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!


LINE book shipping update and returns

I just got back from the post office where I shipped the latest batch of LINE books. If you ordered a book any time before today, your book has been shipped.

The post office has been very inconsistent on the required paperwork for the international orders, sometimes requiring me to fill out customs forms, sometimes not. If anybody outside the USA has already received their book (and in one piece!), please let me know.

Speaking of which, if anybody receives a damaged book, contact me through the website and I will work out a replacement. I tried to keep the packaging minimal to help keep shipping costs down, especially for international orders, but I am sure some of those packages are going to see some abuse.

 Okay, more art in the next post!