No one is really an expert in art. It is truly a lifetime process that never ends. At the end of his long life, Renoir said that he was just beginning to learn how to paint. Cezanne, too, regretted that he only had one lifetime to study. Formal training, though not critical, helps in the sense that it can speed up one's learning, having the benefit of many teachers' and students' experiences. A beginning art student will learn visual perception (basic drawing), two-dimensional design, three-dimensional design, history of western art, perspective, lettering, color theory, figure drawing, and more; ceramics, sculpture, photography, printmaking, art history, painting and more come after the first year.
Though perhaps not commonly known, it requires a lot of study to learn how to make art. Even if self-taught, one must go to museums, galleries, read books, talk to other artists, etc. to learn about painting, sculpture, printmaking, photography or contemporary media. It really must become more than an area of study - it becomes a way of life, in that an artist is always an artist; it is a characteristic rather than an activity. It means to always be searching, looking, thinking, feeling. Many times a day, I will see things in nature, in a newspaper or magazine, when driving, etc. that strike me, and I make note of - for possible use in the future. It may be an object or scene - but more often it is seeing a color relationship of two or more colors together; or an interesting light effect; an arrangement of patterns in space. I try to remember to use those colors in that relationship in a future painting; or that light effect, etc. Because eventually, artists will see these relationships separately from the objects they make up, in other words - their abstract identity. When I see something striking, I try to narrow down what specifically it is that strikes me. Is it the color(s), shape, subject, composition? Once I narrow it down, I use only what specifically interested me in a future painting. If it is only the color relationships that interest me, then I use only the color relationships, and not the subject matter, etc. In this way, art is distilled from the experience of looking at nature, or whatever our environment may be. Though there is a lot to learn about art history, technique, etc., ultimately art must come from the heart and mind. There should be no prescribed technique for certain things: how to love others, how to make music, how to make art. If one uses a method, it becomes contrived, not sincere. And I believe the real value of a work of art lies not in its technical accomplishment, but in the quality of its expression.
A certain portion of art-making comes from the unconscious; that is, not on the conscious level, or premeditated. There are parts of art-making which are mechanical and down-to-earth, and very much on the conscious level. When an artist is working on a piece of art, he/she will stop often, to look at and study the work, moving from the unconscious mind to the conscious, to judge the progress, to see if the piece "works" or not. They will study the color relationships, the composition or design, the spatial relationships, and other formal values; and perhaps check for correct proportions. They will continue to work until the piece "works," whether the artwork has a "finished," or polished, quality or not. It is finished when all the elements (color, composition, form, space, line) work together, hopefully "perfectly." During the period of 'modern' art (ca. 1900-1955), much stress was put on these formal elements; during the postmodern era, these formal demands were relaxed somewhat.
They can also check to see if the execution of the work is true to their original conception. Matisse wrote an essay, On Painting, which describes this relationship between conception and execution. He advised that if an artist feels uncertain during the progress of the work, he/she should think back to what their original idea was, and then try to make artistic decisions based on this original intention. Kandinsky, another 20th century artist, wrote an essay entitled Concerning the Spiritual in Art, in which he described the artist's decision-making process as following his or her "inner necessity." This meant being attuned to their original and deepest artistic intentions, or, what they are trying to express. There is a spectrum between putting emphasis on the conception of a work of art, or the execution. Artists who feel the significance lies in the conception lean toward a more contemporary attitude, that of conceptualism. Those whose efforts lean toward the execution lean toward more traditional art, with more dependence on technique.
Art swings on a pendulum between the head, or cerebral level; and the heart, or emotional level, for individual artists, and for art in general. Just as politics has a spectrum, art moves between the "classical" and the "romantic," or head and heart. On the classical end, art is concerned with ideas, logic, order, harmony, drawing, line and form (head). On the romantic end, there is passion, romantic ideas, feelings, masses of color (heart). Although most art and artists contain some of both elements, often they lean toward one or the other. Classical means Ingres, David, the Cubists, and modern Conceptualists. Romantic means expressionistic; it means Delacroix, van Gogh, Gericault, the Impressionists, the Fauves. Though there is still this spectrum in art, I think the distance between head and heart has narrowed in much of modern and contemporary art; the worlds of abstraction and conceptualism, among other modern movements, seem to be less polarized, and contain both head and heart.
