I’ve been thinking a lot lately about making art that is true to ones soul. What do I mean by that exactly? Not compromising the integrity of the work to please the masses. You see, I do a lot of portrait commissions, and have recently had a frustrating experience with a client. Without going into too much detail, I’ve had to make numerous changes to my rendition of her in order to appeal to her sense of vanity.
Now, I firmly believe that making art which moves others requires the ability to tell a compelling story. It also requires for an artist to know EXACTLY what story he or she is trying to tell. My style could be categorized as hyperrealism. My art language is one which focuses on replicating the details of my subjects with a sense of heightened clarity. I enjoy discovering the subtlest of nuances that are present in everything, however great or small. Some would say that my focus on such minute detail is somewhat obsessive, however, this is my style, and, in general, the trademark of the hyperrealist movement. The client I mentioned above, after having seen my work, commissioned me because she loved the “life-like detail” (her quote) portrayed in my work. Long story short, I ended up changing her portrait so many times, that I now feel it no longer resembles her, nor does it represent MY style.
I tell this story because I believe the first thing that an artist must have is the desire to express themselves honestly. The artistic alphabet must be learned in order for an artist to develop his or her unique voice. Music is another language which requires an alphabet. A musician speaks to his or her audience through an arrangement of harmonic sounds, whereas a visual artist speaks by using lines, shapes, edges and colors. Through these grammatical forms of visual expression, an artist’s style emerges. Although the personal choices may vary drastically, the means by which imagery is created requires a knowledge of the same basic alphabet. Only by mastering such an alphabet, can an artist than truly express his or her story on a canvas, or piece of paper. When this is done well, the idea becomes universal and transcends the language barrier.
I recognize that my experience, unfortunately is something which happens a lot with commissions (especially portrait commissions!). Knowing this, however, doesn’t diffuse the aggravation of having to change one’s style to please a client. I’ve thought a lot over the years about how I can avoid this. Be honest in the very beginning. Do preliminary studies for the client to approve. Send them frequent updates. None of these things however helped me in this instance. Because of of this, I am seriously questioning my future as a portrait painter. In the very least, I am going to have to write up a contract which specifies rules to help me avoid constantly reworking a painting in order to satisfy the whims of a finicky client.
A great work of art has soul. When we see a drawing or painting which stops us in our tracks, and we are compelled to stare at it for a moment or two, in that moment, it has grabbed a hold of OUR soul. We recognize something in it, which is powerful and we are lured into a world that speaks of something greater than the trivialities of every day life. It tells us something that we can’t put into words. Perhaps it reminds us of a moment, or experience within are own life where our emotions overpowered us. Any strong emotion that we’ve experienced, whether it be love, anger, joy, fear, sadness, etc., has a way of overshadowing us. Our most profound memories are embedded in our subconscious mind, and when we least expect it, they sneak up on us. A skillfully painted masterpiece has the ability to remind us of such a moment. When that happens we suddenly feel, standing in the middle of a museum or gallery, something deep in the wells of our soul. That my friends, is the alluring power of art at its best.
As an educator, I try to teach the “visual alphabet” to my students, so that they can imbue their artwork with powerful emotion, and, in so doing, touch others. However, if any artist should choose to do commissions, I would strongly advise that they be wary of their clients. Once the integrity of the work is compromised, one can easily loose sight of their expressive language. Don’t allow a client to censor your vocabulary. You will regret it if you do. Art should always come from the heart. When you are not being true to yourself, you run into the danger of creating mediocrity.