On art
Some thoughts on: what is art? who is an artist? what is success as an artist?

Some of the big questions in art

Some thoughts on: what is art? who is an artist? what is success as an artist?

Text copyright Jenelle Latcham, not to be reproduced without permission.

There are as many answers to this as there are artists. The important thing for any artist is, what do you personally think art is?

My thoughts on art start with a surprising piece for a painter - Damian Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skull, titled ‘For the love of God’; you can easily find an image of it online. I viewed it (with high security) at White Cube gallery in London. (Note that online photos show a front or side view where the somewhat off-putting teeth are very prominent. I recollect leaning over it displayed at waist level on a free-standing pedestal, so we saw more of the interesting shape of the top of the skull and a lot less of the teeth.)

Unexpectedly, I found this a powerful piece of art when seen in real life. It works on so many levels. There is the play of materials - the unseen bone of the skull wallpapered with diamonds - and the absurdity of this clash of dull everyday with priceless. There is the texture of bumpy, hard diamonds and the glittering visual texture, installed on such a radical backdrop - art can be made of anything. And shape: as the diamonds flow into the eye sockets and under the back of the skull, your attention is drawn to what an interesting shape a skull is. Then there are the conceptual aspects - the rich person’s diamonds ending up with unavoidable death, harking back to the historical practice of including a skull in a painting as a reminder that we are all mortal and that vanity is empty. The presence of the person who grew the skull was also somewhat of an elephant in the room as you viewed the human skull, feeling a little voyeuristic. A memorable work that touched the viewer with our common humanity.

From there, my working definition of art is inspired by the Lascaux cave paintings. I have been to the site in France and viewed the public replica cave so for me the paintings always have a sense of place.

No-one knows why the paintings were made but I like the paintings’ sincerity, their total lack of pretension. The animals are drawn respectfully and with familiarity, in simple, elegant, expressive lines and gentle, harmonious compositions. Each artist took care with the work, and appears to have enjoyed making the curl of a tail or the curve of a horn. The paintings are dignified renderings of their common life experience, a meaningful expression of their life. That to me is good art.
- December 2015

I think every aspiring artist ponders this question at some stage - for example when contemplating the term ‘professional artist’. Who is an artist (and who isn’t)?

I decided that for me, an ‘artist’ is simply ‘someone who makes art’. Even for a drawing done by a four-year-old, you would say the child was ‘the artist’ who did the drawing.

By this definition someone who does art with limited time is no less ‘an artist’ than someone who is able to practise their art full-time and professionally; both are engaged in making art. In fact most full-time artists start out as limited-time artists and produce good enough work at that stage to turn professional.

What brought this home to me was the case of Harper Lee, author of To kill a mockingbird. Until recently she had written only one novel in her lifetime. And yet that novel was voted ‘novel of the century’ and features on countless school reading lists. Anyone discussing her work would refer to her as ‘the novelist’ - yet she had only written one novel. (Could she be called a ‘professional novelist’?)

Of course every person making art is capable of turning out art that is rubbish. Whether a piece of work is any good is a different question, and one with as many different answers as there are viewers.

What do you think makes someone an artist?

If you are serious about your painting, it is useful to ask this question now and then, and mindfully observe how your answer may have changed.

For some artists success could mean selling paintings, or earning a living. For others it could mean being selected for a show, winning prizes, attaining memberships; and for still others, becoming well known through activities such as demonstrating to art societies. Another concept of success is being able to always turn out a good painting.

However, it is possible to discover on your art journey that these measures of success do not work out as you would expect. Here are a few ways things can come unstuck.

A sale can make you feel good, but is widely agreed by artists that sales are unpredictable. It’s not hard to notice that works that sell in a group show are not necessarily the best works but simply what appeals to a particular purchaser. (Why does anyone buy a painting?) In smaller societies some of the sales are amateurish works at budget prices (easy to buy, easy to throw away after a while, and the purchaser may be a loyal supporter). A big show in a high profile venue may have few sales - or it can vary from one year to the next. It’s a good idea to conduct your own market research by visiting shows near the final day, to see what actually sold and at what price (and in what frame too).

You may also encounter the dilemma of completing a work you are pleased with and want to keep in the family, which means not being able to sell it but also not being able to exhibit it or try out for a prize, as many require all work submitted to be for sale. At a recent retrospective of work by Charlotte Johnson Wahl (mother of London mayor Boris Johnson), a video documented her high-profile children commenting on paintings they had grown up with and how they loved now having them in their own homes. Some artists advise keeping your best work. It is certainly inspiring to live with some of your best paintings (‘how did I do that?’).

Another trap is having to churn out work for deadlines, which though sometimes necessary can be counterproductive to producing meaningful work or growing as an artist. Some London art shows require gruelling output from their artists. Some artists regularly featured in top shows produce the same predictable work year after year. Excellence is wonderfully inspiring, but once an artist’s work has been awarded a few times, it is even more inspiring to see some growth, if just a little exploration of side-roads. David Hockney blew us away with his groundbreaking show of huge brightly-coloured Yorkshire landscapes a few years ago (‘A bigger picture’, at the Royal Academy in London), aged seventy-five.

It can be disappointing too to realise that the most lucrative market niche or gallery opportunity may require that you paint in a style that is more gimmicky than solid. You are selling, but may also feel you are selling out. US artist Susan Webb Tregay has a strategy of painting for sales in summer and doing serious work for herself and competitions in winter, making winter something to look forward to and building in an opportunity for artistic growth.