And, though the artist studies to learn mental and technical skills, he or she needs to always retain the innocence of eye, to always see as if for the first time, fresh; otherwise, it is just mass producing art. To keep the innocence of the child, in wonder at the universe unknown to us, helps an artist be real, genuine. I also think many artists are driven to produce their work, not in an unhealthy sense, but in some mysterious way, to spread the vision they have acquired through the work itself. There are many examples of artists in their 80's or 90's who still kept working - Renoir, Monet, Picasso, Georgia O'Keeffe. Renoir developed rheumatoid arthritis, and eventually could only paint by strapping a brush to his wrist; he died while working at his easel. Monet and Degas had serious vision problems, but both kept on working until their deaths. I have felt this pressure to express most of my life; the fact that it is hard to find time to paint has only intensified this feeling.
So, to follow the heart is a good path for the artist; to become oneself often takes a long time. An artist's vision, what he/she needs to express, often develops with time, and working. When just starting out, a student may not know where to begin. My experience has been that you just start somewhere, in a place that is as meaningful to you as possible. Art seems to be a process where ideas come from the work itself; one thing leads to another, and eventually you have more ideas than you have time to carry them out. I remember years ago, after graduating from art school, and being somewhat at a loss as to where to start. I just started drawing from old family photographs - of the 1940's, with the interesting cars, leopard-skin coats, women's clothes, etc.; I just followed what interested me, visually and emotionally; and that led me down a 'long and winding road.'
As far as day-to-day artistic behavior, I recommend working on your art before you tackle the mundane demands of the world. First, you will be fresh; and second, you will be working with the right side of your brain. You want your mind to be uncluttered with daily activities - particularly aggravating or tedious activities. It is hard to switch back and forth between the two sides of the brain - I can't run errands, then come home and paint, or do laundry, pay bills, or anything that would bring me smack into the "real" world. I need to soar and transcend when I work. I need the illusion of peace and calm, of peace of mind, of just myself and my painting. I need to forget that "real" world in order to do good work, at least for the time I'm in front of the canvas.
A good habit to develop is to stop often while you're working, sit down and see what you've got. Sit away from the painting - as much as 10 feet away - to study it. If you get to a point where you feel unsure what to do next, often waiting a day, a week, or longer will offer up a possible solution. You can see the work fresh, and often can spot the problem area right away. When learning to paint, which takes years, there is often frustration and sometimes you will be at a complete loss as to how to solve the aesthetic problem in front of you. Painters sometimes put the work away for long periods of time - sometimes the solution will come to you when you least expect it. In any case, one good way to handle the high anxiety is to "just go out and paint the day," as one professor told me. Just paint with no expectations, no preconceptions, no worries, just have a great experience painting, and this can often cure the old anxiety. It's amazing what the pure joy of painting can do. Plus, when you paint what you know and love, the quality usually is much higher than when you paint something that has no interest for you.
There are certain principles and guidelines for painting, which are valuable to know. However, these are only guidelines, not rules, and in art, all is fair. The trick is to "make it work." I personally feel that the artist can do whatever they want - whatever works. That is one of the appealing things about making art.
Most of the time, progress is slow and gradual, barely discernible from painting to painting, unless you compare recent work with that done 6 months ago or longer. Then, often you can see that giant steps are being made. And then, sometimes there are quantum leaps made - that's always nice!
As far as artists and art movements are concerned, I think most artists haven't thought of themselves as being part of any movement - they are too individualistic to be labeled. Often I have read accounts of artists' lives, to find out that they were unhappy with the way the critics or the public had labeled their work. Miro, for instance, the Spanish painter in the first half of the 20th century, was loosely associated with the Surrealist movement, and his work has been largely considered abstract. He, however, had little signs and figures that signified something very specific from his memory, and was irritated at being labeled an abstractionist.
