Art Myths

ART MYTHS: a myth is an invented story, idea, or concept. Unfortunately many myths are accepted as reality or truth, and thus have a negative impact on our actions. I present a few of these myths here

1. Creativity is an inborn gift, and only a few possess it.

To begin to examine this myth, let us define a few terms:

Create:  To cause something to come into being as the result of one’s own thought or imagination.

Creativity: The process by which one utilizes creative ability.

Creative: Having the quality or power to create. Exhibiting originality of thought.

Originality: Ability to think or express oneself in an independent and individual manner.

Imagination: The faculty of forming mental images or concepts of what is not actually present to the senses.

REALITY : To be creative, one must have the power to create (cause something to come into being), and this is a power that all humans possess. Yes, creativity is an inborn gift, a gift that we, as human beings, have all been given.

Notice also that there is no mention of coming up with something completely new, something that has never been seen before.

 2. Creation always involves the invention of something new.

The belief in this myth can bring on a form of creative paralysis, because the invention of something totally new is virtually impossible.

REALITY : There is nothing that springs from nothing. Our ideas come from what we have seen, what we have experienced, what we have read, what we have heard, people we have known, places we have been, art we have seen, music we have enjoyed. We take these ideas and make them our own, interpret them in our own way, but the initial inspiration comes from somewhere outside ourselves. Part of being creative is being observant and gathering those ideas and images that resonate with us.  I am drawn to the horizon line, how it functions in a composition and it’s metaphorical possibilities. I am surely not the first artist to use the horizon in my work.  I didn’t discover the horizon.  The fact that George Morrison did horizon based paintings that I admire greatly does not mean that when I create a composition that uses horizontal lines I am copying his work.

3. If you are a really good painter, a painting will flow effortlessly from beginning to end.

The most damaging word in this myth is “effortlessly”, as it conjures up completely unrealistic expectations.  An artist who is good makes it look easy because all you, as the viewer, see is the end result.  The reality is that each painting  is a unique struggle/journey.

Those who work puzzles….crossword, Sudoku, Kakuro, etc…do so because they enjoy the challenge.  They know it will be difficult, but experience has taught them that if they keep at it, if they apply the process they have developed for solving the problem, they will be successful.  It might take an hour.  It might take a week, but they are confident that they will prevail in the end.  And the sense of accomplishment upon solving the problem is enhanced by how difficult the struggle was.

The sooner you accept the fact that you will encounter problems on your art-making journey, the sooner you can be successful as an artist. The key is to get to the point where you enjoy the challenge of the struggle…recognize and accept that there will be a struggle each and every time, in one form or another.  Expect it, and have the self-confidence to know that you will be able to win in the end.

Making art is, in many ways, a process of solving problems. The very definition of a problem is “a matter involving doubt,uncertainty, or difficulty.”, and problem solving implies struggle. That you have this struggle when making art does not mean you are not a good artist….it means that you are an artist.

And the accompanying Myth:

4. Once I become established as an artist I won’t suffer from all these insecurities. Good artists aren’t plagued by doubts and fears.

It is completely unrealistic to expect a continuous flow of success..  There will be failures, there will be times you feel like a loser, there will be times when you feel like you have no clue what you are doing.  This is normal and happens to all artists, on all levels.  Don’t expect anything different.

A sub-myth being that everything you complete will be good. (now that you’re an established artist)

No, it won’t.

5. There are “Art Rules” which you must understand before you can make good art.

First of all, there aren’t actually any art “rules”.  Show me a rule, and I’ll show you a successful artist who has broken it.

There are, however, art concepts, elements, principles, and skills as well as standard uses and techniques for various materials.  It is possible to make good art without having familiarity with any of these ideas, but your journey will be much smoother if you have a basic understanding of them. Yes, with enough time and effort you could probably figure them all out on your own and determine which apply to your chosen  form of expression, but there are endless resources available for acquiring this information…..books, videos, classes, workshops, other artists.

