Thoughts on art - Part 1 - You can not win at art

I was recently given reason to do a lot of thinking about my art, my influences, criticism, and what it is that makes an artist excel. I've decided to unload a lot of the thoughts that have been weighing on me right here on the blog. It may even be the start of a series on art process, philosophy, and technique. I'm sorry if a lot of the following is common sense to my fellow art aficionados, but I'm going to lay out my thoughts anyway; first, for my own therapeutic benefit, and second, so that it might provide some tidbits of insight for other artists out there grappling with the same issues.

I am asked about how to be a better artist probably more than any other subject, and beyond practicing the mechanics of drawing, it's all in the mind, so here's what I've been thinking.

or what I love is better than what you love

copyright DC Comics
I recently spent some time on another blog and was taken aback by how much energy was put into attempting to prove that one style of art was objectively inferior to another (the one favored by the blog's author, naturally). This particular blog is focused on animation art, but we've all seen and heard the same sort of thing about comics, music, or any other form of expression: A critic describes a very narrow criteria for what can be deemed "good" art, and anything that doesn't fit that criteria is quickly dismissed. In this case, the criticism cut me like a knife because the target was art that I hold dear. I took it personally, like someone was insulting my wife, and I was surprised by how much it really got to me. I kept telling myself how ridiculous it was to feel so offended, but I couldn't help it. My head was spinning trying to sort out why that was so.

I'm betting that like me, quite a few artists out there picked up a pencil when they were growing up because they wanted to create a world to escape to. And the art that helped to inspire us to do so- whether it was cartoons, comics, grandma's storybooks, or dad's Heavy Metal magazine you weren't supposed to look at- became sacred. I don't want the places I escape to trampled by trespassers' criticism. My whole existence has been built up on the shoulders of other people's work, and if that work were ever diminished, what would that say about me? The need to protect or even glorify something at the expense of all other things just speaks to our fragility and constant quest for validation as people and artists. We pick things apart, present evidence of its inferiority/superiority (I've even seen such evidence described as "irrefutable proof"), argue endlessly on websites and occasionally in-person, write long treatises (like this one), all in an attempt to prove, once and for all, the unprovable. None of it matters, and none of this art zealotry does an ounce of good in improving our craft or making us better artists. It actually inhibits our growth.

or those who can't, sometimes pretend to teach

Some of the art prophets out there "spreading the gospel" cite their own desire to improve other artists, as if they are doing some great service in telling you the stuff you like sucks. Sadly, some of the greatest art snobbery comes from institutions such as museums, associations, and schools, where the collections and curriculum seem designed to limit students' exposure to a narrow range of acceptable styles and techniques, all under the guise of expanding horizons. Disparaging another artist's influences doesn't elevate anyone's art, and a genuinely experienced and skilled artist or educator would know that.

Just another lazy, inferior manga artist
All sorts of art shapes our view, from technically masterful to child-like scrawling, and it is all equally important. We develop as artists organically, naturally drawn to art that speaks to us, and as our craft improves, we begin to figure out why that is and apply it to our own art. That's why I still love all of the art I grew up with. I never outgrew it, I simply kept adding to my list of influences expressly by not just assuming that whatever art I already liked was superior to another artist or style. That sort of exclusionary mindset is a perfect recipe for limited development as an artist, and not surprisingly, the most ardent critics often exhibit obvious weakness in their own work, if they are artists at all (most professional critics do not appear to be). It doesn't stop the self-styled experts of aesthetic beauty from preaching their superiority, but more than a few are likely talking mostly to their insecure selves, quietly resenting the fact that they actually can't draw a decent manga-style face, even while they confidently, and sometimes convincingly, explain all of the simple, lazy formulas the "lesser" artists of Japan employ to do so.


It can sometimes be difficult to discern if an opinion is really informed or not, especially on the internet. In the case of the blog I visited, the criticism was not the usual, easy to dismiss, "it sucks because I hate it and I hate it because it sucks" kind. It was carefully considered and well-presented, almost scholarly. Sometimes it can be pretty convincing, and as much as I hate to admit it, I was even taken in by my own preconceived notion of the author's status in the art world. It's intimidating and influential when someone speaks with authority, even dubious authority. I imagine that's why we regularly elect morons to public office.

