“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.
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.
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.
Ask the Art Prof Live: How do I Improve My Art? How do I Find My Artistic Style?
Ask the Art Prof Live: Oversaturation, Brainstorming, Beginning a Series
Ask the Art Prof Live: Personal Themes, Never Too Late to Start Drawing
Youtube Playlist: Video Critiques on Art School Admissions Portfolios
Youtube Playlist: How to Draw a Portrait with Charcoal and Cross-Hatching
Youtube Playlist: Crit Quickies, 1 min. critiques on artworks
“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?”
“How do you begin to think conceptually as a visual artist?”
“How can I balance planning and spontaneity in my artwork?”