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Asking Questions

by Carolyn Henderson on 11/13/2012 7:31:22 AM

This article is by Carolyn Henderson, the managing half of Steve Henderson Fine Art. A regular contributing writer for FineArtViews, Carolyn also writes a weekly blog on Artist Daily. Her alter ego, Middle Aged Plague, publishes lifestyle articles in online and in print newspapers and on her blog site. Recently, Carolyn has collected 30 of these essays each  into two e-books, Life Is A Gift (Ordinary Life Is Beautiful) and The Jane Austen Driving School. She is presently working on a grammar book for ordinary people who don’t jump with joy discussing dangling participial phrases and the difference between subordinate and insubordinate clauses.


Several years ago, I embarked upon a personal journey in which I questioned every single thing I had ever been told or taught about God. Without miring you in spirituality, I did some serious reading, thinking, and observing, in the process training myself to draw upon my own intelligence, background, ability to analyze, and experience.


Along the way, I discovered that the questioning had just begun, spilling out into every aspect of my life. Whereas before, my default had been to accept much of what I was told or picked up through reading, listening, or watching really bad Bruce Willis movies, I now found myself stopping and asking: "Who is saying this? What is his or her reason behind saying it? By what authority is he or she speaking? Is this necessarily true, and if so, how sweeping or universal  is this truth?"


While I realize that this makes me sound like an extraordinarily difficult person to talk to at a cocktail party (do you go to these? I honestly don't think I've ever been to a real, proper, actual cocktail party), you probably wouldn't mind me, because I do more listening than I do talking. The more information that I draw in, the more resources that I have available to think, analyze, interpret, question, and learn.

And the more confidence I have to reach conclusions and stand by them.


This ability comes in handy in all aspects of life, not the least of which is running an art business, and being married to the man who produces the artwork that we sell and license.


As you may have noticed, art is a pretty open-ended subject, with the question, "What is Art?" having no real answer, but plenty of people shouting out opinions. Some of these people, when they shout loud enough, have the resources and influence to make an impact upon the art world, affecting the general public's impression of art, influencing how civic and government entities fund and promote art, even -- and maybe especially -- subtly directing the minds and actions of artists themselves.


While artists pride themselves upon being unique, quirky, out of step, marching-not-only-to-a-different-drummer-but-to-a-different-instrument type of people (and they are, most wonderfully, they are), how many stop to ask,


"What is good art, really? And what makes it good?" (Incidentally, this is not a question that should be limited to artists; it would be revolutionary if people in general asked this question, and trusted enough in themselves to work toward an answer.)


There are all sorts of answers to these two questions, ranging from, "All art is good," to, "Good art, by gum, looks just like the real thing, a photograph, but in paint," and like all significant questions, there is no one-size-fits-all answer.


This does not stop people from speaking out, however, which is a good thing, because it promotes thought and dialogue. The bad thing happens when others are expected, pressured, and influenced to accept specific answers.


For example:


Plein Aire painting: is it, or is it not, the "best" way to paint, the only way to truly capture the essence of light? Or is it simply one of many ways to paint, and some people do it really well and love it, and others prefer their nice, cozy, warm studio?


How about painting from photographs or off of a computer screen: is this cheating? Or is this using technology in a creative, dynamic, exciting way? And that being said, maybe some people do it really well and love it, and others prefer putting on a jacket, grabbing their paints and easel, and spending the afternoon on the beach.


And some people like to do both. And others neither. And still others a fusion of methods.


The point is, there is no one, fail-proof, this-is-IT method to produce fine art, but until we are comfortable with realizing this and until we spend serious time thinking about what works and why and how this fits into the way we do things, we will find ourselves unduly influenced by the opinions and methods of others.


Maybe those others know more than we do, and for that reason, we listen to what they say. Fair enough. But it's the goal of every good student to achieve mastery, and that means that he seeks to equal, or exceed, the knowledge of his teacher.


Next Week -- Being Difficult


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Related Posts:


Shaken, Not Stirred. Not Shy, But Reserved

The Needs of the Few Outweigh the Needs of the Many

Topics: art appreciation | art education | Carolyn Henderson | FineArtViews | inspiration 

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Libby Fife
Goodness, but I have such a difficulty with being told what to do or think with respect to making/appreciating art. But I want to learn and not just be stubborn. And the dialogue is great as suggested but a "my way or the highway" discussion doesn't work for me at all. I want to judge for myself and figure out why I like something (or not) but find it nearly impossible to not hear the outside voices telling me about "the rules." So, my solution these days is to draw upon two things that work for me: I learned in school how to dissect the content of something for bias-critical thinking is what it is called. (Do they still teach this?) I use this a lot to evaluate things (or people). The second idea is my own confidence in something. Do I like it or do I like is because I have read that I should like it? A fine line but a good question to ask. It just seems to me that trusting your own thoughts is tough work these days. Thanks for the thought provoking article.

