Monday, December 12, 2016

Pep Talk from Harvey Dunn

American illustrator Harvey Dunn (1884-1952) gave the following "kick in the butt" to his students about the importance of graduating from student work to your life work, driven by personal ideas.

"When I was out in Chicago recently, I went into a class, a sort of a club where seven or eight men were painting and doing good student work. Some of them had been studying for forty years thinking that someday they'd become artists. You will never become an artist until you think you are one. Up to that time you are just a student and I think everyone here would rather be a poor artist than a good student."

      "There are hundreds of excellent draftsmen in the country. You've never heard of them and you never will. They are content to do nothing but demonstrate their facility for drawing. They have nothing to say. The only thing that will see you through this business is the first idea and urge you had when you came to school. All the training, drawing, composition, 'isms', and laws of painting will only be just so many obstacles to trip over."

Painting by Harvey Dunn
     "By experience I've found that no amount of training and study will do it. It's that first impulse that will drive you through. So hark back to what you are. Go down in your cellar and see what you can find, then take what is yours, that which you have found, and base your pictures on it. Be yourself. When a man has found out what he always wanted to do, and he's driven by an idea, he can't help but put down something pictorial."

     "Life is short. Get going now and do something important. This is your Life's work. Think of that. You are going to spend every day of your life painting. Don't waste any of that valuable time. A man who has an idea and paints it, knows whether or not he has or has not failed. He does not have to ask anyone. When a man asks me that, I wonder if anything is going on inside him. Only the man with the idea knows how he has succeeded or failed."
—From Notes taken in the Picture Class of Harvey Dunn at Grand Central Art School Night Class from 1938-1941 by Charles Andres.
Courtesy Harvey Dunn Collection, South Dakota Museum of Art Archives, Brookings, SD.
Harvey Dunn on Wikipedia
Harvey Dunn images on Pinterest
My YouTube video called "Meet Harvey Dunn"
Harvey Dunn: Illustrator and Painter of the Pioneer West (Recent book with lots of color)
Where Your Heart Is: The Story of Harvey Dunn , Artist (Best source for teaching philosophy)
Thanks to Kev Ferrara.


Tom Hart said...

Wow. What great words of advice! The thing that continually fascinates me and energizes me about art is that it's all about decisions of relativity and balance: compositionally, tonally, etc., etc. ("balance" not necessarily meaning equalibrium). Dunn's words are, at least for me, at this point in my life about the most important balance of all

Garrett said...

Great quote! Reminds me of two pieces of advice I received in school... The first, was to, "Make your big painting now".. Now. Not later, but now. The second was a caution similar to this: beware of the perma-student... The type of person who has gone through dozens of classes and training, looking for some piece of secret knowledge to finally make them an artist. That wont work.

In both cases I didn't really understand them at the time and it has taken years for me to see what they meant. They kind of point to the trap of accreditation: art school graduates disappointed because their diploma, "hadn't gotten them anything"... I can sympathise, but being an artist is not like being a dental hygienist! There aren't any open art positions to fill!

Still, I know these things to be true but still find myself falling into this trap. Without an innate internal drive and confidence to always move forward I often find myself avoiding the risks that must be taken to succeed as an artist. C'Est la Vie!

Mel Gibsokarton said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Roberto Quintana said...

This is Great advice!
Not that there is anything wrong with ‘Life-Long Learning’, but boldly showing-up to run the day’s race is what it’s all about, even if its just running ‘to show’ for the preliminary heats.
What I like the most about Painting is that its mostly an ‘interior’ thing. You start with an idea or a concept or a set of variables, and a blank canvas… and you create a world out of it. Its just you and the work. It’s not your degree, or you title, or your age, but can you do the work? Make the magic? Dance up there in the spot-light? With-out a net?
Start out small with baby steps, be an assistant, sweep some floors, make a bunch of mistakes. Make a mess, clean it up, learn the lesson, and get back up on the horse. Find a way to make it happen, or sit down and get out of the way.
Rousseau didn’t start painting till he was 50.
Buanoroto was 26 when he sculpted the David.
“ Rousseau is no Michelangelo!” you say?
What race have you shown up for lately? -RQ

Luca said...

Uhm...i don't know. It seems something similar to "impressionits vs art pompier", to me.

I understand what Dunn meant, but i feel that all the thing would work better if the distinction was between "imitator of some artist" and "artist". I don't think that the distinction between "student" and "artist" has any sense at all.

The sooner you start putting your things in your drawings, the better, of course, but you don't actually never finish to learn and to study. From books, from artists, from life, from your experiences. You can actually feel those "epiphanies" when things get clearer in your mind and you realize you became a better artist, like piecese of a puzzle going in the right place, but i would be scared to know i completed the puzzle and i can learn nothing more.
Saying that the first, inner impulse is more important than training and "-isms" could be quite dangerous, if one doesn't understand what Dunn was meaning. I mean, you know when you see the drawings of someone that has zero knowledge of basic anatomy and he asks for a feedback? what do you say? "Follow your inner drive and feel an artist because you are one" or "buy a book of anatomy and study it" ? Yes, when you know the rules you can start breaking them, but you have to study them before.

So, unless Dunn used the word "student" to indicate someone that can only copy other people's work, i don't agree with him.

