The Laws of Nature

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Paint for Yourself

Salome, Robert Henri, 1909

The Art Spirit by Robert Henri

Before returning to Henri's book, I'd like to spend a moment pondering an important comment from the previous post about the books I'm reviewing on this blog. Our good friend, Stan Kurth, wrote: it's the same point that all of these authors seem to be making. Do you think it's a clue? If you want to be better at what you do, know thyself. My life is art; is it important for me to answer the question, why?

It's no accident that all the books I review on this blog are related to both the psychological aspects of being an artist and the history of art theory. That's the mission of this blog and, for me, a part of my daily scholarship in art. I like to take an idea and view it from all sides. Each author packages the same ideas in a slightly different way, in a way that expands my understanding. It IS interesting that so many authors tackle the same topics, which are the universal "truths" for art and artists. And, I agree with Stan that the artist needs to "know thyself." After all, artistic expression, if it is sincere (authentic), is an honest exposure of oneself, completely unveiled. But, "knowing thyself" is a lifelong quest.

Stan also asks if it's important to question why we make art. I guess that depends. I don't so much question it as think about how to deal with it. For me, creating art is an obsession and an integral part of who I am. When I'm unsuccessful with a painting I need to figure out why, but I also fall prey to many of the self-doubts that are common to artists. It is the words of wisdom and advice provided by these authors that often sets me on the right path again and builds confidence. And, I truly value this small community of artists who has gathered with me to reflect upon who we are and why we make art. The words of these authors are the catalyst for our interactions as we challenge, encourage, enlighten, and bolster each other.

Thank you, Stan, for your comment! It made me evaluate and reaffirm why I take the time to write this blog. I'll also explain that there are three aspects to my profession as an artist: scholarship, painting, and teaching. This blog is my daily scholarship.

Now, back to Henri's book. For those of you who are following in your own copy, I'm on page 18:

Don't worry about the rejections. Everybody that's good has gone through it. Don't let it matter if your works are not "accepted" at once. The better or more personal you are the less likely they are of acceptance. Just remember that the object of painting pictures is not simply to get them in exhibitions. It is all very fine to have your pictures hung, but you are painting for yourself, not for the jury. I had many years of rejections.

This passage reminded me of the second watercolor workshop I took over a decade ago. This instructor advised us that "If your family and friends like your painting, you are doing something wrong!" Now, I don't know if that's true, but the point is that I need to paint for myself and the odds are that few people will feel the same way I do about my paintings. And, when you get right down to it, what's the point of painting from someone else's view anyway?

Don't try to paint "good landscapes." Try to paint canvases that will show how interesting landscape looks to you - your pleasure in the thing. Wit.

Recently, I read an article in an art magazine (wish I could find it again!) where an artist gave this advice: don't paint the pig, paint the squeal!

We've discussed authenticity, painting from one's viewpoint, and dealing with rejections many times on this blog. So, let's flip the coin:

Is it important and necessary for an artist to avoid esoteric work, derived from the artist's narrow viewpoint, in order to produce work that may communicate with a larger number of people? For instance, much classical art has broad appeal because it portrays timeless subjects like beauty, the human dilemma, or environments.

Your thoughts??


Unknown said...

Sometimes when we paint for ourselves, paint what is important to us to have a more authentic voice in our work, we may not be addressing the interests of the public at large. There's a fine line and you can't have it both ways. Iconsider each artist's production, work, efforts etc. in visual art as an individual contribution to a larger reflection on the world as we live it today. Stick to your interests, make good work and send it out into the mix.

Casey Klahn said...

I certainly missed that quote the first time I read Henri a few years ago. It is one of the few (maybe the first?) time I have seen an important artist codify a description of everyone not "getting" your artwork. That is a very gratifying thing to read!

I once said, "my art is not available to everyone intellectually." Kind of an egghead way to say the same idea.

I can't resist asking you to read my post titled, "Artist Know Thyself."

jyothisethu said...


i don't know enough literature to describe your blog...

how do you cover all these...

you are an avid reader and a fantastic artist...


