M. Stephen Doherty

M. Stephen Doherty
The editor of Plein Air magazine at work

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Why we draw & paint

The question we ask ourselves, that our friends ask us, that our parents puzzle over, and that occurs to us every time we get half-way through a painting is "What the hell am I doing?" Certainly the world doesn't need another piece of artwork, and if it did we could pull out dozens of paintings stacked in the closet. We are convinced no one will ever buy one of our paintings, and if they did express interest we would be reluctant to part with our most personal expressions. We would rather give a drawing to someone who loves it than charge them real dollars, and we look back at our old work thinking (a) we wish we could still paint like that, or (b) we should have stopped before we got worse.

In 30 years of editing American Artist magazine, I've asked artists that question; and the answer I always receive is "I don't have a choice. I have to keep making art whether anyone else understands me, supports me, honors me, or dishes me. This isn't a gym exercise I do to build up my muscles, or a nine-to-five job I put up with so I'll have food on the table. It's my life."

So the answers I get are not really answers to the question I posed. Artists can identify the fact that they have an obsession, a passion, an inner need, a driving ambition, or an insane dependence; but they have trouble saying why they willing engage in an act that is, at worst, a form of self-flagalation and, at best, a form of self-realization.

The most frequent answers are grounded in the artist's earliest experiences. Some fell over in front of a great painting hanging in a museum, and when they got back on their feet they verbalized the ambition of one day being able to paint that kind of picture. Others met an adult artist -- and aunt, a grandmother, a neighbor, or a teacher -- and thought they wanted to enjoy the same happy existence that person must be living.

But what of the people who decided to become artists when they were adults? Some walked away from a grinding profession their mother insisted they undertake because they were sure painting would lead to a greater level of satisfaction. Others didn't have the confidence to take a "real job," and a few just liked the idea of doing something that didn't depend on interacting with other human beings.

HOWEVER, I am glad to say that the vast majority of artists I've met recognized that being able to accurately record one's observations, feelings, and ideas can be the most satisfying experience a person can have. And what's even better, there is the real possibility that what an artist records can be exactly what other people saw, felt, and thought. Whether the art is completely abstract or tightly detailed, it does have the potential to communicate in a very particular and important way.

I plan to use this blog to explore that communication by describing my own drawings and paintings as well as the work of artists I admie. Perhaps we can help each other answer the question about the real reasons we need to create art.

1 comment:

  1. I paint and draw because I can not not - do it. I have been drawing all my life, as far back as I can remember. It makes me happy and is part of my soul. If I have been to busy to paint or draw for a while I start to get "crabby" according to my wife and she banishes me to my studio.