The Craft of Art

It’s interesting and a little mind blowing when you consider all the definitions and opinions of what constitutes good art. It’s also no exaggeration to say you won’t find one official standard or majority opinion. Elvis on black velvet is art to one person while “Water Lillies” by Claude Monet another. Ok, bad example, maybe there is a majority opinion on that one, but hopefully you get my point. Good art means different things to different people. An artist will likewise grapple with the concept of what makes their own work more artistic. What should an artist strive for to become a more creatively artistic artist?

WARNING: what I’m about to express now is opinion. Furthermore its MY opinion and will not be shared by all. GASP! I know right. But you think about it and decide for yourself.

In my opinion, there is an over emphasis in many artistic circles on expression alone or being your true artistic self with little care for technical skills, methods or disciplines at all. In other words, the less creative aspects or what I call the “craft” of art. There, I said it. No, I’m not against artistic expression, quite the contrary. I want to see an artist’s expressive work honed, maximized, and optimized if you will. Art IS by definition, self expression. It’s a visual manifestation of what comes out of you, your desires, experiences and passions. Here’s my point. Disciplined forms of art such as realism and representational art can be executed in a very immature and uninformed way. Take music for example. I may wish I could play a lovely Chopin piece all day long and may even imagine how that piece could be played with emotionally moving crescendos and delicate pianissimos, but all the imagined expression in the world will not help me execute that piece any better.

The Abstract Question

Visual art expression tends to validate and free itself in ways that other forms of artistic expression like music can’t get away with, abstract, non-representational art for example. It’s so subjective that the mere presentation of anything considered abstract defies anyone to prove its not high art. I get it. I’m not really here to talk about what is considered good art. That said, I’m far more likely to respect an abstract, expressionistic or impressionistic form of art from an artist I know has mastered their “craft” than I am someone who has simply played around with color a little and flung some paint on a canvas but has little experiential knowledge of skills like drawing from life, color theory, materials, techniques, methods, composition, rhythm, value, contrast, form, proportion, etc., etc. To borrow from my music analogy again, these are the scales and arpeggios of visual art (in other words, rudimentary building blocks). The Craft.

Craft Before Creativity

I define “craft” as a set of repeatable, definable skills that can be learned and mastered. A guitar luthier learns a craft, for example. When he/she has mastered that craft, they will be able to produce a quality, hand-built guitar from scratch. There are no such things as abstract guitars, so I know that art can be different. Understandable, but still consider, Picasso was an excellent realistic, and representational artist before he was a cubist. Likewise, contemporary watercolorist Jean Haines does impressionistic, expressionistic pieces that are often reductions of highly realistic pre-studies. Do you think those representational or traditional rendering skills inform and improve their abstract work at all? You bet your sweet art critic they do!

Final, FINAL Point. I promise.

Most leisure-time, amateur artists will not exhibit in galleries or shows. But even if they do, they will mostly paint and draw for enjoyment. BINGO! Honing the craft of art, those definable skills I hinted at before, will improve that enjoyment immensely, not to mention come to bear in positive ways on any form of expression you want to pursue. It’s a proven formula. Expression is enhanced by creativity, which is enhanced by experiences and skills. Put another way, you can be more creatively expressive, realistic, abstract or other wise and enjoy that expression more when you broaden your skillset and experiential repertoire (See what I did there? Yet another music reference.) I probably spend 80% of my art time honing my craft, only about 20% in exploring creative ideas of expression. This may be a higher percentage for me since I predominately teach those skills, but I see many artists that reverse this percentage and in my opinion try to run before they can walk. I can honestly say that my ability to think and execute expressively and creatively, not to mention the enjoyment of my art, increases with every increased level of skill I attain in the craft that makes up my art. I think it will for you too.

