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What’s the anatomy of creating an artwork? (a deep dive into contemporary artmaking)

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The beginning of artmaking is often marked by a deep curiosity about tools: how does the stroke of a pencil lead to a line; how does the sharpened wood of a pencil smell; how do different textures of paper feel like. Artists need to understand how to use their tools and media, but also what these tools and media mean to them; specifically, this includes increasing their awareness and understanding of the oftentimes complex emotional, haptical and somatic connections they have towards them. Everyone has their own approach towards an artistic medium – no two people use a pencil the same way, see a sculpture exactly with the same focus, have the same emotions or associations towards eg. the texture of a specific kind of paper. Already on the level of material, our takes on the universe differ – which is why improving our sensitivities towards the unique relationships within them matter so much. There cannot be a general way of using tools or artistic media: understanding our individual approach towards them requires introspection; we need to deepen the relationship with ourselves.

From tools to craft

Our curiosity about tools usually leads to (or is accompanied by) a curiosity about craft: how to depict, how to abstract, how to use them towards the goals we desire. Craft is an essence of artmaking, and is entirely personal – it’s your knowledge of the tools you use, and your relationship towards them. Craft is infinite: you cannot “finish” studying these relationships. In addition, craft offers the fantasy of comparison; the false hope that you could compare your abilities to those of others. If it were true, you might be able to become “better” than someone else. These sorts of comparisons are inherent to capitalism, and often seen as a motivational force. Artists can fall into this trap just like anyone else: “If I were better, or the best, then by merely focusing on craft, my work might become visible, and, who knows, collected and accepted”.

Art as transgenerational dialog that benefits from diversity

It doesn’t work like that though, since art isn’t a competition – but a transgenerational dialog benefiting from diversity: your voice is relevant only because of the other voices in the field – past, present and future. Voices and identities and cultures and realities you will never know or comprehend. There’s no goal to reach, but a process to pursue; ultimately, this process can become your goal: not to quit. To keep making art. Whatever increases the chances of your continued artmaking, is good – or even essential. If your focus on craft empowers you, then it’s worthwhile. At the same time, understand (the risky psychological benefits of) craft as a hiding place: you can keep increasing your focus on it, but still never reach the “true territory” of artmaking – because while art has craft as an essential base, it can only ever be a starting point for what art actually is about: meaning.

From craft stagnation to your passions, and your mind

So you focus on craft, because it helps you to focus on artmaking. You keep improving, and experience both progress and stagnation – both being inherent aspects of growth. You will establish plateaus of knowledge where further progress might feel distant. If this leads to your work feeling stale or boring, and you experience yourself repeating the same motions, then it might be a good time to sidestep craft, and consider what to actually do with it – with this deep emotional, haptical and somatic knowledge you established.

You are human before you’re an artist.

You are human before you’re an artist; and as a fellow human with passions, curiosities, joys and fears, there’s something that moves you beside your focus on art and on craft. That “something” is what life is about – and what art is about. While craft can help you transform your vision into reality, it can in itself feel hollow. Knowledge and application of craft often need meaning beside themselves, to transcend emptiness. This is reinforced by contemporary art empowering any mode or depth of craft – the crudest aesthetics are finally understood to be just as relevant as the most refined and elegant: you don’t necessarily ever need to increase craft, to focus on meaning. While craft is essential, it’s also a lie. The only actual craft that artists need, is meta – and about attitude: to increase their understanding of what they want to do. To transcend doubt. To create. Seen this way, the only tool required to artmaking is the artist’s mind.

Art and meaning

Understanding potential domains of your artmaking practice is mostly a mental activity. Interrogating what’s meaningful to you could lead to focusing on your emotions about tools and the media you use (at times, your focus on craft can feel to be the only thing that matters to you), or on specific aspects of your artistic practice. It might also focus on the aspects of life that you care about – which will usually be entirely independent of your art practice. These topics that you care about, and your individual, specific way of caring about them, are as unique as the way you hold your brush, as unique as you see and experience the world. Connecting your artistic practice, your craft, with the topics you care about is one of the most gratifying, personal, and courageous things that artists can do. It’s the difference between reading books and learning to speak, to the courage of phrasing a sentence that speaks your mind. It lets your voice become real. It creates your artistic identity.

To interrogate meaning, you can put your haptic, craft-based tools aside. Instead of creating the next craft-based work, try to see craft (also) as a potential medium of avoidance – an avoidance of vulnerability. While there is vulnerability involved in learning craft (“It’s so embarrassing how I can’t get this thing right”), it is usually way easier on you than creating work that pursues (and physically manifests) your actual passions. To interrogate meaning, consider doing the following:

  1. Interrogate your passions: create a list of topics you’re passionate about. Then
  2. Consider which of these topics you want (or need) to connect to artistically. Then
  3. Think about how to do so: in regards to colors, forms, and potentially also in regards to your previous artworks.

Each of these steps can take days, or could be done within a couple of minutes. The duration of your focus isn’t important – what’s relevant is that you keep returning to this process of interrogation. It’s a process that will accompany you throughout your entire life. It will set you on a path of discovery that will at times be far outside of your comfort zone. It will be scary – but will also offer rewards beyond expectations.

