I feel I need to preface this post with a disclaimer: this is a long post.
‘Why make art?’ is a question I’ve struggled with/tried to get to the bottom of for the past few years. Like I mentioned in the previous blog post, How I Became An Artist, I really didn’t begin to question my motives until I started art school at VCU. Drawing and painting was just something I’d always done. I was technically skilled—apparently, as a young kid, I meticulously colored within the lines—and I just enjoyed creating.
Suddenly, in art school, everything had to have meaning or legitimate reasons behind the decisions I made. Why’d you choose these colors? What does this symbolize? Was there a reason you decided to draw the line this way instead of that? Basically, art had to be more than just visually stimulating images, and this was something completely new to me. I realize now it was incredibly difficult for me to come up with ideas for projects because, usually, a piece of work would be born from an image or series of images in my mind. And that wasn’t good enough anymore.
Now I had to come up with a fully thought-out concept before I even started to think of visual imagery. Sometimes, I would come up with a killer concept, but then realize I didn’t have the skill or resources to see it through. I’ll admit, for some assignments I would just make up the concepts (or reasons for doing x) either during or after the project was complete; I would make up these really insightful ideas (though, looking back, they probably seemed as bullshit as they really were) because I became so creatively stuck. Every decision I made—imagery, colors, composition—was met with roadblocks. So, I would “cheat” my way through certain assignments because I was just so desperate to create something that would give me more than a decent grade.
I don’t think, at the time, I was consciously aware that my artwork during those four years didn’t feel like mine. After an assignment was finished, I would stash it someplace I wouldn’t have to glimpse it because all I saw was an over-analyzed, unoriginal, dull image that someone else did using my hands. Of course, this wasn’t every project, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t the majority of them.
It all absolutely weighed on my consciousness, another pound added for each assignment, more pounds for assignments I was unhappy with. And, after a long period of being uninspired or not understanding what was expected of me, I became numb to the projects I usually would have been passionate about. I was trying to do my best, but I was just so damn exhausted. My discontentment obviously spread to my other non-art classes.
I can say with certainty that every time I sat down to do some required textbook reading I would doze off within minutes. It was a lot like when you fall asleep in a car and you kinda wake up for just a second when your head starts to drop forward. The mere struggle to keep my eyes open is something I don’t think I can put into words. I would jerk awake during these periods of micro-sleep, only to fall asleep again after rereading the sentence I’d been stuck on. Almost every time I experienced this struggle to stay awake, I’d succumb to the “just a 20 minute nap” hit the snooze…hit the snooze…hit the snooze…until I either had to go to class or it was so late I knew I wouldn’t get anything accomplished.
Most days I felt like a zombie. I gained a ton of weight. My acne was out of control. I was getting sick frequently. One time, after being awake for close to 48 hours, I hallucinated that it was snowing. In the spring. I knew I was incredibly unhealthy, that all the habits I had fallen into were unhealthy. But what was I to do? With barely $8 in my checking account, healthy food was hard to come by. If I didn’t stay up until 3am on a typical night (and wake up at 7am) I wouldn’t have time to finish assignments, a snowball effect would occur, and my grades would drastically fall.
And on top of all that I was haunted by the question, Why did I make art? At that point, it was just to get through it all. To get through the week, month, semester. And it took me a solid two years after graduating college to finally come to terms with that question.
Okay, I admit this post so far has been a bit of a bummer, but I hope what follows puts a smile on your face, inspires you, or gives you some reassurance.
What I’ve found while struggling with this question for the past two years is that on some level, you do know why you create what you do, those reasons just haven’t come to the surface yet. Maybe some of what I say in this post will help you to realize some of those reasons.
The long and short of it is: you don’t have to have a “good” reason for creating art. In this use of “good,” I mean that your reason doesn’t have to be as complex as a long story of something that happened long ago and that only the weight of a paintbrush in your hand can make it better. Your reason doesn’t have to be that you want to shed light on a political or social issue.
If you make art because you like to make pretty things… that is a valid reason! I know many people will disagree with that and say that art has to be more than visual, that it has to make you contemplate something. But how often has a piece of art just caught your eye? You can’t really think of why you don’t want to look away, and it’s not making you think of anything in particular; but the simple fact that you are drawn to that image (or sound! I don’t want to discount music here either) illustrates my point. If, as a viewer of art, you are just drawn to certain artworks than others, why can’t that hold true with your own artwork?
