All serious artists have a strong need to express their vision. This may be hard for others to understand, that for some reason artists have a built-in insatiable appetite to "express themselves." I guess it is like an addiction in that sense, although it is a positive, creative force at work rather than a negative, self-destructive one.
The nature of an artist is receptivity. By nature or training, artists spend their lives soaking in their surroundings - the sights, sounds, and meanings. Art training gives artists the ability to examine the world visually, and expressively. Being an artist is like a sensory bombardment, an occupational hazard of constant alertness. Maybe because of this incoming river of sensations, artists then have a great need for this material to be digested and sent out again in the form of art, as well as a need for solitude to do the processing.
While others are living their lives at work and at home, artists have another life - their real life - where they need to redirect this input outward. Outward stimuli are processed in a computer-like fashion (but based on intuition rather than mathematics); they enter an artist and are mixed in with his or her previous experiences and temperament, then re-mixed and organized into a cohesive expression. Artists are like heat-seeking missiles, bent only on being able to release their manufactured goods. From my own experience, having spent most of my life working in an office to pay the rent, this solitary confinement away from my real work is unbearable, minute by minute. While others see a job as a natural state of affairs, an artist will likely see it as a life sentence away from his/her real work. Many people who complain about their jobs would become bored if they didn't have to work; golf or tennis would eventually leave them looking for the companionship and structure of a job. Artists, however, would give 10 years of their lives for the opportunity to cash out some of the backed-up artworks in their psyches. I am currently working on an idea I first had about 6 years ago, with many more lined up from the past that need to be made.
Not all those who make art are artists. The distinguishing factor is expression. Those who concentrate on technique and commercial viability lack this expressive depth. They may be good painters, but lacking in any expression beyond a greeting card. For art is about "saying" something meaningful about ourselves, life, and/or art. It may be intellectual or emotional, but something sets it apart from mere visual appearance. A technically gifted singer may be the best singer, but without expression, this ability will be hollow. The two components of visual art are formal qualities (space, color, composition) and content or meaning. Art can be great without sophisticated formal qualities, but not without expression. All the training and formal excellence in the world won't create a good artist without their inner substance reflected in their art. In other words, we need to develop ourselves to be good artists, by reading, thinking, looking, feeling and listening - all our lives. Again, the soaking in. We have to feed ourselves mentally and emotionally with music, art, literature, dance, theater - all the arts. These arts feed the human spirit - the part that doesn't deal with the numbers and filing systems of the "real" world, but rather with ideas and "feelings." Matisse wrote that art is not exactitude, but truth. Art supplies a place for the parts of life that are outside the realm of everyday reality of numbers, precision, measuring, etc. - and this is the largest and most important part of life. The numbers and gadgets that loom so largely now are really only a tiny percentage of the 'real' reality.
By "feelings," I don't mean happiness, anger, etc., but I don't know another word to use for this. Sometimes a work of art will create a specific nameable feeling - like sadness from a song, or agitation from a painting, but more often the feeling is unnamable and non-specific - but no less powerful. For example, a classic Rolling Stones song, such as Honky Tonk Woman, will give us a strong "feeling" of being alive - the bravado of youth, a feeling of 'coolness.' When we listen to the music that reaches our hearts, we can't describe the way it makes us feel. A great piece of music can convey a great tragic sense, even with no words. Classical music, such as Beethoven, can express what can't be put into words - very profoundly - and without using words. Abstract art, to me, is like instrumental music, music without words; just because it doesn't "say" anything literally doesn't mean it isn't saying anything. In fact, often its strength lies in its wordlessness. When we listen to a great piece of music, we don't always think to ourselves, "What does this piece of music mean?" as people often do with a work of art. We need to learn to look at visual art with the same receptive, willing spirit that we listen to music. With experience and familiarity, artworks will also speak to us, without the need to dissect the art in this way. For that is a literary, or literal, approach - and the little we gain from it is set against the huge amount we are then missing - the total 'gestalt' of the work. In music, this means the melody, the harmony, the structure, the meaning or content, the rhythm, the vocals, the parts the various instruments play and their interaction with one another. In art, this is the composition, the color, the content or meaning, the pictorial principles such as rhythm, contrast, movement, etc. Art also involves a context, which is the aesthetic and art historical environment in which the work was created.
There are two parts to visual art - formal qualities (space, color, composition, etc.) and expression. The fundamental and distinguishing characteristic of art is expression (its essential ingredient). In this sense, one may be highly skilled in a medium, but skill only constitutes craft or manual dexterity. With the addition of expression, craft becomes art. A work of art may be great without formal skill, but not without expression. Great, real, art is not about technique - it is about expression. If an artist relies on technique alone, producing images with the same set of techniques, this is not real art, for with real artworks, each one is different. Each expresses something unique, and requires a specific set of techniques to express it. This is why following "rules" is not useful. With both skill and expression, a work becomes great. When the painter Cezanne was young, he painted without any formal discipline, slabbing the paint on thickly and creating highly erotic and personal images. While this is not unusual in the 20th century, for the mid-19th century this was extremely unusual. Needless to say, many in the then art establishment reacted negatively to these images. Impressionism was just in its beginnings at that time, and the older artist Camille Pissarro took Cezanne under his wing. He directed him toward the study of nature, in particular landscapes. This discipline of nature studies didn't inhibit Cezanne's passion in his work - on the contrary, it intensified it. This combination of formal study (skill) and passion is what makes Cezanne's work great.