A thought about art and nihilism

Some experience contemporary art as a field without values – as nihilistic. This often is the consequence of contemporary art offering such an unusual openness in regards to the use of materials and media, and the breadth of topics. While some experience this as true freedom, others only see a wasteland that feels hollow and meaningless: can there be meaning, if anything is possible? Of course there can be – meaning isn’t limited, and contemporary art reflects that; artists can use any mode of operation to express their topics.

Yet the more open a field, the more courage can be required to do something specific – and art benefits from being specific, even if the specificity focuses on randomness (to create a truly random work requires highly dedicated specificity). As a field with entirely open values, art is inherently the opposite of nihilistic – something with values cannot be nihilistic.

Understanding your creations (1/2): Create one artwork

The creation of physical works is the phase that follows conceptualization, at least if artmaking would be a linear process – it often isn’t. In such an idealized linear process, the next step would be to actually create work that tries to fulfill the criteria set above. Creating artworks is stereotypically understood to be the core aspect of artmaking. Symbolically speaking, it’s where you begin to exist (as an artist). In actuality, it’s difficult to understand the thresholds of artmaking – conceptualizing an artwork surely also fulfills the criteria of artmaking, even if the processes might only have happened in your mind.

It’s essential to eventually manifest your ideas physically, because it enables you to understand the actuality of your creations, which will often be far from the elegant fantasies you might have had about them. A creation can only be one thing; it is the opposite of infinity. It is the consequence of a multitude of decisions, conscious and subconscious, which accumulated in the creation of this specific artwork. While interpretations of this artwork might be infinite, the specific artwork itself is finite and specifically as it is. This can be a challenge for your ego. It can be humbling: “Out of all potentials, this is what I ended up creating?” It can help to see art as a process of approximation: to ever get closer, throughout your life, to manifesting your vision. This lets each of your creations exist as something “more” than merely being a result: it lets it mark the continuation of your artistic journey – a process that will last as long as you live.

Understanding your creations (2/2): Create more than one artwork

Having created work enables interrogation and analysis. It enables you to ask questions like “How do you feel about it now? How do aesthetics and semantics connect?” To better understand what you think and feel about a piece, consider creating more than just one work, under the same criteria. Where a single piece will be the consequence of random choices, a multitude of works empowers you in judging this “style”  – with style now denoting a mixture of aesthetics and semantics. Understand that this sequence of work doesn’t have to be a “work series”: where a work series often refers to visual repetition, a sequence of works is more open-minded, and includes works that might focus on a specific topic (eg. political paintings). Each of these might exist as a separate visual universe, and focus on a different political topic. To create a work sequence, consider doing the following:

  1. Interrogate the work you want to expand on: how is it defined? What are its essential qualities? It could be the specific use of tools, the physical format, the duration of a piece, the number of protagonists or movements within a performance, the choice and/or saturation of color, a modulation in frequency, the amount of figures or abstractions within a composition. It will likely also include semantic aspects like the chosen topic(s), and how to try to get them across. The essential quality could be entirely semantic, and not care about aesthetics, or it could include details whether eg. depicted figures have their eyes closed, look at (or away from) each other, etc.
    This interrogation can be speculative – you might not yet understand what is essential to defining the work in front of you. Understand this process as another craft to improve over your lifetime, and keep returning to it. It will help you to gradually discover new aspects of your creations.

  2. Create a list of essential qualities: Using the findings of your previous interrogation, create a list of those work qualities that feel the most relevant to you right now. It can be beneficial to limit yourself to 5-10 of these, and create a second list that includes non-essential qualities. Now

  3. Create a specific number of artworks that fulfill these allegedly essential qualities. Having defined a list of essential qualities, you now create work that tries to fulfill them. You can define upfront how many pieces you aim to create (eg. five, seven or twelve artworks), or you simply decide this along the way, as you keep finishing new works.  Actually creating these works will be accompanied by your continuous judgment of whether your interrogation and analysis were “correct”. You will realize that your some things were less important than you thought, while others are ultimately more relevant than you thought.

    On this path of creating work, it’s OK to have doubts. It’s OK for you to wonder whether what you’re doing is actually worth your time. These thoughts and feelings are part of your process of becoming an artist. How you deal with them is part of your personality – both as human and artist. Creating these works is the consequence of something uniquely personal, and thus vulnerable: your topics, your passions, your way of using tools, media and craft – your way of not just seeing, but now also adding to the world.

  4. Judge the new works. You will come to a point where this interrogation-by-creation will feel finished. This enables you to judge the work (and the entire sequence of works), and compare them to the list of essential qualities defined beforehand. How do they compare? What did you learn?

Approaching the creation process like this results in having created something “complete”, something that tends to have strong degrees of self-explanatory power. We are often better able to understand, relate and judge a sequence of works, than single pieces – maybe because the contextual repetition aids our understanding. In addition though, a work sequence enables you to document and/or exhibit it. It can mark the first, or another, chapter in your artistic life.

Each of the works in the sequence will have unique aspects that aren’t shared by the other pieces. You can repeat the interrogation process for each of these works or ideas, resulting in your art not only being fed by your external passions, but also by the work you created thus far. It lets your work archive become a recursive platform of self-interrogation.

To understand what to do artistically, investigate your mind, and you will transcend stagnating on craft.

Understand that art processes are always there for you, no matter the distance you feel towards them

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This handbook has one key takeaway that sums up all chapters into one piece of advice. It applies independently of your life situation, your business challenges and the various frustrations that accompany an artist’s life. Here goes: Understand that art processes are always there for you, no matter the distance you feel towards them.

