That said, I figured this month I’d go into six things I was told in my artist’s formative years that not only turned out to be true, but turned out to be mantras, of sorts, for me. Or at least, these were things that have stayed with me (for good or ill) all throughout what passes for my career.
See if you’ve ever been told any of these things and whether you’ve swallowed them hook, line and sinker as I have.
Truth No. 1: Don’t cheat the medium.
I didn’t quite understand this when I was first told it at that art gallery I had my first formal, not-in-school art classes (that gallery isn’t there anymore). But now I think I’ve got it. I think it means ‘don’t make a medium do what it wasn’t made to do, and let it do what it does best’.
Given where I ended up getting my art degree (where I remember one or two of my professors made much of experimentation), I realise some people might consider this a ‘lie’ and that this belongs in last month’s blog. But I’d like to think I get what that teacher of mine back at that art gallery meant.
Say you’re working with watercolour, which is transparent, by nature, and ‘meant’ to be laid down in flat washes, and to flow. As a kid (or actually, I think I still do this) I used to really lay my watercolours on very, very thick, so that they were quite opaque. And I’m pretty sure that was when I was told to ‘not cheat the medium’.
Like if I wanted opaque I could’ve gone and used gouache. But since I was using watercolour, I should’ve ‘loosened up’ more and let the water do the work. A gajillion years later, I think I understand that, now.
Each medium has its own ‘abilities’ or are ‘particularly good at something’, and as artists I think it’s our job to understand our media and to bring out the best we can in each one. I’m not knocking experimentation and I think it’s good to keep pushing the boundaries of what we think each medium can do.
But I think it might be when we understand the properties of the medium we’re using that we’re able to improve our technique and ultimately our work. Now that I give it some thought, I think I remember the name of the guy who told me that 32 years ago. Wherever you are now, Mr H, I would like to say ‘thanks for the tip’.
Truth No. 2: You need to work even when you’re not inspired.
Okay, he may have told me to pee on my hands once, but this one this particular prof told me I have to totally agree with. I’ve spoken about this before, about ‘inspiration’ being not entirely all it’s cracked up to be by those who might have this ‘romantic’ idea of how artists do what they do.
What I’m not sure about whether I’ve spoken about on the jillablog or not, is the difference between a pastime or a hobby, and a passion, a calling, a mission in life, a raison d’être. You see what I’m saying? The former you do for fun when you have nothing better to do. You only do it when you feel like doing it. The latter, well, I’m sure you get the idea.
Where I’m from, I get the feeling that a lot of people think that art is ‘just something you do when you feel like it’. And that ‘when you feel like it’, you’re ‘inspired’. Well, I’m pretty sure I’ve spoken about that on the jillablog before—about how, if I ever only painted when I ‘felt like it’ (i.e. well-fed, well-rested or just generally ‘well’) I would never have finished anything.
In any case, like I’d said, this was something I’d already understood before Mr F told me this one, but I guess it was ‘validating’ or ‘vindicating’ to hear it come from an authority figure. It’s not a ‘nice to hear’ but a ‘must hear’ for anybody who’s even just thinking of getting into art as a serious career (and not something to while away the green day afternoons).
This one, for me, I think, hasn’t just become a mantra, but a freaking creed.
Truth No. 3: You need to keep producing even without a deadline.
The truth of this one hit me like a cold slap on the face two years ago when I thought I was going on hiatus that year. (I actually ended up rushing to make just enough for a literally small series of canvases that went up toward the year’s end.)
I remember being told this on the same day almost pretty much at the same time as Truth No. 2 by quite another professor. This prof wasn’t actually mine if I remember correctly; he was with the Visual Communications department (and I was in Studio Arts). He said something like, ‘even if you don’t have a plate (i.e. a project) due, you should still be making stuff’.
I think I also remember smirking to myself ever so slightly, like ‘yeah, yeah, I knew dat’, or even ‘I already do, don’t I?’.
But boy did I ever know ‘this much is true’ in 2018. Without a show and the ‘fear of having nothing on the walls on opening night’, I found myself taaaking my time and slaaacking off and painting eeever so slooowly. In fact, the one oil painting I was working on that year is still less than half finished, now. (I do mean to finish it this year, this time, honest.)
And I never got around to working on any of the several pieces I had planned.
But see how quickly I was able to churn out the pieces for Estrellitas when I was granted some space for them that year. Boy, if I could’ve finished all the pieces for every show that quickly (five weeks, I think?), how different my life would’ve turned out (probably be healthier and a little more chill, maybe LOL). Because I had a deadline. Shame on me.
Hopefully this year I will be able to take what I’ve learned and put it to good, practical use. (Otherwise, it’s just useless learning, isn’t it?)
Truth No. 4: If you’re tired, it shows in your work.
