Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Talent, skill and happiness.

Emerald City

“Oh it must be so wonderful to have such a talent!”

 How often have you heard that?  D’you really believe it?  If I don’t know the person well I just smile modestly and say nowt…but if I  know them I tell them it’s  not talent but rather persistence, stubbornness and a desire to master something very difficult.  Or, at least, tame it a little.  Winston Churchill (reportedly) said:

 "The way to be happy is to find something that requires the kind of perfection that's impossible to achieve and spend the rest of your life trying to achieve it."
  Churchill painted – and built brick walls when he was really frustrated!
Making good art requires the development a lot of different skills, together with the determination to stick at it for a long time plus, if possible, (but, alas, hard to find), an encouraging and insightful teacher.

Robert Genn, a renowned Canadian painter of landscapes, described four basic skills that he thought imperative for the serious artist.  Like most of the books I’ve read on the subject he rated drawing as one of the most fundamental and most important skills.  Traditionally, for hundreds, if not thousands of years, art schools have also emphasized drawing.  There are lots of good books on the subject – I particularly like those by Carrie Parks who was a police sketch artist trained by the FBI!  She focuses on the ability to actually see what you are looking at, and NOT to glance, label, then bring up a cartoon like symbol in the mind rather to focus on the reality of the shapes and wiggly lines that make up a landscape.  It’s important to tell the left brain with its stylized “trees” or “flowers” to shut up! Don’t work with names like “tree”, “boat”, “head” instead find the basic shapes.

 The next step is to develop a basic measure (e.g for the human face this might be the width of the eye), then “measure” everything else using that as a “yardstick”. Most people have the width of one eye between the two eyes…etc.  Drawing is based on developing such “measures” like the point of a pencil held at arms length, then looking at the relative sizes of the objects AND the spaces between the objects in terms of “eyes” or “pencil lengths”.  As you can see, being able to do this is a technical skill, that can be learned in the same way that children learn to recognize letters of the alphabet.
Genn’s second skill was color.  For anyone working in a medium using color like fiber artists, it’s very important to know about hue, value, intensity and temperature in color.  It’s crucial to be able to recognize – and manipulate – the effect that colors have upon one  another and how to choose and group colors within a composition.

The third skill he mentioned was abstraction which really struck me as I’m currently very interested in abstract art.   What exactly is it?  I realized it wasn’t just arbitrary splashes of paint on a canvas or pieces of fabric thrown at a wall (though that certainly can be fun it’s just as likely to lead to good art as those poor monkeys still slaving away on their typewriters (or probably computers these days) trying to come up with a Shakespeare play).
Abstract art has been defined as a “controlled visual magic” – wouldn’t it be wonderful to say “oh I’m a fiber magician” when people ask what you do?
The control consists of a) a defined structure, b) using  compositional guidelines thoughtfully and c) working with implication, suggestion and mystery rather than literal representation. Good abstract art yields an emotional reaction, before the frontal lobes take over and start to analyze.  A mix of abstraction and realism adds tension and mystery.  I love art like this – where you think you can almost see where the artist started.

And talking of Composition, that’s the fourth skill that Genn lists.  He feels that “composition is the queen of the skills”. Having the ability to compose those basic elements well is what makes the magic hold up! Good Composition is a Bach cantata, you know there is a basic structure, there are rules of harmony and so on but within that Bach manages amazing feats of rhythm and melody and contrast.
Being able to capture, hold and intrigue the eye entrancing it with the variety of different moods and shapes, edges, and lost edges, all kinds of magical things going on and yet coming together to form a complete whole is a wonderful thing. Hopefully, not an impossible one!

The person who has been able to develop all these skills will have a unique voice, the ability to express feeling within their art.  And thus that unique voice will be seen as an amazing talent.  But we know…the magician didn’t just happen to find the rabbit in the hat….! 

Having delineated these skills, the building blocks of “talent”, Genn pointed out that there was nothing wrong with simply making art for the fun of it without trying to build one’s knowledge and skill.  But: 
“But if you persist in this direction, your unskilled work will be like that of so many others--and you will begin to bore yourself. On the other hand, the skills I suggest are worth learning for their own sake--and they will stand you well no matter what you try to do. They are hard won. We value most what is hard won--and so do many others. Skills worth learning take time and patience.”

 And remember Churchill:
"The way to be happy is to find something that requires the kind of perfection that's impossible to achieve and spend the rest of your life trying to achieve it."
Isn’t that great!! As well as art I’m also going to learn square dancing and with my co-ordination that going to be impossible too!

  I’m off for a cuppa tea! 
And, if you have been, thanks for reading!
PS I have two online courses starting within the next few weeks: Dyeing to Design on January 18th and Inspired to Design on Feb 1st.  check with quiltuniversity.com if you’re interested.  Quilt university’s courses are without doubt the best value for money of all online classes – it’s an amazing organization.
PPS I'm happy that the quilt at the top of this blog: Emerald City has been chosen by the American Ambassador in Monrovia, Liberia to be shown in the American Embassy there as part of the program Art in Embassies!  quite an honour and a lovely surprise.


Marianne said...

J'aime vraiment beaucoup votre quilt Emerald city

Elizabeth Barton said...

Merci! Le vert est ma couleur préférée!

Nina Marie said...

ohhh great post! If I had a dime for everytime a girlfriend says - Ohhh I wish I could do that - you're so creative or talented. I laugh - because yes I'm creative but so are they (or we wouldn't be friends probably). I am just am more driven and disciplined and self driven then they in my pursuit of art. That's exactly why I started my blog to show that art quilting doesn't just magically appear. I love love to hear about famous fabulous artists have starts and stops in their journey and I love to see their "dogs" and what they learn from them. Its encouraging. Congrats on Emerald City!