When I finished college almost fifteen years ago, I was, perhaps, overconfident. ‘The world out there desperately needs what I have to offer,’ I thought. ‘Especially the religious art world. I’m destined to be God’s gift to this community. I’m going to change the world.’
It didn’t take long for me to realize that not everyone was in love with what I was doing. Some people frankly disliked my images, which was disheartening, frustrating, but perhaps for the best: humbling. I managed my expectations and learned to appreciate the small but growing fraction of the population that paid attention to my developing body of work. Lucky indeed, I came to realize, is the artist that finds even a small audience who cares.
Fifteen years and a thousand paintings later, (I just celebrated my 1000th career painting! And yet,) sometimes I wonder. What good is art? What value am I bringing to the world? Is it worth it? Is it making any difference? There are so many real issues in the world. The vast oceans of power and circumstance forever undulate, carrying some people great distances and turbulently swallowing others. At great cost, a few brave individuals offer themselves as sacrificial lambs for the cause of justice and right, while many are content to ride where the tide takes them.
Where does my small voice fit in to the great ongoing drama of the human race? Without pretending to have arrived at an overarching response to these questions, let me offer a few thoughts:
1. Art brings humanity. I credit one of my heroes, Gary Ernest Smith, for recently reminding me of this idea. Art brings humanity. In unique ways, art in its many forms reminds us of our potential–that we have so much more capacity to fulfill the measure of our creation. We’re reminded to be compassionate, empathetic, and merciful–not reminded through preaching, but rather through feeling. Good art, good performances, good writing, remind us that the world is full of opposing forces, and that choosing the right is not always an obvious or easy task. Good art can take people with vastly differing ideals and lead them to agreeable conclusions—enable them to feel the same feelings. Art reflects life; and good art doesn’t shove a message down the proverbial throat, but raises profound questions and suggests possibilities—the way that life does. Good art doesn’t dictate our thoughts, but rather stirs emotions within us and makes us want to change–to take chances, to forgive, to make the world a better place. Even the most simple painting or poem has the capacity to make us see anew—to understand God’s hand in the every day. Art brings humanity.
2. Art creates a safe place to deal with the dark. Bad things happen in life–so bad, for some people, they can’t talk about it. They keep it bottled up deep down inside. I’m no psychologist, but even as a young student in public school, we were taught the idea of catharsis, of the purging of emotions—an idea as ancient as Aristotle. Art (film, theater, literature) evokes within us a wide range of emotions. Often the hero undergoes dramatic events that may outweigh the seriousness of our own experience. And yet those events echo our own comparably small experiences with parallel emotions. To internalize exaggerated emotion through vicarious artistic experience allows us to understand, overcome, and perhaps communicate about our own emotions and experience. Art is a safe place to deal with the dark. Of course, as parents, we naturally feel protective of our children. We want to shield them from the dark by over-censoring their media. And yet, we often don’t know what pain, shame, embarrassment, fear, and any number of other emotions they may be hiding. To shield them from art that deals with these emotions is to deprive them of catharsis. To shield ourselves from great art is to deprive ourselves of healing and understanding. I’m not saying we shouldn’t be judicious about what media we feed our children–Amy will tell you I refuse to watch movies that straddle suspense and horror, and I’m not keen on violent video games. Too much censoring, though, may be like putting a band aid on the surface of someone suffering from heart disease. Life inevitably brings emotionally deep wounds that can benefit from deep catharsis of emotion. If in our own lives we don’t experience these deep wounds, art can help us understand the wounds of our fellow men, women, and children. Art creates a safe place to deal with the dark.
3. Art can recognize and be thankful for the good. I love something Will Smith said a few weeks ago: “The thing is to make sure with your art your art is a gift to people to help their lives be better and to be brighter[...]it’s like you’re trying to help people just get through a day[...]” Amy and I have collected a number of works by other artists. I love the spirit of the artist within each piece. I love the beauty of these works. They help me get through the day. They help me love life. Art can recognize and be thankful for the good.
So, what good is art? And more specifically, What good is your art? May I suggest your art is one of God’s many gifts to the world? The difference it makes may seem small. You don’t know what darkness your dear friends are struggling with. You don’t know that strangers you’ve never met have been moved by something you created. You don’t know what catharsis you’ve facilitated for the overwhelmed, or what empathy you’ve encouraged in the comfortable.
