Something Every Artist Needs

In my last post, I made the case for why one should look at ‘bad’ art (including one’s own failed works!) as a useful exercise in reinforcing one’s own skills. Despite its merits, spending time with uninspiring artwork is hardly enjoyable! It’s something like eating those healthy vegetables than no one is particularly fond of; boring but worth the investment every now and then.

This post is about something much more thrilling, a treat you can enjoy every day, and the complete opposite advice of the above.

I’m talking about surrounding yourself with inspiring art.

It might seem obvious and is probably something you already do to an extent, but being in an environment of stimulating artwork is one of the most important things an artist can do, in my opinion.

My studio walls are covered in reproductions of my favorite paintings from artists new and old. These images make it as easy as possible to study a technique or composition with as little effort as possible. Perhaps more than that, at any odd moment, I will find myself unintentionally staring off into one of those works, and on a subconscious level, I seem to absorb the style of each painting over time.

This notion of ‘passive absorption’ is important. Most art that we find impressive comes from some technique that we don’t quite fully comprehend. Naturally, if we did truly understood the skill involved, we would do it ourselves! While some techniques can be best learned by focused study, other techniques or stylistic effects require a more holistic appreciation. It is for these types of features that passive absorption can be very effective. Research has even shown that being briefly exposed to artwork can increase one’s creativity, so clearly, something is getting through whether you realize it or not!

It’s easy to find high resolution images online, but if you’re not sure what you want, I suggest joining a group on social media where like-minded artists share hi-res works. Scrolling through lower resolution art on Instagram, Pinterest, or similar sites is also useful, but I feel that being physically surrounded by art in real-life is particularly valuable. That being said, having a desktop or phone background that cycles through a folder of images is also a great way to keep fresh artwork coming your way.

Curiously, over time, I’ve found that the displayed paintings that I used to hold up in complete awe become much more accessible.

I start to think to myself, “I could do that.”

Why You Should Look at ‘Bad’ Art

If you’re an artist, or aspiring to be (which—by the way—does makes you an artist if you ask me!), you have likely spent time browsing works in your particular medium and style. Whether in a museum or online, works will inevitably be found that don’t meet your own personal standards. To call these works ‘bad,’ would be unfair—after all, if they are in a museum, they were clearly good enough for someone! Nevertheless, it’s easy to find art that rubs us the wrong way for one reason or another, and if you’re anything like me, your first impulse will be to look away and move on. However, this is a habit that is worth changing!

There are different levels of off-putting art: some works point at something that personally offends us; others are perhaps so extremely naive or careless in execution that they warrant little attention; but then there are those works that are ‘okay’ but miss the mark in a way that reminds us of our own struggle to improve in our craft, demonstrating a less-than-perfect execution of the medium. If the work meets the latter offense, don’t look away!

By resisting the urge to flee from the work and choosing instead to study it, we benefit from a great opportunity to reinforce our own artistic strengths. This is an exercise in proving to yourself what you are capable of seeing. Ask yourself, “What exactly is wrong with this piece?” Is it simply that the proportions are off? If so, how would you fix them? The fact that you can recognize the problem already reveals a level of your skill, but if you can’t definitively answer the question, then you have found your sore spot. Often, it’s this painful point that repels us from the piece—it’s a damning reminder of our blind spot. Now, is your opportunity to shine light on this flaw.

In my experience, these moments of reflection signal a ripe moment for growth. You might be surprised at what you discover about yourself by looking squarely at awkward art.

Playing artistic detective can become a great confidence booster! Scroll through Instagram or Pinterest and give it a try; there will always be some piece that you are capable of correcting.

Of course, the ultimate critique worth undertaking is that of our own work. The more you shudder at the thought, the better! This is how we mature as artists—the sooner we accept it, the sooner we’ll grow.

What Makes This Painting Beautiful?

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

-Anton Chekhov

Have you ever told a joke and the punchline was so clear that you couldn’t bear to say it, because if you did, the joke wouldn’t be half as funny?

Some things are better left unsaid!

Our brains get a thrill by filling in the gaps—the missing pieces of a puzzle. This is as true in comedy as it is in art, music, and just about every other creative form of expression.

With this in mind, take a moment and consider what makes the above watercolor painting by Joseph Zbukvic so intriguing.

This is a great example of leaving things unsaid. Notice how little of the buildings or cars is actually rendered in this painting; most of the work is left up to the viewer to imagine.

Aside from the excitement the mind gets from completing the visual story on its own, there is another motivation for leaving certain details out of a painting: Zbukvic’s work is a story about the atmosphere of a rainy Parisian day, not one about cars and buildings. We are not interested in how many bricks fill each facade or in reading the bumper stickers on a passing Peugeot. We want to experience the heavy air and play of light that defines such a specific time and place. By leaving out extraneous details, Zbukvic helps the viewer see what he wants us to see and experience a specific moment, and one can almost hear the muffled echos of traffic and wet pattering of tires along the road.

If you’ve ever struggled with elevating your own artwork to something more than a simple copy of your subject, consider omitting the details. Show only that which is relevant. What are the essentials? What parts of your subject strike you the most? Why did you want to depict it in the first place?

I’ll conclude with a few more examples of Zbukvic’s tactful omission—but the details, I’ll leave up to you…