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Monday, February 20, 2017

How to avoid the #1 obstacle to being a good artist

Yes, it's a lighthouse. Wanna fight me?
Years ago, I was stymied by a large canvas of figures framed by a little house and an orchard. Following the conventional advice of the time, I took it to a well-known artist for critique. “It looks like an immature Chagall,” she said. In trying to fix that, I destroyed the work. 

My mature self knows exactly what was wrong with that painting: I was messing around way too much with glazing. A few decades of maturity have also taught me that orchards and fruit trees are important images to me. There was no cribbing from Chagall.

That critique set me back in my development because the artist looked at my work through the narrow lens of her own education and experience. She had no idea what I was striving for. Neither did I, of course, because I was a callow youth. These things require time and work to become clear.

I get lots of advice in my mailbox. I generally scan and ignore it. But this one irked me: “How to Avoid the #1 Obstacle to Becoming a Professional Artist,” it trumpeted. It went on to talk about how painters need to take classes and critiques and seek feedback from their peers to avoid what the writer calls “illusory superiority”—the idea that you think you’re better than, in fact, you are.

This painting of Beauchamp Point has few fans, but it still resonates with me. That's because it was pointing in the direction in which I was moving at the time.

In fact, the fastest way to be a mediocre painter is to seek too much advice from others.

I’m all for learning one’s craft within structured instruction—it saves a lot of time and wasted material. Beyond that, however, group thinking should be approached with a certain wariness.

Once you get out of art school, most painting groups are comprised of supportive, kind, and helpful people. But even these tend to reward those whose work looks a certain way and ignore those whose inner vision is radically different from the group’s norm.

If you don’t believe this, just imagine taking your carefully-crafted landscape to this gallery and asking for representation. The art world is all about conformity, while at the same time it paradoxically hungers for individual expression.

A lot of research has been conducted on normative social influences and conformity. Human beings are social animals. To be liked and respected within their group, they tend to moderate their own opinions. Research tells us that group norming is consistent across cultures and gender. In short, it’s everywhere where two or more of you are gathered together. The ability to get a group of people to think and work alike is useful in corporate culture, but not so good for making innovative art.

I once heard an artist I admired sneer at “lighthouse paintings.” Ever since, I’ve approached painting them with some trepidation. Yes, I understand they are overdone for the tourist trade, but they are also powerful symbols and beautiful buildings. There is nothing inherently wrong with them. It irks me that he planted this idea in my mind with a casual comment he doubtlessly doesn’t even remember.

This painting of the Raising of Lazarus was savaged in a newspaper review. It's not something I'm likely to forget in a hurry.
I can’t count how many times I’ve heard one painter say to another, “Stop! You’re done! Not one more brushstroke!” Of course one can diddle a painting to death, but that process is sometimes necessary for the next observational breakthrough. By saying that to another painter, you’re putting yourself in charge of his or her development.

When I was younger, the exposed background in my paintings often took the form of dark, heavy lines. “That’s your style!” one teacher told me. I’d had enough art-history classes to know that ‘style’ is a transitory thing, and I found those lines frustrating. Later, Joe Peller taught me how to marry edges. What a less-competent teacher took as style, Peller recognized as a technical deficiency.

This is why we should teach and critique with a light hand. Even more importantly, we should accept criticism and commentary with a healthy dose of skepticism. They are no substitute for doing our own hard thinking about our own work.