Getting back to what it was all about

Studio View

I had lunch with one of my artist friends yesterday, and I realized after talking to her that I need to shift my thinking towards my art. I’ve been in denial about this, but I am finally letting myself confront the hard fact that over the past few months, my studio practice has become distressingly unpleasant. Lately it feels like I’ve have to focus all of my energy on everything but the art: meeting deadlines, exhibition logistics, making professional connections, publicity, etc. It’s gotten to the point where I’m distracted by so many external responsibilities that I don’t even enjoy the art making process. I’ve let the tasks outside of the studio ruin the experience of creating.

My friend said that another artist she knew recently did a solo exhibition that turned out to be a highly taxing experience. She said that this artist poured in months of work in the studio, had to make a huge financial investment to frame the work, and did substantial marketing and publicity.  In the end, the artist said that it was extremely demoralizing to have dedicated such an immense amount of time and money into an endeavor that basically didn’t garner any concrete results. Other than being another line on her resume, her career didn’t make any noticeable progress, and none of the money she invested into the exhibition came back in the form of sales.  I know from experience that unfortunately, this is a very common experience for many working artists.

If there’s no financial return, and no visible career advancement, what is left? Do we just have to keep treading water so we don’t disappear?  My artist friend said that ultimately, you have to be able to derive your own joy and satisfaction from the experience of making the art.  Otherwise, you’ll just be bleeding time and money, which frequently leads to bitterness and resentment.

That’s what I want back, that feeling of being so completely immersed in the art making process that it feels like nothing else in the world matters. I want to have studio sessions where I forget to be hungry and focus exclusively on the moment I’m in.  I had a professor who used to say “if you’re not having fun, you’re doing something wrong.” I still don’t know what my next project will be, but whatever it is, I want to enjoy myself again.

Ask the Art Professor: How Do You Begin to Think Conceptually as a Visual Artist?

“Ask the Art Professor” is an advice column for visual artists, now featured in the Huffington Post.  This is your chance to ask a professional artist/educator your questions about being an artist, the creative process, career advice, etc. Submit your question by emailing me at clara(at)claralieu.com, or by commenting here on this blog. All questions will be posted anonymously, and you’ll receive notification when your question is online.  Read an archive of past articles here.

“As a visual artist, I have never been able to work serially. I feel stuck in a rut that seems impossible to break out of. I thought working serially might help me break out of it but here is the problem: I have never worked conceptually before. I don’t put any specific emotion, concept, feeling or anything into a painting or drawing. How do you begin to think conceptually as a visual artist?”

Unfortunately, many art students are taught to learn technique and content separately. They are instructed to first focus exclusively on mastering technique because they are told that they are “not ready” to address the subject matter of their artwork. The consequence is that students develop technical proficiency, but in terms of content, their artwork is vapid and meaningless. This is a common problem that many beginning artists face.

To think conceptually, find a compelling reason to create your own original content. As an art student, it took me many years to figure out exactly why the content of my artwork mattered. I devoted all of my energy towards learning how to paint realistically, and didn’t spend any time thinking about my subject matter. I had always been fairly confident in my painting skills, but my senior year, there was a student in my painting class who created breathtaking paintings which were incredibly vibrant. I felt extremely discouraged because no matter how hard I worked, my paintings just couldn’t compare to hers in terms of technique.

When I started working professionally, this experience just became even more pronounced. Eventually, I had to accept the fact that there were always going to be people who had stronger painting skills. The only way I was ever going to distinguish myself was through my ideas. This realization provided the motivation I needed to start generating my own content.

Learning how to think conceptually is tough for many artists. The process is unpredictable, and there are no answers at the back of the textbook. Some concepts will flow easily while others will have you banging your head against a wall for days on end. In the beginning, I can guarantee that you will fail much more than you will succeed. Keep in mind what works for one person may not work for another. Be prepared to go through a lot of trial and error before you find a system that works for you. Here are some concrete actions you can take:

1. Develop both technique and content in every artwork.
Creating a piece that strikes an effective balance is exceptionally difficult, so this approach will be rocky and frustrating at first. Inevitably, you’ll create pieces that are strong technically but weak conceptually, and vice versa. Even if you’re unhappy with how things are going in a piece, push through and keep developing both aspects. Resist the temptation to revert back to creating pieces that only focus on technique.

