The Laws of Nature

Friday, October 29, 2010

Audience, Part 2

The View from the Studio Door: How Artists Find Their Way in an Uncertain World
By Ted Orland (2006)

Chapter 6: Audience, Part 2

Orland ends this chapter by giving the reader a far-reaching perspective of the artist's audience: The fact that museums and art history books are peppered with re-discovered art offers grudging support to the contrarian view that art actually has a better chance of surviving if it’s initially undervalued. Call it the Theory of Benign Neglect: work that doesn’t “fit” gets ignored and forgotten and buried in some dusty attic – in other words, it gets unintentionally preserved simply because no one bothers to throw it away. Then, in different times, an audience with different sensibilities rediscovers the work and sees it in an entirely new light.

So, our art, if it’s preserved, may appeal to people who haven’t yet been born in societies that haven’t yet evolved. Or, it could appeal to our contemporaries but not future generations. Honestly, I can’t get bogged down in worrying about it because I’m not going to change the content of my work in order to appeal to an audience anyway. That’s just chasing rabbits, and it would force me to compromise my vision. For me, it’s a cardinal sin to paint to someone else’s tastes at the expense of my own concept and sensibilities.

But, the notion that my art future may appeal to a future generation is a good reason to use only archival materials. I was advised to do this many years ago and have always spent big bucks on acid-free papers, permanent high-quality hues, etc. Even my studies are treated with this regard, and I advise my students to do the same.

Who is my audience?
Who is your audience?
Who is any artist’s audience? We might never know.

And now - I’m off to Washington D.C. to attend “The Rally to Restore Sanity.” Have a great weekend, everyone!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Audience, Part 1

The View from the Studio Door: How Artists Find Their Way in an Uncertain World
By Ted Orland (2006)

Chapter 6: Audience, Part 1

We artists usually make art for ourselves because it’s satisfying on many levels. In fact, most of us are compelled to express our thoughts and ideas through our art even if there were no audience. However, as Orland writes, when audience is added into the equation, the whole process quickly becomes more complex and often more troublesome. We'll explore the "troublesome" aspect in part 2 of this chapter.

The author likens art without an audience to a tree falling in the forest with no one there to hear it. The tree fell, but without a witness who cares?? Over the long run, art without audience is incomplete. The meaning of your art may be embedded in the artwork itself, but its purpose arises from its relationship with audience.

In support of this notion, I’d like to apply it to all artforms. How is a ballet affected if no one ever sees it? Likewise, a novel, poem, movie, sonata, and so on? And, how would the private existance of the arts affect our culture? I know that seems absurd, but it helps me to put art in perspective. I would argue that part of the intent in making art from any discipline is to communicate with others. The trick is, however, to not let the audience influence our creative authenticity.

The essential questions Orland asks are:
Who is the real audience for your art?

Where would you hope to find your art ten years from now?

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Surviving Graduation, Part 2

The View from the Studio Door: How Artists Find Their Way in an Uncertain World
By Ted Orland (2006)

Chapter 5: Surviving Graduation, Part 2

The rest of this chapter examines the transition of the artist from student to professional. Orland lays out the typical steps that lead to success when one become an independent artist. These steps may be distilled to one: make art every day. He states your mastery of craft is directly proportional to the sheer number of hours you throw into the effort, but your vision unfolds in concert with your total life experience – in other words, slowly, and only across extended periods of time. Our “vision” needs time to mature and we must be patient enough let it. We achieve this one painting at a time, day after day, year after year.

What is it we’re hoping to achieve in our artmaking? Many of us find that it’s emotionally satisfying because we have an inner compulsion to make art and we need a creative outlet. For me, that’s true but there’s also something more. I need to share my work with others – to exhibit it in public venues. It’s not vanity, it’s simply my way of communicating with society. As Orland puts it, over the long run it’s the relationship of your art to the entire culture that determines its value. In the deepest sense, the relationship of your art to the culture is its value.

I feel the need to expand Orland’s view of what it takes to become a professional artist because it’s limited to that of an Academic (Orland is a college art professor). There’s a whole other side to life as a professional artist and that’s the business side. While an artist, first and foremost, must be dedicated to producing authentic work that is technically skillful, he/she must also attend to all that goes into exhibiting and selling the work in order to participlate in the professional arena. Colleges don’t include that in their art curriculum. But, that’s a discussion for another day.

What are your thoughts?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Surviving Graduation

The View from the Studio Door: How Artists Find Their Way in an Uncertain World
By Ted Orland (2006)

Chapter 5: Surviving Graduation, Part 1

This chapter addresses college students in the fine arts, but I think it also applies to art students in week-long workshops or those who work with a mentor. The classroom experience is one of total immersion in a supportive environment where one fits in with everyone else. It’s nothing like the “real world” where artists are undervalued and often misunderstood. So, graduation or separation from the classroom environment can be scary. As Orland points out, sooner or later every artist needs to claim their artistic independence, and that means placing a healthy aesthetic distance between their own work and that of their most important teachers. Artists who fail to make that break may well stay in the game anyway, but usually as niche players, building entire careers out of beautifully crafted variants of their mentor’s art.

