Imagination is more important that knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.  Albert Einstein
We’re approaching the midpoint of Jerry Saltz’s book How to Be an Artist and are ready to explore his third step: learn to think like an artist. Saltz boldly proclaims “this is the fun part!” Here are some ways to make it so:
Acknowledge that all art is subjective. “What does subjective mean? It means that, though the text never changes, every person who sees Hamlet sees a different play. Moreover, every time you see Hamlet, you see a different play. This is the case with almost all good art. It’s always changing; every time you see it anew, you think, How did I miss that before? Art is an unchanging thing that is never the same — a static entity that somehow, whenever you experience it, seems to be inhabited by poltergeists spontaneously generating new messages for you.”
Remember, artists are cats and art is a dog. “Artists, like cats, communicate abstractly, at a remove. This is why artists hate to be asked what their work means. As for art itself, that’s much more like a dog: never quite behaving, making a mess, costing a lot, always making you get supplies, but paying you back in wonder and delight.”
Don’t just be observant, see as much as you can. “Artists see very differently. They get up very close to a work. They inspect every detail: its textures, its materials, its makeup. They’re seeing how it was made — what techniques, ingredients, gestures, and accidents are in play. When I’ve asked artists what they’re looking at so intently, they always say things like ‘the shininess,’ ‘the bumpiness,’ ‘the scratches on the side,’ ‘the way it’s mounted,’ ‘the printing technique,’ ‘the pink Styrofoam backing,’ ‘how they left the flies in the surface.’ All these little matters loom large when they appear in someone else’s work. This is why all artists know that bad art teaches you as much as good art — maybe more.”
Be inconsistent. “Variety, flexibility, experimentation, diversity — all these are essential in your work. This doesn’t mean that every new thing you make should be totally different from what you’ve done before. The real value of inconsistency is that when something appears in your work that gives you an opening, some oddity or mutation that sets you off in a new direction. Variability allows your work to breathe; it helps you to steer clear of tyrannies and find charm in the unfamiliar. Try whatever you want to try: different sizes, tools, materials, subjects, anything. This is how you will evolve new systems of meaning, new combinations and unexpected unions.”
Welcome chance as a lucky bounce to your imagination. “Whenever you’re not sure what to do next in your work, momentarily shift your focus and pay attention to whatever songs, sounds, sights, words, news stories, images, or books happen to cross your field of awareness. Use these things! Let them braid in unexpected ways with what you’re already doing. Using them gives chance a purpose; using them changes chance’s flow. Chance is the stunning aurora borealis of creativity — a flickering instantaneity that sweeps across the skies of your work, leaving a trail that can make your work richer and stranger and better.”

About the Image
Sometimes it can take years to see what others see. For decades, Saltz stared at the work of Paul Cézanne, such as Still Life with Open Drawer, and thought only, “Apples, choppy mountains, bathers — meh.” However, he never gave up, because he felt it was his job, his duty, to understand what the consensus saw. So he kept coming back to Cézanne. One day, everything fell into place. Since then, he states that every Cézanne he sees leaves him breathless. So, if you’re stymied by particular artists, put their names on a list and keep coming back to them. Once an artist finally makes sense to you, take on a new one.
Adapted from How to Be an Artist by Jerry Saltz
Back to Top