Thursday, January 30, 2014

Perfectly Mistaken
Blog-reading accompanies the coffee most winter mornings. David Apatoff's blog posts enrich that experience. His cerebral writings provoke musings about art in general, and specifically reflections on my own beliefs about what I do. The comment threads are unusually edifying as well.

Apatoff's latest, That Knob on Mort Drucker's Lamp 
has been like getting one of those super-fine splinters in a finger--except this one's in my brain. His interesting post and ensuing comments provoked many philosophical/artistic digressions, but I want to discuss the principal (and maybe mistaken) question it provoked in me:
Should I--should any artist--be striving for Perfection?

Suddenly that topic is jumping out at me at every turn; in books, in documentaries, in conversation.
As in most things--art-related and otherwise--there is no exclusive truth for everyone. And there is no true perfection. There is sublimity, but that doesn't always occur with compulsive re-polishing.

On the album Diamonds and Rust, the amazing voice of Joan Baez cracks at one point (during Medley: I Dream of Jeannie/Oh Danny Boy). It's the part of the song I wait for, and it is an essential imperfection--I am very glad she didn't do another take. (I'd never dismiss the hard and continuous work Baez must have done to be such a force in the music world--not talking about work here, I'm talking about the quest for perfection.)

Perfectionism has never been a compulsion for me, and usually a concentrated attempt at it ruins the product because it ruins the process. In my art-life, if the experience isn't interesting and satisfying, the end result is usually a stinker. So why is that?

Ray Harryhausen's Skeletons from Jason and the Argonauts

Steve Johnson, in the documentary Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan, discusses Harryhausen's ability to do 98% of his filming with the first take. To paraphrase Johnson, that is part of what makes Harryhausen's art great. Johnson says,"If he had finessed it too much, the result wouldn't come from the heart. The more quickly you get your ideas out of your head and up on the screen, the more real."  Another commentator states, "Often, [this creates] artworks that resonate--because they are pure."

Medusa sketch. Ray Harryhausen

Can't help it--I completely agree with Johnson. When I create; over-thinking, fixing,
and re-drawing often disrupts the line from my heart and gut to the paper. If I think "make it perfect", it's nearly always because I've begun imagining a critic's response to the work, or my head is doing the comparison-thing
Why does the process of picking away, tracing and re-tracing, result in a forced and lifeless work? Because all of a sudden I'm out to please people who, fundamentally, can never be pleased. That's a disservice to the vision heaving and rolling inside me.

Does this mean I don't work at being a better artist? Not at all--I am after that every minute of my life.  Does it mean I can't enjoy the works of more compulsive, perfection-driven artists? Not at all. I just don't see that particular quest as the only thing that separates great from mediocre.

David Hajdu, in Positively 4th Street, writes that Joan Baez once said "I have a primitive way of going about everything. I can't force myself to do something in which I'm not interested. Fundamentally, I'm lazy."
The words "primitive" and "lazy" are not usually in the vocabulary of a perfectionist, yet who would label Baez a mediocrity?

The great artist Ludek Tikovsky* wrote, "Sometimes I like more sketches than finished piece because of the spontaneity and--how to write it correctly--'airiness' of the lines..."
Me too, Ludek! I love to see spontaneous, real sketches--those done as thinking exercises and/or prelims. These are the things artists do when they are not consciously performing for an audience, or over-thinking some consummate product. (And by "real" I don't mean the newest trend in the art world--those suddenly ubiquitous "polished sketchbooks". Often wonderful, they are not true sketch books, as they are created as art pieces meant to be viewed as finished works.
It just might be that they who strive for perfection are the ones who'll make the big bucks or the history books. I won't research it for proof, but that's got to be fine with me. Nonetheless, I know that when a work is transcendent--makes my heart pound--it is seldom spot-free and flawless.

 "I like to make mistakes when I'm painting."
-Clive Barker

*Check out Ludek Tikovsky's thoughtful, unusual blog at

(and thanks for reading--your comments are always welcome.)

Monday, January 27, 2014

Saint Elmo Continued
Saint Elmo (Saint Erasmus). Detail of the work in progress.