Remember that making art will heal you in tiny bits, even though your work might not be exhibited and often not be bought, even though it might be misunderstood, misrepresented, misused and more. Nevertheless, making art will heal you because when you disregard all the noise that defines the various art worlds, your art practice helps you focus your mind, helps you create a flow, helps you manifest and work through troublesome (and joyful) times. It helps you by offering meaning to yourself and others.

Understand that art processes are always there for you, no matter the distance you feel towards them

Your art processes are always there for you, no matter the distance you feel towards them. It doesn’t matter how much time you can invest into artmaking – whether it’s only fifteen minutes a day, or sometimes even less. It is there for you if you “only” manage to squeeze in half an afternoon per week, and even if you haven’t been in touch with art making for half a year. As long as you ponder getting back into making art, your voice and strength is all there, in its full potential. In you.

It’s OK to get lost outside of the process. If this is the case for you: embrace yourself, and see the relevance of your current journey. Understand that “living your life” never stands opposed to making art – to the contrary: it complements it. Embrace whatever life you’re leading right now, trusting that when the time comes, the depth and diversity of your recent experiences will enhance your work in ways yet unseen.

In this way, your artistic processes are safe spaces to get back to whenever you’re ready. They’re available to you even after weeks, months or years of distance. Don’t feel guilty, lost or a failure for living apart from artmaking: art isn’t guilt, but possibility and challenge. Whenever you’re ready again, continue your artmaking journey. It isn’t the results that matter – artmaking is so much more than physical creation. Instead, what matters is your traversing the artist’s path, your path. Eventually, it will lead you back to your material, your tools, and to the creation of yet another piece.

Enjoy life.

I only started getting into art way late. So much time has been lost. Is my career doomed before it began?

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With life being subject to time, and time passing in one direction only, life can feel like a one-way street. While this is true for time itself, it’s not true for our range of actions: yes, we are a weird accumulation of our past experiences; but no, we definitely don’t have to stick to previous choices – especially if they don’t feel adequate anymore. If anything, life offers an abundance of options: navigated smartly and with luck, a lot can be seen, experienced and accomplished. A lot can be changed.

Adapting the direction of one’s life is often both encouraged and admired by those that know about our frustrations. At the same time, society at large doesn’t usually offer a lot of support structure for such major movements; debt repayments are relentless, child and living costs increase steadily. Downsizing will usually be essential to changing careers, but is often interpreted as a step back; you’ll most likely have to wade through chaos, in order to establish a new, hopefully better order. In addition, ageism exists on nearly all layers of society, and also in the arts: art school applications, exhibition requirements, grants or gallery representation: they all tend to have strict, both implicit and explicitly stated age limitations. Does one’s career depend on them?

Your age isn’t something you can influence. You have no control over it. It can therefore serve as a perfect excuse to not ever start trying – it lets you be a blameless victim of circumstances. At the same time, although your age might seem absolute and ever-increasing, other people’s perception of it often turns out to be entirely dynamic: some will see 28 years as old, while others will interpret 63 years as young. Some will mention that you feel younger today, than how you appeared two years ago – after a diet, a separation, an accident or childbirth. In that way, age can be somewhat relative. Age doesn’t just denote the years since your birth; it also indicates the amount of time you had to grow, experiment, and collect experiences.

Your age can feel like a burden – but it’s always also your potential.

Age doesn’t denote lost, but lived time; time that can be used to gradually turn you into the person you want to be. Your experience and empathy can help you understand whether you want to work in the arts; it can give you the insights to increase your chances of success. Your age can feel like a burden – but it’s always also your potential. Society often favors the young, especially the alleged geniuses amongst them; yet art itself doesn’t favor creations based on their author’s age. While the art market might use extreme cases for marketing purposes (artists being extremely young or old), art itself never cares.

Art Doesn’t Care About Your Age

Instead, art cares about your expression, your authenticity, about your process and how you reflect and work with its past. It cares about pushing limits both sensitively and drastically. Art doesn’t care about careers or market values. You can’t be “too late” for art – but if you could be, why not see it as necessity for urgency? If you really could be too old to get into art, why even wait another day before starting your experiments? If your age worries you too much, consider using it as the starting point of your artistic exploration: depict age. Depict your alleged weaknesses, society’s unfairnesses, and the fears and desparations that drive your courage. Research artists that did the same before you, and find out whether you can extend their vision through yours. If you feel to have wasted years, you can either focus on what’s forever permanent and unchangeable – or refocus and try to set up a different future for yourself.

Remember that you are not your age, but your experience and motivation; your expression, network and luck. You can’t influence whether what you create is encouraged and wanted by your surroundings – but one’s surroundings aren’t necessarily the right judge on whether something makes sense or has importance. Accept that some of the most successful artists didn’t have a career in their lifetime; this can happen. Some art isn’t meant for its contemporaries. But by not trying to create the work that you could create, you’re most likely selling yourself short. Stop to regret, and start to work.

Without euphemism, consider the benefits of being older: expression is the consequence of emotionality, knowledge and courage – things that can ripe with time, if you focus and work on them. Most anyone’s career will benefit from visibility and networking; depending on your character, you might be able to present yourself and your work in a more adequate, self-assured way. This might help you to establish specific dialogs with gatekeepers, simply based on your potentially deeper experience as a human being. Or it might not: some people will focus your grey hair and wrinkles, and your allegedly outdated manners – and be unable to see your potential. This will be burdensome and frustrating, but it can’t be helped: let them lose out, and look for better options. It’s not a good reason to not get started. Understand that your age might even help you to be more disciplined and focused in the studio – after all, there’s no more time to lose.

