Thursday, November 29, 2012

How to Become a Great Artist

By Glenn Campbell in Istanbul

How do you become a great artist? This is a frequent preoccupation of young people who feel they are destined for great things but don't know how to go about it. Almost everything you hope to accomplish is an "art". Whether you hope to become a great filmmaker, writer or painter or you just want to make a lot of money in business, there are certain finely tuned skills you need to acquire. How do you go about obtaining them?

To become skilled in his chosen art, the budding artist usually attempts some logical seeming actions:
  1. They buy all the proper supplies and equipment for the art. For example, if you hope to become a great photographer, you first invest in a lot of expensive camera equipment.
  2. They enroll in a course. To become a great photographer, you sign up for a photography class at the local community college.
  3. They seek a patron. You try to find someone with money or connections who will recognize your raw talent and either support you while you are learning or give you the "big break" you need to get attention.
  4. They try to find an environment of like minded people who are also seeking the same skills, who will critique each other and give emotional support to each other on their path to greatness.
These steps seem like they will turn you into a great artist, but in practice they don't work! Why not? Because they tend to distract you from the core requirement of becoming an artist, which is PRACTICING YOUR ART! You have to go out and DO IT, regardless of your equipment or social environment. This is the only way to refine your skills. If you aren't willing to "do" your art—on your own, with the equipment you have, without anyone directing you or giving you praise or guidance—then you aren't going to become a great artist.

To become a great photographer, you need to get out into the real world and start taking photos, right now, with whatever camera you have. You cannot wait for better equipment. You cannot wait for a course to teach you what to do, or a patron or a support group. You have to do it NOW with whatever resources you have or you aren't seriously committed to your art. This is true no matter what your chosen medium may be: You have to do it to get better at it.

There is nothing wrong with having good equipment, but if you find yourself waiting for better equipment before you start your career, then you have fallen into a trap. People like to say, "I'll start taking better photos when I have a better camera," which usually turns into a big fat excuse for never doing it at all. Almost everyone in the modern world has a cellphone camera or equivalent—use that! If your pictures look like crap, it's not the camera's fault; it's your fault for not recognizing the constraints of your medium and tailoring you compositions accordingly. If your cellphone photos are crap, it is pretty much guaranteed your pictures from a $1000 camera will be crap too, because you haven't learned the meta-skill of constantly improving yourself within the resources you currently have.

Every medium and piece of equipment has its constraints and limitations. That is the nature of art: Art is the distillation of the complexities of the world onto a restricted medium. Every great artwork is essentially a cartoon, taking complex ideas and expressing them in a few strokes on a constrained canvas. It is the artist's responsibility to understand the parameters and characteristics of his canvas and adjusting his output accordingly.

It is also tempting to wait for a teacher to tell you what to do. Education will take you through a programmed series of steps over an extended period of time, progressively teaching you the technical skills of your chosen art. The only question is whether this is a better learning method than just taking pictures, looking at the results, adjusting your composition and experimenting with all dials and settings on your camera. In the huge amount of time you spend sitting in class, mostly going through material you are already know, you can usually make a lot more progress on your own. Anything in a textbook is something you can probably pick up on the internet when you are ready to absorb it. The main trouble with classes is they go at the instructor's pace, not yours.

An essential meta-skill of the great artist is to be able to look at his own work, judge it dispassionately, then use that knowledge to improve his own work in the future. No class can teach you this skill, and practice alone won't get you very far unless you have it. "Practice makes perfect," is a false assumption if you don't stop occasionally, look dispassionately at your product and adjust your methods accordingly. Many people practice all their lives at their chosen art and never get better, because they never stop to observe their own work. Once you have the meta-skill of dispassionate self-observation, then all you really need to gain practical skills is to do your art—a lot! New techniques will come to your through experimentation and observation, and over time you will build up an ever growing toolbox of them.

Finding a patron sounds nice, but there aren't many of them around and the competition for access to them is usually intense. If you hope to be a great filmmaker, it would be nice to have a major studio fund your movie idea, but that is about as likely as winning the lottery. In the meantime, if your art really matters to you, you forge ahead. If nothing else, your can make movies with your own video camera, which is far better than anything the earliest filmmakers had. If you can't make one compelling YouTube video after another, without a budget, then frankly you're not a great filmmaker and don't deserve patrons.

