I have always been impatient with my paintings. I want to start one and then finish it, and then I want to go on to the next. I’ve never believed in practice works. You know, the kind of artwork that is only a warm up exercise, but you’re never going to use it for anything.
I also don’t write practice poems, practice novels and practice essays. Likewise, I don’t raise practice children or practice chimpanzees. I don’t believe in practice relationships, but other people do. And it seems to work for them. They get better at it with time, just by trying the same thing over and over again. Sometimes, on their third marriage or seventh child, they get things just right. To me, the idea of practice makes perfect seems both boring and heart-wrenching.
“You take everything too seriously,” I’ve been told. “Not everything is for keeps. Stay in the moment. Don’t form attachments to people or things.” That last part comes from the Buddhist camp. But I’ve heard the same advice everywhere.
How can you love something and then throw it away? It does not seem right to create something only to discard it as not good enough. But this year, I have come close.
I had an idea for a painting, and I also wanted to do a craft for Christmas gifts. And I realized I just did not have time to come up with an original new painting for each gift. So it occurred to me to set up to mass produce the same painting over and over again.
As I kept trying to paint the same thing, I noticed some changes. The deer in the right hand corner of the painting kept improving. The butterfly kept getting smaller and less prominent
Mind you, I could not spend a lot of time on each painting. Since I was making many of them, and I wanted to send them out, it was not practical to mull over and correct each imperfection. The task I set for myself was to make the painting as good as it could be in a limited amount of time and with limited resources. I imagine that this must have been how people used to paint, when they sold their artwork out on the street. It did not need to be the best. It just had to fetch a quick price. In situations such as that, practice really does improve performance.
For one thing, as we practice our art, we start to automate certain things that we had to think about when it was just a once in a lifetime act. Take mixing the colors. I found that if I painted the form of the deer in the same purple that I used for the flowers, and then I painted the shape of the butterfly in orange, I could then overlay the purple in the deer with that orange to make it brown.
This, I think, is the difference between an artisan and an artist — or at least, one of the differences. An artisan has to work quickly and efficiently. The work has to be accomplished fast over and over again to meet a demand. Professionalism in many ways is just having the experience to know how to get the most out of resources so as to exploit them to the max. If you only ever do one thing, you can become really good at it.
But the down side is this: who wants to do the same thing over and over again for all eternity? Who doesn’t want to learn something new every day, at the price of being a little amateurish at it? Doesn’t the work lose its value if there is too much of it?
I would rather love what I do than just profess to love it. In today’s world, you can paint just one painting and then sell millions of prints. So there is no need for any of us to repeat ourselves.