While the art market has a tendency to thrive on young age (for market reasons: their work’s price level can expand easier, and over an allegedly longer time), someone’s age is never the only metric: it’s ultimately your work that matters, and your network. The later you start, the more important your network will be. You need to focus your work, and get to know gatekeepers: curators, gallerists, art critics etc. Read the “Networking” subchapters for detailed approaches.

If you consider yourself to be late at starting art, consider the following strategies:

  • Understand your situation: Although the art world is exciting, it’s also challenging and frustrating. Those who enter it later in life will quickly experience certain people’s arrogance and aloofness; compared to their previous work experiences, this can be off-putting. Understand that this kind of experience might happen to everyone switching industries later in life – it’s rare, and therefore suspicious to certain people (while admirable to others). Know that you will need to work and network smartly, and maybe harder than younger peers. You might require more luck as well. You will benefit from realistically defining your idea of success: it might be exhibitions and gallery representations, or it might simply be a life that’s no longer bound to your previous job (without gallery representation, you will get to keep one hundred percent of your earnings). Understand your fears and aspirations, and let neither of them drown you.
    Understand that everyone can set up an artistic practice. To judge your art world chances, consider your motives: what do you want from the arts? Money and fame, or a worthwhile mode of expression? You can work on both, but need to accept that in certain ways, you can control the latter way more than the prior.

  • Be realistic: Establish realistic structures in regards to time, space and money: how much time can you invest in your practice, where can you pursue your work, and how much money will these require. Set up work habits to pragmatically increase the depth and scope of your artistic practice.

  • Experiment: Allot time to experiment with different media, styles and semantics. The more you do this, the better you will understand what you like, and what you don’t like. This will help you to understand your quality ideals, and will therefore be another basis for your artistic practice.

  • Start gradually: Start your experiments in your spare time, without investing too much: most media have more affordable student-quality materials. You don’t need a studio: a dedicated wall or corner in your flat will suffice. Understand that most every invested hour will bring you forward. Try to motivate yourself to find thirty minutes per day, to continue your experiments. If you manage to establish this kind of schedule, you will know a lot more about your tools, materials, media, styles and semantics within a year.

  • Find education possibilities and funding: Research local adult education centers, universities and art schools, as well as adult learning grants. Visit institutions do understand whether you want to enroll, or rather want to become self-taught. The former will usually offer a stronger network, access to studios, materials and workshops, as well as more feedback opportunities – yet only accepts the lucky few. Adult education centers are a more affordable in getting to know media and materials – but usually aren’t strongly tied to the art world.

  • Find mentors: Your previous experiences might have created access to wealthy supporters – understand who they might be. Your path of trying to change your life, of living your dream might feel harsh and real to you, but might also serve to  inspire others, and motivate them to support you beyond expectations. They might be very curious about your new “adventure”, the works you create, and the new side of you they never knew about.

  • Start saving money: Investigate your financial situation to understand where you can save on your living expenses – housing, commute, vacation, hobbies etc. Understand where else might be able to save, and how you could downsize; the longer your savings lasts, the lower your fixed costs, and the easier your life will be – at least financially.

  • Consider therapy: If you lack self-confidence, specifically about your age, then consider for this to have a deeper reason. If you can afford the time and money, invest in a healthy therapy setting to reflect your past, and its consequences – it will likely help you to establish a better basis for the future. You might also consider using art as therapeutic model: while despised by some as too egocentric, others have used it to great success.

Photo of Louise Bourgeoise, Credit Unknown

I want to understand “quality”. What is it, and why is it relevant to artists?

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One’s personal understanding of quality is required for artists to establish their own work practice. Without it, they cannot understand whether a work is “good” to them, right now – and why it would be finished.

The one thing that unites all artists is their pursuit of establishing and implementing a personal work practice. For this, they need to understand their own quality criteria. Yet what does quality mean, and how does it relate to one’s work?

Quality in Everyday Life

When people discuss the quality of an everyday object, they usually think about the level of craft, as well as the care and attention that went into its creation. They also consider how well it fulfills its purpose: the durability of a battery, the sharpness of a knife’s blade, the stability of a chair. Objects rarely exist in, or emerge from a vacuum; most of them are the continuation of generational developments: consider the wheel, whose origins go back to before the Bronze Age. Quite obviously, humans had a lot of time to establish rather specific understandings of what makes a good wheel, and what doesn’t; that’s quality in everyday life: the sum total of valid expectations towards something whose purpose is clear

Quality in the Arts

Art seems to have always accompanied humans – it might even have preceded our species’ consciousness. Seen this way, it makes sense to think of quality in art as equally (highly) evolved as that of everyday objects. For sure, every art historian will be able to judge how well a piece of art fits the quality criteria established over the last couple dozen millennia!

