What makes an artist a great artist, and why do I care to investigate this question further?
About six months ago I began to transform myself from a frustrated design consultant into an increasingly happier artist. There is a side of me, a dominating side, which pushes me to do better and to improve myself. But what to develop into, is my question? What makes an artist a great artist?

Four components

I have gathered four components which I think contribute significantly. Each of these four components on their own does not make a great artist. Nor does the total mastering of a single ingredient makes a great artist. Any of the four elements I visualise in my mind a scale from zero to five.

In this post I tackle the first two: skill and story. In a later post I write about how the reinvention of self and the innovation of the expressive form I consider important as well.

Various combinations are possible that makes a great artist great. With time, the right character traits and opportunity, these combinations result in art that stands out. Now I do exclude popularity and even economic viability from my equation. Demand I find, particularly in this day and age, very much subject to politics. Politics, I believe, should not have any or a minimal role to play in the judgement of art. The economic status of an artist is tightly linked to the demand for the artworks itself. Therefore, I ignore that aspect as well.

Skill

Skill ranges from picking up a brush, or any tool for that matter, for the first time to total control. Sometimes an artwork seems very easy to make, a few brushstrokes or some splatters of paint onto the canvas. Sometimes it is just that: easy to make and low on the skill scale.

Then there are works which clearly show a master at work. A piece of furniture with perfect joints and the grain in the right direction. An object that is either low on skill scale nor high on the skill scale alone makes great art. Something misses, and I further investigate another essential ingredient.

Storytelling

To tell a story within an artwork is about to deal with for example human experiences, values, questions, dilemmas and so forth. As a great artist, one shows a combination of those above in one work. For example, one wants to depict bravery. A muscle pumping hero which totally isolated from a context likely fails to bring the message across. The same hero who stands on top of a dragon becomes already more convincing. If the hero has lost an arm, we may assume there has been a serious battle going on prior. The size and colour of the dragon matters and so also that of the hero.

The combination of the appropriately chosen style, symbols, props, colours, setting, position and all that, is part of the story. Each and every choice matters and a skilled storyteller understand which choices have an impact on what kind of audience. What makes up a good story or a high-quality story is another matter.

Skill and storytelling

Immediately we can distinguish four combinations if we take the extremes:

  • low on skill and low on story
  • low on skill and high on story
  • high on skill and low on story
  • high on skill and high on story

As I wrote above, sometimes something looks like it is low on skill, but it could be quiet the opposite. Low on complexity does not equal low on skill. How to measure and value skill is not an easy feat. Skill is often measured by how realistic it looks, in the case of visual arts. But I would argue that the preciseness of a pencil line, it starts and ends where it should, is a better measurement.

Pablo Picasso self-portrait- 1972

I support this because only with practice one can draw a line correctly starting from the right place, ending in the right place, with the right thickness, coarseness, angle, curve, proper hardness, colour, thickness and more. The looking-good part is a matter of taste, recognition, education and willingness to accept something unknown.

Kazimir Malevich – ‘Suprematist Composition- White on White’, oil on canvas, 1918, is a work that looks low on skill and might indeed require little training to accomplish. This work was done in 1918 and the world back then was very different from the world we now live in. Malevich story was not depicted so much within the borders of the picture frame. The story happened on the outside, within the society where this work was novel to put it gently.

Kazimir Malevich – ‘Suprematist Composition- White on White’, oil on canvas, 1918

Regardless of whether we like the painting or not, the story Malevich told was a story about us. It was a story about how we understand a combination of cloth and paint to become a painting, or not. In essence, Malevich painted a blank canvas onto a blank canvas. He might have asked the question, when becomes the white canvas a painting?

Through time more of these, what could be called minimalistic works, have been produced. In my opinion, to ask a similar question becomes redundant and lazy. Malevich asked the question, told the story, get over it and move on. However, the search for the essence could result in a minimal expression and then also here the story becomes of crucial importance.

What if there is a story, but you as a viewer, do not see it? We do not even talk about whether or not the story is interesting, relevant or essential. What if the artist attempts to communicate something that is not yet well known in our cultural frame? Something from the future, something that the artists “sees” ahead of time.

Thus the presence of a story, the quality of a story and the ability of the viewer to recognise the narrative play crucial roles. We, therefore, cannot discard a work because we cannot see a story, cannot value the story or find the story within the expression.

Conclusion

This delicate balance between skill and story makes the conscious creation of art so fascinating for me. I know that my skill level is still on the low side. This mainly because I have not made the necessary hours. On the other hand, I have lived already through some experiences pleasant and less enjoyable. But most importantly, I have spend a great deal of my life to try to understand my reasoning, my reactions and my actions.

Now I am at a stage in life where I can translate any fundamental human desire, fear and emotion into a story and visual. Reversely I can look at the most mundane situation in life and spin a story about the human condition. Regardless these stories are “true”, they form a narrative that says something about me, about how I see the world.

The possible states of the flower
Reproduction of a drawing I made as a young child.

The possible states of the flower – 1974 (2017 reproduction)

Like Malevich showed us something about ourselves, I show you something about me and perhaps about you as well. Is this important, interesting or needed? I would say: no. But when my skill level is high enough, and my images are attractive enough, and, they tell a good story I think others will like to connect to my works. Ideally, I gain recognition, and the value of my work translates into bread on the table. Though the feeling of achievement, of satisfaction, is what drives me forward to become a great artist.