Thursday, October 5, 2006

Trade Secrets

Over the past few months of plugging away on this project, the conversation has frequently come up:

"So what are you doing these days?" I am asked.

"Working on a book."


"A tutorial book on how to draw and paint fantasy creatures."

"Oh..." Interest, and something else in the tone. Hesitantly, "But...aren't you concerned?"

My own brows lift questioningly even though I already know what the inevitable next question is.

"Aren't you worried'll reveal all your secrets? Won't everyone be able to do the same thing then?"

I laugh at that point. That's when I try to explain, though I get the feeling my words don't sink very far.

Confusion on the face.

Polite nod, sometimes with genuine interest.

Topic change. “So what are you doing these days?” I ask.

And things go on.

There seems to be the belief that technical explanations can transcend the mere transfer of knowledge. The transfer of inspiration. And there is the heart of it: Where is the kernel of inspiration? My words and images can help guide someone to find that core within themselves, but it has no meaning until it has been internalized and explored and remade.

Drawing and painting is a technical exercise. The eyes have to learn to truly see. The brain must be trained to analyze without preconceptions. And then the hands learn through trial and error to manually create what the brain wants to have materialized. From eye to mind to hand. The disconnect has to be bridged, and there is a mechanical aspect that has to be learned with practice.

This is what can be taught: Tricks to ease the transition from mind to hand. Pointing out ways of looking at the world and seeing color and light, that get ignored by minds and eyes that only need to see the world as a space to move and interact in and not as visual canvas. Shortcuts on paper that simulate reality. The physical behavior of water and pigments on paper. This is how a wing is structured. This is how you can paint it. This is the lore of angels, and examples of the masters of the past who painted like subject matter. Here is how composition works, and how the human mind works to follow the flow of movement.

One can learn all that, master all the techniques and copy imagery flawlessly; but it’s just an architectural layout, graphical manipulation, glossy and flashy until it has a heart.

I am frequently asked, “How do you find inspiration?”

There’s no roadmap with directions I can give. Inspiration begins from an external source, unique to every person. The eye-catching imagery of a favorite artist, a glimpse of breath-taking nature, a song whose melody winds through and will not let itself be forgotten, a story that grips the soul. Something that just burns in your mind until you must create in order to transform that energy into a piece of art wrought by your own hand. It is the process that external source of inspiration undergoes within an individual that marks it inexplicably with an artist’s signature.

I believe that if you just draw and paint what you love, and do it day after day, even if it is just copying direct from another artist – eventually your own style cannot help but start to emerge. Paint what you love, what comes natural, and the pattern of your inspiration will show through.

I don’t claim to be the master of my art, and at times during the past months I have wondered, “What gives me the right to dictate how to draw and paint like this! How arrogant and presumptuous!” I feel I am on a never-ending road of self-improvement, discovery, and evolution.

“Painting is dead,” declared the modernists, thirty years ago, echoing a sentiment that has been proclaimed every half century.

Nothing new to be done. It’s all the same, they say. How dreary.

I’m an optimist.

Here is A Truth: If I were to lay bare all the knowledge and skills I have; if someone were to take those up and emulate it so well that there was no technical difference between mine and hers.... Even then, the soul of the paintings would be different. That core of inspiration would shine through. This, or so I believe, is the reason of every artist to Be.


  1. A lot like photography. (Except that you are a far better painter than I am photographer.)