* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.
If the goal of art is Beauty and if we assume that the goal is sometimes reached, even if always imperfectly, how do we judge art? Basically, I think, by whether it reveals to us important Form that we ourselves have experienced but to which we have not paid adequate attention. Successful art rediscovers Beauty for us.
One standard, then, for the evaluation of art is the degree to which it gives us a fresh intimation of Form. For a picture to be beautiful it does not have to be shocking, but it must in some significant respect be unlike what has preceded it (this is why an artist cannot afford to be ignorant of the tradition within his medium). If the dead end of the romantic vision is incoherence, the failure of classicism, which is the outlook I am defending, is the cliché, the ten thousandth camera-club imitation of a picture by Ansel Adams.
Robert Adams in Beauty in Photography
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A: As artists each of us has at least two important responsibilities: to express things we are feeling for which there are no adequate words and to communicate to a select few people, who become our audience. By virtue of his or her own uniqueness, every human being has something to say. But self-expression by itself is not enough. As I often say, at it’s core art is communication. Without this element there is no art. When artists fail to communicate, perhaps they haven’t mastered their medium sufficiently so are unsuccessful in the attempt, or they may be being self-indulgent and not trying. Admittedly there is that rare and most welcome occurrence when an artistic statement – such as a personal epiphany – happens for oneself alone.
Most importantly, always listen to what your heart tells you. It knows and speaks the truth and becomes easier to trust as you mature. If you get caught up in the art world, step back and take some time to regain your bearings, to get reacquainted with the voice within you that knows the truth. Paint from there. Do not ever let a dealer or anyone else dictate what or how you should paint.
With perhaps the singular exception of artist-run cooperative galleries, be very suspicious of anyone who asks for money to put your work in an exhibition. These people are making money from desperate and confused artists, not from appreciative art collectors. With payment already in hand there is no financial incentive whatsoever for these people to sell your paintings and they won’t.
Always work in a beautiful and special place of your own making. It doesn’t need to be very large, unless you require a large space in which to create, but it needs to be yours. I’m thinking of Virginia Woolf’s “a room of one’s own” here. A studio is your haven, a place to experiment, learn, study, and grow. A studio should be a place you can’t wait to enter and once you are there and engaged, are reluctant to leave.
Be prepared to work harder than you ever have, unrelentingly developing your special innate gifts, whether you are in the mood to do so or not. Most of all remember to do it for love, because you love your medium and it’s endless possibilities, because you love working in your studio, and because you feel most joyously alive when you are creating.
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Q: You have sometimes spoken about your early work as a portrait artist. When and why did you start making portraits? Do you still do them?
A: In 1989 I was a Naval officer working at the Pentagon and I hated my job as a computer analyst. Although it was terrifying to leave the security of a paycheck for the uncertainty of an artist’s existence, I made the leap. In retrospect it was one of the best decisions of my life. When I resigned from active duty (I remained in the Navy Reserve, which provided a part-time job and a small income; in 2003 I retired as a Navy Commander), I needed a way to make a living.
Prior to this career change, I worked hard to develop my portrait skills. I volunteered to run a life drawing class at The Art League School in Alexandria, VA, where I made hundreds of figure drawings using charcoal and pastel. I spent a semester commuting between Washington, DC and New York to study artistic anatomy at the New York Academy of Art. I spent another semester studying gross anatomy with medical students at Georgetown University Medical School. So I was well prepared to devote myself to making portraits.
For a time I made a living making commissioned photo-realist portraits in soft pastel on sandpaper. However, after about two years I became bored. I remember thinking, “I did not leave a boring job just to make boring art!” Furthermore, I had no interest in doing commissions because what I wanted to accomplish as an artist did not coincide with what portrait clients wanted. I completed my final portrait commission in 1990 and never looked back. To this day I remain loathe to do a commission of any kind.
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