Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Art and Time

It takes a musician exactly as long to play a piece of music as it takes the audience to hear it.  By contrast, it may take you ten, twenty, fifty, even a hundred hours to create a painting - while it takes the viewer a split second to have his world rocked by it (or not). This fundamental difference is responsible for a delusion that causes much of the discouragement we feel as artists, especially starting out.

We can labor for as long as we want on a painting, and so sometimes we think that if we work really, really hard on a piece we can do something that's way above our current level. We can easily see what wonderful things are going on in some great artist's work, we totally understand it, and we know that making visual art is not about manual dexterity or keeping up with the beat, so we think if we just concentrate and work really hard we can produce a masterpiece. Maybe it'll take us ten times as many hours as the master artist, but we can do it. We can take as long as we need to mix those colors, and we can rework as long as we want. We'd never make that mistake with the violin.  This is our delusion. So we try, and fail, then think something must be wrong.

In all the arts it takes years, even decades to achieve mastery. A decade or two of hard work and practice to masterfully play a three minute piece on the violin, or to produce a masterpiece of visual art. And making a painting is as much a performance as playing a piece on the violin. Sure, more time on a piece may make it more polished, and we all have our good days and our bad days (and we have pictures that seem to come together more easily than others), but the reality is your level of expertise generally advances at a steady pace, and no amount of concentration can change that overnight. What you can produce in a ten minute performance right now is probably about as good as what you can produce in a ten hour performance right now (just less polished, less finished). As artists, the more skills we have under our belts the more we start to realize the performance nature of the work, and do all sorts of things to coax a good performance out of ourselves.

This talk may sound discouraging, like "don't bother trying so hard, you're not going to get any better."  Really the opposite is true! - you try hard, you work hard, and you get better. You still just draw, draw, draw, paint, paint, paint. But what you should feel about your work may be different - you should not worry that you don't have the "talent", or that you'll never get it right, just because you can't make something as good as you think you should be able to right now. You can't make something as good as what you think your current level of understanding is. Again, this is the visual artist's delusion, and it stems from the fact that ours is the medium where we can spend unlimited time creating something that takes the viewer a fraction of a second to take it in. 

Progress in the visual arts is very much about quantity. Some artists say, "I did lots of bad drawings before I ever did a good one." That's a good way to put it, because you learn a lot from the bad ones. But you also learn from the good ones, and even the mediocre ones. The only reason an artist gets good is s/he keeps doing it, and the only reason an artist fails to get good is that s/he stops.

Here's the kicker - that unfounded discouragement is the main thing that makes us stop, or not work as much. How crazy is that?  Try to find joy in your art every step of the way, and, take your time.


  1. I agree with this for the most part. The only thing I disagree with is you make it seem as if all it takes is lots of time drawing. I agree that the most important element of artistic growth is practice. However, WHAT you practice matters too. I know from experience some studies have helped me improve fast. Others are almost a waste of time. If you keep drawing the same way over and over you will get the same results. Techniques must be learned by hours of practice, but If you don't know what the techniques are you will never learn them.

  2. Great points, and agreed - there are already many posts on the blog that talk in specifics about how to practice. In this post I am stressing the time part because I think that's where there's the biggest chance for misunderstanding and discouragement. One other important point you allude to here: you, me, all of us have "wasted" time on dead ends or poor practice choices, and will certainly continue to do so, which is another reason why I want to stress to artists to keep going, even if sometimes you're going in the wrong direction, at least you'll find that out if you keep going! Ultimately we are all teaching ourselves.

  3. Hi Chris. I love your work and as a practising illustrator it is very inspirational for me. Not least because I feel my strengths also lie within the narrative, representational spectrum. I am currently studying for a masters degree in the uk, and I am experiencing problems with the lecturers and the general ethos of the course. It is very progressive thinking, The 'New' is king, my work is generally discouraged and the main lecturer actually uses the analogy of the violin, when I approach him for advice, He states that 'representational work like playing a violin, when you become good at it, thats it, what is its worth' Well I felt terrible, not least because of all the time and effort, but because of my own principles concerning quality and albeit traditional values. Your site and blog have been a source of encouragement for me that is seriously lacking at university, so I thankyou for that. Regards, John

  4. Thanks for the note John. I sure am sorry to hear your story, but it's very much like what I experienced in art school. I guess your instructors don't realize that good representational art is just as "abstract" as non-representational art. Representational art is grossly misunderstood by those who don't do it. There is cheezy, crappy representational art, and cheezy, crappy non-representational art. There is also no end to instructors and other masters who think their own personal beliefs and artistic theories, whether about art globally or about a narrow subject like color or something, are the truth and not simply their narrow perspective. Don't get me wrong - a narrow perspective is just fine for an artist, as long as it is what drives his/her work, not some oppressive set of principles that is supposed to govern what the rest of us do. My advice: you need to find the right crowd and possibly a new school!! Don't make the mistake I did. I didn't learn to draw and paint until I taught myself after graduating art school. That's what I wanted to do, and if that's what you want to do then believe in yourself and you won't be sorry.

    1. Thankyou very much for your wise advice Chris. I started my initial degree in 92, I did graphic design and specialised in illustration in the second half. I was copying old master paintings trying to learn as much as i could about oil painting techniques, as you have said, I too didnt learn how to draw and paint at art school but it did give me the time to try. The lecturers hated my work at the time because it was considered too traditional.They said i wouldnt get anywhere, there was an art book in circulation then that had, in my eyes all the best artists, that I wanted to be like. I went to london when I graduated and after a short time found an agent and they then paid for me to have a page in the book, well I did quite a few good experiences and clients from that, so I proved those lecturers wrong. Any way my life took a different path after about a year I fell in love with a girl i met at college, unfortunately her parents (coming from a middle class stance) where quite wealthy and didnt like at all the career I had supposedly chosen, as they thought it too erratic and unsecure for their daughters future. So something had to give, so I retrained for 4 years as a nurse, then worked for three as a nurse, I just couldnt escape my feeling for my creativity, so i became bitter and unhappy even though I was financially secure, good job, my own house nice car etc etc something had to give and eventually it did, after a very painful time we became divorced. So I stared again with my career. I started painting fine art style large canvases, in 3 years I went from representational work, to abstraction. Then I became dissatified and because i had a daughter from my marriage I decided to return to university and commence my career as Id left it. Well, I found everything has changed as far as the industry is concerned and attitudes to art in general. As you know the illustration industry in overwhelmed with conceptual work. Also the internet and the software that has proliferated has enabled vast amounts of people to come into the industry, and the amatuer (for want of a better word)market. has seemingly merged with it. I started this course in september hoping that an MA would give me more opportunities and validate in some way my practice. I am under no illusion that it is more difficult to make a living, but I am determined. As far as style is concerned, I have been lost so to speak for a long time, I went through a lot of styles and techniques. But I had a basic idea to where I would like to be going. I have only just found coral Painter, and its been a revelation to me, I was always interested in artwork for childrens literature, then I began researching the kinds of approaches other artists were doing, I found a lot but when I came across your work, It really inspired me to again return to oil painting all be it through coral painter. And your advice and tutorials have been invaluable and a friendly voice, when all around there are nay sayers, including those on my course. There are a lot of reasons I am not able to change the course, the only saving grace is that being an MA it offers a more independent ethos. Many thanks again, kind regards, John