“Every artist was first an amateur.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
I’m slowly working my way through Jerry Saltz’s book How to Be an Artist. This week, I’m musing about the first step: to acknowledge you are a total amateur. Contrary to what you may be thinking, this is a good thing. Although “amateur” often refers to “a person inexperienced or unskilled in a particular activity,” the word is actually derived from the Latin amare, which means “to love.” As an artist, you should be totally in love with whatever creative expression your art takes.
As a total amateur, Saltz suggests several things to think about before you get started. Here are a few of them:
Don’t be embarrassed. “Making art can be humiliating. Terrifying. It can leave you feeling exposed, vulnerable. Art doesn’t have to make sense. Art is like birdsong: it’s made of patterns, inflections, shadings, shifts — all things that have emotional and perceptual impact, even if we can never really translate their meanings. Don’t worry about whether your art ‘makes sense.’ The faster your work makes sense the faster people will lose interest. Let go of being ‘good.’ Start thinking about creating.”
Let your imagination run wild. Quoting Albert Einstein, Saltz declares “imagination is more important than knowledge.” He goes on to state: “The imagination is endless and always there. Your imagination extends your mind to the world around you. Creativity is what you do with your imagination. Write down your flights of fancy, your moments of wonder and fear, your dreams and delusions of grandeur. Then put them to work. Make the imagination your compass star. Forget about making things to be understood. Imagination is your creed, sentimentality and lack of feeling your foes. All art comes from love — love of doing something.”
Embrace genre. Saltz warns artists not to shy away from embracing genre, whether it be the portrait, the still life, the landscape painting, comedy or tragedy, pop or gospel, sonnet or science fiction. “Genre is a major factor in the way we think about art. What’s the difference between genre and style? Style is the unstable essence an artist brings to a genre — what ensures that no two Crucifixions, say, look the same. A fresh style breathes life into any genre.”
Buy a small sketchbook. Saltz encourages every artist to develop this practice: “Keep a pocket-size sketch pad with you at all times. Whenever you have an odd moment — over your morning coffee, as you’re riding on the subway, while sitting in the dentist’s waiting room — practice looking at your own hands and drawing them. … The goal is first to learn how to look — and then to describe, with your pencil or pen, what you see.”
Don’t be predictable. “Predictability is good for computers, but it’s death for artists. Avoid lingering on the well-worn path; you don’t want to be a minor example of someone else’s major style or idea. It’s a far better thing to let yourself get lost than never to stray at all. As an artist, you’re always studying your environment, absorbing sensations, memories of how things work and don’t work. The goal is to create a practice that allows a constant recalibration between your imagination and the world around you. There’s no road map for art. Get lost!”
About the Image
Sugaring Off was painted by Anna Mary Robertson Moses, better known as Grandma Moses, in 1955 at the age of 95. She began painting in earnest at the age of 78 and is often cited as an example of an individual who successfully began a career in the arts at an advanced age. She is one of many artists (Rousseau, Traylor, Delany) who epitomize Saltz’s admonition to “start now,” at any time or any age. Her works have been shown and sold in the United States and abroad and have been used on greeting cards and other merchandise. In 2006, Sugaring Off sold for $1.2 million.
Adapted from How to Be an Artist by Jerry Saltz