Part 1: on finding your artistic vision 


About 3-4 months ago I began writing text for an expansion of my instructional painting booklet "fundamentals of realist oil painting" (email me through my website to get info on buying a copy). Since this booklet I sell is aimed at tattooers looking to learn a second medium, part of this expanded text i wanted to deal with the issue of 'biting' or 'copying' which in the tattoo art world is cause for much debate and conflict. 


I think the reason for this is because traditionally in tattooing, newcomers are encouraged to emulate their mentors and/or the classic tattoo flash designs of older legends like sailor jerry, ed hardy, etc. Flash art is meant to be reproduced by everyone--i think this attitude of sharing and community is a really unique and awesome thing about the tattoo world that happens less often in the fine art world where myopic individualism is more the norm. Yet despite this positive aspect of tattooer mentality, it as some downfalls, in that it can trap aspiring tattooers into the copycat mindset, always looking outside themselves for the answers. Living in this modern Western culture doesn't help any either, where there's an external quick fix for everything--a pill for this, band-aid solution for that. 


I think there needs to be a healthier balance for most tattooers between the "flash art" attitude and the fine art world attitude, especially since most tattooers nowadays are looking to push their art beyond flash replication, into the realm of 'custom' one of a kind original works of art on skin. 


So to start to get to the point, i've had the idea for a little while now to post this new text i'd written as a way to open up more dialogue on the issue, give people food for thought, and hopefully, ultimately, to help other tattooers who might need this little push or encouragement. I hadn't gotten around to posting it though, until i received a gift the other day from a friend which reminded me (thanks Kat!). This gift was the book "art and fear" by david bayles and ted orland, which, as of the portions i've read so far, is an awesome tract on this same topic--finding yourself as an artist and pushing through the difficulties involved. My essay below seems like merely a brief introduction to what that book is about, and probably only covers a portion of the issues they discuss, but it's written with tattooers in mind, specifically. so here it is. i hope it helps. 


Your Own Artistic Vision 


One element that’s sometimes overlooked by the beginner is the concept of artistic inspiration. When just starting to learn a new artistic medium, it can be fascinating and overwhelming. There can be so much information to comprehend that it’s natural for one’s unique vision to take a back seat to simply learning the technical skills required. One way we instinctively do this is to imitate those who’ve come before us, as a way to gauge where we stand, and to have a tangible result to aspire to. This is normal, and is actually a great way to begin. We may have been inspired to pursue tattooing or painting by seeing what those who came before us have done. And we may have started out thinking that if we could somehow do what they’ve done, make the same kinds of images, that we will have finally ‘made it.’ We put those artists in a place where we want to get, and use them as guidance to measure if we’re there yet also. 


But once a certain level of proficiency is achieved, I feel it is vital for truly committed artists to ask themselves honestly, “What am I after? What ideas or feelings am I trying to communicate to the outside world through my paintings? What feelings am I trying to explore within myself, and make tangible through this image?” 


This indicates a shift in attitude, from the outward emulation of idols to the inward focus on your own potential. By asking yourself these questions, being truthful and fearless enough with yourself to examine what your motivations are, you will start to form the basis of your unique identity and purpose as a painter. Developing this aspect of the art form in conjunction with the mechanical aspects of proper application will help you become a more complete, a more accomplished, and a more respected artist. 


This part of the learning process is completely personal, and can’t be achieved by reading this essay or any other. What this text can do is point you in the right direction and teach the technical skills, like how to move the paint around to achieve a specific visual result. These aspects can be measured and compared for progress. We can teach our hands and fingers to move in certain ways, developing the fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination through simple repetition. 


However, the intangibles of meaning, vision and inspiration can be much more elusive. They can’t necessarily be measured or compared. It’s only through living a challenging and actively engaged life, where we are conscious of how we feel and what we think, that we can form the basis of who we are and thus, what we want to express through our work. We can spend hours in front of the easel practicing, but it’s the interests and passions we pursue outside of the studio that provide us with the fuel to stay inspired and motivated. Consider the properties of fire for a comparison. If you cut off a fire’s oxygen supply, it will eventually snuff itself out. But with the right amount of outside air blowing in, that fire will be able to sustain itself. 