For me, when I came to terms with the fact that it’s okay to create images simply because I like the imagery, I started discovering more reasons for why I make my art. It was like I opened a folder titled ‘I Think this is Pretty’ and there were dozens of subfolders within.
For starters, I can’t really see myself being anything but an artist. I know what I create and how I create will be constantly evolving as the years go by, but no matter what I’m specifically doing (maybe I get sick of painting in a few years and decide textile arts are my jam) I have always wanted to be an artist. Again, artist is the general profession, but you can get as specific as you want to be (painter, potter, song-writer, knitter) and you don’t have to stick to that one thing once you’ve decided on it. So my first reason is I make art because I feel it’s what I’m meant to do.
Secondly, though my wardrobe probably contradicts this, I love color. Color is one thing that blossomed for me during art school; it’s probably one of the few areas where I grew from being asked, “Why did you pick this blue?” I’ll never forget my first year of art school, I was sitting in a critique for one of the only classes I liked that year, and a peer said (in two separate critiques, actually) that the paint colors in my pieces looked like they came straight out of the tube. I remember, in the moment thinking (in Moe Howard’s voice of course), why I oughta!. But he was so right (yes, I’m talking about you, Alex B.) Before that class, color was mostly a means to an end and I had been more focused with perfecting the subject matter.
I probably spend way too much mixing colors before I get to work on a painting nowadays, but it’s honestly one of my favorite parts of painting. There is no limit to the different colors you can create! I’m constantly discovering a new combination of base colors that morph into a hue I didn’t think was possible. My fixation of mixing colors has a lot to do with the saturation of my paintings now; I just kept mixing colors because it was so cool and meditative, next thing I know I’m using them all. It’s fascinating to me how on the mixing palette there might be five blobs of paint that look about the same color, but if you paint them close together on your surface they couldn’t be more different (well probably, but you get my point).
Color is also one of the reasons I started focusing on painting portraits. It’s easy to mix a “flesh” tone and add white and black to it for shading and highlights. But that’s boring and not realistic. So I started training my eyes to really see a person’s skin color, and quickly realized you can’t sum up a skin color with one word. Endless colors go into the pigment of skin. Even colors you logically wouldn’t think make up a skin color are present-like green and yellow and purple (and that’s boiling it down a lot). It was within these shapes of colors that I began to contour the face and how I developed the “Chroma” style of my portrait paintings.
But, color aside, the human face is just beguiling. The more you analyze the face for a piece of art, the more things you notice that you’ve never noticed before, even with your own mom. I also see portraits as a personal challenge: can I make this painting really look like the person I referenced while still maintaining my fragmented style? I’ve found how the smallest of details can either make or break the accurateness of a portrait. Like if you draw a nose a smidge or two wider, you’re suddenly looking at a completely different person. I want people to see what I see.
Another HUGE reason I create art is simply how much I enjoy the actual process. Mixing paint, drawing the straightest lines I can, even erasing and correcting a mistake gives me a feeling of satisfaction. Like all is right in the world as I go through these motions. And so making art is also therapeutic for me. Of course there are always times when I just can’t get a drawing right or I’m just sick of looking at a piece, but overcoming those challenges is extremely rewarding.
And finally, I think artists as a whole create art because you’re creating something that has never been seen before (except for you plagiarizers! Don’t steal other’s hard work!) Sure, we’ve all seen a face before, but that particular face in that particular position using this particular colored paint on this particular surface has never been seen before. It might look similar to another artwork, but at the end of the day, as long as you’re not plagiarizing you are creating something that had not existed until you gave it life. You are taking a mere idea and making it palpable, something that others can react and interact with. I think once creative peoples start to realize this, anything is possible. A door you’ve never seen before has opened in your mind and all these weird, colorful, exciting ideas and images come pouring out because the only person really holding you back was yourself.
Okay, it might have gotten a little cliché there at the end, but you see my point (unless you don’t, which is fine!). If I’ve made anything confusing, or you’d like me to talk more in depth about something, or really just want to say anything, you can comment on this post or click the “Ask Me Anything” button in the side navigation if you don’t want your comments to be public. You can also email me at maddie[at]maddiehuddleart.com and I will try my best to get back to you in a timely fashion.
Now go and unleash your creativity!