Friday, 25 February 2011

The serious artist

Client: Ikea

I'm in a bit of a maudlin mood about work at the moment. I'm returning to a topic that preoccupies me to an unhealthy degree - what it is to be a true artist. I know that a lot of people who stop by my blog are illustrators themselves, so maybe you will understand what I mean when I say that I wonder sometimes if I'm an artist at all.

Client: Tesco

Client: Fiat

You see, I draw a lot of animals and car parts, and I animate run cycles and dog silhouettes, all on demand and for clients, not myself. It's what I have to do to make a living and a lot of the time it's quite fun. A lot of time is is soul-sapping. When the work isn't coming in thick and fast I have the chance to work on personal projects. And that's when I come unstuck.

I have impulsively signed myself up for the open studios event in North Wales, Helfa Gelf, with the intention of building up a body of my own, what I call 'proper', work before September. It's not that I have to be a painter or sculptor to take part - being an illustrator is just as valid, but I have yearnings to paint and to make more things with my hands and this is a good opportunity to push myself. To this end, I have started to think about what I really want to do, but right now I'm frozen with terror. It's that blank canvas feeling, you know?

It's been a long time since I've seriously sat down and thought about doing something entirely self-directed. What do I want to do? Who am I? What do I want to say? I used to use my sketchbooks at uni as a kind of repository for my 'streams of consciousness' ranting and self-loathing. I wrote much more than I drew in those sketchbooks. It was a way of procrastinating about producing any artwork at all; I was 'thinking'. I'm procrastinating right now by blogging my insecurities rather than addressing them practically.

I look at other artists' work and am preoccupied by a few questions. What is it that compels artists to do what they do; to choose to paint humans or landscapes or whatever? How do they make choices and decisions about where to make a mark, which colour to use, how big a canvas to paint on? How do they know if what they have done is any good? Or is it the case that whatever you do, you have to believe that it's good enough or no-one else will either. Where on earth do I start?

What I do know about myself is that I am obsessed by dead, stuffed, pickled animals, deformities, notions of conservation and preservation, education and display. I like reading about sideshows and freak shows, the circus and the zoo. I am not a serious person and I should value my ability to make people laugh. It's not easy when most 'real' artists seem to take themselves so seriously - am I too flippant to ever be an artist?

I wonder if any of you also feel like this, and what you do to inspire your own work, to give yourself a kick start when the inspiration and self-belief are running a bit low? How do you know if what you are doing is any good, or does that not matter? Please share your thoughts!


  1. I think illustration is art just as graphic design and fashion are forms of art. Although they can be commercial, weren't a lot of historical paintings also done for clients? Artists have always had to do commissions to make money.

    I think my boyfriend summed up what is good art quite well when we went to a modern art gallery in Nottingham. Both of us are quite cynical and know very little about serious art. We both thought the building was hideous from the outside. Inside we were immediately struck by the work of Jack Goldstein. We had no context, no education but we liked it. We couldn't exactly say why we liked it but Pete said "maybe good art is when you feel something when you look at it, even if you don't know what that is".

  2. Maybe art is just communication....a decorative thing done well lifts the spirits and a peace of conceptual art may change the way you think about something it a horizon line or a post it note.
    i think that the most stultifying bit is the need to "criticise and make verbal what is a visual medium"
    i think art is an instinct...a way to order our visual world and make are mark on it.
    oooooh where did that come from !
    just make your mark karen you have a hard worked on gift, please yourself and try to tell the internal critic to take a holiday ..although my internal critic...lets call him trevor ..thinks i am being a tad pretentious. xxx

  3. Kat - I think Pete's comment is probably spot on. Art should stir something in you, whether it's amusement or the fear of your own mortality, whatever. And yes, a lot of artists worked on commission in the past - I keep forgetting that! Thanks!

    Lauren - it's like a ghost of those godawful lectures we had to attend at UWE. I'm seriously impressed and a little scared :-) But I see where you are coming from! It's hard to silence that critic, though. I suppose the best we can do is please ourselves at the end of the day and stop worrying about what other people think.

    Thanks for your comments, guys. xxx

  4. a very difficult call ...trevor is insistent at times
    then when i have to do something off my own bat i feel utterly uncreative... like we can turn it on and off like a tap x
    ta for the analogy though :-)

  5. Lauren I love the fact you have an inner critic called Trevor.

    That is so awesome.