The trouble with looking for patrons is the sales effort can end up soaking up all your time and standing in the way of actually practicing your art. There is usually a waiting game involved, and while you are waiting, you are not creating. You also face the frustration of dealing with patrons who are usually clueless about your art. They are businessmen, not artists, and they are usually looking backwards not forward. They are always looking back at the last big thing and trying to reproduce it. They don't have the courage or vision to see the next big thing. Only you can grasp where your art is headed, so you will probably have to prove it without them.

An alternative to trying to find sponsors willing support you on faith is to become damn good at what you do, in fact, and prove it with every artwork. If you paint fantastic pictures, ones that  blow the socks off anyone who looks at them, then sponsorship is less and less important, because the work sells itself. You may have to accept that you have to get to this point on your own, without any outside support. To support yourself while you gain blow-your-socks-off skills, you may have to paint signs or houses for a living. You'll have to be creative about finding things that make money in the real world while allowing you to pursue your chosen art.

Look at that quintessential creative dude, Leonardo da Vinci. Now there's a guy who had a passion for his work regardless of his economic opportunities. He had a few paying gigs—painting Madonnas and portraits of rich people—but you sense that those were just the things he did to pay the rent. Underneath was a real passion to understand and fully exploit every medium he was working in regardless of whether there was a patron willing to support that project. Today, he is known for a multitude of ideas and skills, only a few of which he was ever paid for. That's the way you operate if you truly care about your art. You plow ahead, doing what you need to do to stay alive but not limiting yourself to the narrow needs of your sponsors.

Finally, the young artist is often tempted to join some form of support group. Some aspiring writers in the same city might form a creative writing group where each reads his work aloud and the others critique it. That's another nice-sounding idea that doesn't work in the real world. Soon you are spending most of your time maintaining the organization and less time on actual creation. The quality of the feedback you are getting is also suspect. Each of your critics has his own work to promote, and this bias is going to color his view of yours. Is this useful feedback, or are people just patting each other on the back, telling each other what they want to hear?

People join creative groups because they are lonely, because they want someone to hold their hand on the journey. Unfortunately, creativity is an inherently lonely undertaking. You have to be self-contained and self-motivated if you expect to become great in what you do. It is safe to say that history's greatest writers did not become great by joining writers' groups. Quite the opposite: They tended to lock themselves off from society so they could get things done according to their own muse.

Feedback is certainly helpful when it happens and you can't afford to ignore it, but it has to be honest and unbiased feedback, not a pat on the back from a friend. The fact is, good feedback is very rare in the real world until your final work is released and it is too late. Instead, you have to rely primarily on your meta-skill of self-feedback, looking calmly at your own work and seeing it as it really is.

Becoming great in any art form is a matter of building up a toolbox of both meta- and practical skills. This can only happen by intense, direct, personal experience, coupled with the willingness to look objectively at your own work and modify your techniques accordingly. To modify your techniques, you can't get too invested in the old ones. If you have been painting pictures a certain way for ten years and unexpectedly discover a new technique that is better, you have to be willing to turn on a dime and pick up that new technique, even if it devalues the stuff you have already done.

A committed artist usually looks back on his own past not with reverence but embarrassment. He says, "My god, I can't believe how primitive my work was back then!" Others may not share this sentiment, but it is essential for the artist to continually move on. As he builds his toolbox, old techniques become archaic. Meanwhile, his work gets easier and easier as he spits out more great work with fewer and fewer strokes.

If you are a great artist spewing out great work, day after day, year after year, sooner or later someone will notice. If you are a Leonardo, the market may never fully understand you until you are long dead, but at least you'll sell a few stunning Madonnas here and there.

The old-fashioned way of becoming a great artist is to consistently produce great work. There is no shortcut to getting there. You have to take the time to practice your art and build your toolbox.

For related essays on creativity, see my Virtual Film Studio.