As we know, this isn’t true anymore. While guilds and art academies originally defined, taught and pursued strict ideas about artistic content and form, contemporary art is defined by a near-total openness in regards to what can be done, and how it can be done. This is a consequence of the changed roles and functions that artists have – from anonymous cave painters to anonymous producers of craft objects (in a world before mass production, everything was a craft object), to ordinary people using technologies to depict the world. The age-old artistic function of documenting the world visually has turned optional. As a result, contemporary artists can’t rely on any of the predefined quality ideals that were developed over centuries. Instead, they can (or rather: they have to) adapt and extend the vastness of previous canons and approaches – or they can ignore them. Doing the latter feels shallow: who would want to work in a field whose history they aren’t curious about? Ultimately though, ignoring the past could be another valid way of being an artist.

Ambiguity and the People

This historic change of the role of art also has implications for the viewers of contemporary art: they might not be able to understand what they’re seeing and experiencing, why it could matter, and how to judge it. Differently to everyday objects, the purpose of an artwork might not be clear to them. Maybe the artwork means to criticize something. Maybe it wants to disturb. Maybe it wants nothing of them at all, yet their viewing expectations demand an aesthetically pleasing dialog that they aren’t getting – so their experience becomes frustrating. If viewers apply their preexisting value judgments, chances are they won’t “get” the artwork: the wide variety of contemporary artistic modes can make it unrealistic for a viewer’s expectations to meet an artist’s ideals. They might be entirely oblivious of the reference system that might give context to what’s in front of them. Outreach programs or basic dialogs can offer missing direction and explanations, but not everyone wants to listen to explanations. Some people expect an artwork to speak for itself, yet are unable to see the complexities that it might contain. In addition, some art simply wants to remain obscure. Another frequent issue is the one of craft expectations: what’s made with obvious care and attention to detail, is often understood to matter more, and to be “better art”. At the same time, some people care about art especially for its power to subvert expectations; these people tend to then be bored by art that repeats what’s already been established – they might thus miss the nuances of change in the art of those people who silently expand the canon.

Quality and the Market

Since an artwork’s qualities can be fleeting and misunderstood, it’s often not used as main metric for judgements. Many artists are acutely aware of a unique role reversal: instead of judging an artwork’s quality to derive its monetary value, some people rather want to know about an artwork’s price, in order to then derive its potential quality: in capitalism, the price of something strongly defines our expectations for it – this holds true for art as well, which can be frustrating: if the artist’s visibility is low, it will usually result in their work’s prices to be low just as well. It can take a lot of effort to experience a low-priced work of art, and see its actual qualities – especially if these qualities don’t meet our expectations about what art should be like.

Someone’s price level, awards, residencies or the number of solo shows are external metrics, and can strongly define the perception of an artist’s value: works are good because their price is high, or because they got awards, or because their creator received awards. Refine a sense of distrust when hearing about a work’s “quality”, especially when used by people in positions of power: professors, jurors, curators, art critics, collectors, fellow artists, gallerists, etc. Apply this distrust even when people discuss your work in positive ways: they might use the idea of quality to hide their actual intent.

Personal Choices

Contemporary artists have a lot of rather personal choices to make. They need to decide which media, processes, tools, aesthetics and content to use, and how to use them.

For each of these, they have to develop personal quality criteria. These can change over time – artists don’t need to stick to previous ones. To the contrary, the pursuit of quality ideals is so heavily ingrained in contemporary thinking of arts, that artists who “simply” follow one and the same recipe for years, are frequently frowned upon: certain people dislike or question the idea of formula-based art processes, although art historically, the application of such processes might be what defined Western art the strongest. Nevertheless, artists need high degrees of curiosity about their interests, and a willingness to express these interests through endless approximations, and often frustrating mistakes: no one can tell them what to do (how their personal choices might look like), yet people will only ever be interested in the consequences of exactly these choices: this is an unusual situation in today’s world.

One’s quality criteria include certain expected decisions of contemporary art: what to do, and how to go about it. They also include process-related decisions that can come unexpected to laypeople, and sometimes aren’t understood as important to the end result: which brushes to use, how to hold, use and clean them; how to mix colors; what palette and which canvas to use, and how to stretch and prime it; whether to work on an easel or the wall, or to paint on a table. While certain art schools offer specific and strict advice on how to pursue one’s artistic practice, their graduates ultimately have to decide on their own how to blend these guidelines into a contemporary art practice: their own artistic practice. If they simply stick to what they were taught, it will likely result in anachronistic works that recreate the spirit of a time that’s essentially past. In open-quality systems like art, you can’t rely on other people’s quality judgements – the likelihood of them pursuing exactly your goals is extremely low. They might be unable to comprehend your ideas, resulting in misguided feedback or advice. That’s why you need to develop and discover your own standards and ideas of excellence: your quality criteria. It can therefore be beneficial to find art schools that discuss meta-levels of art, instead of only giving explicit craft directions: how to think about art, how to pursue one’s curiosities, how to manifest and process. An ideal art school would combine meta with craft specifics.

Read the next chapter to understand how to find or establish quality in your art.

My work feels alien, raw and unstable. It makes me feel uneasy and worried. Should I still pursue it?

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People love comfort zones. They offer low levels of stress and anxiety, and represent temporary safe havens. While being in constant comfort might sound perfect, it also includes the risks of boredom and stagnation; in the right amounts, anxiety can actually improve one’s performance. Since art strives towards the unknown and unestablished, artists need to find realistic ways to be exploratory and productive.