Michael Cardosa
Hi Carolyn,

A few posts back you wrote about controversy and today a long post that avoids any type of it. Putting out to the readers to embrace what they think is right and listening to the opinion of others. Plein air versus pictures, inside/outside, bottom line. Who cares! I don't mean that as a reference to what you've written I mean it as it represents the end product. Yes, for all of the people who are offended by that, I said product. If you're a professional artist and sell your work, that's what it is. If you, or the people who collect your work, like what you do, you're doing it right. If not, you need to take stock of what seems to be wrong and correct it.

Listen to the opinion of others, you just might learn something new, but do what you think is right because in art, there is no real right and wrong just good and bad as others view it. Get over it.

thanks again Carolyn, your posts are always interesting.


Great article, but my comment is about a fairly small thing. It's 'plein air'; there's no 'e' at the and of the word air. I'm an American living in France and can tell you that the word 'aire' means 'area'; you might see a sign for an aire as you drive along, which would be a highway rest stop. :-)Outdoor painting is painting 'en plein air', which means in the out in the air. "En plein aire" would mean out in the area - could be a highway rest stop, or a playground, or a football field, etc, etc. Everyone seem to be spelling this wrong lately.

George De Chiara
Carolyn - Image my shock to learn there are bad Bruce Willis movies. Surely this must be a mistake!

Love the article! It reminds me of something a fried of mine once told me about school that really made sense. The best thing school can teach you is to learn on your own. I couldn't image a time when I stop questioning what's presented to me. Or as me 3 year old would day "Why?"

Karen Rainwater
I have no comment specifically regarding your post because you have said it most perfectly. But, your post made me think of something, as far as what is art? Or, more specifically, what is good art. Michael Cardosa in his comments pointed out that if your work is appreciated and bought by collectors, that is a pretty good indicator that you are doing it right. I agree. I sort of see a dual aspect to art. There is the artwork that I do for myself, not to share. And, then there is the artwork I do that I hope will please someone. Of course, there is some overlap on this. I guess I might be saying that the definition of "good art" depends a great deal on the purpose for which it's created. I've said this before, I find the process of the work to be the most satisfying part. The end product might be great, but it actually isn't the goal for me. So, I think of art as a verb, I guess....

Sandy Askey-Adams, PSA
Dear Carolyn:

Thank you. Very interesting post. Have seen many articles on the subject of "What is Art," or "What is good art." So, I guess that question never seems to get answered due to different thoughts on the subject.

I agree with what you wrote. I agree with Michael Cardosa's comment also, as well as Karen and George's comment.

I think at times we feel intimidated if we don't paint a certain way or use a media in a certain way.

We do know that art is being creative. Original. Each artist has the right to create in their own way when they are aiming toward what they want to say with their work. All artists are trying to improve upon their work day after day.

Michael is so right....It is indeed the end result that counts.

It is not right for an artist to tell another artist he or she is not a painter if they do not paint plein air. And, it is not right for the painter who prefers painting in his or her studio to tell the plein air artist they are not a painter. I am certain that the studio artist goes outdoors and studies nature, sees the colors, etc....takes color notes, rough drafts, and yes, takes photographs.
Then there is also the artist who creates completely from his or her imagination.

But, with all artists, there is always observation of life and the artists personal interpretation no matter what media or style or subject.

There are far too many ways to explore the meaning of art and what is or is not. AND, far too many questions to be answered that will not be answered until the end of time, if then even.

Sharon Weaver
I used to confound my mom by never accepting what others told me as fact. Even through grade school I was a trouble maker that way. I remember learning about Abe Lincoln and how he gave everyone the right to vote. I raised my hand and said, "That isn't right. Women didn't get the vote until the 1900's." The teacher was speechless. The point is to have an inquisitive mind and be open. I approach my art with the same searching mindset. I am never satisfied with the answers I have but instead always looking for other solutions.

