Defining Your Path

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The other day a fairly well-known artist posed a question on Facebook. The way I understood it, it went something like this, “Should we expend energies finding new ways of expressing ourselves, or merely refining an artistic dialect?”. You can see from the wording (which is my paraphrase) that this artist puts more value on pushing boundaries and exploring new frontiers. I don’t deny that this is indeed valuable in its proper place and time. But for where I am at this point in my life with my art I’m still enjoying the process of further refining my particular mode of expression. I believe there are rewards still to be had both for my audience and for me.

Today I want to deal with this aspect of the craft. Not so much with what we want to say, but with the finer points of how we want to say it. For me this how has been a very interesting and essential part of my journey. Defining my stylistic path (the how) has been helped by a particular type of study of other artists. I touched on this in the past with Dave’s Tips to Becoming a Better Artist. Point number four reads:

“Pick three artists (minimum) that you want to emulate in your work. Study everything you can about them. Try to identify what it is about their work that you like. Do some master copies of their work.”

Using a single painting by a particular artist, I want to give a practical example of how point 4 played out in my own artistic development.

Some years ago I started making lists of my favorite artists — the artists I wanted to emulate in some way. These were the ones that made me say “I want to paint like THAT!”. One day I wrote down about 15 names, give or take. A few days or a week later I did the same thing. Interestingly, the lists were not identical. But as the lists piled up I realized that there were 6 or 8 names that made the “cut” every time. These were my Masters. These were the artists whose pictures I was really going to meditate on and learn from.

Joseph DeCamp is one of the artists who made the list nearly every time. In 1908 he painted The Guitar Player (above) which has become one of my very favorite paintings of all time.  As I have studied this painting I have tried to identify its qualities I hope to infuse into my own work.  My theory has been that the better I can describe to myself what it is about a painting that really turns me on, the more it can influence the way I compose my pictures. Over time The Guitar Player has become key in defining, and refining, my pictorial language.

A few characteristics of this painting that I really like are the division of space. the quality of the light, and the seeming simplicity of the composition. I love DeCamp’s use of subdued color here (he didn’t always do that). The neutral tones balance the red notes perfectly. Even though the subject is playing a guitar, to me this painting feels quiet. It’s meditative. I like to think that maybe she has just plucked the last note of her song, and I hear it sustained but slowly dying away. A single perfect note expressing a delicate and delicious moment of solitude. These kinds of musing about a painting (or any other inspirational material) are my “…[identifying what it is about the work that I like]”.

Below are some images of my paintings that I feel may share some of the same qualities as The Guitar Player. I hope this illustrates how this kind of study can help define, and indeed refine, how you express your subjects in paint.

Best wishes

— DG

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Blue and Gray

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Farewell

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Jessica with Ingres

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Salt

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Yesterday

23 thoughts on “Defining Your Path”

  1. I have followed your work on YouTube and admire it. One of my favorite artists is George Forster. I saw one of his paintings at the Nelson Museum of Art in the late 1970s. He painted still life’s. His grapes were transparent and his water drops looked real. Have you ever seen his work? He painted in the late 1800’s. I think you have enormous talent and I wish you well.

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    1. the best, most profound thoughts, come while painting. If we do not reflect upon, and recognise those thoughts, our painting cannot grow. If we don’t think about what we do then we have too much choice and no direction. If we do think and reflect and share them (in this case, David was answering someones question, and the ability to FIND an answer to a question, and to relate it in a way as to be useful to others, is rare) then others may grow as a result. And surely, while one paints for oneself, we all wish for others to benefit from our paintings too.
      If we only think think think, there will be no painting. If we paint paint paint, we will THINK THINK THINK! Bigger, better. Bestest. David, I thank you! xx

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I’ve found that the best artists, no matter what the style, usually are pretty intellectual. I’ve always appreciated their writings about process. If you don’t take time to study process your art is most likely going to remain amateurish. But you’re right about one thing. If you don’t paint, paint, paint, all that thought will seep away like water in the desert.

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  2. “Defining your stylistic path”
    Dave, thank you so much for outlining your process of choosing your favourite artists and determining why they are favourites. What a great way to allow yourself to grow as an artist and continually provide yourself the direction needed to encourage growth. I will reference this posting many times in the future. Thank you so much for your advice. Fran

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  3. I feel a similar way about books. For me “personally,” a simple story told with great care, thought, and cadence appeals to me more than the most cutting-edge story ever told in a way never before heard. Both are still allowed to be awesome, the first one just suites my personality more. I can definitely see the DeCamp influence in your work now. Honestly, I’d not heard of this artist before now, but I appreciate the same qualities in his work that I do in yours.

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  4. Maybe it’s just the individual human nature that identifies each of us and pushes us in one or another direction. We are all so very much alike but our differences are profound. Some paint, some don’t, and everything in between.

