When You Have No Words, Speak with Art

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by Clara Lieu

(first published on the Huffington Post on 12/2/16)

As a professional visual artist, all of the artwork I’ve created in my life is about as far away from politics as you can get. Not once in my entire career, or even as an art student, have I ever had any remote desire to address politics in my artwork. I once received an assignment in art school to illustrate a newspaper headline. I remember that I intentionally chose a headline that had nothing to do with politics. I had zero interest in talking about politics in my art and did everything I could to avoid it.

This year’s presidential election completely changed that. The election results left me in utter shock. I spent the day after the election reading a flood of emotionally charged statements and messages from my friends and family. I wanted to contribute, but every time I sat down to write, I simply had no words.

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Kathe Kollwitz, Outbreak, 1903


Recently, it occurred to me that many of my personal favorites from art history depict difficult, and often times violent political events: Kathe Kollwitz’s print Outbreak, Picasso’s epic Guernica, Leon Golub’s painting Interrogation II, Goya’s painting The Executions to name a few.

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Francisco Goya, The Executions,1814


I know these specific artworks like the back of my hand. For years, I’ve analyzed their color schemes, deconstructed their layout and backgrounds, examined individual brush strokes up close in person, and more. Revisiting these artworks after the election, I realized that despite my comprehensive, formal understanding of these works as art, I really had no clue what pushed these artists to create these startling images.

Now, I completely understand where those artists found their motivation. For the first time in my life, I feel an intense urgency inside me that desperately wants to make art about events that are unfolding every day. I can’t just move on with my life and pretend that everything will be fine. Otherwise, I am just a bystander.

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Leon Golub,  Interrogation II, 1981


Despite my surge of desire to create political art, deep down I’m petrified to start. Most of my past artwork has been about personal experiences. The intrinsic nature of personal narratives is that they are experienced by only the artist, and therefore generally do not invite contentious public reactions. By contrast, political art inevitably invites intense scrutiny from the audience. Political art is frequently charged and startling, and easily elicits heated emotional reactions in a way that a still life painting of apples never will. For me, if I get up tomorrow and paint apples, that means I’m saying that everything is fine. If there’s anything I’m sure of, it’s that nothing is fine right now.

I couldn’t agree more when people state that “words matter.” I would add that images matter just as much, and that art has always been a powerful means of communication that can resonate for centuries. This presidential election has galvanized me to make political art. The next time I step into my studio to work, it will be with a new sense of purpose.


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ART DARES
Every month, we assign a topic for you to respond to with an artwork. We give out prizes in several categories, and post select submissions on our Instagram  and other sites throughout the month. Use #artprofwip and Prof Clara Lieu might just stop by and give you some feedback! We have a special prize for art teachers who assign the Art Dare to one of their classes. More info is here.

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Ask the Art Prof Live # 7: How do I Improve My Art? How do I find My Artistic Style?

0:26
Other than “keep practicing,” how do I improve my art?

01:53
Set short term and long term goals.

05:14
Recognize your automatic pilot and the plateau.

06:39
Build in periods of experimentation.


09:58
How do I find my artistic style? Related article.
Mentioned: Picasso and Cubism


11:57
Style doesn’t develop overnight. Jackson Pollock


13:34
Try everything! Be a restaurant critic and sample everything that exists.
Former New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni’s memoir “Born Round
Mentioned:  mezzotint, lithography, intaglio printmaking


15:36
Make a series


16:48
Your style will keep evolving. Alberto Giacometti


ART PROF is a free, online educational platform for visual arts for people of all ages and means. artprof.org features video courses, art critiques, an encyclopedia of art supplies, and more.

FB    Youtube    Pinterest     Instagram    Twitter    email    etsy


PORTFOLIO VIDEO CRITIQUES
Prof Lieu offers video critiques on portfolios for students applying to art school and working artists. More info.


ART DARES
Every month, we assign a topic for you to respond to with an artwork. We give out prizes in several categories!  More info.


ASK THE ART PROF was a written column in the Huffington Post from about art related topics. Visit our Pro Development page.


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#8: Should I do the Starving Artist Phase in New York City?
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#1:  Graduate MFA Programs

Ask the Art Prof: How Do I Choose a Field for A Graduate Program in Visual Arts?

Skeleton Drawing Assignment

“I am a junior art major, and I cannot really tell what I would like to focus on if I go on to graduate school. It makes it even harder for me to choose schools because I don’t know what field of art I want to pursue. I just love everything about art to be honest. For such people like me, feeling lost in what we’ve been doing, yet longing for higher education in graduate school, what advice do you have?”

For many art students, choosing their major in order to apply to a specific graduate school is a tremendous source of stress. Being required to select a major when applying to graduate school can feel like being asked to make a permanent declaration of your artistic identity. In reality, your field of study in graduate school does not have to set your artistic future in stone.

