Sunday, November 4, 2018

Things I learned in Art School at School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Always Teaching, Always Learning

As both a student, and an associate professor for 21 years, I learned a great deal about art and making art. At SMFA there was always great sharing of knowledge. If I couldn’t solve a problem I could ask a teacher in some other department how to accomplish something, how to do it better. Someone was always willing to share their own knowledge either one on one. Often professors from other departments would send students to the right source, someone who would know how to help with a particular challenging art problem. I have been a source of knowledge and continue to learn as much as I can soak in. No one knows everything. Going to someone who can help you develop, someone who has an expertise is important. Reading and looking is important too, at the shapes, textures and colors around you. Looking at art, of how someone did it. Figure out what you can take away from seeing a true masterpiece. Here is a short list of some of what I’ve learned through these years. This mostly applies to painters, but you might get something out of it if you change wording around and apply it to writing or some other art form. This list is actually about critical thinking. Whenever possible I have given credit to those teachers after each line using an asterix and italics.

Cy Twombly room at Philadelphia Museum of Art

1.) Vary the quality of your line. Variation of mark making makes your work stronger, more interesting. To use the same mark over and over again can become boring. 
*Drawing professors Bill Flynn and David Kelly both knocked this important lesson into my head. Think of drawing and mark making as if you were conducting an orchestra. Using lyrical movement as you work.

2.) Think about how you can make a color you greatly dislike used in a beautiful way.
*Artist Sarah Hinckley once told me this and I’ve never forgotten it, I may dislike the color yellow, but some of my best paintings are yellow ones thanks to thinking about this.

3.) Take a look at the night sky, then try to paint it in watercolor. Notice all the color there is in a night sky, it certainly isn’t ‘black’.
* Watercolor teacher Kaji Aso was all about this, that there is color everywhere.

4.) Color on top of color, known as glazing can enrich the quality of your painting, try it. It isn’t paint by numbers. There is also shading and texture to think about.
*J.M.W. Turner for me is a master colorist, there is much to learn from looking at his paintings. Monet, Matisse, Picasso were not using single colors in their paintings.

5.) Learn to stretch a canvas using rabbit skin glue and gesso. Heated rabbit skin glue causes the linen or cotton canvas to shrink allowing it to become tight. Gesso on top of this creates a flatter surface. 
*Amateurs have no idea how to stretch a canvas, it shows in the final product. 

6.) Buy quality art supplies. From the start, purchase a great pair of scissors, the best brushes you can find and quality paints. They’ll last your lifetime.
*Graphic Design & Illustration professor Joe Landry on day one gave his students a list of art supplies to purchase, with buy the best. I’d look around the next week and see women with Louis Vuitton bags to carry their art supplies in! I still use art supplies I bought over 40 years ago thanks to Joe.

7.) Form, shape, movement. How does your eye move around the canvas? Are you creating a single element for the viewer to see or is there added depth, does the surface make someone look from side to side, corner to corner, thus spending more time actually looking. You can draw the eye around the rectangle through the use of color.
*Friedel Dzubas, was perhaps the last of the Abstract Expressionist painters. He taught at SMFA for one dollar per semester. He had much to share with all of the students and they loved him for it.

Monet Waterlilies at Tate Modern

8.) Who are your influences? Who are you looking at? Try to stay away from trends and go your own route, find your own unique niche or hook. As we called it in art school your own ‘gimmick’.
*Drawing professor Charlie Goss would take you up to the library, pull monograph artist books out to show you that you did not invent the wheel and he was right.

9.) Yes, you can draw. Your mark making is unique to you and no one else. How I know this is from your signature. Your signature is unique and only you can sign your name that very way that you do. That is the very beginning of drawing in a unique way. Alright, so you can’t draw like DaVinci, but you probably don’t have the same things to say as DaVinci did.
*Author of 'Artful Scribbles' Howard Gardner, shows in this book that it’s all there at the beginning of child development.