Theoretically, any activity done to a supreme degree of 'perfection' can be called art. Thus a performing artist (e.g., a singer) can perform a song so skillfully and with such great expression and conviction that it can be a work of art. Ordinarily, the creative artist (composer, visual artist, choreographer, etc.) is the true artist, and the performer just that, a performing artist. An inspired cartoonist can, with great skill (and expression) can be considered an artist. And the very act of creating supremely excellent works can be a form of expression. For example, Monet's work is considered great even though its content is not "expressive" in the usual sense. It ostensibly does not convey an emotion or idea - it is 'just' visual. However, because of his formal study of nature, as well as color, space and composition, and his supreme skill at producing excellent paintings, his work has the conviction of great art. His excellence, achieved through a lifetime of prolific output, is his expression, which inspires the rest of us to aim so high as well, in all our activities. This excellence, this striving for quality, is critically important in the world. In spite of cynicism, in spite of futility, we won't survive unless we create enough good to counteract all the bad. I came of age in the '60's; we experienced just a little of the wonderful feeling of harmony and idealism in practice, whether in the protest marches on Washington or the fields at Woodstock. We know it is possible, even if fleeting - and we can't forget how good it felt. It's still worth going after, and the arts are probably the best way to get there.
Not only formal study and expression are important - an artist needs to be aware of art history, from cave paintings to the present. He/she needs to constantly look at good art, whether in books, museums, galleries, art centers, the internet. And it also helps a lot to read books and listen to artists talk about their work, as well as artist biographies, to understand the artistic process. For art can't be approached the way we approach other activities. It can't be accessed through the intellect, or technology, or using any other part of the left side of the brain. We can't confront it head-on, or chase it with high doses of caffeine; we can't will the process to happen. We can only nurture it in ourselves, with years of study, art-making, art historical awareness and almost a form of meditation, to increase our receptivity. We can't work only when inspired - like soldiers and farmers, we work diligently and steadily. Among the seeds we plant in this fertile soil will sprout the "good" works, surrounded by the average, or even bad, ones. (Please excuse this metaphor - I'm just trying to make this clear.)
Music communicates and expresses - not always specific feelings, like happy, angry - but awareness of aspects of life - exuberance, tragedy, the awareness of being alive, the temporariness of life - its preciousness. It lifts the spirit - can make it soar. It also washes over our hearts when we are weary from the sorrow or pettiness of life. While we can easily see this in music, the unfamiliarity of many with art keeps them from seeing it in artworks. With familiarity, art can be the same. Most artists want, in their work, to make people look, think, feel, to be aware of what's around them, whether their physical surroundings, or their emotional, cultural or social surroundings. This is our job as artists - because many people don't look, think, feel or become aware of themselves or what's around them. They are too busy, or they haven't been exposed to alternate ideas or viewpoints, and often don't appreciate the world, or life. Nowadays, we are distracted by so much - and often these distractions are mediocre, meaningless, or even destructive. They cement our hold on the surface of life, rather than on its deeper meanings. This is where the arts come in - this is their importance; not only to their makers, but to their viewing or listening audience.
Most people think that in order to produce good art, someone needs a formal education. Although this is an extremely valuable experience for artists, a person's personal experience counts for a great deal also. This experience can come from many sources - some of them unexpected. For example, being exposed to fine art and good music growing up certainly helps someone to be a good artist; but experience of a different kind, even negative, can also produce an artist. For example, someone who has been a drug addict and recovered can also bring this intense personal struggle to bear in their art, for example as an actor or musician. To me, the most value of a formal education comes from our interaction with other students and teachers/artists, whose personal artistic identities and approaches teach us how to reach the right (creative) side of our brains/hearts/souls: how to access this part of ourselves in order to make art.
By nature and training, artists are more inner-directed than outer-directed. We take our stimuli from the outer world as well as our inner one, but we are not as dependent on the outer world as the average person. For example, many people need television, conversation with other people, going places and doing things - they are often at a loss without these things. Artists spend more time looking inside, and 'entertaining', motivating or inspiring themselves. We take in perceptions and impressions of the physical and intangible worlds, and then we have a need to process these perceptions and impressions and send them back out, in the form of songs, dances, sculptures, paintings, poems, etc. I think we are biologically programmed to do this, and most serious artists scheme all their lives to find more time and ways to make their art, short of doing something illegal, and perhaps for some, even illegal. Many roads in life are difficult, and an artist's is no exception. The average person has a job, and then they have the rest of their lives. Artists usually have a job, then they need to make their real work, and then what is left over is their lives - often not much. There is often a huge sacrifice, in social terms - choosing whether to make art or visit with friends and family (choosing between necessities).
