What defines a “master artist”? What defines a “master” anything?
If I can copy a master artist’s painting does that make me a master? If I can produce master-like work on my own but I only churn out five works over my lifetime does that make me a master? Did the old masters know they were masters?
During our final “working” watercolor class where we were to copy a painting done by a “master artist,” I posed this question to our teacher, Mrs. C. She speculated that it once referred to the old classifications of apprentice, journeyman, master, but now it simply refers to “museum-quality” work.
We were given a list of master artists from which to chose, but still, the analytical side of me was was hungry for a concrete definition. If I was going to copy a master artist’s painting, I wanted to know more about what I was trying to emulate. The assignment? To copy the work of a master artist that I responded to strongly and could inspire my work in the future.
So off I went in search of a painting …and a definition.
According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of a “master” is, “A worker or artisan qualified to teach apprentices; an artist, performer or player of consummate skill; a great figure of the past (as in science or art) whose work serves as a model or ideal.”
If we look to the past, the Merriam-Webster definition of “old master” is, “A famous and highly skilled artist; especially, a famous painter of the 16th, 17th or early 18th century.”
I’m a Certified Public Accountant. Does that make me a master accountant? Probably not. Could I be a master accountant without a CPA? Probably. In the modern day, where professions are concerned, we typically designate between amateur vs. professional.
Turning again to Merriam-Webster, an amateur is defined as, “Devotee, admirer; one who engages in a pursuit, study, science or sport as a pastime rather than as a profession; one lacking in experience and competence in an art or science.”
A professional is, “characterized by or conforming to the technical or ethical standards of a profession; exhibiting a courteous, conscientious, and generally businesslike manner in the workplace; participating for gain or livelihood in an activity or field of endeavor often engaged in by amateur; having a particular profession as a permanent career; engaged in by persons receiving financial return; following a line of conduct as though it were a profession.”
Perusing various articles, I found all manner of opinions about characteristics that define a master artist: resilience, originality, accountability, love for art, eccentricity, integrity, technique. The lists were endless.
It became obvious that definitions weren’t going to help and I was probably just using my Google searches as a procrastination mechanism. After spending some time searching for an actual “master” painting, I came up with this one:
I feel a vague connection to Georgia O’Keeffe, having visited Ghost Ranch Education and Retreat Center in Abiquiu, NM, where she spent time painting her famous landscapes of the American Southwest. I share her need for solitude and I can picture myself there, alone, painting Pedernal – the flat-topped mountain to the south of the ranch which was one of O’Keeffe’s favorite subjects.
But I chose this piece it because it bothered me. I had never understood abstract art and there was nothing in the title to hint at what the artist was representing here. I felt hints of a boardwalk, clouds and ocean when looking at it and maybe that is why I chose it, but mostly it bothered me – in the same way that most abstract art bothered me: it appeared too simple and random to have been painted by a “master.”
I could not have been more wrong.
I had only attempted to copy master paintings once, and even then not very seriously. It was during my paint-your-own-pottery phase, when after passing the CPA exam I had so much pent-up spastic energy that I didn’t know what to do with myself. So I found Paint Your Heart Out in Occoquan, VA, near where I lived at the time. And paint my heart out I did. Everyone I knew got hand-painted pottery from me for Christmas that year (and the next year too if I remember correctly).
These Van Gogh-ish knock offs were not painted in a serious attempt to copy precisely, as you can tell from the sun inserted into the Starry Night plate. I know, it makes no sense and I didn’t care. I was just messing around.
This time I cared.
To make things fun, part of our assignment was to get in the right mood, frame of mind and confident attitude by wearing something our selected artist might have worn.
“If you want to be a knight, act like a knight.” -Don Quixote, written by Miguel de Cervantes
So there I sat, dressed in black and accessorized with turquoise jewelry, staring at Blue #1 as one would stare at the sky on a breezy spring day, trying to see the shapes in the clouds.
This was one of O’Keefe’s early monochromatic works which critics have said evoke the movement of nature through abstract forms. I really wasn’t sure what I saw. What was I supposed to see?
