5 Vital Lessons for Artists

October 9
5 Vital Lessons for Artists - this is your heart.

The art department was always full of life, even when it was empty. It was one of my favorite spots on Concordia’s campus: bright rooms, organized mess and laughter mingled with creative silence.

Going there to work was like going to meditate. Hours flew by when I had time to spend.

And everyone was welcome in the art program. Unlike some of the other departments, there was no stereotypical art student at Concordia. Sure there were those who you’d think would be stereotypical: quiet, brooding with earbuds in and hoods pulled up. But there were also athletes in packs of friends and academics taking breaks from the heavy mental lifting.

I was the academic. So, yes, my art classes were a relief for me. They gave me time away from books, papers and pressure.

Of course my art classes were also great for developing my technical skills, and I was forced to show up every day  — always helpful when beginning as an artist.

But my art education was lacking in a couple of areas: conceptual ideas and practical applications.

Besides our three required art history courses, I didn’t learn about art history. Even worse, I didn’t learn about a single contemporary artist, and I didn’t know that I should have learned about as many as possible. I also left without any idea of how to make art a career. The only option I saw was going into an art-related career — art history, museum studies, maybe academia.

Because of my lacking education, I am restarting. This time, I’ll do it right. So here you go — five big lessons artists need to learn and practice and absorb:

1. Artists throughout history have lessons to teach, and are worth carefully studying. Read about as many artists as you can. As you’re learning to draw, study sketches of artists from the Renaissance to Modern — discover how artists use drawing as preliminary work and as a finished piece. When you practice painting, read about Michelangelo, Monet and Mondrian. Study their work and try imitating their techniques.

2. Creativity takes work. Spend equal time learning about an artist’s concept, planning and technique, paying special attention to how each artist arrived at his final product. Study the process — like this ArtNews article does of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks. Artists need to learn that a masterpiece isn’t conceived out of nothing. Deep thought and extensive planning go into subject matter, composition and color.

3. Artists build on each other’s work and react. As you study art history, notice the flow from movement to movement, — how each artist built and worked off of his predecessors. Will Gompertz’s book What are you looking at? really highlights this flow, but even a cursory look at how art changed from Medieval to Renaissance to Mannerism to Baroque and on shows the evolution.

4. The creative process of building and reacting hasn’t changed: artists need to pay attention to what their contemporaries are creating. Study contemporary artists. What are they doing now and why are they doing it? How can you react to or build on their work? Even if you do something completely different, you’ll be able to say why.

5. Being a professional artist requires business skills. I think in school a whole semester or year long class needs to be dedicated to art as a profession. Artists need to understand how to price and sell their work and how to find galleries and exhibitions to participate in. They need to learn about rights, copyrights, portfolio compilation, website design and personal marketing. No artist can make a living without those skills.

These are the lessons — big, broad, far-reaching lessons — I wish I would have started learning in school. They can’t be fully learned overnight, probably not even in four years, but they need to be learned and absorbed over time. Now is the time to start.

What was your experience in art education? What other lessons do you think artists need to learn?

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1 Comment

  • Reply Beth Foreman October 14 at 6:19 am

    My formal art education was just about nil except for grade school “picture lady,” which was actually a good introduction to the masters. But in high school and college, I didn’t take the opportunity, if it was there, to study visual art or even music like I did literature. Seems that the educational system focused on the printed word more than the rest? Or maybe that was just my experience. Anyway, I’m not a visual artist, but you’ve identified key lessons for any artist, writers included. Hmmm…. I feel a blog post of my own coming together! Thanks for sharing.

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