I’m guessing that very few of you reading this post graduated from the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and many did not graduate from any graduate writing program, and possibly you were not even an English or journalism major in college. You might have had a major that was totally unrelated to writing, like Nobel novelist Saul Bellow, an anthropology major, or innovative French novelist/ screenwriter/essayist Alain Robbe-Grillet, an agronomist, or may not have attended college at all. Many great writers, like Nobel winner Ernest Hemingway, had no interest in attending college, and many others, like Nobel winners William Faulkner and playwright Eugene O’Neill didn’t take college seriously (well that’s probably true of 30 or 40% of all college students), and quit it because they thought it was not only not helping them, but holding them back. And I’m guessing that not more than, let’s see, two of you painters attended the Sorbonne, and some possibly never attended any art school. Yet you’re capable and have had writing and painting success. Your work has been published and art works have been shown. Some of you are professionals earning a substantial living.
The majority of you are autodidacts—mainly self-taught–and many of you autodidacts, you formally “untutored” creative people, have surpassed and achieved more success than many if not most Iowa writers, and Sorbonne painters. When most of what you know about how to paint or write creatively is a result of what you have taught yourself, of knowledge and experience you’ve acquired on your own, there is directness, freshness, and truthfulness in your work that you might not have achieved had you followed a more conventional developmental route that “everyone else” seems to be following.
French painter Henri Rousseau (1840-1910) was a self-taught autodidact too. An official with the French customs office, he began painting as a late-blooming amateur “Sunday painter” who might take his cheap paint box out into the park for an afternoon’s relaxation. He signed his first picture at the age of 36 and exhibited in his first show at 40. His earliest paintings were technically incorrect and unsophisticated as the work of a beginner usually is. The forms were stiff and simple; the proportions were inaccurate, and the perspectives were wrong. But in his work there was “something” that drew the attention of critics and the public—the honesty in the works, a directness that came right out of his obvious joy in the act of creation. He was an advanced autodidact and did things that other unschooled artists did not usually do, and conventionally trained painters did not do. Paint which in a run-of-the-mill painting of a beginner would be thin and dry is applied with rich body. Colors that would be anemic or muddy in the ordinary newcomer’s work were clear in Rousseau. His work continued to grow in popularity. His paintings created a world of enchantment.
This was a dangerous point for Rousseau because he had to strike a balance of learning to be more technically proficient, but not to the point that technical qualities would obliterate the originality that came to him naturally, just as I hope however technically advanced you become, you never lose your natural and authentic voice. Rousseau had to guard his naiveté and so he created for himself a personal style based on the forms that had been spontaneous to him as a beginner—a highly cultivated style that at the same time was rooted in an untutored simplicity. And that is Rousseau’s special charm.
Although seriously technically limited by conventional standards, a painting or a story, poem, or novel, or any creative product, may be a work of art even if the work’s quality is half-accidental, as it was with Henri Rousseau.
Walt Whitman (1819-1892), another thoroughly self-taught autodidact, ended his formal education at eleven. During the six years between 1849 and 1855 he turned himself from a lazy second-rate journalist and less than average creative writer who couldn’t hold a job into–through a “liberation of language” never seen before on earth—one of the greatest poets the world has ever known. Prior to his first book– Leaves of Grass–he seemed to be a very untalented man. Before becoming the” father of American poetry,” he worked as a carpenter (building his own home) and as an elementary school teacher, printer, editor, shopkeeper, and in the world of newspapers, paled around with artists and sculptors, attended operas (said he learned more about writing from operas than from anything else), studied history and astronomy on his own, read voraciously, and believed in self-help and self-education. He said that during those years before Leaves of Grass when he was writing “conventional verse” he was “simmering, simmering, simmering.” This man who wrote, “I have not once had the least idea who or what I am” developed in those mystical six years a vision and style that no one since has been able to duplicate. His poetry startled the literary world and started a new direction in poetry. Readers were astonished.
Living not far from Whitman at the time, and working in solitude, unknown to the literary world, was quiet, subdued poet Emily Dickinson. Do you think it is a coincidence that those two untutored autodidacts who worked alone, were unknown, taught themselves, and never met, would become America’s finest poets and produce work the likes of which no one had ever seen before?
