Thursday, November 8, 2012

More thoughts on the challenges facing todays workshops participants


Oh! Here I am. Thank you to all of you who have commented on the blog. You have given me several subjects about which I may write. I had a visit from two readers from Utah, they even took me out to dinner. I enjoy meeting you all. Writing this blog is like speaking to a darkened theater where I can not see the audience or gauge their reaction to what I am saying. Workshops are the way I generally meet my readers.. The blog gets a lot of visitors, Sometimes as high as 30,000 a month, but fewer, lately, as I have been posting less often, but it is still a whole lot of people. How odd! considering that writing it is so solitary. More about the workshop problems;

Failure to appreciate the difficulty of painting well I always tell workshop students that learning to paint is no more difficult than learning to play the violin. They are always shocked to hear that. Some of them have decided to paint en plein air (as they call it) because they have supposed it would be easier. Again I am not talking about you, anyone you know or have ever met, I mean those bad people who are far away, those whose taxes should be raised. Painting is wicked hard. No one would ever bother with it except that it is so much fun and  perpetually interesting. I believe it takes about ten years working full time to become a competent painter. That doesn't mean you shouldn't paint if you have less time, it is fun and rewarding. But you wouldn't imagine you could learn to play the violin adequately in less time would you? Still many of my workshop students expect a hundred pounds of progress for ten pounds of application. I love em, but they need to be realistic about the effort it will take. Even the most brilliant teacher can't make that hurdle go away, that is just the way it is.


    • Believing that quality in art is subjective No idea is more destructive to the progress of a painter than this. The comfort it provides the student comes at the expense of advancing ability. The hard truth that there are folks out there who truly paint a whole lot better than you do is daunting, and I am sorry that is scary, but it remains true none the less. When people tell me that art is all subjective and that there is no such thing as one persons art being "better" than another's, I always tell them "I play guitar as well as Hendrix, you might not like it as well, but after all it is so subjective". I  was a high school garage band member with zero talent, by the way. I know some people who play like gods ( you know who you are!). I am comfortable with that. Somebody has to be in the audience. The following are the problems with the subjectiveist model;
    1. Why look to the greats in the art, like Rembrandt or Sargent if they are only superior to your own daubs in the opinion of  people who can be ignored or argued against? 
    2. If all art is equally good, how could you make your own better? Improving your art would only make sense if you could add quality to it. How depressing it would be to look back on your art from a decade ago if it could not have been made better.Why would one work to better their craft if the only possibility was to make it different rather than better?
    3. When I look in the mirror, sometimes I am handsome and other times I see a caviling dork. I see only what I think of myself, and not myself. The eye sees itself only by reflection Shakespeare said. If we argue that all of art is only subjective, then the only way it makes sense to think that our art is improving, would be if it is more what we would have it be. But then our ability to judge it will wax and wane like our opinion of ourselves. Before you say that you always have a great opinion of yourself, realize that would preclude self criticism altogether. That you yourself like your art is a slim recommendation for it in the larger world, and unlikely to convince those outside of your immediate circle of friends. 
    4. It makes it difficult to  utilize the opinions or suggestions of teachers or "masters"  after all, they are not arguably better at painting than we are, only different. Who then are they to criticize our art? Our art is just as fine as anyone else's. 
    5. I don't know any successful or skilled artists who believe this. There must be some who do, but I have met hundreds of painters and can't I think of one. I conclude it is an opinion not held by a significant number of fine artists. Surely it must be useful to emulate or follow the path of those who have had success in painting. There results are extensions of their opinions.
    6. Why would art be singular among all the efforts of man and not have standards, measures or examples of quality? There is better and worse carpentry, whiskey and cancer treatment. If  there is no art better than another,why go to the museum? Wouldn't the greeting card rack at the drugstore be just fine? 

    Well that should do .... I better throw in something less philosophical and more "useful" to counter my ranting and raving. How about this?

    I like my paint to stay "open" all day. But after that I want it to dry. Paint that stays wet for days is a nuisance for me. If I wanted that, I could add poppy oil to my paint. I don't like acrylics because their rapid drying time makes it hard for me to manipulate it before it seizes. In order to speed my drying times I use an alkyd such as Liquin 
    Or  I could add a fast drying paint to my palette. Different brands of paint and different colored pigments dry at different rates. There are two logical places I have found to do this. The first is the white. I can add an alkyd white like Griffin, or use a flake lead that dries quickly ( no lead for you amateurs please! leave that to those of us who will blithely risk poisoning for our art.)

