Monday, December 1, 2014

Tim's Vermeer & What Makes an Artist an Artist...

I just got finished watching the Pen and Teller-directed film, Tim's Vermeer. The film follows Tim Jenison, a wealthy, eccentric, technology inventor who spends years working to uncover how the 17th century master artist Johannes Vermeer may have employed optical techniques to paint his otherworldly paintings.

Employing his smarts, computer technology, the David Hockney book, Secret Knowledge, and a huge pile of money, Tim spends years to achieve his ultimate conclusion—reproducing Johannes Vermeer's painting, The Music Lesson. Tim is not a trained artist, but through much hard work he is eventually able to very accurately reproduce The Music Lesson. The film was amazing and should be seen by anyone and everyone with a love of art.

Throughout the film, the question often arises as to what art is and if a device is used to aid the arist, is that cheating? As an artist myself, I know this debate well. Sitting down nude before your canvas with nothing more than paint and brush is considered by many to yield the truest and purest form of what an artist should be. The more tools, aids, contraptions, lenses, devices, cameras, and now today—computers, one uses takes the creator further away from being a pure and masterful artist. As an artist myself I have given this much thought and debate, especially since I have often been known to employ many tools, specifically a camera, to help me achieve my artistic goals.

Do aids and contraptions used by the "artist" to help in the creation of the art, make the artist, not an actual or authentic artist? Or less of an artist? Or an artist far, far down the rungs? This is certainly open for debate, although I have a very firm opinion on this.


So what does make an artist an artist? It may seem a complex and terribly unobtainable answer to glean from history and art. For me, after not too much heavy thinking, I concluded that if all the gadgets in the world are employed to create a piece of art, then it's still art. Why did I conclude this, you might ask? I decided that there is only one major difference between a non artist and an artist, and that difference is the drive to create. The will and desire to make art is the one hard line that separates artist from non artist.

Drive makes an artist an artist.

Is Tim Jenison an artist? Well, while he was driven to reproduce the Vermeer, for a bit of time, perhaps he was. He was creating a reproduction like I did back in art school. He also did get as sick as can be of painting the mind numbing detail required to finish his Vermeer reproduction. He needed to get the detail to a masterful degree so that anyone could look at the finished painting and conclude that with the optical techniques he employed, and the drive to finish it, yes, anyone can do this. Mostly, though, anyone does not do this. Watching the film, it almost seemed as if Tim might not finish. Vermeer likely did use some form of optical technique to make his paintings. Does that make anyone an artist? Potentially yes, but in realty, no. The reality is that most people could care less about creating a work of art, even if tools are available to make the job easier. From the modern abstract to the ultra-complex masterworks from the 17th century, art is created by people driven to make it. Those not driven, well, they are busy doing other things. Just wishing you could make art is not enough. You need to make some. Even if you see something and you think, "I could do that," it's still not enough. You need to actually do it. You need to be driven.
Tim's Vermeer vs Vermeer's original The Music Lesson
Tim's final result is fantastic. A tremendous accomplishment. It is technically excellent, even more well-rendered than Vermeer's in some ways. But Vermeer's original, despite its age, pops more. Tim's is lacking the full range of skill and creativity Vermeer possessed, because Vermeer had skills beyond route reproduction. Tim focused equally on color detail all over, being as exact to what he saw as possible, where Vermeer, it seems, let some detail areas go a bit so we focus on others. Vermeer's original has colors that pop out in various areas too, and remember the Vermeer was painted between the years 1662–1665 and its colors still pop! Vermeer may have exaggerated some areas of color so your eye would wander around the painting. This is akin to a contemporary artist burning and dodging areas of a photo in Photoshop. These were creative choices Tim did not make that could have made his fantastic reproduction/exercise/theory into a great work of art like Vermeer's.