Most often the reason a writer, artist, composer, etc. is not yet accomplished is not because she’s unintelligent or not talented, but because she isn’t knowledgeable enough yet. In writing and every other art, every other discipline, knowledge isn’t everything, but almost everything. The more you know, the more you can achieve—the greater your reach. The self-taught creator knows that and follows an atypical but most productive route to the knowledge she needs to excel. She looks for it wherever it may be and acquires it on her own. She has high motivation and a thirst for learning about her craft that cannot be quenched.
Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) was reading Whitman in 1886 around the time he was painting the apocalyptic “Starry Night.” If you know your Whitman that makes perfect sense. A solitary who worked outside of any school or tradition, van Gogh was self-made. He had only one year’s total training from instructors, but studied ceaselessly on his own, the autodidact of autodidacts. He had tremendous faith in the future of his work, and felt it was worth sacrificing everything for it. He was a harsh self-critic, considering many of his paintings now accepted as masterpieces mere studies. At the time of his death he had sold one painting and traded another for brushes, had been represented by just a few dealers, had participated in a half-dozen shows, and had dissuaded critics from writing about his work. Few artists of any kind have made themselves as knowledgeable or clear-sighted about their art, or have a more developed understanding of painting. He rarely signed his works, believing that to do so was arrogant, and that an artist should work humbly. He had a short but prodigious career, leaving behind a legacy of more than 2,000 paintings and drawings at his death at thirty-seven.
Artists and writers and people in general who don’t follow a traditional route to expertise and beyond that to excellence–who go off on their own–may produce direct, fresh, original work they might not have been able to produce had they followed a traditional path. They are original often because they see that the traditional rules don’t suit them, or they don’t know the rules and aren’t limited by them. It may take them longer. By necessity they may have to be late-bloomers like Rousseau, van Gogh, and Whitman. But what does time matter if time is needed for you to come into your own? When writing Leaves of Grass, Whitman told himself, “Make it new.” and he did.
What we learn from autodidacts is to be original, be true to ourselves, be honest, be direct, don’t hide from ourselves, and find our own truth though it may be different from everyone else’s. You are not like other artists or writers. In Leaves of Grass Whitman writes, “I celebrate myself” which seems to me not a bad place for creative people to start.
(For further reading, you may wish to see the excellent Van Gogh: A Retrospective, edited by Susan Alyson Stein, and Geoffrey Dutton’s Whitman)
© 2015 David J. Rogers
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23 responses to “Self-Taught Artists and Writers”
Wonderful blog. Considering the company, I’m honored to be among the autodidacts of the world.
Thanks, Cindy. As you can probably tell, I love autodidacts and admire them very much. I hope to hear from you again.
This is truly inspiring, you have found yourself a new fan. We need people like you and I look forward to seeing more of your work.
Thank you for your kind compliment.
This could have been written expressly for me David! Thank you for your insightful and encouraging words . I so long for a gallery to take me on and relieve me from the marketing pressure which stops me painting. My Twitter following has been a huge surprise for me and has boosted my rather low self esteem about my work .. I know now I produce good work but I need a bit more self esteem to approach galleries again ! Thank you for cheering up my morning
Miche, I’m happy to hear from you, but sad to read your words, “which stops me from painting.” Your painting is just so wonderful that that mustn’t happen. Yet you’re certainly not the only painter, writer, actor, dancer who must market that it happens to. Somehow a person has to develop a dispassionate attitude and confidence that nothing can shake. The marketing process must always be separated from the creative process: when painting, paint–with no thought of marketing interfering. I’ve thought about the problem, and as a result wrote posts you might be interested in. Three in particular I would recommend to you. Salesmanship for Artists and Writers http://wp.me/p4Ia7A-cv Non-Attachment: The Solution to an Artist’s or Writer’s Problem http://wp.me/p4Ia7A-bv and Self-Confidence of Artists and Writers http://wp.me/p4Ia7A-aa Thank you for your comment. I look forward to hearing from you again.
