TEN MYTHS ABOUT ARTISTS #11: Real Artists Paint!

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.

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19 Comments

Filed under art, craft, creativity, inspiration, mental attitude, myths about artists

19 responses to “TEN MYTHS ABOUT ARTISTS #11: Real Artists Paint!

  1. This is GREAT Luann. My favorite part is your quote: “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 am there…have been for a while now and loving every minute of it.

    Thank you!

  2. Luann, you are pure genius. I have been eagerly devouring your every word (I even referenced your series in my post on Sunday 10/4 at WatchMeCreat.com – although it took some time for it to get there and when I wrote it you were only on #8!)
    “What we are born with is fearlessness and joy.” What happens to that innate artist? When does that artist “grow up” and grow out of the fearlessness? And why does she have to?
    I hate it when people tell me that they are not an artist. They praise me that I am, but I didn’t always believe it. It is when I let go of all these preconceived notions about what an artist is and what an artist does that I saw that there is art everywhere! I love to see what other creatives are doing, whether they are in my medium or not. I love to be inspired and to inspire others. I had someone tell me recently on my blog that I had inspired them to become an artist. That is the highest praise I have ever received.
    Thank you so much for your insightful comments!
    Enjoy the day! Erin

  3. arlijohn

    Loved this article. All of my life I have had these images inside that just have to get out. It’s true, “I have to make art or I’ll die.” Another fiber artist.

  4. I’m really enjoying your posts!

  5. Another wonderful post, Luann! This needs to be said out loud and often!

  6. Luanne you have done it again and I wish everyone who has that closed minded idea of what an artist is could read this article. I have turned my attention back to building pieces I can paint on and some painters have told me I am turning my back on my fine art. That you cant do both. I disagree and I still consider myself an artist. Anyone who can create and alter materials so they speak to the observer is an artist. But as for drawing I have to tell you not everyone can be taught. I also believed as you do until I tried to teach my Mom and her friend one weekend. They really tried to draw and failed miserably. I finally surrendered.

  7. “High praise is reserved for people who draw, or paint.”

    Whatever happened to sculpture? – I ask myself.

  8. Nona Parry

    Thank you for saying so well what I have been believing for years!

    I’m going to post a link to this in my yahoo group and FB.

    Cheers,
    Nona, in New Zealand

  9. Ben-David

    OK … but the counterpart to this myth is the equally prevalent myth – among many art students – that “I don’t have to learn how to draw.”

    Usually, they are parroting the art world’s lingering snootiness about realistic/representational art.

    Sometimes, it’s part of a larger “I don’t really need to learn my craft” – which has spawned lots of grungy, amateurish garbage that is foisted on the public as “art”.

    This is often coupled with drivel about “letting the process direct me” – which is fancy-pants for “I haven’t mastered my medium and don’t have anything to say.”

    Sorry – skill is an integral aspect of being an artist. It is a root meaning of the word “art” itself.

    In a previous post in this series, you mentioned how all children think they are artists. That’s great – for kids.

    But being a grown-up artist is supposed to have something to do not just with needing to say something – but with building the skill to say it tellingly.

    It is valid to expect that an artist has chosen their medium for its expressive (and 0ther) qualities, and that they have enough technical skill to bend that medium to create effects “on purpose”.

    In other words, the ability to communicate something.

    Drawing is a core skill for any artist whose work has visual impact. It is how we explore the world around us, and record our observations of the shared visual word – the language which even the most abstract work references when it communicates with others.

    And for those of us working in expensive/time consuming media, it’s how we resolve artistic problems before turning to the actual labor of creating an object.

    Realistic drawing, especially, indicates that the artist can create art “on purpose”. Realism and technical skill are the only standards many beleaguered consumers of art have to gauge actual skill in an art world that is increasingly divorced from any notions of craft or purposeful message.

    I feel that the recent revival of realism in studio art – and the rediscovery of “artisanal crafts” as an art form – are fueled by this frustration.

    I see this attitude in the young people I instruct. It is a roadblock, a defense.

    No artist ever was cramped by learning to draw realistically.

    Yes it’s a (relatively) easily learned skill. But you’d be amazed how many people who swear they want to make art never get around to this basic tool.