    I hate criticism (which is kind of hard for a researcher as we get a lot, reviewers comments suck). These days I just try not to care as much, but its hard. It can feel like everyone is pointing and staring and laughing like school. Bad reviews or awkward questions can really make one paranoid.

    I like your themes of science meets art, death and being observed. I think they fit better than you think.

  6. I think we all have a 'Trevor' - how insistent he is depends on our individual characters, but he's there nonetheless, the bastard.

    Kat, I know what you mean about criticism. Even the gentlest criticism sends me into a defensive fury. Not my best characteristic. Even when a client comes back with amends I get all self righteous and narky, albeit not to their faces! I guess we just have to learn to take it on the chin.

    And thanks for the last comment - I think those themes do 'fit' somehow, disturbing though they are! x

  7. My wonderful and talented young brother in law wrote this to me yesterday and I thought it was really thoughtful, and said a lot of things that I agree with. Thanks, David:

    Firstly, I find the term 'Artist' to have a sterile nature as through history it was prescrib...ed to the artistic. Those who recognised the power and talent of certain individuals and envied them for it seem to unfairly be the judges of who is an artist or not.
    Then I regard an artist as an unfair term, because of its broadness. I feel that art is losing it's way today, as anyone can walk into the Tate Modern, stand two cardboard toilet roll tubes on the floor in a vast empty room and call it an exhibition. This mockery and jumping on the 'art bandwagon' gives artists a bad reputation, which particularly affects the genuinely talented, spent-their-whole-lives-perfecting-what-they-do sort of people, like you!
    Personally, I am merely a tracer.I can see whatever I want to see in a blank space in front of me. Lines, shapes and colours swirl and shift on the blank page or canvas before me and then settle into a finished image- which I begin to trace and fill in.
    The Pre-Raphaelites were discontented with their art scene as I am with our current one. To earn money we have to bend to the will of people who smother what we are truly capable of, as they think of art as meaningless (due to those previously mentioned who daub childish paint botches on a wall, or cover a motorcycle engine in blue felt... or simply get out of a bed, leaving it unmade!!!) In my view, I'll never call myself an artist until art has been revolutionised. That's what I hope to instigate. For me to call myself a true artist... True Art needs to be defined first.

  8. I meant to comment on this earlier, but I have been - ahem - distracted... :)

    It's interesting that you raise this, because in light of the government funding cuts and so on, I've been thinking analogous things recently about science and my place in it. And I suspect there's more similarity between art and science on this than may be expected.

    I think I have to start with what interests me. To not do so is to make my life a lot harder than it needs to be. But then a healthy dose of self-awareness is called for: are my instinctive interests too geeky to say something broadly of interest, too esoteric to be funded, too self-indulgent to lead somewhere? Answering "yes" to these sorts of questions is not the end of the world, but most likely some sort of compromise will be needed. Well-known scientists may have simply been lucky to be interested in (and solve) important problems, or good at putting themselves about, or they had a good eye for an avenue that led to something significant. Or, quite possibly, they were pretty obscure during their life, and the impact of their work only became obvious posthumously.

    Much or most scientific research has only modest short-term impact, but art is harder still to assess because its benefits are even more intangible. Personally, I wouldn't worry about creating something "good" - I'd aim to create something which will resonate with people who share (some or all of) your perspective. And then hope that those people see it... ;)

  9. :-) Hi Jon. Hope your 'distraction' is doing really well!

    I think what you wrote was a really interesting slant on the problem, and it seems like a very realistic kind of attitude. I suppose that the idea of a compromise of sorts, marrying your instinctive interests (because otherwise one would be bored/uninspired) with an awareness of what might make one 'successful' is a good way of going about things. I think the hardest part is resisting the nagging feeling that you're barking up the wrong tree and wasting time doing something that will come to nothing. A healthy amount of perseverance, in your field and mine, is required!

    I've been feeling a bit lost recently, but all of your comments have put a good deal of perspective on the whole thing. Thank you!

  10. Dear Karen,

    I stop by your blog ever so often. I particularly love your animals with personality disorders. I wish you'd populate a world with them, and make a children's book out of it. I'm sure your books would be loved.

    All my best,

  11. Hi Therese. Thank you so much for your lovely comment - I really appreciate it. And yes, I too would love to do a children's book, but I haven't found the confidence yet to try and promote my work to publishers. Maybe one day I will!

  12. Go find that confidence! I want to see and read that book!