Great post by Jeff Love, a freelance illustrator in Richmond, Virginia, over on his blog. Good reading for any and everyone.
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One of my ex-students, Scott Zitta, wrote to me recently after reading through the entries on this blog and tossed out an idea for a new post. I was glad to get his letter because I was actually casting about for new topics to focus on. Scott thought I could help students if I talked a bit about my own observations as a teacher over the years, of things that good students do as opposed to not so good students.
Not that I’ve ever quantified these observances, but I thought it wouldn’t be hard to rattle off at least some kind of list or thoughts on this particular subject. Coupled with those thoughts are also my own memories of being a student (though I don’t really consider myself NOT a student — something I apparently share with almost every artist/instructor I know) and the things that I did do that helped me, and the things I didn’t do that probably would have helped more, etc.
Certainly my thoughts on this may not be a true reflection of the experiences that other teachers have had, and may not be true for all students. But I have seen things that seem to be consistent with students who go on to do top notch work and who continue to grow, not only as artists but as individuals as well.
So, without further ado, I thought it would be fun for this to be an ongoing post. I’ll post on this as often as possible, so stay tuned to this channel.
Teachers get to take credit many times for the great work that some students do. Many of these students (the exceptional ones) would have done great work regardless of who was teaching them. These are the students whose fire is lit and burns extremely bright. They do all the right things. They have incredibly inquisitive minds, they aren’t satisfied with half-measures, are constantly working, churning out piece after piece. They make any teacher look good. It’s fairly self-serving to take any credit for their strides, though one does hope one has made a difference in their lives and in their growth as an artist. It’s gratifying to have those students who will attribute some of their success to one’s teaching. I’ve been lucky to have had many, many students of this caliber.
One thing I’ve always admired about my art buddies is that they’re goofy and funny, irreverent, insecure at times, etc. etc. etc. And yet, when they sit down at a drawing board or an easel they become geniuses. The work that pours out of them is sublime. You would never know this if you met them. Their egos do not ever come into it. Art is just something they do, something they HAVE to do. It’s what they’re all about, but they don’t need to advertise that in person, the work says it all. They just don’t take themselves too seriously. There’s a lesson there for just about everybody, but especially students who think that everything they touch is the greatest thing since sliced bread.
One thing I have found is that any student worth their salt becomes even more hungry when shown the wonderful work of the Golden Age of illustration. They instantly discover a hunger for traditional skills, wanting to be able to do what those great artists of yesterday did.
As wonderful as the internet is it’s surprising how hard it is to find the work of many of the Golden Age Illustrators. More to the point, if one doesn’t have a name it’s almost impossible to find some artist’s work. The serious student seems to find themselves in the library quite often and has a love of books. They’re forever digging through art books, magazines, etc. and bringing them to class to share their discoveries. They emulate the artist’s works they find and as a result grow faster than their less inquisitive counterparts.
Good students seem to routinely fill up sketchbooks with drawings from life. They’re not just trying to show off in their sketchbooks but working out ideas and quite often doing bad drawings of things that are hard to draw because they’re struggling to get their chops down. It’s not about “check me out” but more about how can I draw better. These same students are the ones that always show up in figure drawing class and rarely take breaks. They draw, draw, draw. It’s a habit that they follow religiously. And well they should because they have found what thousands and thousands have found throughout time: That if you draw ALL the time, you find the love of the act of drawing very quickly. If you only draw when you have an assignment, or only when you’re forced to, then drawing will always be a chore, something to sort of dread, an onerous task. How sad is that?
These same students aren’t happy with everything they do. They always see room for improvement. They also have no problem trying some other way to work that I throw out. They dive in and see what the experience will deliver. They are sometimes frustrated by this, but they keep at it and conquer it, then incorporate it into their oeuvre, their toolkit. They listen to criticism, take it seriously and not as a threat to their ego, and then muddle through it to see if it helps their work.
THINGS TO THINK ABOUT
As a student there are things that one should take into account as a given. I list them here so that you can keep them grouped in your own mind and refer to them later at your own convenience.
This will also be added to as things hit me. Maybe the stuff up above will just be joined to this later? I don’t know. Anyway, enjoy:
1.) You’re in school for a reason. Mostly it’s because you DON’T KNOW EVERYTHING. Indeed, teachers don’t know everything either, but they certainly know more than you do.
2.) You’re in school to LEARN something. Actually many things. So keep an open mind.
3.) Try not to become defensive in critiques. It’s very hard to not take things personal because, after all, it’s your personal work that’s being critiqued. But just understand that what’s being discussed are things that every student has issues with, not just you. If you truly listen to what’s being said and not get defensive, and listen to EVERY critique, you’ll glean information that will enrich your artistic experience greatly. So put the ego on the shelf and open your mind and your ears and be receptive to the things that are going to help you in the long run.
4.) Not all the information will be perfect for you. If information delivery were that simple you wouldn’t need teachers at all, just recordings that could simply be handed to students and be done with it. But a teacher takes into account who they’re speaking with and massages the information to be specific to that student. Even then only YOU know, ultimately, what you believe really will work for you. So you become the arbiter of your own education in the long run. Doesn’t it seem smart to take it all in and then sift through it rather than just chucking information away based on some gut reaction? And just because it’s not applicable to you now, doesn’t mean that you won’t grow into the knowledge at some later time. All the information has the potential to benefit you at some other time. This leads to another note:
5.) Keep a sketchbook! When I was in school sketchbooks were not about impressing anyone. They were more like journals wherein one would jot down thoughts, information, dreams, inspirational material, etc. They were also used for observational drawing and the working out of ideas, compositions, color notes, media experimentation, etc. They were a place to screw up if need be. A place to draw for one’s self without thought of who would see it. This allowed one to drop the defenses and do what really needs to be done to get better. If it becomes a showcase then the onus is there to make every page beautiful and blemish-free. I’ve heard of artists actually keeping a sketchbook for their sketchbooks! What th–? Doesn’t sound very honest to me.
Let the sketchbook be your private place, your own fortress of solitude, if you will. If you want to share it, fine. If not, then don’t. I’ve always felt that it was a rare honor to be able to view an artist’s sketchbook. They’re opening themselves up in an unbelievable way allowing someone to see that side of themselves, their blemishes laid bare. It’s not something to be taken lightly. It’s a privilege.
6.) Teachers are only as good as their knowledge of a student’s true needs. If I see only a limited amount of work, then that’s what I have to base my thoughts on what I think you need. Makes sense right? Granted, added to this are all the years I’ve been teaching and my knowledge of the craft and execution at creating art. It can be, and is, a powerful combination. But, better would be knowing MORE about the work of the student and their motives, their heroes, where they want to go with the work, what they ultimately want to do with all this, etc. If I have that sort of thing in hand, then the sky’s the limit. So, the more you open up and show the teacher, the better off you’ll be.
7.) No teacher is there to intentionally screw you up and ruin your chances of learning what you need to learn. Granted, there can be bad apples in there, and they can and should be taken care of by the administration. So if there is something going on that’s disruptive, then, certainly, get help. But within reason we’re all there to make sure you get the things you need to make a serious run for the money. But you have to learn to listen and seriously try to engage the information you’re being given. I don’t know how many students I’ve had that don’t listen AT ALL, but I’ve had a few. They know better than their teachers. They continuously ignore criticism, and ignore the strictures of an assignment, and they just do whatever the hell they want. They’re also the ones that complain the most about the school not delivering the things they say their supposed to deliver. You know who I’m talking about because they’re in every school. They’re paying good money to do what they could be doing for free at home, and taking up precious instructor time that would be better spent on someone who actually gives a damn.
8.) Schools can only give you so much. Your school experience, your learning experience, will only be as good as the time and energy of your participation. No school can give you everything. Especially if you’re not in there swinging for the fence. You will get out of it what you put into it. In that way art is one of the greatest return on investments. The more you put in, the more you’ll get back! It’s true.
If you’re hungry and make a habit of flipping over all the rocks to look at the undersides, then you’ll get the most out of your learning experience. If you’re someone who expects a school to just hand you an education, then you’re not going to be very pleased in the end. Ringling is a good school. No doubt. If you just coast you’ll still get a very good education. But, if you work your ass off and participate and push and grab and take what you need, you’ll get a world-class education. This is true of most learning institutions. Some, like Ringling, will reward you more than others for that kind of diligence and nurturing of your own education. So be proactive. At Ringling it seems I have had a greater share of these kinds of students than at any other school I’ve been privileged to teach, with the exception of the Illustration Academy and TAD, which are almost without fail, comprised completely of these kinds of students.
Schooling, education goes beyond what’s in the classes. It’s inextricably linked to the students you associate with, the books you crack, the assignments you do, the number of paintings you paint, the number of pen and inks you crank out, the number of sketchbooks you fill, the number of life drawings you do. There is NO OTHER WAY to be as good as you can possibly be. NO.OTHER.WAY.