The thing is, you can’t let the fact that you don’t know the “rules” or that you don’t have a complete grasp of all the art skills/principles/techniques keep you from going ahead and expressing yourself.  What will happen is that as you work, you will encounter problems (see #3 above), and as you work to solve these problems, you will naturally seek out this information.

Just do the work.  The rest will follow.

6. It is a good idea to work frequently and regularly with other artists…you draw energy from one another.

Well, sometimes. But as a general rule, you should dismiss this myth for what it is.

Making art is, by its very nature, a solitary, basically anti-social activity.  Your best work is done when you are able to be in “ArtBrain” mode, often referred to as being in the “Zone”. This is similar to meditating, in that your total focus is on what you are doing.  This can’t be accomplished when someone is talking about a recent trip to Mexico.  This can’t be done when you are concerned about comparing what you are doing with the person working next to you.  It’s hard to focus when someone is continually asking you to critique their work or asks your advice about what they should do next.

It is enjoyable to be sociable and get together to make art (particularly if lunch and wine are part of the event), but in the grand plan of truly developing your own work ,too much of this can become still another way to avoid doing the hard work.  If you have limited time to do your work, you would be ahead of the game to spend more time working on your own, and less time working with others.

And when you do work with others, see that time for what it is…… pleasant time spent with you friends and fellowlovers of making art.


7.  If I do not have a fully formed idea I cannot begin.

“The advice I like to give young artists, or really anybody who’ll listen to me, is not to wait around for inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself. Things occur to you. If you’re sitting around trying to dream up a great art idea, you can sit there a long time before anything happens. But if you just get to work, something will occur to you and something else will occur to you and something else that you reject will push you in another direction. Inspiration is absolutely unnecessary and somehow deceptive. You feel like you need this great idea before you can get down to work, and I find that’s almost never the case.” 

― Chuck Close

8. One’s intent must be lofty in order to produce a good result.

More to come on the topic of INTENT, but for the moment, let me just say that this is a particularly self-defeating myth.

9. The more materials you have on hand, the better your work will be. 

A parallel to this myth is The more techniques you master, the better your work will be.

This theory behind this myth does make some sense.  You need to have the materials you need to express your idea, and that involves more than just paint and brushes for a painter. It is helpful to know more than one way to create the illusion of texture on a canvas. Having the full ranges of choices would seem to give the artist complete artistic freedom.

There is a danger, however,  that the acquisition of materials and techniques become substitutes for actually making art.  It is easy to trick yourself into thinking that this quest to gather resources is a first and necessary step to achieving the goal of making better art.

The reality is that there is almost a paralyzing effect of having too many choices. Each step in the process becomes a “stopping to make a decision” point.  And the more choices you must consider as you make these decisions, the more you tend to worry that you may be making the wrong choice, and the more the “flow” of the work session is interrupted.

Add to this the fact that the implementation each of those mediums has a physical presence, which requires storage space.

And add to that the tendency we all have to feel guilty about not optimizing the investment we have made in time and materials.  (I bought all these gold-leafing supplies, so I really should use them.) This factor often leads to the creation of a piece that has a disjointed, almost frantic feeling as a result of trying too hard to include too much, to demonstrate too many skills.

So does this mean that I shouldn’t learn new techniques? Try new materials? Does this mean that I am destined to be a substandard artist because I am an art materials junkie and can’t resist acquiring that beautifully packaged set of metallic powders? Does this mean I shouldn’t take a workshop that deals with techniques that fall outside of my own  established way of working?   Of course not.  Just be careful not to fall into the trap of thinking that you can’t begin to focus on developing, refining, and improving your work until you have considered every option that exists.  (You will never get to that point.)

REALITY: It is fun to collect materials and techniques, but it is not necessary in order to Make Better Art.  You can do it with a sheet of paper and a pencil.

You can do anything, but you can’t do everything”    David Allen

“It does not take much strength to do things, but it requires a great deal of strength to decide what to do”    Elbert Hubbard

And another related myth:

10. The better your studio, the better your work will be.

There are good artists with lousy (or non-existent) studio facilities.  The are lousy artists  with Architectural Digest-worthy studios. And there is the real danger here as well that the pursuit of the ideal studio set-up can become the primary goal, usurping the time you have to actually make art.