Susan Holland
Carolyn, you say: 'The point is, there is no one, fail-proof, this-is-IT method to produce fine art, but until we are comfortable with realizing this and until we spend serious time thinking about what works and why and how this fits into the way we do things, we will find ourselves unduly influenced by the opinions and methods of others. '

This is such a thoughtful sentence, but there is something in it that I don't agree with!

I really think that the best art comes out when we are NOT thinking so much, but just letting the inner person (skilled by practice or not) loose to make the art genuinely original and therefore powerful.

Chidren make such art. They really are not listening to philosophy when they make it. Some of it is absolutely beautiful in design, balance and form, just by virtue of unsullied eye ---> hand activity.

Adults who have practiced the eye -->hand activity for a time get increasingly sophisticated results by practice, as long as they don't get terminally bogged down in philosophy and opinions of others.

Kathy Chin
Loved your article Carolyn...and how folks picked up on the "what is art" challenge. Particularly liked the part where you talked about painting on photos and other digital art. Most of you use oils, acrylics, pastels or water colors to paint, but there are some of us who don't... yet and may not. Many traditional painters look down on us, feeling as though we really aren't artists. Thank you for pointing out another way of thinking. We in the digital world must still overcome rolled eyes, indignantly shaking heads, and those who don't want to include us in "serious" art competitions. We have to plod on trying to remain confident in our medium of choice...

Carolyn Henderson
Libby: trusting our own thoughts these days is tough, because we are the result of a system -- educational, political, business, religious, and medical -- that has spent a long time telling us that we're not experts enough to make a decision for ourselves, and we need to listen to "them." Keep up what you're doing. It's a day by day process -- just like exercising -- but it produces benefits well worth having.

Michael: "Those who are not for us, are against us." "Those are not against us, are for us."

You're right -- two different series of posts, addressing different aspects of the same thing -- with the ultimate goal of encouraging us all to use our experience, background, gifts and brains to ultimately make the decisions that are best and right for us. This isn't just about art -- this is about life.

Ellie: not a small thing at all -- thank you for the correction, and I will try to drive it into the part of my brain that remembers things like this (such as, how to correctly spell, "license." Still working on that one after 30 years, but for the most part succeeding).

George: I am so sorry to shock you about Bruce. But he's still a great guy, and there's nothing better than an evening of one of his movies when you've worked so hard that day that you can't think straight.

We, too, have a three year old in our lives, and hear that "Why?" a lot. Why do we let that be trained out of us?

Karen: What is Art? What is GOOD art? Questions to put in the queue along with, "What is our purpose in life?" "Why do bad people prosper?" There's no definitive answer to them, but it never stops us from discussing.

Sandy: Good points. And again, it comes down to each individual learning to the best of his ability, and using that learning and ability to come to conclusions, free from the voice of others, no matter how well meaning (which, often, they usually aren't -- I have always been amazed how my progeny will accept the insults and comments of rivals and enemies as more truthful than the comments of their friends and family. Like their enemies are going to be honest?)

Sharon: I hope that teacher realized that, in you, she had a student indeed -- one who was on a quest for learning. The image you paint makes me smile. When you walk into a room, you make a difference.

Susan: You've got it -- that's the crucial part about that inner person being allowed to wander around the room loose: skill and ability. Steve talks to a lot of students who have this idea that the mysterious inner muse will just pop out and do amazing things, even though they never feed her with training, time, and practice. And then they can't understand -- when they don't study, experiment, or paint very much -- why they can't paint the way he does. The muse, if there is one, is weak and unfed.

How different we can all be when we remember that inner child you mention -- the one not "terminally bogged down in philosophy and opinions of others."

Kathy: in the quilting world, there is the idea that people who use quilting machines are "cheating," because they're just letting the machine do it all. I have spoken to some of these artisans, and their first comment is, "Just learning to use the machine is an art. You don't just press a button, sit back with a cup of coffee, and pick up the quilt when it's done."

I empathize and understand what you deal with in people thinking you're not "real." And I applaud your standing up and shouting out that you are.

