Artists Itch

When you are in school and studying all the styles and the philosophies of art, you have the idea that there is a choice.  The artist takes a little of this and a little of that and concocts his own style.  Over the years his philosophy of art evolves and out of that philosophy comes his work.
It isn´t that way.
It is all UNCONSCIOUS.
He begins to work and corrects what he does because it troubles him—troubles him like an itch on his toe or a tiredness in his sitting posture.  He works until the bother is gone.  Afterwards he analyzes the results and makes a theory.  He remembers the theory as he invents the next picture or statue, but it doesn´t affect the restlessness he feels as he works, that impatience to reach some precision that isn´t even known to his intellect.
That uneasiness, that squeamishness, is the artist in him, not the theory or even the intellectual who invented the theory.

“El ojo siempre busca lo malo,” my old sculptor master told me.  The eye always “looks for”, always goes right to, the mistakes in a work.  He was referring to the way anyone, the general public as well as the critic, looks at a finished work of art.
But it is the artist´s way as well.  “I work on a picture,” said Degas, “until it stops bothering me.”

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6 Responses to Artists Itch

  1. Ion Danu says:

    You really got it here, Gene! It’s like that (for me it is, at least) . Theory is redundant, not even necessary (there are artist who have also the “itch” and the capacity to theorixe (?) their works and other – Paul Klee was one of those, a curious, itchy fellow artist with an extraordinary capacity to – afterwards – put into words what he did and thought about his art – The Theory of modern art is an essential book for any artist – who cares for theory… And Degas was also a very VERY smart one, full of “guts” but also full of wit (it’s kind of “drole” that wit in english, meaning “sharp spirit” etc. means in French, vit = male organ…!) Sometimes, all the wit (and vit) of an artist goes in his art… I don’t know how it works for the female artists…

  2. erikatakacs says:

    The categories on top are such a good idea. I never read your posts on beauty and I’m sorry I didn’t. I find myself encountering these same issues on a daily basis. After spending hours and hours on a work and still unhappy about it, the lazy bum, the sceptic in me says it’s enough, it won’t get any better. But the perfectionist -although reluctantly- goes on, just one little correction, then one more, then one more. Until it stops bothering, like Degas says. Until the itch is gone, like you say.
    Then what else, when the piece is all finished and mounted, you discover a new error, an awkward angle you never noticed before. Then what? You hide it, ditch it, don’t want to see it.

    • 100swallows says:

      Erika: And you forgot to mention how trying to improve it just a little more you finally spoil it altogether or lose something precious you had. Never leaving well enough alone is a good way to explain the artist’s or the inventor’s itch but there is also a talent for knowing when to call it quits. I can’t remember what other artist said of John Singer Sargent that his tragedy was that he didn’t know when to quit. I had a cat going one winter in clay, all winter. It just kept changing, became my collected works. Dumb.

  3. erikatakacs says:

    Calling it quits it’s more of a problem for painters, no? Whenever I pick up a brush, I can’t decide when it’s the right time to put it down. Knowing when to quit may be a talent, but it can also be learnt from your own bad experiences. Who said it, a work is always finished before you think it is.
    I’m sure your last cat was much much better than the first one. You must have learnt a lot during that time!

  4. will says:

    Swallows, the more I read of your blog, the better I find it. It is so varied, clear and yet consistent and comprehensive. Every post triggers a desire to go into the discussion:just fantastic.
    On this point of artist’s itch, I have two comments:
    -your sculptor master’s point is so right! It is amazing that viewers or spectators ‘eye is so sharp in detecting the presence of a fault in a structure (artistic or else) . Generally, the viewer cannot describe it precisely, but picks it up almost at once. Civil engineers know that when building those elegant curved bridges made of prefabricated ‘slices’, an angle at anyone of their junctions of more than 1/10th of a degree is inevitably visible to viewers, and ruins the smoothness of the curve line of the bridge!
    -for an amateur watercolourist like me a good way to resist the painting artist’s itch syndrome is perhaps to use watercolours extensively on not so strong a paper, that will forbid any significant reworking. The itch’s effect is thus reduced to throwing a lot of paper away, but is hence less detrimental to the final attempt (if there is one left)!
    -having said all this, it is worth to notice the artist’s judgement on his current work is often overly severe. For a watercolourist, a remedy to this is to put aside the sheet and leave it alone for days, months or even years before coming back to it and finding the slight touch that can turn it more satisfying.
    Best Regards,
    Will

    • 100swallows says:

      Will: Thank you very much. Please give me some time to answer. I can’t do you justice with quick replies and right now I am busy with several projects. Hold on for a few days, OK?
      Un saludo de 100swallows.

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