Let's take James as an example: he is an artist and not a student, but keeping on sketching from life, like he does and invite us to do , it's a way to keep on learning and educating the eye, to me, not just having fun drawing something (even if it's fun, by the way :D ) . And the "student" is the one that keep on learning and educating himself. So, from this point of view, James is still a student.

Let's take Michelangelo, quoted by Roberto. When he was 22 he sculpted the Pietà of St Peter. Almost 70 years later, he was still sculpting a Pietà, few days before his death (the Rondanini one). They are so different that they seem to belong to different artists, from different ages. I don't know what Michelangelo thoughts were, about it, but i wouldn't be very surprised if one day i'd read that he considered the first Pietà a juvenile work. When he sculpted the first Pietà he had nothing to learn about technique, but he had to learn from life yet (and in the Pietà Rondanini you can see how deep was the spirituality of the 89 y.o. Michelangelo).

Just my opinion, of course. :)

Luca said...

I clarify what i mean: since i'm self-teaching (i don't like the idea of "self-taught"), i've never had someone saying to me "draw this in this way", study this and copy that: I started directly from drawing things i wanted to draw when i was kid, taking inspiration from my personal inner world, following the istinct, drawing "my" things. Did this made me an artist? not at all. I don't have a single inch of "artist" coming from that.
Since the images were there yet, i studied the way to express them and i'm still studying it: training, drawing, composition, laws of paintings and all the -isms. It's the sum of all these things, and not my impulse, that could made me feel "an artist" one day. So far, i'm just a person with a vivid imagination still looking for the right way to express it. :)

Tom Hart said...

Luca, I don't know if this will address your concern about the quote or not. But my take-away from Dunn's remarks, why they resonate with me, is that I know that I can sometimes get too deeply into the nuts and bolts, the theory behind the mechanics of picture-making. The reason I mentioned balance in my comment is because one has to find the right balance between "knowing" and "doing" (for want of a better way to put it). Dunn's quote, or at least the way I interpret it, isn't about abandoning technical principles and knowledge, but rather remembering to put them to the service of personal expression.

Tom Hart said...

...And I'll add that "the right balance between "knowing" and "doing"" is highly personal, which is, I think, part of what Dunn was saying.

James Gurney said...

Well put, Tom. I was thinking the same thing. Dunn wasn't against lifelong learning, as Roberto said. But we've all seen older art students who are like musicians who are constantly playing scales for practice, and never writing a melody.

Luca said...

I agree with both of you, but also the balance of Tom approach requires a good knowledge of rules. But since the problem for an artist is to be able to judge objectively his own level and few are, at beginning, i think it's complicated to understand when the good knowledge is enough. How one will understand it?with trial and error, surviving the bad critics and depressing feedbacks. Besides good students and bad artists (and good artists, of course) there are also people giving up. Go from studies to real works, from scales to melodies, but be prepared to bear with failure and frustration: this is the global picture, to me. :)

Dani said...

You are so good at keeping our creativity and spirits up! Thank you.

STODD ART said...

I've failed then by this great artists measure-miserably to! Such is life. Good draughtsman, poor artist.

Robyn Jorde said...

Stodd Art, I would say that you are probably more of a process guy, and that the the creative act means more to you than having a message. Your own synthesis is unique. How much you push the uniqueness, maybe even to the point of making that uniqueness a message, is up to you.

Tom Hart said...

Robyn Jorde, good point. I was about to pen something similar in response to Lucas. Lucas, it's okay to be wherever you are in your personal art development. It's just good to be mindful of words like Dunn's. Maybe as Robyn said, you are a "process guy". I can relate to that, and in some ways I am myself. But I've noticed that being too involved in process in doing something "right" can be a trap - for me.

Luca said...

Tom, i'm totally guilty of that, i admit it. :) I noticed many times that , if i do a sketch for a drawing and then a finished version of it, there's more life in the sketch than in the finished version, so Dunn's advice is perfect to me. And the balance you were talking about is the secret of good art, i'd say: i think that it represents the artistic maturity, a total control of the technical side used not to show off ability but to convey a message, tell a story or whatever. I hope to be able to reach that balance, one day (well, i hope it won't take 40 years or the ghost of Dunn will appear to me :D )

Unfortunately, since i'm aware of my great technical limits and i'm trying to get better, at least in this phase of my life i'm too focused on the technical aspect of art, on the process, to "let it go" and feel ready to follow the first impulse more than anything else. Using Robyn expression, i'm still a "process guy" , but since i try to understand how things work, usually, i'm afraid i will always be one, ah ah!

Steve Gilzow said...

Jim, the two paintings you chose are the pictorial equivalent of Dunn's words: brimming with energy, focused, and devoid of uncertainty.

James Gurney said...

STODD ART, I guess we should all be our own toughest critics, but at the same time, don't be too hard on yourself. We have to nurture our confidence and determination to push our own boats upstream against the current of self-criticism. That current is what keeps us getting better, or at least growing and changing. We can leave it to others to assess our overall worth as artists—just keep doing what challenges you and makes you happy and what keeps the bread on the table (if you do it for a living).

Thanks, Steve, Tom, Robyn, and Luca for chiming in with such a supportive spirit. I agree with what you're saying.