M. Stephen Doherty

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

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Balancing Skill & Passion

The movie Black Swan is ostensibly about the physical and mental strains imposed on a young ballerina (brilliantly acted by Natalie Portman who just won a Golden Globe award) chosen for the lead in a production of Swan Lake. The story is also about the struggle of an artist trying to raise her skillfully executed performance to the level of great art. Throughout the movie, the ballet company’s artistic director (played by Vincent Cassel) pushes the ballerina to reach beyond her disciplined, rigid, shallow performance and take the emotional risks necessary for expressing the complete character of the black swan. 
As I watched the amazingly powerful movie, I kept thinking that every artist -- painter, musician, writer, singer, dancer -- spends years trying to first learn the craft of his or her art form and then, ultimately, to go beyond skill into the realm of artistic expression. 
To some extent, anyone who works hard and long as an artist will eventually reach the point at which he or she devotes less attention to skill and more to expression, if only because practice make them better at exercising their skills. But the question Black Swan asks is whether the pursuit of greatness ultimately requires complete vulnerability and passion. 
Some artists can reach that exalted level early in their careers and, seemingly, without much effort; but the message that comes through in Black Swan is that an artist may have to risk everything to achieve perfection. 



  1. Wow, what a powerful post. This is something that's on my mind a lot lately. Are my skills up to par enough to try to be able to truly express what I want to say? At least a little bit? Maybe. But probably not. I guess that's one thing that makes the journey of being an artist so enjoyable. Seeing little bits of the artist you want to be emerge in your daily work. I've got to go see this movie now. :)

  2. Wonderful post. I have been questioning my development as an artist and know that I am now stagnant and definitely not 'growing'. I have little to risk right now ... and much to say.

    Am doing some serious thinking about what I produce just now; basically know what it is I want to convey; needing to look at the 'how'; the skills and development of these skills.

  3. You've put to words something I've been feeling in my bones. I've been an avid daily painter for 23 years. I think I've had mini risk-it-all phases throughout my career that seemed huge to me at the time. But, lately, I've been feeling in my bones this greater sense of discovery and challenge. I want to LEAP. Love it. Thank you for this blog. I'm so glad I stumbeled onto it. I'm charged up!