Fifteen years of painting has taught me that what we create doesn’t hold meaning for everybody. But for those lucky enough to pay attention, our art means the world.
If you’ve wanted a jump-start to do more painting in 2014, join me for a free painting demonstration on New Year’s Day. The demo will be broadcast live beginning at 1pm MST at http://www.ustream.com/channel/everything-i-ever-learned-about-art.
Here’s a list of materials I’ll be using:
-A panel to paint on, lightly sanded and coated with gesso
-A mirror (we’ll be working on a self-portrait)
-Paper towel or rag
-Palette loaded with paint. I usually use Rembrandt brand, but you can use whatever you’ve got. My colors are, from left to right: raw umber, transparent brown oxide, burnt sienna, raw sienna, Naples yellow, titanium white, cadmium yellow medium, cadmium orange, cadmium red deep, permanent madder deep (or alizarin crimson), ultramarine blue deep, and black. If you don’t want to get all of these colors, you can get by with burnt sienna, raw sienna, white, and black.
-A variety of brushes: a cheap chip brush, a few larger bristle brushes, a few fine sable brushes, and a fan brush.
See you in 2014!
Today I’m turning my blog over to one of my studio assistants. At the risk of incriminating myself, I’ve asked Brooke to tell us what makes for a good employment experience for a studio assistant or intern. Here’s Brooke:
Hello! My name is Brooke Mann, and I just graduated from Brigham Young University majoring in Illustration. I’ve been working part time here with Kirk in his studio for about 7 months now, and I have really loved it. Let me tell you what makes it most enjoyable for me . . .
1. A Variety of Projects
Obviously, any person who chooses to work as an assistant to an artist does so because he or she loves art. And I do! I love it. It is so fun for me to work in a place surrounded by beautiful art – paintings, drawings, sculptures, and book illustrations. School was a great place to keep learning and keep getting inspired, but work provides a place for that now. It’s great to be around art that inspires me and teaches me about what I can do better. Artists are always encouraged to look at new art, study the masters, visit galleries, find out what they like and don’t like, etc.If you want to keep your art assistants happy, expose them to all sorts of art projects. Most human beings I know love variety. We love broadening our horizons, learning new skills, and trying new things. It makes us feel good and well-rounded. I love it when Kirk has me doing all sorts of things, not just art. I’ve learned how to edit video and prepare artwork by working with wood instance! (I feel seriously cool now that I’m a girl who can work saws and lots of tools.) I struggle a little when I am doing the same, tedious assignment all day.
2. Learning and Practicing New Skills
Another wonderful thing is the practice. Kirk lets me work on paintings before he puts on the finishing touches. He also lets me sketch them out at the beginning and then clean up and prepare digital files at the end. All of this is wonderful practice that may be a little different from what I do on my own art at home. Artists have to be constantly (seriously constantly!) practicing to keep their skills up. The more you practice, the more naturally it comes and the skills get engraved into you. For example, honestly, I used to struggle with photoshop because I didn’t use it broadly enough. However, since working here, I’ve been practicing so much that I don’t think I will soon forget how to use the tools. I feel very confident with it.3. Give Feedback
Teach us and give us advice. Sure, it’s good to let us ask questions, but we don’t always know what questions to ask! You have great value because of your experience. We want to learn from you. Kirk is a nice guy and always compliments what I do. I would be happy to hear some critiques from him every once in a while. If he told me what I could be doing better or if he said, “try it like this,” then that would also be preparing me for the harshness of the real world. ["Side note--sorry Brooke. I'll work on that." - Kirk]
4. Connections and Opportunity
Enabling me in my own career makes me motivated and excited to work for my boss’s career. I love my job. Kirk asked me what he could do to help me and I mentioned publicity. One of his suggestions was this blog post, which helps both of us. Hopefully some of the information here will help you too.
Here’s a link to my own art. It’s very different from Kirk’s (I do almost purely stuff for kids), but I think that’s why work doesn’t burn me out. Please take a look! And of course, keep following Kirk too.