This is really about confidence and trust in our own abilities. A teacher or mentor gives us direction and immediate feedback, which gives us the confidence to make necessary corrections to our work. Teacher/mentors often think for us by identifying the weaknesses in our work that we’re too immature to see for ourselves and assigning new challenges that will lead us in what we trust is the best direction. For the student, severing this dependent relationship can be difficult and knowing when to make the transition is tricky.

In college, I learned how to paint in oils and acrylics. Watercolor wasn’t considered a worthy medium (for shame!) and still isn’t in some institutions. So, about twelve years ago I decided to challenge that prejudice and learn to paint in watercolors. I sought a mentor and worked with her off-and-on for three years. Between lessons I asked her to critique my work and completely failed to trust in my own ability. If she wanted me to change something, I changed it.
This dependence ended when I painted a work that I knew (deep down inside) was a good one. She told me to abandon that path, but I refused and kept going. The series of paintings that resulted from my rebellion won numerous awards in juried national and international exhibitions, and earned me two solo shows in notable venues.

But, how do we know when it’s time to graduate? For me, it was when I had enough technical skill to paint well. At that point, the only thing I needed to do was express my own ideas – to say what I wanted to say about my world – to speak in my own voice.

What’s your story?

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Education of the Artist, Part 4

The View from the Studio Door: How Artists Find Their Way in an Uncertain World
By Ted Orland (2006)

Chapter 4: The Education of the Artist, Part 4

This last and final section of Chapter 4 is directed toward art teachers. Orland writes: Teaching has its consequences. As a First Principle, teachers would do well to heed the counsel of Hippocrates: “First, Do No Harm.”
As students of art, we trust our teachers on many levels: to provide us with accurate and useful information, to serve as a role model, and to inspire us to innovate according to our own sensibilities with skill.

I’ve been teaching in one capacity or another for nearly forty years and understand the bond of trust between teacher and student. It’s one that should never be violated, and it’s an awesome responsibility. As a teacher, you never know how someone will react to what you say or do. We can inspire without even knowing it, and we can also destroy creativity and desire just as easily.
By my accounting, Orland writes, good teaching is more a process of raising the next question (or hundred questions) a student needs to confront in order to make headway in their work. Isn’t that the truth? It’s like the old adage about teaching someone to fish. He also writes, You soon realize that your real purpose as a teacher may simply be as a catalyst, offering a few provocative ideas here, clearing the way past a few technical hurdles there, and eventually just pointing the way to the far horizon.

As a teacher, it’s important for me to show my students how to think critically, creatively, and independently. As Orland puts it, no one else has the answers you need anyway. He recounts a tentative student whose creativity needed to be released. So, he asked her four important questions that I’ll paraphrase for us painters:

What’s the easiest subject for you to paint?

What’s the emotionally riskiest subject you’d dare approach?

What do you have a passion to paint?

What’s the single greatest obstacle standing between you and the art you need to make?

These are great questions!
What are your thoughts?

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Second Law of Thermodynamics

The Second Law of Thermodynamics
by Katharine A. Cartwright
Watercolor on Arches Paper
26" x 20"

The entropy of a closed system increases with time.

Hi folks, This is the most recent and eighth painting in my series "The Laws of Nature." Since it's the weekend, I thought I'd post it and then return to Orland's book on Monday. One of the challenges in this painting was to make a small departure from the palette I typically use (red/blue/yellow) and focus more on green - a hue I usually avoid. I guess we all have color preferences, and I decided it was time to challenge my own.

The first challenge in creating this series was rejecting all visual references (real objects and photographs) and relying entirely on my intuition so that what is expressed comes entirely from my imagination. That alone has liberated and improved my ability to create. As this series continues, I look for new challenges - such as changing my palette or pushing the limits of design. All the paintings in this series comment upon man's inability to create the perfect machine (perpetual motion) because of the constraints imposed by nature. Vis victum apparatus! Nature conquers machine.

P.S. I've entered three paintings from this series into three different exhibitions and have won awards in each one: The San Diego Watercolor Society's annual international exhibition, Aqueous USA, and the annual international exhition of the North East Watercolor Society.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Education of the Artist, Part 3

The View from the Studio Door: How Artists Find Their Way in an Uncertain World
By Ted Orland (2006)

Chapter 4: The Education of the Artist, Part 3

In this section, Orland discusses the most important mentor in his life – the famous photographer Ansel Adams. Their fifteen year relationship was critically important to this author’s development as an artist. What made Adams an effective mentor was his single-minded approach to his art coupled with a broadminded philosophy. Adams had a clear vision about the content and purpose of his work. As Orland puts it:

Over the long run what I came to value most were the intangibles I absorbed simply by standing near someone who had found something important that he needed to say through his art, had molded his technique to match that vision, and – most of all – demonstrated the strength of will it takes to stay focused on reaching that goal. It isn’t the equipment or tonal range or recent auction price or even the subject matter that I relate to when I look at Ansel’s art – it’s the sincerity and passion and care and trust he embedded into the making of that art.

I must think about this description all weekend. Isn't Adams the role model we've all been searching for as both an artist and a mentor?

What are your thoughts?

