What does it take to be an artist? How do we create art that touches hearts and changes the world? Can we change the world with our art? If we can, what kind of world do we want to create? Should we immerse ourselves in learning style and technique and cut ourselves off from the world so we can focus and create better and better artwork?
What are your thoughts?
A week ago, I spent Memorial Day playing with grandchildren and hanging out with family. I had so much work to do – was it smart to take the day off? In fact, I have so much I feel compelled to accomplish and learn it would take two or more full lifetimes to do it all. How do we decide where to put our energy?
Years ago (the early ‘90s), I read an interview with a prominent sculptor who left his wife and 3 daughters so he could give his full attention to his art. He said that his family understood the importance of his work and supported his decision. Bull pucky! What a load of elitist hooey – a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing!
United, loving family relationships bolster and benefit society to extents that art, no matter how masterful, can never duplicate or approach.
However, that interview touched a cord in me at the time because I was given similar advice by my dad when I was young. He told me artists need to live Bohemian lives, never marry or have kids, so they can master their craft without getting distracted.
Maybe he was right – he does have a genius I.Q – and museums certainly aren’t clamoring for my paintings.
Just so you don’t get a faulty impression, my dad is one of my best friends and a fantastic parent. He just knew how much I loved painting and he wanted me to succeed as an artist. The poor guy had to watch as I not only joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and spent two years serving a church mission but got married shortly after and went on to have 7 children. A perfect set-up to become a distracted and starving artist.
So, was that sculptor telling a ‘tale told by an idiot’ or was he right? What’s the purpose of art? Is it a gift that is sacred to humanity? Are artists special and need to be separate from the norms and limitations of ‘ordinary’ people? Is art a higher calling than the traditional ‘9-5 and then go home to the spouse and kids’ routine?
This post is about living life, not just as an artist, but as a human being, and how desperately the world needs to see the beauty we recognize and share through our art, and how desperately we as artists need to be actively engaged in day-to-day activities and relationships that come with family, friends, neighbors, and community.
Orson Scott Card, a sci-fi and fantasy writer, is a brilliant observer of human nature – why we think and respond as a species and as individuals. He is one of my favorite authors. I first read Ender’s Game in 1989 as an assigned book during an advanced literature course in college. I started in the evening and finished at 4 that morning – I couldn’t put it down.
I’ve been thinking about this post for a couple weeks. My thoughts came together this morning while reading Card’s ‘A Storyteller in Zion’. It’s a compilation of essays and talks by him. I read it the first time in the ‘90s and picked it up today while looking for a quote about something unrelated to this post.
I plan to quote from one of those essays repeatedly because he describes many of my thoughts about art so much better than my skills allow.
On artists being different he says (words in parenthesis are mine): “We’re always home, and we look to other people as though we’re unemployed (early on my wife’s parents asked repeatedly when I was getting a job). We get paid the way Death Valley gets rain. We can’t always produce on demand. Our work can surprise us. Nothing goes according to plan. Nothing is predictable. We devote ourselves to strange disciplines (like squinting at everything around us to see value relationships). We see the world through different eyes (seeing beauty in light streaming across a sidewalk). Without meaning to we startle the world with practically everything we say. Yet didn’t the Savior also step outside the normal track and live, as most of us do or will, from the generosity of people who love our words and our works?”
Okay, so maybe we artists are a bit strange. Do we need to distance ourselves from others so we can master the techniques and challenges of such a demanding craft?
Card states: “if you study art, you’re only half-prepared to be an artist; you must also study life. And to know and understand life, you must take part in it. It’s called mimesis: it is reality, and your relationship to it, that will teach you what your art should be.” “When I was a theatre student, I resented all the general education classes that took me away from my theatre work. Now, although I did learn much from my theatre studies, what I use the most, what is most important in my work, is the study and reading and experience that I’ve had outside my discipline. Technique is one thing. I have to also have something to write about. If you study only the works of artists, you may learn how to speak (paint), but you’ll have nothing to say (makes me think about some of those who spend years drawing and painting plaster casts only to realize they can’t paint anything else – they have no vision beyond proportions and correct values).”
I’ll admit, raising a family is a huge commitment and definitely takes time from painting. But for me, family is what makes me want to create something beautiful and worthy. I look at my wife and children and get so filled up with love and joy that I want desperately to do something with my life that will inspire them and show them how beautiful life is.
Teaching art has done that for me with each of you as well. When we started Master Oil Painting, I never imagined I would devote so much time to teaching. I could happily spend my days just painting and never tire of it. Teaching takes time away from painting and logically it would seem like a distraction. And yes, right now I finish only a fraction of the number of paintings I did in the past. What I have found though is that teaching art is making me a better artist.
Each of you inspires me to reach higher, to learn more, and to paint better than I ever have.
You have also taught me powerfully the benefit of community. Watching you help each other and offer tips and advice for someone struggling with a painting is amazing.
What other profession shares knowledge and time so freely? I sincerely believe most artists would give away their paintings and workshops for free if life allowed it.
The trick is to not let the necessities of living distract us from the reason we paint. Sure, sometimes we receive a commission or paint a piece for a gallery because a client is looking for something specific – and that helps us pay the bills and keep on painting. But as Orson Card says: “art only has power to change the world when it is about something.”