    Lucas paint (available form Jerrys) has a fast drying time. Since, after white, the color I use the most is ultramarine, I will often add the Lucas ultramarine to my palette. Since ultramarine gets into many parts of my canvas it is will pull along the other pigments with it as it dries. And it is cheap..

    26 comments: said...

    Failure to realize how difficult it is to make a painting and failure to realize how hard it is to make a living at making paintings...even really really good paintings that people like.

    DesB said...

    So I clicked the 'avoidance' link under that great woodcut and found a piece of music which pushed my nostalgia button and noticed a comment on the music which is very pertinent to your theme -
    I quote....."some become butterflies, some stay caterpillars , trapped in a cocoon of fear , timidity and convention , me I am still chasing with nets of wonder"
    Jerry Barak 3 weeks ago

    Jim Polewchak said...

    The hats on the cheerful characters in the woodcut suggest they may be Austrian to me. The gentleman on the right has such a look of smug, self-satisfaction; I wonder if he is an ancestor of a certain infamous son of Austria?

    Deborah Elmquist said...

    Here, Here!! The last two blogs resonated with me and much of what you say about standards can be expanded to society in general but that's a topic for another day. Question. Who should teach? Should today's "masters" only or those that are on just better than those they teach be our instructors. Should learning to paint be left to the schools and academies? The other question is what about judging other forms of painting like non-representational? So many questions, so little time.

    Durinda Cheek, Fine Artist said...

    Since what people see is a "product" and not the process, they assume it can be easily produced at will, don't you think? After all, Stape, you "make it look so easy." They come to workshops for a "make it take it" not really caring if they learn the process or practice it later. The excitement comes when you see that "aha" moment shining in their eyes. Some get it, some don't but sharing the joy of bringing something to life on canvas is well worth the effort of teaching.

    Sarah Faragher said...

    I agree with you that while we all have different personal taste regarding what kinds of art we prefer to look at or make, there is such a thing as flat-out great painting. When I visit a museum or gallery and see work by truly great painters, that experience only makes me redouble my efforts to become a better painter. If there is even the remotest chance that I could produce paintings at that level someday... I'm not going to leave it to chance, though, I'm going to keep working.

    Example - I just saw the Winslow Homer show at the Portland Museum of Art here in Maine. Holy mackerel his paint handling and color choices are spectacular. I left the museum so elated that one painter could see that clearly and had learned the skills to effectively communicate what he saw. An amazing exhibit that feels completely relevant. About his late paintings, I kept thinking - he worked his whole life to be able to make these, and it shows.

    jimserrettstudio said...

    Brave little soul you are, Stape.
    People do not really like to hear the truth.
    As a artist I have only one true goal, to paint one, “just one” really good painting.
    When I do that I will die a happy man. Every time I think I am close, I see a work by someone that just blows me away. And realize how much work I have to do, how much I need to learn to see as a artist. And how much further along I would be today if I had had a honest, straight foreword teacher. That said that this is hard work and it will take sacrifices. Two things most people do not want to hear, another by-product of our instant gratification society. And why so many expect to be experts after one workshop. Better to set your goals to just painting “one” really good piece.

    I believe the bigger issue is in education in general. There is so much post-modernist philosophy about everything being art. Those things like quality, skill, education, work become bad words.
    "If everything is art, than is not nothing art?" said...

    Ah...Jim, after you paint "just one" good painting...if you are a painter, you won't die a happy man until you paint a "better one".

    Asked by a viewer to a painter " So. Tell me. What's your favorite painting"

    The painter's answer " The next one".

    Judy P. said...

    Hear,hear, Jim and Marian- good supplements to Stape's words. My blog from the start was named My Next Painting; hopeful from the beginning I guess. But I can't turn the corner without hearing 'There's no such thing as bad art'. Funny how pervasive that attitude is, you can't get away with that in music. Play an awful jangle of noise and declare 'I'm just as good as Santana, only different!'
    Friends look at me funny when I say my art stinks and I've got to improve,but actually I think it's an upbeat attitude to have.
    I recently took Stape's workshop in MN, and expected to paint a mess because I really wanted to emulate what he was demonstrating. Unfortunately my head exploded, and my confused efforts were dismal. But I know that when I gather all the loose bits of grey matter back up the Gestalt will occur-the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. Thanks Stape!

    Jose Luis De Juan said...