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28 thoughts on “The Craft of Art

  1. I agree, learning a craft takes more than just desire, or a positive attitude, it also takes work – “brushmiles” if you will. To further your musical analogy, do you remember the Music Man musical? He tried to tell the children all they had to do was think about the tune and it would come out of the trombones – well, the result wasn’t so pretty. Just thinking won’t make you Chuck Mangione, you’ve got to do the hard work.

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    • Yes, I actually thought about The Music Man example and whether I should use it. Perfect analogy. Thanks Carole! La de da de da de da de daaaah, da de daaaah, da de daaaah… 😆

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  2. Great article, I agree so much. I had a friend, retired from a professional career, express frustration with her painting. After helping her with critiques and paint-overs of some of her pieces, I suggested she really should study the foundational understanding of value, color theory, composition, etc., that she lacked. She balked, saying she already had her career and didn’t want to invest significant time in painting like it was a second career. I said, “OK but you’ll always be unhappy with your work and won’t understand why you are. It’s your choice.” She eventually did start investing time in these basics with the result that over the last couple of years, her work has improved dramatically. There’s just no getting around the fact that informed effort is required to improve art-making.

    P.S. Looks like the Caroles are winning the comments game today haha!

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  3. Brush miles. Those of us who start our journey late(r) in life especially are always hunting for tricks/formulas/rubrics that will allow us to get where we want to be NOW. I mean I’m 65, I don’t have 40 years to develop this craft. So yup. I get that. However, the immutable truth involves brush miles. To build on your music analogy: “How do I get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.”

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  4. Steve, wonderful article! As an “emerging” watercolorist it makes perfect sense. I often feel frustrated that I’m spending most of my brush time working on skills and not producing a finished painting (or at least not one I’d want to share!). Your post has encouraged me to keep studying the basics. Thank you. God bless.

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  5. Yes! I also feel as a leisure artist that my work is more a personal response or reflection than an expression. If I can’t accurately record the way morning light wraps around a tree and flickers through the leaves, I’m frustrated or sad. When I want to capture that particular way my pup cocks his head, I need to be able to think in angles, proportions, and volumes rather than “cute widdle ears”. Loved this post 🙂

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  6. before I even look, I am pretty sure that everyone will say, right on Steve! personally, I have never “gotten” abstract art, not liked it. and thot, geez, I could do that, altho I never would. thank you for this “opinion”, altho I would categorize it more as,,,truth. I have been a calligrapher for 7 years. I am just finishing a 4-week class on creative fonts (which is the wrong name for hand lettering, it should be hands). the teacher is from the kind of “whatever works” school, which is just not right in lettering! there are standards, guidelines, and you need to know those and follow them, and personalize them, but you don’t just make up your own thing. (I’m trying to say this is like the expressionistic only painters.) ok, done with my opinion. bless you dear one. xox

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  7. I agree, I feel that realistic art seems to be unappreciated these days. The more abstract the better . seems to be the vogue I want a picture to look like something that is recognisable and pleasing to the eye.

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  8. Wonderful article sir. You explain your thought process and your opinion on subjects very well. No two people will ever agree on what’s art or what an artist is. It’s an individual journey for each person. Some do it for fun,some for relaxation,some to become professional artist(making a living at it),some to push and improve their skill,but all do it because they enjoy it! Don’t get me wrong,we’ll all have our ups and down moments when we question ourselves. No teaching method works for everyone. There is a ton of books,teachers,and of course YouTube videos out there for everyone. You have to find what you like, what you want to learn,and then put in the brush miles to get it with mastering the skills and never stop doing those fundamentals. Your “style” will develop on its own and the longer you do it you’ll be surprised at how your style will change. Just as we change with time,so will your art no matter what type of art you prefer to do. Only by putting in the brush time will you see change and improvements in your work. Like anything else in life you want to get better at,you must get the basics down before you branch out and explore different approaches or experimenting. This in a life long journey for you if you choose. You’ll never stop exploring,learning,being challenged ( even if you didn’t intend it to be),and surprised by what you’ve done or how the water reacted totally different than you thought it would. Enjoy and have fun to the level you want to go. The better you have the basics down the more fun and surprises you’ll get. Sorrry so long,the article is spot on in my opinion. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and time of this fascinating medium called watercolor painting with us! I look forward to much more of your teachings!

