MYTH: Real artists paint, or draw. And they draw stuff right out of their head! They don’t even have to look at the subject.
REALITY: Art is bigger than any box you try to put it in.
If I had to choose a myth that’s done the most damage–that’s created the narrowest limitations on what we see as art, and who we call an artist–it would be this one.
We can get very picky about what is art and what is craft. I remember a friend of mine who worked in clay. “I’m considered a craftsperson for making this”, she said, showing me an object she’d made. “But if I used this same object to make a mold, and had it cast in bronze, it would be considered fine art.”
Media and technique have always been strong predictors for saying what is art and what is not.
High praise is reserved for people who draw, or paint. I think it’s because a beautiful drawing or painting has something of the “magic trick” about it. A flat rendering of something that’s recognizable as a real-life object just seems….magical.
I’ve discovered recently that there’s even prejudice among painters and pencil artists about working from a photograph of the subject, as if that were a form of “cheating”.
Oddly, among who don’t draw at all, the highest praise is reserved for those who “don’t even have to look” at the thing they’re drawing.
And yet, drawing and painting are skills that almost anyone, with a practice, can acquire.
Look at the vast number of senior citizens who finally take up a long-treasured desire to paint. In past times, young ladies of certain social standing weren’t even considered “refined” unless they had acquired some artistic skill with a pencil, or needle, or musical instrument.
Drawing can be a valuable skill, of course. But it’s not the only artistic skill, nor even the most important one.
But that’s what we’ve been trained to believe.
Years ago, when I went looking for studio space outside my home, I met with the owners of a large local building being renovated for offices and studios.
They asked me what I did, and I said I was a fiber artist. I’d already won a national award for my unusual work with textiles and prehistoric themes. I was feeling pretty good about my work.
The conversation meandered and later, the same guy mentioned a local watercolor artist in town, someone with very modest talent.
“Now Bert, he’s a real artist”, he said. “He’s a painter.”
I tried not to wince.
I honestly don’t think the guy meant to be insulting, he was just expressing his admiration for someone he was in awe of. He heard “fiber artist” and thought “quilts” and he thinks that’s just squares of fabric sewn together.
But someone who can paint Mt. Monadnock….now that takes skill!
When I was a kid, I loved to draw. I was actually pretty mediocre at it, though, because I never developed that skill. And I rarely drew what I saw, only what I could imagine–running horses (of course!), puppies, cartoon mice, intricate doodles.
But that was enough to get me labeled “artist”.
When I returned to art as a middle-aged adult, it was with different media, one that many people do not recognize as “real art”.
Ironically, the first people who did recognize my body of work as “art” were….other artists. People who did shows and craft fairs, who saw a lot of art and craft, and saw something very different and very powerful in mine.
And the biggest irony of all?
Drawing is a skill set. And anyone can learn to draw.
Drawing is about seeing–really seeing–and being able to reproduce what is seen on a two-dimensional surface, without falling prey to any of the “tricks” and preconceptions our brain insists upon. Understanding perspective, observing how shadows truly fall and how they affect color… All of these are about truly seeing what is in front of us with precision and clarity.
The mind falls into almost a meditative state as we begin to process what we see in a different way. Not a “red apple”, but an apple with flecks and shadows and shine. Not a “puppy” but a living, solid form with musculature and bone, and fur that rises and falls, and those eyes….
I like to do things fast, so sitting still and simply observing was crazy-making for me. I can do it. But I don’t enjoy the process.
Not even all forms of drawing are considered “fine”. Cartoons, doodling, graffiti…. Most people would scoff at the idea that these kinds of drawing are “art.”
We are not born “knowing” how to draw, anymore than we are born “knowing” how to play the piano, or how to drive a car.
What we are born with is fearlessness and joy.
Almost every child I taught in preschool considered themselves an artist. And they were! They drew fiercely with pencils and splashed paint and molded little glops of clay with abandon. They were always very proud of their little creations.
“Look what I made!”
Slowly, that gets knocked out of us.
Some of us are better at making a dog that really looked like a dog, and they are “talented”. Some of us really love that state of mind that drawing demands, and we are “real artists”. Some make things that combined crazy colors and looked like nothing at all, or they become obsessed with one color, or one kind of object, and they are labeled weird, or goofy. (Now, of course, they are labeled “visionary”.)
We can’t even agree on what is “art”. (American version of the British TV show “Creature Comforts” so the lips don’t line up too well….)
My personal breakthrough to becoming the artist I’d always dreamed of being came with this statement:
“I have to make art, or I’ll die. I don’t even care if I’m a good artist or not. I just have to do it.”
I’d given up putting any qualifications on what I felt compelled to do. I just had to do it.
My life changed from that moment on.
There are people who would not consider the work of artist Andy Goldsworthy, any kind of art. Throughout history, there are huge periods of time when he would not be considered an artist at all. Yet a viewing of the movie Rivers and Tides erases any doubt in my mind. How about yours?
Good art. Real art. Great art. Appallingly bad art. Tasteful art. Fart art. (Did you catch that at the end of the video?)
Who can say? Who can judge? I have my opinion, of course, but nobody pays me for it.
We can’t even judge our own. When we do, the creativity stops. We’ve put a dam across the flow, forced the river between artificial embankments.
Art will not put up with this. We cannot control, nor barely see, where it goes once it leaves our hands.
Don’t compare yours to someone else’s. They have their journey. You have yours.
Leave the labels and boxes for others to worry about. There will always be somebody eager to apply those labels and boxes, but that is not our task.
Our task is to simply get it out into the world. Share it. Express it. Show it. Perform it. Play it.
Focus on making what brings you joy. Pay attention to what makes your heart sing.
Find what is in you that nobody else but can bring into the world.