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5 Ways to Develop as an Artist

Get back to the spirit of artists in Paris, try these ways to develop your style


Painting by Jerry Fresia.

"The way to make art is to move in the direction of the greatest pleasure and excitement. "

Photo © Jerry Fresia. Used with Permission.

In 1904 in Pennsylvania, Mary Cassatt refused an award and in so doing reminded her audience of the spirit that gripped Paris during what might be described as a golden age of painting:

    "I... must stick to my principles, our principles, which were, no jury, no medals, no awards.... Liberty is the first good in this world and to escape the tyranny of a jury is worth fighting for, surely no profession is so enslaved as ours."
Robert Henri, an American artist who also studied in Paris and who was a cousin of Cassatt, helps to fill out this sense of freedom. "Forget about the exhibitions and the juries," he urged. "Think less of the success of the by-product and you will have more success with it. Keep living."

Notice how in Henri’s mind even "exhibitions" and "successful" painting might confront us as tyrannies. But how? If we are free from tyrannical juries and exhibitions, what are we free to do? Henri is wonderfully lucid in this. Certainly not the freedom to make "pictures… however, unreasonable that sounds." Making pictures is what you do when you submit to juries. Rather the purpose of the free painter was to reach a "state of being" or "more than an ordinary moment of existence." Or to put it in other words: growth is the entire payoff.

Notice the reversal of the relationship of the painter to the painting. If we organize our abilities to make a successful painting, that is, a painting that intends to please a juror for example, we are making pictures and we are instruments in a production process.

If on the other hand we treat the marks on the canvas as "a by-product," the painting becomes an instrument (not the end) in finding moments that are more than ordinary. That the painting activity is an instrument in our becoming and that our becoming is the goal and not the making of a product for which we earn an award (read: career). This is a theme that runs right through the latter half of 19th century Paris, from Corot to Monet on through to Cezanne, Matisse, and Picasso.

5 Ways to Grow as an Artist

So how would a Cassatt or a Henri or Picasso approach painting differently than we do today? How might this heartfelt fear of others controlling our painting process impact our self-understanding as artists? Here are five possible answers:

1. Making a successful picture is not the goal. Think of periods, such as childhood, when we grew, our self-understanding changed and we became more of who we are. There was an endless stream of events where we expressed ourselves and slowly began to discover the things that pleased us. As with the sense of freedom characterized above, the entire payoff was growth. The events of life when we grow are the things that happen along the way. Making art should be exactly the same. Paintings are just the series of events or steps we take. Let them go. Keep moving. Or as Henri implored, “Keep living.”

2. The painting process is always a beginning. As soon as the freshness evaporates (we are bored or lost or acquire interest in something else), stop. Do not think in terms of finishing. Picasso lectures eloquently on this. Finish is the death of our work because it means we are painting an expectation or “to be like” and that puts the brakes on painting to see and feel more deeply. Every beginning is a new prompt, a new point of departure. Begin everything. Finish nothing.

3. Ignore non-artist authorities. Juries, the grantors, the gallery, the direction from above are just so many fingers in our pie. All external measures are dangerous because they not only push us to performing, as opposed to creating, but their sense of worth takes over our own. This is precisely what Parisian artists fought against.

4. Get into a prolonged creative process. Have dozens of paintings in your studio that have been abandoned for one reason or another, left in various stages, unfinished but always complete as expressions of who you were at that moment. Work on several paintings simultaneously. You are not making shoes.

5. Furnish the world with your beauty, let the world see, touch and feel who you are. Scary I know. It is so much easier to hide within safe fortresses, the sources of praise and dignity that we can count on by pleasing our audience. This is the dreaded condition called style. We cannot be free to be who we are if we are not always risking being who we are in front of others.

What about the career, you ask? The painters of Paris were incredibly ambitious but their big career move, as it turned out, was biting the hand that fed them. Career yes, but freedom to become is holy ground. No Faustian deals, please. Therefore, we may put an entrepreneurial hat on once we put down the brush, but never when it limits our becoming. The assembly line to the great gallery opening is every artist’s kiss of death.

The life of Franz Schubert may suggest a model. He was so into the process of creating music that each of his new efforts was but an opportunity for little Franzel to become more Schubert. So, he would compose the work, let it go and move on. His students would then find the work, practice it and perform it for him afterwards, whereupon Schubert is reported to have said, “My, that is lovely. Who wrote it?”

This is the way to make art. Move in the direction of the greatest pleasure and excitement. You are gifted. Risk showing us your gift. Where others are drowning, you will be diving. And it is when you cannot be bothered with product, you will look about the studio and find a few pieces that have a life. Your life. And so you gather them up and market them. And then after 30 years of painting, you will have had a career and the “later” you will have emerged. You will have grown. And you will have been an artist.

Ah, those Parisians. They had a way.

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