Vermeer too, was driven to create his paintings not to prove some technique and then stop there. Vermeer was already an accomplished artist when he made the The Music Lesson. Tim Jenison only reproduced something, like a student might, to learn and grow. Tim was driven to prove a point. I think he succeeded completely. If Tim continues to create art, especially original pieces, he will grow as an artist. If he moves on and never creates art ever again for the rest of his life he will have still left a huge mark on the art world. I'd say a very valuable contribution, too. But he is not an artist. He's a masterful Padawan learner, not a Jedi yet. By his own admission, at the start of his journey he says he has no training. He did train himself, consult with other artists, and read lots of books. It is possible to self-train too, especially when you already are very smart, as Tim clearly is. Certainly many varying levels of skill, knowledge, tools, insight, creativity, inspiration, drugs, and more are all used to create all the art in existence. Some artists are driven by some inner beast that needs constant unleashing or else the artist will go mad. Other artists just want to make comics and draw superheroes. Others crave fame. Many crave money, and in all fairness we all need money. Some sit in a room their entire lives making art only for themselves and then die. Some want to work on art for video games. Some want to work on art for movies. Some just have the skills to pay the bills and are employed by other creatives to create. Some just want to stand with the cool kids. Others just want to get laid. And most are driven by a viscous mixture of varying degrees of all of the above.

Vermeer                     Darger                   Koons
If you feel the urge to create and you are not sure why, that's likely the first and best indicator that you are probably an artist. All the rest listed above will enter your life should you continue your pursuits to create art. You may very well start out with all the best intentions to paint masterworks, and then one day find yourself designing orange juice containers in an office on a computer. It is up to the artist how and why they chose to make their art. I'm always thankful, above all, for my own brain and body. We are all so opinionated that were even the slightest amount of control over myself relegated to those around me, I'd surly have lost my shit. People everywhere will constantly tell you the way everything is, and the way everything should be, and how the way they are doing it is the best and only way and the way you are doing it sucks.

Stay far away from those people.

Learning is one thing, and that's fine. As an artist you need to take what you learn and then jump off a cliff with that new knowledge and reinvent it all before you hit bottom. Only do what others suggest if it feels right. How will you know? You just will. Trust your gut. And never let anyone tell you that your camera, opaque enlarger, tracing paper, a computer, iPhone, or even Google Glass will make you any less of an artist than someone who spends countless hours at a canvas on one piece all done by hand. They are not arguing with you, they are arguing with themselves. The length of time it takes to create a work of art and the skills one employs are the individual choices of the artist to create the work of art they want to create. Very early on in school we were all forced in class to reproduce an old masterpiece. The piece I chose is by Rogier van der Weyden, and is hanging in the National Gallery in Washington D.C. I was almost brought to tears when I saw the original recently for the first time. Mine does not even come close, but I knew I needed to learn what was being taught back in school if I wanted to gain the skills needed to create the art I wanted to create years later. The art I create now would not be possible without that training, but training is not always necessary. Often times, for any profession, you learn much more than you will ever use. But the vast knowledge helps you focus so you know what you enjoy as opposed to what you don't enjoy. It's called style and focus in art.
My poorly executed
 student exercise
from 1989

The masterful original by
Rogier van der Weyden
Masterful levels of skills sitting dormant inside a person mean nothing if they do not get used for creating art. Nor does pitiful, untrained, child-level skills and execution detract from a driven individual being an artist.  Huge skill sets and varying degrees of knowledge may separate Vermeer, Henry Darger and Jeff Koons, but like it or not, they are all artists.

Harper Lee may have only written one book. Perhaps she never wrote, even privately, ever again after To Kill a Mockingbird. An artist can go dormant for sure, but you need to have been driven to create something at some point to call yourself an artist.

My kids make art. Most young kids do. Kids play sports and do math and read and write too. No one thinks of them as writers or artists  or baseball players just yet. The real reason we look at some kids and say they are artists is because something inside them won't let them stop making art. Some kids can't stop playing baseball. Some can't stop singing. That something that keeps us from stopping a childhood hobby and continuing it for life is drive. We love it and we can't stop, and so we are driven to continue.

The other night I woke up at 2am and made the above piece on my iPad. I drew on my tablet with a stylus, used apps, employed filters and more. Someone could look at it and decide, It does not require a lot of skill to create. He used a computer. It's all pixels. It does not exist on a canvas. Almost anyone could make it. However, almost anyone did not make it. I made it. I was driven to make it. It is art, and I am an artist. 

If you are driven to make art, you are an artist. If you need, or want to use any tool to create art—go right ahead! Don't listen to anyone! Johannes Vermeer very likely used lenses and mirrors. Many others used the Camera Obscura. There is no shame in using a tool, rule, or technique of any kind to create what you want. 

Now go create!