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Bring Depth to Your Life

2018-05-23T06:48:08+00:00

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.

Seeking Depth

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.

Overused Terms

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.

Eric Rhoads

13 Comments

  1. Gabriele Baber May 27, 2018 at 4:40 am - Reply

    Having been an artist since I was a young child, many decades, I find I am still seeking to improve. Like you, some days I am tight, and other days, loose, always trying new things, and mediums.
    A young man made a comment at a recent plein air event I had just competed in, while I was asking input on my work from the talented man who had just won best of show.
    “You have the mindset of a beginner” he said.
    At first I was taken aback, and felt almost insulted. Did he think my work that of a beginner? Grr…My response was, “Well, I have been at this far too long to be a beginner.”
    He clarified, “No, your beginners mindset, shows you are open to learn, grow and improve.”
    A wise young man.

  2. Katherein Galbraith May 27, 2018 at 5:59 am - Reply

    Dear Eric,

    I love all your Sunday Coffee essays, but this one is extra special. First, I’ve waited a long time for you to interview Jill Carver, one of my favorite artists and people. I took her workshop last year (instead of going to the Plein Air Convention – sorry!) and am still learning from the lessons she taught. It was one of the best weeks of my life to study under Jill for a whole week.
    Secondly, and equally important to me, are your views on mastery and depth of understanding. You’re absolutely right! It’s the element that sets apart the best, and a lesson I learned a long time ago as a portrait painter. How on earth can you interpret someone you don’t even know? When I teach workshops, I consider it my primary goal to teach beginning artists to see, really see, what they want to paint. And advanced artists to see more. It’s when you begin to understand your subject that you are able to make choices about what it is that you want to say about it. Otherwise, it’s just a “movie poster,” to quote Burt Silverman.
    Thank you so much for yet another insightful essay. I always looks forward to reading your Sunday morning coffee emails. Just finishing the last of my coffee now…

    Yours sincerely,
    Katherine Galbraith

  3. M. Camille Day May 27, 2018 at 6:14 am - Reply

    I loved this post as it is so aligned with how I strive to be in both my artistic and personal life: s person of excellence. I hope I never lose the desire to keep reaching, learning and improving my skills. As so often happens with the “collective minds” of artists, last night I just started re-reading Richard Schmid’s Alla Prima in an effort to keep learning. He reminds us in his opening pages about doing it for the desire to paint because “we must”, because it’s our passion.

    Thanks for reminding us all to keep studying those clouds….

    • M. Camille Day May 27, 2018 at 6:17 am - Reply

      “a” person of excellence. See what I mean?

  4. August Burns May 27, 2018 at 7:01 am - Reply

    Dear Eric,

    Thank you for that thoughtful essay on depth and mastery. I agree that it is true dedication that can make the ordinary the exceptional. One small request. In an effort to correct that narrative that master painters are male, it would be appreciated if an effort was made to find and include at least some female artists when we write about general ideas and are looking for examples of work admired. I realize it is no easy task as most art by women has been lost to history, but as the father of a daughter, I am sure you have a stake in helping to change the narrative.

    Just as a piece of interesting information, did you know that as late as 1962, the art history “bible” Janson’s History of Art contained NO women. That’s zero. Vasari actually included many more in his Lives of the Artists, but even they were omitted by historians along the way. There’s a good reason that most people cannot even name more than 3 famous women artists let along include them in essays. We need to do our homework and reinstate the many masters lost along the way due to their sex.

    Thank you for your dedication to art.

  5. Sue HENSLEY May 27, 2018 at 7:52 am - Reply

    Eric, this one is outstanding! I also strive to be the very best artist, as well as the very best gardener. People tell me how wonderful my work is and I know that my garden is exceptional. As an artist, I read, watch videos, go to classes, go to work shops, PACE 17 and 18, and paint almost everyday – yet, in my heart, I know that my work is just OK. Because I love to paint so much, it is discouraging to know this. Can you offer any words of advice except to keep trying?

    You may have already seen my message about San Francisco, but if you didn’t read it, here it is again: I am so sorry to miss the convention next year, but I know San Francisco too well. We lived there for eight years, and my daughter still lives there. The designated areas for addicts to get free needles and “shoot up”, the large homeless population who are either on drugs or mentally ill, the designated area for the homeless to use as an outside toilet, and the crowded, expensive city have made me reach this decision. There are areas where a taxi driver won’t even take you. My daughter told me that she was recently going to a museum and she came upon a two block area where people where on drugs or were mentally ill, and they were doing most everything ugly and vulgar that people can do. She had to stop for a red light and was very scared. So sorry to have to miss.

  6. James Payne May 27, 2018 at 5:01 pm - Reply

    Eric, Thanks so much for such a beautiful post. Your thoughts and ideas really hit home for i also strive to do my best at anything I undertake to do.

  7. Jeancarlo Montjoy May 27, 2018 at 5:48 pm - Reply

    THANK ERIC I FEEL LEARNT SOME SOMETHING AND INTERESTED II WOUL LIKE TO READ MORE LIKE THS WEEK”S SUNDAY COFFEE WITH YOU
    ENJOYED READING
    LOOK FORWORD TO NEXT WEEK!

  8. Frances Pampeyan May 27, 2018 at 8:24 pm - Reply

    This is what I want for myself too. Thanks for sharing this. Brava to your daughter for doing well at her job.

  9. Deborah Donofrio May 27, 2018 at 9:54 pm - Reply

    I can really relate to the comments about real vs pretender. Living in the Sultanate of Oman as I do, I was setting up a still life with Omani silver work and weavings. I’d bought some dates to put with it based on how their color would look with the rug. My Omani painter teacher, Saud, came in and growled, “Those are Saudi dates.” I said, “But they’re the right color.” He gave me what I jokingly call the Omani Stare of Distain and brought out Omani dates from the kitchen. They really DO look quite different. I started to scatter them around the set up and Saud gave me a pitiful look as if to say, “I love you but you are truly hopeless.” “They need to go on a plate.” But I didn’t bring a plate. Saud went back into the kitchen and came out with a plate. I had lived here for five years at that time and still didn’t know these fine points of culture. 😁

  10. tahmina May 28, 2018 at 12:56 am - Reply

    Hello,

    I want to sale my painting oil on canvas.

    Thanks.
    Artist tahmina.

  11. Morgan Davis May 29, 2018 at 9:16 am - Reply

    What a beautiful article, Eric. Thanks for being such a huge inspiration for me. I have just purchased your marketing book because of how the promotional write-up was written. I know it will continue to inspire me further in my work….. Cheers, Morgan

  12. furtdsolinopv June 23, 2018 at 4:17 pm - Reply

    The next time I read a blog, I hope that it doesnt disappoint me as much as this one. I mean, I know it was my choice to read, but I actually thought youd have something interesting to say. All I hear is a bunch of whining about something that you could fix if you werent too busy looking for attention.

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