"Well, I'm convinced. Kill the monster!"
It's scary when you doubt yourself. Upon reading the litany of offenses my favorite art had apparently committed, part of me was afraid that something I believed in might actually be less than what I thought it was. "Could I have had it wrong? I don't want to be on the losing side of the great style war". That's dangerous thinking, and a great way to lose yourself and start reaching for a pitchfork. When it comes to art, and especially a style of art, you can't be wrong. If you like it, it is good. Really. That's why there isn't much point in seeking out validation from an "expert" taste-maker. Hang on, what about technique? Surely, they can pass judgement on an artist's technique, right? Yes, it might be possible to discern someone's relative proficiency with a brush, but technique alone is not art. I'll talk more about that later. So does all this mean that we shouldn't look at the art we like critically? Of course not, and I'll talk about that later, too.

"THAT'S A 6."

When reading the art-assault on the blog I visited, I found I didn't even entirely disagree with some of the author's observations, but I completely objected to the conclusion the author came to based on those observations. We were looking at the exact same evidence but coming to completely different verdicts. Sometimes, one person loves a style for the very same reason that another loathes it. Very often, there is a fundamental difference in how the art is understood by the two parties: I look at what is there and admire the lack of extraneous information, you look at what isn't there and bemoan the missing elements. Technically, we're both right.

as in the constructive kind

"Sure, but how 'bout some Black Sabbath, loser?"
Does all of this mean the art we like (and by extension, our own art) is above criticism? Of course not. Criticism, as in real constructive criticism, is useful in improving technique, or gauging how well your artistic intent is getting across. But the absurd argument that one style of art is objectively better than another is not criticism, it's competition, and that's not what this is all about. When I do portfolio reviews, I do my best to observe what it is the artist is trying to accomplish, and try to offer advice on how to get there, sometimes by contrasting or comparing the work with other artists. I do not admonish an artist for working in a style not like my own. That would be like criticizing jazz for not sounding like heavy metal, or vice versa.


My goal as an artist is to put to paper as much of what I see in my head and feel in my heart as my technique will allow, which annoyingly, usually isn't very much. What I see in my mind's eye seems to require a lot of work, and the creative waters don't always flow easily from my mind to the point of my pencil. That's why I am constantly striving to improve my technique, but I need a really strong current of ideas to get my hand moving across the paper. If I listened to the critics, or more accurately, the referees, I'd be building dams to stop the flow of some kinds of art, but the only way the river deepens is to let the little tributaries of influence flow into it freely.


Here's a true story. I grew up in small town Pennsylvania, thinking I knew something about the world even though I'd only seen it on TV. I was a classic hick-town ignoramus, openly mocking the weirdos I'd heard about eating some kind of bizarre health crap called tofu. I had no idea what it was, and never imagined I would ever have to find out, as only foo foo people from Los Angeles would eat it. It never occurred to me that literally hundreds of millions of people around the globe ate it daily. I had completely avoided the substance until my mid-twenties, when I met a young woman from Japan. On our very first date, she decided it would be nice to cook us lunch. I'm sure I said I would eat anything, as she was a very pretty girl and I was full of shit. She decided on a Chinese dish called "mapo-doufu". It wasn't until she sat the heaping pile of steaming tofu in front of me that I figured out what was going on. I broke into a sweat. "huh…uh..th-that looks…delicious…". The dish was 90% tofu. How the hell could I eat around it? What the hell was it? As she sat across from me smiling, I knew there was only one way to handle it- down the hatch!

I never stopped eating it. I didn't really understand it at the time, but that first shaky bite of tofu was the first step into a whole new world of food and culture. I eat and enjoy tofu in one form or another almost daily with that same pretty girl, now my wife of nearly 13 years. Oh, and we've been living in Los Angeles for the last 6 of those years.


If I continue with more posts in this series, I'll get into some of the more common art showdowns I've come across, my own basic measure of "good" art, constructive criticism and thinking critically about one's art, why keeping an open mind doesn't mean having to like everything, learning from something even when you don't like it, and finally art technique, improving your skills, and finding your voice.

Please let me know in the comments if you like this sort of thing and actually want to read more of it. If not, I'll shut up and stick to posting a picture every now and again.

Thanks for reading, and whatever else you celebrate this holiday season, celebrate the art you love!


Denis said...

Thank you for posting your thoughts. It was interesting and I would like to read more :)

Unknown said...

Joshua, I enjoyed reading a very objective piece on something you hold dear. As an amateur photographer, I've talked with Brandon Peterson about similar topics from time to time, mostly because photographers can be the same kind of crowds as you are experiencing and I am often struck by what one batch of photogs consider photography that another pooh-poohs (or what they do in photoshop and still call what they do photography) and it is interesting to compare notes. I'm glad you changed your POV about tofu, it's all about the preparation. Michael Nolen (g+)(gremlich on Deviantart)

devilmonkey said...