A young student came to my studio once in New York, traveling from Georgia, I think, to sit in on my classes at Pratt, which I welcomed. He told me all about how he’d studied with Burt Silverman once and how he didn’t really “get” what Silverman was teaching him at the time. But now he’s older and can understand what Silverman would teach him, so he was going to get back into his classes. I told him to cast his mind back to when he had Silverman (who is, by anyone’s measure an incredible teacher and artist). I asked him if he remembered what Silverman had talked about? He said he did. I asked him if he thought Silverman would tell him anything different at this point? But, he said, I’d be able to understand it better now. I asked him if he did, indeed, understand it better. The information wasn’t going to change. He needed to just think it through and actually engage the information. Not that there was anything inherently wrong with studying with Silverman (that would be a dream). But he’d already had the experience and the wonderful gift of having Burt impart his incredible knowledge of painting to him.
I told him if he wanted to really learn how to paint, then he needed paint! He needed to lay paint down on a canvas and when he was done with that one he needed to do another and another and another, etc. Want to learn to draw? Draw! A lot! Paint? Paint!
You know the drill.
9.) Quit defending your bad work. Be honest with yourself about where you stand and what your work looks like. Seriously. I’ve had students sit and defend crappy work till they’re blue in the face, and to what goal? To try and convince me of what I know is obviously not true, as evidenced by the thing in front of me? Or is it because one feels ashamed and wants to throw up a smoke screen? The ego again. Or to try and convince oneself that the work isn’t as bad as one believes. Only you know how much work was truly invested in the piece. I’m pretty adept at knowing, roughly, how much effort was expended because I know (absolutely KNOW) what it takes to produce work. So there’s nothing being hidden here. You’re not fooling me. Right? We all know what’s truly happened. As one of my teachers used to say on seeing bad, lazy, slipshod work on his wall, “I’d rather you tell me that the dog ate it than to have this on my wall!” SPANK! So, own your shit. Be honest with me and maybe you can be honest with yourself. You just look foolish trying to convince me and the rest of the class that you spent more than an hour or less on something.
10.) Don’t turn off on trying any and everything. I’ve had students tell me that they just don’t do, say, oils. They tried it once when they were a kid and hated it.
Your average student is 19 or 20 years old. There is no way, at your age, to know, without a doubt, that one form of media is not for you. Try everything! Not once. Not twice. Tons of times! Wear it out! That’s the only way to know that something really doesn’t work for you.
I got into my mom’s oil paints when I was a kid. It was a disaster. Oil was everywhere, I had a viscous muddy mess in front of me, and I was covered in oils. I hated it. I was frustrated. I was pissed off. I was hurt. You name it. But I KNEW that I wanted to be a painter. I didn’t try oils for awhile after that, but eventually I got back on that horse. It hadn’t gotten any easier, that’s for sure. But I persevered. And I have news for you — it’s still hard! But I love it. I have to work at it. And that’s good. It means that I respect it.
Interestingly, when I’ve had students get seriously involved in oil painting, or some other media, I invariably hear the groans about how someone hates this or that. Again, they tried it once and didn’t like it because it didn’t work for them. Not surprisingly, when I get them working with it, showing them steps that make it easier to think about and explore, they suddenly fall in love with whatever it is we’re working with. Go figure. 🙂 And, really, it was just because I got them to let their guard down and get the monkey off their backs, to drop their preconceptions just to see what happens. And what happens is they aren’t getting in the way of themselves and they begin to have an honest dialogue with the media.
Not everything is about control. Learn to be a passenger sometimes. This gets back to that “journey is the point” stuff. Let oils, or watercolors or whatever, do what it is supposed to do and you’ll have a happier time of it all. Watercolor is wet and runny. Let it run. You’ll be surprised at the results when you finally give up trying to run the show all the time.
11.) The clique is in your mind. I’ve had students who feel that the good students who have grouped together are some kind of elitist clique. Now, this doesn’t mean that there couldn’t be elitist cliques out there, but in my experience I’ve not seen one. When I told the students who made this assumption that what they needed to do was just get in there with them and do the work, they found they were immediately welcomed into the fold. It wasn’t about how good or bad anyone did, just that they were excited and driven. All were welcome. The cliques I’ve had any connection with have all been about working. Period. They are ALL ABOUT DRAWING AND PAINTING. Period.
12.) Entitlement issues: Students going after an education, and those that demand it. If you want demos, then find a teacher that does them. It’s not a given that teachers will do demos. It’s not part of the job description. I do demos because that’s the way I was taught. Not everyone does that. And there are teachers that will do demos, but there might be media that they won’t use. There’s no reason they should be expected to do that. Be mindful of how you’re requesting that education. Teachers are there for you, but they’re not slaves. The sooner you can respect what a teacher’s about the sooner they can respect you as well. Then it’s easier to open a dialogue about your needs.
13.) The journey’s the thing. Something that comes up constantly when I talk with other artists and instructors, is that the journey is the thing. One must find pleasure in the doing if one is to make a serious go of this and continue to grow. There are students that absolutely LOVE the doing of art. Even when it’s not easy, when the lines are not friendly that day, when color refuses to play nice, the love of the thing is still evident. It’s nice to do good work, certainly, but that’s not the only joy to be had. Revel in the doing. It makes all the other stuff even out.
14.) Shelve the ego and work your ass off. When we were in school my buddies and I never stopped working. We were always hard at work on any number of pieces, most which were not assignments but just our own work. Our talk was ALWAYS about the work, about the artists that we were freaking out about, or other visual artists, say, in film, or whatever. And one thing that was a breath of fresh air was that, for the most part, there was no ego involved in our struggles, our frustrations, our discoveries. If one found something out, it was shared equally with all, so all could grow and enjoy the liberation. I mean, do you really think you invented any of this stuff? Seriously? That the discovery was truly some epiphany that no one else has experienced and put into use for hundreds of years? The beauty is that it just hasn’t been done by you. That’s what makes the discovery special. Now it gets filtered by that unique and singular melange of art and experience in your head.
Did my buddies and I have our petty moments? To be sure. But generally we were really good about just loving up on the trip.
There was always time for fun and pranks. I find this even now. During the Illustration Academy we revel in the prank. It’s a release that lightens the load. No one takes themselves too seriously. There are fart machines firing off and no one is immune —no one. Gary Kelley, Anita Kunz, Chris Payne, Sterling Hundley, Mark English, John English, Jon Foster, Barron Storey, etc. ALL take their lumps and turn into giggling school kids, rolling with the punches. They are serious when they need to be and the work spills out of them on a frequent basis.
Lots of fun is poked at each other’s work, all in good fun, but we take the criticism seriously. One of the funnest things is to watch Gary Kelley and Sterling Hundley square off on drawing night. They start talking major trash with each other and it’s a joy to see and hear. It’s all in good fun.
15.) After reading through the replies I thought this one fits: Ask questions! If you don’t know something SPEAK UP. Seriously. You’re paying big dough for this information (or maybe your parents are), so make sure you fill up on all the stuff you don’t know. If you pretend you know, then why are you in school laying out heavy green? Maybe the money would be better spent in acting school. When someone asks me a question I don’t think they’re stupid. Far from it. They’re smart enough to admit they don’t know something and want to make sure they do get to know it. As I said in the replies, now I know they know and, as a major bonus, I know they’re honest.
That’s up there with the ego stuff again. Why do you care what anyone else thinks about you? Really! When did you give them this kind of power over you? That kind of stuff is usually reserved for people who peaked in high school, where those kinds of games are par for the course. It doesn’t mean it’s not going on beyond high school, usually by the same people, but at least everyone else knows how shallow it is at that point. Time to rise above and move on, getting the info that’s truly worth having.
16.) Don’t be afraid to destroy the things you create. My teacher, Barron
Storey, gave us what seemed to be a fairly regular assignment, to do an illustration on some topic or other. The piece was in color and on paper. We had a week or two to do the finish. One thing about Barron’s class was that you busted your ass for him, you wanted to impress him. So we worked incredibly hard on that assignment. When we put the work up on the wall for the critique Barron took us all to task for the work presented. Again, par for the course. His critiques were always informative and insightful, and he raised more questions than he sometimes answered. But on this day, rather than just take the work down and leave, he had us all come get our work off the wall, then asked us to rip them in half.
There was a stunned silence in the studio that day. Everyone sort of looked around not sure we’d heard correctly. But we had. He urged us to rip them in half. There were many who would not do this. Kent and I looked at each other, shrugged our shoulders and ripped away. It hurt —man did it hurt! But it was also cathartic. “Now,” Barron said, “take each piece, go back into them and make them work independently.” Wow! What started as a simple, fairly regular assignment, had turned totally on its heel and become several lessons in one.
