Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Aisha's Questions

Art student Aisha Ling wanted to interview me for a class project, so I sent her all my previous interviews and asked her to come up with two questions I haven't been asked yet.

James Gurney writing "The Artist's Guide to Sketching," 1981, age 23
Have you ever faced criticism, and how do you deal with it?

Even before the age of social media, every artist or writer who has ever put their work out in the public has had to deal with both praise and criticism. If you don't receive either, it means no one cares about your work. The first book that I co-wrote, The Artist's Guide to Sketching, only got one published review and we received about five fan letters, and that was it. That was the only feedback, really, but that was normal back then for a book like that.

Now of course, in the age of Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, comments come flooding in. It's best not to be too concerned about either praise or criticism. Being attached to praise can be as damaging as being obsessed with critical comments. 

I've been pretty lucky because I try to give out positive, constructive energy, and that's mostly what I get back. You can't please everyone, and that's OK. Sometimes criticism is a matter of taste: not everyone likes everything that any artist produces. But if professional reviewers or smart amateurs offer a thoughtful, valid critique given in good faith, I take the comments seriously and see if I can make my work better. It's rare that someone will point out a weakness in my work that I'm not already well familiar with. I'm my own severest critic. The person whose artistic judgment I seek out most often is my wife, who I can always count on for giving me honest feedback.

How do you overcome artist's or writer's block?

I've never had an issue with slumps or blocks, probably because my earliest work experiences (painting backgrounds for animated films) didn't allow for them. I had to produce 11 paintings per week or I'd be fired. The same was true with my freelance illustration work. There was a lot riding on me producing a good result on a deadline. Working on a schedule like that means you can't choke. If something isn't working well, you keep working it until it succeeds.

Some people complain that it's as hard to finish something as it is to start it. You often hear art mentors say that you have to quit working on a painting to avoid overworking it. But I think that's usually unhelpful advice. Too many paintings and book projects are abandoned too soon or undertaken without enough experimentation and planning. 

If there is any way to make a picture better, it's worth considering. Many projects bring you to a place where you want to abandon them, and that's the time to redouble your effort to make them better. Sometimes that means starting fresh or wiping down the canvas, or reshooting video. But you can't do that forever. It's good to have a deadline to work toward so that you're not stuck with an endlessly polished rock.
Thanks, Aisha!


Steve Gilzow said...

This reminds me of a long-ago cartoon in The New Yorker by David Sipress. A man sits at his laptop as the Grim Reaper enters the room. The man looks up and says, “Thank goodness you’re here — I can’t accomplish anything unless I have a deadline.”

In regard to the post photo — nice pipe smoke circling the young author’s head!

bernicky said...

Collage artist and curator Danielle Krysa published a book called Creative Block which features many artists explaining how they try to tackle the problem. For my own part I have a motto which has always served me well: Good Enough. An extra ten hours on something is unlikely to get better results that the first 40. There is a point where it's all diminishing returns. Good enough is better than not finished.

Lou said...

This post reminded me to ask you something James. I've read a few snippets about the ("...Sketching") book (like this about fan letters and critiques). And I located a copy and had you sign it for me. But someday I'd like to read a more comprehensive story about it. Something along the lines of who came up with the idea, how long you guys worked on it. The division of labor. How you found and approached the publisher. If it ever made you any money. Lessons learned, etc. I think it would make for an entertaining and educational read.

James Gurney said...

Lou, thanks for asking. I have plenty of stories to tell and memories to share, also a lot of cassette tapes. You might have heard the podcast about riding the rails which has some first hand adventures that led to the book. Someday I'll set down and tell more stories about it.