    In any group of students – especially those working in non-representational, artisanal media – those who are really serious about their art have usually made it their business to learn the skill of realistic drawing, and have full sketchbooks.

  10. Ben-David, you raise many good points about drawing, but I don’t think we’re as far apart as you think we are. :^)
    I’m in the middle of an open studio event today and will respond in a blog post soon.
    Meanwhile, anybody else? :^)

    • Ben-David

      I agree that we probably are not that far apart.

      I understand that you’re trying to tear down barriers that keep people – especially women – from doing art and valuing the art they produce.

      (and there are similar – sometimes steeper – barriers that keep men from doing art…)

      I certainly don’t want to discourage anyone… but as long as you’re busting myths about what it means to be an artist:

      In my teaching I encounter many young people who have been negatively affected by two false memes in our culture:

      – Everyone is special
      – No effort is necessary

      These two falsehoods often combine to generate a very narcissistic definition of “being an artist”.

      One that is worlds apart from the inner fire of your “I don’t even care if I’m good – I must do this or I’ll die.”

      (Paradoxically, the energy and commitment of “I don’t even care if I’m good” leads one to “get good” – it leads to technical mastery and artistic exploration… but if you think you and your work are “special” right out of the box – that’s a dead end.)

      I think many who follow art have picked up on the laziness – and the resulting contempt for skill, message, and the customer.

      Picasso could draw like an angel. So could Dali, Warhol, Freund, and Haring. Their art doesn’t look like it does because they couldn’t – or wouldn’t – do any better. But because they “had to”.

      Yet I meet many young people who think being an artist means every night is Oscars night… and where’s my trophy already?

      In the current culture, the message “you CAN be an artist” sometimes is misheard as “you ARE an artist – no effort necessary.”

      • Ben-David, again I love the points you bring up and your insights about my intentions with this series are spot on.

        I don’t know so much about the art world you are obviously more familiar with, and your remarks are intriguing. The snootiness about realistic art you mention is completely opposite to my experiences making my work in a small town in New England. Work that involves realistic representation is REAL art, the ONLY art. My work isn’t, because it’s fiber. It’s not “art” because it’s polymer clay. It’s not “art” because it’s not a landscape, and it’s not in a frame.

        Fortunately, I don’t really care anymore what people call it, nor whether it’s art or not–I care, as you said, about creating something, with skill and “on purpose”, that comes from my heart, and creates a powerful connection with my audience. My obsession with the cave of Lascaux has become a framework for the story I tell about myself, and how I see the world.

        There are people who DO put in the time and the effort to perfect their craft, but who believe because they didn’t go to art school, they can never be a “real artist”.

        Then, as you say, there are the people who believe they’re a real artist BECAUSE they went to art school. And, as you point out, they feel that is the only credential they need.

        Your insight about realism and technical skill being the only measures left to a “beleaguered consumer” is poignant, too. That is exactly what happened in my little story about the man who said that awkward painter was a “real artist”–because at least you could tell the guy was trying to paint a tree. (Oh, and it was framed!) :^)

        Conversely, Nicole Caulfield, a friend who is an amazing colored pencil artist, tells me there is a certain prejudice against pencil artists, that somehow their work is quite worth as much as, say, an oil painting. When I see her beautiful work, I am astonished someone could define the quality of her work because of her medium. And it’s all drawing–ultimate drawing!

        As to some artists taking technical and professional short cuts, I probably assume that everyone else–or at least my audience–cares as much, and thinks as much about their craft/art as I do about my work. Anyone who, as you say, holds “contempt for skill, message and the artist” will probably have no patience for what I have to say here anyway.

        Because what I want to say to people is, if what you do matters to you, then do it.

        Quit worrying about the labels or the boxes people want to put you in.

        Start where you are, and GET BETTER.

        Constantly think about WHY it matters to you–because articulating that is what will connect you to your audience.

        Oh, and I totally get the point you made about drawing being necessary to resolve issues before committing to an object using expensive/time consuming media. At this conference, where one of the speakers proclaimed his undying gratitude to his CAD/CAM programs to augment his gold jewelry production.