Gods bless you, Josh. Fine points, well put.

I am a big admirer of your work and loom forward to reading more. Write about whatever takes your fancy. Do a post on inspirations, on perspective, on character design or on your favourite films. I'll gladly read them all.

And have a lovely xmas. All the best to you and yours.

Victor Edison said...

More please. ^_^;

Luis Sopelana said...

Please do go on with these kind of thoughts, particularly since you've posted what you's like to talk about. It's like the process behind the process, and I really liked this first installment.

amateur idler said...

More please.

Joshua Middleton said...

Thank you to everybody for the comments. I'm glad you guys enjoyed the post.

Michael- I am sure you run into a lot of the same attitude in photography. I wonder if there is any form of expression immune to it. Also, thanks very much for picking up the convention booklet. I'm glad you like it.

Devil Monkey- thanks for the suggestions. I'll hopefully get to everything one day!

Luis- I like "the process behind the process". As important as the thought process is in developing as an artist, most of the instructional stuff I see out there, especially in some of the digital art-focused workshops, seems to focus exclusively on the mechanics of drawing, the actual drawing process. I make the biggest progress when I focus on the "why" rather than the "how". Once I know what it is I want to accomplish and why, it is much easier to logically figure out how to do it. If I did it the other way around, I'd never find my voice.

Of course, I enjoy the pure technique stuff, too, and I'm sure I'll talk about it as I go along, but I feel like everything needs a context.

Thanks again, everyone, and I'll try to post more soon.

Brian said...

I was an art history major in college and found that learning the "vocabulary" of art enabled me to appreciate art that was not necessarily my cup of tea.

As the years have gone on, I've found, when going to museums with people, they tend to think I have some type of "inside track" on what is "good art" because of what I studied all those many years ago. My response is always the same, all that you need to know is what you like and you cannot go wrong regardless of what anyone else thinks.

Jelter said...

“Don't get set into one form, adapt it and build your own, and let it grow, be like water.”
― Bruce Lee

P.H.Valadares said...

That was fantastic Joshua! Reading all of it totally reflected a bit of your personality.

It's fantastic how art is influenced by much more than technique. All that you wrote here was very meaningful and useful These thoughts made me start thinking about my own influences.

In fact, about criticism, I have an interesting situation to tell you. I'm not sure if you are familiar with the most successful Brazilian comic artists, but most of them is well-known by the great curves they give to women. I have some comic artist friends and they always make fun of me when we are talking about influences. They think guys like Ed Benes and Ivan Reis are gods while I always mention you, Claire Wendling and Alina Urusov! They always criticize my influences saying that it isn't the real comic style and I always get mad. I'm telling you this because, as you said, what can be amazing for one can be really annoying for others. It's just a matter of style. What should be judged is the quality of the piece.

Thank you so much for sharing this. You MUST keep up with it and if you write a book someday make sure to make it available online. Haha... A mentoring book would make me jump out of the window!

PS: I've seen your wife with you in some vids/pics and I have to ask: Do you ever get her as photo reference for your pieces? Because I always notice a commun inspiration when you draw women. They always have some oriental touch to them. She's beautiful btw, with all the respect. :)


mrlich said...

This was a delight to read, and I hope that you do continue with the series. It's nice to read someone's thoughts on art so well laid out and clearly thought through (as opposed to: "It sucks because I hate it and I hate it because it sucks.")

Thanks for this.

brad said...

great write up, I would love to hear more thoughts in the future. thanks!

Josh Mills said...

Very good point, Joshua. Thanks for sharing.

Rob said...

Very nice. Keep posting stuff like this.

R2D2 said...

Hi Josh,

What do you think of purely abstract art (i.e. those done by Jackson Pollack and company)?

There's hardly anything in there that shows any knowledge of anatomy or perspective.

Chiya said...

Hi, thanks for the post. I really like to read your thoughts about this argument, I am not an artist (I hope, maybe, in an another life I have the will and the courage to try...After reincarnation ;P), but I take some of your observation and I think about my job. I am a biologist researcher...I know you can say "What????". You impresssed me with this words "My whole existence has been built up on the shoulders of other people's work, and if that work were ever diminished, what would that say about me? "...Thanks a lot for this post, please more!


PS Thanks for your line books..Really thank you I was waiting for a long time... I want to buy it even if I am afraid about the shipping. I am from Italy and sometimes the packages get lost, I hope to have luck with your book

Shelly said...

I saved this post for when I had time to read it carefully. I hope you post more like it.

I've seen similar arguments on writers' boards, especially in discussing best selling writers who weren't literary. The work might not be the best, but it's good enough for millions of readers, and that shouldn't be held against it.