What we learned that day was that one shouldn’t get too precious with the work. Not to get so close to it that you weren’t willing to do whatever it took to make it better — even destroy it. Sometimes an act of seeming destruction opens the path to better creativity. We also learned how to take something to a place that wasn’t the original intention, yet apply the rules of composition, color, value, etc to solve for X. X being whatever wasn’t working.
I constantly tell my students: If you drew it once, you can draw it again, probably better. If you’re constantly sneaking up, tiptoeing through the piece, then chances are you’ll never know what it really takes, or what’s too far. And, more importantly, you’ll never really know what’s too little either.
It’s better to screw up royally, fall flat on your face by going way too far and totally screw the pooch. That’s when you really discover some amazing stuff. The trick, of course, is to be able to remember what you did so you can repeat it. Even if you can’t remember, you’ll still be so damn energized that only good things will come of it. One thing’s for certain, you’ll definitely have a better idea of what’s too far, what’s not enough, and what might be just enough. It goes back to being on the tracks running toward the glare of the oncoming train.
If it was just about making pretty pictures that would make my job a heckuva lot easier. Then I wouldn’t have to teach you how to think, or solve problems, or, better yet, how to create problems, you could just add 2 + 2 and get 4. Every time.
17. Take Notes! I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had students turn in assignments that totally disregard the requirements. They’ll turn in a horizontal piece for a vertical. They’ll have the proportions wrong, etc. All of these issues are because they didn’t listen or take notes in the first place.
I give an assignment each year where I have students do 30 heads in 30 days. They can’t repeat media (if you use oil for one, you can’t use oil again unless it’s a mixed media piece), and the size for each piece should be 12 x 12 inches. Pretty simple, right? Well, not for some. So — take notes. It’s a surefire way to get the info correct the first time around.
STAY TUNED… MORE TO COME!
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From a tweet by Stu Maschwitz:
“Every day we slaughter our finest impulses. That is why we get a heartache when we read those lines written by the hand of a master and recognize them as our own, as the tender shoots which we stifled because we lacked the faith to believe in our own powers, our own criterion of truth and beauty. Every man, when he gets quiet, when he becomes desperately honest with himself, is capable of uttering profound truths. We all derive from the same source. there is no mystery about the origin of things. We are all part of creation, all kings, all poets, all musicians; we have only to open up, only to discover what is already there.”
— Henry Miller, Sexus
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My good friend and art pal Sterling Hundley’s got some very profound stuff to say on his bog. Definitely worth reading!
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I have a student in my illustration class that had a rough day recently. In class it was obvious that he was having a hard time coping with something. It was also obvious that it wasn’t something totally to do with the class. This guy is really good, a serious student, excited about art and what the world has to offer, so it was surprising to see him in this state. After speaking with him for just a few minutes I could see his eyes getting wet and he got quieter. But he’d given me enough to go on. He was struggling with not being able to come up with suitable solutions to concepts/problems for some of his various assignments. We talked through it all and I told him that he’d loaded too high of an expectation in himself for a problem/assignment that I saw as a simple continuation or follow through of the assignment before, where I try to get the students to utilize what they learned and apply it to something of their own. Basically an open assignment wherein they would use the reference photography they’d shot the week before.
But, being an overachiever he had heaped incredible amounts of expectations on himself instead of just enjoying the use of the reference.
Anyway, that led me to write this post. Having dealt with depression pretty much all my life, and observing the amount of depression I see in so many creative individuals, I thought I’d ruminate on it all.
Depression runs in my family, though I didn’t know that until a number of years ago when my mother told me that my father struggled with it his whole life. That was news to me. My father was the backbone of our family and there were only a couple of times when I saw my father in moments of emotional pain (the funeral of my aunt — his sister, and the death of his mother and father). When I think back on my own childhood and later adulthood, I realize that I’ve been personally living with depression pretty much my whole life. Of course I didn’t know that, and in true kid fashion just figured that was the way things were. We know that depression is heritable. I wonder, too, if this put me more into a position of emotional sensitivity and more prone to “feeling” things and being drawn to the visual arts. I don’t know.
The usual perception is that art’s easy and that an artist’s life is full of enjoyment and playtime. That certain people are born with artistic skills, which, of course, is tantamount to saying that one didn’t have to work for the tremendous skills one might have. Ludicrous.
Is it fun? Yes, it is. Quite often, in fact. But it also depends on what one’s idea of fun is. Is it fun like children in a playground laughing beyond belief and running about in a fog of happiness. No, not really. At least not for me and the artists that I know. It’s fun in the sense that one’s on an exploration or safari and the journey is a good one. Lots of heady anticipation of what could come of the current piece on the board or easel. The energy level can be extremely high and you hit what my teacher Barron Storey called “Zero Time”, where time basically disappears and all focus is entirely on the piece. One wakes up from a sort of daze in these instances and wonders where all the time went. This zoning out seems to happen less for me now than it did when I was younger. But it’s an incredibly heady experience, even if discombobulating at times.
But it’s hard stuff. Damn hard. An artist friend of mine, Tommy Lee Edwards said once, “I wish I could bleed from the eyes every time I do this, so there’d be some kind of physical manifestation of how hard this shit is!” It’s not all fun and games to be sure. Anyone who says that they can’t draw a straight line with a ruler SHOULD know how hard it is to do this. The quip suggests they’ve tried to draw before and it was too hard so they gave up.
Interestingly, there’s evidence now refuting the idea of prodigies. Studies have shown that the reason one becomes a Bobby Fisher, or a Jimi Hendrix is due to an all-encompassing focus on the part of the individual to pursue their one true passion. Hendrix slept with his guitar. It was everything to him and he practiced constantly. Hence, he was exceptionally good at it. Not gifted. Not necessarily touched by angels to do this. He pursued it with dogged determination, probably ignoring a lot of other things that life offered and threw in his path along the way. It. Is. Hard. Work.
When it’s good, it cannot be beat. When it’s bad, it can be the worst thing on the planet. So much is wrapped up in these pieces that we do. You have a vision in your head and what ultimately gets put down is a pale imitation of what you wanted to achieve. Hence the need to continue pushing toward that unachievable goal. And that kind of constant letdown takes its toll. There’s also the perks, mind you, that even though they don’t live up to what you envisioned, one can still be satisfied, sometimes extremely happy even. It’s not as though the work’s not constantly getting better. It is. That’s reason for feeling good. But there’s a cumulative effect of constantly being creative, of pushing one’s own buttons over and over and over again. Riding extremely high high’s and crashing headfirst into self-doubt with deplorable regularity.
For myself, I find that regardless of how anxious I might become when I sit down to work with the intimidating white of a sheet of paper or canvas, it’s also exhilarating. I can be depressed, down in the dumps, and though I have to force myself to sit down and get started, once I do I get to enter the zone. It’s the paint that does it. Once I start laying the paint down I can get lost in it. Troubles, at least for awhile, fade, and my love of paint comes forth.
Painting and drawing can be a wonderful refuge from depression. And the effects of having a good day drawing or painting can linger for hours, maybe even days, if I’m lucky. So there is comfort in the work, which can be an incredible salve. Most times.
Interestingly, not that I haven’t noticed it before, writing does that for me too. But that’s a creative outlet as well, isn’t it. What’s also interesting is that many of my friends who are capable artist’s all, whose work serves as inspiration to legions of fans and viewers, are extremely unsure of themselves in many ways. It would surprise many people to know that. But they are generally always questioning themselves and where the work is going and have incredible self-doubts about their work. And that’s a motivator, ultimately, and they are able to work with this monkey on their backs. In fact, they soar beautifully with that monkey on their backs. One wonders if they didn’t have that leering, simian passenger if they would do as well as they do and if the work would suffer from its loss. But that’s not to say they also aren’t confident in what they’re doing too. It’s up and down.
I know I can very easily talk/think myself into sinking deeply into depressive states. I do it fairly regularly, on the inside. Outside, I can function and usually put on a great air of jocular camaraderie, but inside I’m numb, though it’s not noticeable (at least I don’t think it is) by anyone.This can go on for days, weeks sometimes. And my work suffers because of it. When I finally do sit down to work, I crank and can get a LOT of stuff done. Paintings and drawings will just explode out of me. Then another period of silence from the muse and the need. That’s when the guitar playing starts, songs get written and lots of writing gets done. Though, incidentally, all the writing I’ve been doing lately on the blog hasn’t been from that, funnily enough.
Interesting, also, is the idea of art therapy. Many individuals get lots of help with depression through art therapy, though it’s said that being an artist actually gets in the way of benefitting from this particular form of therapy. Go figure. However, many creative individuals were/are able to purge their personal demons through their works. Apparently Goethe in writing ‘The sorrows of young Werther’, exorcised his own suicidal impulses and thoughts, probably saving his own life. So it’s not as though there are no mental or emotional benefits to being creative.
