Monday, April 7, 2014

One Size Shouldn't Fit All
A few preliminary thumbnail sketches.

In past posts I've discussed my difficulties with "rules" in art. But truly, I don't think I have as much trouble with rules as trouble with the "one-size-fits-all" philosophy that seems to be cropping up of late in many blogs, classrooms, and guides for young artists/illustrators.

It seems that, from illustration to gallery art, people--the public, critics, art directors, artists, movie producers, etc.--just seem to want--to need--control. And some offer it disguised as advice.

Now, there's still much creativity and boundary-stretching going on in in the 
arts--thank goodness! But often this sorta seems viewed with skepticism and suspicion by "established" artists, illustrators, art directors, and critics. In other words, the ones who've made some money or achieved some fame using their skills. With that, seems to come the sense that they've been named the Wise Ones. And they are quick to offer their wisdom to the young.
(Up-front--I don't tend to believe that material wealth and fame necessarily precede wisdom.)

Nevertheless, the hidden message in much of what I read is that newbies need to heed and follow their advice. That which ranges from stringent formulas for work-processes to the "right way" to paint edges.

What's the problem with formulas? Nothing. They can help save time. Plus, artists should always be up for learning new things, as well as copying-to-learn and experimenting with tried-and-true techniques from other artists.

What's the problem with advice for upcoming artists? Nothing. Except for the tone and what I see as an undercurrent of manipulation. The intractable, "this is how to do it if you want to be successful like me" messages that often seem hidden between the lines.

Only one example: The "million thumbnails" prescriptions seemingly hatching everywhere. Um, yes Andrew Loomis did many thumbnails and so did Howard Pyle and Norman Rockwell. They offered a specific type of illustration, and I love and admire the work of all three. Each also did many studies and prelims and laid much groundwork before they approached their final works. Each offers much from which to learn. And I gladly admit to having my breath taken away by the single original Rockwell I've had the pleasure of viewing.

But this photo? It fills me with two things: 1. Admiration for Rockwell. 2. Dread (if applied to me).
Could I do this kind of groundwork? Not a chance. I'd be so bored with sketching and drawing and re-drawing and looking at all the slightly altered thumbnails and sketches and prelims that I'd avoid hitting the studio the next day (or week, or month). I'd just go fishing. Or get a job digging ditches.
And even if I could force myself to fit this mold, where would I stop? If two dozen thumbnails are good, why not do three dozen? If building and lighting a maquette is the absolute way to success, why not do it one better and hire real models and stage it and photograph it and project it and then trace it more than once, and do a thousand studies of each body part multiple times before really getting down to the business of painting the damn final thing? And then maybe re-paint it if it's not "perfect". (And good luck with hitting "perfect".)

Hey, Rockwell's process was obviously great for him. And it works for many others. I admire the heck out of him and other artists and illustrators who probably have similar approaches.
And I love to read and learn from many artist and illustration blogs. Muddy Colors (from where I lifted the above photo (  ) is one of my favorite sources of useful information, as is James Gurney's blog ( )

But my point is; Rockwell's process is not for everyone. However, these types of things are pushed that way far too often. Is it only me that views many of  these "helpful posts" as cousins to a
weight-loss-machine infomercial hosted by Suzanne Somers? "You too could have my body/success/career if you only could knuckle down and do it like me/Norman/Andrew." I don't want to look like Suzanne Somers in any of her iterations, and I don't want my artwork to resemble Norman Rockwell's or Andrew Loomis', either. I couldn't if I tried. And it would be wrong of me and for me to try.

Personally, I can read advice-material like that and borrow what I want, say to heck with the rest, and then do my own thing. But can every--especially a young--artist do that? My eyes and ears tell me no. And the results often seem to be:

1. Uniformity. A tired sameness (in illustration, in animated films, in gallery work) reigns. It's filling the coffers of publishers, gallery owners, and movie producers, but it's doing little for the creative improvisation that lies within the soul of the arts. (And I suspect adherence to this kind of advice-set seldom results in a decent living wage for most illustrators and painters anyway.)

2. Enervation, despair, and the near-death of the art spirit. The angst and self-doubt that fills the conversations and the days of many artists is hard to hear, but I listen. Too many are scrambling to stuff themselves into molds cast by centuries-dead academics and decades-dead illustrators; scrambling to turn back the clock instead of embracing a fresh present; ignoring the essential need to be an explorer, authentic and true to their own creativity.
Too many face their chosen careers like assembly-line factory workers--their art production dead and lifeless, their creative excitement only a memory. In part because they've been following advice from
an "expert".

Is there really much difference between digging a ditch and being an assembly-line artist?


But honestly, do consumers/companies/producers really want new and original?
With few exceptions, many (most?) truly groundbreaking artists have been ignored or scorned in their time. That's no myth--we all know their names and stories.

For most illustrators, the following conversation with a client/art director is very familiar:
"I love your portfolio--so original! Now can you do this illustration like a Peter de Seve?"
And all you have to do is walk into gallery after gallery filled with contemporary impressionism and face the fact that many "successful" artist's paintings are virtually indistinguishable from another's. Long ago, a valued mentor called these works "velveeta". And he followed that with "They sell, though."

Could I do that sort of thing; being forced to "draw like de Seve", on command? Or work day after day in the studio, making near copies of my works over and over (and nearly identical to thousands of other artist's paintings) because "they sell"? Nope, because if  my life was centered around making lots of money, I'd sure as heck be pushing pharmaceuticals, insurance, or burglar alarm systems. A much easier sales-task.


But back to the original point:
What might underlie this sudden plethora of puritanical process pointers?
Is it truly about being helpful or is it about something else? Just asking...

What's really needed from teachers, "how-to" bloggers, and all advisers-of-aspiring/young-artists:

1. Take the time to check your tone--is it generously and humbly offered (James Gurney's informative posts are great examples of this), or is it prescriptive/restrictive? 
2. Question possible repercussions before proffering advice, no matter how well-intended. Does this advice encourage progress, or resort to lamenting the loss of the good old days? 
3. Is it really advice or is it instead a chiding; that the entire blame lies with the individual artist's work-ethic (instead of the fact that full-time art careers are and always have been difficult to achieve)? 
4. Ask yourself: Would I have wanted this kind of advice as a young artist--would it have helped or hindered my development? 
And last: 
5. Do I really follow my own advice, every day, for every artwork? Was it truly the foundation for what I've achieved?

It's just a caution, just suggestions.
There's no single formula for artistic success, just as there is no single definition of accomplishment.
One size doesn't--and shouldn't--fit all.

Thanks for reading.


  1. Nicely said. A very cool story. Check out on the internet Seinfeld's practice. Can't remember if that is the exact search or if it is Seinfeld's process. Anyway - Love how you processed this info.


    1. Thanks for the comment, Kelly. Seinfeld's 4th lesson "Learn from Parallel crafts" resonated most deeply. But his first: "Embrace revision and repetition"? I agree with it in principle, and do revise, tinker, improvise, and practice every day. But for me, there's a point of diminishing return when focusing too minutely on perfecting a single work. (Maybe that should have been my single point in a post with too many.) Looking for "completely right" by over-picking often leaves that piece stale; killing the jump and bounce--the spontaneity--that should inject the arts with spirit and life.


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