Ask the Art Prof: What is the Most Important Thing You Can Do as a Visual Artist?

Studio View

“What is the most important thing you can do as an artist?  What is the best tip you have for growing as an artist?”

The answer to your first question is different for everyone, as every artist is going to have a completely different set of priorities in terms of what they are setting out to accomplish with their art. Some artists have told me that they just want to make beautiful images, some say that they want to stir strong emotional reactions, while others simply want to express something intellectual through visual means.

Since mentioning all of these various priorities is impossible, I’ll instead share my own personal perspective with you. I think the most important thing I can do as an artist is to affect the way someone thinks, and to bring a deeper understanding of some aspect of the world to someone through my artwork.  I want to stimulate thinking in my viewer, to activate a thought process that they wouldn’t ordinarily have on their own. I feel that I have succeeded with a piece of artwork if I reach one person in this way.

I know that I am most affected by artwork that deals with themes that are universally understood, but which bring a unique perspective at the same time.  The danger of working with universal themes is that images can quickly become cliche and watered down, while too much personal content risks coming across as self-indulgent and inaccessible to a general audience.  I’ve always admired the German Expressionist artist Kathe Kollwitz, for her powerful, harrowing images. She deals with big themes such as war and social issues, but her pieces feel  extraordinarily intimate and personal at the same time. Her timeless images still continue to thrive and affect us today.


Kathe Kollwitz

I have many tips for how to grow as an artist,  many of which you can read about in my book “Learn, Create, and Teach: A Guide to Building a Creative Life.  If I were to offer one tip out of many, it would be to take risks and have a willingness to try anything. The greatest artists distinguished themselves because they were willing to plunge themselves into everything and because they had no fear.  Most people will universally agree that Picasso was an artistic genius, but many of them haven’t taken the time to figure out exactly why.  In my opinion, Picasso was a great artist because of his unparalleled hunger and fierce commitment to experimentation.  He was remarkably prolific, and worked in an impressive range of different media. I love the fact that in addition to his extraordinary range in painting, he took giant leaps to work with other materials like a bike seat to create a work. (see image below)


Pablo Picasso

Many students and artists are afraid to take risks because they worry about failing and creating bad work. If you play it safe and don’t take risks, your work will be confined to mediocrity and be vastly limited in its potential. In my opinion, this is what separates the “good” artists from the “great” artists.

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3 thoughts on “Ask the Art Prof: What is the Most Important Thing You Can Do as a Visual Artist?

  1. I don’t want to become a great artist. I want to become a good artist. I want to develop a style and stay committed to it. I don’t want too much experimentation and too wide range of style or medium.

    1. I think that only wanting to be good is to stop halfway to the top in goal setting and end up not even reaching the halfway point. Halfway is easier and deadlier.

  2. I believe the fear of taking risks in art are mirrored in life as well. My observation is the fearful painter leads a fearful life. How many people paint with courage and daring who are afraid to live life to its fullest?

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