The musings of a landscape painter, art teacher, and art history lover
Picasso, was perhaps the greatest artist ever, but could he make in today's art Market? Or would his ever fluctuating style condemn him to anonymity?
Picasso had many different styles over the course of his career. He moved from the Blue Period, to the Rose Period, to cubism, to Neo-classicism, to surrealism, etc. His versatility is associated with his genius. He is absolutely respected for his creative exploration of many types of art making. He even took on designing ceramics at one point.
But what about today? Can artists move from style to style today? The art market seems to say no. Contemporary artists are all too aware of the need for personal branding. You need to be known for a style and you need to develop your whole marketing scheme around this style. Think of Lady Gaga with her over the top fashions and her appeal to the marginalized and misunderstood youth of today. What if she decided to become a country singer and wear wrangler jeans all the time? Would her fans still follow her? What if the painter, Robert Ryman suddenly began filling his canvases with color? I would have thought he would have brought some values back into his paintings by now, but he persists with his monochromatic white paintings. He has branded himself with those white paintings. Imagine the outcry if he finally started painting a figure into them? It would go against our whole perception of his art.
Yet, artists are creative people. We are inquisitive and experimental and natural risk takers. We avoid being pinned down by too many rules and like to push the envelope of taste, culture, and beauty. It is exactly the nature of the artist to try out lots of different styles and techniques. Picasso experimented with everything. He mixed sand into his paint to thicken it and give it texture. He invented the idea of collage. He tried on other artists' styles. He wasn't afraid to try new things. That's embodying the nature of the artist. Sometimes I wonder at how many truly gifted artists are out in the world doing amazingly creative things, but because they have no particular identifiable style, they go unnoticed. Maybe Picasso would be in that category today.
It is true that placing creative restrictions on yourself, as an artist, is one of the best ways to achieve strong results. By limiting yourself to a few constants, be they color, or line, or subject, you can truly examine an idea in its entirety and come to unique solutions. Brice Marden is a great example of an artist using this practice successfully. He places specific limitations on his abstract paintings. The lines must be just so thick, the painting just so tall, etc. This enables him to get at an idea and challenges his creativity to come up with unique solutions. It takes true discipline and courage to keep pushing at an idea that seems exhausted and still find something deeper to say.
By following a set of self-imposed restrictions an artist is also much more marketable, for it means that the artist has a predictable style. To be marketable you need a product people identify with. You can look at a Marden painting from across a crowded gallery and instantly recognize it as his work. Think of Louis Vuitton handbags. Certainly a big part of owning a Louis Vuitton is that when you carry it, everyone knows you have a Louis Vuitton - and that of course is the fun of it. Now that's branding!
Still, I think of Picasso. I can imagine him taking his work to a dealer today and being told, that he is unmarketable and that he has not yet found his mature style. Of course, Picasso would push out his chest and tell them to go to hell. He would say, "Art is a lie that enables us to tell the truth!" He would say, "Good artists copy, Great artists steal!" But then what? Would he go home and start a Picasso blog and an Instagram account? How would he get himself known in the art world of today?
This is all on the front of my mind because I have recently changed styles…..again. For the last eleven years I have been restricting myself to painting realistic watercolor scenes of the southwest, and I have built a pretty good reputation around that category of art. I have sold paintings to collectors all over the country. The problem is, I need a break. I like lots of other art, and as a creative person, I am full of creative energy. Just that raw energy of creating is an amazing feeling. It is addictive and can lead you in many different directions. This switch has lead me to my recent abstract watercolor paintings.
In some regard you may say I am just returning to my roots. I began my art career as an abstract artist painting with oils. While in Oregon I showed work in galleries and began to build a reputation as an abstract artist. Then came my son, a move to Wisconsin, a move back to Phoenix (my home town), a divorce, and a second marriage. Somewhere along the way, I picked up the watercolor brush and started painting the scenes around me. Eleven years later I am ready to go back to abstraction.
This was not an arbitrary move mind you. I have been thinking of abstraction for a long time. When I work in sketchbooks, it is often abstract. Specifically, I have been thinking of the problem of painting abstractly with watercolor. It has taken me a lot of experimentation and thought to come up with a unique style that fits with who I am and is not a cliché. I didn't want to just paint with washes of swirling colors that sort of swim into each other. I wanted something more concrete. Something that stands on a scaffolding of geometry and has a strong sense of design. Not easy things for watercolor.
So, here I am at a crossroads, and I have made the decision to move in this new direction. Will my fans follow me? Am I less marketable? Have I damaged my brand? I don't know the answers to those questions, but I do know that I am a creative person. I am inspired by more than just one thing or idea. I need to experiment and to grow. Picasso I am sure, felt the same way. He was always pushing for something more, never satisfied. And I am just optimistic enough to think that Picasso would be marketable today. I believe that great art shines through no matter what. Picasso, with his bigger-than-life personality, would have clawed his way to the top no matter what. And so, I take strength from Picasso and hope other creative people will as well. If you are a creative person, you just have to keep at it. Keep making art and climbing that mountain. Picasso once said, "To copy others is necessary, but to copy oneself is pathetic." Don't be pathetic, keep pushing for something new within yourself and your artwork.
I hope you will join me on this creative journey…..wherever it leads.
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Author: Bruce Black
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