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Education of the Artist, part 2

The View from the Studio Door: How Artists Find Their Way in an Uncertain World
By Ted Orland (2006)

Chapter 4: The Education of the Artist, part 2

Before I begin my review of this next section of Orland’s book, I’ll share that my husband and I are joining John Stewart’s “Rally to Restore Sanity” and Stephen Colbert’s “Rally to Keep Fear Alive” on the Mall in Washington D.C. on October 30th. Guess which side we're on?? We have our tee shirts, buttons, and posters ready to go. Will you be there?

Back to Orland’s book: After encouraging us to seek a broad education and also specific areas of learning that enhance our work, he now turns his attention to the types of choices we make. Any choice can turn into a series of unpredicted events – avenues that repeatedly bifurcate to create an unanticipated path of learning.

Here’s an example: I’ve been a professional artist for a long time, but at one point decided to adopt a second discipline. So, I went back to college and earned a graduate degree earth science and taught at a college. Right after I retired from that I decided to take a four-week temp job scoring high school math standardized tests by computer. I decided to do this because it was obvious that college students lacked math skills, so I wanted to know how and what high schoolers were being taught. (BTW – it was appalling!) Anyway, one of the other scorers on my team was a poet who also owned a small publishing company. We got to talking over coffee breaks and he became interested in my art. When our temp jobs ended, he contacted me and asked if I’d be interested in illustrating some of his poems for publication. I agreed. Eventually, other poets saw my work and hired me as well. Before I knew it, I had plenty of work as an illustrator and a nice boost in income!

One decision led to an unexpected outcome that eventually became a sideline in my art career. As Orland writes: The difference is where we search for the possibilities, and in that regard some encounters will always prove more consequential than others. Each of us has a path, a turning point (or many of them), and a story.

Orland asks us:

Where did you learn the things that really matter to you?
Where was that critical fork in the road that directed you to this point?
Who have been your real teachers?

I’m asking you, too.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Education of the Artist

The View from the Studio Door: How Artists Find Their Way in an Uncertain World
By Ted Orland (2006)

Chapter 4: The Education of the Artist, part 1

This is a very long chapter, so I’ll break it up into parts. The topic interests me a great deal because some of what I know about artmaking comes from a formal education and some from experimentation (a.k.a. trial and error). As far as I’m concerned, both approaches have value. So, let’s see what Orland has to say about it.

He begins by reminding us that it’s the countless small steps we take toward learning how to make art that are critically important. We should find satisfaction in that journey because that’s where almost all the progress gets made. I agree and am happier taking a series of small steps that are easy to correct than making a big leap that could end in a big disaster. Orland continues: truth is, caring about the work you do is the single best indicator that others will also care about it. The same goes for learning. I agree.

Our education often comes from a variety of seemingly unrelated sources. This, in my opinion, is the value of a liberal arts education. A broader understanding provides a valuable context or perspective for any discipline, including art. Ben Shahn’s book, The Shape of Content, urges us to learn as much as possible from as many disciplines as possible. The better informed we are as artists, the greater the chances are that we’ll produce meaningful work.

As Orland puts it: there’s no predicting which particular piece of knowledge or experience will later prove essential, we’re faced with the disconcerting possibility that everything matters. And if that knowledge or experience could come from anywhere, the clear implication is that teachers are everywhere. That’s how I see it, too.

Although the random experiences that life imposes on us provide us with a rich education, Orland advises us to purposely seek specific learning experiences that help us with artmaking as well. This is to help us make decisions about the path our work should take. And, no two paths will be identical.

Next time, part 2 of this chapter.

What are your thoughts?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Have You Hugged an Artist Today?

The View from the Studio Door: How Artists Find Their Way in an Uncertain World
By Ted Orland (2006)

Chapter 3: Art & Society, Part 3

Orland finishes this chapter with the notion that we’re becoming a society that is almost entirely composed of audience. Too many viewers and too few participants have left artists lacking community support. He asks, “how many artists have the resilience to see their still-developing work placed in direct competition with the legends of their field? And, we can’t afford to leave artmaking to a chosen few – the few are not enough. Thinking globally, Orland speculates that another superstar wouldn’t do as much to make the world a better place as would thousands of people making art on a daily basis. Indeed, the world would be a better place if more people made art.

I agree with the last statement, but am uncertain about the rest of his reasoning. It seems to me that there are more people in the world making art today than ever before in the history of mankind. It also seems to me that there’s more public funding available for the arts than ever before, and more people buying art. There was a time, not more than a century ago, when only the wealthy elite purchased original art and the rest either did without or bought cheap prints. Times have changed – and almost anyone can own an original work of art and almost anyone can declare him/herself an "artist."

But, maybe Orland is writing about a different kind of community support: respect. The type of
respect that holds artists in esteem within the community and finds value in what we do. The type of respect that doesn't chop art programs first when educational funding shrinks. The kind of respect that helps artists function full-time in their careers. The kind of respect that views art as a solution to the problem rather than a silly pasttime.

We artists need both emotional and tangible support from our community. That lacking, we especially need it from each other. I’ve been in too many situations where artists compete against one another in a destructive way either indirectly or directly. Elevating one's art and professional standing doesn't necessate demeaning someone else's. For what it's worth - I hold you all in high esteem and am grateful for your support!

What are your thoughts?