Drawing and painting are forms, I believe, of meditation. And as a young man I reveled in my solitude. It was heavenly! I entered that world and was immediately gone. It was just a great, happy, exciting place to be. The struggle to get better pushed me. It was frustrating, that struggle, but one I loved, absolutely LOVED to dive into, because I could see the immediate results of the work. Yet, as I’ve grown older that alone-ness weighs heavier and heavier.
I’m a fairly outgoing person. I love to talk to people and I love to hear about people’s lives. I thrill to any stories about other’s childhoods. And thank God for my teaching because it forces me to get out and be in a social setting. Being with the students is a salve for me. It’s a way of getting to give something back and to relate to “real life” and recharge my batteries. Without it I would spend my days indoors and in my head. Not in and of itself a bad thing, but it can be bad.
I read an article early last year in the New York Times by Jonah Lehrer, “Depression’s Upside” February 25, 2010, (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/28/magazine/28depression-t.html) which mentions that depression seems to be fairly prevalent in the arts (Vincent van Gogh immediately comes to mind). Why? Is it that creatives are more prone to questioning so much about the world and themselves, and having incredibly high expectations of themselves? If so, why the drive to continue to push, to really reach for what seems fairly unattainable? Is it the monastic existence of so many creatives that fuels this? The article goes on to state that for some depression is a clarifying force. Again, Vincent comes to mind and one wonders if he would have produced such profound work without depression acting as this clarifying force. The article mentions Darwin’s bouts with depression and the effect they had on his work. Sometimes, Darwin wrote, it is the sadness that informs as it “leads an animal to pursue that course of action which is most beneficial.” The darkness was a kind of light. As Aristotle stated in the fourth century B.C. “that all men who have attained excellence in philosophy, in poetry, in art and in politics, even Socrates and Plato, had a melancholic habitus; indeed some suffered even from melancholic disease.”
The article discusses new ways that some scientists and doctors are thinking about depression, reinterpreting it. One thought that seems fairly radical, yet I believe is true, is that depression has a secret purpose and is our mind’s way of healing itself. The article contended that the mind is not prone to “pointless programming bugs.” The body is remarkably resilient and has so many defense mechanisms for healing itself. The mind is no different. In moments of great psychological blows, the mind descends into depression, circling the wagons to better deal with the situation. It enters into weird loops of thought, (what scientists call a ruminative cycle — which derives from the Latin word for “chewed over”) working and reworking the material over and over. It is known that people with ruminative tendencies are more likely to become depressed, which might explain why creatives have a higher incidence of depression.
Anyway, the person this is happening to retreats from most contact and spends quite a lot of time sleeping. The theory is that the mind is working out the problem in its own way, a subconscious healer. It will continue to work the problem until it has parsed it out and solved it.
In my own case, after going through a painful divorce I’ve gone through a couple or three years of achingly bitter introspection and depression. The ruminative cycles have been working overtime. I’ve functioned okay, getting done the things I need to get done, teaching my classes etc. But the thread of my life these last few years has been the depression and the inner struggle to understand what had happened and where my life was going now. I basically went to ground. I wasn’t calling on my friends, and, luckily, they understood totally what was happening and gave me the understanding and the room to deal with it in my own way. This was to sort of close myself off and just wallow in the why’s and wherefor’s. Not totally a pity party, really, though there was certainly some of that floating about as well. Now, after all this introspection and wrassling with my own feelings of persecution, rejection, owning my own shit, etc. I believe I’ve come out of the other end a better person for it all. I’ve got my kids and love them tremendously and they keep me grounded totally. I’ve spent a great deal of time reconnecting with the things that I was all about before getting married.
One thing that kept me sane was pursuing my photography. Whenever I spent time with my children my cameras were cranking away. It was a way to catalog the growth of my children, and how time is incredibly fleeting. It got me out of doors with them on a regular basis and we had the best times together going firefly hunting and things like that. And I got them interested in it as well — they’ve both got the eye for it.
And piles and piles of writing. Some about the things going on in my head, my feelings etc. But also just projects that I’ve invested lots of time in. They all helped.
It’s interesting to note that the things that pull me out of my depressive states are not consistent. In one case quite awhile back I fell into a pretty great depression, and what pulled me out of it was writing more than painting or drawing. I wrote every day for a very, very long time. I wrote my entire blues book (still unpublished) during this particular spate of writing. I caught hell among some of my art friends who continually prodded me to get painting and drawing. The thing was I didn’t feel the need for drawing at all. Yet, creating pictures with words, using language, was just what I needed. I had so much to get off my chest and it found voice through writing. It was wonderful. At other times I’ve grounded myself through the art. Recently, working on my show for Belgium and Paris gave me clarity and focus. I was enjoying painting in a way I had not for quite awhile.
My student was able to shift gears and get back to cranking out beautiful work, but not without having gone through a period of self-reflection and, more than likely, no little amount of inner turmoil. The prevailing orthodoxy these days is to immediately medicate. Yet with this new science one wonders if waiting for a little bit might not be better in order to let the mind try and heal itself. Of course, any prolonged period could be detrimental to the overall well-being of an individual.
For myself I’m on a small dose of an anti-depressant as I’m chemically imbalanced. I’ve taken myself off of the medication at various times to no great detrimental effect. But being on it I know it takes the edge off the anxiety I sometimes feel. But I’m one who lives quite a bit in my head anyway and rumination is part of who I am and how I work. So I’ve learned, for the most part, to live with it all.
I do see it in my son. The divorce has hit him hardest. He feels things deeply and I tell him that it’s okay to be that way. Most people hide their feelings, bury things and as a result suffer problems later on. The only problem with feeling things deeply, of course, is that you feel things deeply, and it’s not always an easy row to hoe. But better that than not to feel at all. We talk a lot and I want him to know that reaching out is a good thing. That there are people who love him and are there for him.
So, anyway, just a few thoughts on this stuff. Just know that if you suffer from depression you should seek help and know that there are tons of people out there who are willing to listen and help in any way they can. The worst thing is to just keep it all bottled up and to feel that you’re adrift on a tiny boat in an awfully big, empty sea. That’s just not the case.
Dive into the things that fire you up in a good way. Love up on the art, the creative side of yourself because there’s more light there than not, and it is a road that moves forward.
ADDITION (February 4): This note from an ex student came to my email box yesterday, rather than the comments section, and I asked if it was okay to post it as it would maybe help others. So—
I wanted to start off by saying that I have missed you and I hope that you are well. I understand what it means to need to heal and please know that I have hoped for you to get to a better place in your life.
I have always had the utmost respect for you have been a fan of yours for a long time. Meeting you and later, getting to know you, was one of the greatest things in my life. I say this only because I don’t know if I have ever told you what your friendship meant to me.
Having said that, I wanted to thank you for writing on Art and Depression. I believe, at least for me, that it is one of those topics that it really helps to have someone else bring up. It is hard to admit to yourself that you have an issue and that you truly need help. Its a bit like the Emperor’s Clothes. I needed someone else to call him out for being naked.
About 6 months ago, I left Richmond, after leaving L.A and D.C. and everything I have ever started, and went back to live with my folks because I knew that I needed help.
I was in a pretty terrible place in my life and I felt that I needed to reboot. For years, my feelings and depression have impeded me in so many ways. It has kept me from valuable relationships with others and myself. More importantly, it has prevented me from really enjoying Art.
For the longest time, I was confused. It is so easy when something has you spinning in your head to question whether or not it is right for you. This doubt would give way to further depression and you know where I am going.
All I could think about was art but the thought of doing it only made me feel worse because I would begin to think, “everyone is so much better than me”, or “it’s too hard” or whatever the case may be. But I thought to myself, why is it that I can only think about art. why is it the one thing that I feel makes me feel so miserable all of the time was the only thing that could make me feel better.
It was a very hard thing for me to think about. I wanted a way to feel better. I had felt that I had wasted my education. I wasted the vast resources that I had in you and Sterling. I was lazy, unmotivated, unsure.
It took me a long time to get to a place where I could admit that there was something wrong and I needed to change.
I packed my stuff up, went back to my parents house and found the answer. When I got home, I found on the bookshelf, the copy of Enemy Ace that I had in my room. The copy that I had from High School. It was then that I was really struck. It made me think about everything that I had squandered. I let myself get in the way.
Looking at the book, I realized why we struggle. Why we labor. Why it is all worth it. It is all we know how to do, and if it is hard that means you are doing it right.
I had decided that I was not going to fight it anymore. I know what it is I need out of life and I need art. I need to get back to what it is I love most. I need to fight the laziness, and put the time in.
I have committed to starting over at square one. Do what makes me happy.
I left my parents house and moved to Austin. I wanted to start anew. Find myself, my voice, my art.
I hope that I can call on you in the future. I will continue to read your blog and be motivated and keep my path. You have helped me so much in the past and I felt that you should know that.
