The other day a student asked me whether I could come up with four or five questions that an artist could internally ask to help figure out where they want to go with their work. I wish I could think of an easy answer, but I fear it is a life long pursuit. That is both the good and bad news. If there were an end to the journey, then once it was reached what incentive would there be to press on? The bad news is that this means you are embarking on a journey of self-discovery that will more than likely be never ending, with the destination always feeling just beyond your reach. The more we know, the more we realize there is to know. At first it is easy because your focus is on perfecting the craft of your work. The real struggle only begins once you have achieved most of the technical hurdles. That is the point when you must no longer draw from what is outside of you, but begin to draw from the well within you. This may feel daunting at first, but you need to just focus on the next step of your journey.
I believe there is more to art than just reproducing what something looks like. I say “just” but I realize that painting what something “looks” like is not an easy task, which is why so many artists continue to spend so much time trying to do just that. Don’t misunderstand me, I am not discounting the need to perfect craft, I just don’t think that is the final destination. Once craft is perfected we may find ourselves thinking “now what?” If perfecting craft is your present goal along this journey and it brings you satisfaction, then continue on. When the goal of perfecting craft has been achieved, you may feel yourself questioning whether there is something more to discover.
This does not have to be some sort of deep trip into psycho self-analysis. But, it is the realization that all art is a form of communication. There is room for all levels of communication. It depends on what you are trying to communicate and who you want to be in conversation with. I think that music is a good analogy. Musicians must hit the right notes, but great musicians do more than hit the right notes, they impart something of themselves in the performance. There is more than the accuracy of their craft. There is something that can’t be described. That “something” is fleeting in a musical performance, as painters, we seek to give that “something” permanence in paint. Kandinsky did his best to explain this phenomenon. He felt that a work of art is a physical object that springs from the inner being of the artist, but it is also the trigger point that begins a reverse process back into the inner being of the viewer. So the physical work of art becomes the bridge to an inner experience that was deeply felt by the artist. If there is no initial force that was deeply felt within the artist, the work may be visually pleasing and adept, but lack that emotional bridge and connection. This connection is similar to the one that makes us weep when we hear a musician perform a piece with all his being. We all have been moved my real art. But how do we create it?
Whatever your subject matter is, your painting should strive to be your intimate reaction to something. If what you see is all I get as a viewer, then art has lot some of its purpose and power. I believe that the artist is more than a cook that knows how to put the ingredients together to make a tasty meal. As an artist, you must find the secret ingredient that only you possess. You must somehow transform the materials into something that is more than the summation of its parts. As I often say, depending on your religious persuasion, you are either searching for magic or the hand of God in your work!
So back to my students question; if the answer lies within you, then that is where you must look for clues. We are very good at hiding from ourselves. A good idea is to keep a small journal where you can write down notes. Perhaps begin a list of words that resonate with you, or sometimes one will jump out when you are reading. Write it down. Start to figure out what really interests or puzzles you. Do you like things organized or chaotic? What type of things do you collect? What makes your happy, what makes you angry? Is there something that currently perplexes you? What is your personality, for better for worse? Make a list of adjectives that describe you, list your preferences and your dislikes. Watch for things that trigger you during the day for good or bad and write them down. What do you want to say? If tomorrow was your last day on earth, and your next painting was all that was left behind to communicate to the future, what message would you want to send? Would you yell it or whisper it?
These are just possible jumping off points to begin a series. A series becomes the next step on your journey to discovering meaningful work. A series may go 4-6 paintings and then be exhausted, but lead you in a new direction. Or, a series may take 100 paintings to work through. The important thing is that you start thinking about your work as being more that the depiction of something, it is something new and separate that has been created by you, through you, because of YOU. Begin to paint what only you can paint!