While a school may ask you to choose a specific field, the truth is that many professional artists work fluidly in a number of fields. Many of my favorite artists are the ones whose works defy categorization, and who are extraordinarily prolific in a number of contrasting art media.

Take someone like the contemporary South African artist William Kentridge, who has worked in everything from drawing, animation, sculpture, and printmaking, to stage design. Picasso began his career as a painter, but experimented tremendously with found objects, drawing, and printmaking. The 18th century Italian printmaker Piranesi began as an architect who later created etchings which depicted imagined architectural spaces. These artists may have started out studying one specific field, but eventually their work in multiple fields blended together into one cohesive vision.

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William Kentridge,

When it came time for me to go to graduate school, I intentionally chose sculpture, a field that I had very little experience with at the time. My primary interest and background was actually in painting, but I was curious to see how studying a different field could influence my paintings. Not only did I end up discovering a new passion for sculpture, but I found myself in the print shop for days on end. Eventually, I dropped painting altogether and emerged as a sculptor and printmaker who specialized in drawing. In this way, I created an interdisciplinary approach for myself that embraced a broad range of fields. My major might have been initially declared as sculpture, but that did not prevent me from branching out into other media.

You can approach this process as an opportunity to study an area you’ve always been curious about, but haven’t done much work in. Or, choose an area that you already have a strong interest in and would like to develop a deeper understanding of. Think about the major you select for graduate school as a departure point. From there, you’ll be able to spread out into other media as your interest and ideas dictate.


ART PROF is a free, online educational platform for visual arts for people of all ages and means. artprof.org features video courses, art critiques, an encyclopedia of art supplies, and more.

FB    Youtube    Pinterest     Instagram    Twitter    email    etsy


PORTFOLIO VIDEO CRITIQUES
Prof Lieu offers video critiques on portfolios for students applying to art school and working artists. More info.


ART DARES
Every month, we assign a topic for you to respond to with an artwork. We give out prizes in several categories!  More info.


ASK THE ART PROF was a written column in the Huffington Post from about art related topics. Visit our Pro Development page.


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Ask the Art Prof: How Do You Find Your Own Individual Art Style?

Accordion Bookbinding Project

“How do you find your own individual style?”

Style is important as a visual artist, it’s essentially what distinguishes you from other artists, and what keeps your work looking professional, cohesive, and focused.  The greatest artists throughout history had styles that were incredibly distinctive and unique. Think about someone like Hieronymus Bosch, who was so far ahead of his time in the 15th century with his surrealistic scenes densely packed with human figures doing all sorts of strange and bizarre acts. Once you’ve seen one Bosch painting, you can spot another a mile away.

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The Garden of Earthly Delights, by Hieronymus Bosch


Or, consider an artist like Giotto, whose frescoes at the Scrovegni Chapel revolutionized the way that emotions were articulated through the form, lighting, and color of the gesture of the human figures. Many times, the cultural context and time period has a lot to do with whether art artist’s style is distinctive. Giotto’s frescos may not seem so unusual to the contemporary viewer. However, within the context of his time period, by comparison, no other artists were painting faces that expressed such an intense, outward pouring out of emotion. In this way, his paintings distinguished themselves from all of the other artwork being created in that time.

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Frescos at the Scrovegni Chapel, by Giotto


In an artist’s style, there are usually defined characteristics, a specific means of handling a media, or repeated strategies in an artist’s style that are consistently visible in every artwork.  When I think about the great caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, whimsical, expressive, black and white portraits drawn with fluid, organic lines are signature visual features of his work. Once you’ve seen a few Al Hirschfeld drawings, his style is so distinctive that you can spot them from a mile away.

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Ella Fitzgerald, by Al Hirschfeld


Italian Baroque painter Caravaggio was known for his startlingly realistic oil paintings which used chiaroscuro lighting and bold gestures in his figures to create an atmosphere of intense drama. Compared to the idealized and sanitized versions of figurative oil paintings that preceded Caravaggio’s work, Caravaggio’s oil paintings emphasized a grittier, more flawed view of figures.

For example,  Caravaggio’s depictions of Christ portrayed him as an ordinary man, looking as if he lived in our world.  This was a direct opposition to previous depictions of the time period Caravaggio lived in, where Christ was always painted to appear as an otherworldly figure who did not look like an real person. Caravaggio depicted the “ugly” side of real life:  he took the time to paint the dirt on someone’s foot, and heightened unflattering wrinkles in someone’s forehead with tremendous detail.  Given the environment and time period Caravaggio lived in, these visual decisions were incredibly different, and greatly distinguished his paintings from other works created during the same time period.  Think about any notable artist from art history, and it’s usually fairly easy to sum up their style with some key adjectives.

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The Incredulity of St. Thomas, by Caravaggio


This may sound like a contradiction, but I strongly believe that the best way to find your own individual style is to try out as many different ways of working as possible.  I teach freshman drawing at RISD, where I encourage my students to explore and try out different identities for themselves.  Many students arrive at art school with very little experience working in diverse media and approaches, so this foundation is critical towards laying a premise for their artistic careers.