A case can be made that if you have clear working surfaces, a place to safely store your materials, breathable air, decent lighting and good enough heating so you don’t have to wear mittens while you work, you will be better able to focus on making your art.  But none of this is absolutely necessary.  You can make art while sitting at your kitchen table or on a park bench. If your goal is to make lot of art so that you will grow to make better art, then you need to just do it in whatever venue you have available.  If you have a beautiful studio, fantastic.  If not, get over it and just carry on.

11. The concept of the “Scattered Genius”.

A real artist is wild and free and just goes with the flow, not worrying about issues like structure/organization of life, studio space, or time. Conventional concerns such as these are blocks to the creative process.

This is an idea that is based on movies and novels…..that the true artist lives his life beyond convention, that there is no plan, no structure….the art just flows in an endless stream of creative genius.  How glamorous, how romantic.  But buying into this myth is a recipe for disaster, as it leads to the expectation that minimal effort can produce dramatic results.  Any successful artist puts in the hours. And any successful artist has established a process he follows to produce his work, no matter what his publicist wants you to believe. There is no such thing as a free ride.  To doubt your validity as an artist because you are not a free-wheeling, unconventional character is a mistake.  It is critical to establish an approach, a process, that works for you, that allows you to create the work you want to create with the minimum of stress.  Do thumbnail value  studies. Alphabetize your colored pencils. Pour liquid color over your paper. Mix all your paints before you start to paint….whatever works for you, whether it is precise and controlled or wild and loose.

Another self-defeating aspect of this myth is to expect that your natural abilities are enough to carry you through. This quote by Sidney Harris says it all: “Self-discipline without talent can often achieve astounding results, whereas talent without self-discipline inevitably dooms itself to failure.”

12. The test of whether your art is good or not is whether it sells.

The selling of art is a slippery slope. We have all seen art that we consider to be substandard sell like hotcakes. We have all seen art (including our own) that no one seems to be interested in buying.

Why does someone buy a piece of art?

1. Because it speaks to them (they just like it)

2. Because it matches their couch.

3. Because it reminds them of something positive in their own life.

4. Because they feel obligated to do so. (Your Mom, for example)

5. To resell it/ as an investment.

6. As a gift.

7. As inspiration for making their own art.

Conversely, why does someone NOT buy a piece of art?

1. Because they never see it in the first place.*

2. Because it costs too much.

3. Because they don’t like it.

4. Because their walls are full.

5. Because it doesn’t match their couch.

6. Because it brings up negative memories or experiences.

7. Because they are flying home on a plane and aren’t willing to pay shipping costs.

8. Because they don’t like the frame.

9. Because they are insecure about their own taste in art.

You will notice that none of these reasons, either pro or con, touches on the inherent “goodness” or quality of the art itself *.

* The only thing over which you have control.

A parallel to this myth is the idea that The test of whether you art is good or not is whether it gets accepted  into a show.   I’ll let you draw up your own list of why a particular piece is not accepted in a show.  And when you have done that, explain why a painting can be rejected in one show and then be accepted and win an award in another. (A not uncommon occurrence)

13. The goal of a good artist is to make art that has universal appeal.

Even a brief consideration of this idea tells you that this is far from true.  It is in fact completely impossible.The person who loves Les Kouba’s paintings is not likely to love Mark Rothko’s abstract expressionist color field paintings, but that doesn’t take away from the success of either artist.  So should you aim to appeal to 50% of the population? 25%? 1%?

And if one piece is beloved by that 1%, is there any guarantee that your next piece will be equally as appealing to them? No, of course not. This illustrates the futility of painting primarily for the approval of others.  You have to paint to please yourself, which will give your work authenticity, and in doing so you will find your audience.  If you love the work that you make, there will be others who love it too . Win-Win.

6 responses to “Art Myths

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