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.