A Matter of Style

6 03 2012

Most artists seek financial reward and critical recognition for their work, and this is reasonable and understandable. However, success comes at a cost. The “successful,” artist quickly finds him or herself pushed into the “style” trap.

The typical gallery owner, patron, collector, critic or curator has too much invested in their favored artists and doesn’t want them to change their styles, at least not radically. Just imagine if Jasper Johns suddenly began to paint like Thomas Kinkade? What if Jeff Koons decided to devote himself to needlepoint? Or what if Sean Scully began to paint circles instead of color slabs? Breaking away from a signature style is always a risk for the artist and those who benefit from his or her work.

Of course an artist need not be a superstar to fall into the style trap. It can happen to any artist at any level and it is often self-imposed.

Style is the achilles heel of the artist and art-making just as it is the unavoidable emergent personal signature of the the artist—the sum of his or her preferences of palette, technique, material, tools, method, and purpose.

But if style is unavoidable it is also true that there are two kinds of style. The first is that which naturally arises from the work—from the authentic expression of the artist. The second form is an imposed style. This is the calculated application of technique and embellishment that is principally intended to enhance sales and build brand identity. It is this imposed style that threatens true creativity, growth and artistic integrity. Likewise, it easily becomes a crutch—a formula.

Almost always it is a mistake for the artist to try and develop a style, appropriate one or substitute technique in place of an authentic style. The thinking and genuine artist knows that style will take care of itself if only he or she does their work with passion and integrity.

Rembrandt knew how to paint light masterfully but he did not seek to turn this skill into an imposed style and marketing gimmick. Instead he used his tremendous ability to make pictures that today rank among the greatest paintings ever made. Thomas Kinkade, on-the-other-hand has promoted a facile technique into a style and brand—the painter of light—and thereby gained great financial success as a marketer. However, his reputation as a painter is nowhere near that of Rembrandt.

© 2012 Michael Maurer Smith


The Corporate Artist and Designer

12 12 2010

Today, the nexus of money, commodity and culture has erased any significant difference between design (the applied arts) and fine art. The long standing definition of design as a service performed strictly for a contracted purpose is no longer adequate. Likewise, the idea that fine art is supposed to be (or even can be) strictly an expression of the artist’s vision is dubious and in the practical sense was never really true.

As evermore painters, printmakers, photographers, sculptors and designers, with their newly minted BFA and MFA degrees, emerge from the university, they are smacked with the need to make a living. After spending, 20, 30 maybe even 50 thousand dollars getting their degrees they want to make them pay, they are eager for an art/design career—to get into the “business.”

Artists have always had to contend with the market. If they were to do more than amuse themselves they had to secure patronage. In western society that once meant the church or King. Today the art market is a swirl of corporate and private collectors, museums, dealers and online selling. The concept of art-making has been overtaken by art production, marketing and branding and this has encouraged artists to adopt a calculated and scripted approach characteristic of following a “design brief.” The contemporary artist does a market analysis, and shapes their work accordingly.

So today the designer and the fine artist swim in the same ocean—our capitalist/consumer society where everything has its price—where every thing is a commodity, including reality. The large mural painted for the lobby of the corporate headquarters is as much a part of the corporation’s image and identity as is its logo and stationery system and both the painter and the designer will have been commissioned/contracted to do their part.

Ironically many designers want to be seen as artists. They want their work to be as self-expressive as they perceive the work of the painter to be—to display a personal signature—a brand. Likewise, many artists are willing and eager to make pieces for corporate clients according to the client’s terms and specifications, as if working from a design brief.

© 2010 Michael Maurer Smith

On the Value of Painting

28 07 2010

In her essay, Creatives at a Crossroads, which appeared in the 27 July 2010 edition of the Huffington Post, writer Janelle Brown relates how the internet has glutted the creative market with work which is available free or at ridiculously low prices. The overall effect has been to make it nearly impossible for artists to survive from their art alone, no matter how good they may be. This has been most devastating for writers, photographers and musicians, whose work depends upon reproduction for its use and dissemination.

What this implies is an increased value of the hand-made work of art. As a painter I appreciate this.

Paintings, specifically those done by hand by an artist, using actual paint upon a physical surface, are unique in their singularity. They may be photographed, digitized and turned into representations however the original painting remains a single physical object—an original. Therein lies its value—a potentially a high value.

Consequently the reality of painting as a life choice, act and object is increasingly meaningful, valuable and important in a world that is becoming ever more digital and virtual.