People ask me all the time, ‘Do you teach lessons?’ ‘When’s your next workshop?’
I feel some tension about teaching. I like to teach. I promised God if He’d help me figure out how to make a living as an artist, I’d pass it along through teaching. But still, tension. I haven’t been good at developing a consistent teaching effort. I like my privacy in the studio. At times, students don’t seem serious about learning, and motivating them doesn’t come naturally to me. Plus, I think it’s important for young artists to learn from a variety of artists rather than becoming a disciple of one. And it seems the most serious of young artists teach themselves by looking at art and often disregard what their teachers have to say. And can you really pull genius out of someone? Is it something that’s either there or it isn’t? So, tension.
But a couple of things happened to me recently. First, I was asked to present on teaching via the internet at the Dixie Business of Art in Kanab, (which, by the way, is this weekend–so come.) That made me think, ‘I guess I’d better do some teaching if I’m going to present on it.’ Second, I had someone come show me their work after having taken an online course I offered through Folioacademy.com. I was so impressed with the progress she had made in her painting skills through taking the course, and I was encouraged. It made me remember so many victories with so many students in my past.
Well, if you’ve been following my Instagram feed, you may know about my new project–documenting everything I ever learned about art. This promises to be a slow and painstaking project for me. If you click on this link, you’ll see in the left hand column a long list of demo videos I plan to create and post online. I’m reaching back to the beginning, and choosing exercises I did way back when I was young that still have some bearing on what I do as an artist today. Much of this content will not be new or groundbreaking. I hope, however, to build a progressive group of exercises that build on one another to take a young artist (of any age) from fundamentals to eventual freedom of expression. I hope to focus on principles and general techniques in order to give artists a lot of tools, both in discipline and expression, so they don’t become copies of me, but rather find their own paths. I remember when I finally had enough skills to accomplish what I wanted to in a painting. It was like I could finally breath.
If you decide to delve into some of my new demo videos at learn.jkirkrichards.com, and you make it to the end of a video, you’ll see how I really feel about teaching–and more specifically about the teachers who taught me. They truly opened my eyes and pulled out whatever latent genius there might have been in a young, stubborn, and sometimes less than responsive art student. I’m so grateful for their patience and expertise.
And now I’m going to motivate you. You CAN do it. Push past those mental blocks. It’s worth it. Most artists give up or fall into a rut way too early. All it takes to go further is to work harder and be more persistent and try new things. Most people don’t. You can. Absolutely you can.
So when is my next workshop? It’s right now, on your computer. New videos are free for a week or two once they are posted. And if you’d like to be notified of live workshops, please email me at jkirk(at)jkirkrichards.com and I’ll put you on the list.
It seems like there are a few superstar artists out there who never make a mistake. Every painting, drawing, or sculpture seems flawless–perfect strokes, perfect gestures, perfect anatomy; perfect temperatures, perfect manipulation of the picture plane, plus a composition to die for.
I don’t know if I’ll ever be that good. Why do I even try? What’s the point of making art if a lot of what I create is far from perfect? People will see my mistakes. I probably shouldn’t put my work out there until the day I don’t make so many mistakes.
If you’re like me, you’ve had these thoughts run through your head many times. And those impulses can be useful. Being your own toughest critic can push your work to new levels of creativity and craftsmanship. Carefully placing your best work in public shows can drive expectation (your own and your clients’) and open career opportunities again and again. But it’s easy to let those impulses get the better of us. We all know artists who put off promoting their own work because of self doubt until finally their dreams of an art career fall by the wayside.
