Wanderings of an artist in the trenches.

Craftsmanship


crafts·man·ship
/’kraf(t)smәn,SHip/’kræftsmәnʃɪp/
▶n.
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.

Everything matters.

– Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

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16 responses

  1. Thanks for this kick in the butt. I will bring it into my painting today

    -Evan

    January 13, 2011 at 2:39 PM

    • Cool, Evan. Glad you found this informative and a possible help to what you’re up to. Will I see you in Austin?

      George

      January 13, 2011 at 6:21 PM

  2. Hey George,

    This is a great post on the description of craftsmanship and what it takes to get there. For a duration of my time as a student at Ringling I was more concerned for speed and quantity then craft and draftsmanship, but I always admired it. Now several years later after College I have created more drawings personal and for commissions. What I have been learning lately is patience with my work. Patience to go back after many days or hours of working on a piece, and fix the drawing or do it all again. I am learning the importance of it. I have built a tougher skin now because of it. Meaning I can put my heart and soul into a piece and also take myself out of it when need be.

    January 13, 2011 at 5:08 PM

    • Orlando,

      I remember you cranking out the work. 🙂 But I was also pushing people to crank out the work as well. Then I’d give a longer assignment that you could really sink your teeth into. Your senior year you hit it. You found yourself and found a way of working in a media that clicked for you and it was all over but the crying. You work has continued to soar from that point. And, yes, craftsmanship was part of what you found then and have pushed since. 🙂

      Keep up the great work!

      George

      January 13, 2011 at 6:20 PM

  3. this is definitely something I need to hear. making sure that evenness is there in every piece is something I need to absorb through my skin. I look back at the pieces I did for my first semester here and, yeah, the picture may be “okay,” but the matting sure could have been better. or the illustration board cut straighter, or the drawing made tighter, or any other number of things that push a piece a piece towards being professional quality instead of just another student piece.

    I know you’ve mentioned it at different points whenever we’ve talked before, but when you talk about being able to draw, what is it you mean exactly? to know anatomy? (your answer still floors me there) to be able to render exactly what’s in front of you? your take is obviously a very different one than you’d find in an atelier and I’m really extremely interested to read what you have to say.

    January 13, 2011 at 9:05 PM

  4. Marie Provence

    Just as soon as I think I’ve hit the inspirational story jackpot you go on to write another! Thank you for sharing your thoughts, I really take them to heart.

    January 14, 2011 at 5:13 PM

    • Marie,
      Thanks for the kind words on the writing. I’m glad that you’re enjoying the blog!

      George

      January 14, 2011 at 6:53 PM

  5. Hi George,

    Thanks for writing this! Definitely what I need to hear (read) to make sure I take advantage of the time before TAD classes start in February.

    Ronaldo

    January 15, 2011 at 2:16 PM

    • Ronaldo,

      Thanks for the reply! Good luck with TAD. You’ll have a blast there and will really see some results.

      George

      January 17, 2011 at 2:30 AM

  6. Hey Mr. Pratt,

    After reading your post, I am struck by how it was exactly what I needed to hear. I have been trying to find why it is so hard to spend more time on a piece, and its because I don’t strive for the quality, opting to instead finish it quickly and try something else. You are very right about our generation (I’m 19) being wired differently. I am thankful that I read this before I spent another semester just “getting through” assignments. I have a new attitude toward everything I do now.

    Thank you!
    -Phil

    January 15, 2011 at 11:27 PM

    • Phil,

      Thanks very much for your reply! Very gratifying to know that this thing is helping in some small way with how some are thinking about their work.

      The funny thing is, I pile lots of assignments on my students that purposefully does not give them time to really go to town on things. I do believe that there is an aspect to learning that is benefitted by having to get the work out in a speedy fashion, solving lots of problems instead of doing what my buddy Scott Hampton calls polishing a turd. If you fall down a lot you’ll figure out what your’e doing wrong a lot faster. But there’s room for both here and a balance of both will produce incredible results.

      I tell my students all the time to fail miserably, fail big time. That way you really know what does and doesn’t work. If you’re not screwing up you’re doing it wrong. One has to know what’s too far, or else you’ll never know what’s too short as well. Better to overshoot than to never know.

      in my drawing classes I constantly push quick gestures. Mostly to get students to turn off their brains and really see what’s in front of them. To trust their instincts and gut reactions. To take a flyer every now and then and dive out into the abyss. They surprise themselves all the time with what they can accomplish when they really have some conviction behind what they’re doing.