When an artwork is deemed 'good,' it doesn't just mean that it has been skillfully created. The quality of the expression is over half of the criteria for judging art. Bob Dylan 'can't sing' - but this is irrelevant to the quality of his music. Art is choosing the best means to convey one's expression - every element is chosen, consciously or subconsciously, to express one's intentions. If artists were only measured by their skill as a "good" singer/painter, etc., then Dylan and Mick Jagger would not be at the top of their field. Dylan's words sung by a formally trained operatic singer would give an entirely different take on his intentions - and an unsuccessful one. An artist measures the success of his or her works on how well they were able to express what they were trying to say. Everything is part of this expression - in music this means the lyrics, the melody, the harmony, the arrangement/instrumentation, the kind of singing voice, etc. In painting or drawing, this means the format (e.g., oval, rectangle, square), size, medium, subject, formal elements (space, color, composition, etc.) Every choice made in the artwork becomes part of the expression. This is what is meant by concern for detail, not how exactly an image is reproduced; this means that painting every freckle on the skin is not what constitutes attention to detail in good art - it means considering every element of the work, in terms of its effectiveness in conveying the expression (intention) of the artist. In sculpture, choice of material is critical to expression; using cardboard rather than marble conveys an entirely different expression. One connotes cheapness and the temporary, while the other represents permanence and monumentality. It is easier to see this in music than in art, mainly because we are all very familiar with music. In visual art, drawing 'correctly' is not the measure of a good artist; drawing is only a means to an end, which is seeing, and understanding, to eventually express one's inner vision. A contemporary artist will express their vision not by drawing correctly, but by choosing particular elements for each piece - choosing the elements that will express what they are trying to say. A poet who spells every word correctly is not a great poet because of this skill, but rather by the meaning of the words.
The 20th century painter Wassily Kandinsky called this artist's intention (vision) his/her 'inner necessity.' Discovering and following this inner necessity is how artists make their decisions about how to put their intentions into tangible form. If their intention is to express the darkness of the Holocaust, for example, they might choose a material suggestive of monumental import, such as stone or bronze, rather than papier mache. A poet chooses words not only for their meaning, but for their sound - words like 'torture' not only have a meaning, but a sense - in this case the r's in the word convey a harsh, abrasive feel, which contributes to the desired intention of a work expressing the tortuous. In two-dimensional images, the manner in which the paint is applied is also part of the expression - soft fuzzy edges of forms convey an entirely different expression than sharp, clean edges of forms. Geometric forms express something different than organic forms. Color can also be very expressive - whether dark, warm or cool, pastel, primary hues, acidic, etc. The character of a line can express very different things, whether it is Matisse's easy flowing lines, or Egon Schiele's tortured, angular expressionistic lines. Rodin's large bronze sculptures express the heroic; David Smith's geometric abstractions convey a more modern heroism, perhaps less ethereal. Jasper Johns' early painterly images convey a very different sensation than the crisply painted Surrealistic images of Magritte. Considering all the possibilities makes for good art; and to make oneself aware of more possibilities, training and personal searching are invaluable. We have to push ourselves all our lives - for we never really arrive, we just keep expanding and refining the search.
Often the reason we love a piece of music is its abstract qualities - the melody, the harmony, the rhythm, the musical arrangement, etc. It may have words, and sometimes the words are very meaningful - but we love the music for its abstract qualities alone. Once we learn to see visual art principles and elements, we can do the same with visual art. Great art can be made from non-monumental elements; for example many Beatles songs, such as on the Sargeant Pepper and white albums, have "silly" lyrics - just playing with words or ideas. In other words, it isn't so much what is done, but how. Great works of art are often made from little means, or 'insignificant' elements. A mark of a master may be their ability to make something valuable out of something very ordinary. In visual art, we can learn to see the visual equivalents of melody, harmony, rhythm and musical arrangements, and enjoy it for these reasons alone. If the work also expresses an idea or feeling, this doubles the power and validity of a work of art. Geometry can have its own meaning and beauty - the beauty of structure - whether in Jasper Johns' 3-dimensional works hung on a wall, or the underlying geometic structure of Cezanne's paintings.
Another quality of great art, music, dance and literature is conviction - another idea hard to express in words. The simplest meaning is that a work is made by an artist who believes in what he/she has created, while they were creating it. This involves not only belief in the present tense, but life and artistic experience over a period of time, which culminates in works of art with conviction. The idea of 'soul' in music is similar to this; we often know when a work has conviction - we can sense it. If someone sings and seems to be lacking in conviction, most likely their music will be lacking. To create a work of art with conviction, we have our artistic conviction in the work. It is easier for people to sense music without conviction, because they are more familiar with music; in art we can also sense a work without the conviction of artistic experience and belief behind it, after we become more familiar with art. Feeling/soul is not a particular feeling, but rather a sense of conviction - that the artist sings/paints/dances/writes/sculpts what they mean, and mean what they create, as well as having a sense of authority that comes with experience as an artist. Cezanne's work has this authority and conviction, as do all great artists. Drawing and painting from life as a student will give a mature artist's work a sense of conviction - that they know what they are doing - even if their work becomes abstract.