In the best case, exposure to unknowns would let you thrive: your courage would increase, and your life would become larger and less vulnerable. Reality is often different: departing from established routes can make you feel alien. That’s weird, since pursuing individual standards is an essential human trait: how to dress, what music to listen to, how to dance or talk or think – how to live and be. Yet humans also want to belong and feel embedded. The conflict between one’s individuality and social attachments requires self-empathy, and knowledge about one’s deepest hopes and fears: do you feel loved and appreciated? Why not? What are the sources of your worries? The challenge is to balance one’s individuality (one’s need for personal expression) with one’s needs for external appreciation (one’s need for belonging). This topic touches deeply: it represents another aspect of your lifelong quest to find a place in the world, and to understand what it might mean to be ourselves.

What aesthetics you pursue (“Yes, I really wanted to install the work like this!”) and enjoy (“Yes, I loved that movie, even though you didn’t!”), what tools you use and how you use them, which materials and semantics you focus: the more you pursue standard, established processes, the more aligned you might be with public tastes. The more you deviate, the less you might be understood by the general public; yet the more appreciation you might receive from society’s avant-garde. Even though today’s world is more diverse than ever before, there are endless unwritten rules on what’s right and what’s wrong, and what codes to follow – differing by individuals and sub-group. You might realize that your way of being isn’t compatible with the people whose attention you crave. In addition, creating work that feels deviant and new to you, doesn’t imply it feels like that to your surroundings: instead, it might say more about your lacking knowledge of art history and pop culture, which can feel diminishing on yet another level. The only way to get through this is to stay radically open-minded towards knowledge transfer, and to breathe in all of society’s past, current and future offerings. 

Yes, you want to pursue exactly what makes you feel uneasy. To an art practice’s curious apprentice (a status we should never abandon), there can’t be stupid questions, and nothing can be alien or unstable enough. It’s mostly ego or fear that hold you back, that let you refrain from experiments. Yet feeling uneasy is predominantly a sign of needing further information about your work and what it could be, if you only followed through with it for some more weeks or months. Maybe you’re lacking knowledge about how to position it for others. Maybe you’re overworked and don’t see what’s right in front of you.

Imagine a process that would never feel alien, wouldn’t ever feel raw or unstable; a process that would always feel easy and worry-free: while this might sound magical to someone who’s stressed and anxious, it would represent the one thing that artists usually can’t afford long-term: stagnation.

Contemporary art is complex and scary. How can others help me find my way?

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Since contemporary art is a platform for almost any personal expression, there cannot easily be general guidelines or expectations on what an artist should do: your art can be whatever you want it to be – which is both potential and burden, especially to beginners. What to do, and how, and why? Everyone needs to find their own answers to these questions, which is why students and emerging artists usually need years to understand their terrain: themselves, their output, and other people’s resonance. While some will love the inherent openness, the guideless exploration of artistic processes, others will feel overwhelmed by too many possibilities. Your artistic practice can feel like a sea, with you in the middle, and no land in sight. Murky. What direction to swim to? It’s these feelings that let us look for external support – through books, conversations, art school, etc. But can others help you find your way?

We understand the world by naming it; writing or talking about our experience allows us to analyze and interpret it. We might not have a solution, but we are beginning to tackle the problem. This helps us to develop ever more refined opinions about the world – whether in our personal lives or our art practice. The more we engage in discussions about our ideas, the more we get to listen to other people’s ideas in return. This enriches us, since we get to experience how others understand and name the world. In the best of cases, a mutual, respectful exchange of experiences is enriching to all participants. Yet a lot of people aren’t particularly respectful or sensitive. Interacting with them can become a burden, or have hidden costs; this creates new challenges: we want advice, and might actually receive it – but can we trust someone else to know what we actually need? And since it might have been ourselves that asked for help: can we even trust ourselves to know what we want, and whom to ask for support?

Most people want support when they start out: we don’t understand the standards and histories of our tools and media, and have few clues about anything. Yet the further we progress, the more we will usually want to deviate from standards: after all, art is ultimately about your individual expression – how well will general standards express them? Growing as an artist thus requires us to dissent; to deviate from advice and established norms. The terrain in which we operate is not originally defined by us; rather, it’s the end result of those preceding artists whose footsteps we follow (and expand). Understanding our terrain thus often requires us to dive deep into the work of other artists first – but we need to detach eventually. We need to pursue ourselves. The more we were looking for external advice and validation, the harder we might later have to establish ourselves as authority in our work. The more we let others tell us what to do (and what not to do), the more we let others define what’s good and bad, the harder we will later be challenged by our lack of authority. In the worst case, you create a situation where you strive for external validation of whoever you ask for advice – without following your own trail. In school situations this might feel to be valuable – but once you leave their hierarchy and safety, you’re lost once more, and in a harsher setting: instead of being a dependent student, you’d now be a graduate without authority over their work.

Consider the following when seeking external validation and advice for your work practice:

  • Maintain creative authority: When you ask for advice or support, you need to be sensitive to (a) your urge to transfer authority to whomever you’re talking to (after all, someone else might know better, or, in the case of a teacher, might actually know “best”), and (b) their urge to demand or implement authority over your work. You might want to know why a drawing doesn’t feature the rhythm you were aiming for – is the ensuing conversation actually discussing this?
    Understand that asking for advice should never entail transfer of work authority: you usually want to increase knowledge of standards (how to weld, how to clean a brush, how to sand stone, etc), to eventually be able to decide whether to use or deviate from them. The more complex the topic, the more challenging it can be to understand your own voice within the expectations of standards: understanding painting compositions, film editing or  mastering a choreography thus are prone to external advice that might sound legitimate, but might also strongly intervene with your artistic vision.