I push the students to dramatically shift their approaches within one semester. One week they’re learning how to make highly detailed and rendered images, the next week they’re working in a loose, painterly style. If you were to hang up all of the drawings by a single student onto one wall at the end of the semester, you would swear that you were looking at drawings by ten different people. For a first year art school student, that’s a wonderful accomplishment because what they’ve done is they’ve essentially learned multiple visual languages that they will have access to for the rest of their lives. This set of drawings below were all created by one student within a single semester, you can see that there is an incredible range of different styles, even though the pieces are all by the same student.

I want my students to achieve a versatility that will empower them to become anything that they want to be.  By directly experiencing all of these different languages, you can build an overall understanding of everything that is out there. Only by exploring the range of options can you then narrow your focus onto what it is you want to be.

If you’re looking for ideas for art projects, check out our Monthly Art Dares, where we assign a prompt to create an artwork each month. Often times many students who are interested in studying art have a strong desire, but are at a loss for where to even begin.  That’s why our monthly Art Dares are a great place to start:  we provide the launching pad and you decide where your final destination will be.


The most common mistake that I see all the time is people trying to force a style on themselves prematurely. I went to art school with a peer who was remarkably talented and seemed capable of doing just about anything. Throughout his time in art school, he experimented with many different media, and worked fluidly in contrasting styles. Everything he did was original, inventive, and beautifully crafted.  However, when he graduated and started working professionally after school, all of that changed immediately. He quickly forced this very commercial style on himself and did some of the worst work that I had seen him do in years.  The work lacked the same original spirit and enthusiasm and looked generic and derivative.

Style doesn’t develop overnight, it’s a gradual process that can take years to emerge.  The process of finding your style is very slow, and you need to develop serious skills in patience.  Allow your style to naturally evolve.  Attempts to force a style on yourself will end up looking contrived and dishonest.

Below are several videos that discuss how I developed my stylistic approach to a series of drawings of elderly figures.


Keep in mind that style is not just about the way your artwork looks, the subject matter that you communicate and represent in your artwork is just as important.  Artists are known throughout history for the interaction of their technique and the ideas they wanted to communicate.  The visual look of an artwork is meaningless if there is no concept, motivation, or purpose behind the creation of the artwork. That’s why it’s important that while you experiment and hone a diverse range of skills, that you also work on your ability to brainstorm, develop, and ultimately execute a finished artwork that has a solid and intriguing subject.

Below is a video tutorial where I demonstrate how to get started brainstorming an idea, transitioning an idea into thumbnail sketches, and then realizing that idea into a finished drawing.

Once you do find a style that works, it doesn’t mean that the creative process ends there.  If you only stick to that one style forever, you may as well be a trained monkey who can only do one trick. It certainly does work for some people, and there are definitely people out there who are very successful doing that one trick. Historically, the most compelling artists have been the ones who are constantly reinventing and transforming themselves.

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Collage by Matisse


Look at Picasso:  even after the smashing success Picasso had with Cubism, he kept innovating, experimenting, and pushing new ideas.   He created new pieces that were vastly different from Cubism, like his bull’s head made from a reconfigured bike seat. Matisse went from oil paintings to paper cut outs at the end of his life. Degas switched from pastel drawings and oil paintings to figure sculpture when he started to lose his eye sight at the end of his life. These artists weren’t satisfied to be limited to one way of working for the rest of their lives, and were willing to take major risks with their work to transform into something new.

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“Bull’s Head” by Picasso, 1942


ART PROF is a free, online educational platform for visual arts for people of all ages and means. artprof.org features video courses, art critiques, an encyclopedia of art supplies, and more.

FB    Youtube    Pinterest     Instagram    Twitter    email    etsy


PORTFOLIO VIDEO CRITIQUES
Prof Lieu offers video critiques on portfolios for students applying to art school and working artists. More info.


ART DARES
Every month, we assign a topic for you to respond to with an artwork. We give out prizes in several categories!  More info.


ASK THE ART PROF was a written column in the Huffington Post from about art related topics. Visit our Pro Development page.


Related Videos
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


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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.

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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)

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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.


ART PROF is a free, online educational platform for visual arts for people of all ages and means. artprof.org features video courses, art critiques, an encyclopedia of art supplies, and more.

FB    Youtube    Pinterest     Instagram    Twitter    email    etsy


PORTFOLIO VIDEO CRITIQUES
Prof Lieu offers video critiques on portfolios for students applying to art school and working artists. More info.


ART DARES
Every month, we assign a topic for you to respond to with an artwork. We give out prizes in several categories!  More info.


ASK THE ART PROF was a written column in the Huffington Post from about art related topics. Visit our Pro Development page.


Related articles
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