Are Artists Nuts?

Philip Koch, North Passage, oil on canvas, 45 x 60", 2011

Sometimes I think we artists all have a kind of "divine madness." Other times I think we're just nutty.

We spend an inordinate amount of time focused on what's happening in our studios. We stop reading books, watching television, or going to football games. Sometimes I realize it's been days since I spoke to anyone but my wife.

When I was a boy I had a dog, Vicky, a sweet mutt who looked like an Irish Setter having a bad hair day. She might have been my favorite member of the family. One thing she did fascinated me. My mother would get bones from the butcher and give one to the dog about once a week. To Vicki this was a big deal. She'd have at the thing the first day like it still needed subduing. Then the next few days she'd settle down and just gnaw away at the thing for hours a day. Curious, I'd pick up the bone after a day or two of her doggy administrations. Every molecule of edible material by then had been stripped away but that wouldn't stop her. Days more chewing ensued as she soldiered on, certain only a bit more chewing would somehow split the thing open to offer up some further delicious meaty goodness. It never did, but she'd usually do 4-5 days on the darned things before losing hope and interest. She was a living monument to determination.

When I was a young artist I worked like mad to learn everything so I could paint genuinely accomplished work. As years went by I learned it usually took way longer to make a painting reach its potential than I'd originally imagined.

So often we artists are asked the question at one of our exhibits "How long did it take you to paint this painting?' I have to bite my tongue not to say to the questioner "a heck of a lot longer than you're thinking."

Paintings most of the time have to be allowed to grow slowly to reach their deepest level of success. Sure sometimes you can get lucky on a small one and blast it out successfully in one sitting (though I almost always stand when painting). But most of time it's about going back into paintings, nudging them up a inch to a higher level, then going back in again later to do the same again, and then once again. On some of my large oil landscapes (like the one above) I can say with no fear of contradiction I've painted 40 different treatments for the sky before I got what I wanted. We're talking serious hours here.

This process is not the same as my old dog Vicky going after her bone, as it usually does in the end succeed in finally kicking the darned paintings up to that last plateau where they're fully realized, accomplished, surprising, authentic, and all those good things. But on any given day before you finally pull the thing off, you're not so different that that crazy dog, chewing and chewing away out of some inner faith working away at a piece will eventually (you're never sure when) pay off. I like to think of myself as insightful and inventive. Sometimes though like the dog I'm just too stubborn to quit. Maybe that's part of the work you have to do to make the magic happen.

The irony is that once you've invested so much of yourself and your time in making your art you're then really obligated to your paintings to find an audience for them. Having shows, doing the publicity, shipping, etc. is part of the dues you pay to make your original investment of time in your studio meaningful. Is it something of a vicious circle? In my darker moments I wonder if this all isn't some kind of runaway narcissism. Was Rembrandt insufferably self-absorbed? I don't know. I hope not. I like to think its possible to produce world class work and still be a rounded person who's involved with others and the outer world.

I do know Vicky wasn't a narcissist. She loved everyone in the family, was always happy to see us and was never too tired to keep one company on a walk through the woods. I'm pretty sure she loved her life most of the time with admirable doggy self acceptance. Determined, persistent, but also a real accept-life-on-its-own-terms kind of gal. If there was something good going on she's be sure to enjoy it. In her own way I think she had a very balanced life. Did I mention she was my favorite member of the family?


  1. A beautiful and moving narrative.

    Thank you for reminding me of the many life lessons I learned from my beloved dog.

  2. Thanks Joseph,

    There's something artful about the animals in our lives. Of course they can't paint, and wouldn't want to, but they live more in a world of the senses than we do normally. And that has to be at least part of the artist's job.


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