In Art, Failure is Good

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The back of my head as I work diligently to paint my model.

Art is a discipline. Like every other subject worth studying, like every skill worth honing, it’s possible to fail.

For some reason,  the average person treats the arts (take this to mean writing, painting, sculpting etc.) as a a vehicle for their own personal validation. If one bothers to paint, praise is expected no matter the result.

The Italian painters in Florence have no time for such sensitive souls. If a student botches the drawing stage and moves on to paint over the top of it, they accuse that student of “polishing a turd.” Vulgar and harsh, but true. Drawing does all the work and painting gets all of the glory. The artist I studied with these past two weeks revealed to us that each of her paintings went through several rough drafts before she got it right. She’s an award-winning realist oil painter, and she fails all the time. The analogy to the writing process deserves some bearing out, I think: each story goes through multiple drafts, feedback is sought out and absorbed. In the end, the result is a work of art, or something set for the trunk.

Failure.

There’s such a stigma around failure. It’s so painful, but so necessary. I think the confusion is here: we conflate artistic skill with individual creativity. The skills involved in painting, the ability to think three steps ahead, to compose and set the color are tools set to the purpose of the creative vision. There are tools and there are standards, and these things must be learned. What each artist does with these skills is what’s unique.

Criticism is personal because my art isn’t something I can objectively separate myself  from. It’s ironic that this discipline requires a thick skin while demanding that I rip my heart out, splatter it all over a canvas or a page, in order to show others a vision I think is worthwhile.

Now I come to it:, I failed to complete my first portrait from a live model. I don’t feel bad about that. I know more than I did two weeks ago. My brain is exploding with new information: I’ve developed instincts, learned how to solve problems, learned how to be more deliberate with every stroke. I’ve learned how to fail.

And I feel just great about that.

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Stages of the portrait: Drawing, Underpainting, First Pass, Full Color

In Which I Feel Sorry For Myself: Confessions of an Art Student

I’ve been feeling sorry for myself lately, so I decided to take stock of my artistic progress since first attending the Academy of Realist art in 2012.IMG_20171117_190511

In 2012, I didn’t know the difference between comparative and one-to-one measurement. I stood in front of the human figure like a dunce. I drew lines and promptly erased them. A teacher had to literally take my hand and show me how to make what’s called an airplane stroke with a pencil across my paper.

It was clear to me that being the best artist in the room my whole life didn’t mean much when put in a class full of realist masters. There were times in isolation when I’d cry due to my frustration.

So now it’s 2018. I’ve done four drawings in graphite after the style of Charles Bargue. I’ve learned what shadow shapes are, how to find and key in the darkest dark of the shadows before progressing. I know how to turn the form, i.e, to make it look like it isn’t defined by a flat, cartoonish line. I can spot a bedbug line and blend it into the receding midtones. I know that reflected light is always darker than it seems, and to render it last.

I can make a value scale.

I painted my first still life this past summer. I know how to transfer a drawing to a canvas, how to isolate color and match it in paint. I started my first charcoal cast this year. It’s slow going, but I am learning a new medium and there are some curves.

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I haven’t won any awards. I haven’t sold anything (yet?) and I’m not featured in art magazines. I haven’t gone to art shows or tried to get work put up in galleries. I haven’t painted a cover to a Science Fiction novel (personal goal!), or done anyone’s portrait. Looking ahead is good for direction, but it can also be daunting. I have so much more to do.

If my measuring stick is my own progress, then I’ve come quite a way. It’s like climbing a hill: look down, and see how small the road is. 2012 Becky is there, and she doesn’t know what she doesn’t know. 2018 Becky is a like a hiker that wouldn’t die in the woods right away.

The thing about art is that you’re never done learning. So I’ll cry if I need to. I’ll break more pencils, drop a palette face-down, bump the charcoal drawing and watch in horror as the darks dust off. Excellence is important, and the rules point to it. A blunder isn’t a revolution, so this is about internalizing the rules so that they become innate. How else will I paint what I want to?

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Follow my toil @devendrastudio (instagram)

I picked up a poem by Sappho in the original Greek the other day. I found that I couldn’t read it very smoothly. I’d forgotten, you see, some very important grammatical constructions. So I’ve been doing some grammar drills to get that knowledge back.

How else will I enjoy the poetry?

Why Tradition can Never Be Divorced from True Art

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Color Study warm/cool

What are rules? Annoying constraints on free expression? Rigid, stubborn adherence to how things were done, “in the good old days” instead of organic developments? I’ve seen discussions of tradition err in this way: why worship the ashes? Why persist in the Old when we live in the New?

I think that this is a mischaracterization of what tradition actually is. Sure, dumb things have been done in the name of tradition, and sometimes those things are silly or inexplicable. A fraternity might tell its members to wear the same t-shirt and do shots at the same bar when midterms hit, because “it’s tradition, man.”  That’s not tradition, that’s a stubborn adherence to a fleeting fad that has the appearance of a social norm. Tradition is wisdom. Fads are like matches struck once: bright for a fleeting moment, and then gone in smoke. Wisdom is a kindled fire that burns steadily and brightly, and it only needs to be tended by a few.

