Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Importance of role models

By Petar Meseldzija

Anima the Dreadful (Conan) - Oil on wooden board, 70X50 cm, 2015. Private commission.

Back in the eighties, when I was studying art at the Novi Sad Art Academy in Serbia, we had a teacher of Art History, an elderly lady who told us that, once in her youth, she had met Picasso, and even had got from him one of his famous painted vases as a present. She mentioned this little anecdote often, and not without a certain amount of pride and self-contentment. This little lady used to say: “No one is born without a mother and a father”. The message of her saying was obvious - every person, creator and artist, has his own roots, his creative parents, his springboard. We all had teachers, mentors and role models at the beginning of our art career who helped us and showed us the way, motivated and inspired us. Nothing comes out of nothing! As human animals, we begin the process of learning by mimicking others from our surroundings.

People often asked me how, or where, did I learn to paint. Well, as mentioned above, I did study painting at the art academy, but although the time I spent there was not wasted – on the contrary, it was extremely important for my artistic development - I can’t say that I have learned how to paint there. The prevailing approach to art and painting at that time was still very much based on and driven by the modernistic dogma that favored free expression above the technical skills. Therefore we were not encouraged to spend time and energy on learning the technical aspect of painting, but rather to open ourselves to free expression. Focusing on learning and developing the technical skills was not exactly prohibited, but many did look upon it with a contemptuous eye.

I learned to paint mostly by studying the works of my favorite artists, my role models, and by trying to learn from what I was able to see and understand. Some of my most important role models included Rembrandt, Johannes Vermeer, Gerard ter Borch, Ilya, Repin, Paja Jovanvic, Uros Predic, John Singer Sargent, Viktor Vasnetsov, Ivan Bilibin, Aksely Gallen-Kallela, Walt Disney, Arthum Rackham, Norman Rockwell, Frank Frazetta, Alan Lee, among many others.

Conan by Boris Vallejo and Frank Frazetta

When I was about 12 years old, I began spending more time on drawing. I copied works of various artists, mainly comic artists ( I was at that time very much into comic art, and wanted to become a comic artist). My mother used to drive me crazy by criticizing my urge to copy other artist’s work. She would say: “You copy too much! Why don’t you try to do something out your own imagination”? Her remarks were disturbing to me and have often hurt my feelings (hence I never forgot about it). It was frustrating. On one hand, I knew she was right. On the other, I felt I had to copy in order to learn. I was so unsatisfied with what I could do from my own imagination. I did not like very much the results - my own drawings seemed to be so imperfect, lacking in all sorts of things and qualities. The copies of other people’s work which I did looked much better, more convincing and mature. Little did my mother knew that I would later become quite myself and unique in my artistic expression. Somehow I managed to escape a dangerous trap of becoming somebody else’s epigone. I don’t know when, or how it happened, but it did happen – gradually I found myself. Moreover, I even became a kind of “preacher” of the importance of going after your own uniqueness, and becoming utterly yourself in your artistic expression.

However, I never forgot my role models. From time to time, I revisit their art in search of inspiration, motivation and consolation. Sometimes, I do cite them in my own work, or, now and then, even paint a homage to some of them. But I never copy their work anymore. I just allow myself to be inspired by their creations, but then let this impulse go through my own artistic inner prism, and try to create something uniquely mine…. as much as I am able to.

22 comments:

  1. Petar , those words of your mother's , were almost verbatim what my father said to me. Perhaps it is the unimpressed, Eastern European mindset, that doesn't give credit without merit. this mindset, i am very thankful for, for it is what motivated me to get better. what would I be if my father was impressed with my copies? i always sight this experience, as a supreme motivator , and it doesn't hurt that my father was my greatest role model.