I hope to make you proud to call me a student and friend in the future.
All the best,
Man, thanks for the kind words. I miss hanging out with you, too. Let me tell you, you were one of the people that made Richmond a bearable, even fun place to be. I was in my own weird world of hurt while I was teaching there, which all came to a head when I came down here. But hanging with you and a few others kept my head on straight and allowed me to function and even have a pile of laughs in the process.
I’m glad that the post on Depression found you. Sorry that you’ve been going through some tough times. The good thing is that these tough times usually end up making us stronger, you know?
The thing you need to remember is that your drive for art really will sustain you, in the long run. Sometimes we get lost along the way. Happens to everyone. Really.
Doing what you did, in the end, was an extreme act of courage. You took control, man. That’s hard to do. Most don’t have the wherewithal to do it.
I know you’ll find a ton of inspiration in Austin. Are you going to be at the TAD studio or anything? You’ll instantly connect with the guys there. Great people all. Francis and Orlando, in particular, will keep your engine running on full-tilt boogie all the time.
You can certainly call on me anytime. The reason we sort of drifted apart in communication was all my doing. Being in a sort of similar place as you are now, I just went to ground. I’m only just now getting back on my feet and feel like I’m finally coming out of the other side on all the bullshit I’ve been through. Some of it was my own doing, of course, but bucket loads was not. Sorting through it all, the only sure thing is that I’ll never understand it. Never get the answers I desperately would like to know. So, wrapping my head around that was/is tough. Now I know I just have to take what I can get and move on.
I’ve been trying to reconnect with the things that always mattered to me. Reading comics again, READING again, writing more, playing guitar again, and loving my children more than is possible. Slow going, but still — going.
Anyway, Hell, man, I’ve never not been proud to call you an ex student or friend. I tried calling after I got your letter but I’m not sure if my number is current or not.
Hang in there and get in touch. Here’s my number:
Hey, do you mind if I post your letter on the blog? I can take your name off if you want. But I think it helps others to hear what we’re all going through.
Take care, ———! Keep on cranking! Would love to see some of the new work.
– Posted using BlogPress from my iPad
skill in a particular craft:
I admire his engineering skills and craftsmanship.
■the quality of design and work shown in something made by hand; artistry:
a piece of fine craftsmanship.
— from the New American Oxford Dictionary
“Craftsmanship is a fancy word for when labor meets love.”
I don’t remember where I got that quote from but I’ve always loved it. It puts into words quite succinctly what this whole post is about.
After finishing my last entry on “Where Do We Come From?” I received a comment from Chris Williams about his early inspirations to become an artist (an animator and architect) and he reminded me of my own early desire to become an architect. This in turn reminded me of the mechanical drawing classes I took in high school and the attention to detail that was required of us in doing those drawings. Mr. Tuccio, our teacher, would take off points for just about anything! You were required to roll your mechanical pencil as you drew a line so that the thickness was consistent throughout the length of the line, and where the line met another line they had to join *perfectly*. If not — 5 or 10 points off. Our drawings would be cluttered with little -5 or -10’s. It was a lesson in patience and, more importantly, craft and craftsmanship.
Craft and craftsmanship is something you don’t hear much about anymore, it seems. Which isn’t surprising when one looks about at the amount of slipshod work done in just about every aspect of our lives these days and the quality of the things we buy. It’s why I love Apple products so much. They care about every aspect of what they put out, the packaging, the fit and finish —everything. It’s a joy to open one of their products because their pride shows through, and it only gets better when you use the product. There’s a definite aesthetic at work there and it threads its way through everything they do.
When I was a kid struggling along with trying to learn how to draw, copying my art heroes, making my comic pages, I used to go to HoustonCon, the largest comic convention in Texas, once a year, and smaller conventions here and there. One thing that came out of those trips was being able to see original comic art, actual hand drawn pages. And what impressed me about those pages, and became something I emulated, was the obvious care the artists took with the work they were doing. The pages were clean, in many cases the pencils had been erased on the front as well as the backs of the pages. But it impressed me that the artist cared about these things. They had pride in their work. Whatever anyone else may feel about comics, that they’re purely entertainment, for kids — whatever, the artists took great care in how their originals looked. It added another level to my appreciation of what they were doing, what their aesthetic was.
When I was in art school I took a class in bookmaking, as well as various classes in printmaking. These classes were wonderful each in their own way, but where they were consistent was in the aesthetics that they brought to the table and demanded from us as artists. The types of paper one chooses, the inks, the glues — everything was in service to making the overall quality of the print or book beautiful, aesthetically pleasing in and of themselves. This taught me a pile of great lessons, most notably to actually care about what was going into the work, the supplies that I used and how the thing, the print, the book, looked in the end. If I didn’t care about the final product, why should anyone else care? Really. And most people would not think twice about these issues when they were looking at the work, or holding it. But, though they may not know it, it does indeed affect their appreciation of the work on a subconscious level. I’m convinced of this.
There were fine points in those classes that I’ve carried over into everything I do. I’m a nut about paper, I’m gentle with it when I need to be. I don’t like my paper getting dinged up on my prints. Anything that gets in the way of the viewer just experiencing the image needs to go away. I pick my papers carefully. I pick my inks carefully. When I was a student I didn’t use student grade paints. I could see that there was a difference in the quality right off the bat, the purity and strength of the color. And it just didn’t make sense to me to learn to use inferior supplies when it obviously made it more difficult to get what I wanted out of the work. So I sucked it up and bought nice paint. I never skimped on the paint. Hell, I’d eat Pop Tarts before I’d buy cheap paint or canvas. (Note: This was when I was learning to paint. Of course art can be made with any and all materials. But this was my mindset when I was younger. And I do believe that using good supplies to learn color and painting is a good thing, if one can afford it at the time.) Quality paint is heavy in the tube, you can feel the weight of the pigment, and because there’s so much pigment one can stretch the paint like crazy without it feeling anemic or thin. And once you’ve used the really good stuff, it would be very, very hard to settle for less.
At Ringling we have a couple of learning days where all the faculty have to attend seminars and lectures directed toward better ways of teaching. Everyone groans about this, but the school always gets some very interesting speakers and I enjoy the information they bring with them. About a year ago we had a guy come in (I don’t remember his name, though I’m sure it’s in my sketchbook from the time) and talk to us about students today and how they really are physiologically different upstairs than we are. The thrust of his message was how do we connect with them so that we can better teach them? Part of his discussion was all about the difference in how we grew up, that our generation were sort of feral children. Parents would kick us out of the house and tell us to go have fun and not come back until dark. Which is what we did. We were out playing, riding, etc. making our own fun. But the things we did in school, what we learned from our parents was that everything we did, the care we took, was a reflection of us personally. That one took pride in one’s work because it was a reflection of one’s self. It was like shining one’s shoes, or not.
Interestingly, he says that today’s kids don’t have that. They’re wired differently. If they are sloppy in their work, they do not see that as a bad reflection of themselves at all. In their minds, that doesn’t compute. Their self respect isn’t tied into the things they do. Which, for my generation, is wacky, to put it mildly. And I see this disparity in my classes. And one of the biggest hurdles is getting students to understand that what they’re putting into the work, what one holds in their hands IS important. That as an artist it represents them, specifically. If they’ll care on the front end, it makes what hits the eye from the original or in print even better.
To illustrate this —I remember when CD’s were first coming out. I couldn’t wait to get all my favorite music in this new pristine digitally pure format. The interesting thing was that much of the music didn’t translate well in the new format. I really “knew” my music, was intimately familiar with it, as I believe most people are with the music they love. My Cat Stevens CD’s were incredible. Really. There was so much I had never heard in those reissues, compared to the vinyl I had. And I had some great vinyl (those Original Masters discs that were half-speed mastered and all that). But the quality of the CD sound was boggling. And yet, other albums didn’t survive the transition well. It got me thinking, and brought about a whole new appreciation for what Cat was doing. Those songs were so incredibly rich! He was throwing things in there that he “knew” would not be able to be heard in the recordings of the time, given the limitations of the records and the radio waves. But that stuff, though you possibly couldn’t hear it, was adding to the overall quality of the sound, the ambience, the fullness of it all. Then, years later, when the CD’s hit, there are all these amazing gems one got to hear floating about in the mix. I reckon that to going to a museum and seeing a Monet in the flesh, and how every reproduction is a pale, shoddy imitation in comparison. And these other albums by other bands from the same time just don’t have that sense of fullness to them because they just weren’t full in that way from the outset. I still loved the songs, surely, but compared to what Cat was doing they were flat. And those Cat albums are considered engineering marvels for a reason. Cat heard more and put it all in there because what he could hear in the studio was what it was all about, the true art. Well, technology caught up with him and we finally got to hear what he was hearing all along.