2. Put everything on paper.
For many people, brainstorming means sitting down and running thoughts through your head. This is never productive. With no physical record of your thoughts, it’s impossible to get any perspective on what you’re doing. Instead, keep yourself active by sketching and writing as you think. Reserve judgment on your ideas and just let everything spill out on paper. Often times I will think an idea is stupid in my head, but when I sketch it out on paper, the sketch demonstrates a lot of potential. On the flip side, there are ideas that sound great in my mind, but are terrible on paper. You won’t know until you’ve seen it on paper.

3. Aim for specificity.
The more specific your idea is, the more engaging it will be to your audience. Subjects that are too broad come across as generic and vague. I once had a student who said she wanted to concentrate on “20th century themes” in her project. Her topic was so immense that I had no clue what her project was about. By contrast, one of the most intriguing topics I’ve seen in class was a student project that was about Korean face massages. According to the student, the Korean face massages she received were extremely painful and the specifics of her vivid descriptions captivated the class. The fact that her topic focused on one area of the body within the context of a specific culture provided a strong direction for her project.

4. Push your ideas to evolve.
Many artists terminate their brainstorming process prematurely. My students tell me all the time after sketching just one or two ideas, that they have found the best idea. Good ideas don’t happen immediately, your concepts need to go through multiple stages of development to fully mature. Give your concepts time to be transformed, manipulated and adjusted.

5. Recognize and avoid clichés.
If I had a dollar for every art student who drew a clock to represent time, I could send my kids to college for free. Clichés happen because an artist didn’t take the time to think beyond the most obvious response. If you do an image search on Google of your subject, the same image that appears over and over again is the cliché. When I start brainstorming, I intentionally sketch out the most clichéd image I can think of. Once I identify what the clichés are, I can eliminate them and move onto something that is more unusual.

Actively think about your subject throughout the entire duration of creating an artwork. With enough practice, thinking conceptually will eventually become a permanent part of your artistic process.

Related articles:
“How do you keep pushing yourself to get to that next level?”
“Would you improve more if you took art classes than just studying on your own?”
“How do you break out of your comfort zone?”
“How do you get out of thinking you can’t get any better?”
“How do you develop patience for learning curves?”
“When do you let go of an idea?”
“How do I help my daughter reach her potential in art?”
“How can I study to become a professional artist on my own?”

Spinning my Wheels

Gesture Drawing

Since I’ve decided to take time and re-evaluate, I’ve found myself in a creative limbo. I’ve devoted a lot of time to analyzing my previous creative endeavors, and brainstorming possibilities for the future. The consequence is that I haven’t made anything, so it feels like I’ve been spinning my wheels. To me that’s a signal that I’m done thinking, and that it’s time to move on.

I find it challenging to make the transition from establishing long term goals to figuring out what task you should do today. At the beginning of a project, your goals feel so incredibly far away that it’s hard to know where to even begin. Often times this makes me not want to start at all, because I fear that things won’t work out. I know that I have to take my own advice: it’s actually easier to start with something that is flawed and then fix it. In my drawing classes, I see students all the time who are so worried about making a bad drawing that they end up drawing nothing at all. I tell my students that they just have to get some marks on paper, no matter how faulty they may be. Once you have something tangible to work with, you can make progress.

I do better with hands-on tasks, so I’m focusing on concrete actions that I can take right now. My husband, who works in film and animation suggested that I do some quick “video sketches” as ways to get ideas of how the series might function. This seems like a great way to get started, and will likely reveal many aspects of the project that I can’t foresee.