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    1. Well,Marc,I know now why my mother criticized my urge to copy other artist's works - she knew it is not good not to be / become yourself. She wanted to see me in my drawings, she was a little impatient and did not think much about the necessity of going through a learning process. As for my father, I wish I could say that he was my role model, well perhaps when I was a little boy, but not later when I really needed his sport. He was always opposed to my wish to become an artist. He did provide, together with my mother, a solid material foundation for his family though, which is, needless to say, very important. Fortunately I received much support and motivation from my mother. I believe without her support my artistic development would be more painful and complicated.

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    2. i cant say my parents supported the career choice. but that obstacle , i believe , was of benefit to me early on. i think that my tendency would be to spend most of my time in the clouds, yet their reminders of our terrestrial origins , so to speak , kept my feet planted on the ground. i feel like I got a bit of both worlds in me. i think this is what makes the depth in art, A greater variety of experience and environment . if it was all easy, perhaps , i wouldn't be doing what i am doing.

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    3. I understand, Marc. In your case it worked well. You were lucky enough to get from your parents that what you needed the most. Not all of us can say that. Throughout my whole life I have silently suffered because my father did not show interest in the thing that was most precious to me - my art. But, time heals all wounds, as they say. One must accept the facts eventually...

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  2. I think that the essence of style with all artists is what they love and copy or try to emulate is taken in by their mind. As you begin creating your works the art you create will inevitably have touches of Frazetta, Vallejo, etc. until eventually most of that stuff will fall off over the years and your "style" will emerge from the morass into something uniquely you. Unfortunately, some artists can't break their initial desire to copy and become just duplicators of others. You Petar, are not that, and your style is incredible and a joy to behold!

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    1. MIchael, I think there are some very important aspects within our set of abilities that can support, or undermine our artistic talent and its development. Believing in yourself is therefore crucially important for an optimal development of the talents and the course of one's the career. Unfortunately some people just do not believe enough in themselves, and if such a person doesn't have somebody to help him deal with this problem, he might never be able to fully find and express himself. To have a good, wise teacher, or mentor, is very important in that respect. I was fortunate enough to have a couple of at the very beginning of my art career.

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    2. Thank you for a very good and insightful post, Petar. This comment caught my interest as well and for someone who feels he is lacking that self-belief, what would you say is the best way to aquire it? I went to art school but never really found a mentor there, I have been studying my role-models through their work and made copies and studies, like yourself, and sometimes I still feel like doing it for the same reason you gave, it looks so much better than what I can accomplish on my own. But there is that voice in my head telling me to follow my own path, and I know I have to sooner or later, it might be difficult, but it is the only path worth following. And I do produce my own work, I guess it all just comes down being able to look at it without being overly critical and self-deprecating, and instead see the value in my own way of doing things?

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    3. Hi Staffan- The lack of self-belief can be a big problem sometimes. In some case the only way to deal with it is through psychotherapy. However, I don't think you have to go to a psychotherapist - you are after all an artist, the psychotherapist is already in you. :-) Creating art, as any other creative process, is often a very good therapy. But I understand you very well - the feeling of not being good enough doesn't leave you…. You are good, Staffan, your work is good! I have seen your website last night, and it is good! And, I think you are a painter, more than an illustrator (this might be an important detail)! And, in my modes opinion, there is one important thing you still need to do - you need to get to know and subsequently find a way to express you own Symbolic Life. You need to find your own world of symbols and to stay, reside in it, if you understand what I mean!? If you are able to adjust your artistic expression to your own symbolic life that already exists within you, your work will become even better. You will have a feeling that you do that what you are supposed to do. Things will start making more sense and even start happening on their own. You will have more pleasure in the working process, the feeling of awe will pop up occasionally and you will be surprised and elated by it. It will help you dig deeper and become more accustomed to your own symbolic life, you own, personal symbolism. Eventually and rather spontaneously the ways of expressing your unique symbolic life will take more articulated shape. Gradually you will be able to express yourself more fully in your art and your life as well, and so, you will start living your art! This will give you a feeling of becoming more complete as a person, more ONE, instead of being fragmented. New paths, doors will start opening right in front of you… Similar thing has happened to me, and the turning point in my career was the creation of The Legend of Steel Bashaw… which, as you might know, took me some 16 years to accomplish. …Now, the question is – how do I get to know the shape of my own symbolic life, my own personal symbolism…and eventually my own personal myth!? Well, it is often presented to you in your dreams, and fantasies – analyze your dreams! Also, ask yourself the following question – name, for instance, your favorite 3 movies, 3 books, 3 pieces of music, 3 paintings (pieces of art), 3 poems, etc. Then, try to find out what links them, what are the most important aspects that are present in all of them, or the most of them…And, there, you might begin to understand more about your own, inner symbolic life. ..I hope this makes some sense!

