The Artful Record of a Moment

In the middle of the night a man awoke from a dream. He was so moved by the dream that he turned on the light, reached for a sheet of paper and a pen. After making notes he turned out the light and went back to sleep. In the morning he got up, still with the impression the dream left upon him, but he could not recall a single detail. He then remembered that he had made notes. He went to his night stand to retrieve his notes and, with disbelief, he read the words "Write a book."

It seems to be universal that each of us becomes so impressed by an experience that we want to "capture," record or highlight it in some form. We are compelled to "hold" the moment out of personal attachment, the desire to share it with others, or both. "Look at that sunset!", "What a great film!", "I have this cool idea.", "Listen to this song.", "I just had the strangest dream...." We may never tell anyone about our experience, we may tell a friend, or we may tell dozens of people. We all have our own way of extending and savoring an inspiring moment.

Artists, writers, musicians, and others who record their experiences in forms that communicate to the rest of us, are largely compelled to make outward note of personal impressions. The cave paintings of early man were the first forms of recorded expressions that allowed the artist to perpetually tell a story of human experience. It not only was a "dear diary" picture story for the artist, but one for those associated with the artist and for generations beyond. That first discovery of one's ability to visually describe with understanding an event that has meaning to others must have been an exhilarating revelation for the first artist, as well as for those exposed to his or her painting.

At the heart of the creation of every great artistic work will be the excitement of discovery, revelation, adventure, mystery, challenge. It is the catalyst that stimulates an artist to produce a work that is meaningful to themselves and others.

Inspiration alone, however, does not complete the equation for the production of a work with meaning and depth. Without disciplined technique, inspiration is like a ship without a rudder or, to borrow from Shakespeare, risks being "... a tale told by an idiot: filled with sound and fury, signifying nothing ...." An artist of integrity with something to say and the desire to say it well, will respect their vision enough to muster their best skills for its benefit -- and for their own satisfaction. Like an athlete who wishes to excel at a sport or a chess player wanting to broaden his arsenal of strategies, it requires practice, failure, discipline, commitment. There are no shortcuts to developing technical ability and it cannot be disregarded if an inspired artist intends to produce work that is worthy of their inspiration. Behind the work of a master is refined dexterity and instinctive execution.

On the other hand, highly disciplined technical ability absent of vision, enthusiasm, excitement, a mission, is like an empty cask. It looks as if there's wine in the cellar, but tap the cask and nothing comes out. Possessing great technique without having imagination is often a more complex problem and can ultimately become a career pitfall for many artists. There are a number of artists painting today who are quite good in the use of classical techniques. They are even able to reasonably copy masterpieces out of books. There are many artists, in fact, that are technically and purposely trained, who happen to be serving time in Chinese prisons making themselves economically useful for the state! Apart from the terrible circumstance of incarceration of these craftsmen, mass producing copies of scenes and subjects as if they were license plates might suggest that good hand-eye coordination and an acquired skill in matching colors are all that is needed to produce (actually, re-produce) great art.

Technical repetition is not found only in the example above. It is actually more prevalent in artwork that is typically commercialized and popularized broadly. Some stories go something like this: A reasonably talented artist produces some nice things. Let's say the artist paints fruit well. People are impressed with his fruit, but the strawberries sell best. His representative says, "Strawberries are in season. Paint more of those." The artist starts to make money and his strawberries are everywhere. He continues to do well. After awhile his exhibitions begin to seem monotonously full of strawberries. Later, people become tired of strawberries and the strawberry artist. The strawberry artist fades into the sunset and his career is hard to revive after that, even if he starts painting bananas.

Some artists also simply fall into ruts. They know how to effectively paint a certain thing in a certain way and that's it. What you see is what you get. A limited vocabulary in a repetitive story line (happens in Hollywood all the time). In either of these cases, the pattern becomes noticeable in a short period of time for those who look.

A well-known artist friend of mine put it in simple terms, "Inspiration without technique has little artistic value. Technique without inspiration has little artistic value." When you find a richly inspired vision and refined technical skill in the same artist, however, you have found something special.

Describing visual art and an artist's sophistication when it comes to expressing himself or herself can be done by drawing comparisons to the use of language. To tell a story or to convey a thought, speakers or writers use words as their medium of expression. The greater the vocabulary and the eloquence with which they apply their language skills, the more clearly and effectively their communication. A visual artist's vocabulary is comprised of color and contrasts. Compositional rules and elemental choices are the guiding sentence structure. The artist who continues to expand his or her color "vocabulary" will have a growing resource to draw upon when they approach a work. The level of maturity of an artist is measured in their understanding of the compositional needs of each piece. They will then more effectively use the array of colors in their repertoire. This does not mean that an artist uses every color they know in every work of art. The secret of using words well is not in the length of the sentence they appear in, but the clarity of the expression they are used to make. Like a haiku poem, a well conceived work can make a powerful statement with a limited palette.

So what does one look for to determine whether one might be encountering a Mark Twain with a paint brush or a Maya Angelou with a chisel? That is something that takes time and commitment, too. In literature, a sense of discernment is acquired the more you read. In art, discernment comes from looking. If you're interested in developing discernment, then keep looking -- and enjoy the process. If you have kids, take them with you. Look at work by masters -- reproductions in books will do. Visit galleries. Talk to objective and experienced authorities and artists. Notice whether an artist is repetitious or varied in their color choices. Do they say a lot with little color or say little with a lot of color? Is their work consistent or do you find an accidentally good piece on a wall of apparently lesser work they have produced? Sometimes the maturity of an artist's abilities will be shown in how easy they make an impressive piece look, natural, spontaneous. Other times, depending upon the artist and their style, the difficulty of execution might be striking. Whether an artist is a super-realist, an impressionist, an abstract expressionist, a surrealist, or any other "-ist," each is governed by a certain depth of vision, a drive to create, and a level of commitment to technical excellence. When an artist is firing on all cylinders at high RPM, they are in an elite class well above most other artists. Those of this class who continue with perseverance, in time will make indelible marks in their field and their work will inevitably affect many.

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