Ask the Art Prof: How Do Visual Artists Manage To Get their Soul Out into Images?

Accordion Bookbinding Project

“I am a self taught visual artist, and don’t have anyone to ask, so I have kept going and working hard, experimenting with different mediums etc. And trying all the time not to think too hard. But your gallery makes all the questions start swimming around again. Your article which gave advice on what is the most important thing for an artist being different for everyone got me thinking.

I want to be a great me, I don’t want to paint just pretty pictures, I want to say something. I don’t really want to talk about pain , though it is powerful, is joy and compassion not powerful too? I do want to be real and raw in my work but find it hard to not play it a bit safe, although I yearn to, I wait for confidence and do studies. I finally picked up the courage to try more portraits but struggle to break with the bonds of safety. How do artists manage to get their soul out so strongly into the images they create ?”

Two essential things need to happen in order to “spill your soul” into the art you create:

1) You have to have a personal experience that you know intimately and are willing to talk about publicly through your art

2) You need to command strong technical skills that allows for fluid visual communication of those emotions and experiences.

In visual art, technical skills and content have to work together to form a symbiotic relationship in which one cannot survive without the other. You could possess astonishing technical skills in painting, but if you have nothing to talk about, those skills won’t matter.  On the other side of the spectrum, all of the content in the world won’t compensate for poor technical execution.


Leon Golub

I’ve always believed that the most emotionally potent images throughout art history have been those which originated from an artist’s personal experience. (Certainly, there are exceptions to this. Painter Leon Golub was known for his powerful images based on the Vietnam War, an event that he didn’t directly participate in himself.) Nothing can substitute the pure, raw, emotion that comes from one person. Personal experience makes broad topics real for viewers.  Without that intimate perspective, large themes feel generic, impersonal, and watered down.

German artist Kathe Kollwitz created artwork about gigantic themes like war and grief through her own experiences.  Kollwitz lost her son during the war, and eventually created this piece below as a memorial for her son. Although the work originated from her intensely personal emotions, it reflected the depth of grief suffered by many people during her time. Even today, this work speaks to universal themes that people across cultures and time can understand and connect to.


Kathe Kollwitz, “Die Eltern” (The Parents)

The problem is, talking about personal experiences openly can be extremely hard for many artists.  Going public with personal experiences is one of the greatest risks that you can take, and overcoming that fear can feel overwhelming at times. Additionally, you have to be prepared to think about the topic intensively as you make the artwork, and you have to learn to live with those images for the rest of your life.

I’m no stranger to this experience:  a few years ago I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety, a condition that I’ve lived with since I was a young child. After treatment, I finally saw myself separate from the disease for the first time and decided that the time was right to make work about this experience.  That decision was hard for me: I was petrified of revealing that I had a disease that carried a social stigma, and also of making work that was so close to me emotionally. On the other hand, I had this exhilarating topic that I couldn’t let go of, so I took a deep breath and just did it.  In making this work, all of the brutal, ugly emotions that I had been hiding my entire life came to surface in a series of 50 portrait drawings and 50 portrait sculptures.  I’ve had many people tell me that this project, “Falling“, is my most powerful work to date. 

Self-Portrait No. 31

Clara Lieu, “Self-Portrait No. 31”, from “Falling

Finding and committing yourself to the content is the most difficult part of this process. Once you have the content, you have to work on developing the technique that will allow you to communicate your ideas. The stronger your technical skills are, the more likely you’ll be able to express what you want to say more fluidly.  Expanding your visual vocabulary will arm you with many more options that you can experiment with. Gaining solid technical skills is a simple matter of discipline and patience which involves concentrated, sustained practice over a long period of time. Be prepared for this process to take years before you truly have mastered your techniques to the degree that is necessary for making your work. For “Falling“, it took me nearly two years of experimentation with my materials and techniques before I settled on an approach that I felt was appropriate for my content.

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6 thoughts on “Ask the Art Prof: How Do Visual Artists Manage To Get their Soul Out into Images?

  1. Of course, one doesn’t even have to bare one’s soul in one’s art, depending on the style in question. Frida Kahlo paints her heart on her sleeve (and that’s just one of the reasons I prefer her art to the art of her one time husband, Diego Rivera’s), but I don’t think one would say that of more coolly cerebral artists such as Jasper Johns, David Salle, or even someone like Monet or Salvador Dali. Whether or not one puts one’s soul front and center in one’s art depends on temperament and style. Just think of musical examples. The B52s don’t have the apparent soul of Nick Drake or PJ Harvey, but there music is satisfying and enjoyable because it’s light and playful.

    Also, there is just the inevitable infusing of core inner content into anything an artist does if that artist (think Van Goth) has more volatile passions. Vincent can paint a row of trees, a bed in a room, or a wheat field that is seething with inner intensity. So I wonder if an artist need directly address specific issues that make him/her vulnerable to the public, or if he/she merely need have lived, learned, suffered and rejoiced adequately to give substance to the craft.

    And then we have Picasso, who could do things as searingly painful as Guernica, but also more detached cubist works or whimsical drawings and sculptures.

  2. I too am diagnosed with anxiety and depression. I have managed over the years to accept myself as being quite different from most people. I feel isolated and apart from others, yet, i have an underlying understanding that this can be turned into greatness. The pain is what keeps it all in check.

  3. Professor, This is one beautiful and powerful blog. I agree. You hit the nail squarely on the head with this one. Sometimes I encounter criticism for not “painting with other artists” more, because I feel a need for that time to dig inside myself alone to try to improve my art. It took me several years before I could tell my retired husband not to knock, open the door, or phone me while I was in my studio. He understands now that I have taken the time to discuss with him where I am in my art and how very much it means to be to make some sort of artistic contribution in my lifetime.


  4. Thank you Professor. I love to paint and I am pretty good at it. I was recently told that I don’t really have a style or I haven’t mastered my skill set. I take these comments as an opportunity to do something new. I lack focus for one thing, but I think I can find a passion for different things and portray them on canvas. I once heard a comedian that had some great imagery and I tried to draw out what I saw in my mind that he was saying in his monologue. I also love surrealism. I love music, nature, animals, people, etc. I will start with one and try different things. Thank you again!

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