  • Investigate your urge for advice: The more you feel lost, the more you might want support and validation, and might welcome strong opinions (“Do this! Don’t do that!”). This risks prematurely diminishing the ambiguities, and thus the potentials of art. Artists need to develop their tastes and preferences; the stronger these are refined, the more likely they might want to apply them even to other people’s work. Yet applying one’s tastes to someone else’s work, especially when asked for help, rarely is sensitive. Instead, it usually leads to misunderstandings and frustrations. That’s why the stronger someone tells you what’s right and wrong in your artistic processes, the more worried you should generally be. The more you should question their intention.

  • Good advice tends to acknowledge you and your situation: Good teachers support their students in exploration according to your own capabilities. When someone criticizes you (positively or negatively), always ask yourself whether they know you, know who you are, and what you want to achieve. The less they’re interested in you, the less they are able to offer individualized feedback. If they euphemize this by mentioning the purity of art, take special care: there is nothing more pure than humans; an advisor discussing art to be of higher value than you, might be more fascist than is healthy. They might care about the topic (and themselves), but not about the subtleties of your work, or you.
    The obvious exceptions are works of art that are racist, sexist, or otherwise intentionally evil: it’s human to not want to get into the details of them, but to simply disregard them and their surroundings.

  • Understand the dangers of discrimination (against specific tools, processes, semantics) in exploratory processes: Independent of their intention, people’s opinions and advice discriminate; they define what intentions, processes, semantics or tools are valuable, and which ones’ aren’t. This is exactly why people who feel lost, turn to others for advice: when we’re lost, we want to be shown the right path, and want the wrong path to be discriminated against. A guide (whether a person, or a book like this one) is wanted exactly for its discriminatory capacity: against dead-ends, energy vampires, outdated ideas etc. A guide is expected to discriminate against what’s bad. Yet in art, who can know what’s bad? More specifically, who can know what’s bad for you?

What you’d want most (strong opinions) is usually not what you should be given. In a murky sea of possibilities, you might think to want direction. But if that is offered, it shouldn’t be through strong opinions. It should be through advice that helps you find yourself, and your way forward: through encouragement and respect, and tools that enable introspection and self-assurance, and an increasingly personal mode of operation – both in creating and discussing your work. Advice and support should be aimed to increase your knowledge about the topic’s complexities, so that you can find your own tastes within them, and thus ultimately strengthen your own voice.

When in darkness, of course we look for light. In case of desperation on behalf of the artist, this situation has relevant pitfalls though: other people’s opinions might be seen (or posed) as canonic, as pure – where they obviously can’t be more (or less) than the result of that other person’s individual experiences, hopes and dreams. Other people are essential to our progress. We depend on their input to get to mastery (and beyond). But since the pure darkness of lacking knowledge also makes us vulnerable to negative influences, it’s important to understand that ultimately, no one can help you to find your voice. People can support your path, but it’s you who needs to want to pursue it. The peak of the mountain that is you, can only be climbed by you.

Imagine yourself as small, tiny light in utter darkness; while you might feel irrelevant, that small light is yours alone. It’s not nothing. It’s a beginning. In theory, you can modify it in any way, without having to rely on other people’s judgement: this moment of individuality is the soul of all art. We might fear to increase our brightness; after all, it might show us parts of ourselves that we aren’t really happy about. Some of us small lights would at times love to be within the safe boundaries of a stronger light: teachers, more successful artists, gatekeepers, friends. Yet if you continuously stay in someone else’s cone of light, it will be impossible to understand your own light, yourself: you can’t shine in situations made bright by others.

How do I start?

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You start making art by embracing an exploratory mindset, which helps you to investigate the potential quality ideals of your work.

Starting something can be both magical and frightening: beginnings require us to transcend our fear of failure. They let our hopes for success meet the realities of our abilities, and of our willpower: sometimes doubts win, and we stop before ever having begun. Beginnings can be complex – you might not know what to do, how to go about it, or even why you’re getting started. Your actions might become a beginning, without you yet being aware of it.

Beginnings are a frequent challenge for artists, maybe more so than for others: entering a new project with unknown parameters, a collaboration with unclear outcomes. Kicking off a new medium, starting one’s first sculpture ever, or a new series after the previous one didn’t resonate with others. Apart from curiosity and a certain willfulness or giddiness, beginnings require hope – and the belief that we can be more than we are right now. They are quintessentially human.

Beginnings require hope, and the belief that we can be more than we are right now. They are quintessentially human.

The beginnings of artistic processes can be unexpectedly erratic, since they can’t rely on external quality ideals – processes can legitimately begin without knowing where they are meant to go. These quality ideals can exist upfront (as the result of previous artistic interrogations, or general personal semantic or aesthetic preferences), or have to be established while pursuing the process, resulting in them often being inherently experimental. The notion of artistic processes having to be experimental is so normative to some, that sometimes an artist’s authenticity is judged by it: if your art is visually similar to your previous work, or that of other artists, it might be seen as inauthentic (“You’re just copying yourself!” or “You’re just copying others, instead of pursuing your own vision! Art is only art if its processes are unstable!”). This can lead to artists feeling self-conscious once their processes become more established and stable – as if there’s only merit in the pursuit of unknowns. The actuality is that the art making process has different phases: some more experimental, some more production-oriented. Both are necessary.

