The Art Spirit by Robert Henri

Summary

  1. ART when really understood is the province of every human being. It is simply a question of doing things, anything, well. It is not an outside, extra thing. When the artist is alive in any person, whatever his kind of work may be, he becomes an inventive, searching, daring, self-expressing creature. He becomes interesting to other people. He disturbs, upsets, enlightens, and he opens ways for a better understanding.

Key Takeaways

  1. I have little interest in teaching you what I know. I wish to stimulate you to tell me what you know. In my office toward you I am simply trying to improve my own environment.
  2. Know what the old masters did. Know how they composed their pictures, but do not fall into the conventions they established. These conventions were right for them, and they are wonderful. They made their language. You make yours. They can help you. All the past can help you.
  3. He who has contemplated has met with himself, is in a state to see into the realities beyond the surfaces of his subject. Nature reveals to him, and, seeing and feeling intensely, he paints, and whether he wills it or not each brush stroke is an exact record of such as he was at the exact moment the stroke was made. 
  4. The value of repeated studies of beginnings of a painting cannot be over-estimated. Those who cannot begin do not finish.
  5. There is a time and place for all things, the difficulty is to use them only in their proper time and places.
  6. The study of art is the study of the relative value of things. The factors of a work of art cannot be used constructively until their relative values are known. Unstable governments, like unstable works of art, are such as they are because values have not been appreciated.
  7. A good painting is a remarkable feat of organization. Every part of it is wonderful in itself because it seems so alive in its share in the making of the unity of the whole, and the whole is so definitely one thing.
  8. No vacillating or uncertain interest can produce a unity.
  9. We are instinctively blind to what is not relative. We are not cameras. We select. We do this always when we are not painting.
  10. All things change according to the state we are in. Nothing is fixed.
  11. In drawing, Rembrandt with a cast shadow or just a line or two realized for us the most complete sense of space, that is, background, environment. He could do this because he saw and he had the genius of selection. Look at his simplest drawings and you will see that he was a supreme master in this.
  12. If you want to know how to do a thing you must first have a complete desire to do that thing. Then go to kindred spirits—others who have wanted to do that thing—and study their ways and means, learn from their successes and failures and add your quota. Thus you may acquire from the experience of the race. And with this technical knowledge you may go forward, expressing through the play of forms the music that is in you and which is very personal to you.
  13. I love the tools made for mechanics. I stop at the windows of hardware stores. If I could only find an excuse to buy many more of them than I have already bought on the mere pretense that I might have use for them! They are so beautiful, so simple and plain and straight to their meaning. There is no “Art” about them, they have not been made beautiful, they are beautiful.
  14. Someone has defined a work of art as a “thing beautifully done.” I like it better if we cut away the adverb and preserve the word “done,” and let it stand alone in its fullest meaning. Things are not done beautifully. The beauty is an integral part of their being done.
  15. All manifestations of art are but landmarks in the progress of the human spirit toward a thing but as yet sensed and far from being possessed.
  16. The picture that looks as if it were done without an effort may have been a perfect battlefield in its making.
  17. No thing is beautiful. But all things await the sensitive and imaginative mind that may be aroused to pleasurable emotion at sight of them. This is beauty.
  18. No knowledge is so easily found as when it is needed.
  19. It is harder to see than it is to express. The whole value of art rests in the artist’s ability to see well into what is before him.
  20. A genius is one who can see. The others can often “draw” remarkably well. Their kind of drawing, however, is not very difficult. They can change about. They can make their sight fit the easiest way for their drawing. As their seeing is not particular it does not matter. With the seer it is different. Nothing will do but the most precise statement. He must not only bend technique to his will, but he must invent technique that will especially fit his need. He is not one who floats affably in his culture. He is the blazer of the road for what he has to bring.
  21. Those who have the will to create do not care to use old phrases.
  22. A great artist is one who says as nearly what he means as his powers of invention allow. An ordinary artist often uses eloquent phrases, phrases of established authority, and if he is skillful it is surprising to see how he can nearly make them fit his ideas—or how he can make the ideas give way to the phrase.
  23. I have been trying to make this matter clear—this matter that the whole fun of the thing is in seeing and inventing, trying to refute a common idea that education is a case of collecting and storing, instead of making. It’s not easy. But the matter is mighty well worth considering.
  24. If you want to know about people watch their gestures. The tongue is a greater liar than the body.
  25. Don’t belong to any school. Don’t tie up to any technique.
  26. All outward success, when it has value, is but the inevitable result of an inward success of full living, full play and enjoyment of one’s faculties.
  27. People say, “It is only a sketch.” It takes the genius of a real artist to make a good sketch—to express the most important things in life
  28. The value of a school should be in the meeting of students. The art school should be the life-centre of a city. Ideas should radiate from it.
  29. Join no creed, but respect all for the truth that is in them.
  30. I am sure there are many people—and there are artists—who have never seen a whole head. They look from feature to feature. You can’t draw a head until you see it whole. It’s not easy. Try it.
  31. No use trying to draw a thing until you have got all around it. It is only then that you comprehend a unity of which the parts can be treated as parts.
  32. Keep your old work. You did it. There are virtues and there are faults in it for you to study. You can learn more from yourself than you can from anyone else.
  33. No one can get anywhere without contemplation. Busy people who do not make contemplation part of their business do not do much for all their effort.
  34. There is the heart and the mind, the Puritan idea is that the mind must be master. I think the heart should be master and the mind should be the tool and servant of the heart. As it is, we give too much attention to laws and not enough to principles. The man who wants to produce art must have the emotional side first, and this must be reinforced by the practical.
