaws. If a door is leaning we may not be able to see the mistake looking directly at the canvas. When viewed in the mirror, the flipped image allows you to immediately see your mistake. Mikki and I work with a mirror behind our easels. The mirror gives us the eye of an eagle. I suggest you buy a mirror today and from now on constantly look back at your painting several times a day. Note this: the eagle would starve without his exceptional eyes. The mirror allows you to look at your art as if it were painted by a total stranger. We all can see other’s mistakes, yet are blind to ours.
For the eagle to reach the age of eighty, he has to make a very difficult choice. Forty years of wear and tear on his talons and beak makes them worthless. His long powerful talons can no longer grab a fish from the water or hold a wiggling snake as he flies. He will starve to death without the use of his talons. His long sharp beak becomes bent so badly on the end he cannot pull the flesh from his prey. This leaves the helpless bird vulnerable to a coyote, wolf, bobcat or panther.
The eagle has to make a hard tough choice. He has to break off his beak and talons, leaving him totally defenseless until he grows new ones. I know how hard it is for me to get some of you to develop a professional signature or work on your strengths. I wonder if you would follow the eagle’s example. You find a comfortable formula and want to keep swinging in the safe hammock.
I think the biggest frustration I have helping is so many beginners want to paint portraits. They don’t even understand the planes of the face, but they can project the image onto their support and fill in the blank spaces with color. They paint teeth and the whites of the eyes pure white. I will never forget trying to help an artist learn some basics with oils. They surprised me with a portrait. In truth, the man looked like a monkey in a man’s suit. I was too cowardly to tell the artist what I thought. At that moment, I knew he would never develop the eye of an eagle. He couldn’t make the tough choice an eagle faces. The old adage applies to him, “You can be a Jack of all trades but the master of none.” He needed to paint landscapes until he became proficient. Painting is difficult to master and being the best in all genres is nigh impossible.
When the eagle is old, his feathers grow too thick on his chest, making flying difficult. I know what it is to grow older. I’ll reserve the term “old” until I achieve 100 years. For him to reach a safe place, the old eagle has to be willing to employ a great amount of energy. When the eagle’s talons and beak are gone, they take the challenge. They have to fly up to a tall rock, preferably a perch where no predator can reach. He is faced with two options, die or change. He goes through a tough challenge to be re-born.
The only option for an older eagle wanting to live is to go through the painful process, which takes 150 days to make the change. His first task is to bang his beak against a rock until he knocks it out. That’s sorta like pulling your own teeth. The eagle will wait until his beak grows back before pulling out his talons. That’s like pulling your fingernails out. The final phase of change comes when the new talons have grown back. The eagle pulls out all the old heavy feathers. The entire process takes about five months to complete. After the five months of working on change, the flight of re-birth takes place and the eagle is ready for another 30 to 40 years.
Would you be willing to dedicate five months to changing your life? I’ve told my story so many times I’m sure some of you have grown tired. I was doing an art process of gold leaf on the back of glass. I sold amazing amounts of the gold leaf art. The difference between me and the eagle, I was still earning obscene sums of money with the gold leaf process. I changed because I had the passion to learn to paint with oils. I spent close to three years practicing with oils, throwing all I did away. To make sure I didn’t keep any of the art, I used kerosene for my medium. The paintings would never dry. You really can’t truly practice until you are tossing out all you make. That’s because you will eventually paint a piece that looks pretty darn good. You will decide to keep that one and a week or so later, the next one. Soon you are not practicing, because you get worried about making art that’s good enough to keep. With kerosene the work will never dry, so you have to practice. Near the end of the practice years I was doing some pretty good stuff. The temptation grew to stop using kerosene.
I beat out the old beak, my gold leaf technique, so a new one could grow. I plucked my talons, trading them for filbert brushes and yanked out the old feathers for a fresh new challenge. Basically it comes down to you making the switch from being a buzzard patiently waiting for something to happen to becoming an eagle where you are in control of your own destiny.
Look at your career. Answer two questions.
1. Am I satisfied with where I am?
2. Can I make dramatic changes and extend my career?
None of us can stay in the same spot, we grow or fall back. The eagle has to stop and renew or he will die. Some of us have to change our path or fail. Mikki made the switch from equine art to architectural with flowers at a time she was painting horses at a high level. Giving up horses was a hard choice, because she had just finished a commission of Secretariat for the International Museum of the Horse. Her art had graced the covers of many equine magazines and scores of articles praised her horse paintings. We had a file full of thousands of photos of horses. Mikki and I had driven a jillion miles photographing at least forty breeds of horses. When her paintings of buildings with flowers began selling ten to one over her equine art, it was time to put the horses out to pasture.
You can be an eagle or a pelican. The pelican dies because of bad eye sight. He destroys his cornea slamming into the water. Eventually, he can’t see to find food. The eagle can retreat and repair. In your case, you can make the choice to continue to dive in like the pelican or find some quiet time to renew and refresh. With a fresh outlook you can fly off the perch of safety into a new birth of success.