Artistic processes often don’t have a clear sequence of steps to pursue; there might be knowledge about tools and materials, but little absolutes about how to reach the goal (which doesn’t need to be defined upfront). With neither processes nor goals being clearly defined, artistic processes often start radically erratic and open-minded, and can benefit from a certain naivety. How to ever get somewhere this way?

Exploratory Processes

Many creative processes follow a predefined, sequential formula (“do this, then that, then that, ..”); they offer a sequence, and thus guideline, within which creativity (and thus personal choice) finds room. In the arts however, there often is neither sequence nor guideline – the processes can be more fundamentally open and exploratory: you can draw a figure or an abstraction on your piece of paper, or you can fold the paper, or rip it apart, or burn it and create work out of its ashes. You can draw a figure on paper, but focus on the pencil being used up (and not what you were drawing).

Exploratory artistic processes need to establish what they are about, and how they go about it. In the case of process-oriented artistic practices, this pursuit can even represent the goal, with a specific end condition being used instead of otherwise defined quality criteria: a certain time having passed, materials having being consumed, etc. These practices ultimately don’t need anything but the urge to start: one can doodle and experiment freely, to end whenever it feels right. For goal-oriented practices, the artist needs to develop some sort of understanding of where to get to, and how to get there. For production phases, one would usually want to know both these aspects; for exploratory phases, one ultimately needs neither: it suffices to get going, and stay sensitive towards one semantic and aesthetic ideas.


Various Process Modes
Formula-, process- and goal-based processes

Finishing and Quality Criteria

Finishing something requires you to understand and reach that thing’s finish line – which in arts is represented by your quality ideals: when does a painting, a sculpture, a novel, a dance fulfill the various criteria that you require of it? These quality criteria can be aesthetic (“A blue sun has been sculpted in a way that’s pleasing to me”) or conceptual (“Thirteen body movements have been made between 6:07 and 7:06pm”) – offering endless potential for confusion to laypeople. This is made even more volatile by quality ideals not only being highly personal, but also being subject to time: a specific variation of a sculpted blue sun might look beautifully complete to Artist A, but decidedly worthless to Artist B; these personal points of view do not stand in conflict with each other (although certain people will, antagonistically, lecture others about which quality criteria they feel to be “right”), since everyone is ultimately required to have their own ideas about what’s finished or good – it serves as the basis for contemporary arts’ endless multitude of quality ideals and works. In addition, an artist’s ideas about finishedness and perfection don’t have to be consistent over time, but can vary in extreme ways.

Volatile Quality Criteria in Art
Quality criteria usually change over time (Artist A), and between people (Artist A vs. Artist B)

It’s possible to finish an artwork even if you don’t understand whether it’s done – you can simply decide that you’ll leave it where it stands. If you don’t understand your quality ideals, you cannot know whether your current work satisfies them; you need to start interrogating (this might be the case because you are new at making art, or because you are experienced, but enter a new medium or concept where your ideals don’t feel adequate). You do so by embedding yourself in the processes of creation: either by using the tools and materials (pencil, hammer, your tablet, etc.), or by conceptualizing your quality ideals theoretically (“I want bold lines and large canvases”, “I want fragility mixed with cheekiness”, etc.) – or both. You increase your sensitivity and your judgment.

Over time, this fills the initially empty pot of quality with purpose and intent. Your ideas about a work’s (potential and actual) quality ideals will emerge from being immersed: you understand them because you focus, and experiment with your decisions. Before this can happen though, one has to begin – potentially without yet being able to properly understand where to go. This isn’t nearly as bad as it sounds; it’s like hiking with the intention to explore, which requires you to stay attentive and calm, and to carry on. You start without compass or map – but by walking, you get a better understanding of the territory, and the many options you have. Your walking becomes compass and map. You aren’t an explorer because you reach a goal; you are an explorer because you explore. Art requires a lot of this – it enables you to understand the territory, and your place(s) within it. You will get to judge which views you enjoy better than others, which in turn will give you moments of joy. The more of them you have, the better your life will often feel. Yet having a view at all starts with your first step: the beginning.

While it’s impossible to finish a work with unclear quality criteria, it’s absolutely possible to start working on it. Quality is a vacuum, which can eventually be replaced with purpose and intent. Quality can emerge from exposure to, and being embedded in a process. Before this can happen though, one has to begin – potentially without yet being able to properly understand where to go. This isn’t a bad situation – it’s like hiking to get somewhere unknown: you can’t get there without starting off, even though you might not always know whether the direction makes sense. You start without a compass or map – but by walking, you get a better understanding of the territory, and where it all might lead to. Your walking becomes compass and map. You aren’t a hiker because you reach a goal; you are a hiker because you hike. Art requires a lot of wandering – the more you can set up processes whose views you enjoy, the better your life will be. Having a view at all starts with your first step: the beginning.

In an open field like art, it can be hard to understand why to choose any specific direction over another – all of them are possible, and often mean the same to a beginner. There’s just not a strong compass yet. To establish one, consider using the following 3-tier structure:

  1. To focus
  2. To investigate, and 
  3. To gradually increase your commitment (and thus pressure).

Consider reading the chapters for a detailed discussion of each of these topics.