In 2017 we lucked into an old masters drawing exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery on our trip to London. After seeing the incredible exhibit of Raphael’s drawings at the Ashmolean in Oxford, I was a little giddy at what else I might see. As my eyes adjusted to the dark blue walls and dim conservation lighting, and I staggered between the drawings of my heroes, my husband motioned for me to come look at something across the room.
Chris was smirking beside a small, framed, very rough sketch of a bunch of heads on a single sheet of paper. It was nothing to write home about. It wasn’t all that faded, but it was distinctly lackluster. The heads were all in proportion, but they weren’t amazing, and I wondered how or why it had made it into the exhibit. I noticed that Chris’ hand was blocking the info card. I studied the drawing again and raised my eyebrows at my husband.
“Look at this drawing again,” he said. I did, and my initial reaction didn’t change.
“It’s ok, I guess, but it’s not that great. One might even say it’s rather average,” I said, feeling a bit generous.
“Whenever you have a blah work day, and you’re completely unsatisfied or unhappy with what you’ve done, when you have those moments when you think you can’t draw, I want you to remember this drawing and this moment.”
Chris dropped his hand to his side, revealing the info card.
“Rembrandt van Rijn”
The thing about Rembrandt’s paintings, unlike that drawing, is that I can spot them from across a gallery and know before I ever look at a painting’s info card, that it is indeed a Rembrandt. It’s something in the eyes. A Franz Halls portrait, in its similar scale and its unmistakable Dutch master style, can make me look twice, but it can’t fool me. Before I get close enough to read the card, I know which is whose 100% of the time.
It’s not because I’m a Dutch master expert. I’m not.
It’s because of the way Rembrandt painted human eyes that no one else in his era could duplicate, and once you see it in person, you can’t unsee the quality. It has to do with where light hits the form of the human eyeball and where the shadows lie. Many a master painter from Leonardo da Vinci forward in Western art understood that the human eyeball is not seen like a marble from the equatorial center, but rather it is eclipsed from the equatorial midline to the metaphorical South Pole, shadowed by the eyelid and the brow bone.
Franz Halls knew this, and obviously I, along with a bunch of actual Dutch master experts and many portrait painters do too, and yet few of us ever accomplish replicating the technique enough to fool someone from across the room.
So, if we can’t be Rembrandt, why do we keep trying?
For the Love of the Craft, for one thing, and because, if we persist, we develop our own personal, Rembrandtian gotcha factors.
The world is filled with artwork that makes us envy the maker, that makes us want to own the work, or for creatives, long to have come up with the idea and been able to execute it ourselves. If you’ve ever spent time feeling like that while scrolling on Instagram, you’ll know exactly how icky that feeling can be. What we see in exhibitions or online though, are rarely the rough or lackluster sketches, the prototypes, or the unsuccessful attempts, and so we judge our fledgling processes by others’ final achievements.
Definitely not a path to happiness.
No way can we all be perfect all the time, but really, we shouldn’t bother.
What if we moved past our inner critics, and we stopped dismissing our way less than perfect sketches and ideas?
What if we kept going, kept working, kept upping our skill sets as we pay attention to detail and what we love about what we do?
What if instead we honed our skills in pursuit of the gotcha factor?
It’s not merely putting in 10,000 hours that counts, but rather practicing our processes while daring to experiment.
Eastern Repousse II: Rings & Cuff Bracelets