Have you ever wondered about the best way to approach art-making? In Art and Fear, Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Art Making, by David Bayles and Ted Orland the artists and authors take on the challenge of verbalising the disquiet and unease of making art.
It is somewhat comforting to read an artist talking about typical problems and how to overcome them. One of the memorable anecdotes from the book comes from a ceramics class. The ceramics class is put into two groups and are told they are going to be graded differently. One group is informed to produce as much work as possible, while the other group has to focus on quality over quantity. At the end of the term, the first group will receive an A if they turn fifty pounds of sculptured clay into pots. The second group only needs to hand in one perfect vessel to gain an A, but it has to be their most significant accomplishment.
Once quality and perfectionism were given a back seat, I can easily imagine the first group rising to the occasion and completing pot after pot. With no trepidation about the outcome, there was no looking back. Each student made gradual progress and refined their techniques as they made their pots. With a brief reflection before moving on, mistakes were quickly learnt. Their skills and grace improved with each container.
The other group, with their focus on thinking before they start, were doomed before they began. These makers became frozen in time not sure what the consequence of each action would be. I have experienced this first hand. Striving for perfectionism cause massive anguish. With perfectionism as a focus, they found that they couldn’t help focusing on their shortfalls. Suddenly they were scared of making even a little mistake.
This short story from the book highlights the journey and experience artists have to overcome when art-making. It highlights that theorising can’t replace action. Consistently knocking out solidly average work, where good enough is the goal is the best approach and is a sound way to undertake art-making and progressing skills.
As Bayles and Orland say “you learn how to make your work by making your work.” “The hardest part of art-making is living your life in such a way that your work gets done, over and over. Finding a host of practices that are just plain useful.”
Although there are several good motivating points in the first half of this book, I found the second half of the book not as strong. As l neared the end of the book, I was looking forward to it finishing. As at times, I found the book frustrating, especially the section on art and science. I was surprised that a book that tries to explain the benefits and problems of art-making avoids the one essential ingredient, creativity. However, the is some real insight to;
“Provocative art challenges not only the viewer, but also its maker. Art that falls short often does so not because the artist failed to meet the challenge, but because there was never a challenge there in the first place. Think of it like Olympic diving: you don’t win high points for making even the perfect swan dive off the low board.” Bayles and Orland
Overall I felt that reading this book was money and time well spent. After reading this book, I returned to my studio, with renewed focus to churn stuff out and work as much as I can. Instead of sitting down and imagining myself getting better. As Bayles and Orland said, “The overwhelming majority of your artwork is simply to teach you how to make the small fraction of your artwork that soars.”