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How to Be Your Own Favorite Artist

By Jasper Burns

(copyright 2004 by Jasper Burns)

Some of my greatest artistic moments were spent among geniuses - masters of abstract expressionism. I witnessed their fervor and excitement as they produced some of the most important works of their lives. Inspiration literally flooded the room. Several artists were unable to contain their joy, springing to their feet, splattering paint, dancing around like dervishes, eyes fixed on the still dripping wet masterpieces held before them, their faces alight with pride and pleasure.

Such unforgettable scenes unfolded in kindergarten, and the maestros were all five years old. Their medium was finger painting and their mastery was complete. They knew exactly what they could do - but most of them would now insist they have no artistic ability whatsoever. If reminded of their early triumphs, they would smile and insist that these were nave and inept scribblings, not good enough to be called art.

The purpose of this essay is to help us recover the "inner maestro" and reclaim the benefits that art holds for all, free from inhibition or self-criticism. It asserts that everyone is an artist and that there is no higher form of art than that which expresses subconscious feelings and impressions, making them accessible to our eyes and minds so that we can enjoy them and learn from them. Such art is personal and can only be created by each individual. No one else can take us there, though many try to make the visions of others their own.

THE MANY TYPES OF ART

Art is a word, like love, that should be replaced by dozens or scores of new words with specific meanings. "Love" is used to describe one's feelings about one's child, one's lover, a summer sunset, a necktie, and a piece of toast that isn't burned. Similarly, "art" is used to describe many different things. It also implies a standard of quality, so that some art is not considered art, and some things that are not art (such as waging war) are.

A list of commonly recognized forms of art follows:

We are concerned here with the second group. Though there are many similarities between the forms in technique, materials, and appearances, the motivations and especially the mindset of the artist vary significantly. Drawing from life or from the imagination to express a concept are very different experiences than drawing an abstraction inspired completely by the subconscious. They involve different parts of the psyche. Subconsciously inspired art resembles youthful finger painting because of its spontaneity and emphasis on color, texture, and freedom of form rather than on concept or technical control.

Illustration and conceptual art are analogous to descriptive writing or composing essays or sermons. They originate from or are filtered through the thinking mind. The art form that we are concerned with here comes without preconception or agenda. It is like a revelatory journal entry or a sigh. Its fruits are secondary to the creative process and may be discarded, or may be retained to remind and inspire.

ENEMIES OF PERSONAL ART - OBSTACLES TO EXPRESSION

1. The Critic - The tyranny of the critic, both inner and outer, paralyzes the artist in most people. This is shown by the questions that we are conditioned to ask when we encounter a work of art: Is this any good? Could I have done better? Is this worth the asking price? Is this piece better than that piece? Is this artist better than that artist? Is this work important? Is this work relevant? Is this work original? Does this artist have any talent?

These questions can bring creativity to a halt. Fear of the answers keeps all but a very few far from the risks of artistic expression. Only those who have "passed muster" and been deemed to possess "talent" - or those who could care less what others think - dare to call themselves artists or create works of art. The rest are too terrified of criticism to try - indeed, have become their own most merciless critics. Their first line or dab of paint would be greeted by inner cries of "you have no talent, how presumptuous to think you can do anything worth looking at, why invite failure and contempt?"

The budding artist is further thwarted by attempting to duplicate the works of nature or of other artists. Young finger painters are invited to do whatever they want, so they succeed at everything they do. More mature artists often begin by giving themselves tests: If I draw that bowl of fruit, will it look like a bowl of fruit? Rather than drawing what comes naturally, thus ensuring success, they set difficult or impossible goals for themselves, choosing subjects that make them easy marks for critics.

The critic almost never understands what a work of expressive art means to the artist, which is the only thing that really matters. This art always has meaning and value - unless it has been produced with the intention of pleasing the critic rather than the artist.

2. The Frame - Even if the critic is overcome and a person ventures into artistic expression, there is still the tyranny of productivity, represented by the waiting picture frame. The idea that the creative process must produce an object that is worthy of the time, effort, and cost of materials put into it; something that can be framed, shown to others, perhaps even sold or given as a gift - this is an enemy of artistic expression. If none of these criteria are likely to be met, then why bother?

Even if the artist does bother, the creative process is vitiated by expectation, impatience, desire, and fear of ruining the work already done. The artist is motivated by the quest for admiration, success, and self-satisfaction as a productive and talented individual. This is like having children so that one can brag about them and be taken care of in old age, rather than because having children is a rewarding and enjoyable experience.

Art that is created with the result in mind will be less daring, and therefore less inspired. In expressive art, the process is the point. The finished work should be considered as completely disposable while one is working, if it must be considered at all.

HOW TO BEGIN

As the greatest obstacles to expressive art are in the mind - the inner critic, preconceptions, self-consciousness, desires, and negativities - the mind needs to be distracted by something that is calming or repetitive. For example, music can drown out some of this mental static, while suggesting colors, forms, patterns - all experienced differently by each artist. Music can help get one started.

Each session might have a specific musical theme in order to help set a consistent mood, which may assist in the creation of a more coherent or integrated work. This will also allow the mood to be recaptured to some degree if the work of art requires more than one session to produce.

