I am not confident that my advice would be good. But here is an attempt – to be treated critically, to be tested against your own experience and that of other artists you admire or trust (deservedly, I hope) – also to be tested against whether you like my work (perhaps my advice is useful even if you don’t like my work; perhaps it will be more useful to people who admire my sort of art):
Distrust all generalisations, even this one.
Any advice or rule is to be distrusted – what I say may not be the right thing for you, or you may find a very good way of working that exactly disregards what I am about to tell you. Be wary of one size fits all approaches – there are very many different ways of making very good art.
Fine art isn’t the be all and end all.
There is nothing wrong with not being a fine artist – graphic design, computer graphics, comics and so on are fine, if that is what you enjoy doing, and especially if you can make a living from it. Most of the following remarks pertain to being a fine artist, but I don’t want to pretend that is what everybody making images should be interested in.
Keep at it.
Don’t stop painting or drawing (or whatever your medium is). Good paintings can only be made by people who paint! Most of the artists I have met, whose work I admire, also follow a very down to earth approach to art: they don’t wait for inspiration, and they work regular, long hours. (To me this was very surprising, having thought of artists as people who don’t follow a bourgeois work ethic, but simply wait till inspiration bears them along like a surfer catching a good wave). The modestly talented artist who works steadily is going to outperform the artist everybody finds hugely talented, but who stops painting, or hardly ever paints. An internet search to find out more about my fellow students at the Rijksakademie who at that time seemed most promising, gave no result. I presume they stopped working.
Spending enough time on art.
Almost all very good artists were full time artists. However, it is very difficult being able to paint (or draw, or sculpt) full time. So paint as much as you can, and keep your eye on the goal of one day being able to spend most of your time painting.
Learning from great art.
Look at very good art as much as possible. I think that serious South African artists are often disadvantaged because they haven’t seen enough good work in the genres in which they work. We have (had) some great artists, like Kentridge, Muafangejo, Jackson Hlongwane and many others, but too much work that is exhibited in South Africa is of a type that requires technical mastery to be successful, but does not show that technical mastery. An important function of looking at a lot of art is growing tired of work. The great art is the stuff you’re less inclined to get tired of. Fads, fashions, gimmicks impress, but then tire after a while. I don’t think there is anything wrong with enjoying faddish stuff. But seeing that one grows tired of it helps one look for something more durable in one’s own work. A close friend of mine occasionally makes wonderful work, but he is unable to see the difference between these works and the more clichè-ish works he makes most of the time. Also, he admires work that is clichè-ish. His native talent isn’t supported by and disciplined by a good critical sense derived from a thorough acquaintance with great art, and an ability to distinguish between great art and potboilers or even kitsch. (Let me add that looking back at myself in high school, the South African work I admired and urged my father to buy (Buys, Pieter van Heerden, for instance) I now find mostly bad. So despite the fact that I had had an unusual amount of exposure to the old masters via books, my judgement was pretty bad. Perhaps developing a more sophisticated judgement is also a long term process, which goes hand in hand with becoming better as an artist). I am not advocating one particular great artist over and above some other: some people will love Vermeer, others Rembrandt; some Tintoretto, some Bosch; some an African tribal mask, some a Chinese ink painting.
In advising artists to look at the great masters a lot, I don’t mean that one should be trying to paint like any of them. Phillip Guston wasn’t interested in the work of his contemporaries – he admired Piero della Francesca above all else, though one wouldn’t have guessed it from looking at his paintings. By all means allow yourself to also be inspired by folk art, comics, photography, TV, film, pornography, graffiti.
Being critical in the right way.
