Friday, May 30, 2014

Originality Is About Being Honest, Not About Being Different

All images of paintings by Camille Pisarro
“The originality here is profoundly human. It is not derived from a certain facility of hand or from a falsification of nature. It stems from the very temperament of the painter himself and comprises a feeling for truth resulting from an inner conviction. Never before have paintings appeared to me to possess such an overwhelming dignity.” - Emile Zola on Pisarro at the 1860 Paris Salon
Originality, integrity, honesty, risk - I think of these words as very much connected. You cannot have originality without risking failure (or worse - rejection!). It won't do to just fall back on what others have done. BUT, I think you have to be infused with  tradition, to have internalized the beloved works that still blaze forth and enhance our world. One  draws sustaining water from many wells (i.e. Steal like an artist! And who doesn't? By all means, steal things from the art you love and use them - as all artists have always done, even the greatest masters. If anyone says anything, quote Goethe: “We are shaped and fashioned by what we love.”)

But that's largely just about technique. Originality for Zola, the kind he recognized in Pisarro's work, comes from trust in oneself. 

It's something more mysterious that happens while you're experimenting and taking risks while using the things you've stolen from the art you love. Of course, what we're talking about is an ideal (far from my daily reality at least). But Zola's brief words have a lot to say about how we might approach the form of contemplation called painting.
The "profoundly human" originality referred to above comes neither from a "way" of painting, a special technique ("facility of hand") nor from more stylized or non-traditional - or for that matter hackneyed - subject matter ("falsification of nature"). 
Its true source is the personhood of the artist him/herself. Supposedly it springs from what Zola calls "an inner conviction," a phrase that anticipates Kandinsky's notion of "inner necessity" or the "inner need" of the artist for spiritual expression. 
To me this means recognizing moments of clear "vision" and striving to create from below the surface, to express something real from a place of true presence, apart from  (and paradoxically intimately connected to!) what (subject) or how (technique) one is painting.
And this isn't the province of a few. We all have something real to which we can testify. 
The problem is that most of the time (in my experience at least) the mad buzz and swelter of ideas, memories, doubts, and a thousand other perceptions and sensations that assail one in the act of painting disrupt the original impulse (thus engendering the burning desire to try again tomorrow - yes! the joy of painting!).
One can only keep looking, stealing, thinking, making things, taking risks, failing, and maybe managing to recognize and nurture "inner conviction" by sensing its truth when it appears.
According to Austin Kleon (author of "Steal Like and Artist" linked above), it really comes down to doing good work and showing it to people: but of course, as he writes, "'Do good work,' is incredibly hard. There are no shortcuts. Make stuff every day. Fail. Get better." Take risks.

The reward? Eventually we get to make the art that we think should be getting made but isn't, to write the books we want to read, create the music we want to hear in such a way that it will be for everyone and truly ours as well.
Anyway, that's the idea. 


  1. Beautiful article~ . . . thank you for sharing your ideas.

  2. Thanks, Chris, for a much-needed reminder. Let's all join Willy.

    "While with an eye made quiet by the power
    Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
    We see into the life of things."

    1. Absolutely, Donald. Thank you for the Wordsworth!

  3. Thanks for a post filled with great quotes and insights, including your own, Chris. Love your blog and your work~both teach and inspire me. Can't wait to see your work for real rather than on a screen.

    1. Thank you Kim! We've got to connect in person soon!