Getting to the Why: Painting What You Know Best
I have had one hell of a first year at this professional artist endeavor. A few weeks ago I was invited to give a talk to a group called Southwest Montana Arts, with an hour to talk about whatever I chose. This was nothing short of intimidating, as there was more collective wisdom in the room than I could hope to have. I don’t know a lot, but I wanted to share here what I decided to talk about, as it was the biggest thing I learned during my first year as a professional artist. And that is how transformative it is to paint what you know best. Following this idea is what lead to my best successes in my first year, and will lay the foundation for the rest of my career.
There is a common mind-block that can be really detrimental to an artist's development, and that is the fear of being limited or pigeonholed by painting only what you know. A lack of parameter. I was an at art talk this year and during the Q&A an artist was lamenting about wanting to paint anything and everything she wanted. In her words, she didn't want anyone to tell her what she should paint. Her work was beautiful, she had a recognizable style and fluency, but her subject matter was across the board. From waterfalls to street-scenes and florals, she knew this lack of direction was affecting her work. But she was afraid of limitation. As artists, that fear is all too real. By nature artists have a tendency to think limitlessly and have multiple passions and interests, but I can’t imagine it’s possible to feel the same about painting the street scene from my trip to Italy last year as I do about painting the barn I played in as a child.
There is a way of thinking about limitation that can actually not be limiting at all.
I’m not talking about marketability or what sells in galleries right now, that is a whole different animal and I hope to get to that too. I am talking about your art, the thing that is beyond the physical paintings here. It is my opinion, if you do not have some focused direction for what you paint, it will be impossible to get to the Why. And the Why is what matters.
By limiting yourself to painting only what you know best, you are forced to dig deeper and find more meaningful art. Painting without direction is like using a lot of unnecessary words but not really saying anything at all. By limiting yourself, you can truly say more with less. When you paint everything, you can only reach the surface. Expanding inwards instead of outwards is a more rewarding route, and will lead to more direction and satisfaction in your work.
A very interesting thing starts happening to your work when you begin to paint from this highly personal space, and that is how surprisingly universal it becomes. What you know best is often what everyone knows best, something that speaks to the human experience.
So how do you figure out what you know best? A great place to start is by asking yourself these questions:
What is my personal history? What is my family history? Where do I live and why? What is the story of the land around me? What do I like to read about? If I could only paint one thing, what would it be? Where do I exist in history, temporally?
Essentially, what do I have the authority to talk about?
This is your sense of self and place.
When I first started painting seriously a year ago, I was entirely lost. I grew up in a place where I had no exposure to art, and never knew you could pursue a career as a fine artist. I graduated college with a degree in Psychology two years ago and the next day moved to Alaska where I worked for a fishing lodge and remote bear camp. I fell in love with that lifestyle and knew when my time there ended I needed to find some place I could feel that way still. So when a cabin in the Bridger Mountains of Montana opened up to me I knew I had found home. I had no idea what I wanted to do, but I knew I wanted to be deliberate about living somewhere that forced me to connect with the land around me. No phone service, no tv. I’ve chased bears out of my front doorway. Made a stew with a rabbit harvested in the yard. It’s almost ridiculous, but I wouldn’t live any other way at this point.
When I moved to Montana I started meeting working artists for the first time ever, and visiting incredible galleries. It all blew my mind and I knew I could have a shot at pursuing something I had always loved but never considered. So I began painting, with I had no clue what I was doing. I had no one to show me what kind of brushes to use, what medium was, etc. The first few months I spent painting were just trial and error, with enough successes to keep me going. Most everything ended up in the wood pile.
I was consuming an immense amount of art. I would spend hours every day looking at art, finding living painters that were doing incredible things. I discovered Sargent and Wyeth. It was incredibly overwhelming.
What should I be painting? What was ‘good’ art? Why is this selling but this isn’t? Does that matter?
I was invited to participate in the Heart of the West show, which required me to put together a body of 20 works. This is when I decided I needed to ground myself in something. I took painting what I know very literally and decided that every studio piece I painted for the next year would be sourced from the piece of land I live on. I used only my close friends as models, and collaborated with them to create the paintings I envisioned. The paintings began to fall into this narrative I had created about the working family out West. So instead of being my best friend, they became the Farmer’s Wife. What I was saying went from something really personal to something universal, which is really important when painting figurative work.
This led to the most successful painting I completed this year, "Field Waltz”. I wanted a portrait of the Farmer’s Wife existing in the land she has become reliant on. I took my model up to the field above my house on a hot summer day, under a cloudless Big Sky. When I saw it I knew I had something, and I stayed up that night painting it. It practically painted itself. It is not my most technically-involved painting, by far, but more people stopped to look at that painting than any others.
All work with an essential universal truth will find it’s audience.
Painting trade with Michael Ome Untiedt at Heart of the West 2016