I always encourage my students to supplement their studio practice by looking at visual artists who work with similar subject matter, or who they have stylistic correlations with. If you want to paint portraits, most people would agree that you should study great portraits throughout history, as well as contemporary portraits. As a student, and later as a professional, that’s exactly what I did when I wasn’t in the studio creating work.
There are many visual artists whose artwork I’ve studied in tremendous depth as a direct influence on my own artwork. Giacometti, Kollwitz, Caravaggio, Messerschmidt, William Kentridge, and Michael Mazur have been artists I’ve revisited countless times.
I have specific experiences and moments that I associate with each of these artists. My junior year at RISD, I went on the European Honors Program, and was hell bent on seeing every Caravaggio painting in Europe. (I came pretty close) I saw my first Kollwitz prints at the Study Room for Drawings and Paintings at the Metropolitan Museum in NYC during graduate school. I had never so physically close to a print of hers before. I’ve haven’t seen a Messerschmidt sculpture in person, but my interest in his work got me to buy the first expensive art book I’ve purchased in years. ( I love art books, but when prices start at $60, you realize that your money is better spent elsewhere most of the time)
My students are often surprised to hear that I find artwork that is dissimilar to mine just as fascinating, and maybe even more so. The subject matter and creative process of these artists is so vastly different from mine, that I can’t wrap my head around how they arrived at creating their artwork. I’ve been intrigued by Sopheap Pich, El Anatsui, Chiharu Shiota, Sarah Sze, to name just a few.
However, recently I’ve been traveling far beyond these contrasting artists, deliberately pushing myself away from visual artists altogether. Many people assume that because I’m a visual artist, all I want to look at and read about is visual artists. Lately though, it seems like I’m not interested in reading about or looking at visual artists at all. You would think my lack of interest right now would be a negative thing, or a sign of being burned out. Actually, I feel more creatively stimulated than I’ve felt in a while, all because I started reading books again.
Oddly enough, my desire to read books got started because I stopped watching TV, and needed a way to unwind before going to bed. I think I quit TV because I’ve now watched every video remotely related to Louis CK, or because the last 4 movies I saw made me wish I could get those 2 hours of my life back. (Interstellar, Exodus, Edge of Tomorrow, and Theory of Everything. Okay, I should have known with Exodus what I was getting into, but I had hope with the other three)
I always enjoyed reading books before college, and I’m embarrassed to admit that I can count the number of books I’ve read since college on one hand. Part of this is because I’m an extremely picky reader, and if I’m not utterly captivated by the book within 10 pages, I can’t go on. I have to read books that are so incredibly engrossing that I can’t put the book down. With this stringent requirement, it can be hard for me to find the motivation to read because I am so easily disappointed.
In the last few months, I’ve gravitated towards books about food, comedy, and medicine. (you can see my book lists on my Goodreads account.) I’ve been fascinated by seeing how other fields function, and their various methods of thinking. These fields might seem totally unrelated to visual art, but I’ve found many parallels. I’ve been ruminating about how strategies used in other fields could be applied in my own artwork and teaching.
I’ve found myself mesmerized reading about the intricacies and issues in medicine discussed in Atul Gawande’s books. “Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End” was so riveting that I actually became sad when my Kindle app told me that I had finished 80% of the book. I just finished “The Checklist Manifesto“, which has less content about medicine than Gawande’s other books, but was just as gripping. In this book, I found concrete, practical strategies that I might eventually implement into my classroom. For example, next week I’m introducing linear perspective to my sophomore drawing class at RISD. If you understand linear perspective, it seems so simple, but if you don’t, it can be daunting to learn the rules and terminology of linear perspective, and then figure out how to practically apply those rules as you draw. After reading Gawande’s book, I thought about creating a checklist based on linear perspective for the students to use as they work on their drawings in class.
I’m not nearly finished with looking at and researching visual artists by any means, and certainly I will be back for more at some point. For now though, it’s lovely to stumble upon resources for my artwork and teaching in places where I don’t usually expect it.
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