One aspect of making art is having a developed critical faculty. There are many ways in which one can err on this score: in not being critical at all; in being too critical, so that everything one comes up with, is rejected; in self-criticism not leading to improvement. Constructive [self-] criticism should be distinguished from destructive criticism. It is not a question of telling yourself YOU are good or bad. It is looking at one’s WORK and trying to identify specific things that could be improved on. Usually it takes the form of “more” or “less” judgements: this is too bright, there is too little going on in this part of the painting, etc. Criticism isn’t something that should make one feel despondent – nor elated. Ever since I grew into a “business as usual” workaday approach, with little elation, but also little despondency, my work has gone better. At the end of the day, I hope my painting will be marginally better than it was in the morning when I started. Occasionally it’s worse. That’s all part of the game. I think my critical faculty is now better than it was at an earlier stage, where I would alternately feel elation through overestimating how good a day’s work was, and feel crushed when I later saw it wasn’t. At that stage my critical judgements were too ‘chunky’ – I didn’t distinguish finely enough exactly what it was that was good (thereby often missing out on what still needed work) nor what was wrong (thereby rejecting whole paintings or whole sections of paintings where the fault was actually of a more limited nature – which is not to deny that it is sometimes the right thing to abandon a painting that’s going nowhere, or radically reconceiving large parts of a painting. But a lot of work will still always be of the “tweaking” variety).
Focus and diversity.
There is a tendency to identify creativity with constantly changing course. (Either in the absence of criticism, or as the result of radical self-criticisms which lead one to conclude that a complete change of direction is needed). Some great artists have been like this. But the majority of great or good artists have been more incremental in how they have developed. Sometimes it can be good to try a complete change of tack. But I myself landed in the doldrums for a long time until I started making the changes inside one painting and between one painting and the next more incremental. An analogy: if you are turning a pot on a potter’s wheel, you’ll need to make tiny adjustments of the position and pressure of your arms, hands and fingers. If you see something going wrong, and suddenly want to change everything drastically, your pot will fall apart. The right way is to make tiny adjustments, and immediately see what effect each tiny adjustment has. Over time the tiny adjustments can amount to a major adjustment or change, but learning requires a constant monitoring of the results of tiny adjustments. And this process is largely “intuitive”. (If you are a complete novice, or making a complete hash of things, perhaps somebody will be able to suggest a radically different approach which will help to get you started. But once you are more or less on track, the incremental learning route will tend to take over. Or in any case, that is how I imagine things to be, if I try to look at my own experience).
The foregoing is related to the importance of focus in one’s activity. The great German writer Goethe said “The master can be recognized from the way he limits himself”. A water drop that keeps falling in one spot, carves a hollow into a stone. Sun rays focused by a magnifying glass can start a fire. The Italian painter Morandi kept on painting a few simple objects arranged in very similar ways. (This isn’t the same as descending into the repetition of some recipe. Where does the difference lie?)
The importance of drawing.
I have a prejudice that great artists tend to be great draftsmen/draftswomen. Keep on drawing, even if you are into sculpture or painting. (That I am a mediocre draftsman helps keep me very modest about my standing as an artist, as well as always intending to draw more than I in fact do).
I make extensive use of photographs in my work. However, I think that most work – especially student work – that uses photographs is weaker than work that doesn’t. (The work of ten students working from photographs will tend to be much more similar than the work of ten students working from life). Working from photographs tends to undermine drawing strengths, as well as an understanding of the three dimensional structure of what one is drawing. I feel these are dangers against which I must arm myself – by drawing a lot, by also painting from life, and (an aspiration more than a reality) by working in three dimensions from time to time. My advice: beware of working from photographs, and if you do, alternate with lots of drawing, painting or modelling from life. Also ask yourself: what added dimension does my drawing or painting have, compared to the photograph[s] it is based on, that goes beyond what is already present in the photograph itself? Perhaps you should be making photographs, rather than drawing or painting from photographs.
Art is long (and life is short).
Our culture is an especially hurried one, and people are especially inclined to be bored easily, and to be in a hurry when they look at things or make art. Occasionally artists who are very much part of this culture, do produce good work – perhaps. But in the rule I don’t think they do. (This doesn’t mean that the artist need necessarily take a long time over an individual drawing or painting. There is a story about a Japanese master who made a client wait years for a drawing of a lion. When the client showed up again one day, the artist drew the lion with a few masterful strokes of his brush. The client was shocked, and shocked at the price. “It only took you only a few minutes to draw the lion”. The master’s reply: “It took me a lifetime to draw this lion”).