I echo what everyone else is saying. Thank you David. It’s so nice to read an inspirational piece that brings to life old masters who make it okay for us to be autodidacts. For a long time I felt somewhat foolish for abandoning my profession and working at crafts that I wasn’t trained for. But you make it all okay. I agree it takes some time to come into our own. I also believe that no matter where we start out we end up where we’re supposed to be. I think I should go look for the works of these masters. When I read them the first time I found them a bit heavy but looking back, I don’t think I had the time or experience to appreciate them.
To Miche – I think that we pour everything into our creative projects and consequently we’re left somewhat depleted – no confidence, vulnerable, unsure.
How do you do, Alex. I’m happy you liked the post. I like your idea that no matter where we start, we end up at the right place. People depleting themselves: How that, it seems to me, applies to so much in life. An athlete depletes herself; driven, creative people deplete themselves constantly; troubled people deplete themselves, and so on. I know that idea will work itself into my mind and something will come of it. Thank you for that. I’m sure it took courage to start on a new path, although at the time you weren’t trained for it. I’d like to hear more about that. I’d love to hear from you again.
Something I have come to understand and believe is that being a creative and making art is about achieving the ‘technical know how/prowess of one’s own particular discipline and then marrying it with the intangible’ This is s a life time commitment and one where we are constantly exploring and learning. You are so right, going to an art institution isn’t necessarily the road to achieving this. Most of the real learning comes from the years of experience and the doing of it.
I attended a very good, small art college in Rochester, Kent in the early sixties – at a time when working from life models on a daily basis was still in tact. Although a good foundation block, I was so young and lacking in any confidence, that most of my time there went by in a fog.
The real work and insight didn’t really start until I began to learn myself. As I look back on my forty or more years as a working artist, I can see that early patterns were established where I steered away from following the crowd. Consequently, it became a constant learning quest of my own, not one that was imposed upon me…..and in choosing that route, it has given me the freedom to express myself in my own way – all of which makes me an autodidact.
Given that for the most part I have had to rely solely on the income from my work, this has meant being very creative in the way I make enough money to survive. For example, during the middle fifteen years of my career I painted large corporate murals on both sides of the Atlantic….Working through an agent these were commissioned and at times gruelling work, but what that period gave me, was income, and also and experience in growing technical know how, which I was then able to utilise in my personal and more creative work. It also taught me how to work on enormous canvases, with the overall image always in my mind’s eye, and the significance of interconnections. If I change a tiny fraction of an enormous painting, everything changes…..
Once again your excellent post has given me much food for thought. I am so glad that I connected with you through twitter, as I feel your blog will help me enormously.
I so loved reading your story. There’s a lot in it that artists can learn from. Yours hasn’t been an easy life. It’s difficult, it’s hard, and to some, impossible to make a living at an art. But you’ve done that. I can see you’re an optimistic woman. I so much like the notion of an artist or a writer like myself keeping that overall image of the work always in your mind’s eye, never losing focus, making the interconnections, like beams and girders holding up a whole structure. I’m happy we are connected too, and would like to hear more of your insights. You know I love your work; that goes without saying.
Good morning David, and thank you so much for this considered response. I am a very positive person and consider myself so very fortunate to have lived a life pursuing that which I love most….Enjoy your week. Janet
Janet, I look forward so much to what you and I will say to each other in the future. I can say that most of my life I’ve had the luxury of doing exactly what I want and benefit most from, but like you, I’ve worked extremely hard to make that happen.
Good morning, David – thank you. Janet
I also found this post reassuring David. In fact, as I embark upon formal training, I feel like I am at an advantage to those younger students who have yet to develop their voice and a feel for their writing. I once lived with two fine arts students majoring in jewellery and their assessments were harrowing. I wondered if it was enough to kill their creativity. Assessing creativity is very subjective, which is problematic.
Poor Van Gogh. I loved reading about all of these self taught artists…I’m guessing if you were a woman in those times you had no choice but to teach yourself!
