The Laws of Nature

Monday, October 26, 2009

Formula vs. Interest

As I continue to share with you the parts of Ben Shahn's Book ("The Shape of Content") that interest me, I'm reminded that this is only one man's perspective of art and artists. There are so many other opinions and many of you have shared yours on this blog. I'm grateful. The sharing of ideas and opinions is important to expanding one's horizons and maturing as an artist.
Today's blog is about this statement by Shahn: "If a painting is to be at all interesting, it is the very absence of formula that will help make it so. Paintings must emerge from a personal vision." I spent many years teaching college students who frequently sought a formulaic approach to problem-solving rather than engage in the struggle of independent thought. I called this "cook-booking." They wanted a recipe; someone to tell them step-by-step how to get from A to Z. I refused to provide such a crutch because it prevents students from engaging in creative thinking and in developing analytical skills that enhance understanding and give birth to creative solutions.
How many painting workshops have you attended where the instructor provides a "formula" for creating a work of art? How many times has an instructor asked you to imitate his/her approach? How many of us prefer to learn this way? It's hard work to think independently - t0 break away from the crowd and make a work of art that's uniquely personal. Yes, we still have to learn the traditional techniques so that the quality of our work doesn't suffer, but we then must use those techniques to make our work interesting by making it uniquely personal. Over the past few years, I've learned of others who decided to try to paint eggshells the way I do. Some tell me that this is a form of flattery. I don't see it that way. I think it's sad, because the imitators don't have enough confidence or belief in their own ideas to express them. It's like refusing to speak because what you say can never be as good or as important as what someone else has to say. This is becoming invisible. Shan also wrote "If there is value it rests upon the human ability to have idea, and indeed upon the stature of the idea itself. For me, there would be little reason for painting if idea were not to emerge from the work."
Embrace your ideas - express you ideas - share your ideas!

10 comments:

Margaret Ryall said...

I totally agree that artists need to learn the basics of art (elements, principles and media information) and then find their personal voice. In the absence of a BFA , my learning occurred mainly through workshops and independent study. It was only when I stopped creating work through workshops and started to spend consistent time in my studio that the themes and working methods that are recognizable in my work began to appear.

Kathy said...

Nicely stated, Margaret!

Eva said...

Kathy, First I want to thank you for joining my blog and leaving such wonderful comments. I love your work and the written content of your blog.You certainly offer thought provoking ideas.Thanks for sharing ideas that we can all use.
Eva

Sheila said...

I think many beginning painters see "formula" with "financial success". As an example, after I joined Karin Jurick's Different Strokes from Different Folks challenge, I noticed many people imitating her people visiting the museum theme. I cannot see myself riding the coat tails of someone's successful style because it is not my own.

I've only just begun so I'm still finding my style. I'm glad your blog is helping me know I'm on the right path. Thanks Katherine!

-Don said...

You keep making me think and I'm not sure how I like that. ;-) Now my brain hurts...

I was blessed that my college professors did not believe in "cookbooking", as you called it. We learned the basics and were then encouraged to find our own "voice" - or formula. I have explored many 'languages' in art over the years as I've evolved to the manner in which I choose to 'speak' with my work today.

I would say that imitation can be a form of flattery if it is used as a means to finding one's own voice. To use someone else's "formula" as one tries to find their own way has been done throughout the history of making art. You're right, though, their voice will remain unheard, or always attributed to the imitated artist, until they find a way to then 'speak' in a manner that reflects who they are as an artist

-Don

Kathy said...

Sheila - glad to know you're sticking to your own artistic vision! Great.

Don - You have a fortunate beginning as an artist. I was lucky enough to have professors like yours, and am perplexed as to why so many workshop instructors, outside of the academy, teach through imitation. Maybe it's because of the time constraint, or that's what the students want ???

-Don said...

Kathy, to answer your question, I think it involves both the time constraints and student desire that you mentioned. But, I would venture that often in workshops the 'teacher' is an artist that's looking for extra income, whereas in an academy you have someone called to teach who is also an artist. If someone is not called to teach nor understands what teaching truly involves, the only way they know is to show how they do it. Hmmm, now that I think about it, I would call that more of an apprenticeship, which also has its place in the bringing up of artists.

Bottom line: Whatever it takes to get from novice to pro use it. Just find your own voice or formula along the way if you want to be relevant.

Kathy said...

Good point, Don. For me, serving on the faculty of a college for a long time was the key to becoming an effective teacher. Every semester my students and superiors evaluated my work. I HAD to improve and I had to bring in new majors. Could it be the same for workshop teachers? After all, they must keep their workshops enrolled and workshop directors happy. Or, are student expectations so low at workshops that it doesn't matter? Hmmmm... now my head hurts!

Tonya Vollertsen said...

Kathy, this is a very interesting topic especially for me right now. After teaching CE art classes at a local college for the past decade plus, I recently had the experience of teaching a class in another area at a community art center. The students from the college were more into good meaty basics and wanting to improve their skills where I found much to my dismay that the art center group wanted to watch me paint and responded best to assignments where we outlined leaves and filled them in etc. If I talked about value or color relationships etc. they glazed over. Same age mix in both venues but possibly taking a class at a college makes students expect more of themselves? This was such a baffling experience for me.

Kathy said...

Hi Tonya, Thank you for adding to this conversation. I understand the baffling experience you had and think your interpretation may be an accurate one. Most academic institutions have a mission that creates an atmosphere conducive to serious learning and creativity. The students pay more for their classes, and instructors hold them accountable via a grading system. Good grades are necessary for graduation, and really good grades are important for entrance into graduate programs. There's a lot of incentive for the students at a college/university and much less incentive other than self-motivation for students in community centers and art workshops.