Note: I originally sent this to my newsletter list and it got a very strong response. Several people requested that I post it to the blog so that they could share it, so here it is! If you’d like to sign up to my newsletter list, you can do so by clicking here.
During my time studying in France, I learned a lot of important things. One of the most important things was that there’s no magic bullet: at the end of the day you must put your bum in your chair and practice. And practice again and again and again.
A promotional email showed up in my inbox the other day, with the subject line “The trick that changed my painting.”
It’s so easy to believe that there are “tricks” to learn; that there is a formula with which you can make beautiful art.
The thing about beautiful art is that it’s the exact opposite of a formula. Of course there are principles, theories and qualities that you value and that can be learned, but those things are fluid, constantly being tested and tried. They are not set in stone.
Formulas are set in stone.
Drawing on the qualities you care about
I posted an image of this drawing-in-progress a few weeks ago.
I’ve erased almost the entire thing since then.
Some would call it perfectionism. But I didn’t erase it because I was unhappy that it wasn’t “perfect” (whatever that means). I erased it to remind myself of an important lesson.
I started this drawing without getting to know it.
Every figure drawing I do, I spend some time getting to know the pose, the gesture, the form. We have a bit of a conversation first. This grounds me in the truth of what’s happening up on the model stand, or in the painting that I’m copying. It grounds me in the truth of what I want to represent in my drawing.
Except with this drawing, I didn’t do that. I just jumped in, excited about colours and pretty, swirly fabric.
Which is totally fine! Those were the reasons that compelled me to start the drawing in the first place.
But that wasn’t the visual truth that I wanted to depict. The forces that make the fabric swirl run so much deeper than the fabric – the fabric is a symptom.
I wanted to draw its core, its truth, its force of movement.
I didn’t dig deeper. I didn’t investigate, ask questions, dive into the visual challenge and grapple with whatever I found there.
I made a pretty drawing that didn’t evoke what I wanted it to evoke. (I also misplaced her head several inches too far to the left.)
What does this have to do with tricks and magic bullets?
No “trick” would have delivered me to the drawing that I truly wanted to create.
Tricks are cheap. Superficial. Shallow.
Some people mistakenly think that because my work is representational and “like a photograph”, that perfect, mindless reproduction of the world around me is my goal. That drawing in a “realistic” way is all about cheap tricks. (“200 ways to make your art look more realistic!” Gah.)
That couldn’t be farther from the truth.
My personal inspiration is the beauty of the world around us, and my art is my way of investigating how that world is put together. It is put together is such a marvellous fashion that it constantly astounds me and teaches me.
The energy flowing through your body – I can see how it moves through you when you move. I can see how your DNA puts your face together in a totally unique way. Did you know that you have your own particular rhythm of growth? That, like the oft-talked-of snowflake, every part of the way you’re formed, down to the exact design of your fingernails and knuckle wrinkles, is formed and dictated by that particular rhythm?
No “trick” will get you to that place. There is no magic bullet that will help you to see that.
“The true work of art continues to unfold and create within the personality of the spectator. It is a continuous coming into being.” – Mervyn Levy
Only by showing up, and paying attention will you find what you’re looking for. Not just looking and copying, but seeing and understanding.
It is always about coming to a deeper understanding of your subject matter, of your vision – both the literal vision in front of you and the vision of what you want to create in your head.
There are a thousand truths in everything I see. I select the truths that I want to portray. I might make you think that it’s “exactly like real life, exactly like a photo” – but that just means that the truth I want you to see is deeply infused in the work itself.
Every piece of work I make is a story with a bit of the truth wrapped up inside it. And every piece of that truth is intentionally, mindfully place there.
Magic bullets and quick solutions sell us short as creators, wherever we find them, whether it’s in painting or writing or composing. The beauty of art is often found in the solutions that we stumble upon ourselves.
To believe that someone can hand us the secret leaves us both powerless and missing out on the richness that we can discover in ourselves over the course of creating a piece of art.
Throw out your magic bullets. Get messy instead. That’s where the real magic is.