Sunday, April 18, 2010

First, Be an Artist

Two recent events really started me thinking more about this topic. First, last week a friend was in town. We painted en plein air together a couple of days. She has been involved in academia on a college level for much of her life, and while this is not a direct quote, what I sensed in speaking with her is that she seems saddened by what is taught (or rather, what is not taught). That is, the "craft" is not often taught. (I cannot speak to this as I am mostly self-taught with the aid of many fine independent instructors.) Maybe not all, but much of what she perceives is found should be labeled philosophy of art and critical thinking, (although many college graduates are only believing what they are being told... not really thinking critically about it. ) Second, my art has been the subject of many recent articles in American Art Collector Magazine. One for landscapes, another for still lifes, next month for marine paintings, and still figure and portrait editorial to come in the near future. How in the world does this happen? Is it a good thing or a bad thing to be thought of for so many things or for nothing in particular?

For the point of this blog, I want to focus on just learning the craft for its own sake. (I do not mean to discuss what is "good" or "bad" or "in vogue" or "scorned," and I certainly do not mean to belittle a good college education. Gratefully I have kids who are blessed with good college educations!) Instead, I want to discuss growth and learning and what it can do for making a more rounded artist, even a more rounded person!

Like many, many artists before me, I have chosen a path to "first, be an artist." This means that I do not "bill" myself as a 'portrait' artist, or a 'plein air' artist, or a 'marine artist,' etc. Additionally, many of you may not know that, for the sheer joy of learning, I also enjoy going to Alan LeQuire's sculpting class, painting small watercolors, and working with conté. I liken it to being a family practitioner or internal medicine doctor, as opposed to the country's top heart surgeon--both necessary jobs.

In this way, I learn a lot about all sorts of mediums and subject matter, which keeps me interested and alert. You may even have read before where I claim not to "paint nouns," that is "things," but rather I prefer to paint adjectives such as a person's attitude or the mood of a setting. (Not that I would not mind being able to paint the perfect portrait.) Of course, what this also means, is that I can be labeled a "Jack of all trades; master of none." That's fine by me. It's the learning that keeps me excited with what I do... not just the the accomplishment.

If history tells us anything about this general art practitioner, it is that Michelangelo was one, as were many others of his time. Look at the drawings, sculptures, and paintings they made. Look at what was expected of them. Move forward in history and take a look at Sargent. Maybe he is best remembered first for his portraits, but examine his landscapes and his plein air work, his watercolors (not just his oils) to see how he learned such mastery.

Everette Raymond Kinstler (whose history and education is fascinating by the way) advised my friend Dawn Whitelaw to paint en plein air as a means to painting better portraits. That was years ago, and take a look at her work now... not JUST the portraits, but everything she paints.

So, here's the charge to you. Get OUT of your comfort zone. If you paint portraits, go paint a landscape en plein air. Set up a still life if you are a landscape painter. Try painting if you are a sculpture. If you're a studio painter, paint out doors and vice verse. Whatever... just try it. For me, personally, it is a much better path to take in life. Of course, if I ever need the country's best heart surgeon, I will be glad for the doctor's existence. I just pray that he/she has not grown uncaring or stagnant in the work. That is my personal fear as an artist... and complacency has no place in my life. This thing I do, being an artist, is the hardest thing I have ever attempted. It is an unending uphill climb. That is what makes it both frustrating and invigorating.

Shown here are a few examples of this past week's lessons for me. I hope you enjoy them. They are the products of work needed for upcoming exhibits and magazine articles, and the current sheer love of spring. The first 3 are plein air, the last 4 are studio pieces. The bottom one is from the week previous at an open studio on portraits.