Monday, October 18, 2010

Art & Society, Part 2

The View from the Studio Door: How Artists Find Their Way in an Uncertain World
By Ted Orland (2006)

Chapter 3: Art & Society, Part 2

I’m feeling optimistic today, especially after reading your comments from the last post. Thank you! It’s time to return to Chapter 3 of Orland’s book:

There’s a pervasive myth, shared by artists and nonartists alike, that art is a product of genius, madness or serendipity. Wrong. Art is not the chance offspring of some cosmic (or genetic) roll of the dice. Art is mostly a product of hard work. I think there are two sides to this coin. On the one hand, some people are born with artistic genius, like Mozart, and on the other hand, everyone has an aesthetic sensibility and the potential for artistic expression in some form. But, this doesn’t mean that we’re guaranteed to make “great” art if we work hard. And, those born with artistic genius won’t become great artists if they fail to work at it.

Orland continues: One of the … truths about artmaking is that it’s more important to be productive than to be creative. If you’re productive your creativity will take care of itself. If you are not productive then how exactly is it you intend to be creative?
OK, Mr. Orland – we’re getting bogged-down with terms that need clarification: “genius,” “creativity,” “productivity.” At what point is someone clever enough to be considered a genius? At what point does an act become a “creative” act? What amount of productivity is considered enough for the serious artist? It all seems relative to me and there’s no clear answer in this chapter.

So, we move on to making the distinction between “creativity” and “the creative process.” Here, we turn to the ideas of David Bayles who believes that creativity involves innovation and the creative process means productivity. Orland writes: But to you – the maker- the important thing is whether one piece helps show you the way down the road to the next piece. Looking back over a pile of early pieces, you come to realize that it’s the ninety-nine percent you never show others that laid the groundwork for the one percent that soar.

This means that it’s the next painting and the painting after that, and so on that matter. As the author points out, you can make some great paintings early on but if nothing of significance follows then it doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. This is like the “one hit wonder” syndrome that characterizes many rock groups or the Hollywood standard line “What have you done lately?”

We’re left with this advice:

Annie Dillard – How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.

Ted Orland – Ordinary people make art when they make extraordinary concerns a part of their daily life.

I think I’ll head to the studio now… tomorrow, the rest of Chapter 3.

What are your thoughts?

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Optimism & Art

It's the weekend - the time when I step away from the weighty job of reviewing the art theory books and have a little fun. This also gives me time to reflect on the substantive comments written by you. There's a lot to consider, but today I want to focus on "optimism." I've always thought that artmaking is an optimistic act, and our good friends Hallie and L.W. were good enough to remind us of this in yesterday's comments.

What makes art an optimistic act? For me, it's the hope and belief that the outcome of my endeavors will be something wonderful and meaningful to me. When I paint, I sometimes catch myself holding my breath. I'm fascinated and excited by the process. Brush to water to pigment to paper over and over again until something new appears - sometimes unexpectedly better than I had imagined. And, I get to do this day after day, week after week, and year after year! What could be more perfect?

But, there's even more: I see this in the works of others - YOUR work. It makes me realize what a precious and fragile community of artists we are. I love this community and want to protect it and nurture it. Nothing gives me more pleasure than to help other artists advance their work and professional standing. We need each other, especially (as Orland points out in his book) because we get little encouragement from the rest of the world.

This afternoon I treated myself to a movie. I went to see "Secretariat." Granted, the real story was "Disneyfied" to the point of some major distortions, but that doesn't matter. The point was to show the triumph of the human spirit in the face of adversity. It was a joyous celebration of individual strength. That's how I see life as an artist. It IS a struggle - there's no easy path. But isn't the struggle rewarding? Doesn't it make us value what we do even more? And, doesn't it help us value each other more as well?

So, my thought for the weekend can be distilled to this: embrace artmaking with joy and exuberance - no matter what.

Have a great weekend!

Friday, October 15, 2010

Art & Society

The View from the Studio Door: How Artists Find Their Way in an Uncertain World
By Ted Orland (2006)

Chapter 3: Art & Society, Part 1

Folks, I hope you had the opportunity to read the responses to yesterday’s post. They’re gems. Personally, I agree with Don’s eloquently stated viewpoint and hope you’ll read it along with all the other substantive comments. Today, we’ll move on to Chapter 3.

Orland segued into this chapter by previously suggesting that society dictates which is art and which isn’t. Perhaps this doesn’t resonate with artists since we have our own mindset about it. However, if you’ve ever tried selling your work or submitting it to a museum, you already know that society’s opinion matters.

In the best of worlds, artmaking would be encouraged, its destination would be clear, and society would cultivate the relationship between artist and audience. Oh, how I long for that perfect world! The author sees three looming problems for us artists:

Art plays no clear role in our culture.
Artists have little direct contact with their audience.
Artmaking is indulged, but rarely rewarded.

Yup, those are BIG problems. He writes becoming an artist means creating your own path and in all likelihood going it alone. It means relying almost entirely on yourself in a world that’s more or less indifferent to all that you do. Art may be recognized as a noble profession, but it rarely gets mistaken for a useful occupation. Orland has his fingers on the artist’s pulse. I can relate.

Before we all get depresssed, I should mention that there is a good side to all this. Going it alone gives us the best opportunity to listen to our own inner voice so we may express it through our art. This is what gives our work authenticity. So, the isolation is often necessary for meaningful expression and innovation.