Okay this one wasn’t told to me by one of my teachers but my classmate—who was actually teaching at the time. In fact, the irony was we were both teaching at the same place at the time, and I was working on my first ever show. I remember telling her how I was having to paint even when I was tired to be able to finish everything on time.
…If I knew then what I know now, huh? I don’t know—maybe this is another truth that should’ve ended up in last month’s blog. But honestly? I can’t help thinking whether my work might’ve turned out better if I had been well-rested and not ‘painting-factorying’ and all that.
I guess we’ll never know for all the pieces I’ve finished, but this year I mean to find out with all the pieces I have planned. Many of those were on the list I made back in 2018.
It’s just I’d be lying if I said I can’t look at anything I know I made when I was tired and not be able to tell I was. Like the strokes would be sloppy (sloppier?) or, something… or maybe I would’ve made different (better?) colour choices or painted something in better…
I'm pretty sure it shows, but there was just no 'fixing' it afterwards...
So I guess that classmate of mine (who incidentally has impeccable technique and went on to a brilliant art career of her own) was right all along. I do hope, though, (knowing me) that this won’t turn into an excuse for laziness (e.g. I’ll paint later. I’m tired right now so if I work now it’ll suck—LOL).
Truth No. 5: There’s no real way to hurry drying oil paint.
I’ll say this up front: If you do happen to know a way (and the painting won’t crack or just be dry to the touch, i.e. gooey underneath), I would be eternally indebted to you if you would tell me how you do it.
Okay, so there really are ‘legit’ ways to speed up the drying time of an oil painting, particularly for people who don’t like painting alla prima (which I talk about in my quick start guide to oil painting). But I think my teachers in all the galleries and museums and at the university who ever told us this did it to make sure we didn’t cram our plates.
Of course a lot of us did, anyway, and then you have your classmates and such tell you things like ‘drown it in linseed’, ‘stick it in front of the fan’ or ‘use a hair dryer on the back’. The ‘don’t put it in the sun to dry because it will crack’ thing, I had to learn the hard way. (I put my 2 x 3 canvas on the dashboard of my truck thinking I was clever—my poor cracked horsey! //cry)
In the end, the only real way to let your work dry is to give it time. Maybe you can speed things up? But it will really only be dry to the touch. And why risk damaging (i.e. ruining) all your hard work submitting and/or transporting or hanging something wet? Most (if not all) galleries won’t accept or hang wet things, anyway.
In any case, I, for one, am not prepared to take that risk. (And that’s why I’ve never had an oil show, lol—but I’m hoping to have one, someday, and if and when I do, I’m going to do all I can to hang things that are completely dry.)
was probably why he didn't take as long to dry.
Truth No. 6: It’s not ‘you have to’, it’s ‘you get to’.
This one was told me by that same professor who told me Truth No. 3. He wasn’t my professor but I got to hang out with him a very little bit, not in class but because he happened to be a member of that ‘pack of illustrators’ I used to run with a lot.
I remember we were hanging out in the faculty office with the other illustrators when I think one or two of his students came up to him. He said something like, ‘It’s not, you have to do your plate, it’s, you get to do your plate.’ That was like 20 odd years ago but I’ve never forgotten it. And I, for one, would do well to remember it now.
Art is a privilege. It’s not ‘something you gotta do’—I mean, it is LOL but what I mean is it’s not like doing the laundry or taking out the trash. It’s not a chore. I mean I get where those students were coming from and I’d be lying if I said I never said something to that effect, myself. I’m pretty sure I say it whenever I’m painting-factorying and I get all burnt out.
But let’s be real for a minute, here: art is something I’m pretty sure a lot of people wish they could do but aren’t able to for one reason or another. Where I come from, the reasons have to do with resources, I guess. But if I say that art is a privilege—resources, reasons or what have you—it’s a privilege you make and give yourself.
That makes art even more of a privilege, to my mind. Even more of something to be grateful for when you are able to make things, or even try. And to me, that’s what makes it even more difficult, or even impossible to give up. It would be like throwing away a gift. (Lifting a curse? LOL)
In any case, Mr A, you may not really have been my teacher but looking back I guess I wish you had been. And while that may have been eavesdropping, I guess, I’m grateful to you for giving me that whole new perspective.
I guess what’s struck me the most while looking back on all these ‘truths’ is how long they’ve stayed with me. And this reminds me of the huge responsibility teachers (art or otherwise) have to be careful of what they tell their students. What we tell them sticks (we hope, lol) and could potentially stay with them for the rest of their lives, too.
Do you have like something your art teacher ever told you that’s been a huge influence on your work since? Or have you had teachers who’ve been real mentors or inspirations to you (such that you can’t imagine how you would’ve turned out as an artist without them)? If you could share some of their wisdom with me, I’d be very much obliged.