I’ve been studying at an atelier (pronounced atel-yay) for four years now, learning traditional techniques and methods practiced by 19th century French artists. It is a rigorous studio school where basic concepts are drilled and drilled again. A student does not have any excuse for an error in a drawing because she and the teacher are able to see the same thing from the same position. The drawing (or cast, or figure) is set up in the same position and with the same lighting with the object of training the student’s eye. The results speak for themselves: the tradition works to make the student a master of painting and drawing technique.

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My first color study with a warm/cool palette

And why does tradition endure? The simple reason is that traditions become traditions because they are tried and true. Someone before us tried something, recorded what worked, and passed that on to the next generation so that we wouldn’t have to make the same mistakes. But, we’re human. We like making our own mistakes, because we’re kind of stupid and prone to self-worship.

I’m religious and artistic, so this observation tends to tie things together for me. Bad art and bad religion have quite a bit in common: both assume there’s no need for any rules at all, and as a result they accomplish nothing. Balance is key: rules give structure, structure forms good habits, good habits are virtues that may then be put to higher use. The worst manifestations of bad religion or art result in the absurd self-fetish of the worshiper or artist. The privilege of doing things “your way” needs to be earned, not snatched jealously like a toddler using markers for the first time.

Take Jackson Pollock: most consider him an innovator, someone who wouldn’t let traditions stand in his way.  Well, he used industrial zinc based oil paint in his work. This is a problem because paints made with zinc white dry slowly (which can be desirable), but the colors shatter when dry.  His exhibits, today, are roped off because his works are flaking. Traditional artists understand (and understood) that taking the time to understand pigment and its relationship to different, natural oils makes all the difference. The sensation caused by Pollock’s “paintings” will die and literally crumble away, and when that dust settles still we will still have the enduring works of Rembrandt. I am forced to conclude that, a.) Pollock didn’t care about his paintings lasting at all, or b.) had no idea what he was doing.  If the former is true then that is lamentable, if the latter then he was just an imbecile.

There is, of course, room for expression of oneself in art. It wouldn’t be art without that necessary, creative spark. But this requires discipline.  Just as rigid fundamentalists can squelch creativity, lack of any discipline whatsoever blunts the senses and dulls the intuition. Your hands are the ambassadors of your heart, so form your heart well in the pursuit of virtue. If you’re a musician, learn your scales. Practice six hours a day, and then earn the right to compose your own masterpiece when you are well formed and can work out the problems and avoid common pitfalls. If you are an artist, learn value, form, measurement, anatomy. Be ok with being bad at it for a while.  Learn the difference between good and bad materials. Rigidity is not the goal of learning the rules, true freedom is, and true freedom is not license but responsible action.

I have often thought that the artists of my parent’s generation treat art as if it’s merely a self-actualization program or a yoga class. Loosen up! Be free! Since there are no standards, there’s nothing to compare to, nothing to aspire to. The most you might get in a figure class as a critique is something like, “make that look more like a knee” without any direction on how to do so. Technique is abhorred. This view is mired in all sorts of exasperating absurdity. Spray-paint a wall and take Instagram photos of it, and you’re deep. Try to imitate Rubens, and you’re just stuffy.

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Progress of Study; start and finish of my 3rd Bargue

Without technique there is no great art. That much is true. There are those who refuse to learn anything and end up producing nonsense, and there are those that cannot bring anything real to life with the technique they’ve learned because they don’t have well-formed hearts.  Art, to be great, has to bring the heart and the hands together as one. Tragically, most “artists” are imbalanced because they obsess over one or the other exclusively, divorcing the truest and most beautiful marriage.

Will I ever get there? I don’t know. I’m focusing on technique now; gobbling it up like a starving child because I could never find anyone willing to help me until now.  It’s hard. I’ve been frustrated. I’ve broken pencils, ruined brushes, ripped paper off of my board and started completely over. I’ve noticed a bad measurement halfway through a drawing and had to backtrack. I’ve completely screwed up the value of a color study and had to throw in the towel.

And yet, I cannot argue with the results. I have also produced the best work of my life in these past four years. One drawing took me an entire year. It’s framed in my living room. Taking the time to learn something difficult is emotional and fraught with self-doubt, like gold being purified by fire. But I am content to become gold. Why wouldn’t anyone else?

New Bargue

My latest study

** All artwork in this post are my original works, all completed at the atelier. Check out the gallery for more updates.

Resources and More Information

Academy of Realist Art Boston

William Nathans Fine Art

Art Renewal Center

Classical Atelier at Home

Cast Drawing Tutorial

Michael Harding Paints

The New Old Masters: Jacob Collins Profile

Learning to See: Practical Drawing and Painting Info for Realist Artists