But, Orland isn’t concerned with that here. He offers us perspective by writing about the condition of the generations of artists that have gone before us. Often, they were more connected to their families and communities, and their art was more integrated into religious and social institutions. The difference, as Orland sees it, is that earlier artists spoke for the community and recent artists speak to the community in their works. That is an important difference.

But, I see another big difference. Our predecessors were fewer in number and selected by society. Without that support, they couldn’t have existed. Today, we can support ourselves financially by other means while simultaneously engaging in artmaking. And, we have more opportunities to show the rest of the world our work with fewer restrictions on the content. We’ve come a long way, baby!

And then, there’s the paradigm shift from classical art to contemporary art that declares the subject of art IS art. The author asks: How deeply can art matter if the only fitting description of its meaning and purpose is “art for art’s sake”? Thus, Orland calls upon the art community to find a higher calling for our work – spiritually, educationally, and technically. Maybe that’s how you open the door to creating art that matters in a culture that otherwise displays little interest in the issues of substance. Can this be true?

More on this chapter next time.

And now, what are your thoughts?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Making Sense of Art, Part 2

The View from the Studio Door: How Artists Find Their Way in an Uncertain World
By Ted Orland (2006)

Chapter 2 continued: Making Sense of Art

Picking up where I left off, Orland acknowledges something most of you have stated in your comments: Many people, if asked why they make art, would disavow even having a choice in the matter. They’ll tell you with complete sincerity that they never asked to become artists – they simply feel compelled to share the truths they’ve discovered (or the truths that found them). That pretty much sums it up!

Once we discover the artist inside us, what do we do about it? The world is skeptical about self-labeled artists but the reality is that we must self-label; we must believe it about ourselves or no one else will.

Orland returns to the central question that plagues us all: What is Art? He draws from his own experience to define its characteristics (I’m paraphrasing):

Art is drawn from life
Art must be inclusive, not exclusive
Art elicits a response from the viewer
Interestingly, Orland believes that the most important parts of artmaking are those which demonstrate the least difference between people and animals. He arrives at this conclusion by explaining that artists rely more on intuition than intellect when artmaking, and that intuition is only a half-step removed from instinct.

And, he thinks that once we’ve identified a group of pieces that we consider “art” we should ask: What traits do all art-like works share in common with one another?”Therein lies the answer to the question about what is art. I believe we covered this topic when we discussed “The Art Instinct” many months ago. But, Orland offers another perspective.
We can’t use form, style, and genre as commonalities because there is such a wide variety. And, if we consider proportion, balance, rhythm, and harmony these terms will also apply to things other than “art.” Orland rightly points out that all these terms describe the product rather than the process. He feels that the most defining characteristic of art is the process itself and the authenticity of the artist’s motivation:

The sincerity of effort

The passion in its pursuit

The care in execution

So, now we’re left with an even bigger problem: If those qualities lie anywhere near the core of artmaking, then wouldn’t anyone qualify as an artist?”Hmmmm…. we must delve deeper. Perhaps the answer is rests with what society deems to be “art.”

OK – so we don’t get a definite answer to the question. I really didn’t expect one. Maybe it doesn’t matter. But, when you think about the necessity for professional artists to actually make a living from their art, then it is important. We can’t sell our product as “art” if it doesn’t meet society’s definition of “art.” Does the label matter? Yes, in the marketplace. Serious collectors, including fine art museums, must find value in the work, monetary as well as historical. So, we artists who are busy selling our work as “fine art” need to be concerned with what lies within the vague boundaries of the area known as “art” – or, starve.

What are your thoughts?

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Making Sense of Art, Part I

The View From the Studio Door: How Artists Find Their Way in an Uncertain World
By Ted Orland (2006)

Chapter 2: Making Sense of Art

Art theories are good. Art theories are impressive. But hey, wait a minute – it’s the artists who do the work! Most every artist I’ve known is far more comfortable grappling with the difficulty of making art than with the seeming futility of talking about it, writes Orland. I agree! That’s why I challenged myself to start this blog and delve into dozens of books and discussions on art theory – I needed to understand the world of fine art a little better so I could comprehend my role in that world.

Of course, there’s the time-worn adage that art should speak for itself. While that’s important, I think there’s something more. For instance, I could limit my knowledge of my heritage to what I experience with only my living family members. But, there’s so much more to learn from previous generations. That knowledge gives me perspective about who I am. And, that’s what art theory does for me as well, it makes sense of my art by placing it in a larger context.

So, Orland tells us, while we absorb art through our senses, we think about art [or interpret art] in words. Oddly enough, we’ve been sensing and talking about art for millennia and we still can’t find a clear and concise definition for “art!” As Orland observes, The real boundaries of art are defined by the collective range of our minds, not by the collected works in anthologies. So, how will this author help us make sense of art?

This much we do know: long before there were art departments or art critics or art historians or art museums, there was simply art. Period. He goes on to say that it’s more useful to the artist to ask why art should be defined at all. That’s a good point. After all, I won’t stop making what I consider to be art just because someone assigns a definition that doesn’t apply to my work. Nevertheless, there exists a consciousness about art: we sense the meaning of the world unconsciously and capture that meaning through our art – and then we have to wait for our intellect to understand what we already knew.

