Category Archives: Artists on Art

Covering the Masters

The surest path to developing your own original voice in art is to study the masters. Every great rock band you can think of started out by covering the songs of earlier artists. Great artists throughout history also “covered” earlier precedents on the way to figuring out what they were up to. Why did the Beatles study Chuck Berry and Big Bill Broonzy? Because those older artists were cool; they had the stuff, the sound, the vibe. Why did Michelangelo copy Ghirlandaio? Same reason.

When you look through the catalog of what came before you you will find your own patterns of fascination. Pay attention to these patterns. They reveal who you are as an artist and who you will be. You don’t have to know why you find a particular drawing or painting captivating. The fact that it captures your attention is what matters. It’s a mirror you’re looking at, not somebody else’s drawing. You don’t look in a mirror and ask why. You look to find information.

On the practice of drawing from the masters, Mercedes Matter, teacher and founder of the New York Studio School, said, ” Any young artist without insight into these forms of expression, without a key to understanding the art of other times and places, who is tuned in only to current ideas, is indeed poverty-stricken. However bright, sophisticated, ingenious and successful he may be, he remains, as an artist, naïve.”

In his twenties Edgar Degas spent several years in Italy living with relatives, painting their portraits and assiduously copying older art in the churches and museums. Why did he copy older art? Was he just being the dutiful student, eating his vegetables and taking his vitamins? No. He copied because that art was alive to him. It spoke to his own unique questions, intentions, and needs. History regards Degas as one of the most daring, original, and groundbreaking artists of all time and yet he himself made this confession:

I assure you no art was ever less spontaneous than mine. What I do is the result of reflection and study of the great masters; of inspiration, spontaneity, temperament I know nothing.”

Preoccupation with finding an original style is a common curse of young artists. It’s natural to want your work to be your own and not just another iteration of some recognizable genre or established style. But shutting yourself off from art and influence doesn’t make you more original; it just makes your work more predictable and typical. It locks you out of the great ongoing conversation that all great artists, alive or dead, have had with the history of art. It cuts you off from great streams of influence that can help you in your journey to figure out what you’re doing and what you’re trying to say with your art. In the gallery below you will find some wonderful “covers”  of masterworks of drawing and painting made by artists who in turn became great masters themselves. It will pay you to seriously ponder this question: did they become masters in spite of copying, or because of it?

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Filed under Artists on Art, Old & Modern Masters, Practice, Sketchbooks

The Winter of Discontent

Self-Portrait by Katsushika Hokusai, 1760-1849

Self-Portrait by Katsushika Hokusai, 1760-1849

Six weeks into a semester a student expressed to me her observation that she “wasn’t getting any better.” Students often believe that their frustration is unique to them; that their struggle is evidence of a lack of “talent.” In the journey we make as artists there are many well-known landmarks. Frustration with our seeming lack of progress after an optimistic beginning is a big one. Let’s just borrow from William Shakespeare and call that one “the winter of our discontent.”

We enter this barren landscape typically at those times when we are taking on new concepts, new images, and new practices. These strangers in the room challenge our comfortable, familiar habits; they upset what we thought we were doing. Lurking behind the curtains of consciousness, ready to spring forth in judgement of the child that lies at the heart of every artist there is often a soured, old, adult intelligence, even in very young people. Our rational intelligence is no help; in fact it’s the problem. A great pianist doesn’t “think” about every note in the moment of playing it. The dancer at the barre is not the dance. The pianist playing scales is not the concert. Larger patterns and instincts guide the artist and only practice can develop these instincts. Practice is not sexy, but it’s crucial because only by ritual application to the problem of taking materials in hand and attempting another drawing does the process become familiar enough for it to seep down into the subconscious.  I’ve noticed that progress in making art does not happen gradually. It happens in quantum leaps, not unlike the way seeds grow, invisible to the eye, under a hard crust of earth until a soaking rain softens the ground and seemingly overnight, the field is green with new growth.

“I have drawn things since I was six. All that I made before the age of sixty-five is not worth counting. At seventy-three I began to understand the true construction of animals, plants, trees, birds, fishes, and insects. At ninety I will enter into the secret of things. At a hundred and ten, everything–every dot, every dash–will live”
― Hokusai Katsushika   (from Anne Harris, fb)

“It’s as simple and complicated as this: if we want to make our best work, we must believe that what we have to say matters. We must believe wholeheartedly in our own vision of the world. We must be willing to be imperfect, vulnerable, playful, uncertain, and authentic. Doing is the creative habit that separates those who go places from those who spin their wheels.” Sol LeWitt, in a letter to Eva Hesse (from Alan Rushing, FB)

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10 Rules for Students and Teachers

10 Rules of John Cage

The 10 rules were actually the work of Sister Corita Kent in the 1960s and later popularized by composer/artist John Cage. His life-long partner, dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham, kept these posted in his studio as inspiration to his students.

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