How Do You Learn to Be an Artist?

Art Matters

Positive thoughts on the subject of art education by an artist who had a passion for art – Mercedes Matter

Painting OWU

Mercedes Matter was an important figure in 20th century American art, both as a painter and one deeply involved in the education of artists. As founder of the New York Studio School, where she taught and served as dean, Matter helped shape generations of artists as well as the critical discourse about art, its meaning, its practice, and its role in society. This article first appeared in the New York Times, September 2, 1973. Almost 40 years later, her insights seem to have only gained in relevance.

How Do You Learn to Be an Artist?
By Mercedes Matter

Since, in a world greatly transformed, the visual arts have presumably moved far from the premises of art in the past, is there any use for a young artist, in 1973, to study the traditional disciplines?

I say decidedly yes – were this only a matter of becoming visually literate. How arrogant…

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Art in the Spotlight

Art for Dummies?

My father was an accountant by profession and had a  passion for numbers. In his world of facts and figures, painting and art had only hobby status. The anti-establishment psychedelic sixties probably had something to do with his opinions. A few decades since and we look upon a different world.

I suspect some of us still view art with ’tongue in cheek’ and dismiss it as being merely pretty pictures to adorn one’s home with. True?

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Olympia small

  • Black and White are absent in Rainbows 
  • And also in Isaac Newton’s 17th-century colour wheel because they aren’t colours, so what are they?
  • Black and white are achromatic colours. Colour without colour. Black is a total absence of colour, but we can see it, and we often refer to the colour ‘black’. So it remains indisputable that black and white are present in our visual perception of the world, and they deserve their rightful place on the artist’s palette.
  •  Mix black and white and you get shades of grey, add either of the two to a hue or ‘chromatic’ colour and it becomes tonal colour.
  • Artists exercise caution when using black because it absorbs light and can easily dull a painting. The colour black is visible because colours surrounding it reflect light and make it stand out.
  •  Some say that we can see black paint because it isn’t pure black but rather a combination of colours, yet most of us agree that the colour black exists. The primary pigment in the colour ‘Carbon black’ or ‘Ivory black‘ is a charred organic material such as wood and bones. Traditionally finely ground elephant tusks were used to produce an extra-fine pigment. Thankfully it is no longer an ethical choice and iron oxide and animal bones that we would have otherwise discarded are now used to get this dark pigment.

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The Colour of Infinity

I am feeling a little Blue  

I have recently returned from a cruise to the Pacific Islands and haven’t lost my sea-legs yet. The taste the Mojitos and Pina Coladas still lingers on my lips. It was while I was sipping one of those delicious cocktails and enjoying the spectacular ocean view from my deck chair that my daughter suddenly asked”Mum, Why is the sky blue? ”

Out at sea, on a warm sunny day, all around as far as the eye can see the ocean stretches out in the most beautiful colour of French Ultramarine Blue. Exactly the same colour as the pigment in my artist quality paint tubes.

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Capture speak no evil

“Do you know that it is very, very necessary for honest people to remain in art? Hardly anyone knows that the secret of beautiful work lies to a great extent in truth and heartfelt sentiment”  Vincent Van Gogh in a letter to his brother Theo.

Reaching Out through Art

The artist does have a purpose with his art, but his focus is not always the achievement of an aesthetically pleasing image.

Sometimes creating art is the best, if not the only way an artist can communicate his message; it is his chosen language.

We are social creatures, and I don’t know any artists who keep their art hidden away from the eyes of others. Except perhaps the proverbial, slightly mad and reclusive artist who lives on the fringes of society. Art has to be seen to be appreciated; I am not referring to the piles of unfinished canvases that some of us might have stashed away, meaning to complete in the fullness of time.Their day in the spotlight is yet to come.

Making connections

A baby’s piercing cry is intended to cause distress; it is impossible to ignore, and it usually prompts swift action. That is how we make our first connection with others.By adulthood, most of us have perfected a way of communication that satisfies our individual needs.

Talking, Singing, Dancing and Writing

There are The Speakers among us who eloquently communicate. These articulate masters can express their every opinion and emotion with ease. Some fuel wars with propaganda spread by the spoken word. Speakers, often the leaders in our society, can hold audiences captive and spellbound with their voices alone.The spoken word is powerful Sometimes though silence is golden.

Performing Artists such as actors and singers make connections in this way too. Musicians reach others with their instruments and music. Music crosses the language barrier.

Writers capture our attention, the written word – black on white, is hard to ignore.Historians connect generations past, present and future with the written word.Empty is the world of the illiterate.