Have been much occupied with various works, so this post is a quick one. I really try to make posts thoughtful and not too narcissistic--tough when the blog is primarily a record of one's own work and influences--but there's too much going on for that right now.

Continuing to layer the pen and ink, and soon to be painting. Since I've managed to put quite a few irons into my fire, everything is progressing slowly--but steadily!
In the case of Saint Elmo, the time spent on prelims has paid off (as it always does) and I'm very happy with  the overall composition and the face so far. 

Saint Elmo (detail of wip) Tom Sarmo

His appearance has evolved much since the initial explorations and since I'm in no way a portrait artist, that happens all the time. Plus, the initial pencil drawing looked a bit too Nordic to suit me. His face will change even more as I add more ink and move onto the paint.

Thanks for checking out the progress!

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

I can't learn to play an instrument. Years of piano lessons didn't take. Same with the guitar. It kills me.

I've always believed that drawing--making art--is a skill that can be learned. It's about repetition, practice, persistence, right? That belief comes from the difficulty I had learning to draw. Making art didn't--and often still doesn't--come easily for me. 
As a kid, my desire to bring the vivid images in my head out onto the paper led to much frustration, especially when it seemed many of my peers simply held their pencil to paper and amazing drawings leaked right out. Compared to them, I stunk. 

I used to tell my students "It's no different than playing the tuba. You get better when you practice--even the boring stuff, like scales. Your drawings too, will get better when you do a lot of them." Well that's sort of true and sort of not true. Unfortunately, it's all about comparisons.

I've heard "I can't draw" from at least one person in every beginners workshop I've taught, and it has troubled me for a long time. 
I finally realized what those words really mean this morning, after a dream I had last night: 
I was in some orchestra class, trying to play the clarinet. The teacher told me to "just flex your hands and let the music come out of your instrument." My clarinet suddenly became very heavy, and my hands felt like a couple of lead slabs. The unfortunate sounds that came out of that clarinet were not the beautiful notes played by Chloe Feoranzo or Pete Fountain. 
So what then, do those words really mean?

They mean "I can't draw/play as well as ___________. "

Fill in the blank. The minute a comparison sneaks in, damage gets done. I can look at the sketch above and know it's not perfect. So what? But it'd start to bug me if my brain put another artist's name I admire into the equation. These days I've figured out how to stop that next thought before it happens, and I'm a happier man.

But I can't learn to play an instrument.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Scary Travels
 The puzzle of art and creativity has been a constant companion. I wrestle with these questions almost daily: Why do I do this; what's the purpose; what's my objective, what does this drawing mean; what's my problem
I'm not gonna lie--sometimes it's a tormented struggle. But it can be a pleasant and amusing learning experience as well. Often the difference between making it wrenching or enjoyable is my own prerogative. And while the necessity to draw or paint has never been my choice, I usually can decide whether or not the experience is a tortured activity, or one of peaceful contentment.
The poet Pablo Neruda wrote: "All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are." For any person, this requires creation and creativity, and for most of us, it can be a fearful road. Sometimes it's scary because we just don't want to appear narcissistic. More often, the process of revealing what we are stabs us with fear--we imagine ostracism or ridicule if anyone finds out the truth. Worse, we wade into a hoped-for intimacy, and we perceive a total lack of interest from others--we find we don't matter to them at all.
I can discuss process and technique easily, but I squirm when asked to verbally examine and explain the true inner wellsprings that feed my art. In truth, it's because I don't want words to convey the ideas present in the images I make--the viewer should imagine his or her own meaning.
I know that for some, talking about the image is as important as the final artwork. That's just not me. And I often find this blog an uncomfortable exercise because of that.

Keep to the Path, No Matter What. Mixed media on paper.

But the bottom line: My art is what I am, at the time that I make it. And, no different than anyone else, I want to convey that to others. Creating while not caring what others might think about my art/me is a challenge. Continuing to create after realizing that most people could not care less what I am or do is another. But I'm probably not alone on that path--there's comfort in that I guess.
Thanks for reading--I do appreciate it.
...and Happy 2014!

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