Written & edited by Adam Holzrichter.
There are two types of artists: those who will not improve over time in their art, and those who will. Peter Pan Syndrome can sometimes be a contributing factor, for those who won’t grow. Increased responsibility goes hand in hand with increased knowledge of objective perception. Some people in our world are blind, so I suppose what we’re talking about isn’t objective. We can pretend blind people don’t exist for the duration of this article.
If you enjoy being on the side of whimsical living, where line or form are untethered by recognizability to anyone but you, you may be experiencing an oversized visual identity in your art. We may see some examples in artists such as Soutine, Van Gogh (especially early works), Bonnard. These few had a tendency to lean into their artform as an escape from reality. Sometimes it’s a self-described language they use to convey a deeper understanding of spiritual decadence. It is said that Pierre Bonnard had a grand sense of humor, and was generally seen as a fun guy. I can’t speak to that, but I do have some suggestions on how to become better at painting.
If there were 5 steps to getting better at painting they might sound like this:
3. Identify your heroes. At some point in our lives we decided which form of art we would glom onto. It would be called our inspiration for however long we could get away with it, and we constructed a pedestal for the people who pioneered it. As a kid, my masters of drawing were comic book artists like Jim Lee, and whoever was coming up with mass produceable characters from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Later I found formidable painters like Jeremy Mann, Malcolm Liepke, Jenny Saville, Lucien Freud. These were my idols! I could achieve this level of skill in my lifetime. During my twenties they held reign as the painters whose names I could remember when asked for a list.
1. Understand your performance. If you lack the ability for self critique then you’re going to have a very confusing interaction with everyone you know for a long time. They will tell you how talented you are. They’ll pile on compliments about the colors you used, or how they like the “light and shadows” in a picture. It’s not worth the consequence for most people to be truthful. The truth is that you probably suck, and I believe you need to know that.
Find a way to receive honest critiques. Try asking a professional who appears to have developed a deep contempt for everyone and everything. They won’t let you down (firstname.lastname@example.org). I like to genuinely compliment something in your work, then tell you what else needs to improve.
4. Draw. Use a photo. Use a live model. Just draw things with the intention to understand them. Look around to find the best in the business and understand their influences. Read the books they’ve read. Study boring, but necessary, classical techniques and fail miserably. Do that over and over and over. If you have only been drawing from photos you’re probably miserable at drawing from life.
2. Use resources that are available to you. Can’t afford a $20 life drawing session where you have to try and make heads or tails from a series of 5 minute poses of a naked person with morbid obesity? No easy task! Go to youtube. Find great resources there. Please stop drawing porn. Pause a scene on a TV show and draw that. Draw someone on the bus, or train. Draw your family. Draw your friends. Draw caricatures. Draw your cab driver. It doesn’t matter. There is no honest excuse why you can’t learn from whatever you’re drawing. Observe structure in everything.
5. Discard your original heroes for better ones. Here’s a fun part. Years later you will look back at those people who you once placed at the top of the mountain and discover there’s another mountain that was being blocked by that first one. This should hopefully vary for every person, but I think we start to run out of valid mountains to debate over. Mine became dead people. Living ones began to feel cheap and polluted by ridiculous demands to exist as clownish brands by the marketplace. Sometimes style begins to dissipate, in favor of continual growth. Depart from your own conventions as often as you need to. Maybe it doesn’t change in your case. I don’t care. Sometimes I paint lazily, and others I obsess over details that will feel so very ugly to everyone but me.
The point here is simple. Keep getting better at what you think you’re great at, because in all honesty you probably aren’t very good at all. If your art looks the same as it did 10, 20, 30 years ago you may have become stuck in the first stage: Ego.
* I thought this painting was adorable, and included it because of my reference to Ninja Turtles and heroes. Buy a print of it from Amina. It doesn’t suck.