Unknown said...

Hi Margaret - what a wonderfully insightful comment!! Thank you.

Hi Casey - thank you so much for providing us with this important link to your blog!! I recommend it to everyone.

Hi j - Thank you very much! I look forward to your comments in the future :-)

hw (hallie) farber said...

I believe I know my present self and I paint just for myself ninety-eight percent of the time.

The remaining two percent is for a cause. When I work on a painting which will be donated to our local SPCA for auction I try to come up with something that will appeal to many bidders--usually a close-to-normal still life. For me, that's not easy, but there are many homeless animals in this area and little money.

I'm not totally altruistic--sometimes auction attendees show up at my exhibits (and sometimes they're looking for a normal still life).

Anonymous said...
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Carolyn Abrams said...

If not for me, then who? is the question and the answer.

Stan Kurth said...

Hi Kathy - :o) - Your blog is meaningful to me and I come here for the very reasons that you stated you write it. I'm just not very substantive. The question "why" is a personal one. I'm so driven to create art, it has engaged my curiosity at a deep level. I should be able to answer the question to some degree (read Casey's post). I can't be anything but an artist. I've tried several times to be someone I'm not. Not a good thing for anyone!

Casey your post "Artist Know Thyself" is par excellence!

My apologies for being off-topic.

I will get this book. Back to topic:

I can say for sure I paint for myself, but sometimes as I paint I think of an audience viewing the painting and making comments or conjecturing (crazy huh?). When I finish a painting I always have the hope that it will be well received, not necessarily by the general public but from my peers and the art arena in which I try to surround myself (this includes collectors with a keen sense of fine art). I've had plenty of rejections as have most artists who submit work to juried exhibitions. Sometimes that same work is accepted in another juried exhibit; this is after all, a subjective business. I have noticed the work I think is my best seems to have a broader acceptance in the arena, and to me is an indication I'm heading in the right direction.

Unknown said...

Hi Hallie - you make a good point about tailoring your work to a particular audience for a good cause. It's like art commissions that are intended to satisfy the customer. And, you make a good point that patrons may show up at your doorstep looking for the same type of work! Interesting.

Hi Pam - just march to the beat of your own drum! I think your art does that, and I agree that Margaret's comment is a real gem!!

Hi Carolyn - yes, indeed!!!

Hi Stan - your ARE substantive!! Like you, I paint for myself and I also question how someone else would interpret what I've done. I wonder if my painting actually communicates to others what I'm trying to reflect. And, some of my work is intended for juried competitions, so that's a concern when I paint at times. Thanks for providing that insight!

Casey Klahn said...

This whole topic of the target audience (myself, the jury, my peerage, or the patronage) is a fine kettle of fish, huh? Not sure I am able to give any insights this AM, but I think the question will be rolling around my mind for a while.

Thanks Katherine and all for putting the questions up.

Katherine, I am enjoying these R. Henri paintings posted daily. Wonderful! I am a fan of the period, and wonder if I wasn't born a century too late.

Unknown said...

Hi again, Casey - you said it: "a fine kettle of fish!" I'm glad you like the Henri paintings :-)

Mark Sheeky said...

Hi Kathy, to answer the question in the blog I think it's best to paint a mix. I've found that the pictures that are most loved are those that a viewer identifies with, so perhaps all pictures need to be personal to someone... but on the other hand it seems that lots of famous timeless masterpieces are complex allegories that often make philosophical points and lack personal appeal. Can people easily identify with Las Meninas? Can a good picture lack personal appeal?

Unknown said...

Hi Mark - you provide some interesting thoughts (as always) and I think you're right. More to chew on!

Ann Gorbett said...

Hi Kathy: I've used the quotes from this post about painting a landscape and painting the squeal and wondering if you ever found the origin of those? They really resonate with me.

Unknown said...

Hi Ann, no I still haven't found the source of that quote! It's driving me nuts. Do let me know if you find it.