So where am I going with this? It’s all about taking pride in the work. It’s sort of the old adage: There are those who love to have painted and there are those who love to paint. One is about getting kudos for doing something, the other is about the journey. Or, “The devil is in the details.” That kind of thing. You need to lose yourself in the work. And everything that you do to it is telling. And, conversely, the things you don’t do to it will rat you out in the end.
Artwork, writing, music, etc. all benefit from the legacy, the individual history of being made. There are layers of meaning, or paint quality, etc. that inform the finished work. Of course, some pieces can come very quickly and benefit, as Whistler said, from “…the lifetime of knowledge behind it.” But all of one’s history, learning, intuition and instinct, drives and informs the work.
I see students throwing out pieces of work that show, in no uncertain terms, that they spent little to no time on the thing. There’s no focus, the quality of the paint is anemic, the drawing lazy, on and on. They could care less. They have nothing to back up, or support their idea. I don’t get it. You’re in art school! If you’re not going to invest your time in the work, then in what? Drinking? Playing Xbox? What? Why else are you here? Many students approach assignments as if they’re some kind of imposition, something to get through so they can get back to playing a video game or go out drinking. !? Again, I don’t get it! If they care so little, if they can’t get excited about doing art, solving those problems, then why are they here? Possibly there’s some serious soul-searching that needs to go on.
There’s an “it’s good enough” epidemic running through our culture, and the ones that don’t go there, that see something that other’s don’t see, who put in 150% are where we need to be. Pride in the little things, just because.
Every decision that you make with a piece of art, from the colors, to the brushes, the composition, the substrate, the matte, the frame, the way you sign your name — MATTERS. They are all important. They are, each, nothing without the other. They are part of your own distinct and personal aesthetic, as recognizable and unique as a fingerprint. How you make those choices says a lot about you as an artist. And when you don’t make those choices, the piece suffers. The sum IS greater than the parts.
This stretches too to drawing. Take the time to really learn to draw. You can draw as naively as you want, fine. But first really learn to draw! Know what it is that you’re breaking down, what you’re leaving out. It’s amazing to me the number of students who never take the time to truly learn to draw. Again, like it’s an imposition to them. They only draw when they “have” to, they have an assignment or whatever. Not good enough. Too little for too long. And those that sketch constantly, that attend the open life drawing sessions blow past them. And the saddest thing to me is, that they can’t see that the work is subpar. Either they’re blind, or they’re seriously in denial.
I think of all the times that Kent Williams and I spent stretching canvas together. It was a thrifty thing to do, somewhat, as store-bought pre-stretched linen could be expensive, but it was more than that. We would spend a good amount of time picking out the linen in rolls that we really liked, inspecting the weave, and pore over the best stretcher bars, those double-weights! It was something that we took pride in, something handmade, that took effort and personal attention. We were caught up in making the whole widget, though we stopped short of weaving our own canvas or grinding our own pigments (even though there was a class for that!). What we loved was the tautness of the canvases we stretched. You could bounce a quarter off of them and they sounded like a drum. Store-bought doesn’t sound like that. Also, we weren’t into Cotton Duck as a substrate. Real linen had an irregular weave that we liked, that didn’t feel mechanical, that had a warmth, a human-ness to it, which we felt added to the way the paint hit the surface. The texture showed through the strokes. I can remember how much we’d smile when we did all this. It really made a difference to us, and, I think, in how we approached painting on the things as well.
We took endless trips to the Brandywine to see those incredible Howard Pyle, NC Wyeth, Harvey Dunn, Dean Cornwell and Andrew Wyeth paintings. We would get there after dark and sink beer into the river to flash freeze it. When we finished wandering about in the dark sketching for a couple of hours, we would sleep in my car, piling all the gear into the wells in the front, all the seats thrown down so we had one big flat space for our sleeping bags. After a long night we’d wake up near frozen, run our fingers through our hair for a comb, and head directly into the museum to soak it all up. We probably stunk, literally smelled, but you know what? We didn’t care. We were gone. The world vanished the minute we walked into that museum.
We studied the size of the paintings, the compositions, the drawing, the underpainting, the brushwork, the paint quality, the thick and thin layers of paint, the color, the value structures — EVERYTHING about those pieces! We couldn’t get enough of it all. The adrenaline high was amazing! A veritable drumbeat in our blood. Then we’d turn around and head outdoors to roam the Brandywine river and paint landscapes, reeling from what we’d seen, heady in the knowledge that those same artists painted along that very river, most probably in the exact spots we were painting in!
And we filled canvas after canvas after canvas with paint those long, long days. Paint, paint, paint! We wanted to learn their secrets, to learn their ways. It was a mission for us. We were possessed by this stuff. Even the subject matter got to us. We ran about the river playing swashbuckling pirates, swinging swords/branches at crazed enemies/weeds. Posing on gnarly bent trees dipping over the running water below, our reflections twisting in the current. Then we’d wander back into the museum, covered in paint (which looking back on it now, it’s surprising that they let us into that place again) to see the paintings all over again. The ladies that ran the place got so used to us coming and going all day they quit charging us. They just smiled and waved us on in. Then back outside where we quite literally chased the sun as it set, racing through old, old cemeteries to catch that last glimpse on canvas. We painted until it was too dark to see our pallets and the colors squeezed there. The last night there we pooled our money and got a hotel room. We set up in the room and painted portraits of each other before we passed out.
Seeing those great paintings by Pyle and gang on the walls of that museum, where they literally glowed, where they seemed more like windows into other times and worlds, there was no escaping the wonderful care taken by the artists in making those images. Those paintings which we’d been slavering over from old sad reproductions, which killed us even then, were transformed into something so much more. So it wasn’t just about the printed page, it was obviously about the piece itself. The work mattered. What that original gave off was the important thing. Even in the crappy reproduction of their times their vision shown through. And it left an indelible mark on us. The pursuit of that kind of immersive craft became part of our charge.
Pyle taught in his classes — “Throw your heart into the piece, then dive in after it!” To live it, to breathe it, to care so much that your energy and belief in it would transfer those feelings to the viewer.
We were lucky, too, in that Jeff Jones took us under his wing. Here was a direct link in the lineage to those artists. Jeff’s work shows the same attention and care. He didn’t do things in half-measures. And being around that reinforced what we were striving for in the first place. Doubly lucky to have other teachers, like Barron Storey, who taught us that we could make art out of anything that we could lay our hands on. But always with a care toward what we were trying to say, and to the finished product. Not a slavish devotion to polish or anything like that, but to the core thought behind the pieces. He would repeat his teacher, Robert Weaver’s mantra, “High res information over low res execution.”
I’m fortunate to teach during the summers with Gary Kelley, the most awarded illustrator in the history of the Society of Illustrators. Gary still sends his originals to the art directors so they can be shot or scanned. Why does he do this? Well, he’s certainly not a fan of the digital age, that much is sure, but it goes deeper than that. Gary believes that when an art director opens his package and holds his original piece of art they have a very real sense of an artist having made the thing. He wants it to be like unwrapping a Christmas gift for the art director. It’s not some digital representation of the piece, but the actual piece. One can see the hand at work in the original, down to the way it’s matted and presented. That helps to instill a sense of respect for the work and the artist that digital does not. I think there’s a lot to this. Unfortunately the market is digitally driven in how they want to receive work these days.
After having many pieces damaged by callous production hands, I’m happy to send my work in digitally and keeping my originals at home. But I do see what Gary means — receiving files rather than original artwork changes the perception of, and the relationship with, an artist. There’s something incredibly tactile about art and that cannot be totally captured in scans and prints. That one on one between an art director and a piece of art, and an artist, suffers because of this disconnect. When one holds a real piece of art, one cannot deny the work and talent that went into it. In scans it becomes another flaccid commodity to be cut and pasted, twisted and abused without regard to the hands that created it.
That’s not to say that digital work cannot or does not benefit from craft like any other form. The computer is, after all, just another brush, another pencil — a tool to make art. And I see, over and over, that those with traditional skill sets are the ones who flourish. The traditional is the bedrock upon which the digital skills rest and depend.
Anyway, all these various meanderings to underline the drive for, not perfection, really (though that’s surely a nice lofty goal), but a totality in the experience of creating art. The whole ball of wax is important. It is what I respond to in my heroes, and what I believe people, consciously or unconsciously, respond to as well.
– Posted using BlogPress from my iPad
With a noise so pervasive it becomes its own brand of silence, the hollow hum of the road beneath the station wagon tires lulls me into a state between wakefulness and dreams. In the forward-facing seats behind me I hear the disjointed and distant murmurs of my family: Mom and dad talking about some kind of adult thing or other, far in the front seats, my older sister and younger brother giggling or playing bingo. Texas unravels before me.
