Thursday, August 18, 2011

Don't Ask your Mom ....

     One piece of advice I received from my first art teacher, Amado Peña, was “Don’t ask your mom if it’s good.  At the Anderson High School Art Department, Peña ruled with an iron prisma color (a weak attempt at art humor).  He was no bullshit.  If your art was crap, he would tell you straight away.  He expected every piece to progress nicely from the last.
     We’ve discussed self-critiquing before, but this bears repeating.  Your ability to critique your own work is of paramount importance.  If you only show your efforts to a small inner circle of friends, you will only get positive feedback.  I suffer from this dilemma myself ….. and it is with my wife, Pam! 

Art Critic by Norman Rockwell

    Sometimes I know she’s reluctant to give her honest opinion, because I usually take it poorly.  But I have to admit, she is usually right!  She knows my work better than anyone else, and can honestly critique it from many angles.  Sometimes I just don’t want to admit she’s right on the mark. 
    Did you ever write a paper in college that took so much out of you that words like the and dog start looking wrong?  The same phenomenon happens to artists after 20 hours of drawing or painting.  We artistically forget how to paint the – and others can see that it is not a correct representation.  The question is will they tell you?
     Chances are they are reluctant to hurt your feelings, or they feel the overall effort is fantastic from their limited art perspective.  Either way, you are going to get bad information and think you’re “the gift”.  My advice is to find some inner circle of art friends who aren’t afraid to tell you that your painting has broccoli in its’ teeth.  Your job is to learn how to take the bitter pill in a civilized and gracious matter … something I, myself, have yet to perfect.
     Look at the critique with serious introspection.  Are they right?  Could their suggestion make the painting better? 
    This goes both ways.  When you are providing an opinion, please do it with a professional attitude.   I don’t offer an opinion unless someone asks.  Then I preface my opinion with a disclaimer:  Don’t ask me unless you want the truth.” 
     Michael Bane, a TV host on the Outdoor Channel, gives wise counsel: generally, people will love you if you tell them something like the truth, but if you tell them the truth they will despise and disdain you.

Hard Candy by William Matthews

     So my advice to you is stick with professionals and artists who act like professionals.  And don’t be afraid to praise your peers.  Let them know they have impacted you and your work … it’s why they do it.  I remember two years ago at the Coors Western Art Show in Denver when Willie Matthews and I were discussing his work at the show, and I mentioned that I really liked his painting, titled “Hard Candy” (a painting of a buckaroo with a tootsie roll pop).  He got animated and we had a great discussion about the painting.  It was executed beautifully and is, in my opinion, an iconic painting by a master watercolorist. 
     So there it is …. be a critic with a light hand and a helping heart, but speak the truth.  And if you want to honestly know if it’s good ….. Don’t ask your mother, ask your wife.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Break Some Eggs!

     At least once a week, I break an artistic egg.  In art vernacular that means chunking a $10 piece of watercolor paper (with 10 hours of drawing on it) in the big round file, commonly known as the trash can.  At the beginning of my career, this really hit me hard.  The loss of a $10 piece of paper, when I didn’t have $10 to waste, was a bitter pill to swallow.  Then the loss of the time invested in my drawing, and the mental set back, all helped to convince me that I had failed.
     My response to this perceived failure was usually manifested in a fit of rage, happily married to a string of colorful expletives.  Usually this occurs because I made a snap color decision that turned out to be wrong. 
     Green has been particularly adept at beating me about the head, then sending me packing.  Me and Green have an old ongoing rivalry where, for the most part, he continues to win on a routine basis.
     I have, to some extent, started to embrace my failures as something worthwhile.  No one likes watching their efforts reduced to a crumbled mass of 140 lb. cold press debris, but I have come to realize that this process (of screwing up) is making me a better painter.  How is this possible?
     Well, the first and most obvious benefit will come when I redraw my painting.  My second attempt will give me an additional 8-10 hours to contemplate my original failure.  Some of us require multiple failures to “tune in” to the painting process.  I’m afraid I fall into this category.  Also, I won’t try the method or technique again that brought me to this point in the first place.  Even an artist won’t put his hand on the hot stove twice.
     The real growing opportunity lies in a larger philosophical outlook, and it is this…..I’ve come to realize that when I experience failures, it’s because I’m expanding my painting knowledge and pushing myself to a new and higher level.
     Typically, after a catastrophic mistake, I produce a painting that is obviously of a higher quality.  The real secret to this process is to maintain a positive attitude during the first failure.  If I fly off the handle in a fit of artistic rage, I ruin my chances of pushing to the higher level.  You must become a mature artist who embraces his monumental failures with grace and a spirit of learning (kind of a WWJDFA – what would Jesus do for Artists). 
     It sounds easy, but when you blow that first effort, everything in you wants to come apart.  This is tougher for firebrand personalities, and guys, in general.  But trust me, it is an artistic truth.  Now go forth and paint in a calm, controlled manner.  And learn from your mistakes!

FOOTNOTE:  Socks, the cat, is still refusing to find new owners.  He has sunk his taproot with Pam and me (and four dogs who are still intent on pressing the nine lives issue).  However, he has started earning his keep with the following “captures” under his belt:

-- 2 lizards
-- 1 Cicada
-- 1 Gecko
-- 1 Coral Snake
-- Numerous grasshoppers
-- 1 Failed Rabbit Stalk