A snippet from a piece on Turner which got me thinking about how one should establish, maintain and develop one’s painting style…
Let’s begin with the testimony of the painter Frith in the celebrated case of Whistler vs. Ruskin
‘He (Frith) was then asked what he thought about Turner, and in particular whether Turner was an idol of Ruskin’s.
‘Yes,’ Frith agreed, ‘and I think he should be an idol of everybody.’
‘Do you know one of Turner’s works at Marlborough House called “the Snowstorm”?’
‘Yes, I do.’
‘Are you aware that it has been described by a critic as a mass of soapsuds and whitewash?’
‘I am not.’
‘Would you call it a mass of soapsuds and whitewash?’
‘I think it very likely I should,’ said Frith, causing more laughter. ‘When I say Turner should be the idol of everybody, I refer to his earlier works, but not to his later ones, which are as insane as the people who admire them.’
And so it goes: invention invites ridicule.
It’s the easiest thing in the world to become an admired painter – just paint in a style which other people approve of. Turner did it and was fêted.
Starting with dark ‘Dutch style’ works Turner quickly moved on to lighter, brighter, Italianate works inspired by Claude. Approbation followed as night follows day, but in his heart of hearts Turner must have known he was re-imagining the works of other men.
For many painters (and almost any gallery) this is enough, to be the next Kurt Jackson, Adrian Ghenie, Jenny Saville, Peter Doig .. just look at a serious Open Art competition near you.
But is it enough for you to be a copyist? Be honest now. Picasso was very honest when he reflected on how he – just like Turner – spent his career working towards what was expected by the art critics of his day:
‘I myself, since Cubism and before, have satisfied these masters and critics with all the changing oddities which passed through my head, and the less they understood me, the more they admired me.
By amusing myself with all these games, with all these absurdities, puzzles, rebuses, arabesques , I became famous and that very quickly. And fame for a painter means sales, gains, fortune, riches. And today, as you know, I am celebrated, I am rich. But when I am alone with myself I have not the courage to think of myself as an artist in the great and ancient sense of the term. Giotto, Titian, Rembrandt were great painters: I am only a public entertainer who has understood his times and exploited as best he could the imbecility, the vanity, the cupidity of his contemporaries. Mine is a bitter confession, more painful than may appear, but it has the merit of being sincere.’
So the question and the lesson is this dear reader: approbation is one thing, satisfaction and creative fulfilment quite another. As I’ve written elsewhere in this Blog, developing one’s style from a great artist is absolutely normal ; just don’t kid yourself it’s anything more than a means to an end.
The wonderful Andrew Salgado (who painted the blue reverse Jenny Saville above) moved on to much greater, things and now is the unhappy object of thousands of Salgado-a -like painters. Let’s hope they discover their own creative visions.
Back to insanity, and the point of this note:
A process is at work here: start by finding a painter you admire, and get that style under your skin. When the plaudits arrive, don’t swallow your own PR and convince yourself that you are a creative genius; your work is just a mirror to other popular styles.