“Your technique will never be perfect. Never. But if your message is powerful and true, then your technique only has to be good enough, and your stylistic flaws will be forgiven. On the other hand, no matter how lovely your style, if your work has no substance, no subject matter that matters in the real world, you deserve to be forgotten, and I promise that you will be.”
Your message doesn’t have to be complicated or modern. Just paint what you see – what you love about this life of ours – and you’ll inspire someone else. Like C.S. Lewis wrote “in literature and in art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.”
Don’t worry too much about style and technique – those will come of their own accord simply from the act of painting consistently and problem solving. Figure out first why you want to paint and what you want to say.
Why do you paint? What inspires you? Figure that out and the skills and techniques will follow.
There is one reason I paint that has guided me more than anything else – my desire to live a life that will make my Savior Jesus Christ smile. Every time I enter my studio, for as many years as I can remember, the first thing I do is kneel down and thank Heavenly Father for allowing me to be an artist and a teacher and to ask for help and guidance. I always pray that what I do that day will be joyful to Him as well as to me and others.
We each have to find what inspires us. If that happens to be family, don’t let the world convince you that you can’t have both. I believe that the time we spend serving others, especially our own families, will make us soar higher as artists than we ever could without them. And if those ‘distractions’ do end up keeping us from achieving artistic stardom, well, at least our lives will be more joyful.
I recommend you keep photos and quotes around your studio that will constantly remind you of why you became an artist. Don’t lose sight of what inspires you!
p.s. This is a bit of an aside, but I was looking through old notes and found this as I was finishing this post. It looks like it was written in 2018 to someone named Gladys in response to an email, blog, or Facebook comment. I don’t remember the question, but it shows how much we love you our painting community, why we do what we do here, and how much you have inspired us by your examples:
“(Sorry Gladys – you’re about to get a firehose turned on – it’s done with a smile and without any animosity. I couldn’t think of any way to really shorten it)
That’s an understandable observation Gladys, especially in a world that is so geared toward money as the supposed route to a happy life. You’re right, if we paint with the intention of making money we probably won’t produce anything truly valuable for our world.
There is another trap as well that gets glossed over because our society is so focused on the individual today – that of painting solely for ourselves. Young people are choosing not to have children and marriages are no longer a sacred promise but merely a piece of paper because society is focused intently on the ‘rights’ of the individual. A disguised path of selfishness and misery.
There’s a mantra out there with some – I especially saw it in the University setting while getting my MFA and teaching at Ball State University – that we should not curtail anyone’s creativity even if it’s considered offensive or vulgar by the public because it’s our ‘right’ as artists to express ourselves even if it’s damaging to society as a whole.
I’m well aware of the problems that come from blindly following the crowd; seeking money for money’s sake; prejudice; and the stifling of ideas because they undermine the status quo. That is not what this is about. Many movies and books have been created that insist we mustn’t let anyone tell us what to do – especially an old-fashioned creativity-stifling society. Certainly, to a degree that is true until the pendulum shifts too far.
When we forget that we are part of a large global family and stop seeking that which will exalt and uplift those around us or refuse to sacrifice some of our own pursuits to help others, we become caught in the flow of Me’ism – and that only leads to despair and loneliness and broken families.
My training courses and videos are geared toward those who love representational painting and want to learn how to improve their skills and understanding of the principles of art. I don’t know it all by a long margin, that’s why I also study daily to learn and increase my skills.
I realize that the better my skills and understanding grow, the more effective I am at sharing just how beautiful this planet is. The stronger my abilities are to express my experiences with paint and brushes the greater are my opportunities to uplift and bring joy to others.
It’s a tough journey being an artist. Most professional artists and gallery owners I know are down to earth people who simply love the beauty around them and want to help others enjoy what they experience. I know personally a lot of top-level professional artists and I don’t know one who got into art to get rich and make money.
They teach for the same reasons – many professional artists make more from painting sales than from teaching, but they love to share. They also realize that there are practical needs in order to keep painting, especially when they have families to feed.
The videos and courses you see on my website and YouTube came first at the request of others – not from the thought that I might make money. Once I determined to sacrifice painting time to create the first course, I realized there were a lot of expenses that I did not anticipate, knowing relatively nothing about online selling or marketing. Everything we do is done by me, my wife, my son and his wife.
My son has worked tirelessly for the past 2 (now 4) years to help me while working full-time in the Air Force (now as a Sandler Sales Trainer) because he believes in what we are doing. He has received no financial compensation – he hasn’t been paid for his time.
We have grown quickly because our members know we care about them, and their success as artists – not about money. We hope to enlarge this teaching business so it can sustain itself, other artists, our family, and my son’s family because we love what we do and we love seeing the joy art brings to others around the world.
My son has fallen in love with the business because of the relationships we have formed with our community. We hope that it will become something that he can eventually do full-time and yes, that takes money, but that is far from why we do it.
You have no idea how much it has cost us in time and money to make this available – but then that’s also how many of the world’s worthwhile endeavors begin. That has also been the story of most of my artistic career.
I’m an artist trying to become somewhat of a businessman, to make something I believe in accessible to others. I also understand that many artists want to make a living from their art because they love it so much they want to do it full time. Hopefully, what we share will help them accomplish their goals or at least set them firmly on the path.
By the way, on our website there is a crazy amount of free training – information that takes a whole lot of time to create. So, while I agree with much of what you said Gladys, I also realize that there is more to the story of why artists feel compelled to create and to share with others and what kind of sacrifice it often takes to do so.”