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  9. I enjoyed the article very much and I thought it was spot on. My own opinions are very similar to yours. Mastering the techniques will lead you on a wonderful journey to discovering the rest of watercolors amazing surprises. As stated by everyone else,you got to put the time and practice in. There is no short cut. If you put the time in you will discover a fascinating journey for a lifetime! The basics must be learned and understood before you go off exploring all the different aspects of watercolor painting. Enjoy and have fun developing to whatever level of artist you want to be. It’s a journey in which you never stop learning. Never forget to put sometime into refreshing the basics.Steve,thank you for taking time to teach and share with us your knowledge. Everyone have fun on your journey! I posted here because when I tried posting on the web sight,the post never appeared after I hit post. My post just disappeared. I’m sure I did something wrong,I’m not the best with computer tech,lol!

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  10. You’re such a wise soul, Steve. I love that, love your calm, love your acceptance of things that go wrong – even for you, love your painting.It’s such a treat to watch each video for the first time (then a few more times). You’re just so good at what you do, and it seems as though you’re a good person as well. Thank you!

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  11. True! I started watercolor a year ago & didn’t lilke my efforts. I went back to the basics and started from scratch. You can’t do calculus until you’ve mastered basic math.

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  12. Hello Steve,
    First may I say you are by far the best artist at explaining how to do something. I have always been artistic even at the ages of 3 and 4, my mother was artistic and I have a cousin that is formally trained
    as an artist at the Chicago Art Institute. I on the other hand never had that opportunity, I will always be
    Involved in artistic things. I used to paint in oils which I loved, for health reasons I switched to acrylics,
    Now I am in my 80’s and I have been attempting to do watercolors for about 14yrs now. I’m not what
    you would call a “real” artist but I love to try and do mini paintings with watercolor. You have been
    such an inspiration to me, I feel like I could do anything after watching.your videos, so you inspire me
    Tremendously..Thank you Steve for the wonderful Scripture verses at close of each lesson I love that.
    I never ever wrote to any artist before but maybe someone else in their senior years will be encouraged
    to keep having fun regardless of age or infirmities . Thank you so much for all you do for others.
    Blessings to you in the Lord. I do agree with everything you said about going to basics if I were younger
    I would do that.
    Gayle Ingram

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    • Thank you Gayle. I’m so happy you find my videos inspiring. Honestly, I don’t spend much time thinking about whether someone can legitimately call themself an artist. I’m more interested that anyone with an artistic spirit be curious about how to improve their artistic perception, technique and by extension, their enjoyment of the process. Happy painting!