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  5. It might please you to know, you are among the top 5 artists I follow whose work I aspire to emulate. I am gaining on it but at a glacial speed as I am relying on simply reading, watching videos (like yours) and trial and error to guide me. I love your youtube videos, please keep these coming for those of us who find it hard or impossible to travel to workshops (time and cost). Thank you for your contributions to our education.

    My question: When one finally reaches a point where they think they are ready to sell to a broader market than friends and family, how does one enter this realm? Galleries? On-line? Any websites you can recommend to help with that journey?

    Stella

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    1. Thank you, Stella. That’s a good question. As I’m sure you know, there are MANY ways to get out there and present your work. This would make for a good post, actually. Hmm. There are tent shows, Co-op galleries, E-bay, etc. Anybody can do those. You might want to try to get into some juried competitions. That’s a nice way to get your art in front of the public eye. You may even win a prize, which could add to your creds. Here’s a good website for that: http://www.artistsnetwork.com/category/competitions. A conventional gallery might be a good way. It all depends on what you want to do. You need to think ahead a little, strike a path, and go for it. Send me a message through my website and maybe we can talk about it in a little more depth: http://www.davidgrayart.com/#!contact/czpl.

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  6. Wonderful post – thanks for encouragement to study other masters and doing master copies for educational purposes.

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  7. Thank you for posting this today it has arrived at a very good point for me. Like Stella above I also would like to emulate you and am working towards that goal. I love realism but I am finding it very difficult. I am at the ‘almost but not quite stage’. I do have a website (which brings in no business at all) and am on a few online galleries. I have sold one painting through them even though I have been on there a few years. My other sales have come from local people seeing my work and facebook.

    Recently I have become disabled, without going into too much detail here I wanted to ask you is it really possible to earn a decent living as an artist? Selling one or two paintings a year really doesn’t do much to improve things here to be honest. I keep thinking maybe it’s subject matter or my style or just the fact that there is a recession on and people won’t buy luxuries like paintings at a time like this. I should point out at this point that I live in the Republic of Ireland. My wildlife paintings are not popular here at all as they are not big on animals in general.

    The galleries tend to be full of rubbish all they want is art that a monkey could have done, or even myself in a bad temper if I threw a few random pots of paint at a canvas. (Maybe that is what I should do lol). I do want to have a go at trying to copy your painting of Paris if that would be ok? I love watching you paint it.

    I guess my main point is would it really be possible to earn a living wage as an artist and if so what do I need to do? I hope you can offer some advice.

    Regards and thank you again for sharing your wonderful work.

    Diane

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    1. Can one earn a living with art? Yes. How does one do that? I can’t answer that for you. We all have to find our own path. I can tell you what I’ve done, but I’m not sure it has been the best way. In fact I’m almost certain it hasn’t. If you look online there are a lot of resources that deal with selling art. This part of being an artist is way out of my area of expertise.

      Certainly you must find a market for animal art. If that mean shipping our work out then that’s what you have to do. That’s what I do. I don’t sell work in my area because the art market is so bad in the Seattle area. Good luck.

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      1. Thank you for your advice. I will look into that some more. The main thing I want to do is improve my technique, so that I can actually paint something that people will want to buy.

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  8. Dear David,

    I am very loving and respectful and admiring of your painting ability….and am happy to learn so much just observing your work….

    Observing the wonderful painting of Joseph Decamp, I believe that not only the extreme fantastic technique is important, but also

    the rare ability of the artist to capture the soul of the person, which to my observation is a man and not a woman…..please tell me your

    interpretation…..

    Vesna Matthies

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  9. David, really like this most recent thought provoking post. Got me to thinking about my early favorites from the past, then my contemporary favorites (and I’m pretty old) and now my young favorites, which I will follow forever…and you are number one! Thanks for sticking with it! I mean the painting and the blogging!

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  10. I receive your newsletter via email, but just discovered your blog when I visited your website. Great words of painterly wisdom and fantastic fine art. Thanks for sharing. Although I don’t strive to paint as you do, I was taking your advice (without knowing it) to follow and study several artists whose work I admire. They paint loose, impressionistic landscapes that I aspire to paint. Glad to know I was on the right path.

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  11. It is July 23, 2015. I’m just reading this (and your blog in general). I am a much older person who gave up art in my 20’s mostly from lack of conviction and perseverance (plus “life happening”}. I love your work and will attempt to emulate the spirit of your work in portraiture and still lifes. I’ve entered an art class (landscape) to “prime the pump” and when I walked into my first class, walked back in time. I was the same ageless entity who first picked up a brush and just as enthralled. Thank you for the inspiration and the thoughtfulness with which you approach your art. Also for your work ethic and your generosity to other artists. I now have nothing standing between me and art (except age, which limits ultimate time to paint but is not a barrier to striving for excellence). We’ll see what happens…..

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