    Really enjoyed this workshop posts.Yes, the truth is harsh but it is necessary. Our culture has neglected quality and effort, especially in the arts with subjectivity notions that try to postpone the awful pain forever. Everyone gets an award and everything is good enough if promoted heavily and hung in the right place. Workshop teachers are reluctant to be critical for very good reasons so I always challenge fellow artist to be as harsh as possible assuring them my ego won't suffer (such a lie but they usually comply). Certain master with whom I took a workshop said he could see the though or lack of thought behind every brushtroke, he had half the class paralyzed in no time and it was a good thing once one ignored expectations of ego stroking and pat-in-the-back B.S. I'd only like to add there is confusion on the other end as well, years of work are no guarantee of success, one should expect improvement or even competence but not automatic success. The hardest truth of all is that not all are meant to paint at the level of genius. Just like years of swimming won't give you a swimmers' build or years of math wont make you a mathematician. One might be forgiven for trying only if one enjoys the process and can endure failure without damage to one's self worth. Competent paintings are good but won't fuel the artist ambition after endless years of work unless the masterpiece is right around the corner.

    Tess Traylor Walls said...

    Mr. Kearns,

    I began painting full time in June and friends have been bugging me to show them my work...after only 5 months?...I don't think so. Though when you say 10 years, which I don't doubt in the least, it does seem daunting.

    So, given the challenges you've outlined in your recent blog posts, how does affect your attitude about and motivation for teaching in the workshop format?

    John Kilroy said...

    Best thing I've read in a long time, Stapleton. You're a true artist and a seasoned instructor as your observations are spot on- cheers jk

    Florante Paghari-on said...

    Yes, Marian is right Jim and we would love to see you grow more as an artist and besides your love ones will not be happy if you're gone after that one good painting. At the end, ones work will speak for itself how hard or sloppy training he had in his lifetime as an artist. Happy painting to everyone.

    Robert J. Simone said...

    Painting well, really well, is difficult and does take a long time. I know because when I look in the mirror I see a positively brilliant man and I find flawless painting quite a challenge.....Oh, did I really say that? Earth to Robert, come in, please.

    I think avoidance of the difficulty in painting drives the "primitive" and "abstract expressionist" crowds. When principles and standards are disposed of anything goes. I suspect the presenting of such work to the public has an adverse effect on the market, too. It's sends a confusing message to the public and brands painting in in a way that generally dilutes perceptions.

    Philip Koch said...

    6A wonderfully trenchant post Stape!

    Long after we are all gone the truly weak paintings will have disappeared and the strong paintings will have survived. I take comfort in that.

    Nita Van Zandt said...

    My passion is drawing and I've just passed my 10000 hour mark of working at it, in charcoal/pencil/pen. I recently started painting in oils and can't tell you how many of my painting friends have said how amazingly well I am doing. What's clear to me is they're passionate about putting work in galleries and selling, but practice? Sheer devoted practice with the medium? Not so interested.

    I'm interested in piling up my 10000 practice paintings, learning how to play with paint and just enjoying myself between drawings.

    Love the tip about including some fast-drying paint in my mixes. Off to Jerry's!

    Clem Robins said...

    aw, Stape, you're talkin' about me again!

    R. A. Davies said...

    I have been painting since 1975. Accepted at the age of sixteen with a full scholarship to the Chicago Art Institute, I had to forgo it due to a lack of dorms--I needed to stay with a relative but had none there. I went to a state college. There they told me to sit and paint. After a few weeks, we had a "critique," which consisted of the whole class of imbeciles (including myself) perched on stools, blathering on about half-baked art theory and other inanities. Once I realized that only the girls who smoked pot with the instructor in his office before class did well, I thought something might be wrong with art school. They taught nothing. Zero. And, of course, anything that smacked of talent, of ability, of realism, was mocked, derided and practically spit on. I taught myself.

    The trend today is that everyone who can gather twenty pieces of crayon drawings, paint splatters, or macaroni gluing can have a show at "galleries" who charge them a flat fee to show for a month. The crowds come for the free snacks, and sometimes wine, passing in front of the "art" doing the dose-doe two step counter-clockwise round the space with all the understanding and appreciation seen in a seventh grade class trip. They know what is expected. Eyes glance over the piece, up, down, left, right. No one cries, "Bullshit!" Or laughs out loud at the sheer crapulence. No. They are cowed by the mystery, the fear of not being able to see the emperor's clothes. It's in a gallery for god's sake--it must be here for a reason.

    The true art it seems today is the art of bullshitting, of artist statements, of salesmanship, and schmoozing.

