Friday, July 31, 2015

Work

This post responds to some things that people have been saying to me and about me over the past few years; not you, longtime and much-neglected blog readers, but people on various social media.

Like many artists, I would be happiest if my work acted to encourage other artists. But this is not always the case. On Instagram or Facebook, sometimes I’ll post something that has turned out particularly well, and an artist will comment, “Oh, I’ll just give up now.” This is meant as a compliment, but it makes me feel terrible. I absolutely want to do good work, but my goal is not to suppress others.

There is a weaker form of this comment which offers more room for conversation - that is, for reversing the suppressive effect. This weaker form goes either, “You have so much talent,” or, “What you do is like magic” (they amount to the same thing really). Well! I can certainly argue against that: because I know exactly how much work has gone into producing every one of the pieces in question. I have been remiss, perhaps, in concealing the work. Let me illustrate. Here is a painting in progress of Leah. It is one of my favorite faces to date.

work in progress, oil on canvas, 40”x30”, detail

Pretty nice, right? It would take a lot of talent to paint that, and maybe some magic; maybe the god of painting would have to be smiling down on you that day. And I suppose all these things are true. But then again - what year is this, 2015? Let’s step back to 2001.

portrait study, oil on canvas, 12”x9”

Yes, that is also me; me at the very beginning of this long and arduous road. I had, at the time, been going to life drawing one or two times a week for about three years. I was starting to get interested in painting. So I bought 12”x9” canvas pads from the art supply store, and some brushes and turpentine, and some burnt sienna and flake white - I figured I would start with two colors and work my way up. I never took a class, and had no idea how to move paint onto a canvas. The first year or so was simply that: how do you pick paint up from your palette with a brush, and put that brush down on a canvas, and leave the paint there? It’s a complicated question. I went through a lot of trouble finding my first answer to it, and more trouble still finding the answers that suited me best.

The catastrophically bad study above was no fluke. Here’s another one from the same period.

portrait study, oil on canvas, 12”x9”

As you can see, I am clumsily attempting to paint brown over wet white, and white over wet brown. They do not want to be pressed heavily down on fluid surfaces, so they catch and stutter. I’ve figured out a couple of things, like blocking in the major shape of the back of the hair, and covering my mistakes on the picture-left edge of the cheek with a dark background. But my fixes are also failures. Because at the same time that I cannot paint, I cannot draw. I cannot paint, or draw, and so it could be said in some obscure but real sense that I cannot see. Although I cannot see, I can do what it takes to learn to see: I can think, and I can practice. Have one more mess from this early period.

portrait study, oil on canvas, 12”x9”

I swear to you I am not magic, and to the extent I have talent, I had to sweat for every inch of it that got dragged out of hiding.

There were three primary techniques I used to improve:

1. For drawing, I went to open life drawing workshops between once a week and three times a week for seventeen years.
2. For painting, I ultimately wound up spending hundreds of hours working privately with models from 2004 to the present.
3. For general anatomy, I spent two years drawing my own anatomical atlas based on human cadaver dissections which I attended or performed, at Santa Monica College.

There was surely a role for magic, but most of it was work. So I hope I can convince any of you artists who feel discouraged when you see what I can do - that you can do it too, but you must put in a great deal of work over a very long time; and even then, you will not be like me. I am not like the people I idolized when I began. You won’t be either. The reward of your work is that you will start to become yourself, which is better.

10 comments:

  1. Daniel, Thank you for posting the truth! I hold you in high esteem for the hours of dedication behind your work! One of my favorite quotes is "No one knows the blood it costs", supposedly by Michelangelo. Lizzie

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  2. Thank for this very supportive and enlightening article, I wish there were more like this. It's great to see that some artists aren't afraid to show where they came from.

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  3. Thanks. Well said and very true. Same is true about music.

    Like Monsieur Camus said "there is scarcely any passion without struggle." Robin

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  4. I enjoyed this immensely, Daniel. Thank you for sharing your story. It put me back when I bought my first oil painting starter set nearly forty years ago. I opened the box and said, "Now what do I do?"

    There is a feeling that those who exhibit great skill at what they do just fall out of bed and do it. In today's "I want it NOW!" world, it's hard for folks to recon with the thought that to get good you have to WORK at it. (And when you do, you might wind up as good, respected and -- finally!-- acknowledged as you...)

    All the best-- Kevin M.

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  5. Thank you - I used to be flattered when people called me "talented," but any more it almost makes me bristle. Literally tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of hours have gone into developing this "talent."

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  6. 17 years is a long time. I actually like your initial works. If you could do that now after having learnt what you've learned, and consistently that would be impressive.
    Personally my aim is to learn faster. And I believe there always are shortcuts and proper ways to learn.
    The long way to learn is from your own my mistakes. A faster way to learn is from another who had already made those mistakes and is sharing what they have learnt.

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  7. Some people would rather believe in talent, whereas I kinda think the talent is in the interest and the drive, not the hand skills. Anyway, I've always found it really helpful when people show their less brilliant stuff and a post like this would have been really helpful/encouraging several years ago - which is why I still have the drawings up from my very first 28drawings in 2011 (https://www.facebook.com/jane.gardiner1/media_set?set=a.10150150115271289.335283.648261288&type=3) - amazing the difference 4 yrs can make and here's to both of us being even more stellar in 17 yrs time!

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  8. This is a great article Daniel! Very insightful. I love reading about your process and your progress in developing your work. It is great that you are so open and honest. Very encouraging! ~Dea

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    1. Thanks so much for checking out my writing, Dea, and I'm very glad you enjoyed this! Will look forward to seeing you soon!

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