Therefore it’s important for any artist to spend time finding out what moves them. One of the easiest ways to do this is by engaging in artistic environments other than your own, such as going to museums, galleries, art fairs, and artists’ open studio tours. But these activities don’t have to center around art in a direct way; it’s important to put yourself in any kind of environment that interests you. 


For example, an aspiring painter may have an additional interest in cars. Approached in an artistic mindset, this area of their life can take on a whole new dimension. They may find that the gleam of light off the curved metal surfaces, or the shapes and patterns of the motor may catch their eye. That artist may spend time photographing those interesting parts of cars, studying how light plays off the shiny surfaces, or the textures of the metal, or the shapes and forms of the mechanical parts. They may spend time sculpting forms influenced by these characteristics, or they may immerse themselves in the subject in any other number of ways. They may spend time thinking about why they are drawn to the subject matter of automobiles, and discover that it symbolizes modern man’s ingenuity and progress, or conversely, man’s destruction of the environment and dependence on technology. Whatever meaning they happen to find, it will help to inform and inspire their paintings, filling them with personal significance and meaning beyond their immediate appearance. This added element enriches the creative process for the artist—gives it a greater purpose—and in turn, can enrich the viewer’s experience of the art. 


Over time this personal exploration pays off, in the culmination of a unique vision and style. Subjects of interest eventually become a part of the artist’s psyche and form an instinctual and inseparable part of their visual vocabulary. This is getting to know yourself in the deepest sense. 


Although the example given here has to do with cars, the process can apply to anything and can happen to anyone. Inspiration can be found anywhere, whether you’re into something for the meaning it holds or just its aesthetic appeal. The lesson is to live your life fully and proactively in order to find and nurture who you are, and then reap the benefits through your artistic output. If you can develop the ability to approach everything in your life from a creative standpoint, with an open and curious attitude, the artistic possibilities are endless. When you live art, making visual art will just be a natural extension—and that art will be inspired, uniquely yours. 


None of this is meant to imply that no two artists can be similar, or feed off of each other’s energy in order to enhance their own. Linking up with kindred spirits who have somehow found their own way to the same interests and conclusions you have is one of the most rewarding experiences we can have not only as artists, but also as humans. The ideal, therefore, is perhaps to strive for a balance between internal and external sources of motivation. 


So even when an artist has been influenced by another’s work and seeks to emulate aspects of it in their own, the crucial process of self-exploration and development described here is what turns that emulation into respectful influence rather than cheap imitation. It’s this important distinction that a dedicated artist should strive to uphold once they master the learning curve of their medium. And it can be a lifelong process, so patience is key. It’s something that builds momentum over time and evolves slowly. 


Developing your unique artistic vision and style means finding a way to add another source of unique beauty to the world rather than merely taking from the sources that already exist. There’s a famous quote on this topic that goes, “Good artists borrow, great artists steal.” But I’d like to think that the best artists do neither. They observe, internalize, and reinvent something of their own. 


Part 2: an exercise 


Brainstorm on visual inspirations that inform my art 


1. peeling paint 
2. cracked paint 
3. puncture holes in metal 
4. punctured skin 
5. skin texture/pores and wrinkles of skin 
6. stone texture/cracks 
7. dried and cracking mud 
8. teeth and gums 
9. wet surfaces (glistening) 
10. water droplets 
11. bone sutures 
12. pre-1970s offset printing (preferably 20s - 50s) 
13. chiaroscuro/extreme light sources 
14. body tissue (fatty, muscle, subcutaneous) 
15. aged wood 
16. deterioration of old paper 
17. crease/wrinkle marks in paper 
18. blood on paper 
19. blood on skin 
20. blood on smooth shiny surfaces 
21. burned paper 
22. burned wood 
23. holes in anything (puncture or exit) 
24. wet skin 
25. light on textures (macro) 
26. effects of age/time/weather on surfaces 
27. fetuses 
28. RUST (effects of age on metal) 
29. vein/root forms 
30. mid-century graphic design 
31. repeating patterns 
32. aged photographs 
33. developing errors/defects in photographs 
34. cracks in anything 
35. water stains 
36. peeling 
37. gooey/gelatinous surfaces and forms 
38. bubbles 
39. crater forms 
40. torn skin 
41. printing halftones 
42. computer pixels