Brandon Long, Creative Director
As an artist, I strongly believe you should look at the work of other artists. There’s no better way to see what’s out there and what’s been done before. I’ve heard some artists claim that they purposefully avoid seeing others’ work because they want their work to be more “pure” and “uninfluenced by outside sources,” which I think is an error in judgement. How can you make new and creative new work if you have not seen what has come before? For artists – viewing, evaluating, and comparing your work to others isn’t just recommended – it’s practically your duty. In this article, I’m going to talk a bit about not only looking at others art, but comparing it to your own.
Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” He felt that comparing yourself to others, whether it be their success, their possessions, or even (in our case) their artistic abilities will only lead to dissatisfaction and unhappiness. I will say that is true most of the time, and perhaps especially true among artists. However, I feel that the life of the artist (and thereby the development of their skills and abilities), is more of a journey than a destination. I like to consider the works of artists that came before (and even our contemporaries) as roadmaps to help guide us on the journey.
If you ever want to be humbled about your work, visit an art museum with a large collection. Spend the day just looking at the art on display. Look at works from all periods of art, not just the contemporary or “modern art” section. Take it all in and think about how your art might stack up against the competition. What would your work look like hanging on the walls? Of course, your work would most likely be placed in the contemporary art wing of the museum, but how would it look among the old masters, the Impressionists, or the artists of the Renaissance?
I’ve always secretly wanted to sneak one of my works into a major museum just to see how it might look on the walls with all that great lighting. While I’d like to think that they have “magic lights” that make everything look far more incredible than it actually is, I’m fairly certain that even the best museum lights wouldn’t be able to transform my efforts into a masterpiece.
I’ve often said that a great art show will either make you want to go to the studio and get to work or give up entirely. As both a viewer and artist, you are approaching the work from a different perspective than your average art viewer. When I look at a painting (or any other work of art), I always think – How did they do this? How is this piece put together? How is it layered? What materials did they use? And perhaps most importantly – What ideas can I use from this piece?
The art that I love the most is the art that I find I can “borrow” ideas from. Whether it’s the mood of the piece, the technical aspects, or even the compositional elements, I’m always looking for something to inspire my own work. I’ll be honest, some work just leaves me a bit cold. Not because the art is bad by any stretch of the imagination, but because it has nothing to do with me. Quite often, it’s just because I don’t like the materials. I’m not attracted to most of the American “industrial sculptors” of the 20th Century because I just don’t find the appeal in their materials. Big hunks of straight, welded steel jutting out of the ground, carefully planned lines, no texture, bright solid colors – it just doesn’t work for me. I don’t own a welder, don’t have the budget for choreographing a studio to help me assemble massive I-beams, don’t have the room to build such things, and no place to store them. These are great works of art, but since I can’t borrow ideas from them, I’m not that interested.
When comparing your art to others, it is important to consider the context that surrounds their creation. It would be unfair to compare a Mondrian with a Michelangelo without considering their context. You have to think about what was going on in the world when these works were created? What materials were available? What artistic ideas had been explored before its creation? Who was the intended audience? Were the two artists being compared aware of one another’s work? In a comparison between a Mondrian and a Michelangelo, the Michelangelo would always win if context were not considered. But if you consider the context and the development of painting over the years, it becomes a much tighter race. Even though Mondrian’s work would no doubt be easier to master, it was his relevant ideas and approaches to composition that made his work revolutionary. Although it seems easy now, it would be hard to imagine a Mondrian painting if he hadn’t done it first.
You must also consider context when comparing your work to others. You need to think about what current art trends your work is embracing (or avoiding). You must consider what elements of your work are influenced by your predecessors. Although it is important to borrow from those that came before you, what does your art bring to the table that one would consider new or different than what we’ve already seen?
As artists, it is important to compare our work against the work of the world’s best artists, but we must do so in such a manner that we do not become crushed when we come up lacking. Believe it or not, your work might not compare too well against the greatest art in history – and that’s OK.
Although I generally hate sports analogies, I’m going to try to spin one… When I was a kid playing basketball, I dreamed of becoming pro. All the kids did. They still do. When watching Little League games, you’d swear there were national titles on the line if you observed the reactions of the parents. I wanted to play like Michael Jordan. I wanted to play with Michael Jordan. I hadn’t really considered in all these fantasies that there might be a chance that I’d have to play against Michael Jordan. How would a 12 year-old me fare against six-time NBA champion Michael Jordan? Probably not too well… When we compare ourselves against the heavyweights of the art world, it’s the same thing.
Although we aspire to reach the heights of greatest artists that have come before, we must remember that we are not directly competing against them. The only person we are truly in competition with is our self and our own expectations. While you look at other artists as inspiration and role models, you need to remember to look at your own work and measure your progress throughout your journey. Do you look back at a piece you made five years ago with a bit of regret? Yes? Congratulations! You are making progress. While it can be painful to look back at where we’ve been before and the shortcomings of our earlier artistic selves, the reward is knowing that we are much better now than we were then. That’s the most beautiful thing about being an artist – there is no expiration date. You just keep growing, learning, and evolving as you get older.
Don’t let comparison be the thief of your joy. Let it propel you further as you become the best artist you can possibly be.