When my own bad work gets me down, I remember two things:First, a visit to the museum of the Louvre. One of the paintings there, of course, is the Mona Lisa–arguably the most famous painting in the world. As I worked my way through the museum crowds to catch a glimpse of the painting, the critic in me expected to be disappointed. It couldn’t possibly be everything it’s cracked up to be. And then I saw it. It was perfect. Unbelievably perfect. Wow, Mr. Da Vinci! How did you do that? But down the hall is another painting by Da Vinci: a painting of John the Baptist. I saw it and it didn’t move me. Not that it’s horrible–it has some of the same marks of genius, the brilliant sfumato that make the Mona Lisa such a standout piece. But the figure of John the Baptist seems to lack structure and understanding of anatomy, and the finger ends on such an abrupt point as to lead the eye to a black hole. It seems ghostly and makes me think Da Vinci spent all his time on the face–pasting the feminine visage he painted on previous works into an otherwise bland composition. It made me wonder, how could the quintessential renaissance man, the creator of the most famous painting in the world–how could he have also created THIS? Well, there could be a lot of reasons, and I’ll resist the urge here to venture a guess. (And you may disagree with my critical analysis of the painting.) That said, my point is: Leonardo Da Vinci had a bad painting. Probably many. And this wasn’t one of his early paintings. It was one of his last paintings. BUT he also had one of the most perfect and celebrated paintings in the world. That gives me hope.
The second thing I remember is an interview I once saw with Brad Pitt (and this was a long time ago, so I hope I remember it correctly.) When asked about working with Edward Norton on the movie Fight Club, Mr. Pitt talked about what an excellent and consistent actor Edward Norton is. In contrast, Brad considered himself to be hit and miss. One take might be totally off, but another take might bring just the right result. What a relief! Someone as successful as Brad Pitt owns inconsistency. And aren’t we glad he persists in his career regardless? I am glad.
A favorite art teacher once pointed out that work of Bouguereau, worshiped by many as the most skilled painter to ever paint, was relegated to a back corner of many museums. And, according to my teacher, rightly so–because above all, the skill of Bouguereau’s work often overshadowed its content. In a time when painters were taking up social causes and revolutionizing art for art’s sake, Bouguereau was simply being the most skilled. He represented the pinnacle of a tradition that would soon become irrelevant to the art world around him. Now I fully expect this idea to bring down the ire of many contemporary academicians and classical devotees. And I’m convinced that Bouguereau’s work will only become more popular and revered over time. AND, I don’t think my teacher was urging his pupils not to develop skill. Rather, he urged us not to court skill at the expense of meaningful content and experimentation. How many slick works of art without error or risk have fallen into obscurity? Many. Just because a work is perfect doesn’t mean it is moving–doesn’t mean it will rally the human soul. Searching and experimenting are important ingredients. And searching breeds inconsistency. Experimentation breeds bad work in search of the best work.
So you made a bad painting? Well, you’re probably on the right track.
A friend recently made a comment in a church meeting comparing the dark experience of European cathedrals with the light experience of LDS temple worship. I’m sure he didn’t state it even close to the way I heard it, which was ‘light art by our people, good; dark art by other people, bad.’ This is particularly painful to me, because I aspire to create works of art as moving as those by Bastien-Lepage, Georges de la Tour, Rouault, and countless others whose works draw pilgrims from all over the world precisely because they are so moving.
The Church is making an effort to put more original art in temples. That’s super exciting! I’m in love with this idea. As an artist who has repeatedly promised to consecrate my talents to the Church, this seems like an ideal opportunity to exercise those promises. I have, in fact, received several letters, emails, and phone calls inviting me to participate in this effort. “If we could,” they say, “we’d have Carl Bloch paint all of the art in the temples.” My heart beats faster and I imagine the possibilities. And then I hear the details. Apart from the fact that all images made for temples are restricted from being reproduced and offered to a wider audience, there are a number of artistic requirements that make my blood boil, and partly because they would disqualify even the great Carl Bloch. Let me outline three of those requirements here:
1. NO ABSTRACTION
This means no loose or washy backgrounds, no simplification of form, no reducing to principle or symbol. When I was contemplating submitting a proposal for a temple painting, a hero of mine and temple art veteran assured me “you’ll have to overpaint and noodle the life out of it.” Okay. Maybe those were the words I heard and not the words he said. But pretty close. Now take a look at the three details from Carl Bloch’s Pool of Bethesda. Amazing how abstracted and simplified they are. I bet most of us hadn’t even noticed the guy on his hand shoes in the lower left corner of the painting. And it’s pretty bold of Carl Bloch to leave the man under the blanket so underfinished. Bold and moving, precisely because it heightens the tension between sickness and health, between light and dark.
