July 9, 2020
Bug’s Philosophy: What Makes a Truly Great Artist?
A statue seen at the Renwick Gallery in Washington D.C.Source: Renwick Gallery | Penelope Peru Photography
A significant portion of my adolescence was spent binge-watching speed art videos and tutorials. I gushed over Instagram artists, salivating at the idea of trading my hands for theirs — although trading brains would be more logical since creativity has a neurological basis.
Then, it finally dawned on me the other day. There’s an unspoken dichotomy between the hallmarks of a great artist and the skill level of a talented artist.
I was watching a video on the artistic works of Zdzislaw Beksinski, a Polish painter who transmuted the pain of coming to age at the height of WWII through his nightmare-esque paintings.
An exploration of Zdzislaw Beksinski’s paintingsSource: The Nightmare Artist | In Praise of Shadows
In an instant, I was captivated. Initially, I thought I owed my fascination to his sheer artistic ability: his attention to detail, the definition of his brushstrokes, his eye for color.
Naturally, I found myself in another spiral of questioning my own artwork…Especially since I’m not the greatest painter myself.
I quickly realized I wasn’t admiring his talent as a painter. Yes, his work is intricate and complex. I appreciate that it’s clearly been crafted by a highly-skilled painter.
But I’m not a painter, I’m more or less a casual cartoonist. I’m not looking to paint like Beksinski. Comparing his work to mine is a far greater stretch than comparing apples to oranges. Our artwork couldn’t exist in more polar worlds.
Instead, I recognized the roots of my admiration. I was captivated by the story each of Beksinksi’s paintings and his work as a whole told. The existential themes and symbols throughout his work — death, religion, malnutrition, gore, war — come together in harmony as a messenger of his perspective.
Beksinksi was outspoken against others projecting meaning onto his work. He wanted the paintings to simply be paintings, for the art to speak for itself, to remain interpretive for the viewer.
Yet, the consistent themes throughout his work clearly convey his personal narrative, whether he wants it to or not.
And that… That’s what makes a truly great artist. It’s not that Beksinksi was simply talented, his work is moving and unique. Regardless of whether you’re familiar with Beksinksi’s upbringing, it’s instantly apparent his paintings are brimming with self-expression.
Beksinksi’s art doesn’t tell his story plainly. The macabre elements conjured by WWII aren’t depicted in realism. Rather, his work is unbelievably existential and surreal. It’s his signature.
While your artistic abilities are central to the aesthetic appeal of your work, there’s a large body of incredible minimalists, cartoonists, and modern artists. It shows that you don’t have to be the most proficient painter to be a great artist.
If an outsider can look at your work and see through your eyes, that speaks volumes beyond subjective talent. Self-expression doesn’t always have to be delivered with surrealism. It can shine through sardonic comics, silhouettes, portraits, and landscapes.
Something as seemingly simple as the colors you use throughout your paintings or doodles can say a tremendous deal about how you regard the world around you, too.
So long as your art is an extension of yourself, you are a great artist.
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