I’m traveling in reverse. Time unwinds, lights flit by, small constellations mixing with the headlights of oncoming cars vying for position with my dad. The sky in places is quite dark and the Milky Way scatters across my vision. On various horizons, though, I can see the hot red glow of the refineries pumping toxic cotton candy into the night sky. Thousands of tiny lights straining in the haze.
Leaving or entering Houston, a giant neon eagle flaps its wings in a strange syncopation, a strange but welcome beacon to my young mind, broken by cement cloverleaf columns as they glide by. There were few turns on that long Texas ribbon, and my mind burgeoned with a crazy quilt of superheroes, swashbuckling pirates, barbarians, spaceships, detectives and God knows what else. There was plenty of time for reverie and recovery.
My children and I visited my mother for Christmas and while in Texas I invariably get in an incredibly reflective state of mind. I visit a pile of my old haunts, dig through the attic and through what books I still have at my mother’s.
I love this, but it also brings me down. That’s not always a bad thing, really. At least I don’t think so. I’ve always felt that feeling those things keeps me in touch with the emotional connection an artist should have with life and all that, and it keeps me honest with who I am, where I’ve come from and where I’m going. There’s a price, for sure, but the good memories far outweigh the bad and it’s worth it to me.
When my mother drove us back to the airport in Houston, day before yesterday, I found myself reflecting on all the car rides I’d had from home to Houston and back again over the years. It’s not a short ride (two hours), especially for a kid, though if you live in Texas long car rides are de rigeur. We used to drive to my grandparents (on my father’s side) in Amarillo. This was an eighteen-hour ride which my dad would do in one go. We never left the state. One long, lo-o-o-o-ong, interminable thread of road we gathered before us, and unwound behind us.
We usually made this trip in a large old station wagon that rattled and clattered endlessly in the back seat. I have an older sister and a younger brother and when we were on the road we couldn’t stand each other’s company. This led to all kinds of mischief, and retribution from my father who had no problem slewing the car off of the road to give us a taste of his belt. We deserved it, actually, as there had been plenty of dire warnings preceding (glares from the rearview mirror) and mom twisting in her seat to whisper to us that dad was watching, etc. My brother and I were probably slamming bubble gum in each other’s hair, or my sister was antagonizing us to no end. So it was a slow burn to defcon 1. No surprises there. But beyond that stuff, and there was plenty of it because we couldn’t keep still for more than thirty minutes at a crack, I remember lots of time to watch the world go by, an interesting pageant in the sixties and seventies.
I remember occupying the farthest seat in the back, which was pretty neat actually. You felt totally separated from the goings on in the front of the car. Sounds were muted and one was left with the drone of the tires over the road and one’s own thoughts.
You watched the other cars behind you, watched the landscape delivered like a movie through the back windshield. And this got me thinking about nature versus nurture and how we receive and parse information, then and now. Lots of people had the exact same experiences I had in that strange rumble seat of the time, but for me it was time to think and to dream (which it was for them, too), but I wonder if this isn’t partly responsible for my becoming an artist.
Certainly lots contributed to that, but watching my own children now, I notice that they rarely look outside the confines of the car unless I specifically point things out along the way. They usually have their noses buries in an ipod or iphone, playing some game or other. How different is that, ultimately, from my comic books or other stimulus that I had? Except that road trips, though sprinkled with the ephemera of my youth (comic books, toys, etc.) were mostly long drawn out affairs where the show really was the landscape rushing by and the ache in one’s legs and ass from being cramped up in the car for too long. And in Texas the landscape can be pretty monotonous, to be sure. But one found interest, even then: The cricket pumps bobbing in the fields, each to its own rhythm. Cows lowing, white cowbirds lifting off from the wet reflections of the sky in the rice fields. Barbed wire outposts zipping by, while we struggled to see if there were condensers to know if it was electrified or not. The shimmering reflection of heat on the blacktop, where cars and trucks looked to be melting in the distance. Visually collecting states from the license plates of other cars coming and going. Waiting at a railroad crossing counting the rumbling steel cars as they flew by, while dad talked about the old Rock Island express that would stop in Amarillo during the Depression. A parade of tunes through our ears as accompaniment, CCR, CSNY, Cat Stevens, Janice Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, The Byrds, the Mamas and the Papas, my father whistling some big band tune from WWII, or him akin us what we wanted to hear him sing next. The reply was a unanimous “Nothing!”, after which he’d launch into “Nothing, nothing at all!” at the top of his voice. The crinkly rustle of mom turning the pages of her magazines, or the clicking of her knitting needles, her glasses riding low on her nose.
My father would point to the cows along the roadside and tell us to “look at the kitty cats!”, and we would, then groan because we knew better. But we liked it anyway, his plays with words and the meanings of things. He talked of Hummingphants coming to our hummingbird feeders, little elephants with wings like hummingbirds. We would crack up. So I do this with my children now, calling out the kitty cats along the way. They groan too. But it’s a great connection to each other, really.
Anyway, I bring all this up because I think a lot about how we arrive at our creativity, or our drive to be creative. What formed us in that way? Why are some predisposed to this type of stuff and others not? Why do some arrive at this later in life and others seem born to it? How much is nature versus nurture?
I don’t have any answers, of course, but I think about it constantly. I’ve blamed my generation’s creative drives to “Space Food Sticks”, a weird chocolatey, slightly malleable food stick from the Vietnam era Space Race that came wrapped in a plastic foil-like material that looked like it was ripped right from John Glen’s spacesuit. They tasted like shit but we gobbled them up because it’s what the astronauts ate! They’re not around anymore, so it’s a convenient thing to hang conjecture on, along with Brown Sugar Cinnamon Pop Tarts, another of the great brain foods (interestingly, also wrapped in a spacesuit sort of plastic). Maybe the Fluoride in the water, though that had been around since 1945. Who knows?
I do know that I have always been interested and transfixed by things in print, the graphic image. I can remember being stopped dead in my tracks at a very early age by printed material, the look of ink on the page, the way the closely packed dots actually worked together to create this facsimile of a painting on a paperback book cover. I was fascinated by this stuff. I could not get enough of it! Still cannot. It wasn’t just the artwork on the printed page that was killing me, it was the process of getting those images on the paper that did it to me too. I was one of the ones that ordered that crappy pressed tin printing press from the back of the comic book in the late sixties. It was dinky, but not too bad for my kid hands, and you had to actually set the type, small rubber letters that you slid into a thin metal strip, which then fit onto the roller. I was so excited! In my head I had visions of full-color comic books rolling off my press! Yes! I couldn’t wait. It was a letdown, of course, the black and white thing with type that rolled out of my press, but I was still proud of it. It was one step closer to the real thing!
I remember having to take piano lessons when I was a kid. I absolutely did not want to do this. I wanted to play more baseball and to spend my time running around the old oil fields, reading my comics and drawing. But my mother wanted her children to be able to play an instrument, which is really a pretty cool sentiment. I wasn’t into it then, though now I wish I had been! As there was there was no choice, I would dutifully go, usually dressed in my baseball uniform, and would put in the requisite amount of time on it all, but didn’t really have the heart for it. What made it bearable was watching my teacher, Mrs. Thompson, write out the music, along with various instructions for me in a spiral notebook. She would sharpen her pencils into long, long points, and there would be close to five or ten of these sitting in a row on the piano lid, and when she wrote she would bear down on the point, the lead digging into the paper, the wonderful grey line spilling out. She wrote with utter grace, conviction and speed, even power and it blew my mind. I could watch her write all day long. How weird is that?
I would memorize what I was supposed to do, hitting the right notes at the correct times, able to put the right inflection into it all, knew when to turn the pages so it looked like I was reading the music, and all that. But it was watching her write on those crisp, creamy white pages, those pencils and the lines! I can still remember all that. I also loved the graphics on the sheet music and the way the notes looked on the staff paper. Loved all that. Just not the playing or the insistence that I do something I didn’t want to be doing. Stupid kid. But I found a way to love it all.
My best friend, Lum Edwards, and I would ride our bikes all over town, hitting the couple of stores that sold comics and we’d haunt the racks for a half-hour or so, struggling over what books to get. Then ride to a different local grocery store that seemed to be the only one that would carry Creepy or Eerie magazines and repeat the haunting. I remember going to the local library and pulling out the bound volumes of Time magazine to look at the covers, which mostly all sported painted pieces on them. They were from a different era and yet they packed a visual punch. We were in thrall to this stuff.
We spent hours and hours and hours writing and drawing various comic book stories and publishing our own little fanzine back then. It was an all-consuming passion for us.
At that time I think anyone who had half an interest in the visual arts could be roped in by the plethora of illustrations that graced the covers of most magazines and all books.
And I return again to the idea of what really was the deciding factor in my becoming an artist. Was it just a dearth of interest in anything else and so I was drawn to the colorful world of make-believe? I had plenty of artistic genes running in my family. My dad’s brother, Uncle Joe, was a very good painter and pastel artist. When I was a kid he and I would sit before the fireplace during the Christmas holidays and he would draw me various characters from literature, most notably, and my most requested, being Sherlock Holmes. I was fascinated by this. Watching him draw, indeed watching anyone draw, is magic to my eyes. No other entertainment comes close, even now.
