I had the rare opportunity to spend a delightful morning with two dear artist friends recently, a husband and wife, now in their early eighties or late seventies, that I have known all my life. They both paint regularly, in a purpose-built art studio, made out of what was their garage. It’s a nice space. There’s a skylight, to let in the dazzling Australian daylight, an air conditioner, for those humid, languid summer days and crisp Australian winters and additional insulation, fitted to keep the studio comfy cosy. One entire wall is peg board, where they can easily hang their paintings and move them around. Their two easels face one another, so that they can paint all day, share cups of tea and biscuits and work on their paintings. A table, holding their brushes, palettes and paints, sits between them.
My friends didn’t know I painted too, which is not surprising, given I only picked it up since I left Australia to live in England. We spent the morning discussing tools and techniques, comparing approaches to canvas preparation, paint application and drawing. It was a really warming discussion. She paints landscapes and is what you would call “a natural”. Both are largely self-taught, but he made a particular point of talking about his approach. In his view, painting is only interesting while he continues to push forward, experimenting and learning. You could see this in his work. There were interesting textures and perspectives in all of them, but little repetition of subject matter, themes and even techniques. A steady progression in technical ability was immediately apparent, as you viewed his paintings in roughly chronological order.
Neil remarked that he had found most artists he had encountered, over the years, particularly those that were better known or professionals, jealously guarded their trade secrets. They were reluctant to discuss the mediums, grounds, tools and techniques they used and even less forthcoming about demonstrating how they painted, for fear of being copied or eclipsed. That seemed strange to me. Could copying have really been so rampant? Was their self-confidence so low that they believed they needed to keep how they worked a strict secret? Was it simply a lack of generosity of spirit? Did they truly believe that their notoriety, fame and success depended crucially on not revealing how they went about creating their works? In short, did they feel fraudulent, within themselves and were they afraid of being exposed as such, if their simple and straight forward techniques were revealed? Did they think the magic, mystery and fascination would evaporate?
I’ve found the opposite. I have encountered many artists only too willing to share their techniques and approaches generously, secure in the knowledge that the uniqueness of their works derives from their tastes and choices, not necessarily from the materials they use or how they are applied. They know that you would have to have been a clone and lived a life identical to theirs, experiencing everything they experienced, to produce the same mind set, assumptions, inspirations and ideas. Clearly the odds are against. It is an absurdity to think that this is even a possibility.
The artists that share how they do what they do, I find, tend to understand that an original is an original and a copy is a copy. It even looks like a copy, lacking the verve and commitment of the original. “Pastiche” is written all over it. There is something indefinable and distinctive about an original, which is rarely present in even the best imitations. Knowing that, there would seem to be very little risk in showing somebody which paints you use and how you put them on the canvas. The artists I have met seem more secure and comfortable with their artistic output.
I think it is better to bring the whole population of artists up to speed with new tools, techniques and experimental approaches. There is so much to pick and choose from and the chances of anybody exactly copying somebody else’s technique and producing works that are better are miniscule. In the end, every artist gravitates toward a unique, personal melange of techniques, sticking to the ones that work best for them. I’ve never seen two painters paint in exactly the same way. There have never yet been two identical collections of paints, brushes and mediums produced in any gathering of artists that I have been a part of. Everybody uses something different. The range of choices is practically unlimited.
Keeping your technique and materials a trade secret might seem like a very sensible and protective thing to do, but the price you pay is stagnation, because nobody shares their secrets with you, either. It’s a give and take equation. If you fail to give generously of your accumulated knowledge, you cannot expect anybody else to give theirs back to you. In the end, you are left in ignorance of things that work well for others, which might transform your own works and take you that next leap forward.
Part of the joy of painting is in the community or tribe of like-minded people you share time with. Those connections and communication can be lubricated and facilitated by the ice breaking effect of talking about brushes, palette knives, texture gels and paint brands. Don’t miss the opportunity to bond with your fellow artists. It enriches everybody. The thing about ideas is that you get to keep them, even when you give them away, but now everybody has something more.
It is for this reason that I write, from time to time, about how I go about painting, making music and so on. My ideas might not be the best and only ideas, but in sharing them, other people may be inspired to try them, modify and improve on them and they might share their findings with me. They also might reject them entirely and be inspired to try something else. It’s all good.
I encourage you to unlock your trade secrets and share them magnanimously with your fellow artists. Good things will come back to you, if you do, I have found.