A number of years ago I was in a bookstore browsing art books as usual. In one book talking about the ‘business of art’. In the book, the author wrote that if you find something you like to paint and you also find it sells, then you ought to paint more of that thing. For instance, the author said, if you paint cats and people like and buy those paintings of cats and buy those cat paintings, then paint more cats! And more cats! (This was the late-90s, by the way, and the internet had yet to be taken over by felines.) At the time, I thought that sounded a whole lot like selling out. Why would I want to paint the same thing over and over and over again? BOOOOORING.
I remember once I even tried to make a few ‘similar’ paintings because an idea had proven popular. My interest fizzled almost immediately though due to the fact that the subsequent images had no heart. They weren’t birthed from an inner drive or a need to create something or reflective of some sort of personal process or vision. They were just… boring.
Over the years, though, I’ve come back to that idea a few times: that, as an artist, you find something you like to paint and you stick with it. It’s just a question of what that ‘thing’ is.
You see, I think all artists ultimately paint the same thing over and over. It takes different forms, different modes, different colors and shapes – but it always comes back to an idea – a way of seeing – a way of feeling all of that and a way of speaking – of saying something that, hopefully, adds something to the chorus.
And so back to the what we paint. I found that, for myself, there is this thing that I love to dance with – this energy – this place where there’s no going to or coming away from – a dissolution – and it’s that which is the core of all my artwork. And I’ll be the first to admit: I paint the same thing over and over and over again. It is always another facet of the same jewel. Over and over and over again. I look at the world through this facet or this facet or this facet and it all becomes illuminated and I can see all the shadows, the edges, all the light and it’s that which I paint.
In hindsight, while my youthful desire to say “screw that book and screw painting kittens” dominated at the time… I ended up doing exactly as suggested. Over and over and over. The key of course is finding something worthwhile to paint – something underneath the surface subject matter – and making certain that the thread you follow – that creative impulse – that it’s worth following.
If you do that, then the form of your work can keep changing and all that is expected of you, as an artist, is authenticity: that you bring your best creative self to the easel and the work you make sings.
And, ultimately, that’s what that guy who wrote that book meant. If kittens are your god, then paint kittens! And paint them really really well. Understand them. Live them. Breathe them. Know them. But if a ‘desire to understand myself through art’ is the driving passion then there’s no form you are beholden to.
If it’s just being, or light, or the expression of the human spirit – it can take any shape it wants.
It’s a matter of how far can you take something. How deep can it go? DOES it even go? I mean, if you’ve chosen to be an artist, then making art is something that you are liable to be doing for the rest of your life. So find something rewarding – make something that you really love. See – it’s not that you will be painting the same thing all your life – that’s silly talk! – but it will be the same thread of an idea – another facet of the same vision. A weaving exploration of how you see and experience the world
Sure, you’ll change it up. You’ll reinvent it. You’ll use new colors, introduce new ideas, and things will morph and grow. But it still arises from this being we refer to as ‘you’ and you refer to as ‘I’. So facets will remain – your brushwork, the colors you feel an affinity towards, and so on. But your vision will shift – it might deepen, widen, grow. But it’s still you. And you are still making art. And when you look back over your years of work you will see a continuity – a clear progression – a clear voice, regardless of the forms it has taken. If you can cut through the chaff to that voice, that golden note that is all your own in the choir of humanity – then I think you are doing your job properly.
The only necessity is that it sings clearly. Then you are liable to make things of great beauty. And in whatever shape or form it takes, there is nothing wrong with adding more beauty to the world.
And that is a little of what the work is all about.