Uncle Joe’s son, my cousin Jake, also was a wonderful draftsman, though he didn’t pursue it. He was the one that introduced me to piles of stuff (quite a bit that my parents would have been dismayed by), like underground comics, Doc Savage, Conan, Creepy and Eerie, all of which I found endlessly fascinating and copied religiously. My father’s sister also had lots of artistic abilities and she was instrumental in loving up on my early efforts. Further back in the family lineage on my mother’s side, the woman we called Uncle Nel (my mother’s tomboy aunt) was good at drawing and my mother still has some of her charcoal drawings about the house.
My mother took painting lessons and was quite good, though she can never admit it. I try to get her to paint even now, but she rarely has the time or the inclination. So, to some degree it was in my blood.
There were also several artists locally that I was friends with and they pushed me constantly as well. Phyllis Lee is a wonderful painter and I met her through my mother who was taking painting lessons from her. She had as a student Lyn Sweat who did the Amelia Bedelia illustrations, but who is an excellent painter as well. Phyllis did it all, sculpture, paintings drawings, and all were really great.
Another artist was George Farrar who did lots of cowboy scenes but who was also into the sword and sorcery genre and into Frazetta. He worked on the original “Charlotte’s Web” cartoon painting backgrounds. I loved to hang out at his studio and hear his tales of living in San Francisco during the 1960’s. Lots of fun. His pen and inks were meticulously detailed with a Rapid-o-graph drafting pen. He taught me a lot about leaving things open.
I also think that my being cooped up in the hospital as a kid had a profound effect on my leaning in this direction. I had two open-heart surgeries as a kid. The first I was too young to remember anything about as I was only one year old. The second I do remember quite a bit about. I was five or so in 1966, confined to my bed at the Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, Texas, and Batman was on television. I was hooked on that show. My family saw my interest and started bringing me comic books to read. It was all over at that point. They were colorful and graphic and so much more interesting than a hospital room!
I never looked back.
I remember, too, a television show that was local back then called Cowboy John. He was the local weatherman on one of the channels, but he would dress up as a cowboy and draw famous cartoon characters on television. First he would draw the character, then show you how to do it. I loved it.
Thanks to Chris Williams’s response in the comments section below for reminding me about my next door neighbor who was an architect, which got me wanting to do that when I was younger as well. I would sit and watch him work and quiz him on everything. I was very serious about it for a time. I loved the tools that went with being an architect! Bright shiny precision instruments! Very cool. So I took mechanical drawing classes in high school where we did exploded view drawings and where attention to detail was the order of the day. This was when calculators had just come out and their use was forbidden in school — it was seen as cheating. The more I delved into the idea of being an architect the more the math convinced me it wasn’t for me. But my sister and I (as you can read in my comment to Chris’s memories) used to sit on the floor of the den and create incredibly detailed floor plans for crazy mansions we would dream up. Lots of fun! But I wonder, too, if my early attraction and push for architecture helped me in understanding the importance of craft at an early age? Craft is something for another post, really. Hmm…need to work on that one!
I was incredibly lucky in that my father was a voracious reader. He read any and everything under the sun. From heady scientific treatises, world history, military history, dime store detectives, autobiographies, and magazines of every stripe. He had several books going at once on his bedside table, on the coffee table in the den. Everywhere. I waded through it all, enamored of the images they all presented. “The Annotated Sherlock Holmes” full of those Sidney Paget illustrations. The Robert McGinnis covers I found on the Carter Brown novels, and the John D. MacDonald novels blew my mind. The James Bama covers on the Doc Savage novels, and the Frazetta covers on the Burroughs and Robert E. Howard books! There was so much to see, to visually wallow in. And I wallowed to my heart’s content, usually at the cost of my grades. That’s when my parents pulled out the big guns and started threatening to burn my comic collection and take me out of baseball. They were threats only, and it worked. My grades would come up, briefly.
And because of the wonderful trove of reading material that was scattered throughout my home, I too became a voracious reader. One of the greatest gifts handed to me by my father. And certainly the reading contributed to my visual language. Reading is seeing. It’s an amazing extra form of what John Gardner in “Becoming a Novelist” calls the “waking dream”. And while we’re there the writer, with our help and blessing, constructs these wonderful images in our minds. And that leap of faith is very much the same as what artists do all the time in making their images. Maybe that’s the lure? It’s what I imagine drugs are to an addict and why it’s so hard to give it up. It’s a place that seems to hold so much more promise than the real world.
Anything can happen, and (as Alan Gurganus mentions in his essay for the book Scout, Atticus and Boo –
“It’s a form of dreaming, an extra form of dreaming; it’s a kind of algebraic balancing act, a kind of working out of equivalencies. And it’s a place where where justice can actually happen. That’s one of the unacknowledged powers of the novel, is that here in this little town, in these two hundred pages, a life is saved, something is salvaged, perfect justice is achieved, however improbably. And I think that that’s one of the reasons we read, is to have our faith in the process renewed.”
Though he’s talking about writing, really, the impulses are the same.
It’s a comforting place, mostly, drawing and painting. Yet, there’s so much that is hard about it all, though only practitioners know this. It’s why so many laypeople have no idea how tough it is, and have this false impression that we’re all just having a great time doing what we do. It’s not work, right? Yet they admit they can’t do it and gave up quickly ever entertaining any desire to pursue it. Why is that? Because it’s HARD TO DO! But it’s easier to pretend that we’re having fun rather than they not having the wherewithal to struggle through the hard thing.
It also irks people that we love what we do. I get it. Most people aren’t happy with what they have to do on a regular basis. But as I tell my students, if you’re in it for the money, then you’re in the wrong business. Not that it can’t be financially rewarding, it can be. But that’s not the reason to ever want to be an artist. And if you’re not into, there’s lots of easier ways to make money. Also, if you don’t love this job, then there are lots better jobs out there where you don’t have to mentally show up and actually “be there” in mind as well as body.
Doing art for a living as an illustrator is being able to turn on the spigot and be creative at the behest of someone else— instantly. It can also be hand to mouth for years and years. When it’s good, it’s great. Nothing can beat the feeling of doing a piece of art that really works out. On the flip side, when it’s not going well it can be the worst nightmare one can imagine, the most self-defeating and frustrating thing on the planet. Every piece has a mind of its own. They rarely are what I intended them to be. Many are better than what I was striving for, which is wonderful. Lots, more probably, are not and fall way below what I saw in my mind’s eye.
But I digress. Where does it all come from? I’d love to hear from you, dear reader, about your own ideas on this. I have something I ask my students each semester, which is, “Have you ever had an art epiphany?” One of mine was when I was living in New York. I was there eighteen years and I loved visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art on the weekends. I invariably found myself in the Impressionist wing as I loved wandering among the Monets and Degas pieces especially. I also could spend an inordinate amount of time in front of Bastien LePage’s “Joan of Arc” piece. I was not a fan of Van Gogh at the time, though now I find it hard to pinpoint why. Probably I was turned off by the drawing, which I didn’t get then. Now my threshold for naive drawing is lower and I can appreciate stuff I once could not. Maturity has its benefits.
On this particular day I meandered my way to the Impressionist wing and found myself in front of one of Vincent’s pieces, the poplar trees. I remember standing there and immediately being assaulted by this piece, and incredibly powerful emotions welled up inside of me. I stood in front of this painting literally weeping from the sheer beauty of it. I was embarrassed but I couldn’t help it. And ever since I’ve been a Van Gogh maniac. I cannot get over his work.
When I bring this up in my classes there are usually a couple of responses. The girls think it’s cool and are happy to offer up lots of epiphanies they’ve had. The guys, generally, are uncomfortable with the direction this story takes the class. They are more closed mouthed about any epiphanies they might have had, not wanting to look like a wuss or something. But once the stories start to come out, they loosen up a bit and tales will come forth.
What I do find, pretty consistently, is that most of my students do not know why they want to be artists, much less illustrators. And no amount of prodding can seem to drag a coherent answer from them. Maybe they really don’t know, which surprises the hell out of me. I always wanted to be an artist. Always. Yet maybe my questions spark an inner dialogue with my students and they begin to question their motivations. Who knows?
But pursuing being an artist in this day and age is a curious thing. Why would people knowingly put themselves in a position where failing is consistently part of the plan? Is in fact how one gets better. In a field where the odds are so staggeringly against success?
I’ll probably continue to add to this and try and clean it up a bit, maybe even adding some imagery, but I’ll go ahead and publish now to try and get some momentum from you guys.
So let me know your thoughts on this! I’d love to hear them and get a discussion going on this topic.
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