Two options

My idea for a series of video tutorials of fine art techniques has been stuck in my mind. I know that I have good content, it’s just a matter of figuring out what the right format and delivery is.  I’ve gotten a lot of information from several people in the TV/film world.  Essentially, it boils down to two options:  I can do it all myself, or go through a TV network.

Doing it myself is attractive because I can take action right away. My biggest concern is that I would make the tutorials, a few people would see them, and then they would disappear into the black hole of the Internet. A project like this could quickly become a money pit where I would get nothing back. Hiring a production company would ensure a high quality production, but would be astronomically expensive.   I would either have to win a large grant or have an extremely successful kickstarter campaign.  I can finance a low budget production myself, but then I worry that I will end up with a mediocre presentation that will be detrimental to the content.  A friend of mine seemed to think that if you have strong content, the quality of the video shouldn’t be that important. I can see her point, but being a perfectionist, I know how distracting a low quality production could be.

A TV network is ideal because it would provide the platform and validation in order for the project to reach a broad audience. The greatest obstacle is making contact with key people, and then convincing them to back my project. From the people in the field that I’ve talked to, this is insanely difficult and rarely works out.

I’m torn because there are major pros and cons to both approaches. I’m hesitant to hold out for a TV network, because I know that it’s highly likely that the project would simply never happen, which I’m not sure I could live with. Doing it myself would ensure that the idea happens, but I’m not thrilled with the likeliness that the project would probably not go very far.

Which option do you think I should pursue?

Ask the Art Professor: How Can I Learn to Draw From My Imagination?

“Ask the Art Professor” is an advice column for visual artists, now featured in the Huffington Post.  This is your chance to ask a professional artist/educator your questions about being an artist, the creative process, career advice, etc. Submit your question by emailing me at clara(at)claralieu.com, or by commenting here on this blog. All questions will be posted anonymously, and you’ll receive notification when your question is online.  Read an archive of past articles here.

“I know how to draw, but I can only draw things that I can see. I draw from photographs that I find on the Internet. However, I have difficulty drawing from my imagination, and this bothers me because I want to be able to create images on my own. How can I learn to draw from my imagination?”

To successfully draw from your imagination, you have to be skilled in drawing from direct observation. I am appalled that so few art students draw from life nowadays. Many young artists don’t draw from life because drawing from photographs is extremely convenient, doesn’t require a lot of thought, and gets quicker results. By comparison, drawing from life is much more challenging and time-consuming, but ultimately it is the approach that will provide the necessary skills to draw from any reference.

Skeleton Drawing Assignment

For an art student, drawing exclusively from photographs is the worst approach to take. As a college professor, I invest a lot of time getting first year students to unlearn bad drawing habits they developed because they only drew from photographs. Frequently, the students who have a lot of drawing experience, but who have bad habits, have a much tougher time than the students who have no drawing background. Drawing exclusively from photographs encourages these poor habits:

1. Obsessively laboring one drawing for several weeks.
Consequently, students become accustomed to working at a very slow pace. For anyone who aspires to be a professional artist, this approach is inefficient and unsustainable. Students become precious about every drawing they make, which sets up an impossible expectation that every drawing must be successful. They are so afraid of making a bad drawing that they refuse to try anything new. This severely limits growth and keeps them from expanding their abilities.

2. Being unable to do 2-5 minute gesture drawings.
Gesture drawing is a key principle in all aspects of drawing, it teaches you how to quickly capture the essential spirit of your subject with energy and movement. Drawing from photographs trains people to draw in a very tight manner, which results in drawings that lack vitality.

3. Ignoring fundamental structures and focusing only on details.
The details of a drawing are usually what impress viewers the most; they are the glamorous part of a drawing that seduce and dazzle. However, no amount of detail will compensate for poor compositions and structures. Drawings that invest too much time on details will appear flat and superficial.