Artists are always on the hook. The moment we achieve public notice we are asked to explain our motivations and our work within the context and lexicon of the present art scene. Galleries, museums, critics, and special exhibitions all require this of us. For instance, yesterday I was interviewed by an art magazine and had to explain myself and my work. It’s not enough that readers will see pictures of my work, they need my explanations as well.

Orland puts it this way: the moment you achieve even a modicum of success you will be asked to explain your work, and in the course of preparing for that eventuality you may well learn something about your art – and yourself – along the way:

Where, then, does your vision of the world reside?

What part of your art is drawn from history?

What part is prophecy?

What part is grounded in fact?

What part takes wing in fantasy?

These are great questions and I’d rather answer them myself than have others answer them for me.

How about you?

Tomorrow, I’ll finish the other half of this chapter.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Making Sense of the World

The View From the Studio Door: How Artists Find Their Way in an Uncertain World
By Ted Orland (2006)

Chapter 1: Making Sense of the World

Have you ever wondered why ours is the only species on the planet that makes art? I have, and so has Orland. Is it because we ourselves define art in a way that limits it to human endeavors, or is it that our minds and sensibilities are so uniquely different from other animals that we need to make art? I’m not talking about the elephant whose trainer puts a brush in its snout and lays out a few cans of paint and a canvas while suggesting that the beast dip and spread. Rather, it’s about why we deliberately make art and are conscious of what we’re making. Or maybe it doesn’t matter at all; we just do it. Orland attributes this to our highly distilled state of self-awareness, or consciousness.

As one neurosurgeon pessimistically noted, “If our brain were simple enough to be understood, we’d be too simple to understand it.” I don’t think I’ll lose any sleep over this.

For some reason, humans need to make art or, at least, experience it. This leads Orland to query What are we actually doing when we make art? Resolving uncertainty? Giving form to our experiences? Seeking emotional release? Declaring what we believe important? Expressing our belief system? For me, it’s all these reasons and more. I don’t question it – I just DO it.

The first half of this chapter is devoted to speculation about existential matters that are interesting, but not particularly practical or helpful. In any case, each artist sees the world a little differently. As the author points out: Perhaps art succeeds precisely because it remains ambiguous enough to allow others with wildly different mental sets to invest themselves in it. Maybe this is why art seems so dissimilar from “fact.”

Making sense of the world is an individual act. My sensibilities may be entirely dissimilar from yours, but perhaps you can understand mine anyway. My artmaking may be entirely different from yours, but perhaps you can understand it anyway. We have the capacity to do this and even enjoy it.

But while artists seem inordinately prone to bouts of uncertainty, really good artists also have strong internal compasses that send them dependably (if often intuitively) in the direction of those particular uncertainties that must attract or terrorize them. We are curious and creative beings, and that creativity, according to Orland, comes from seeing – from making sense of the world around us.

What are your thoughts?

Monday, October 11, 2010

The View From the Studio Door

The View From the Studio Door: How Artists Find Their Way in an Uncertain World
by Ted Orland (2006)

It’s time to begin a new book, and I found this one by Ted Orland who co-authored Art & Fear, a book we discussed here earlier.
The central questions that are answered, or at least discussed, in this book are:

What are we really doing when we make art?
What role (if any) does the artist have in our society?
How do we find our place in the artistic community?

These are essential questions and I can’t wait to see how Orland answers them. In the author’s own words: This is a book about the nature of artmaking. More precisely, it’s about the nature of artmaking as seen from the artist’s perspective – drawn from life and seasoned with experiences in a real world. It is, in essence, the view from my studio door.”

Orland intends to provide us with a practical philosophy of artmaking – something to help us navigate our world. He feels that for artists, theory and practice are always intertwined. I agree, and think that the conversational style of this book will stimulate our conversation on this blog. I hope you’ll join me.
Tomorrow: chapter 1.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Cezanne & Critics

Conversations with Cezanne
Michael Doran, Ed. (2001)

Cezanne had a lot to say about critics. For instance, in a conversation with Joachim Gasquet, son of Henri Gasquet who was Cezanne lifelong friend from childhood, Cezanne said:

Above all he [the artist] must shun all opinion not based on the intelligent observation of his own temperament. ..

I’ve said it a hundred times, those critics …. I want to write them all, all of them who haunt me, and tell them that there are three things which make up the basis of our craft, which you will never have and toward which I have been working for thirty-five years, three things: scruples, sincerity, submission. Scruples before ideas, sincerity before myself, and submission before the motif.

Although he may sound embittered, I think Cezanne’s observation is true. I’ve always been a little skeptical of “professional art critics” who don’t create art themselves. The internal process of creating art is just as important as the external act. Critics may understand art history, and, therefore, the importance of a body of work in that context, but do they really understand the act of making art for any particular artist? I don’t know. Maybe some critics do and others don’t. They can’t all be lumped together.

When I go to a museum or gallery to view paintings I first view the work intently to try and understand what the artist is saying to me before reading the explanation on the wall or pamphlet. That explanation will alter the way I see the work. Sometimes that’s good because it offers a historical context for the work. Other times it detracts from the work because the explanation is just someone’s opinion that instructs the viewer what to think. As an artist, I’d rather not have someone else’s opinions stand between my work and the viewing public.
Of course, my work hasn’t been subject to the intense scrutiny that is usually heaped upon great works of art like Cezanne’s, so I have nothing to complain about. I just feel sad about this aspect of the human condition: the need to tear down or diminish anything that rises to a higher plain – that elevates us. I think this is what Cezanne meant.

