There is a certain elusive quality that makes an artist great. Sometimes it’s pure luck. Other times it’s a great benefactor or perhaps great training. All these things contribute to the success of an artist, to be sure. But none can make an average artist rise to greatness. One of the most important factors in producing really great art is honesty.
The difference between being truthful and honest is not always so easy to parse out. It’s a personal thing so let me use my personal example to show what I mean.
When I first started painting with pastels I tried to make compositions that reflected not what was truly inside me but what it was that I wanted people to perceive me as. My paintings had thick layers color and the subjects were otherworldly looking creatures. I very much felt that they represented both my feelings at the time and a stretching of my imagination. I was very satisfied with the work I was producing but in a sense there was little honesty in them. Yes they were a reflection of me but I knew that deep down I could be more than just a painter of gothic-type images.
Like wearing a certain style of clothing or a particular hairstyle my artwork was a façade. It was a style that I tried on. The techniques I learned about my chosen medium during that time are invaluable to this day but the actual work I was producing was nothing more than a passing fancy. I can look back now and see this through the lenses of many years and experiences.
I know that deep down I wasn’t working in a direction that I knew I wanted to go. I sacrificed honesty for truth. I thought that I needed to tell a truth about Lon S. Cohen through my artwork but I wasn’t being honest with myself. It came to a point when my art was nothing more than a fashion statement. I became stuck. This is what contributed most to giving up carving out time in my life for my art. I felt that I couldn’t go on with such a frivolous endeavor.
Inside of me was a voice nagging at me that there was something else that I could do with my artwork. I refused to listen or even acknowledge it. Why did I turn a deaf ear to my inner artistic voice? There were many reasons.
One was that I wasn’t mature enough to admit my destiny was elsewhere. I wanted to believe that the truth I dabbled in in my youth was going to be my truth forever. The fact is that we grow and change over the years. I somehow suppressed the growth and evolution of my art for what I thought was the truth.
The second reason I can think of was that since the exact art I was producing wasn’t being received professionally I thought that perhaps my art in general (or perhaps my talent) was never going to be good enough. This might still turn out to be true. You know the cliché: It wasn’t for a lack of trying? Yet I can’t say that. I stopped trying. I gave up.
So while I was being true, I was not being totally honest. The fact is that at a certain point I knew that I needed to produce a different kind of art based on a wholly different style and subject matter. Once in a while I would try to bring a little bit more honesty into my paintings but it was not enough to sustain me. The artwork I was making, while technically fine, was uninteresting to me beyond the page and thus uninteresting to anyone else.
It represented me but aside from a very few people, who cared? What I really wanted to do was use my artwork as a reflection of the world. I wanted to draw again like I did when I was a kid. I wanted to cast aside the façade and just make art that people could appreciate.
When I went to an art show and saw how a simple landscape or a city scene could invoke such strong reactions within me, I didn’t see that for what it was: My disappointment in my own art. My jealousy of those who could produce simply honest paintings. The falling short of the work I produced. I refused to recognize it.
The paintings I produced were not making a connection with a wider audience. Sure, one could say that you make artwork for yourself but in reality most artists want to have their art affect others in ways that supercedes his own self satisfaction and self interest. I knew the type of paintings I wanted to produce deep down. They were ones I really loved to go and see in museums and in books. The same ones that my inner audience was telling me it wanted.
There are many reasons why I personally didn’t pursue the honest path in my art. One of the biggest emotional obstacles we have to overcome as artists is fear.
It’s hard to put onto a canvas all your hopes, emotions, and skill out there to be judged by others who had no idea of your creative process or motivation. In art school we used to have to put our creations up in front of a classroom of our peers to be critiqued. As much as you think you can handle criticism, nothing compares to your friends and classmates all looking at your artwork, unveiled before them in all its stark nakedness to be then ripped apart. Professors wanted students to overcome the reluctance to criticize other people’s work (for fear of their own being harshly judged) so they encouraged them to say something they didn’t like about the piece before they said something positive. I remember the feeling to this day. You think you have thick skin? Try a critique class.
Of course some professors were better at making a comfortable atmosphere for critique than others but at the end of the day, I am a better artist for having had my artwork reviewed in this way. But even though I had gone through the process a few times a week or more over four years of school, we humans revert back to our most comfortable ground state and avoid that type of public critique whenever possible (at least those of us who aren’t masochists!)
In this way, I avoided my raw honesty for fear of being judged by others on my real work. If I continued with a façade then it didn’t hurt as much to be rejected because it’s like being criticized for the color you wear, it’s all a matter of taste. And while it’s true that art is very subjective it doesn’t always necessarily feel that way to the artists. Fear can stifle honesty in the worst way.
I was truthful but not necessarily honest. I was afraid to be honest because of how it might reflect on me. I’m older now so it doesn’t make as much of a difference. I am more confident in myself thus I care a little less of what others think of me and can better take criticism when it’s truly constructive. I can also let unconstructive criticism roll off my back better than before.
As an aside, I’d encourage anyone who seeks to criticize the art of a friend or relative to study up on just what true constructive criticism entails rather than pure opinion because it’s not the same thing. For example, exclaiming, “Who would hang that in their house?” is not constructive criticism. For the record it’s actually the exact opposite of constructive criticism.
The most important thing is that I can pursue artwork that I feel is honest to myself. Not just art that I want people to look at and see my personality or world view in but art that better reflects the world at large, the world that is around me and that comments on it in a way that people can appreciate. (Warning: This may be the exact opposite of your own version of artistic honesty.)
Also, I am not afraid to tackle a challenge. Where before I stuck safely in my comfort zone, I now try to expand my painting and drawing, my composition and arranging, and my vision to places I never thought I could ever take it before. It’s exciting to think my way out of a problem and find the solution. The process is much more fun now and my confidence in my skills helps me use my creativity to work my way through a difficult situation.