Welcome to Part 3 of “The Artist’s Journey“.
According to the essence of Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth, after the Refusal of the Call, a guide appears providing you with some words of wisdom, some practical tips, gentle persuasion and points you in the right direction of your journey. WHERE WAS HE/SHE!!!? Gandalf, Dumbledore or Obi-Wan never turned up in the guise of a senior artist, mentor, guru or teacher. Not even during my entire career in graphic design did I ever receive any guidance or advice from a living experienced mentor. I even became an art director without ever having worked under one myself. Everything I learned, I had to learn by trial and error, my own individual research, making mistakes and learning on-the-fly.
I was very lucky when I was 12, 13, 14 to have access to the Famous Artists correspondence course. This was founded by Norman Rockwell and was a collaboration of content developed by some of the most influential artists and illustrators of the 50’s. It was full of useful exercises in how to draw the human figure, head, hands, perspective, colour theory, composition etc. My father, who was a film animator, had these lying around the house and I would look through them and do the exercises as a kid. It was probably one of the only remaining sources of academic art material available in that form before modernism rendered academic art tutelage an evil sin and it died out in art schools. In hindsight, it was just what I needed when I needed it. So, thanks Norman Rockwell, Bernie Fuchs, Robert Fawcett, Albert Dorne and all the other 50’s artists of the New York Society of Illustrators! You are my proxy Gandalf. My odd version of ‘mentor’ also took the form of a very limited selection of art books at my local library and then many years later, the Internet. So thanks, the Internet, for teaching me “Everything I Know”.
After the Refusal and the Giant Foot, one of my first forays back into traditional art was a portrait of Merlin done in graphite pencil. Perhaps I was subconsciously yearning for the archetypal “Wise Man” to appear and teach me something useful (as opposed to me fumbling around in the dark learning things by mistake). It’s a bit sad really, that I had to invent my own mentor but there he is, ZZ-Top beard and all. I can hear him even now preaching to me about not drawing every single hair on his beard. I ignored him, of course. I once had an art agent look at “Merlin” and a few other of my pieces right at the beginning of my uncertain journey back into traditional art and the advice I got at that very sensitive time was to give up doing ‘portraits’ of people that nobody knows – they don’t sell, they said. Great advice, thanks. I ignored this too.
For about 6 years I blundered around experimenting with different media, styles, subject matter etc. I painted with acrylic, oil, watercolour, colour pencil, pastel. I even painted with coffee, much to the scoffing derision of friendly art critics. I had no direction. After so many years of working as a commercial artist, I approached making art from the perspective of the customer, the audience, the buyer. Understandably in commercial art, you think about the client, the product and the brief. The integrity of what you do can easily be measured against what is required from the paying entity. However, let me tell you, it can send you around the twist trying to figure out what ‘sells’ when it comes to fine art. The process is not the same. It took an unusually long time for me to figure this out without a mentor. All this happened right when we were experiencing some financial hardship at home and I faced the pressure every day to earn an income or quit. It seriously brought me to the edge of despair trying to ‘please’ an unknown entity, a shifting, faceless ghost. I was trying to please art critics when submitting an entry to an art competition, I was trying to please a small-town tourist market at the same time trying to make my work more serious and contemporary, I became reactionary, responding to what I thought was important ‘feedback’ and all the while I was trying to please perceived ‘markets’ I had no idea existed. It didn’t occur to me that I had things back to front! The more I tried to please, the more my efforts ended in rejection, disappointment and failure. During this agonising time of mindlessly bouncing from one contradiction to another, I learned one important thing – humility (…or humiliation, not sure which one!). It certainly had the effect of stripping down all the confidence I had ever possessed in my own abilities. It cracked open any professional self-assurance I had built up over the years and got right down to the bitter gibbering core! I came to the end of the road of my endurance one day as I was selling socks and jam to customers of an art gallery. I was done with the humiliation, the working for free, the endless hours of hand-making tourist trinkets to stay competitive with items made in China, the torturous quest for a style or subject matter or X factor that might bridge the gap between artistic integrity and the opposing need to create an income. I was utterly defeated. I started looking into becoming a hairdresser. No kidding! What came next was truly a crossroad, a threshold – Part 4 “Crossing the First Threshold”.
Stay tuned to find out what happened.