A common occurrence among artists is that by the time you realize that you are one, you’ve forgotten where the journey began. Who knows? Was it the first time you picked up a pencil? When you first smiled at your own drawing? When a respected mentor validated your work? To me, the artistic journey is an intrinsic desire to create and imagine; then to work diligently to expand that potential until it is realized. It is impossible for me to recall where that began for me, but I will gladly share what keeps my journey moving forward.
To me, drawing is communication. If art is a visual language, then sketching is like speaking to a friend. You simply share ideas openly. These ideas aren’t fully formed or necessarily well-packaged. You just get it out there, and see how everyone (yourself included) responds to it. Over time, subsequent drawings pack more punch and meaning as the ideas and techniques are refined. To keep that ball rolling, I try to make it easy on myself. A 3x4” pocket sketchbook and a mechanical pencil or pen are a great combo for on-the-go sketching.
Learn from Life:
When working from life, I have two goals: Study & Artistry. The former informs the latter. I had been taught “draw what you see” - and while this has a simple wisdom of its own, it’s important not to stop at what you see, but to continue with why and how the subject came to be what it is.
Working outdoors is awesome on its own. Add in some mindful study, and you’ll end up with powerful creative tools (and enriched understanding to boot)! These observations of environment, ecology, light, etc., when carefully studied become important references in the artist’s visual library.
So what’s the difference between a study and piece of art? Well, there is much that could be said, and a fair amount of overlap. For simplicity’s sake, study is to understand, distill concepts, and fill your artistic tool bag. Artistry is to capture the essence of the moment, not just its constituent parts. It is to gain insight from the experience and craft that insightful experience for the audience.
Limitations Foster Creativity:
Huh? Wouldn’t you rather have complete creative freedom? Perhaps, depending on the task at hand. But when it comes to pushing the creative envelope and expanding technical ability, growth often comes from limitation, not from open pastures. As an exercise, I make it a regular habit to limit my tools, techniques, and color options. Why? Well, it’s like focusing on a particular muscle group in a workout. You build new strengths and realize new possibilities when you force yourself to stop following the same old pathways.
I ask myself questions like, “Can you effectively communicate that idea without using _____?” (Fill in the blank). Half-tones, color, perspective, line, way too much coffee, etc. Well, it works for sharpening the artistic skill set. It is also true for the creative process. There is a sweet spot with just enough freedom and just enough limitation that the mind must actively engage with new possibilities.
Recall my analogy about verbal speech. There is more than one way to communicate and clarify an idea... and there may be better ideas to explore.
Tools and Processes:
OK, I’ll admit that I geek out about processes. It is less about adopting existing methods as it is about exploring what makes the most sense to me. This means modifying or crafting my own tools often. For the artist, this is a key area in the development of your style. It is where the artist makes decisions about how they will work, and what they will omit.
There are many topics and ideas to express with visual art, just as there are topics for discussion in audible speech. What comes most easily to the tongue are the topics and interests that are closest to us. It is not so different for visual art. Put simply, when I can, I paint what I like. Good humor, grand vistas, moments in history, whimsical funnies, musings on the human condition, visions of the future, moments that excite the mind, a warm day, a quiet pond, a human story that grabs us. I take my craft seriously, but why not have a bit of fun at it?
It’s been said, “Do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.”
I’m not so sure. Maybe: “Work hard at what you love, and live a full life.”