I’m sitting at my desk, pencil in hand and open sketchbook in front of me. My two erasers and metal pencil sharpener rest on the table next to my left hand. Everything is set, but my paper is blank.
When I finally find the power to put pencil to page, I can only sketch a copy of a photo. I’m proud of how realistic it turns out, but it’s not original. It isn’t mine.
I really struggle with my visual artwork. I want to create art that matters, but I have a hard time connecting my technical skills with things that I think are important, artistically or conceptually. So I end up creating nothing. I don’t want to paint pretty pictures. I want to be a thoughtful artist like Rothko, Cezanne, or Mondrian.
Sure, their modern art can be hard to understand. Rothko only paints his massive canvases two colors. Cezanne’s perspective is unrealistic. Mondrian just paints straight black lines and fills in the spaces with red, yellow, and blue (always red, yellow, and blue).
People often say “I could do that” or “My three-year-old could paint like that” when referring to modern art. My response is always: “But would you think to do it?”
I say it with confidence in the thought that went in to the art, but I also say it with some bitterness because I wouldn’t think to do that. And why not?
But I have had a breakthrough.
I just finished reading Will Gompertz’s book, What are you looking at?: The Surprising, Shocking, and Sometimes Strange Story of 150 Years of Modern Art.
As promised on the inside sleeve, Gompertz completely changed the way I look at modern art. Before I read the book, I didn’t understand or enjoy modern art. Now I appreciate — even love — it. For that alone, the book is wonderful.
Still, reading Gompertz’s analyses of different pieces was intimidating to me as an artist. The same doubts that haunt my empty sketchbook popped into my head as I read — How did they come up with these ideas? How will I ever think of something so thought provoking?
Then I noticed the structure of Gompertz’s story. Each unique movement flowed seamlessly into the next. It wasn’t just his style, though, it was the reality of the story. Every ground breaking artist for the last 150 years reacted to or pulled from his predecessors and contemporaries.
And that is the most important lesson I learned from the book: successful artists build on others. What I had somehow understood in my defense of modern art was true. Creative concepts take work.
Personally, I had been sitting in front of an empty sketchbook, waiting for some stroke of creative genius to hit me. But for any chance at success, I have to pursue it.
Creative ideas are not just gifted to people. Everyone has to work for them one way or another. Research. Copy. Immerse.
What reading and writing about art has already done for me is amazing. Before I read What are you looking at? I didn’t see myself as a visual artist anymore. Now I’m thinking about my own art, daydreaming about throwing pots, and jotting print concepts on my whiteboard.
William Zinsser said of writing: “Living is the trick… Learning is a tonic.”1 I think that is true for every art form. I’ve learned to immerse myself in the world in which I want to find inspiration. Go to galleries and museums, read books and articles, study what past artists have done, and follow what contemporary artists are doing. Living and learning.
And, like Monet, Picasso, and Duchamp, learning includes thinking carefully about and reacting to the artists I admire. Why do I like what they create? Where did they find their ideas? What processes did they follow in conception and creation? What problems did they face that I might be able to solve?
I’ll follow in their footsteps, and I’m sure, somewhere along the way, something will catch.
What inspires you? Do creative ideas strike you when you’re trying to think of them or have you had to study others?
1 William Zinsser, On Writing Well, p. 245.