Sara, I’m always happy to hear from you. I too, like you, am a believer that an artist or writer will not go far without discovering that magical thing–that authentic voice that’s like no one else’s. That’s not necessarily easy. Yes, I too think (and a lot of research supports it) that assessments, evaluations, criticism can kill creativity and ruin careers. That’s why it may be a good idea to say to critics of your work, “I am an experienced writer and have considered what you are telling me, but I’ve decided my way is best. But I thank you for your interest.” A mistake writers and artists make is taking criticism of their work as criticism of themselves–a bad mistake indeed. A person’s self-confidence has to be very closely guarded. By being dispassionate about your work, something that I think comes with experience, you can benefit from what is to be learned from the criticism or assessment, and decide for yourself how to use it. As you know, my wife is a respected teacher of writing. She reviews my work all the time, but her judgment is so sharp, so accurate, and she is so aware of what I am trying to accomplish, that I couldn’t do without it. My work wouldn’t be nearly as good as I hope it is.
Regarding women artists of Van Gogh’s time, American artist Mary Cassatt, considered the greatest woman painter of the 19th century, is very interesting to read about.
Hi David, yes I agree completely. Criticism of the wrong type and at the wrong time can destroy a person’s fledgling confidence. There definitely comes a time though, with maturity, that you have to take on feedback, because it can take your work to the next level. That’s what i am hoping anyway!
I am very impressed that you and Diana have the kind of relationship that allows her to review your writing, and you to respond with appreciation for her uncommon sense and skill. That shows a lot of respect and maturity. Ahem. Note to self 🙂
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Sara, I’ll always remember a psychology teacher of mine saying, “A good friend is one who will kick you in the teeth constructively.” I’ve found that to be true, and what better friend have I than my wife Diana.
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Someone who will kick you in the teeth constructively…ain’t that the truth!
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Great post here David and reflects much of how I feel as an autodidact in the field of creating art. My learning is very disciplined, while not in the formal university sense, I am quite regimented in evaluating progress of what I need to work on whether medium technique, subject or just the act of creating art – a daily schedule that is disciplined to reading (my library of books and art magazines is extensive and are used frequently), learning through watching (videos, etc.), and finally by the act of creating (for me is the greatest teacher). While learning some formal subjects might be helpful as broad-based knowledge, if it isn’t relevant for what I am doing currently I won’t spend the time devoted to learning about something until a point in time when it may be useful and relevant – I have found that this allows me to stay focused.
It’s sad that there are actual competitions that require a formal education in art in order to be able to enter. Too bad, they are missing out ~ enough said I suppose, because that’s the snobbery that inherently assists in breeding insecurity and discouragement among autodidacts that people write of.
Mary, you’re on a quest, an adventure. And you’re developing your abilities–I bet very rapidly. I can see that you and I have much in common: seriousness about what we are doing–you in art, and I in writing. I like very much how systematic, deliberate, thorough, and well thought out your developmental program is. And it’s reflected in the very high quality of your work. I have a sense that you feel you started late and must now catch up, and you’re not wasting any time. I like the way your learning keeps pace with what you need–learning for pragmatic purposes,learning something when you need it
For years I have been railing against unnecessary credentialism–requiring formal credentials that have no bearing on merit. In my book Fighting to Win, I say America is “credential crazy.” How sad, how unfortunate, how stupid. Like you, Van Gogh wouldn’t have qualified for those competitions, but have courage. I know of many cases of people who succeeded without formal credentials. Well, like Nobel Prize winning Ernest Hemingway who thought college was unnecessary, and it appears he was right.
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This post helped me today, David. I’ve cut, pasted, and printed out: “Most often the reason a writer, artist, composer, etc. is not yet accomplished is not because she’s unintelligent or not talented, but because she isn’t knowledgeable enough yet. In writing and every other art, every other discipline, knowledge isn’t everything, but almost everything. The more you know, the more you can achieve—the greater your reach. The self-taught creator knows that and follows an atypical but most productive route to the knowledge she needs to excel. She looks for it wherever it may be and acquires it on her own. She has high motivation and a thirst for learning about her craft that cannot be quenched.”
Janet, thank you for your comment. I’m happy my words are meaningful to you and help you. It’s a joy for me to write about the things my mind keeps going back to and to write for people who are striving so hard.
I have wanted to twll you how excellent I think your posts are and how I give you credit for working under far less than ideal conditions and yet not giving up.