I recently read The Art Spirit by Robert Henri an American artist who, until I heard about the previously mentioned book, I didn’t even know existed. He was a representational but avant-garde (his subjects were less subdued and genteel and he rendered them with bold brush strokes) painter who became eclipsed by even more radical styles such as Cubism and Fauvism. His work hangs in several U.S. art museums and he was quite accomplished as a teacher. He is considered extremely pivotal in the development of American art (including female artists way back in the 1920s) and it is a scholastic shame that I had not been exposed to him much earlier in life. But I digress …
The book is actually comprised of his notes, critiques, and lectures to students as well as some articles and addresses he gave to students at various schools of art. While it is, to me, frustrating to read a critique of a work you cannot actually see the book, as a whole, is a good read and thought-provoking. His idea that you need to like something of your subject is, simultaneously, obvious and insightful.
In a previous post I talked about being fascinated with people. Yet I haven’t mentioned that I sometimes say “I hate people.” In thinking about Henri’s statements about liking your subject (and the fact that my subjects are typically a human) I think I need to revise my “hate people” comment. It’s not that I hate people. I just have high expectations of humanity subsequently I hate that people resort to low, hurtful, selfish behavior. I hate when people are behaviorally ugly. Or uncaring. Or unthinking. I hate that some people seem to delight in belittling others. That some people say that the homeless just need to get a job. Or that some people consider whole groups of individuals lazy or immoral just because they are different. I hate when people don’t live up to my ideals of what and how people should be. I am aware that might sound horribly arrogant. But I hate when I don’t meet that standard as well so it all works out, right?
Currently I am working on a painting of a child that I worked with at a mental health facility. I liked him a lot, and despite having worked with hundreds of children, he would make my top 10 list of clients I truly loved assisting. One of the qualities I always really liked about this kid is he didn’t lash out at others, as many children did, when he was overwhelmed or angry or sad. He might cry and he might be so angry that his body would actually shake but he wasn’t mean because of those intense feelings. I thought at the time, and still think, the restraint he exercised daily showed commendable character. The pose he has in my painting is based on a day when he was extremely frustrated (it’s hard to do age-appropriate schoolwork when you’ve spent years receiving sub-standard education as you bounce in and out of mental health institutions) and had put his head down to try to hide his tears and anger. After a brief period he dried his eyes, talked about his feelings, and tried again. He met my ideal that day and it is very easy for me to like him enough to paint.
Henri’s book contains an incredible number of suggestions on how to be a better artist – even the best artist you can be – whoever you are and wherever you are in the process of becoming a better artist. Only you can see like you do, feel like you do, are like you are … but there is always room for learning more and becoming a better artist. Some of his suggestions could apply to anyone – you can be a better manager … or mother … brother … human being – whoever and wherever you are. Other pieces of advice are specifically applicable to those trying to improve the level of their artistic expression. He has great ideas about painting clothes on a model and the not quite white white of the eye too. While I would recommend Henri’s book to anyone trying to practice a creative craft (he is a very good writer, too) it is of particular interest to visual artists.