Drawing is about much more than copying an accurate representation of what you see. Throughout history, the most pivotal drawings have been images that a photograph could never make. When an artist draws, they are offering an artistic interpretation of what they have experienced. A drawing copied verbatim from a photograph provides no individual opinion; the process just mechanically replicates what the photograph already said. At that point, there’s no point to making the drawing, you’re just making a bad xerox of the photograph.

Drawing from life is wonderful because you get to fully experience your subject. Compare the difference between drawing from a photograph of a person and drawing that person in real life. If you draw from direct observation, you would get to talk to the person, hear their voice, and learn about their personality. All of these aspects of the person that you experience will vastly influence your drawing process.

Many students aspire to create the illusion of depth within the two-dimensional format of a drawing. It’s counterproductive to try to achieve a convincing three-dimensional illusion in your drawing if your reference is a two-dimensional photograph. You have to directly experience three-dimensional space and form in person. As a student, I studied Gothic cathedrals and looked at slides in class and photographs in textbooks. I eventually traveled to France to see the cathedrals, and was astonished by the vast depth of space. Being physically immersed in the cathedral, I was able to capture the mood of the space in my on site drawings.

You have complete creative control when drawing from direct observation. If you’re drawing a still life, you can arrange the objects any way you want and create a specific lighting situation. With a portrait, you can choose from multiple perspectives or ask the model to sit in a specific position. This allows for much more flexibility and significantly increases all of the visual possibilities.

This is not to say that you should never ever draw from a photograph, as there are instances where using a reference photograph is necessary. In those circumstances, I always shoot my own photographs so that I can control every factor. If I need an image of a gorilla, it means a trip to the zoo. I see all reference photographs as raw material that I will manipulate and transform through my drawing process. The only time I would draw from someone else’s photograph is if I really need an image that is literally impossible for me to photograph on my own. Even then, I only use fragments of the photograph and I mix it in with other references. I would never take someone’s photograph and draw a precise copy of it.

Drawing from life involves a lot of work and patience, but eventually it will reap many rewards. You will gain a comprehensive understanding of the mechanics of light and shadow, see how structures are organized, understand how forms interact within a space, learn how to articulate textures, and much more. This knowledge will equip you with the skills you need in order to draw from your imagination. From there, it’s a matter of extensive experimentation and practice to see what works for you.

Related articles:
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“How can I learn to shade objects in my drawings?”
“How can I draw what I see in my head?”
“What is the best way to practice my drawing skills?”
“How do you get yourself to practice drawing?”
“What is the most important mindset a student needs to have in order to create a successful drawing?”

Changes

New studio

My sublet situation at my studio at Waltham Mills Artists Association has changed, so  I will be moving out at the end of this month.   I mentioned a few posts back that I knew I was on the verge of a major transition, and this change with the studio just makes that more evident.

It’s good timing, I wouldn’t want to change my studio situation while I was in the middle of a project.   Since I’m between projects, I can take under consideration my home studio while I’m brainstorming my next project.  I wish I had the freedom to do anything in terms of materials and format, but from a practical perspective, I have to let my financial resources and studio situation dictate what I’m able to make. I believe in being true to my artistic intentions, but at a certain point, I do have to set some limits. For example, I have a rule that I won’t make any artwork that doesn’t fit in my car. I got around this with my last project because I found a plastic material that rolled up easily, so I was able to make 7′ x 4′ drawings that would still fit in my car.

It’s going to be quite a bit of rearranging to set up a home studio, but it will be nice to have everything in one place for a change.

Ask the Art Professor: How can I study to become a professional artist on my own?

“Ask the Art Professor” is an advice column for visual artists, now featured in the Huffington Post.  This is your chance to ask a professional artist/educator your questions about being an artist, the creative process, career advice, etc. Submit your question by emailing me at clara(at)claralieu.com, or by commenting here on this blog. All questions will be posted anonymously, and you’ll receive notification when your question is online.  Read an archive of past articles here.

“I am 23 years old, and I’m a beginning visual artist. I really want to get to a professional level, but I have no idea how to teach myself to get to that level. I can’t afford to go to art school and I don’t have much money for local classes and workshops. Is there any way I could do this on my own?”