2. CHRIST CANNOT BE IN SHADOW
First of all, why would an artist do this? Let me just give a few quick thoughts. Silhouetting Christ in shadow brings a feeling of reverence, much like not showing His face in the movie Ben Hur shows reverence. Depicting Christ in shadow is a compositional device used by artists to take away distracting details and heighten the importance and drama of the scene. It also allows light to emanate around Him. It doesn’t mean He’s evil, or the source of darkness. Surely He who descended below all things and experienced the greatest emotional and physical darkness might be depicted in the shadow, representing His connection to all mankind by virtue of His suffering and atonement. One of my favorite pieces from the recent BYU Museum of Art show of Carl Bloch’s work was his Daughter of Jairus. Notice how Christ is depicted mostly in shadow, and how this allows the light to emanate from around him.
Now take a look at this Supper at Emmaus by Rembrandt, not to mention this popular painting of Christ walking on the water. Perhaps the former example might come off a bit spooky in the estimation of some, but the device itself is strikingly gorgeous:
3. TENSION MUST BE RESOLVED
In other words, the person must be healed and happy–not anticipating the healing. The storm must have completely passed. The following reasoning was explained to me (by a dear friend, I might add, and champion of my work:) ‘People come to the temple to seek peace. Often they are going through some struggle in their life, and so we want the art in the temple to bring them peace.’ My concern with this idea is it disqualifies any atonement painting, not to mention two of our favorites, Bloch’s Pool of Bethesda and his Daughter of Jairus. Note particularly in these two paintings, how the tension, the anticipation of being healed, is what makes the paintings so powerful. If, as my friend suggested, we come to the temple to seek peace and healing, won’t we relate to artwork that explores the anticipation of peace and healing rather than work that barely acknowledges any suffering? Think of the symbols in the endowment. The ones that move me the most refer specifically to Christ’s suffering. I am moved to hope by pieces when I look at them and say “I’m trying to get to Christ. I’m in need of healing. That’s me in that painting.”
According to Mormon teachings, our spiritual journey is one of experience, opposition, and learning. Indeed, if we’re meant to grapple with problems of eternal and universal scope and learn to be as God is, why would we want to reduce everything to a nice, happy, light package? Because of my title (which was really just a writing device to get your attention) I feel slightly duty-bound to mention Harry Potter here. Those stories are dark and full of tension, and yet they effectively communicate the idea of grappling with problems of good and evil. No story, least of all the story of the great plan of salvation, can be adequately addressed by only depicting the end of act three. All of the standard works, including the Book of Mormon, are packed with conflict from page 1 all the way to Moroni’s promise.
Okay, okay, okay. So you ask, but is the temple the right place? We don’t want the art to distract from the thing of real importance–the individual spiritual experience. And I agree. I went to the Nauvoo temple, and was quite distracted by the murals because they were painted by six heroes of mine. I couldn’t focus on anything else, I was so enamored with those murals. The flip side of that is, I get distracted by bland and mediocre paintings in temples as well. If I have to be distracted, please make it an excellent distraction!
Now you know what a state I’m in. Please forgive me if I have offended in any way. My hope is simply to get everyone to think more analytically about art, and perhaps to see things they haven’t seen before. As for Harry Potter and Carl Bloch, there may be more appropriate places for them aside from the temple. Perhaps the BYU Bookstore.
“So do you have a day job?”
I was recently asked this question. It’s a common question for artists to hear. The subtext could be any number of things, perhaps ‘If you’re full time, then why haven’t I ever heard of you?’ Or ‘How can an adult with children and a mortgage take time away from real life to do this?’ Or perhaps ‘I want to paint, but I’m afraid I’ll fail.’ Or maybe even ‘I hate you for doing what I have always wanted to do.’
Whatever the subtext, and no matter how many times I hear the question, it still shocks my system a little. Perhaps it’s because I disagree with the idea that artwork is better if it’s made by a full-time artist. I have many friends that teach or have professional careers in addition to their art, who make stunning pieces I would be proud to call my own.
But the stigma remains. And indeed, one of my earliest career goals was to make art my living. And so, with some trepidation for not knowing which of the subtexts I’m giving answer to, I respond, “Nope. I don’t have a day job. This is what I do.”
