Going beyond excellent in your art

  • Art talk

I watched another video post from the inspirational artist Nicholas Wilton who runs the Art2Life initiative. This post covered the challenges associated with becoming a better artist, to a higher level of expertise, with the ultimate goal of achieving genius status. I often wrestle with the challenge of how to improve and I came away from this short video with a few insights.

Nicholas starts by asking, “How do we move from making good work to excellent work?” Say we’ve been working as an artist for a number of years and everyone likes what you are making, we get many flattering comments, we are selling work regularly and it feels good. Most people would be very happy with this achievement, but maybe you (like me) want to push it further. Maybe that level is where the magic will start to happen for you. How do we move there? Nicholas then showed us the four levels of attainment (I remember similar diagrams from my time in the e-learning industry):

So these four levels break down as follows:

  • Learning – this is where we all start and it is a very challenging phase as it is easy to get frustrated and give up, but you have to gather skills to move to the next level.
  • Competent – many people rest at this level and create work that they and others like. It’s a sweet spot and can be very satisfying. You may start to be noticed by a wider audience but it’s difficult to stand out without progressing further.
  • Excellent – it’s hard to move to this level as it takes a lot of work, determination, money (potentially) and a real thirst to learn from others. It’s even more common for artists to stay at this level, and that’s just fine. Everyone you meet will be impressed with your work and you’ll get flattered about your amazing talent. This can be totally fulfilling which makes it very hard to believe that you deserve more than this.
  • Genius – this level isn’t talked about much. To be here is to make ‘life work’. You will be absolutely in the zone, work will be much more enjoyable to create and it will connect with more and more people. You will have a significant reputation as an established artist.

But this progression is far from easy and we will hit many, many barriers and dead ends along the way. So how do we move through these levels? What form will the inner drive take that will maximise our chances of going as far as our potential allows? Nicholas suggests that we need to ask ourselves, “What do I love doing?”, and “What parts can I let go of?”. So he suggests that our work needs to become perfectly aligned with who we are, it needs an unquestionable authenticity that generates head-turning originality. Well, this now reminds me of the formula Reference, Deference, Difference proposed by Griselda Pollock as the true mark of avant-garde art, which is something that has resonated with me for quite a while. Bringing these two ideas together we could propose that the genius has referred, deferred but then created a difference – the authentic originality that we mentioned earlier.

How far are you from your zone of genius? Could you give another 10% and how would that feel?

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