What are your thoughts?

Friday, October 8, 2010

More thoughts from Cezanne ...

Conversations with Cezanne
Michael Doran, Ed. (2001)

Continuing with notes provided by Cezanne’s son, here’s some more sage advice and insights by the famous artist:

15. Art is a religion. Its goal is the elevation of thought.
16. He who does not hunger for the absolute (perfection) is content with placid mediocrity.
17. An intellect’s excellence can be judged by the originality of its creation.
18. A mind that can organize powerfully is the most precious collaborator with sensibility in the realization of a work of art.
19. Art is the adaptation of things to our needs and tastes.
20. The technique of any art consists of a language and a logic.
21. Style is perfect when it is commensurate with the character and grandeur of the subject it interprets.
22. Style does not result from the slavish imitation of the old masters; it develops from the artist’s personal manner of feeling and expression.
23. The manner in which a work of art is rendered allows us to judge the distinction of the artist’s mind and insight.
24. The quest for novelty and originality is an artificial need which can never disguise banality and the absence of artistic temperament.

More gems!

One personal note: yesterday I was contacted by the Assistant Editor of Art Calendar. I’m being interviewed and will appear as the “Art online member of the month” in the December/January issue coming up. That’s right …. Finally, I’m“Miss December!” (wink & smile).

Have a great weekend!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Conversations with Cezanne

Conversations with Cezanne
Michael Doran, Ed. (2001)

Browsing through my bookshelves here in Maine I came across this book and think it's worth considering. I probably won’t review the entire book, which is a compilation of eyewitness texts which illustrate the last decades of Paul Cezanne’s life. But, there are several parts worth posting.

One of these eyewitness texts was written by the poet Leo Larguier in 1901. Larguier met Cezanne and befriended Cezanne’s son who provided him with these unaltered notes from his famous father:

1. Critics’ opinions about art are formulated more on literary principles than on aesthetic ones.
2. The artist must avoid literature in art.
3. Art is the manifestation of an exquisite sensitivity.
4. Sensitivity defines the individual. At its highest level, it identifies the artist.
5. Great sensitivity is the most powerful characteristic of any beautiful artistic creation.
6. The most seductive element in art is the artist’s own personality.
7. The artist gives form to his sensibility, to his own, innate individuality.
8. The nobility of an artist’s creation reveals his soul.
9. The artist materializes and individualizes.
10. The artist knows the joy of being able to communicate to others his excitement about nature, that masterpiece whose mysteries he believes he has deciphered.
11. Genius is the ability to renew one’s emotion by daily contact with nature.
12. For the artist seeing is creating; creating is composing.
13. Because the artist does not note down his emotions as the bird sings his song: he composes.
14. The universality of the immediate impact of a work of art does not indicate its importance.

These are gems, and I’ll continue the list with the next post. There’s lots to consider here before moving on.

What are your thoughts?

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Artists Representing Ourselves

Thanks all for a lively discussion on the last post! It was great. I'm back in Maine through Columbus Day, and living in the world of dial-up. Therefore, I haven't been able to follow some of your blogs and must apologize. I'll catch up next week.

Soon, there'll be another book to review, but first I have a few things on my mind like: representation. I don't know any artists who use an agent and the agents that have approached me all want money up front. My firm answer to that is always "No! if you want to represent me then you must take a commission from the sale of my work." Otherwise it's a scam since the agent gets paid a fee in advance and, therefore, has no incentive to sell anything.

When galleries represent me they typically take 50% and sometimes want more. And then, there's the problem of being paid in a timely manner. However, I always get a contract and review it with a fine-toothed comb. You can't be too careful these days.

So far this year I've sold 37 paintings, mostly through galleries. In 2009 I sold fewer paintings, but not through galleries. I haven't explored selling on e.bay or similar sites, but have read that some folks make a lot of money doing this. Sometimes I sell directly from my website, but then I have to be careful to avoid scams.

I suppose there are fortunate few who are represented by high-end galleries that only require the artist to supply them with paintings and they take care of everything else year after year. For me, it would be like winning the lottery. If only I could stay in my studio and paint and someone else could take care of the business end!

But, I've always done things the hard way. How about you?

Maintaining a Private Creative Life

Before I begin a new book, I'd like to discuss an article I just read in the most recent issue of Art Calendar: "Side Trips and Detours: Maintaining a Private Creative Life" by Matthew Daub. He begins with:

Nothing confuses art dealers more than variety. When an artist reveals more than one body of work at a time, many dealers scratch their heads and question whether the artist really knows what he or she is doing. Graduate school acceptance committees usually react the same way, as do most exhibition jurors. Collectors are often confused and put off when an artist they have had an interest in suddenly changes direction midstream. While certain established artists may get a free pass when it comes to exhibiting eclectic bodies of work, for most of us, it's the kiss of death. This is a very real dilemma facing artists in the marketplace. If consistency is favored, does that put pressure on us to continue making the same work in the same way throughout our entire careers?

Good question!

