In Praise of Skill

My art teacher and friend posted a link to this sardonic article on my timeline, recently:

It was a tongue-in-cheek review of an exhibition of the works of John Singer Sargent, held recently at the National Portrait Gallery.  While the review was intended to be humorous, it did, nevertheless, raise a serious point.  We seem to have lost our admiration for artists that demonstrate a high level of technical skill.  This appears to be a fashion and something that has occurred due to a misunderstanding, in my view.

I like Fauvism as much as the next person, but I would never turn my nose up at something painted well, by a skilled hand and eye.  I could watch people do anything skilful, all day, no matter what it is.  I love skills.  It makes me love the possessor of the skills for their grace, deftness, dexterity and their ability to make what’s in their imagination tangible.

Painters, especially, who demonstrate a high level of technical skill, in drafting and the handling of paint, as John Singer Sargent invariably did, have been open to charges of elitism and dishonest portrayal.  There is a charge levelled at them that, through the artifice of their technical skills, they somehow delude or deceive the viewer, making them see something as real that isn’t really there.

They said the same thing about the production values of Queen records, forgetting that at the bottom of the painstakingly crafted sound was a group of highly creative and motivated artists, producing the finest work of which they were capable, delivering it with passion and love.  There was no deceptive intent about it, other than to produce a larger than life confection.

Good brushwork, the ability to mix and match colours, exactness and confidence of line and the ability to play with shadows and the definition of edges and boundaries allows a painter to realise creations that people who lack these skills never can.  They can paint rapidly, without compromising a likeness.  There is a certain indefinable freshness in their finished work and they have an ability to capture something fleeting and emotionally affective, because they are not distracted by the process of painting.  Rather, in command of their technique, they are able to call on it to create exactly the right play of colours and light that they need, in order to capture the scene they want to represent.

Using skills gives the artist a feeling of existential joy.  There are few things quite as satisfying as doing something well.  The effect produced is almost always aesthetically pleasing.  While skills can take a lifetime to acquire, involving a lot of struggle, frustration and periodic failure, before you can wield those skills deftly, it’s always worth the effort.

There was a fashion, that continues to this day, of decrying highly polished artworks as being inauthentic.  The lament was that the original curiosity and imaginative creativity of childhood was lost, in adulthood.  Consequently, anything that demonstrated too much skill was thought to be a suppression of the natural, naive, primitivist instincts of the child the artist once was.  This dilution of the purity of child-like and childish representations was thought to cause the painter to produce fraudulent images.  Rarely has humanity been quite so bamboozled.

We have mistaken the skill-free, clumsy handling of paint and materials as the stamp of authentic childhood creativity.  That’s the real fraud.  Just because you daub paint, straight from the tube, haphazardly on a canvas, regardless of representational accuracy, it doesn’t mean you have somehow recaptured or preserved the creativity of your childhood.  It’s an affectation.  It’s false clumsiness masquerading as truth.

The truth is that you may grow and refine your fine motor skills and powers of observation, becoming more graceful and adept, as you grow, without necessarily sacrificing your childhood imagination.  What the complaint was originally about was those that are psychologically bludgeoned into submissive obedience, who suppress and lose touch with their inner creativity.  That isn’t me.  It probably isn’t you, either.

My view is that the acquisition of artistic skills can be empowering and can free your creativity, as it allows you to more easily render into reality what you imagine in your creative head.  There are few things as frustrating and damaging to your creative conception as lacking the skills to produce what your mind’s eye can clearly see.  If you choose to suspend the perfection of your technique, for artistic effect, that’s a genuine choice, whereas being forced into painting a particular way, because you lack the skills to do otherwise, feels more like imprisonment to me.  I think skills give you degrees of freedom.

Art education has largely turned away from teaching skills.  I believe this is a mistake.  It may permit the students more time to play with concepts and to explore other means and media, but in confronting those media, they still struggle to make it do what their imaginations wish.  A concept that cannot be realised at all, or only clumsily so, is a compromised concept, in my view.

I think it’s worth your time to develop your artistic technical skills with the materials you use.  Being able to handle them quickly, precisely and according to your will, without frustration or compromise, is something that can serve you well, as a painter.  It’s like building your vocabulary, as a writer.  I think learning to draw is one of the most important skills you can learn, as a painter, whether or not you go on to paint purely abstract paintings.

Primitivism cannot become the only acceptable aesthetic, or else we’ve entered a domain of reverse snobbery, where only ineptitude is prized.  That’s as limiting, constraining and totalitarian as demanding that everybody paints in a purely representational, classical atelier style.  The Impressionists rightly protested against those constraints, but these days we’ve thrown out all skill, labelling it as bad, rather than embracing diversity.

I encourage you to expand your arsenal of technical skills.  They can be called upon in so many ways and help you produce work that is hard to copy and replicate.  Living with a high level of artistic skill is also tremendously happy-making.  You can feel good about it.  It might be the only genuine existential happiness that we can find, as humans.

Be as skilful as you can.


About tropicaltheartist

You can find out more about me here: There aren’t many people that exist in that conjunction of art, design, science and engineering, but this is where I live. I am an artist, a musician, a designer, a creator, a scientist, a technologist, an innovator and an engineer and I have a genuine, deep passion for each field. Most importantly, I am able to see the connections and similarities between each field of intellectual endeavour and apply the lessons I learn in one discipline to my other disciplines. To me, they are all part of the same continuum of creativity. I write about what I know, through my blogs, in the hope that something I write will resonate with a reader and help them enjoy their own creative life more fully. I am, in summary, a highly creative individual, but with the ability to get things done efficiently. Not all of these skills are valued by the world at large, but I am who I am and this is me. The opinions stated here are my own and not necessarily the opinion or position of my employer.
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