    I admire your work and your temperament. I keep painting, selling portraiture and landscapes. I wish I would have had the presence of mind to have gone to an atelier, but I had no idea they even existed.

    In any event, keep up the good work. I appreciate your blog.


    Judith Farnworth Art said...

    My experience with painting is that it is a journey and one I never want to end because it is the hope of improvement and the sheer enjoyment of the trip which drives me on. If I ever reach the destination does that mean I have nowhere else to go? As I take each little step I realise there is even more to learn, the goalposts constantly change and so my destination changes and hopefully I will never reach it. In the meantime I am in the very early stages of what might be considered a career in art, delivering workshops and selling one or two paintings but as for being a "good painter" I don't think so, improved yes and I am happy with that as I know the improvement will continue as long as my desire to paint continues!!

    Anonymous said...

    Stape, I appreciate your honesty and accuracy.

    I totally agree with you. I've been painting way more than 10 years, and I still feel pretty lost at times. As I view art by the real, undisputed masters, I realize that my work will never reach that level.

    Now before anyone says to me that I'm just being too self-negative. If it ain't happened by now, it probably ain't gonna. One of the reasons why I'm not a masterful artist is because I've spent a lot of my time writing and instructing by writing. I've spent many more hours practicing art communication in words. This was my choice, and I've paid the consequences with my artwork.

    knowing that it's impossible for everyone who wants to be a full time professional to find a buying audience - I do think that there is room for people to learn to draw and paint simply for their own edification. That's how it used to be, but now everyone thinks that as soon as they take a workshop, that they are taking it to make a living as a painter. There are simply too few collectors in this world for everyone who wants to make a lot of sales to do so.

    I say, learn and grow as long as you enjoy it. If at some point in time, your work is as good as those who are making a full time living at it, give that a go. But, don't assume it's easy to sell artwork. It isn't. It probably takes a decade to build a large enough following to make a living with art, and these days, that following can disappear when the economy goes sour. Paint and grow because you love it first.

    Theresa Grillo Laird said...

    Like R.A.Davies,I taught myself- by necessity not choice- and I'm fully aware of how much I still have to learn.I still think a formal art education no matter how lacking, is bound to short cut some of the errors of the self taught.

    Unknown said...

    Just finished reading "Of Human Bondage" by Somerset Maugham, written around the turn of last century, the protagonist said that there was no point in continuing art school in Paris if he was only going to be a mediocre.

    So he went to medical school instead and became a doctor...

    God, I gave up art when my house and studio burnt down, it's been 2 and half years since I've come here to read a post.

    Back then Stape would respond to every single person that posted a comment. Now he has 30 thousand people a month.


    I think some people are just born to be great and persistent and the rest of us are born to be spectators.

    Anyway, I miss the old days when I still had the dream.....

    Cynthia Hillis McBride said...

    If another person tells me all art is subjective I swear I will scream! They are alive and well in a Hans Christian Anderson Fairy Tale.

    Mr. Kruger and Mr. Dunning said it best in their Nobel Prize winning theory that, for a given skill, incompetent people will:
    -Tend to overestimate their own level of skill
    -Fail to recognize genuine skill in others
    -Fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy

    We only recognize and acknowledge our appalling actual lack of skill or knowledge, as we are gradually exposed to more excellence and/or training for that skill.

    10,000 hours of practice may give us competence in a skill, at which point we have just scratched the surface of where we need to be as artists.

    Paul Murphy said...

    Hi Stape, thanks for the link. I haven't heard that song for years. Lovely song and what a voice!!!
    Best, Paul

    Unknown said...

    Art is subjective. Just look at Damien Hirst or Tracy Emin. Both of those artists subject you to the torture of their propped up garbage.
    Seriously though, in this climate of todays art, it's no surprise that people think that all art is subjective. I make it a habit of looking at my paintngs next to an accomplished artist. That keeps me striving to get better. And no matter how good I get, there will always be someone a little better, whether it is in consistency or handling of the subject or a single brushstroke that I miss. Good post. I had to read all the comments.

    jetsonjoe said...

    Oh Goodness...this should be a requirement to sign upon getting that goatskin diploma...with the understanding to never get so cocky to think you ever have it ALL figured out...There are times when the flow is good...and then I get smug and all comfy...and BAM....I cannot hold the brush, I cannot find the local colour, I make mud and piles of stuff that should and is discarded faster than I want anyone to see...but I keep a few of the doozies...hanging inside a cupboard to remind me.......Thanks for reminding me again!