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  13. I didn’t know you blog. Now I do. I always enjoy a good “debate” and I appreciate you expressing your opinion. I have this same debate often, not just in my head but with those willing to listen. What bugs me is this new trend to label anyone that plays with supplies an “artist.” If a person desires to learn, acquire the skills and do the work, they might eventually earn that title. It’s not fair for me to sit here and define what exactly makes a painter an “artist”. So, I looked up the word “artist” and an artist is someone that has learned and mastered their craft and an artist has knowledge, skills and experience that results in a body of work recognized as “art”. Knowledge, skills and experience. How about that! It requires education to be an artist. This does include the many “self-taught” artists. In fact, self-taught artists normally exhibit unprecedented motivation and discipline necessary for a successful learning experience. With the plethora of resources availlable, it’s even practical to learn the basics, the methods, color theory, values, techniques, etc while doing the brush miles on your own. I think the point you make about painters not adhering to the same rules and guidelines as musicians or composers taps that nail right on the head, though gently! In a way, we are now “cheapening” the world of art when we so carelessly label an inexperienced or uneducated person as an “artist” simply because they produce something deemed popular by the masses. Masses perhaps uneducated in art basics. We now have many individuals teaching their “one hit wonder” painting technique (see what I did there?) and we label these people artists. That’s fine as long as those learning understand that this person may not teach the basics or the methods you describe. A respected artist once explained to me that he labels everyone who listens and attempts to paint an “artist” – it’s encouraging for sure. He does so simply because he sees so many deserving artists remain unrecognized, while other uneducated and inexperienced “artists” make a fortune selling, as you describe, “immature work.” I do understand his reasoning behind labeling “fellow learners” artists but at the same time, I see that this new trend results in another proud “student” unwilling to do the work, unwilling to put in the brush miles and unwilling to educate themselves because they’ve already been given a title, a title not meant for every individual. We can’t all be artists, can we? If so, then I’ll label myself Dr. Cassie because I know alot about medical problems – it doesn’t matter that I am not educated in medicine, I’ll simply open a clinic tomorrow. This trend is that silly, in my opinion. Before long, if this trend continues, no one will be recognized – the world will just fill up with mediocre painters everywhere. Those with years of experience, acquired skills and knowledge, those that do the work and those able to teach or explain the basics and the methods are, in my opinion, artists and artists produce “good art,” the result of knowledge, skills and experience. It’s CYCLIC. It’s that simple. On a side note, there are fabulous abstract landscape artists out there for those who may not enjoy abstract … yet. These individuals, while painting mostly in oils, seem to toe that line between real or not, fact and fiction. They create amazing depth and textures. Claire Wiltsher (from Wales), Maurice Sapiro, Neil Nelson, Paul Bennett and Alison Johnson are among the many many talented abstract artists. I encourage those who have not met “beautiful abstracts” to do so.

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    • To compare art to medical practice is an absurd non-comparison. My art probably doesn’t put anyone else’s life at risk of bad performance. The “art world’ is an artificially propped up “scene.” The key is being “recognized.” Oooh. In my opinion, that world can use a little “cheapening”; it’s a bloated self-sanctimonious charade. If you choose to participate, please do and with my blessing, but the truth is that anyone can be an artist. If you ever get out to Baltimore, I invite you to spend an afternoon at the American Visionary Art Museum.

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      • Hmmm, well I find your statement to be the absurd one actually. The way you characterize the art “scene” shows a very limited and surface experience with it. It may be true of a small percentage and only certain circles. The key is definitely not recognition for the majority. Most artists never are. They do art for the expression and enjoyment of it. This has been true throughout history too. The comparison the other commenter made had nothing to do with the relative “importance” of art versus medicine. It was a way of saying, just because you know a few things about ANY SUBJECT doesn’t make you a professional or an expert. This is all sort of getting away from the theme of my original post anyway. The point was increasing your enjoyment of a skill through study and practice.

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      • One of my favorite Old Masters, Leonardo DaVinci, contributed to modern medicine. His detailed illustrations, no matter the means, educated many (and probably saved many lives). An architect and a plastic surgeon are both artists and mistakes could very well impact lives. Combining disciplines is not a new thing, no matter how far fetched it seems to you. My post was meant to stress the importance of learning all that you can about the art you want to create. Just throwing some paint on a canvas or washes on a piece of paper without any experience or respect for knowledge does not make an artist. I am a maker. I make and I often sell what I create but it requires me to learn all I can and this doesn’t happen over night – there is no magic potion. Yes, the learning brings enjoyment and that produces a better creation and then guess what? I want to learn more and more and that produces an even better creation … it’s a cycle. Why do I need your blessing? Mr. Mitchell, I wanted my post to sit along side yours, to compliment it, if that makes sense. To you, I apologize sincerely and deeply that it derailed.

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  14. Absolutely! Spot on! I am with you on honing ones skills. As my skills have improved so has my painting and expression. Plus, I’m encouraged to keep painting by each new skill that I learn.

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