Walter Paul Bebirian
the question is do you want to listen and learn - something new or whatever the person is talking is saying -

it is often the mistake of many people to think that the other guy knows better than you - and the funny thing is - is that if you listen as well as look long enough - you will see and hear the person you have been listening to look and listen to someone else for what is right -

my suggestion is to find the answers for the questions that you have for yourself - inside yourself -


" Maybe those others know more than we do, and for that reason, we listen to what they say. Fair enough. But it's the goal of every good student to achieve mastery, and that means that he seeks to equal, or exceed, the knowledge of his teacher. "

- being self-taught , your last paragraph in the ' Asking Questions ' article presents an amusing irony . LOL

an important thing for me is to keep a journal , visual at first , then written/words which connect to recognized descriptions of a ' term ' and the technical process .
> it may or may not be useful in a casual/face conversation . LOL

my main point is to be observant , and encouraging to one's self .
> it's a reference point for me for all of the above . :)


Esther J. Williams
Carolyn, I was just thinking about this today when I saw some of my earlier paintings in the garage. How greatly I was influenced by a certain style in one painting and a completely different style in another painting. Or 2 styles awkwardly combined in one painting! Fast forward 12 years later and I seem to have found myself, or have I? I think we spend our whole lives finding ourselves as artists and expressing that in our medium.
The best decision I ever made was to not limit myself, keep expanding in knowledge and experience. Let that little voice inside reveal the channel of creativity, go with it, don`t fight it. Art is like our fingerprints, no two are alike. Art is original and made in oh so many ways.

Brian Sherwin
There really isn't a 'best' approach when it comes to creating art. I know artists who create outstanding works of art fueled by their imagination... and others who create outstanding works using models, photographs and so on. Those who say "This is the only way" tend to be insecure -- it is a defense mechanism. That has been my experience, anyway.

jo allebach
Fabulous post! Now which came first the chicken or the eggs.

Walter Paul Bebirian
now Jo - that is a great question and one of the lost secrets of the Universe - and since it is a lost secret of the Universe and we always need some of those - I would imagine that it will at least for now - remain a secret - :-)

Kimberly Kent
I am so disappointed in Jack White. The political rant was out of place and one sided. My own business has been on the upswing over the last few years and I know many artists who say the same. I have a hard time seeing why Jack wants to drive a wedge in his reader base by stepping away from talking about art and being divisive. He just cut his book sales in half.

Janette Fuller
Was a fan of Jack White's blog...NO MORE! Disgusted! Will automatically delete when deposited into Inbox!

Karen Rainwater
While Jack White's blog may have drifted a small bit from art, it was still relevant. We artists don't live in a vacuum. Every aspect of life affects our art. It affects how we sell, how we create, and even how we perceive our art. There are some parts of his blog I felt uncomfortable with, but I still appreciated his overall message. I certainly wouldn't dump him over one blog post. :)

Kimberly Kent
I think it was the finger pointing over and over that left me cold. That can always go both ways so while the issues of the economy are for all of us, the divisive politics is useless talk. In my opinion the housing and mortgage crisis accounts for more lost art sales over the last five years or so than any healthcare issues. Healthcare Facilities are still buying art. It is the homeowners that have backed off.

Tamra Sanchez
Out of line!...I have always looked forward to reading your daily e-mails but this political rant has turned me off! I have to say it has totally biased me against him...This was one place that I could count on to get my art fix without getting any political and religious crap...spool disappointed!

Susan Holland
Is this at all on topic? I think this has been hashed out elsewhere. Let's not compound the whole issue by expressing unhappiness on other posts, like this one.

Sandy Askey-Adams, PSA
Love all your writings Carolyn. This is another great one. Thank you. The comments relating to this topic you wrote are wonderful to read and consider.

Brian...I liked what you said about ways or approaching painting.

Oh, and Susan,,,so right you are....I just read a quote this morning and it is meaningful to life in general.
"For every minute you are angry, you lose sixty seconds of happiness." Written by a wise man, Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Carolyn Henderson
Susan -- thank you. I'm not sure how the comments from one article get jumbled into the comments from another, but I appreciate your clarifying the situation.

Jana Botkin
Plein air, from still life in the studio, from photos in the studio - everyone has their idea of The One Right Way To Paint.

Against the advice of a wise and experienced writer on this website, I took my first painting workshop last weekend. I came away convinced that I am a fake artist because I don't do anything The One Right Way, according to the very skilled artist who taught the workshop.

I don't want to paint like her, so why did I take her class?

So I could learn, and learn I did. I learned that "limited palette" means multiple things, that brushes scorned by some painters have value to others, that portraits aren't hard at all (Oh yeah??), that you shouldn't use a brush to smooth out facial lines (Hunh??), and that I know nothing.

Thank you, Carolyn for this sensible article pulling me back to my own sense of self and "rightness".

I LOVE this blog. 8-)


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