The Laws of Nature

Monday, January 10, 2011

A Rose is Not a Rose

My job is to see what other people have seen and to find something new in it. I heard this on a video about scientists the other day and wrote it down because it applies to artists.

There’s plenty of redundant subject matter in art. Here’s the typical list for paintings: landscapes, seascapes, flowers, portraits, still-life settings, allegorical and historical scenes, and non-objective. Most of us can say “been there, done that” when it comes to these subjects. But, the reason these subjects are so popular throughout time is because that’s what people want to see. So, how can we continue to produce artwork and avoid pointless redundancy? By, as the scientist stated, finding something new in what everyone else sees.

For example, many paintings of roses exist. But, here are some unusual examples that best illustrate that these artists were able to find something “new” in a rose:

by Georgia O'Keeffe

by Wayne Theibaud

by Salvidore Dali

Years ago, I became aware of the fact that I was only painting “pretty pictures.” There was no substance, no unique viewpoint, and no indication that I had anything important to add to the dialogue of art. This realization occurred during my first semester of studio painting in college three decades ago. The professor commented that my work was worthy of a department store and not much else. It was unoriginal and ordinary - vacuous. His comment was critically important to making me realize that I was a technician and not an artist. I had great painting technique – and that was all.

It’s taken a long time for me to find my voice and express it effectively in my paintings. I see it as a life-long quest and look to my dear friend as a role model. She’s an 84-year-old sculptor/painter. Each year, without fail, she expands her repertoire by creating something entirely new that expresses her unique ideas. Her work appears in venues around the world every year as she pushes it out the door. She’ll persist until she takes her last breath. I aspire to this, myself.

What about you?


Anonymous said...

Hi Kathy, I've been reading about the importance of imagination in art, coincidentally. Your post re-enforces the idea that it's good to cultivate the imagination. I think the technical skill is helpful; it helps in communication. But, imagination brings the vitality and creativity that makes the work art.

The Artist Within Us said...

Dear Katharine,

Finding ones voice is a constant struggle the artist faces. For most it takes years before one break out of the mold that our schools have turned us into, for a very few, it happens early in their life. Of course there are many more who just paint pretty pictures and never find their voice, let alone sing.

It has taken me almost fifty-five years before I discovered my voice in painting, though my particular still-life photography came twenty years earlier.

Yet even when one has broken through and made the discovery, the challenge still remains. We are then faced with refining and elevating our voice to new levels of growth.

Thank you for sharing your insights on this.

Warmest regards,

Eva said...

Kathy, I whole heartily agree with your post. It is a challenge to keep consistency in ones work without becoming boring. Also not to give into creating what the general public wants. I realize that I have been guilty on both counts.

Robin said...

I am inspired every time I read your blog, Kathy. You write about subjects that resonate with me and make me want to challenge myself when I paint. I am guilty of being one of those artists that does paint "pretty" but most recently, with a twist; whether it be the challenge of a new medium or just trying to re-create something ordinary into something extraordinary, the challenge never ceases and it's what I love about being an artist.

RH Carpenter said...

First comes the technical skill, then the artist's voice is heard in a whisper. Sometimes that voice takes years or even decades to be heard clearly. I think I'm running on a fast track (maybe because I started so late in the game) but thinking I may have until age 80 to create gives me plenty of joy! It is the unique outlook instead of the common that really makes a work sing, and I hope to attain that someday.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your well written post Kathy. I'm struck with the negative assessment your instructor gave you. Obviously it motivated you in some way and it has stayed with you all these years.
Shame on him for giving in to his need to give you this haunting assessment. A true mentor would have found a way to show you where your voice resides. He only succeeded in infusing doubt.
You may defend him and say he showed you the way. But any teacher who uses shame to motivate their students needs to get a new profession.
Somehow, I can't ever imagine you giving one of your students that evaluation. You would find a more productive way, I believe.
Oh well, sorry for the rant. It's up to the artist to decide what's meaningful. And you have been an artist your entire life Kathy. That you could be so technically correct even in school put you miles and miles ahead at such an early age.

hw (hallie) farber said...

I have read that the artist sees what everyone else sees, but thinks what no one else has thought.

Dan Kent said...

I find your first sentence to be so inspiring! You have just provided the broad outline to my aspirations for the new year. Thank you.

-Don said...

How true - both your post and all the wonderful comments. I don't have a lot to add today since I feel my voice is changing right now and when I open my mouth I'm never sure what sound is going to come out.

I would like to add to PAMO's rant that isn't the first semester of studio painting supposed to be about learning technique? Rarely does someone know if they have a voice, or what to say with it, when they're just starting. I agree with PAMO that this was bad form on your professor's part.

Now it's time to return to the studio and see what sounds my household will be tortured with tonight...


Unknown said...

Hi Peggy - well said! Imagination is key.

Hi Egmont - how true. This is a life-long exploration.

Hi Eva - me too. I've worked hard to change that.

Hi Robin - thanks! Usually, the topics I write about are universal. We all face these struggles from time to time and I think it's good to discuss them. Thanks so much to you, and all, for sharing in the dialogue.

Hi Rhonda - I'm not certain that there's an order to this. In fact, I wish I had had an instructor who emphasized the importance of both concept and technique from the very first. That's what I impart to the students I teach so that they can understand that their individual voices are critical to their artmaking. I teach both simultaneously.

Hi Pam - truly, I needed that kick in the pants and am grateful for it. Imagine how many more years I would have wasted without it! I appreciate honesty and this prof was right on target. True, I don't treat my own students that way because I feel a responsibility to nurture while I offer advice about how to correct problems. But, I'm thick-skinned and could handle this.

Hi Hallie - that's a great way to put it! Thanks.

Hi Dan - this quote is a great inspiration for me as well. Thanks.

Hi Don - in answer to your question, please see my responses to Rhonda and Pam. I'm curious to see how your voice is changing! I'll be looking ...

Meera Rao said...

why is there so much disdain for things beautiful in art these days - mainly in academia and 'art world'? Works of art - be it 'pretty' or not - if it moves someone the artist has done the job well. Yes, we should try to see something new - but why should it have to be not pretty or beautiful to be considered cutting edge ? And it was not easy for O'Keeffe to gain acceptance --because even though she saw things and painted them in new ways -- she was criticized for painting flowers!!!!!

M said...

A great post Kathy and a topic I've contemplated much over the last five years. One conclusion I've reached is that serious content and beautiful can exist together. There are many definitions of beautiful of course.

Celeste Bergin said...

I am thinking of doing more "conceptual" type work..or painting from my dreams. I think it is important to paint with heart and new ideas!

Unknown said...

Hi Meera - I don't know the answer to your questions but it's good to raise them. There seems to be a trend toward ugly and shocking, but not exclusively. Some notable artists still render beauty in their work - so beautiful isn't dead.

Hi Margaret - I agree!

Hi Celeste - go for it!!

layers said...

I'm with you-- I see a lot of redundancy- especially in the watercolor world- but I also strive for a more unique style and I am always searching for a new way to express myself.

Mark Sheeky said...

I was reading today that the constant mental change that comes from striving towards a new goal creates inherant happiness. Thus, your 84 year old has got a good recipe. Not only that, but your early work was essential for the enjoyment of your later... as such it's better than you probably thought.

Mary Paquet said...

Kathy, a great post and the comments pretty much say it all. I like that your 84 year-old friend continues to develop her voice. That means I have a bit of time left!

Unknown said...

Hi Donna- yes, I love your work!! very content rich.

Hi Mark - what a great thought! I'll write it in my notebook. Thanks!

Hi Mary - me, too :-)