The Artist's Secret
October 6, 2006
The other day I happened to be paying a visit to one of my
galleries. I noticed a guy moving slowly along a wall--his nose
almost dragging on the paintings. "He's an art student--comes
in here all the time," said the dealer. "He's studying every
artist and trying to figure out their secrets." The guy was
making notes, lost in his own world.
On the way back to my studio, music turned up real loud, I
realized that if someone had an invention, or had developed a
new cure for something, the first thing they might do was to
head for the patent office. But it's difficult to patent a
style. A clever lab technician could certainly grind up and
reverse engineer a new pill, but, as that fellow in the gallery
was finding, it's difficult to grind out the real secrets in
someone else's work.
I'm a believer that every one of us has the right and the
responsibility to create something that is a bit unique--to
develop a look that may be somewhat private and difficult for
others to unravel. With all the permutations and combinations
possible, I also think there will always be enough uniqueness
to go around.
While secrets can sometimes be fairly clear and on the surface,
at most times they're mysteriously subtle. For the
artist-inventor who discovers them, they are often hard won.
They appear by a variety of means. These include the order in
which work is built, the process and execution, reference
methods, self-crit techniques, personal mythology, learned and
inherited tendencies, attitude, and a host of other factors
like palette, equipment, format, lighting, etc. More than
anything, secrets have to do with personal habits and the
conscious or unconscious prejudices of the worker. Repetition
plays its part and is a valuable contributor.
An outsider, cruising a wall of art, is stuck with the problem
of getting into someone else's skin.
For those of us who regularly toil at art, it's clear that
glimmers of secrets regularly flit before our eyes. Like
butterflies, they need to be netted and examined. This evolved
"knowledge" is what electrifies and inspires the better
artists--and puts a mark of distinction on their art. Knowing
something special, something a bit different, even hazily,
means you can claim it. That's the secret.
PS: "Let each man exercise the art he knows." (Aristophanes,
Esoterica: For the developing artist--and we're all
developing--a state of honest curiosity is at the root of
creative secrets. Like lab technicians, we look to the
possibilities of what might happen when we mix this with that.
As in most human pursuits, it's often useful to avoid one-sided
answers to many-sided questions. It's okay to doubt. It's
important to test. The way to discover secrets is to be a
student of your own efforts. "Real knowledge is to know the
extent of one's ignorance." (Confucius, 551-479 B.C.)