Have you ever had that moment when you’re looking at a painting or a piece of digital art – maybe even a sketch that a friend did on a napkin – and just gone… “Really? It’s so good I want to spit on it.” This happens because we measure ourselves, and sometimes we don’t like what we see.
Perhaps the best example of this is from the movie Midnight in Paris. The protagonist asks Hemmingway if he would be willing to review a manuscript. Hemmingway replies, “My opinion is I hate it.” The protagonist is shocked. Hemmingway elaborates, “If it’s bad, I’ll hate it because I hate bad writing, and if it’s good, I’ll be envious and hate all the more. You don’t want the opinion of another writer.” Any good artist, novelist, or creator will have a sort of professional envy of work which rivals or surpasses their own paired with a disdain for anything which hasn’t had the same level of competence poured into it. Good artists use that envy to better themselves. But great artists? Well, that’s a whole other level entirely.
If you aspire to great creation, envy and minor improvements are not enough, not even close. No, no, no. That is not exploration, but merely traveling the known portions of the map. Great works require journeys into the unknown, venturing deep into lands of your own ignorance, and even facing dangers and pitfalls as an alien to those distant lands.
If you’re a writer, it means studying good prose, studying structure, obeying more advanced laws of syntax and character. It might mean you try short stories instead of novels for a while to learn how to write a good hook. Maybe you try writing a comic strip to understand pithiness. It might mean you tear apart every novel and movie you own just so you can see how they’re put together. It might mean you note down every single famous Shakespeare quote and internalize greatness. Show your work to others, and listen to what they have to say – especially if they don’t like it. Because the next time you sit down to write, you’re that much closer to defying ‘likes’ and ‘dislikes’ while pounding out the next great American novel.
If you sew things, maybe it means using materials you don’t like to learn their value, buying patterns you don’t understand so you can figure them out, or reading books on different styles in different countries. The same principles apply to cooking or woodworking or laying ceramic tile.
Art, now, art is like life. When people are trying to figure out how to live, how to cope, or how to change, what do they do? What’s the phrase you always here? How about, “Oh, you know, I’m getting back to basics.” Art is about capturing life, so it makes sense that improvements always mean going back to some form of basics. It doesn’t matter how advanced the technique – it’s always about capturing something that exists in real life. Want to draw a better face? Maybe you have to learn how to draw a better circle. Want to draw a better landscape? Maybe you have to spend a few days looking at how the sunlight reflects off of rocks.
Elevation in art demands a recognition of realism. Exploring realism naturally improves any style because art is about inviting the mind to bring realism to manmade objects things. Art built on realism is the only art we can start to understand. Reality is the world into which we were born and in which we grew. It is both the most basic and the most complicated thing available to us.
There are so many resources out there for artists. Personally, the only ones which have ever truly improved my art have been the ones which inform my knowledge of the basics and build up from there.
I recently discovered an artist on YouTube who makes instructional videos. I don’t agree with some of her use of mature language, but much of what she explains makes an insane amount of sense to me because she builds on reality. She doesn’t say, ‘This is the shape of a nose.’ – she says, ‘The nose is built of these shapes, therefore the line will follow like this. To change the shape of the nose, move the shapes like this. Noses are always these shapes, therefore they will shade like these shapes, no matter your angle or the angle of your light.’ and it just makes sense to me in ways that no other art instruction has before now. I find myself staring at my screen, slack-jawed with wonder as little bits of reality snap together in my mind like previously unconnected puzzle pieces. I’m studying each and every one and learning to make them fit together on my canvases.
One of my practice sheets
I’m not just doing a little study here and a little study there, I am holding up a lantern to the dark reaches of my ignorance and mapping the mad edges. I dove headfirst into a wild voyage on uncharted waters. It’s a heady adventure, I must admit because I will soon be able to fit them together quickly and to greater effect than I ever have before. My hand has grown stiff from gripping my pen.
But every time the light comes on and reveals something new to my artist-eyes, I feel as though this is truly art. Art isn’t sitting down with a sketchpad, that’s just how you go about it. Art is something bigger, something greater.
Every new thing you discover is another tool in your creative quiver, and the more powerful you are, the more dangerous you become. The more you discover, the more you learn to see how much you don’t know. There is fear in the unknown, fear of failure, fear of being caught in an endless spiral of study without achieving accomplishment. Exploration is never safe and rarely easy.
Art is, I think, a dangerous exploration of everything you don’t know.