© 2010 Michael Maurer Smith

The Artist’s Choice

19 07 2010

I recently heard of an artist who was asked why he painted abstract (non-representational) paintings. He answered “it is because I want to make something entirely new.” I share his sentiment. Painting in the abstract usually results in something not seen before—a new creation.

Metatopograph 01_2010, acrylic on canvas, 10" x 16", by Michael Maurer Smith

Conversely, painting in a representational manner forces cognitive dissonance upon the artist—the conflict and interplay of the impulses of creative expression and the demands of story-telling and narrative.  Of course painting abstractly is the representation of feelings and values and is therefore as “realistic” and “representational” as any other form of painting.

However, it is the representational artist who must resort to using those techniques necessary to render “appearances” that are recognizable as things, such as a dog, a tree, or a mountain. This results in a picture that unavoidably becomes a story about something other than itself. It divides the attention of the artist, and the viewer, between that which is represented or suggested, and the actuality of the painting as its own subject and meaning.

Of course the wholly abstract picture—without a hint of representation and realism—is also more than it appears. It is unavoidably a commentary on past and current aesthetic theory and a response to the culture in which it was created. Minimalism and Abstract Expressionism, for example, are both genres of abstract art which position themselves in the story of art history.

Art, and specifically painting, is inclusive of both the abstract and representational. It cannot be otherwise since all painting is to some degree abstract. Rendering the illusion of the observed world on a flat surface requires selectivity/abstraction—what to include and what to leave out. Likewise, it requires the use of perspective which demands recording size relationships in a manner that fools the eye into believing what it sees. We know the rails of the railroad track do not actually converge in the distance but they must in a picture, if it is to be convincing and appear realistic.

The issue is not whether the wholly abstract painting is a more pure form of painting. It is one of purpose. If the artist wants the meaning of her or his painting to inhere in itself and its making, then a decidedly abstract approach will better accomplish this. However, if the artist wants to tell a story using visual aid (painting) then he or she must communicate using culturally shared symbols and shapes—realistic appearing images germane to the story being presented—images that the intended audience will recognize.

What it comes down to is the choice of the artist to be a creator of new expressions and forms or an interpreter and story teller. Each approach is valid and valuable and no artist is exclusively one or the other. It’s more of where an artist falls on the continuum.

I prefer to paint as an abstractionist because the act of painting—the process and journey—is one of total expressive freedom and discovery. I like the feeling of aliveness and excitement as I face a blank canvas without knowing where the journey will take me.

Seeing Your Painting

26 05 2010

When I’m painting what I’m doing isn’t always apparent to me. In fact it may be years or even decades before I recognize what I’ve really painted. Even then I’m not sure. I suspect this is so for most painters.   

Peach Tree Morning 1, 24" x 24", Michael Maurer Smith


I am now 60 and have been painting since I was a boy. My formal art education came during the early seventies, just after my discharge from the Marine Corps. My goal had always been to be artist.   

As an Art Education major, I took classes in ceramics, jewelry, painting, drawing, printmaking, teaching methodology and art history. For my teaching minor I chose psychology. In fact it became my second major.  Later I would do my Masters degree in Graphic Design. The result was a good grounding in Art, Design and the Social Sciences, seasoned by my previous experiences in the Marine Corps.   

Now I look at the work I’ve done over the past 30 years and often see things in it for the first time.   

My principal mediums are painting and photography. I find them to be complimentary. Photography lets me capture and express what I see while painting lets me manifest that which I feel and see in my mind’s eye. Both practices sharpen my awareness and observational skill.   

The painter constructs, the photographer discloses. Susan Sontag   

In my paintings it is apparent I have the sensibility of the landscapist even though I rarely paint naturalistic interpretations. This is by choice. I draw proficiently and I can paint form convincingly. I simply prefer to paint what are commonly called “abstracts.” Photography satisfies my needs for representation, replication and documentation.   

The very physicality of paint and its handling requires the artist to be active and participatory—to manifest the image from inside themselves into a real object outside themselves, something that other people can see. Photography by comparison is a more passive activity. It depends on things outside the photographer that can be photographed—appropriated for the purposes of expression and interpretation.   

My painting is sometimes like writing a note—the quick reminder of something I’ve seen or felt. Sometimes it flows as a stream of consciousness—intuitive, compelled and direct. At other times it is measured, controlled and calculated. Yet almost always the sense of landscape is apparent. The geometric forms allude to the imposition of human concepts of order and culture. The colors suggest atmosphere and temperature and the amorphous shapes and textures suggest continents, valleys, mountains, boulders or forests. The overlapping and juxtaposition of forms creates the sense of space, movement and time.   