      Anyway, thanks for the reply and for scoping out this blog!

      George

      January 17, 2011 at 2:28 AM

  7. Hey George,

    This is a great blog you have. I can see why people speak of you as a teacher in such high regard. Kudos.

    It seems to me that different schools attract different kinds of students. I have friends who teach at some of the big art schools in New York City, who say that they feel like they are “babysitting rich kids.” I’m fortunate enough to be teaching at MICA in Baltimore, where I would describe the students over-all as taking things very seriously. There are a few who slack, but the culture of excellence there seems to put a lot of pressure on the kids to do good work.

    A second note, I LOVED reading what you wrote about picking out linen, stretcher bars, etc. Currently, I’m obsessed with painting, and find myself going through the same things — trying out all kinds of different surfaces, materials, etc., heating up traditional gesso to apply on panels, painting on jute, belgian linen, applying the oil ground myself, painting on paper, panel, trying different mediums, etc… I’ve become obsessed. A few years ago I read a book called “The Power of Now,” which, though not related to art, taught me to slow down and focus on the process, even on the “boring” stuff (which, suddenly was no longer boring!). It changed the quality of my work overnight.

    What I think craftsmanship really boils down to, is enjoying the process, and not focusing on the end-result so much. You have a couple of great lines in this post, such as “There are those who love to paint, and those who love to have painted,” that I will remember.

    Best,

    frank

    January 17, 2011 at 8:21 AM

    • Frank,
      Thanks for checking out the blog and even more so for replying to the content.

      I think you’re totally right about different schools attracting different kinds of students. I know I’ve gotten very different fare in each of the various schools I’ve taught in. Ringling as well seems to bring in students who are very excited about what they’re doing and very serious about the work as a whole. The students I’ve encountered from MICA, and Ringling, at the Illustration Academy have been hard workers with a great work ethic. They’ve always been a pleasure to work with.

      I’ve also been in the position of “babysitting rich kids” and it’s no fun. They had absolutely no drive and the sense of entitlement was incredibly high. Mostly what they did in class was giggle and talk. Ugh.

      Man, I’m envious that you’re obsessed right now with painting and going through all that. What a great feeling! At the Academy much of what we teach is process and it’s funny how it totally changes people’s viewpoint and energies.

      Thanks again for checking out the blog and for adding your own insights! Very much appreciated.

      Best,
      George

      January 17, 2011 at 5:20 PM

  8. Thank you for this great post. I read through it and had a few things to say but then read through the other peoples responses and they’ve pretty much said it. I just graduated from school but feel that I didn’t really progress much as an artist because of how we were pushed to get through the homework. Thank you again, it’s definitely something everyone needs to be reminded of.

    February 18, 2012 at 3:16 AM

  9. David Keen Art

    Fantastic article George. It has inspired me to truly throw myself into my learning of traditional media and create as much art as I can. I look forward to hopefully speaking with you in person at TAD after i finished university here in Australia. All the best.

    March 12, 2012 at 9:10 AM

  10. Hi mr. Pratt,

    Great article, and you’re very right of course. Maybe it comes with our time, everything must be quick to understand, to please, to share.

    As of late I found myself drawing, but not achieving what I want to. The lines seem okay, but they’re absent, similar, characterless. The solution came to me when I was trying to replicate a style of another artist: I had stopped following the line I was drawing alltogether. Somehow I got used to placing the line within the larger figure, but not really living the line (if you know what I mean).

    When we’re kids and we’re learning to draw, we follow the point of the pencil minutely. Everything is about control. Once I had a reasonable grasp of drawing, a teacher told me ‘loosen up’, but sadly a lot of teachers don’t really explain what that means. (drawing from the wrist, living the line, and other good information was not given). The results are dull, lifeless pictures who do resemble the subject, but don’t really carry any liveliness or meaning.

    Last week I watched Picasso paint lines on a piece of glass. He (again) followed the tip of his brush minutely. Your post reinforces this behavior: care about the work, see every inch and concentrate on what you are doing.

    thank you for the inspiration,

    Lars

    July 4, 2015 at 7:19 AM

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