How to make art that stands the test of time

Occasionally, someone wonders whether an emerging painter will end up being a superstar. Can we ever tell?
Iowa Cornfield, 1941, Grant Wood, courtesy Wikipedia.
This week I contemplated a piece of contemporary art with a gallerist. “I don’t see thinking,” she said. “I only see beautiful contours. It’s content-free. There is no struggle.”
I can’t imagine anything more stultifying than striving to be in the Pantheon of Great Artists. However, the question of what makes great art is an important one. Great art must satisfy long after the flash of novelty dissipates. How does it do that?

The Ghent Altarpiece, early 15th century, Hubert and Jan van Eyck, courtesy Wikipedia.
It ought to go without saying that mastery of one’s craft is the primary job of the artist. Sadly, that’s not always true in contemporary western art, where ephemeral ideas sometimes mean more than specialized competence. However, if one looks back at art which has staying power, it’s always technically superb. How do you get to Carnegie Hall, sister? Practice, practice, practice.
Art is a process of exploration, a constant revolution. An artist must travel beyond his abilities every time he picks up a brush, or he begins to parody himself. The end of our training is, conversely, the beginning of our real education.
People sometimes tell me that they want to be ‘more consistent’ in their painting. I think that’s a trap, antithetical to the idea of development. A consistent body of work just comes with time.

Saturn Devouring His Son, 1820–23, Francisco Goya, courtesy Wikipedia.

Emotional content
One reason I hate writing artist’s statements is that I believe my real content is inexplicable. You, the outsider, might understand it, but the word-spewing part of my brain never will. Still, I hope my simple trees, boats and rocks convey something greater than their nominal subject.
There’s lots of art that’s didactic, and I’ve produced much of it myself. But didacticism is not necessary. Nor is it the hallmark of real artistic maturity, which somehow moves beyond issues.
The Railway, 1873, Édouard Manet, courtesy Wikipedia.
Within the vision of our times
Johann Sebastian Bach is recognized as one of the greatest composers of history. His period and his style were the Baroque. He was one of its last practitioners. He grew up within its aesthetic and it reached a climax in his writing. He was both within the vision of his time and the full flowering of that vision.
Knowing whether we’re painting within our period is difficult. In my first class with Cornelia Foss, she had me paint an orange on a tray. “If it was 1950, I’d say ‘Brava’,” she said. “But it’s not.” It was the best criticism I’ve ever received—she was telling me my technique was fine, but my style was dated.
We’re not Hudson River painters, we’re not Dutch Golden Age painters. This is the 21st century, and we need to paint what speaks to our peers. That’s often uncomfortable, and frequently a mystery.
You can’t count on your audience for advice with this. They’re as mystified as we are.
Bach was forgotten soon after his death. His works were rediscovered by Felix Mendelssohn. In 1823 Mendelssohn’s grandmother gave him a copy of the score for Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Five years later, Mendelssohn mounted a performance of this long-forgotten masterpiece. His selfless promotion of a dead artist gave Bach his rightful place in music history.

Comparing yourself to others

Romance of Autumn, 1916, by George Bellows. I’m leading with a painting that makes me squirm every time I see it, to make a point: if you judged Bellows by this single painting, you’d think he didn’t know how to mix or apply paint. But he knew exactly what he was doing, as his catalogue attests.
The other day Brad Marshall jokingly asked us whether he or Anders Zorn was better looking. We of course immediately said that Brad was. “Oh, well, Zorn was the better painter,” he replied.
“Not better, just different,” I answered.
As mature artists, most painters have achieved mastery over their materials.  What we react to isn’t their technical skill, but how they speak to us. When we don’t like their work, it’s usually more a question of not responding to their worldview than that they are technically deficient.
Illustration to Dante’s Divine Comedy, Hell, by William Blake. Blake was painting his edgy, uncomfortable, oddly-drafted work at a time when the highly-finished Grand Manner was in vogue. No wonder that his work was almost forgotten until he was rediscovered by Victorian England. Today he is widely recognized as one of the greatest artists England ever produced.
It’s only in the learning phase that one painter is ‘better’ than the next, and even that is transitory. Some of us are faster learners than others, but that doesn’t mean we’ll be better painters in the end.
Last weekend, one of my beginning students got very frustrated. She was having trouble understanding why I asked her to lay down paint in a specific way. It didn’t help that her classmates were sailing through the exercise.
“I feel like everyone is doing a great job except me,” she said.
Childhood’s Garden, 1917, by Charles Burchfield. His genius lies in his spirit and vision. He is often called the dark Edward Hopper, but many of his paintings radiate happiness.
Like most artists—experienced or not—she really has no idea where her strengths lie. She is emotionally transparent, so what she feels vibrates through her drawing. When she’s happy, her trees dance, the pavements sing. When she’s not happy, her canvas glowers.
That is a kind of talent that can’t be taught or bought, but can only be nurtured like a seedling set out in a garden bed. And it’s so easy to knock such a talent apart, because it comes from one’s inner vision, and that’s a fragile thing.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. My Belfast, ME, workshop is almost sold out. Click 
here for more information on my Maine workshops!