        So now we can wonder if CAD/CAM is “real” drawing! :^)

        Thank you again for your thought-provoking comments. I REALLY enjoyed them. And yes, you’ve written “Myth #10 1/2″ in the series! :^)

  11. Ben-David

    “And yes, you’ve written “Myth #10 1/2″ in the series! :^)”
    – – – – – – – –
    I’ll try to keep ‘em shorter in future…. :^)

  12. I could not call myself an artist until I was in my 30’s. I, too, figured I did not draw or paint and therefore did not qualify.

    Now I’ve had a soft-block self-portrait published (in your book’s gallery, but Lark picked it out). I also knit a self portrait a few summers ago. Both actually look like my face, though I’ve made “self portrait” pieces that express the essence of this or that part of me without looking like me at all.

    So now, when people ask me “what do you paint?” I say, I don’t paint, but here’s my business card which shows the self-portrait I knit.

    Fortunately, I owned the word “artist” before I did any literal visuals. After all, I like color, texture, pattern… much more than literal reflections of what’s really around me. I want to express things that do not exist in the world around me, until I create them.

    Haven’t been writing but have been following your blog. Thanks for writing these posts.

  13. First, I apologize to the people who left such wonderful responses earlier–I got distracted by Ben-David’s description of the typical academic art student! Thank you all who wrote, I’m delighted I’ve encouraged you to keep on making your artwork.

    LynnH, always good to hear from you, and I’m delighted you continue to grow and evolve as an artist. Your exuberance and joy is always inspirational!

    I started a longer comment and then realized, “Hey, it’s MY BLOG, I don’t have to stay in the comment section–I can make this a post!” :^)

    So see a short follow-up essay for why I write what i do, and who I’m really speaking to. Okay, okay–to whom I am really speaking. (I think the first way sounds more natural, though….)

  14. Pingback: TEN MYTHS ABOUT ARTISTS: A Segue « Luann Udell

  15. So…I can’t draw. Lot of people say that, but I really can’t. I have a particular form of dyslexia that makes it difficult for me to relate 2D and 3D spaces. The most obvious manifestation of this is that I get lost easily (Mark Schlack used to say I could get lost going around my own block, and he’s right) but another is that I have a great deal of trouble flattening 3D into 2D. And if I try to put my 3D visions onto paper, somehow they get “locked” into a hybrid form that I can’t easily re-visualize into 3D. It literally aborts the whole concept, so I’m very careful NOT to draw my ideas.

    I’m fine as long as I don’t try to make the dimensional transition in either direction, though. Astonished the heck out of me when I discovered that I was a sculptor–I’d thought, despite my great love of 3D arts, that my condition precluded working realistically in 3D.

    So, I don’t buy the “you have to draw to do art,” because I certainly don’t. I only sketch in 3D, with clay. And, in fact, I use 2D extensively as a proofing mechanism–I take hundreds of pictures of sculpture in progress, print them out and use them as a check on proportion. (I call them “flatties”) It’s as if I’m looking at someone else’s work and I instantly see where changes need to be made.

    I sculpt in glass. Dozens of times I’ve heard that I should stop doing that, that I should work in bronze “or at least in clay” so that I’ll be taken seriously as an artist. Maybe. All I know is that I’ve found a medium that gives me the power to say what I need to say right now, and it’s glass. If I never sell a piece, it’s where I need to be, as you say.

    If that makes me an artist, I guess I’m an artist. ;-)

  16. Hello Cynthia, thank you for your thoughtful comment. You raise several good points, I hardly know where to start! :^)

    First, I hope when the day comes, when the definition of art is not restricted to a handful of media, that I am still alive to enjoy it! Glass is so “hot” right now, and such amazing work is made with it, it’s hard to imagine that there are still folks who would draw such a narrow line around which media can be art, and which can’t. Christina Bothwell and William Morris> create works that astonish, engage and inspire me. I don’t care what it’s called, I love the work! :^)

    You’ve found a nifty way to check your progress, and it clicks nicely into place with what I believe–that we can all find unique ways of sharing how we see and think about the world and our place in it.

    And I love, love, love your comment that glass gives you the power to say what you need to say….

    We all have a story to tell. And if all our stories were the same, and told in the same way, our experience of listening to those stories would not be as rich and exciting.

  17. I can’t stop reading your blog…also the comments and the responses… and I am nodding all the way along!!!

    You are hitting on so many pertinent issues… Thank you for offering this!!

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