For my initial sketch, I divided the piece into four rectangular quadrants and then two diagonals. At first glance, the shapes look disconnected but while painting, it quickly became apparent that almost all the shapes are connected to each other. Diagonal lines lead the eye from the bottom left to upper right (a common compositional technique).
Although this was considered monochromatic, it is really more primary/tricolor – blue, yellow and grey with some hints of purple. Curves appear repeatedly in contrast to the stark diagonal lines. The brush technique appears to be wet-on-wet with many, many layers and some blotting.
Surprisingly, I completed most of it in the classroom. At home I added one more layer of paint and for a finishing touch, some water soluble graphite.
I’ll never forget my boyfriend’s reaction after my first class almost four months ago. I could tell he really wanted to like the watercolor technique studies I showed him but his facial expression said otherwise. He had expected that I would start doing “real” paintings right away. I had to explain that we were only studying individual techniques.
But this time was different. This time the look on his face said “wow,” and then he said “wow” out loud followed by, “I can’t tell the difference between the original and the copy.”
Those who are familiar with O’Keeffe’s work probably know that many of her flower paintings bear a striking resemblance to the female anatomy, so after looking at my copy for a moment, my boyfriend in his usual humorous style added, “You did a really good job but I can’t find the vagina.”
The next week during our work sharing and critique, classmates said they saw oyster shells, plants. Sadness.
One classmate called me “other worldly.” Another said I could have been a forger. I’m not sure if these were compliments but I chose to take them as such.
Later, one classmates quietly approached and in a whispery voice said, “Turn it upside down – you’ll see the vagina. There’s always a vagina in her paintings.”
Female anatomy or no, I had done it. I had copied a master.
Master is different than prodigy. There are those rare few who are ridiculously gifted. But for most of us, I believe that practice makes us masters. Study. Application. Trying new things. Perseverance. Failure. Starting over. And over. And over. That has been missing for me as an artist, photographer, writer, musician.
I’ve dabbled. I’ve had moments of obsession. But they’ve never lasted. Dabbling is fun. Obsession is fun. Practice is painful.
My painting and drawing usually end when the class ends. My photography comes to a halt as soon as I have to move from composing a shot to learning the technical stuff. My piano lessons ceased when I had to play endless rounds of scales over and over again. And my writing? I almost didn’t write this post. It took over three weeks. Writer’s block is a bitch. But I tried and tried and tried again, determined to master it.
This whole exercise reminded me of a quote:
“Jack of all trades, master of none, certainly better than a master of one”
Is it really better? With the growing gap between rich and poor, with many people trying to simply survive, with the dwindling focus on the arts in general, mastering anything in the creative arts seems impossible. For some, even dabbling in the creative arts seems impossible.
For women, there are even more roadblocks. The National Museum of Women in the Arts estimates that 5% of art currently on display in US museums was created by women. Is there a different definition of “master artist” for women vs. men?
Am I a master accountant? Could I be a master artist? I don’t know. But I am a professional. Sometimes I find it almost impossible to balance profession with compulsion. It’s like walking between worlds but never fully being a part of either.
There is one thing I have mastered during this class: courage. I am no longer afraid to experience the discomfort that comes from balancing on that line. The line between control and creativity. I remind myself that I chose this particular master artist’s painting because it “bothered me.” I never would have done that four months ago.
By definition, I can’t stop the compulsion. Maybe I should stop trying to stop. Photography, painting, writing, asking questions, organizing my thoughts. Maybe I will eventually master these. Maybe because they are compulsions, practice naturally follows. And mastery follows practice.
Or madness. I guess I’m okay with madness too, if it comes.
Maybe it already has.
Psychologist William James wrote that when superior intellect and psychopathic tendencies combine, the result is likely to be an artistic genius. Creativity, in general, is marked by the combination of rational and irrational thoughts, and turning this into art requires artists to go deeper and deeper into the unknown to create. Michelangelo, for example, used to beat and scream at his statues as if they could respond. According to Socrates, it is impossible to approach art ” . . .untouched by the madness of the muses.”
~Terry Hollis, eHow Contributor, from The Characteristics of a Master Artist