During my foundation course in painting (a pre-amble peculiarity before attending art school proper) a tutor spoke to me in hushed tones in the corridor. He told me that if I really wanted to make art my lifetime story, I should skip art school and get a studio to paint.
I was having serious doubts about going anyway and having left applying to art school too late, the decision was made for me. So I spent the following two years in Paris and Florence, wandering without direction.
On paper it sounded good, living in two of the most artistic cities in Europe, but in reality I felt cut off. I felt cut off from an environment of idea-sharing, from the student mindset as if I had launched myself too soon and crashed to the ground. Don’t get me wrong, I was having a great time but in the rear mirror I could see that I was going nowhere.
Study art in isolation
Learning in isolation is not the same as working as a professional artist in isolation. Following a degree course or diploma in art is essential to equip you with the right skills and the critical eye of professionals. It’s also at the right age to do it, when you are young, enthused, engaged and eager to learn.
With hindsight the advice he gave me seems to have been born of a generational mindset, one when artists were drawn by revolutionary spirit to form meetings and to talk about their work. I have a sneaky feeling that he was romanticizing the artist’s story, a sort of Gauguin condition! Most artists in history either were tutored, worked as apprentices in large studios or went to art schools.
One sound piece of advice can save years of struggle and at art school you will pick up many. Yes, you can learn a lot from attending evening life drawing classes, drawing in art and anthropology museums, but you will miss the handed down code, the code that makes artists a little different in the way they look at things, literally!
Looking back, I can see how much worthless art I produced in those two years. Compared with the art I created during my degree course, there is no comparison.
Van Gogh’s use of color is as interesting for its theoretical understanding as it is for its expressive power.
The misconception that art is somehow a subject without rules and that anyone can do it, is well worn and needs a good smack of reality and a bit of dusting down.
Artists have always been at the forefront of both scientific and philosophic research. The technical prowess of so many great masters is awe inspiring.
There is a funny irony that lies at the root of this myth. Van Gogh the artist whose life has been so well put to story and re-enacted in film is an innocent victim in all of this.
Story tellers have loved the narrative that he died a pauper, that he went mad, that he was penniless. All factually true, but when coupled with his power of expression the story bends to suit the narrators tune.
The expressive power in his painting is but a silk robe laid over his dedicated struggle to master technique. A read of the many personal letters he wrote to his brother, reveal his technical struggles and how central they were to the development of his art. In fact you could argue that his use of color is more interesting for its theoretical understanding than it is for its expressive power, although I fear they are on a par. He was fortunate to have such great talent for both expression and technique.
In conclusion, the decision of whether to study art or not is a personal one and depends on many factors. Looking purely from the outcome vs the input, it is a non-contest. There’s plenty of time to be an artist, alone in your studio later in life!