A blanket of fast-moving Prussian blue clouds hovers over the land, with bits of Creamsicle-colored sunlight peeking through. A soft, muted rustle of wind makes the treetops of my scrub oaks sway ever so slightly. Then there is a low, peaceful roar as wind rushes between branches. The little family of squirrels chirrups as if to say, “Take cover, rain is coming! Get OUT of those trees, kids!” Suddenly the wind picks up to a true roar, the trees bending as a raptor glides overhead, its wings spread wide. Soon my safe, covered corner of the back porch on this old house will keep me dry as storm-watching, one of my favorite porch sports, begins. Nothing quite so poetic exists in my little world as the security of my dry little corner as chaos comes from the skies above.
Countless Hours of Study
I began storm-watching as a childhood pastime, from the garage of the little brown house I grew up in. Now, as an artist, I could study clouds and the effects of wind and light forever. Few artists take the time to understand clouds and the subtle differences in the sky, yet even the untrained eye can spot a sky that feels real, clouds that have the feel of movement, edges that indicate drops of moisture blending against the distant blues. John Constable (1776-1837) in England was, perhaps, the best. Rather than being seduced only by the surroundings of country roads, distant church steeples, and rows of trees — all of which he painted beautifully — he spent his life studying clouds, and it was the skies that made his paintings come alive. He would sit at his easel, painting en plein air (outdoors) for countless hours in rain, snow, blowing winds, and every imaginable condition, to master the art of skymaking.
Constable knew his subject deeply. He was not satisfied with painting the sky well enough to get by; he wanted to be the best sky painter in the world. He wanted to understand the conditions, because he knew the sky was the key to making his paintings speak the truth.
Obsession with Depth
Recently, as I interviewed artist Jill Carver for my podcast, we discussed Constable, and his obsession with knowing his subject so well. The great artists, she said, know their subjects deeply. You can tell instantly, instinctively, when an artist has taken the time to truly know and understand his or her subject.
The great marine painter John Stobart, a dear friend and a man who will go down in history as one of the great marine painters of all time, lives the subject he paints. His obsession with historic ships requires research and study so that the rigging of each rope, each mast, is historically accurate. When I asked why it matters, when the majority of people viewing the painting would never know the difference, he said, “I would know the difference, and anyone who knows ships would know the difference. I’m painting history, so history has to be accurate.”
Living It Instead of Pretending
A conversation with the great Western painter and sculptor John Coleman that took place on this very porch led to the same subject. We talked of painters trying to break into the Western art market who are pretenders, as opposed to real cowboys who have lived the lifestyle. He said, “I know horses, I’ve spent my life around horses, and anyone who does not live it can be spotted by anyone who knows.” He said the same about Native American paintings. “I’ll see paintings with the costume of one tribe and the blanket of another tribe. Someone who knows their subject deeply would never let that happen.”
This idea of thoroughness, mastery, and knowing one’s subject deeply certainly applies to our lives as artists — in fact, it really applies to every aspect of our lives. To be a master at one’s craft requires determination, relentless study, and deep curiosity. A true master is always learning his or her craft, whether an artist, architect, or apple grower.
I certainly would want a surgeon who is obsessed with her craft — not just understanding the basics, but mastering the highest level of competency, and feeding her curiosity with a life of learning and staying ahead of her colleagues.
I struggle with depth because of my intense curiosity. As a painter, I tend to get bored and want to try a lot of different things, play with different styles. Some weeks I’ll paint tight, others loose and brushy. There is value in experimentation, in making new discoveries and keeping things interesting. Yet I’d never make a living if I did not possess real depth as a publisher and marketer. Though I’ve done those things for almost three decades, I spend several weeks a year attending events, taking courses, reading, watching videos, and being around people who are at the top of their game because not to do so means going in reverse. The person who sits still is drifting backward. Imagine if your heart surgeon had not kept up since medical school 30 years ago. That’s not the person you want cracking your chest open.
Being a master of many things is difficult because mastery requires time. I think the word “master” is thrown around too loosely these days, and even I am guilty of it, yet a master is typically someone who has obsessively spent a lifetime in study and improvement of their craft until they’ve reached a level of true perfection. At my recent Plein Air Convention, I spotted artist David A Leffel sitting in on the sessions of other artists for three solid days. When I asked him about it, he told me he had learned a new and important painting lesson from each class he had attended. David has been doing art for almost eight decades, yet he is obsessed with getting better. This is the mark of mastery.
The best always rises to the top. People want the best, and some people can afford the best and will always seek it out. Whether you’re a gardener, a candle maker, or a bricklayer, people will seek out the best and pay a premium for it. It’s the difference between a $200,000 painting and a $2,000 painting of the same size.
Why Bother, Dad?
Now that my daughter has her first job, her mom and I are coaching her on how to be an exceptional employee. “Why?” she says. “No one else works that hard. No one else goes to the extra effort, why should I?” She then answered her own question when she told the story of the store manager looking over hours of security camera footage and firing several employees because they stood around doing nothing when the manager was out of sight. Thankfully, she kept her job because she was always working.
Doing It for Yourself
Being the best, seeking depth, seeking mastery, isn’t just about being the best for others, it’s about being the best for yourself. If you’re going to live a rich, fulfilled life, it starts with your own self-esteem, from knowing that you strive to be the best in the world at what you do. Yet getting my kids to understand this isn’t always easy. I’m sure my folks struggled with my slack attitude as a teen, but the message must have seeped in with repetition over time. And though I’m not the best, not where I want to be, I’m obsessed with finding ways to get better.
I’ll leave this corner of the porch soon, pull out my easel, and see if I can learn from rapid paintings of clouds. Constable did hundreds of them, and it shows in his work. I’ve got a long way to go, but learning is half the fun.
Depth is a concept rarely discussed, and it may not be a fit for you. There is no right or wrong. No judging here, but I wanted to share what I’ve recently started to learn, and the patterns I’m seeing in common among people who are the best at their craft. Not one spoke about doing it for the money — it was simply the pride of doing things right and doing them well.
Have a great day, and whatever you do today, do it with mastery.