The Laws of Nature

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Your Craft and Your Voice

The painting I'm posting to illustrate Roberts' principle in this chapter is a perfect example of non-authentic work because it not only lacks my "voice" but also excellence in technique. I completed this painting over a decade ago under the influence of many other artists who had painted this same lighthouse keeper's house on Monhegan Island, Maine where I used to summer. Obviously, it lacks all the elements of a "good" painting and is totally uninspired.


So, what principle does Roberts offer us in Chapter 5 of his book Creative Authenticity? Your craft and your voice. It's a relief to me to find a chapter in this book that I can agree with from beginning to end. In it, the author makes three points: 1) we find only within ourselves that which we need to express in our paintings (a.k.a. our "voice"), 2) mastering painting technique allows us to effectively and successfully express our voice, but technique alone is never a substitute for self-expression, and 3) learning technique and learning to express our ideas should simultaneously develop.


He cites many great examples for his points and the one I can identify with utilizes the budding musician. I may have touched on this notion in an earlier blog, but I'll state it better here and use a personal example that parallels Roberts'. I am fortunate enough to have parents who provided me with a formal education in both the visual and musical arts. I started piano lessons at the age six and stuck with it. When I reached my early thirties, I hired a concertizing coach who recognized my advanced technical ability but thought that my performances lacked musicality. After only a few months of coaching, she showed me how to express myself in music - how to make the piano "sing" and how to "color" the music. It was a like a light-bulb had turned on in my head and I finally saw what music is supposed to be. I had found my own voice. I began to interpret what another had composed to make it something new, something personal. And, as I learned to add my own voice to my performance, I also gained greater technical mastery. These two aspects advanced together and I rapidly improved.


But, the second point that Roberts makes and that I understood as a musician, is that I couldn't achieve that level of mastery as a pianist without a solid foundation. As a visual artist, this also rings true. If I don't have enough technical mastery when I paint, my ability to effectively express the intended meaning will be inhibited. I used to hate practicing scales on the piano, but my diligence paid off and enhanced my ability to play Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, Chopin, etc.

Technical mastery and self expression need to develop together. One cannot be substituted for the other and result in a successful painting. As Roberts points out, sometimes too many flaws in technique can obscure the message. But, he writes, if the message is powerful enough, a few flaws won't diminish the work.


So, what's wrong with the painting I posted? I had absolutely no inner motivation for painting it other than the fact that every other artist on the island was painting the lighthouse. I had no personal connection and it shows. The painting lacks passion. It's stiff, poorly composed, and ... well... I guess you could throw the entire book of criticism at it! I keep this painting as a reminder of what not to do.


Your thoughts??

24 comments:

Margaret Ryall said...

Yes, yes, yes, to all three points with a few minor reservations. When I decided to pursue art seriously after I retired from my previous career, I felt overwhelmed with all that I had to learn before I could render something half way sensibly. In the beginning it was all about mastering techniques. It was at least three years before I realized that there needed to be something of me in that rendering or that my work didn't always need to be highly realistic. That was a frightening time and I often felt out on a limb and very exposed because I didn't quite know how I was supposed to have a personal voice in my work. I didn't know it was a simple as painting what you are attracted to and believe in and do it your way. This understanding came to me when I stopped taking classes and workshops and began to self direct my work. At that same time I first started to work in a series and that totally grounded me and provided many opportunities to examine a theme and to link paintings. One idea led to another. There were so many aspects to explore and my work matured in that process.

Kathy said...

Hi Margaret - you raise an important point. Like you, I blossomed after I finished taking courses (laid the foundation) and forged ahead on my own. There's something valuable about separating oneself from all the voices on influence at some point and just creating as a solo artist. Thanks for bringing up this important point.

Peggy Stermer-Cox said...

Hi Kathy,
Hmm, Margaret's comments mirror my own path, though it's taken awhile longer. I still struggle to figure out how to paint the way I see.

What struck me, though, was how your lighthouse communicated cool, detached, Puritanical, mythical New England to me.

This world of painting is humbling. It seems you must work to gain the authenticity we strive for. And, it isn't easy! Wonderful post and discussion, Kathy!

Casey Klahn said...

Peggy says a mouthful...painting is humbling. I concur.

I, too, see a lot to like in your painting. I can't help seeing the way A Wyeth did this aspect of a house (same architecture - not sure of the locale) and the way his work is so masterful.

You are brave to show your painting and dis it...good on you, Katherine!

My personal favorite, Wolf Kahn, has written how he regrets his better technique, now. I think what he was saying was he liked the way some of his earlier work was "over-done" because that had a meaning and a voice, too.

I must say that your example and this whole post is very illuminating to me.

Heather said...

Hi Katharine,
What a lovely painting of the Monhegan museum building/lighthouse perspective! I grew up on Monhegan and my dad was the officer in charge on Manana when the Coast Guard was stationed there before it became automated. In later years he helped move the bell from Manana where it sits today at the lighhouse overlooking the island village. My mom is still on the island and manages summer season rental cottages. I maintain a fanpage for her on facebook simply called Monhegan Island Cottage Rentals I would love to post your Monhegan painting there with your permission - I am always looking for fresh perspectives of the island. Here is a link to the site if you want to check it out.

http://www.facebook.com/pages/Monhegan-ME/Monhegan-Island-Cottage-Rentals/73357036540?ref=ts

Happy Holidays!
Heather

Heather said...

ps. I know you think your painting was not your best work but I like the brightness of it, could be non artistic eye but it reminds me of home and that's what I appreciate!