Even the early 20th century art movements were often loosely formed, not a unified group, as art historians would suggest. Artists, like musicians, come and go, and change as they wish - don't like to be tied down to one label or another. They often are influenced by much art of the past and present, loosely and flexibly mixed, not just one "school" of thinking. Often, art movements which had a manifesto and a doctrinaire attitude limited themselves, and ultimately, their influence, for instance Futurism in Italy. Often, if one examines the individual artists within a movement, one sees wildly divergent attitudes and work. For example, the Abstract Expressionists, which included Rothko, Barnett Newman, Clyfford Still, de Kooning, Pollock, Kline, Motherwell, and many others with vastly different aesthetic philosophies, methods and "styles," from Newman's geometric abstraction to Rothko's light-infused painterly fields of color.
Which brings us around to the question of abstract vs. realistic, which is a misdirected opposition. The idea of abstraction began in the late 19th century, with artists declaring that the purpose of art was not to imitate external reality. Artists as diverse as Whistler, Gauguin, and other Post-Impressionists declared that a painting had its own, or pictorial, reality - that it was an arrangement of forms and colors on a flat surface. The famous painting, 'Whistler's Mother,' in fact was entitled by Whistler Arrangement in Black and Gray. Artists had always looked at painting in these terms, more or less. However, the emphasis now shifted from the Renaissance idea of the primacy of subject matter, to the modern idea of the independence of color and form from external appearance. And, Renaissance space, with its use of perspective to create the illusion of depth on a flat surface, now was declared null and void by artists such as Gauguin, Van Gogh, and many others, who claimed the canvas as a flat surface with no illusion of space.
Artists such as Cezanne, Picasso and Matisse in the early 20th century continued this line of inquiry, which resulted in Fauvism and Cubism, and even less dependence on external reality. In 1910, Kandinsky created one of the first completely abstract paintings, and wrote his essay, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, in which he described his conversion from a landscape painter to an abstractionist. He wrote that painting, like music, does not exist to describe external reality, but internal realities, emotions, spiritual concerns: what he called the inner necessity of the artist. Soon after followed Mondrian's pure geometry, and all the other abstraction of the 20th century. I always think of abstraction in painting as music without words - a symphony. It can say a great deal without words, without narrative, without a 'subject,' and without imitating nature in any way.
In fact, visual art is a nonverbal activity. It is very hard to use words to talk about a nonverbal world. And often misleading. Artists are usually inner-directed, rather than outer-directed, meaning that their impulses and stimuli come from within, not from without. They focus more on their internal reality than on the outside world. This has always been difficult for me - conversing with members of the real world. Their attention is constantly on their external environment - the weather, the political climate, physical appearances, tangible objects with names, classifications, objective criteria, dates, times, numbers.... They are constantly pulling you into their reality - the real world. To me, the REALLY real world is the world of feeling states, of cosmic reality - where objects don't have names, or files, or labels, or start times, end times, and reality comes in many more flavors. Just think, while we are here, eating popcorn, the many moons of Jupiter are experiencing God knows what reality? There are more things in heaven and earth than we can dream of.
Artists tend to think of objects as forms and colors, independently of their name, their identity, their meaning. I think it is a natural progression for a painter. Like notes in a piece of music, colors and forms define the work with their own identities, not with their nametags in the "real" world. The artistic process consists of juggling all the relationships of lines, shapes, colors, space, composition, etc. into a cohesive and meaningful whole, not trying to imitate outward appearances. Of all people, artists know best that, first of all, appearances can be and often are, deceptive - not only visually, but in life. It is a paradox that visual art is often not concerned with appearances, but with internal meaning; not with subject matter, but with the content, or meaning, of a work of art. Artists are trained not to take anything for granted - have any preconceptions - about reality.