Writers of fiction have the ability to introduce us to new worlds, even new dimensions.In the absence of illustration, the reader is left with a mind imprint that lingers because he has been forced to use his imagination.A Writer can give his creations whatever characteristics he chooses, even immortality. He can give them wings and let them fly if he wants to. Writers understand the enormous power of the imagination

The Language of Art

A Painter speaks through his art with his paint and brushes.Every time you look at a painting you should ask yourself what the underlying message is.

There always is one.

Capture bright flowersThe message can be quite subtle. With this painting of sunlight reflected on a vase of colourful flowers, the artist is perhaps encouraging a smile and urging you to enjoy and appreciate the simple beauty of the ordinary. Light and colour lift a somber mood. 

As a painter, I understand that it is sometimes difficult for an artist to get across the right message.

Individuals interpret images differently.I experience subdued almost melancholic feelings of peace and serenity when I look at a painting of a beautiful sunset; you might have an entirely different experience.

The painter’s intention might be to shock the viewer with images or symbols of violence and war. Perhaps there is a warning or a  plea for peace in his work.Capture painting of war

Fear of the future and teenage angst in art is easy to interpret.Young artists have fewer inhibitions and are usually quite expert at getting their message across.

Capture teen angst

The old saying  ‘Seeing is believing’ rings true from a painter’s perspective. To ‘see for oneself’ is an enriching experience. A blank canvas gives the artist permission to paint on it whatever he wishes to. He can reach deep into his imagination and make the impossible possible. Magic.

A painter can paint can copy nature realistically or warp reality, and he can twist the truth when the truth stripped bare is too confronting.


 I accept that art does not always have to be traditional, but the trend seems to be that the more shocking a painting is, the better it is.

Some artists will do anything to have their minute of fame. I question the validity of art that emphasises the vulgar, the grotesque and the shocking. Perhaps there is the necessity to juxtapose good and bad to gain a full understanding of their meaning.Also, if you’ve come face to face with the monster or painted him (it), looked him in the eye and walked away, you have conquered.

Each to his own I guess.

I believe that there are things about humankind that are better left unsaid.Our world could be a much better place if we all strove to build on the positive rather than on the negative.

That is my message.



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Capture the real mcoy

“There is no such thing as good painting about nothing”  Mark Rothko

Don’t let formal tuition kill your passion

As an artist, do you approach your work with sincerity?Has your art become meaningless? Perhaps you have become a lofty art-academic who has been taught how to ‘make’ something ‘look like’ something else?

Stifling the free spirit with technical trivia

Perhaps you have been tutored (by the finest) on the art of ’portraiture ’and with more than a reasonable resemblance to the sitter can replicate his physical image on canvas. You might have learned how to paint the perfect landscape using all the tried and tested techniques and formulae of composition, colour and tone, but I don’t see any risk element of excitement there. Painting can become so dreary, you may even wonder why bother at all?

With a bit of caution, you might have tried your hand at a bit of abstraction.But can you answer the question as to what measure of the real you, you allow into your paintings?

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Getting noticed

It has taken millennia for us to evolve into the intelligent, socially aware and civilized beings we like to think of as ourselves today. But perhaps some of our primal urges have been left intact, and I am not referring to our core instincts that enable us to keep Homo Sapiens on the map like eating and breathing.

There seems to be an urge deep within us to leave something, visual or tangible in our wake for others to see. Is it akin to the territorial instinct of our dearest canine friend that necessitates him to leave his mark on a lamppost? Do we also have a need to leave a mark not only to claim territory but as an exclamation of a rule and maybe superiority? Or is it to validate our existence?Speaking for myself, I am quite content to confine my mark making to the canvas.

I was here

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Let me out Quick!

You arrive at an art gallery feeling quite excited about the delights that await. It might be the opening night of a long-awaited exhibition featuring an acclaimed artist or the body of work of an emerging artist, that has been the lure.

But inside you find it hard to hide your disappointment, you were expecting something entirely different.

Contemporary Madness

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We are All Real Artists

Often in conversation I have heard it said  ”  ‘So and so’  is a ‘Real Artist.’ ”

Who is he? Art is woven into the fabric of all our lives.

Arranging a bunch of flowers, deciding which tie or pair of shoes will complete the outfit is about being an artist.

We all have a need to belong and to be accepted by our contemporaries. We want to be embraced for our individuality. Our differences are what make us unique and we love it when others find us interesting. We go about our daily lives being artists.

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