This is something I've been thinking about for years. I always paint in a series (thematically) and change the theme every few years. For instance, my Wine series lasted one year and was followed by the All Cracked Up series which lasted five years. Now, I'm working on the Laws of Nature series. Those are just my series in watercolor. Simultaneously, I created other series in oil and in acrylics. My painting style is always the same, but the themes change.

When I approach a gallery, I highlight only one series. However, on my website I have several series posted. Looks like I'm guilty of doing exactly what Daub warns us against. As I wrote earlier, I have thought about this for a long time and it still nags me. Perhaps I should make a change.

What does Daub recommend? Having two sets of work: public and private. The public works are those that you want to hang your reputation on - and they are consistent. The private works are everything else we create. They may or may not see the light of day. I've heard of artists who use a pseudonym for these other works of art and openly sell them under that disguise. Not a bad idea, but tricky.

I'm still pondering all this and would like to know what you think.

What's your opinion?

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Art of Gum-Ball Machines, and Other Simple Pleasures

The Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa By Michael Kimmelman (2005)
Painting by Wayne Thiebauld

Chapter 10: The Art of Gum-Ball Machines, and Other Simple Pleasures

This is the final chapter in Kimmelman’s book and a good summary of the artist’s nature. He begins by contrasting the typical “harried existence” of most people which keeps them from truly seeing what’s in front of them to the existence of the artists who patiently observe and consider the world around them. For instance, Wayne Thiebaud’s paintings of ordinary things, like a gumball machine, or Vincent VanGogh’s gorgeous renderings of the everyday objects and settings. There are a myriad of examples – more than I can name – of art that elevates the ordinary to the extraordinary. This is the role of the artist. Our heightened awareness and meaningful interpretations of the world as we know it serve to show others the beauty and wonder of their world as well.

Ellsworth Kelly, famous for his focus on the little details of the everyday world “tells us that the world is full of small miracles … these miracles are accessible to all of us, at almost any time, if we are just prepared to look for them." And, Marcel Proust said, “Great painters initiate us into a knowledge and love of the external world.” I think that great artists initiate us into a knowledge and love of who we are as humans – our “selves.”

What’s interesting to me is the different way in which artists express themselves: abstraction, realism, impressionism, Dadaism, “you name it”-ism. Our expressions of our perceptions take on a wide variety of forms when we commit them to a work of art. Thiebauld interprets a gumball machine one way and another artist would interpret it differently. Through our expressions, we show the rest of the world another way of seeing life. Thankfully, each artists perceives and expresses in a different way. That difference is critical to producing masterful art and is why I strongly object to art instructors who insist that students, for instance, paint a rose “this way” or a chair “that way” or a landscape using only “these colors,” etc. They behave as though there’s only one specific way to express what we see in our paintings. This serves only to suppress the mind and voice of the artist and I’m strongly opposed to it.

As Kimmelman writes “every great painter is great by his or her own terms.” We are all unique, and we should be. Vive la difference!! He writes of the Parisian artist, Chardin, who found “art in cups and saucers and in the streets, too." I disagree. I think we find art in ourselves. It is we artists who transform the ordinary into something more. This is where the "accidental masterpiece" originates.

What are your thoughts?

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Art of the Pilgrimage

The Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa
By Michael Kimmelman (2005)
Photo: "Spiral Jetty" by Robert Smithson, constructed in the Great Salt Lake, Utah in 1970

Chapter 9: The Art of the Pilgrimage

Over a hundred years ago, the author tells us, Walter Benjamin predicted that mechanical reproduction would eradicate the aura of the original art object for the masses that are ‘bent toward overcoming the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction.’ Benjamin offered the prospect that eventually any work of art in the world might be available in reproduction at the touch of a button or a click of a mouse. But, Kimmelman argues, the opposite is true. There’s been a notable increase in the number of people visiting museums, galleries and other art-specific sites. Nevertheless, We did lose something during the last century … it was a sufficient appreciation for the virtues of the pilgrimage.
The author takes it a step further. He enjoys visiting a work of art where it was made; for example, a fresco on a Renaissance chapel wall or an earthworks project in the Nevada desert. The point is A modest pilgrimage may restore to the act of looking at art in its desired and essential otherness. It can get us back to the root of art as an expression of what’s exceptional in life. How true!

Kimmelman points out that All art is site-specific in the moment that we are looking at it, being affected by its surroundings, whether the context is a crowded museum or a friend’s living room or an empty chapel, but perhaps especially art that is itself the reason you went to that place. That makes a lot of sense to me. For over forty years I’ve made the annual pilgrimage to view one particular painting in a certain museum. It’s a time of renewal and regeneration for me and also helps me better understand that single work of art.

Artists make works one at a time, Kimmelman adds, which is how we should experience them. The ethos of giant exhibitions, with dozens or hundreds of paintings, is antithetical to the conception of a work of art. I agree with this statement as well. When there’s too much to see then there’s nothing to see. I go into sensory overload and don’t spend the amount of time that I should viewing any single work of art. More is not more.

Kimmelman dedicates most of this chapter since to descriptions of art-specific sites that he visited mostly in the western part of this country. It makes a good read.

Next time I’ll post the final chapter of this book.
Have a great weekend, everybody!

What your thoughts?