I'm interested in the distinction that can be made between the subjective and objective views when it comes to art in all its forms.

Joshua Middleton said...

Thank you so much to everyone for your thoughtful comments and helpful suggestions.

Brian- the "vocabulary" of art is a great way to look at it. Everyone may not speak the same language, but we're all saying something.

P.H. Valadares- Boy, when folks start talking about what is "real" comic art (or "real" anything else), you know you are in for a frustrating conversation! It's hard, but you just have to let it go. You know the truth, and no one can take that away, no matter how much they put down stuff they don't understand.

My wife appreciates your compliment very much! She does model for me sometimes, but usually for general poses more than details and expressions. I will be talking about how I use reference in a future post, so please keep an eye out for that.

R2D2- I like all kinds of art, including some that might be called abstract. I spend a fair amount of time just swirling lines and colors around, too, usually when I am trying to express something more primal or intuitive, without thinking at all about specific form. I don't know that those pieces would mean anything to anyone but me, but I do enjoy them, and turning off my knowledge of anatomy and perspective is exactly why I do them.

That said, I tend to like art that is aesthetically pleasing to me, so I may not be a fan of another artist's abstract expressions if they don't strike me as visually appealing, but needless to say, they are welcome to keep swirling paint around.

Chiya- Everybody is an artist, whether they know it or not! I am sure there is a lot of art in what you do. What is more creative than the biology of this world?

If you have any trouble with my Line book (lost, damaged, etc.), please just let me know and I will be sure to send you a replacement. No worries!

Shelly- Yes, I have seen the writer arguments as well. The competition never ends.

I'm going to offer my two cents on subjective vs. objective in an upcoming post about constructive criticism. Hopefully, you will find something of interest.

Thanks again to everyone for the comments. More to come.

Clint said...

Joshua, I'll remember and quite possibly parrot your quote for a long time to come: "...the absurd argument that one style of art is objectively better than another is not criticism, it's competition..." You have a way with words as well as pencils.

Robert Saggers said...

At school my art teacher told me very specifically what I could not do, which coincidentally was everything I wanted to do. I feel I'd be 10 years further on with my ability and style had she not knocked my confidence so much.

The internet has shown me just what is out there and what I like to do can be widely accepted.

Thank you for this article and thank you internet.

Paul Duffield said...

Thanks for the great article! I'd love more art commentary like this!

bendelish said...

this blog was very hopeful and encouraging. i'm currently aspiring to be a comics artist and getting a bfa in drawings and always get told that comics is not a "fine" arts.
it's very disheartening to hear that come from a professor i admire and learn form for four continuous years and i always feel belittled and unimportant when my peers receive helpful critique on their work while i only get a passing glance and a "have you tried looking at other 'fine' artists?"
I've always thought that at the heart of any good drawing was a drawing, regardless of whether it be hung in a gallery or mass produced to be read the world over and it feels great to read that others go through the same thing a seemingly insignificant problem a college art girl has. It helps that you are one of the artist i admire and follow.
Thank you for your bit of wisdom gold, and I am glad that your wife made you try tofu all those years ago, because tofu really is delicious =)

Winona said...

[Thank you for your words.]

Pat Bollin said...

I have been reading your blog for years, and can't recall if I've ever commented. Just wanted to let you know that your images and words here are very appreciated. Please do write more of this sort of thing.

Zac Dozier said...

Josh, please keep posting more treatises like this. I enjoyed this one a lot, and it's given me a few things to chew on.

Starsprinkle Supercollider said...

This is a subject that really hits home. I've been trying to convince people my entire life that one can love the work of Matisse and Duchamp, and also love Looney Tunes and the X-men. The 20th century really tied popular culture in some serious knots, and I think art schools and online critics want to keep it that way. If we were to loosen those knots and let the threads fall where they may, then narrow-minded art teachers and online critics/trolls would be out of their jobs. Thanks for giving us your perspective on the situation.

Dr. B said...

Thanks for your insights Josh. This article was bang-on!
Very well put.
Keep these kind of ideas flowing when you can.

Tong Bui said...

Thanks for the perspective, Josh. Please keep em' comin!

S said...

Tofu is has some estrogen mimicking chemicals.More you eat more it will screw up with your hormones.Just saying...do not eat much.

Sc. Br. said...

Just found your site Josh and this was the first blog posting. Totally agree with you! And it's nice to feel a kind of kinship in that mabo-dofu was an influence for me as well. Heck, I live in Japan now!

Keep up the awesome work Josh!

Jeremy in Japan

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