Kathy said...

Hi Peggy - you said a mouthful when you wrote "the world of painting is humbling." So true! We artists face the difficult task of balancing intimidation with confidence. What a fine line to walk!

Hi Casey - I'm a Kahn admirer as well, but never knew about his regret. Isn't it interesting how we tend to complicate things sometimes beyond what we had really intended? It's like yearning for our lost youth. Thanks so much!

Kathy said...

Hi Heather: What a surprise!! Thanks so much for letting us know about your special connection to Monhegan and Manana Islands. I spent about ten summers there renting the Herb Kallem Studios. Eventually, I built a house in Spruce Head across the water on the mainland. It IS a small world! You must have some wonderful stories to relate. Sure, feel free to use the image. :)

Heather said...

Great, thank you! I just posted with a link to your blog. Our fans are all Monhegan enthusiasts (many creatives, too)

http://www.facebook.com/pages/Monhegan-ME/Monhegan-Island-Cottage-Rentals/73357036540?ref=ts

Margaret Ryall said...

Wolf Kahn's work was some of the first to show me what a pared down landscape looks like. I just love the less is more look of his work and who wouldn't love his colour usage? I think his approach/technique/style is a very important aspect of his voice. It is difficult to separate out the different aspects to determine what someone's artistic voice really is.

Dennis Dame said...

Super post Kathy!- Well said! Beside the "technical" that both limits and gives freedom to our expression, I find another limiting factor is the tendency to paint to the "viewers" in my mind rather than to my own self expression. I suppose after many years of working in the "commercial art" world (where painting exactly what your client whats is exactly what one does) It is sort of like a dog that has lived the first half of his life on a leash and when the leash is removed, he still does not wander out beyond his original boundaries.
I appreciate your point in showing your earlier work. That piece is a snap-shot of where you were at that time and with any luck - as fine as your work is now, you will look at it in a few years as something less advanced than your current work. To me, It's what makes this such a fascinating lifelong pursuit.
-Cheers!

Kathy said...

Hi Dennis - Good point! It's often difficult to separate ourselves from the opinions of others when we create. Once, I made the big mistake of accepting an invitation to paint with a group of artists on a weekly basis. I lasted only two weeks because I couldn't deal with the way all the artists would flit between easels commenting on the work of others while they were in the process of painting. Everyone kept adjusting what they were painting to the latest comment and lost their individual voices in the process. I must paint in total isolation. And, I, too hope to look back on my present work in ten years and say: "oh, that was so undeveloped compared to what I'm doing now!" Thanks for commenting!

PAMO said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kathy said...

Hi Pam - thanks so much! Although I know what the technical problems are with this painting, I'm also pleased to know that some of you respond to it in a positive way. Just goes to show ... beauty IS in the eye of the beholder. Thanks so much for your comments!

hwfarber said...

Interesting that this painting example found its audience today.

For me I think expression has always come first. I jump in; then learn along the way. Having lots of books helps--I can choose to follow directions or not. The internet is an incredible learning tool, too.

-Don said...

Great post, Kathy. After a busy day of final Christmas preparations and Christmas parties I find myself unable to add anything of interest that hasn't already been well stated by those who have commented before me. My voice is tired... zzzzzzzzz... -Don

Kathy said...

Hi Hallie - thanks for telling us a little more about your process. Is it the same process you use to sculpt?

Hi Don - get some rest! Thanks for taking time to read and comment.

hwfarber said...

When I sculpted in wood & stone, I always brought the chisel towards me. Wrong way--but I had more control.

Later, with clay, the director of the cultural center (a sculptor) constantly told me my combining of clays wouldn't work. It did; I had checked the shrink rate.

I always question--sort of like sticking my hand in the steam after Mom told me it was hot.

hwfarber said...

I should add that my first art class was portrait painting at the Smithsonian in 1962 (handsome Italian instructor). From 1968 to 1984 I studied with two sculpture instructors and took some college art classes. Painting is pretty much self-taught; a few recent workshops.

Kathy said...

Hi Hallie, Interesting! Your independent way of creating is so effective to producing unique and meaningful art, which you have done.

Paúl R. said...

Thank you for this intriguing post.
Mentioning the value and importance of craft with respect to fine arts and music became something considered out-of-fashion in the modern societies.
Unfortunately, the one-way, blind and persistent drive for 'inspiration' as the sole value caused much of its outcome to be of questionable, or suspicious, value, to say the least.
German composer Johannes Brahms must have already seen some of this erosion happening around him, since he put it so well: "Without craftsmanship, inspiration is a mere reed shaken in the wind."

Kathy said...

Hi Paul: Thank you for this quotation from Brahms and your thoughtful insight!

Mike said...

Kathy and all commentors . . . .

This post holds PROFOUND information about personal artistic development.

After some 20 years of painting and working to find my authentic self, I look back and realize that it was the lonely, self directed experimenting, working in series, and just plain developing brush mileage that made the difference. . . . . still does . . .and will continue to make the difference.

To those who are serious about their growth as artists, leave friends and those who would comment on your work behind and focus on what YOU believe to be the path. In the end, the satisfaction comes not from what others say about your work, but how YOU feel about it.

There is a book to be written about this subject alone, Kathy. Am ordering Robert's book today! Thanks for revealing it to us all!

Kathy said...

Hi Mike - yes, yes yes! That's the path I had to take as well and it was worth it. Thanks for putting it so well. As for Roberts' book, I like some parts and not others. But, it is useful.