What we know, and what we see, often are very different. Objects appear to get smaller as they recede into the distance - though we know that identical objects will not change size based on their distance from us. Parallel lines appear to eventually come together on the horizon line, even though we know that the train tracks never actually meet. So-called primitive art is often based on what the artist knows, not sees. Things often appear on a flat plane, objects don't become smaller as they go deeper in space. Often, the space is flat - a sort-of bird's eye view, with objects not overlapping, but simply placed on top of one another in a flat arrangement. For example, Grandma Moses' paintings, and Persian miniatures. So, describing what is 'real' and 'not real' is more complex than at first glance. With the Renaissance, artists became concerned with trying to create the illusion of depth in painting. Modern art, however, did not want to create any illusions - what we see is what we get. It may be a blue circle on a white field; it does not pretend to be anything else. Which, then, is the illusion? Which is the reality?
The success or failure of a work of art has little to do with its fidelity to external reality, whether a novel, film, piece of music, or work of art. The success lies in its skillful and meaningful relationships of abstract, or formal, elements. In the case of painting, that would be composition, color, space, movement, etc. Much contemporary art is not even "visual," but, rather, conceptual. Here, the emphasis is on the idea, or conception, rather than the execution of a work of art. Can execution be considered the lesser, or mechanical, of the two poles - based on a kind of manual dexterity? As Plato wrote, when the object has disintegrated, the idea will remain. Another case for conceptual art can be based on the idea of a work of art as a commodity, a major 20th and 21st century reality. When a Van Gogh painting of sunflowers sells for untold millions of dollars, is bought and sold like a rack of meat - does this indicate that the idea and value of art is lost on many people?
When no one can buy a Christo and Jeanne-Claude environmental artwork, or an intangible idea, does this convey the real meaning of art? Christo and Jeanne-Claude, in particular, raise temporary artworks on the earth, over buildings, etc. The interesting thing about their work is that it involves many people in the geographical area of the work - usually ordinary citizens - who may not be particularly anxious to see them construct their work in their hometown. There are meetings, etc., where everyone speaks their mind, including the artists, about the purpose and construction of the proposed piece. It is interesting to see the process unfold, from initial opposition to final acceptance, and even understanding and involvement, of the locals, some of whom eventually become enthusiastic about this don Quixote-like giant silk fabric wall, or wrapping of the Reichstag building in Germany. Here is another characteristic of much contemporary art - it involves larger populations, not just a lone artist, working in isolation. The group dynamic becomes part of the art itself - it is a growing of individuals and groups, all intimately involved in the art-making process, and so being able to understand it from within, not from a disinterested distance.
To me, this helps bridge the gap that has existed between artist and society for so long. It takes away some of the mystery, therefore the fear, of art, and exposes it at its best for the joyful and communion-like activity it can be. Rauschenberg is another joyful supplicant. His output has been enormous, and I've seen photographs and films of him working - he always has such an expression of ecstacy on his young, or aged, face. It's like he can hardly contain himself when he is working - that there is this eternal fountain pouring out of him constantly, trying to keep up with the images that pop into his head and heart. Associations that no one else would make - little icons of emotion that are as powerful as any piece of music could ever be. I can't describe how I sometimes feel when painting - if it is going well. I am listening to my favorite music - celtic - and I feel such joy to the depths of my self - the joy of self-expression, the joy of being alive, the joy of painting, when it feels like you are at one with the universe, its rhythms, its beauty and tears. It is the ultimate freedom.
I think that is in the artist's job description, to think about reality - its relativity, and its eternal truths. And sometimes, beauty. We get from the world - the world and our work feed one another. Artists also borrow from one another to a great extent - much in an artist's work is a reference to other art from other times and places. The entire universe is potential subject matter or content. Sometimes, I think of the artist's relationship to the world as a message in a bottle thrown into the ocean. We never know who will find it, read it, or what they'll make of it. But we have to keep tossing those bottles.