Having anyone judge your work is something to approach with an awareness of the limitations of the process. I find critique sessions an invaluable part of the workshops I attend and I have sat through enough critiques to learn that there is always something good in every painting, no matter how bad (including mine). Having bits of accomplishment pointed out across a variety of colleagues’ paintings teaches you a lot, and is a vital confidence-booster when it is your painting’s turn. However the workshop presenter is aware they know nothing of your journey - what you are trying to accomplish with your art, how long you have taken to get to this stage - and can only offer limited advice. US artist Joyce Hicks commented that she has learnt that what people produce on a workshop with her says nothing of what they produce at home. Workshop presenters recommend you go to a workshop to learn new things, not produce what you have already mastered. Usually your best judge is a teacher/mentor who knows your journey - but then only if they themselves are broadly informed and growing as an artist; some local teachers have only a limited awareness of the world of watercolour and art. It is not surprising a book can be written on Why art cannot be taught. The book Art & Fear suggests your best guide for your work is your own past work; it will tell you all you need to know about what you need to master, what you’re good at, and where you might be heading (or how you may have become lost).

Judging art is like confidently stating that on this occasion the banana is better than the apple and orange - a difficult task for anyone. You also quickly learn that all art show judges are individuals with their own preferences. That is as it should be, but there should also be an openness to excellence in all its guises, and a professional commitment to staying current in the field. Some art shows and prizes leave a lot of good entrants shaking their heads. I’d like to think that a knockout painting would always be selected, but I know of a top artist having a painting rejected in one show and having it win a prize in another. Sometimes a judge is not asked back.

The setup of the show itself can work against good contemporary work being recognised and valued. Some shows and societies suffer from a ‘closed loop’ situation where each year’s selection largely reinforces previous years’ choices, with limited opening for the whole to move along with contemporary developments in the field; one artist publicly described a particular UK situation as ‘the grip of tradition on societies’.

Another artist was recently quoted in UK’s The Artist magazine giving a view about competitions that ‘ethically many are dubious’. You may find that transparency of who actually judges and how, and how judges are selected (who determined that this person was suitably expert and on what grounds?), accountability for the entry fees paid in terms of legal fair trading (what do we think we paying for when we enter? what does the society know it is actually offering?), as well as respect for the sizeable impact the entrants’ fees have on the annual budget of many societies, are sometimes lacking. The most unexpected process I know of was informal group judging based on ‘do we know this artist, have we hung them before, did it sell?’, explained quite openly in public - not at all how entrants assumed their work would be judged. The best attempt at a merit-based system I’ve heard of is where American Watercolour Society members vote privately for which members will judge their and nonmembers’ work each year.

A newer issue unique to watercolour in competitions is the rise of acrylic painting, which is usually exhibited with watercolour as it is also water-based and can be done on paper. Watercolour societies now have some members who paint solely in acrylics, and it is possible that your watercolour painting in a watercolour competition will be judged by an artist with no affinity for the medium. This is a global dilemma with no easy answer. In a similar way watercolour artists have a tougher time in all-media art societies (which is most of the mid-level societies in the UK) as the painting is expected to be ‘a good watercolour’ as well as a good painting, which is a lot harder to produce than ‘a good acrylic’ or ‘a good oil’ painting.

As for memberships, I have seen instances of excellent work being rejected for membership. I feel for the unsuccessful candidates and accept that with societies things can be more complicated than they appear. In a different variation, one society offers membership after three years’ hanging but one new member said it had taken five years, they thought from waiting for a vacancy to occur.

Mindfulness suggests bringing kindness and compassion to these negative situations - well-meaning people are often too close to see the flaws in their system. Hopefully over time newer members will bring societies to twenty-first century accountability and effectiveness (which is good for everyone).

As a different benchmark of success, demonstrations are a good way for demonstrator artists to boost income as well as profile (and are useful for artists in the audience to learn new things). But apparently the reality of demonstrating is that it makes for long days on the road, carting a lot of gear and encountering varying welcomes; not to be taken on without a lot of dedication.

When it comes to always turning out a good painting as an indicator of having ‘made it’, ask any regular workshop attendee. We watch top artists bravely perform in front of us over several days and in varying conditions and there are days when we nod to each other and comment ‘not quite as good as yesterday’s’. Less successful paintings are not a sign of failure or lack of talent but simply one possible outcome of attempting a new painting.

And as for always successfully predicting whether what you’re about to do will work, even expert watercolourists talk of occasional tactics like trying out a colour on a scrap of watercolour paper and holding it in place to see if it’s a good bet.

It is commonly advised that if you’re turning out winners every time, you’re stuck with a formula and not growing as an artist - which do you choose?

So you may find that the usual forms of success in art, as in other areas of life, can disappoint; these are goals worth aiming for but with a light-hearted dose of humour.

How do you find an authentic measure of success? One way is to get back to what making art means to you.

I ended up deciding that what would make me feel I had genuinely succeeded in trying to be a good artist would be to have produced some paintings that are seen as good paintings by top watercolourists whom I respect. I choose my own judges.

And I was surprised recently to realise I had now achieved that success - in a quiet, slow, non-public way, not at all how I had assumed it would happen, and not at all what our culture promotes as ‘achieving success’.

But I value the sense of accomplishment this quiet success has brought, and move on in confidence from there. I still make some unsuccessful paintings but I am kinder to myself. I still have goals I work towards but I am also mindful of simply observing how my journey unfolds and letting go of attachment to a particular outcome rather than turning myself inside out trying to make it happen.

What is your personal measure of success as an artist?

- March 2016

Text copyright Jenelle Latcham, not to be reproduced without permission.