Friday, 27 March 2009

Creative Life

Elle Coyote's recent posts on Deliberate Practice and Talent is Overrated have put me in a contemplative mood about what I am doing, or attempting to do, in this blog, and in the rest of my life. I left my comments there and hope they didn't sound condescending, because I want to continue them here. I have had the extreme good fortune to be granted the circumstances to earn my living from a creative life, and feel always the desire to share that enjoyment. That desire has led to years of practice and some teaching, plus a lifetime of deep appreciation for the creativity of others, which makes me perhaps unreasonably fearless in my opinions.

Talent is overrated. To me, that is a tremendously liberating and encouraging concept. Anyone can cook, as the chef said to the rat, indeed! But one must want to cook enough to overcome obstacles life sets up, and enjoy doing it enough to practice it at every opportunity for years. Practice, not talent, is the only indicator of success. And I think this applies in every field of human activity. The best barristers are those who breathe and dream and debate the law, the best athletes those who set themselves a challenge and do not rest until they have accomplished it.

I began drawing at the age of ten, and it made me different from the other children I knew, enough to feel I had carved out a space for myself, a domain under my own control, where I imagined I had talent. It was all the impetus I needed to apply myself to drawing every day, out of uncritical pleasure and no little measure of self-delusion. But with practice I became better. And others began to notice, too. The practice came long before anyone said I had talent. I might not have continued without that attention (such a needy child!) but I was proud of my skill and wanted to spend every waking minute improving it. I drifted through my lessons, paying scant attention to anyone trying to teach me anything, including my drawing tutors, because I was busy experimenting and trying new things on my own, and always working at drawing. The only thing I loved as much was reading.

In my case, the love of learning and doing overcame the pleasure of finishing, so my accomplishments were personal and inwardly directed. My art was no one else's business, and I never took my career seriously. As a result I drifted to other things and for a long time lost touch with my creative life. It is a habit that must be nurtured, even after it is mastered. Ultimately, I fell into representing artists and managing other's careers, out of love and a need to feel useful.

Now I am at a new stage in my career, confident that if I chose to, I could very easily resurrect those drawing and painting habits, and make up for the time I have lost. Indeed I know the business inside out, what galleries and collectors need and desire from their artists, how the bubbling ecosystem of museum and curator and critic and publisher and auction house thrives, the usefulness of advertising and public relations and cash flow. I know so much that the fun has quite gone along with the possibility of failure and the desire to take risks.

I think that is why I am now writing instead of drawing. I always wrote self-consciously, fearfully even, and fitfully. I know I am not very good. I certainly do not have talent. Every page fills me with self-loathing and doubt. The possibility of failure or worse, mediocrity, is real and yet, thrilling. It makes me fearless. I want to try everything: make all the mistakes and shortcuts that gets one lost in the woods. I am determined to be proud of those rough edges, shameless for the artless mistakes, and so I am not hiding my first drafts, but posting them for you who are foolish enough to read them. But I also look forward to the necessary improvement that will come from writing every day, that after even so short a time I am beginning to feel. The process is fascinating, cathartic, human and divine at the same time.

I try to apply the lessons I taught my own students who struggled to capture a likeness. Work on the big shapes first, ignore the details. Stay loose and gestural, never erase your mistakes. Don't worry about what the first or second or tenth drawing looks like, because no one will see it. But give every drawing all of your attention and think about what you are doing. Set yourself a goal: a drawing every day, or twenty sketchbooks a year. Copy the work of great artists, draw the shoes and crumpled paper and people around you, block your ears to the critics you live with (including the ones that live in your head) and never stop working for anything, including natural disasters and personal loss. Ben Shahn wrote in the Education of an Artist, "draw and draw and paint and read, there is no content of knowledge that is not pertinent to the work you will want to do."


Osprey said...

Am happy to be here while you whack at the underbrush in this uncharted land.

Enjah Mysterio said...

Your writing is distinctive, a great pleasure to read and exciting in its meanderings.

Your comments were apt, and I agree wholeheartedly: those trends in art instruction in the US were profoundly destructive.