Last month I suggested that there is no way to cheat when it comes to the methods of making art. There are many “rules” out there, but we can ignore all of them. Nothing is set in stone — anything goes — dive right in!
HOWEVER, just because we have free reign as artists, doesn’t mean it isn’t a good idea to allow a few guidelines and working philosophies to spring up, evolve, and stick around for awhile. We learn what works for us and what doesn’t. We build upon our experience. Imagine a world in which every advancement was created from scratch and never built upon the previous technologies. Every time we needed a wheel, we’d have to invent it again! Another reason for setting limitations and narrowing our scope: it can make the empty canvas a lot less terrifying.
Over the years, I’ve come to rely on a few loose ground-rules, and although I sometimes break them, I find it useful to consider them a default position. Hey, they work for me, maybe they’ll work for you!
It’s pretty much an axiom that the more time we spend with something, the deeper we’ll understand it. Playing the guitar, personal relationships, telling jokes, wine-tasting, etc.; if we put in the time, we’ll get “better” at it, and wherever we take a shortcut, that will be an area that won’t develop.
Example: Benny is a landscape painter, and he always traces from a photo onto his canvas to get all of the proportions and perspective correct before he paints the scene. He’s a good photographer, and his drawing skills are ok, but he’s impatient, and painting is the fun part. Of course, this is fine; it’s his prerogative to use whatever method he pleases. Go, Benny!
But here’s what might be at stake. The drawing stage can be much more than just making marks where the paint is to go. It’s also a way to work stuff out, to take some time to struggle with and get to know the nature of the subject. Since Benny uses a fast technology to leap over the slow task of seeing — sketching — drawing — erasing — re-seeing — drawing again, he also jumps over the process of taking time to make conscious and unconscious decisions about which elements to amplify, omit, and shift for balance, etc. Since he spends very little time with this stage, Benny tends to see his world, less like a resident, and more like a tourist. Instead of being a guy who wakes up on a Tuesday morning, stops at the corner newsstand to get the paper, and waves to Sandra at the flower shop, he’s a guy who pulls over just long enough to snap a picture of something that is obviously pretty before he moves on down the road. Do you see what I mean? His paintings will run the risk of being shallow, and worse, they may drift toward a detached purposelessness. Unfocused, frustrated, and eventually depressed, Benny will turn to a life of crime and before long, he will find himself in prison. This will completely crush Benny’s mother. She’ll withdraw further and further into herself, causing the family to split apart. They’ll never fully recover.
A hypothetical scenario to be sure, but the point is this: if you take a shortcut, expect to pay for it somewhere else. If you feel that you have to cut corners because the job is otherwise too big or outside your abilities, do something different! Or consider simplifying what you do so that you can do it well.
Ask yourself this: what is better, a big epic thing that’s poorly made, ambiguous, and over-budget, OR a small and simple thing that’s clear and well executed?
DO IT FOR REAL
Sincerity and authenticity are the keys to success.
Once you can fake those, you’ve got it made.
When I was working in advertising, we’d occasionally find ourselves in this type of situation. We’d be in the studio, setting up lights, hanging a blue backdrop, and pouring out a ton of sand to create a beach scene for a simple product shot — and then it would hit us. Wait, what are we doing? We should just take the subway to Coney Island and get a much more authentic photo — BEACH TRIP! We got so used to being good at faking it in Photoshop or in the studio that we’d often forget we had the option to do it the old-fashioned way — and that way is almost always better. No matter how good we get at faking a scene, there is still some level of inauthenticity that the unconscious mind picks up. Have you ever noticed how people in movies can never look right into the eyes of a character that’s been added with a computer? They never get it right! It’s like that. It’s subtle.
Here are some fun examples I’ve seen in ads: Studio lights reflected in the sunglasses of a person in the woods. The shadow of a dog that goes the wrong way. Two identical clouds in the sky. A cloud behind the moon! We might not notice these things consciously, but that’s not where it matters. If the perspective of one of the buildings in your photograph is slightly off because you did some editing, it just won’t feel right.
In other words, if I want my piece to look like cut construction paper, I use cut construction paper to make it, and if I want it to look like I made a painting with pasta sauce on a sidewalk — well, you get the idea.
USE SIMPLE METHODS
There are a few reasons I like to keep my methods as uncomplicated as possible for the task at hand. For one thing, I’ve found that if the way in which the artwork was created greatly outweighs the emotional effect of experiencing it, then the whole thing tends to collapse. It’s like going to a posh 5-star restaurant and getting an ok burger and cold fries. That meal would have been just fine at a roadside rest stop. The problem is an imbalance between content and form. It might be interpreted as the artist’s lack of refinement — like they don’t fully understand their own idea. It can also feel like an overcompensation for something and actually make a good idea seem weak. Viewers might ask themselves Wait, what am I missing here? Is there a trick to this? And when it turns out there isn’t anything else, it’s a letdown.
Another reason I like this rule is a bit more intangible. Every tool is designed to extend our abilities and allow us to accomplish something in a more efficient or nuanced way. But there is always a trade-off. When our technologies get more complicated, the further away we become from being in touch with the true nature of whatever it is we are doing.
Consider this: By walking around barefoot in the world, we can gain a certain depth of understanding about our place in the natural system. We are in direct contact with the reality of our surroundings. By wearing shoes, we gain access to more inhospitable terrains, and we can go further due to that protection — but we lose some connection, and therefore (perhaps) some respect for the truth about things such as freezing snow, jagged rocks, and hot sand. By riding a bike, we can go much further and much faster, but we begin to miss the finer details around us. We start to see more value in how quickly we can get somewhere and less value in the actual trip itself. Get in a car, or a bullet train, and the world becomes a blur. Our journey over long monochromatic freeways becomes a tedious experience that only serves to stand between our starting point and our destination.
Can you see what’s happening here? We are trading intimacy for speed. We may be able to do more, but we are probably also losing our insight.
I am not saying you shouldn't use new technologies. By all means, go for it! The electric guitar, the camera, the typewriter, even paint brushes were once the latest thing! What I am saying is this:
If making art is all about authentic human expression, then as artists we owe it to ourselves to do whatever we can to make sure our expression is clear and nothing gets in the way. We can train our instincts and build our art-making muscles by avoiding shortcuts that cost too much in the long run, and by “keeping it real” with our methods and materials for maximum authenticity. We can also use tools that don’t distance us from a deeper understanding, and allow us to get as close as possible to where the color meets the canvas.