This weekend, I was reminded of the miracles of an art career by a long-time hero of mine, Gary Ernest Smith. Gary is known for his scenes of farms, fields, and farmers. His work is a marvelous blend of modern composition and surface, as if Maynard Dixon were painting in the 21st century. Gary’s paintings sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. They are sought after by collectors far and wide.
But it wasn’t always this way. Gary reminded me of the time when he had two children, a third on the way, and thirty cents to his name. He barely had enough money for gas to get him around town to shop his artwork from place to place. How did he have the fortitude to continue on under those circumstances, rather than run back to the comforts of a traditional job? Gary’s philosophy is to believe there are no other options aside from the desired career. He persisted, hustled, and things began falling into place. And this type of thing has happened to him repeatedly throughout his career. “You have to remember,” says Gary “where you were right before results start to happen.” Clearly his belief in a higher power is a driving force behind his faith in himself and in his artwork.
And that made me think about my own story.
During the first months of my career, one artist counseled me, “You’ve got to send your wife to work. That’s the only way you can make it.” Well, frankly, we tried for a few weeks. Amy worked temp jobs, but nothing seemed to stick. We lived in a little basement apartment and kept our expenses very low. And so, with my first large paycheck from the sale of a painting (it was $8000, but it felt like $200,000 to me) we brought Amy home. Not that she doesn’t work, mind you. It’s more than a full time job trying to keep our current business organized, and Amy does a marvelous job.
In 2001, I decided to escape various pressures in the local art world to paint certain things, to do things a certain way, and to become known as a by-default religious artist. (“How could you take such an artist seriously, if he has only lived and worked in Utah County?” some people asked.) So we decided to move to Tennessee and keep our expenses low by staying with Amy’s folks for a year or two. The day before we left Utah, we awoke to the horrifying news that terrorists had flown airplanes into the World Trade Center towers. We arrived in Tennessee with no connections in the art world there, at a time when everyone was on the edge of their nerves. No one wanted to spend money. It looked like we were on the verge of war with Iraq. I rented a studio space in downtown Nashville. It was a mildewy building with substandard climate control. There were days in the winter when I was too cold to paint, and I just curled up on my junk couch and slept beneath a blanket. But finally, after seven months there, I had enough work to put up an art show. A friend of Amy’s parents was a builder. He offered to host an art show in one of his fabulous modern loft condos downtown. We set up the show and invited everyone we could think of. The turnout was great! The sales were zero. Meanwhile, our bank account was dwindling towards empty. Days passed, and an email came down through the Visual Arts Alliance of Nashville about a new gallery opening in Franklin, Tennessee. I invited the gallery owner to come see my show (other galleries had declined my invitation.) She came over, and we decided to take the whole show over to her new gallery. An opening reception came and went. Still no sales. One client was going to buy a painting until his wife discovered I was LDS and put an end to his purchase. Finally, when, from my perspective things were as low as they could be, a lady who had recently won the lottery came in and purchased one of my large pieces. We were back in business! And things started to grow from there.
Was that the last of my challenges? Of course not. Two years later, we moved back to Utah into the house we had purchase from my parents. I remember going to buy groceries for the first time (we had been living with Amy’s parents for two years and had benefited from their generosity in many ways, including groceries.) I felt sick to my stomach. How was I going to afford groceries for our growing family on top of the expenses of paying a mortgage and utilities? Well, with hard work and faith, things started to happen. Sales in Tennessee plus sales in Utah made it possible. Just like Gary says, after you do all you can do, miracles happen.
“But what about all those people that had to help you out along the way?” you might ask. Yes, Amy’s parents were generous to host us for two years. My parents gave us a great deal on their old house. My brother-in-law bought me a meal at a Village Inn once because I wouldn’t order anything on that “expensive” menu. Perhaps people even bought paintings out of pity. In the end, though, I dare say we have had to rely on the help of others less than many who have had traditional jobs, who, because of layoffs or transfers have had moments when they too needed help. My point here is not to boast, but rather to encourage those who are entertaining the thought of striking out on their own.
So, three things for you and me:
1. Reexamine your subtext when you ask “Do you do it full time?”
2. Remember where we were before the miracles happened.
3. Encourage those around us in their leaps of faith.
Thanks, Gary, for reminding me.