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    4. It makes a lot of sense, thanks! I think what you wrote about finding your own world of symbols just opened up a door for me. I have always loved mythological themes in art and music, but have struggled to create art based on the mythological worlds that I have read about. It is as if they have been tapped so much that there is nothing left for me to create anything original from. But reading what you said about beginning with your own symbolic life, I am starting to think that I started at the wrong end. I think the poetic way to say it is that a myth is only as empty as the person reading it. If I do not know which symbols speak to me and what I care about, it is only text. You need to know what you care about before, so that you bring something to what you read as well. I have tried to analyze what the things I like have in common before, but never in this way, and starting out I can already see some clear patterns so thank you once again for taking the time, it means a lot!

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    5. Good, Staffan!!! I am very glad to hear that!

      By the way, you have inspired me with your question!I might dedicate a whole blog post to this important subject matter. Thanks! :-)

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    6. Thanks for your wise words, Petar.

      An article from you on this subject would certainly be welcome. Even after several years of drawing, I still keenly feel the treacherous struggle of "finding myself" as an artist.

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    7. You're welcome, Daniel! As soon as I find the time, I will seriously think about writing that article.

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  3. I had a similar experience in the late 90's going to the Maryland Institute of Art. I went there thinking I would learn to paint and have a strong background in illustration. I was wrong. Although I did a lot of work and found pieces of me it wasn't until many years later that I learned (and still learning) to paint on my own from looking at artists I love. I think nothing replaces the experience of seeing a painting up close, but I would imagine (because I never have done this) seeing a painting created step by step in front of your eyes is probably even more valuable. I envy the old masters and their apprenticeships. I wish that kind of thinking of helping the younger generation of artists would still be around. It would get those younger people further along and not have to make so many more mistakes along the way.

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    1. I understand what you say, Luis. Earlier in my career, I often regretted the fact that I did not have a master painter next to me who could reveal to me the secrets of the art of painting. It would indeed spare me many mistakes and headaches. Later as I grew older, I started to realize that my own stile and approach to painting has emerged out of a lack of technical support and the subsequent need to find my own answers to all the questions that my developmental path has presented to me. So, one never knows (before the very end, I suppose) whether the lack of something in our life was good, or bad for us and our development. It's a very tricky question...

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  4. My visual perception teacher told the class the same story of her Art Teacher in Novi Sad ! About her meeting Picasso and getting a vase , she told us that her class always joked about her being so fond of that story wasn't because she got a vase but because Picasso was a well known seducer :D !

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    1. Well, then your teacher and me had the same teacher! :-) Funny, the world is small... And, I am sure Picasso was indeed an excellent seducer.

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  5. Petar, thank you for the post. It seems most of artists have the same experiences. I think your words are important an revealing to me. Find our symbolic life!!! Oooh that is a great deal. Thank U

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    1. You're Welcome!Expressing and living one's own symbolic life is very important indeed!

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  6. I could have written this. My college experience was almost identical to yours. There was no focus on -- and no teaching of -- technical skill. In desperation, I started watching Bob Ross episodes, just so I could watch someone putting paint on canvas. I've since improved quite a bit, and people constantly compliment my color. I credit it entirely to Bob Ross.

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    1. Bobb Ross is perfectly ok if you are able to "separate the wheat from the chaff". :-)

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