Education of an Artist

To be called a craftsman has become passé. Today many who are competent at the craft of photography have become self-proclaimed artists. The totality of their education is from online tutorials about composition or the technical side of how to make an image. Left with no more education than the craft and the idea of self-expression, they became the center of their own universe with presentations of navel gazing. Without any understanding of what it means to be an artist, they set out to reinvent the wheel because they had never seen one and to say nothing more than how they feel about something. It may not be a popular opinion but the notion that everyone is an artist is total bunk and a panacea for those who have no meaning in their lives. The hard truth is not everyone is cut out to be an artist no matter how much mastery of the craft of their chosen medium they gain. Being a good craftsman is important but not as essential as many seem to make it. Being handmade isn’t what makes a piece a work of art.Henry Moore never ran a foundry. Sculptor Richard Serra usually starts with a model often made from lead but the final steel pieces are fabricated by a company in Wetzlar, Germany. Cristo and Jeanne-Claude used 100 rock climbers to descend down the facade of the Reichstag and unfurl a huge silver curtain for their piece Wrapped Reichstag. Craft, meaning color and composition and presentation, is only a small part of what makes an artist.

To those wanting the education of an artist and to discover if you truly are one, I would recommend first learning the history, the whys, and the language (which will come as you learn). Second, go out and learn about life from a different perspective and third, learn the craft of being an artist. The knowledge we seek to become part of the conversation isn’t limited to schools and book study, much can also be gained from finding the right mentors. Spending time in discussion with other artists who think about more than the technical aspects of their medium is one of the best ways to learn what it means to be an artist.

Art is a long conversation with the moral, political, social, philosophical, and art itself of the society in which it is made. Not knowing what that conversation is, or what it is about, is willful ignorance. Any work that isn’t part of the conversation or an attempt at such will not be counted much past the first viewing of it. Intention and expression (beyond self-expression), something worth adding to the conversation, isn’t possible without some knowledge of more than the craft. Learning to see past the surface of the work into the history and intention of the artist is just the beginning of being able to see and understand art and what being an artist truly means. Asking questions like why was Caravaggio important to the art world and more importantly, why did he paint the way he did? What was the motive and intent of that high contrast work? Why did Robert Frank go against the grain of convention with his work on the Americans? What does it express and why? It is essential to the education of an artist to learn why earlier art was made but it is only the beginning.

A few years ago I was heartened to rediscover Ben Shan’s book The Shape of Content which I first read when I apprenticed with Rich Beyer, a well-regarded sculptor in Seattle. The defining chapter in that book is the last one where his recommendation for artists is to go out and live and work with the world outside of our comfort zone. Experience as much as you can from every possible walk of life and not as a tourist but as a real participant, so it is not simply a fly-by involvement. Work with your hands and learn about those who have nothing to do with art or the lofty worlds we pretend to live in. There is no substitute for experience for developing an understanding of what you find important enough to become obsessed with expressing in your work. Plus no one can take that experience or knowledge away from you. It is the one thing that is, and will be yours, no matter the outcome of your life.

The craft of being an artist is a mental craft not a physical one. Learning how to shape stone or to paint or photograph are all physical crafts that also apply to commercial work or design. The artist’s craft is learning to think about and to see things in a way no one else does and then generating an idea or form or object that conveys those idea. It is finding how to take the common and make it extraordinary, to take everyday objects and occurrences and give them meaning and message. For each artist how this craft develops differs but the craft itself is the same.

If you haven’t spent your early years in an artistic field, it doesn’t mean the wiring isn’t there. It is possible for some to learn how to think like an artist. Learn the conversation that art is, go experience life and pour that into your work, and then you will have something worth saying.

1 comment

Your passion on this topic was loud and clear in the opening of this article Ray. Your advice is spot on, too bad I had no idea about this more than 40 years ago when I was starting out. The scary part of educating the artist, at least for me starting as I did at the age of 53, was there didn’t seem to be enough time left. I’m doing okay on learning the history and some of the conversations, its the working at a variety of jobs that I’ll miss out on. The mind may be willing but the body isn’t quite on board with starting new careers at 61. I do appreciate your last line and perhaps I am wired they way I want, the trick is to apply that thinking to the life I have already experienced. How I envy the confidence of the young and their willingness to try anything at least once. Experience leaves some of us with knowledge and an understanding of human nature, which I think is what you and Ben Shan are getting at. For the late starters like me, confidence has eroded. Experience is a double-edged sword.

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