A common weakness distinguishing worse from better art: being unclear about tonality. Most of the works of the masters still make sense if we only see black and white photographs of them. This shows that they were masters of tonality. (You can test your own work in a similar way: take a digital photograph of it, and then turn it into a black and white image on the computer. This will make it easier to see how the tonality of your painting works).
Some great colourists use a very bright pallette, with very strong colour contrasts prevailing. However, one can put a lot of bright colours into a painting without the colours for all that amounting to much. I think too many artists underestimate the possibilities of muted colours, such as greys and browns – which can be especially effective when there are also some bright colours, which tend to be more striking when not every colour in a painting is bright. Examples: Velasquez, El Greco, some of Lucian Freud’s work. Part of the reason artists avoid greys and browns is that some very bad paintings are done in nondesdcript browns and greys, reflecting the artist’s indecision when it comes to colour. It is worth remembering, in any case, that bright colours are just a tiny portion of the whole range of colours available to the artist. An exercise to discover the riches of non-primary colours: work with no more than three colours (plus white). Examples: raw sienna, indian red, viridian. Raw sienna, magenta, viridian. Raw sienna, indian red, black. Raw sienna, indian red, indigo. Raw sienna, burnt umber, viridian. When I use such limited pallettes, I initially feel that I’m painting with a hand tied behind my back, and that nothing worthwhile can come out of it. But as a painting gels, and as I become used to a particular pallette, it turns out that an enormous amount can be done with such a limited pallette. I even have the experience of seeing the colours in the world around me as being composed of no more than mixtures out of the particular limited pallette I am using at that moment. (Different people need to work at different scales – different sizes of paintings – but it may be a good idea to explore the use of colour in smallish paintings initially, even if you prefer working big. Beware of settling for a colour just because that’s the way it comes out of the tube (or just adding white). When using three colours, most colours on your canvas will have at least a trace of all three colours – but overdoing the yellow [raw sienna] component of the colours is extremely common).
I think theory has been overemphasised at the expense of getting your hands dirty in actually mastering the craft side of whatever medium or media you choose to work with. It is true that it can be valuable to occupy oneself with theory. Much of what passes as common sense about art (e.g. that art is an utterly personal expression of the individual soul of the artist) is just an old theory that has passed into the popular mind over the centuries. Occupying oneself with theory can be useful inasmuch as it prises us loose from the hold of older theories like this. It is also true that theoretical talk can give the artist more standing with critics, galleries, funders, collectors. But I find the status given to theory in art education and the art world dangerous as well as a bit ridiculous, especially where it goes hand in hand with gross ignorance or blindness about weaknesses in the execution of the art works around which the theoretical talk is being woven, and where types of art that require a major investment in developing technical mastery, are undervalued. Theory can be a useful tool to some people in some situations. But there is no need to be in awe of theory. It isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. As a trained philosopher I am more conversant with theory than most, so these remarks can hardly be ascribed to ignorance on my part. (PS: being articulate about what you are doing need not take the form of weaving a theoretical discourse around one’s work. So one can refrain from theory while still being highly articulate about one’s work. Quite a number of good artists are rather inarticulate about their work, so I don’t want to enthrone articulacy in the process of dethroning theory, either).
I haven’t said anything about the importance of work having an ‘edge’, and of avoiding prissiness or preciousness. Also not about playfulness and humour. And then the virtues of “an economy in mark making” – the way in which great masters, Oriental, African and western, are usually capable of capturing whatever they want to capture by using only a limited number of marks of the pen, pencil or brush. (Next time you have the opportunity, look closely at the brushwork of Frans Hals, Velasquez, Vermeer, Rembrandt. Or almost any drawing by one of the great Oriental or Western masters. One sees that they weren’t groping around in the dark).