The Journey of a Thousand Mistakes
Today's pep talk: A recent comment from a friend brought this to mind. I and others have said many times that art that we make is an exact reflection of what we are creatively at that moment. When we don’t like what we see, that can be painful. So of course many of us try to flip this around, kind of reverse-engineer it—if we can by whatever means manage to make something that’s beautiful, cool, or popular, then we can point at that and say “I am that, that is me.” (even if we have co-opted the work of another artist, or labored for months on something that looks like it took a couple of days). Unfortunately this type of gratification can become the only goal, and many people end up not discovering / making their own art, and not even knowing what that means. Many don’t fall into that trap, thankfully.
But for those of us who do, fortunately, what can happen along the way is that despite our best efforts to be what we’re not, our own art has a way of coming through, of finding its way in. Metaphysically I could say that’s because it’s the real you. Objectively I can say it’s because the only good art we can make is our own authentic art. In any case, some part of us begins to sense that quality of authenticity, which is synonymous with originality. And then we see that that is the actual quality we are valuing in other artists’ work—authenticity. It’s not really how they paint fur or muscles or draw eyes or whatever. It’s that there is nothing else quite like what they do. That’s the magic.
Can you accept that authenticity and originality are one and the same? It’s a very simple point: the authentic you is unique. That’s all. If you accept that, your art quest might head off in a different direction. It could be a totally different direction, or a minor course correction. You do the dance of looking at and learning from other artists, while not, in your work, mistaking familiarity for quality; an echo for a new song.
This is the beginning of the process of (what you think of as you) connecting with the inner artist you. As you walk this path you begin to recognize your own art and to see value in it (and, as a side effect, in yourself). But the real point is in the recognition. Just recognizing your own art from everyone else’s. In some weird way it’s “not about you.” It’s definitely not about what you normally think of as you. Because the more fluent I become at this the less it feels like me doing it, the less and less credit “I” feel “I” can take for it, and the less I care about what my work isn’t, where it falls short for some people, or if people think it’s stupid (I mean, a pig on a motorcycle? A frog typing? Come on). I kind of OBSERVE it happening while also seemingly directing it (I’m still not sure if “I” am directing it). I value whatever connection I was able to forge that allows for this to happen. What I see coming out is a stupid picture that is unapologetic, confident, that really means it, whatever “it” is.
As the saying goes: all you have to do is ask—your art what it wants to be. Just for once don’t try to make it be what you want it to be. You will have plenty of opportunity to push yourself, hone your skills, be the director, and all that, once you figure out that you only do those things in service of your art.
You don’t try to do this globally “what does my art want to be?” That is a mistake. That will only have you imagining other people’s art. You have to do it picture by picture, as part of the process of actually making art. When you find yourself lost or struggling with a picture, that is the opportunity to surrender your normal approach of control and ask the picture what it wants.
Obviously it’s not really asking the picture, because if I asked your half finished picture what it wants, I would get a different answer than you will. Really it’s asking your inner artist—it’s just that the only way that thing can communicate to you is through an actual, living picture. Not a theoretical picture. Not a verbal statement. Not a future idea.
None of this is black and white. Please don’t read this and think, “Oh no, I guess I’m not doing my own authentic art because I still want to do work like so and so.” As I said, your art is finding its way in, maybe to a great degree, maybe to a lesser degree. Your art is the part of your pictures that is making them good or great. It’s in there in the mix already. You just want to work toward it being the primary thing, and then the only thing. So ask “What does this picture want to be?” Not, “What do I want this picture to be?” If you ask sincerely you will find answers coming seemingly from nowhere.