The one certainty in making art

A few posts ago, I wrote about letting go of uncertainties in art-making.  Like most, I keep bumping into this difficulty, and my lizard brain has recently been prone to such thoughts as “is this what I want to be painting right now?” or “what will my new boss think of this idea?” or “will anyone even read this post?”  I’ve often found that turning around a problem and looking it at from the opposite angle can yield valuable answers.  So I asked myself, “Is there anything that is certain in my art-making?”

The answer is YES.  My materials.

Having the right materials and tools for the job is a basic need in any artistic or work endeavor.  In their book First, Break all the Rules, Buckingham and Coffman found through a Gallup poll of managers that having the materials and tools a person needs to do their work right is the second-most fundamental need after “do I know what is expected of me at work?” I think in art-making, it jumps to first place.  Whether you are a writer, carpenter, sculptor, jewelry-maker, tailor, hair stylist, graphics designer, architect, or make-up artist, your materials can directly impact the experience you have in your art-making.  Your materials are the bridge between the ideas in your head and the art you end up creating.

Three years ago, armed with the list my art instructor Michael had given me, I showed up at the art supply store ready to buy my materials.  I’ll equate the experience to being just as wonderful as a Nordstrom shoe sale, and it still is.  [Have I mentioned how much I love Jerry’s Artarama gift cards? Hint hint to my friends….my birthday is in May. <snicker>]  The list Michael had given me was short – a few brushes and a limited palette of paint colors – but I spent three hours browsing and studying all the supplies.  Easels, canvases, brushes, paint, palettes, turpentine, linseed oil, palette knives – I wanted all of it.  But I knew so little, that I stuck to Michael’s list.

Over the last three years, my materials have become more sophisticated and I’ve become more picky about what I use to paint as my response to what I was using became more personal with the experience I gained.  In fact, my relationship with my materials is becoming deeply personal as I realize my potential through them:   they respond – or sometimes resist – and this drives me to do something on the canvas.

Over time, I have upgraded to longer, higher-quality brushes.  I started having Michael build and stretch and prep my canvases instead of using store-bought ones.  And I migrated to artist-grade oil paints.  These investments mean I have also begun taking better care of my materials.  As soon as I’m done painting, I clean my brushes.  One needs lukewarm water, mild soap, and lots of patience.  Cleaning 2-4 brushes can sometimes take up to 30 minutes. There’s something cathartic and nurturing about standing at the sink and removing the oil and pigment from the brushes.  I know that a job well done will make the paint glide on next time I’m at the easel and that the brushes will last longer, so I’m motivated to get them clean. A few weeks ago, when I got sick with the flu, I felt so badly that I didn’t wash my brushes when I got home from Michael’s studio.  They sat in my art bag for five days while I lay sick in bed, and the paint encrusted in the bristles to the point I had to throw two brushes out.  It’s the equivalent of sleeping with your make-up on for days…..ick.  

The certainty that my tools will do what my hands make them do is the only certainty in art-making.  I can control the paints and palette I use.  I can choose the canvas size and quality on which to apply the paint. I can take care of my brushes to get the best possible use out of them.  I can choose the medium that will best help apply and spread the paint.  As David Bayles and Ted Orland write in their book Art and Fear:  “Art is about carrying things out, and materials are what can be carried out.  Because they are real, they are reliable.  Your materials are, in fact, one of the few elements of art-making you can reasonably hope to control.”  Everything else is flavored with uncertainty.

How about you?  Tell me about your relationship with your tools and materials.

2 thoughts on “The one certainty in making art

Add yours

  1. Teresa,

    First, I *love* the name of your blog!

    My response concerns writing. I am of the age where I had a typewriter as a high school kid, rarely used it, and my senior year I got an Atari 800 and printer that I brought to college. Essential, my first really good writing was written on a word processor that had no “font choices” visible on the screen — no WYSIWYG.

    Maybe my preferences were born of that, maybe not. But when I write creatively or first drafts of professional marketing pieces I write with Notepad, another text editor, or MS Word with a single, most basic font in the mode where it looks like a paper page. The most naked of screens (or “paper”; my palette) serves as the best vehicle to create a story. No fonts, no graphics, no layout. No worries about the form. Only the function of the words.

    Yes, I may iterate and edit when I know the container into which the words must fit. They may even drastically change. But I always have that “naked” source to look at to remember the original direction I was heading.



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