At an individual level, there are a number of initiatives you can take to begin to train yourself. Most importantly, you have to invest many hours of daily practice over a period of several years. Don’t be too precious with your work. Instead, maintain a high production rate so that you are churning out several finished pieces a week. Get several instructional books so that you can see contrasting ways of approaching the same topics and techniques. Experiment and work with a diverse range of media and formats. As a beginning student, exposure to different materials and approaches is initially much more important than trying to master one technique.

However, for even the most disciplined person, these directives barely skim the surface. The truth is that studying by yourself has major limitations. This is true for any field: musicians have to practice their instruments for several hours every day. However, no amount of individual practice will develop the skills they need to play with other musicians. If you can’t play with other musicians, you can’t function at a professional level. Visual art is no different; interaction with other artists is absolutely necessary. For people not enrolled in a degree program, taking a local class or workshop is the best way to meet other artists in person. Taking a class does require some kind of financial investment, but there’s no way around it if you truly want to become a professional.

Final Crit

From the outside it may look like being a visual artist is just about putting in the hours to create the artwork, and it is true that many professional visual artists are by themselves when they create artwork. However, making the artwork is just one component of being a professional visual artist. A crucial part of being an artist is fostering in-depth relationships and maintaining a continuous dialogue with other artists in person. These conversations have multiple purposes: receiving critical feedback on your artwork, getting guidance from a more experienced artist, networking with other professionals, and much more.

A fundamental part of being an artist is the critique process. The critique process is ongoing for all artists, regardless of whether they are a student or professional. As an art student, group critiques were central to my growth. I had the opportunity to hear a diverse range of opinions and get concrete suggestions for how to improve. I learned just as much from my peers as I did from my professors. In addition to getting constructive criticism from my peers, I gained tremendously from seeing the artwork they created in response to the same assignments. Even though I work professionally now, I still actively seek out critiques from my colleagues on a regular basis.

Critiques provide significant insight on my work that I would never see on my own. Many artists spend numerous hours working on a piece, which usually involves staring at one image for a long period of time. When I’m working, I know that I inevitably lose perspective and I have to take a break in order to step outside of myself. Being too close to the piece, I don’t trust myself to make sound judgments. I tend to get caught up in one aspect of the work which consequently results in my overlooking issues that should be obvious. I ask my colleagues for reactions at different stages of a project: during the brainstorming process, on my preparatory sketches, and on the final works. No artist can rely exclusively on themselves to critique their artwork; bringing in an outside eye is essential.

Artists have to develop an awareness of how their artwork might be received before they show their work publicly. First year art school students in my classes are initially surprised by how easy it is for their intentions to be misinterpreted. I once had a student who brought in a self-portrait drawing which depicted a view of her head tilted back and her chin raised up which extended her neck. At the group critique, she described the drawing as a tranquil, contemplative self-portrait. To the rest of the class though, the neck in the drawing was a blatant phallus. The student was completely mortified that her drawing was interpreted this way. But, she had been so entrenched in her thoughts while she was working that she had failed to see the obvious. Nowadays, I require my students to get feedback from at least 2-3 other students while they are working on their assignments.

Working independently can get you started, but ultimately being a professional artist requires experience that can only be gained by working with other people. Being a professional artist is rigorous and demands that you assume multiple roles. On top of making the artwork, you have to be your own manager, publicist, archivist, photographer, webmaster, installer, and more. Prioritize placing yourself in a context with other artists, and in this way you will gain valuable experience that will put you on track to becoming a professional.

Related articles:
“How do you keep pushing yourself to get to that next level?”
“Would you improve more if you took art classes than just studying on your own?”
“How do you break out of your comfort zone?”
“How do you get out of thinking you can’t get any better?”
“How do you develop patience for learning curves?”
“When do you let go of an idea?”
“How do I help my daughter reach her potential in art?”