If a start remains difficult, a conscious choice may help, but it should be something simple and evocative, perhaps inspired by an image that has special meaning for the artist. For example, a gardener may sketch the simple sweep of a plant stem; a football fan may draw the arc of a quarterback's pass; a fisherman the underwater course of a trout on the line, straining to escape the angler. Once the initial lines or colors are on paper, they will inspire new ones.

Choosing the medium is an important step. It should allow the most spontaneity and involve the least technical difficulty. Pencils, magic markers, crayons, pastels, charcoal - and, of course, finger paints - should be considered for their ease of use. Technique and materials must never stand in the way of creativity. The emphasis should be on freedom of expression, not technical mastery. Also, whenever the artist is blocked or stale, a session with finger paints may be a big help.

There is a strong preference for the abstract in this kind of art. Realistic forms may come to mind, but are usually fleeting and often vague in form. Unless they persist and insist, it is better to render them with a splash of color or a few curves or lines and avoid getting bogged down in painstaking realism. This is when the mind and learned technique often hijack the creative process. If it pleases, they can always be finished after the initial burst of creativity is complete.

Preliminary drawing and outlines should be avoided. Tedium and repetition are the enemies of expression. Sometimes, a complex pattern will be envisioned that requires planning and systematic execution. However, like the realistic forms mentioned above, these should not bog one down.

Work large to involve the whole body, not just the fingertips. Art is dancing on paper - use the full sweep of your arms, and even legs (if you can afford the paper or canvas).

Natural doodlers will have a head start in this type of art - which is simply doodling taken seriously and allowed to grow and achieve completion. The first mark on paper might be inspired by the music - a curve or pattern that follows the beat or sway. Each curve or line will suggest another curve or line. Perhaps a shape will develop into a form or object that suggests a new form or object. The awareness should be kept close to the tip of the drawing instrument, never more than one stroke or one pattern ahead.

When the drawing instrument begins to seem lost, unsure of where to travel next, a pause will help, allowing the work to speak to the artist and demand another curve here or a different color there. Squinting sometimes provides a better sense of the balance or symmetry of the whole. If the pattern seems too right-handed or too left handed, rotate the paper or canvas 90 degrees or 180 degrees or any number of degrees and draw from a new perspective.

A key to spontaneity is speed of execution. It often helps to begin drawing broadly and simply - sweeping curves, or intersecting lines or shapes. The burst of creativity should not be slowed by worries about coloring, shading, internal detail, etc. After this superstructure feels complete, the "filling in" process may begin. This phase may seem to be less creative or spontaneous, but it usually introduces major new features to the work. Ideas, emotions, or impressions often arise in an individual in broad or poorly understood form, but gradually take shape and texture as they are absorbed and reflected upon. Similarly, a work of expressive art begins with an impulse and then develops through reflection and amplification.

Knowing when to stop, either to return later or to declare the work finished, requires the ability to recognize when the artist has left the building. When the critic or decorator begins to takes control, the work is done. Or at least the creative phase is over.

SOME PRINCIPLES

Each work should be completed. The inner critic must be silenced. Leaving a work unfinished usually means the critic has cancelled the performance. Amazing things happen if the artist remains faithful to a piece of work. Often, the most interesting pieces begin tentatively or incompetently because they are breaking new ground. Even if the work remains unsatisfactory, subsequent works may benefit from the lessons learned.

Some works of art will not communicate to people other than the artist. This has nothing to do with merit. Dishonest art is often celebrated and honest art often reviled. Honesty and spontaneity are what give expressive art meaning, not objective beauty, technical ability, or the praise of others.

The final result is secondary to the creative process. If the result is not pleasing to the artist, throw it away and start another work. The opinions of others are irrelevant, but may be interesting or valuable if they encourage the artist to continue or identify obstacles to expression.

Take doodles seriously. Being on hold on the telephone, or waiting for a bus to arrive - these are times when the inner artist can find expression. Because the media are usually unpretentious and disposable (e.g. newspaper, notebook, ball-point pen) and there is no intention of keeping or framing the result, the person is allowed to create freely. The critic is silent because "this isn't really art and I'm not trying to be an artist." On the contrary, no one is a greater artist than the doodler, and no art is more significant.

Ignorance is good. The more ideas one has about art, especially regarding quality, the greater the obstacles to spontaneous expression. The supreme masters of this art form are the small child with finger paints and the uninhibited doodler. Never is expression more genuine, spontaneous, and pure. This natural, primitive freedom is the goal.

BENEFITS

Like daydreams, which can clear the mind and set great ideas free, expressive art allows the subconscious to reveal itself through form, color, and pattern. This releases tensions and exercises bits of the psyche that are generally unknown or under-utilized. I say psyche rather than brain because the creative thrill is experienced in many parts of the body, especially in the heart and the gut. Daydreaming sets thoughts free to roam, often engaging the emotions as well. Art sets feelings and visual impressions free, often engaging the mind in the process.

The benefits are greatest if the artists remain on their toes, in a state of continuous receptivity. As much as possible, the mind should be kept from taking control of the work. Each new phase or line should be as unplanned as the first in an ever-renewing spontaneity. When thoughts intervene too forcefully, it is time for a break. Or perhaps some finger painting.

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