  35. Some students possess the school they work in. Others are possessed by the school.
  36. Let a student enter the school with this advice: No matter how good the school is, his education is in his own hands. All education must be self-education.
  37. The best art the world has ever had is but the impress left by men who have thought less of making great art than of living full and completely with all their faculties in the enjoyment of full play. From these the result is inevitable.
  38. The technique learned without a purpose is a formula which when used, knocks the life out of any ideas to which it is applied.
  39. Develop your visual memory. Draw everything you have drawn from the model from memory as well.
  40. There is no end to the study of technique. Yet more important than the lifelong study of technique is the lifelong self-education. In fact, technique can only be used properly by those who have definite purpose in what they do, and it is only they who invent technique. Otherwise it is the work of parrots.
  41. There is nothing more entertaining than to have a frank talk with yourself. Few do it—frankly. Educating yourself is getting acquainted with yourself.
  42. I believe in the study of technique. One should know as far as possible all the possibilities of a medium.
  43. Painting should never look as if it were done with difficulty, however difficult it may actually have been.
  44. We must realize that artists are not in competition with each other.
  45. Always we would try to tie down the great to our little nationalism; whereas every great artist is a man who has freed himself from his family, his nation, his race. Every man who has shown the world the way to beauty, to true culture, has been a rebel, a “universal” without patriotism, without home, who has found his people everywhere, a man whom all the world recognizes, accepts, whether he speaks through music, painting, words or form.
  46. There is the new movement. There always has been the new movement and there always will be the new movement. It is strange that a thing which comes as regularly as clockwork should always be a surprise. In new movements the pendulum takes a great swing, charlatans crowd in, innocent apes follow, the masters make their successes and they make their mistakes as all pioneers must do. It is necessary to pierce to the core to get at the value of a movement and not be confused by its sensational exterior. 
  47. I am not interested in art as a means of making a living, but I am interested in art as a means of living a life.
  48. It is not easy to know what you like. Most people fool themselves their entire lives through about this.  Self-acquaintance is a rare condition.
  49. We are all different; we are to do different things and see different life. Education is a self-product, a matter of asking questions and getting the best answers we can get. We read a book, a novel, any book, we are interested in it to the degree we find in it answers to our questions.
  50. I can think of no greater happiness than to be clear-sighted and know the miracle when it happens.
  51. With a great will to say a thing comes clairvoyance. The more positively you have the need of a certain expression the more power you will have to select out of chaos the term of that expression.
  52. It is not desirable to devote all your time to an appreciation of art. Art should drive you forth. It should be an incentive to life. The greatest value of art to the appreciator is in that it stimulates to personal activity.
  53. Those who live their lives will leave the stuff that is really art. Art is a result. It is the trace of those who have led their lives.
  54. It takes a tremendous amount of courage to be young, to continue growing—not to settle and accept. The most beautiful life possible, wherein there is no sordidness, is only attainable by effort. To be free, to be happy and fruitful, can only be attained through sacrifice of many common but overestimated things.
  55. Keep up the work. Try to reduce everything you see to the utmost simplicity. That is, let nothing but the things which are of the utmost importance to you have any place.
  56. The only education that counts is self-education.
  57. The pernicious influence of prize and medal giving in art is so great that it should be stopped. You can give prizes justly for long-distance jumps, because you can measure jumps with a foot-rule. No way has been devised for measuring the value of a work of art. History proves that juries in art have been generally wrong. With few exceptions the greatest artists have been repudiated by the art juries in all countries and at all times.
  58. To work, mind and body, and to be alone enough to concentrate is the thing.
  59. I have no sympathy with the belief that art is the restricted province of those who paint, sculpt, make music and verse. I hope we will come to an understanding that the material used is only incidental, that there is artist in every man; and that to him the possibility of development and of expression and the happiness of creation is as much a right and as much a duty to himself, as to any of those who work in the especially ticketed ways.
  60. I think the real artists are too busy with just being and growing and acting (on canvas or however) like themselves to worry about the end. The end will be what it will be. The object is intense living, fulfillment; the great happiness in creation. People sometimes phrase about the joy of work. It is only in creative work that joy may be found.
  61. There is a joy in the pursuit of anything. Life is finding yourself. It is a spirit development.
  62. Your drawing should be an expression of your spiritual sight.
  63. Keep a bad drawing until by study you have found out why it is bad.
  64. When away from model draw from memory. Draw also opposite or very different views from what you had in the class.
  65. Look for the spirit line that runs through everything.
  66. Self-education, only, produces expression of self. Don’t ask for a criticism until you are sure you can’t give it yourself. Then you will be in a fine state to receive it. You cannot impose education on anyone.
  67. If you get stuck with your painting, make a sketch of the model in another medium. It will give you a fresh eye.
  68. In life we eradicate much to see beauty.
  69. Everybody who has any respect for painting feels scared when he starts a new canvas.
  70. All real works of art look as though they were done in joy.
  71. See things not as they are, but as you see them.

What I got out of it

  1. One of the more beautiful books I’ve read in sometime. Art is the study of the relative of things, art is drawing what you see and not drawing things as they are, it’s about making things and not the study of it, don’t limit yourself to any one school, all education is self-education. Worth re-reading!

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