10.) Think about Art. Look at Art. What would you buy if you could buy a work of art right now? Develop your own sense of taste. More than likely you have favorite musicians, who are your favorite artists?
*People ask me, what’s hot, who should I go look at, where do I start…

11.) Is your own painting something you can ‘live with’? If you can’t live with it, why would someone else choose to purchase it and hang it on their wall?
*I’m all about easy on the eyes, I don’t need art to be political or to challenge me. 

12.) Style and Subject matter, what is it? Where do you fit into the mix?
*David Hockney Masters Class at SMFA

13.) Is it finished yet? When do you know that it is finished? Don’t be afraid to tear it up or go over it. Have you gone too far? Worry over it, if you must. There have been great artists who have gone over their work years later, for some it is never quite finished.
*My wife artist Holly Sievers can be a stickler about this, she pushes me to make it better until it is actually much better. Sometimes a new eye is exactly what you need. Think of your work as if you are a chef, does it need more salt, more herbs, is it overcooked or is it perfectly done.

14.) Take criticism as a learning moment, don’t take it personally. No one loves everything and not everyone will understand or love what you do. Grow, keep learning. BUT, not everyone is a great art critic, there are very few that can be truly helpful. 
*Drawing professor Skip Milson made me cry during my first critique. I have made many students cry as well. Things get emotional but it is also cathartic and can help to release all the fears and bad habits you’ve gotten bogged down with. It’s about problem solving, how to edit, how to do it better.

Anselm Kiefer At San Francisco Museum of Art

15.) IF you are knowledgeable about art, share your knowledge,
*During deep conversations at Museum exhibitions with friends and family, there have been times when I’ve noticed people following us listening in on the conversation. People thrive to know more about the art they are looking at. Learn to talk about art.

16.) Resume, CV, Artist Statement, pull it together. Write it in simple terms, don’t get too technical. Write about yourself as if you truly want ART making to be your job, your life’s work, put your best foot forward. Be positive and don’t use cliches such as I’ve always been an artist, I’ve been making art since I was 5 years old ad-nauseum. The same thing when talking with the press, do not use cliches.

17.) Pricing is important. Learn where you fit into the marketplace by going to art galleries and learning price points and why. 
*Do not price yourself out of your marketplace (overpricing), and do not come down in price.

18.) Keep your head up and make art, be proud that you chose this career, or get off the boat. Develop a style, and keep working on it. Discouragement is all around you, you may be making more art than you are selling. Asking yourself why bother and why are you making more art when nothing is selling is your worst enemy. 

19.) Copying other artists will not get you far in the art world. People have a sense when someone is being derivative of someone else. You will get called out on it. Influences are one thing, directly copying work you see online or in local galleries gets you nowhere.
*Something I learned from Travel Writers (thank you Meryn Johns and Carol Cain) people want a scoop, something different from what everyone else is writing about. Be different. 

20.) Notice how you paint. Do you move the brush up and down or side to side? Are you constantly swirling around searching? 
*Artist Marcia Oliver explained a great lesson from her mentor and artist Agnes Martin to me this way: "She asked me to bring a brush and a glass of water over, then asked me to ‘paint’ onto the canvas without paint. As she watched my movement she decided that I knew what I was doing and that she could mentor me, that I was worth her time and effort." 

Philip Guston at Philadelphia Museum of Art

21.) Learn to 'troubleshoot'. Problem solving and decision making are enormous priorities when making art.

22.) Lastly, and most unapologetically, YOU will only excel at THREE forms of art. Choose wisely and pare down all of those art forms that are distracting you. Only a true genius can excel at more than three. Realize that YOU ARE NOT A TRUE GENIUS, this will save you much time, grief and embarrassment. 

Never stop learning.

Although I am no longer teaching, I am willing to do artist studio critiques. If you believe a studio visit may help in your development as a visual artist, I am available on a limited basis. My fee is $75. per hour in the Taos & Santa Fe areas only. Please note, I'm a terrible critique for photographers and sculptors.