I want my pictures to be things. I want them to be made up of marks that are physically and individually self-sufficient. Howard Hodgkin   

I did not set out to be a painter of landscapes—abstract landscapes of my inner visions—metatopographs (a term I coined). I became one by listening to my inner voice and what my paintings asked me to do.   

What does your artwork tell you? What do you discover when you look at the work you’ve done over the past year, decade or several decades? What does it ask you to do?   

© 2010 Michael Maurer Smith

Big Name, Big Art

10 05 2010

If you only paint little paintings can you become a big name artist? 

In the Art magazines and online, it is impossible to appreciate the actual scale of a painting. This is a hindrance and a boon. Two identically sized photographs of different paintings, appearing side-by-side on the same page, can be of two paintings that are immensely different in actual size and scale. One might be 8 feet by 8 feet square and the other 4 by 4 inches. So it is that on the printed page there is a kind of aesthetic parity that is not possible in actuality. However, in the gallery one discovers that most of the paintings by big name artists are big. 

Making It Big © 2010 Michael Maurer Smith


Some big name artists—like Susan Rothenberg, Jasper Johns or David Hockney sometimes work small. Hockney, has recently been drawing on an iPad. But, in the main, the big namers tend to work much larger than easel size. Some go gargantuan like Julie Mehretu with her recent mural for Goldman Sachs. It measures eighty feet long and twenty three feet high! It was allegedly commissioned for more than 5 million dollars. That’s real big! 

During the Renaissance easel painting became popular. As the merchant class grew there was an increased demand for modest sized paintings to adorn the walls of less than palace-sized dwellings. 

One sees something similar today in places like Santa Fe, where hundreds of galleries sell art ranging in quality from la tourista to middling to sublime—art made by relative unknowns as well as some of the biggest names in the Art world. Most of it is at sizes small enough to fit in a Prius, Bimmer (proper slang for a BMW) or the overhead luggage compartment of a 777. However, the high end galleries do show big works by big name artists. 

Ok, but what does all this say about the quality of the work? And does it matter? 

Let’s say I have a doodle by Cy Twombly. Something he did on a notepad while taking a phone call—does it have a comparable aesthetic and collectible value as one of his big canvases? Should it? If the photograph of Cy’s doodle is published next to photograph of one of his really big canvases in one of the Art magazines, but without dimensions given, will a qualitative aesthetic difference be discernable? 

It seems that making big art has much less to do with aesthetics and quality and more to do with marketing, self-assertion, ego and impact. It says, “if I have the time, space and money to paint big I must be an important and serious artist and if you can afford to buy my big art you must be an important collector.” And so the cycle is established—the artist paints big paintings to attract the big monied collectors who will buy the big art in order to assert their taste and power and as an investment. And thus big reputations are made. 

© 2010 Michael Maurer Smith

Is This a Painting?

23 04 2010

Is this a painting? It has a frame—in this case the edges of the square. It has color and marks that show deliberate drawing and gesture and which suggest texture and depth. Likewise, it shows evidence of design and aesthetic considerations in its making. However, what you see here was done on a computer. The original exists as pixels, as binary code, as a computer file.

Lap Lavender © 2009 Michael Maurer Smith

It is a common prejudice that digital paintings (if they may be called that) are less legitimate than paintings made using traditional materials and tools. Many people hold that “real” paintings must be made using paint, applied to a surface. They believe paint is only color pigments suspended in a binder which allows it to be spread with a brush, knife, stick, finger or some other tool.

But must paint be a physical substance—something that can drip, glop, gloop, color and stain. Must it have a distinct odor and viscosity? Or is paint whatever permits color to be applied in a painting-like manner—something that will result in an image that can be viewed by the artist and others?

Many people would argue that a real painting must be physical—that it must it be in fixed form on paper, canvas or board—something that can be hung, bought, sold or traded?

Of course a painting done on a computer can be printed. It can even be printed on canvas and have a real varnish applied. The problem is the thorny issue of what is the original? Is it the original file or the first printing of that file? If multiple prints are made of the original file are they all originals?

The fact is today’s computers permit pressure sensitive and gestural applications of line and color. One can draw or paint using one’s finger on a touch screen or using a stylus or mouse. And compositions can be built up using multiple layers and the equivalent of electronic glazes and transparency.

So, is it really painting if the painter doesn’t use paint to make the painting?

What is your opinion?

© 2010 Michael Maurer Smith