After having interviewed hundreds of visual artists over the course of quite a few years, I've come to realize that there are numerous traits that make great artists stand out from merely okay artists. What are those traits?
KICK-ASS WORK: This goes without saying and yes, while it's very subjective, it's also undeniable, like a foregone conclusion. When I see kick-ass work from an artist, it literally takes my breath away. There is NO decision-making process involved. This happened to me not long ago while I was beholding a huge, purple, Helen Frankenthaler painting at the Asheville Museum of Art. WOW! When I see kick-ass work, I always think to myself, "Yeah! Baby, Yeah!" It's an absolute yes. It's a home run. It's a violent, visceral reaction. There's no question or debate whatsoever. It's simply an overwhelming knock-out. Not every work produced by a great artist is an overwhelming knock out, but they've got more than a few of them.
COMMAND: Great artists have authority and command over their own process. This does NOT mean that they don't have bouts of insecurity or uncertainty. It simply means that they rise above those insecurities by harnessing the power of their process which they've cultivated over many years.
INSIGHT: Great artists have ever-flowing, unbridled insight. Despite mental blocks and setbacks, they know how to access that space where inspiration flows and insight grows.
EXECUTION: Great artists are able to take their insight and bring it into concrete reality on canvas or in sculptural form. It's one thing to have a great vision, but quite another to execute it. Execution is what happens when vision becomes a goal under deadline. Let's be real here.
CONTEXT: Great artists have some idea about where their work falls in the art history continuum. They're familiar with what and who came before them and while they often don't know where they're headed, they've got the tools to move them in the right direction.
JOY: Great artists love what they do. This doesn't mean that they don't have bad days. It means that at the end of each day, they know they did it because they simply could not ... not do it. Joy is the most authentic of motivators. I don't know about you, but I believe it comes straight from God.
SKILL: Great artists have the technical skills. They've got gravitas. This doesn't mean that they don't make occasional clunkers. It means that they've got the chops needed to make great art. This goes without saying. Even under-educated observers know really great art when they see it. Skill harnesses creativity and yields craftsmanship ... not just mere product.
HUMILITY & GRACE: Great artists have the humility and grace of a lovely summer breeze. You can barely tell it's there, but when it moves, it's unmistakable and oh so welcome. They don't scream, "Look at me!" or "Look at what I've done!" There's no need for ego or aggression. Aggression arises from fear that you don't have the chops or a way to harness natural power. Humility and grace are twin traits that will carry you through the most difficult of times. They are organic and captivating ... sort of like being moonstruck or watching a rose unfold to the sun. You find yourself gazing and you simply cannot turn away. And when you praise them, they blush and come into full bloom. Humility and grace are the killer-combo that make the whole winning thing sing. Without them, it's like the cake that falls when you remove it from the oven too soon. Somebody got too cocky or impatient and the whole thing got shot to shit. Ugh.
SERVANT: Great artists are servants to humanity and not their own egos. In a world obsessed with wealth, success, titles and royalty, servants are the true nobility. Open your eyes and see this hidden truth. It's not about servitude, it's about gratitude ... gratitude for being blessed with this gift. When you release your ego and operate from a place of grace, you lay the foundation for a masterpiece. That masterpiece doesn't always have to be a painting, but it will surely be your life.
MATURITY: Not all, but most artists start out when they're young and develop over time. No one is born a "master" of anything. You first have to find your talent, figure out who you are and just work, work, work. Desire, sweat and persistence fuel accomplishments. You can only really accomplish things of true value over time ... the long haul. That's just the way life is. Phenoms are rare and despite that, many of them burn out. Perseverance is the name of the game. Most of the truly great artists I know are definitely older artists - well above 40 - and believe me, their experience, insight, intelligence, heart and depth definitely show up in their work. You cannot fake these things at 20. With all due respect to 20-year-olds ... you just cannot fake it. You can try, but trying to fake it is - in itself - a sign of youth. Great artists know that it's about trial and error and ... the journey.
While much of the art media seems obsessed with young artists, I'm enthralled by older ones. They rock. Do you know WHY older artists rock? Because they know HOW to rock. Most young artists don't even know what they don't know. There's nothing more delicious than the work of an old artist whose been around the block a few times. Age is like fine wine. There simply is no shortcut to greatness. You learn and earn this with age. Show me an artist with a kick-ass body of work and I'll show you an artist who has racked up some serious time in their studio.
Well, there you have it. 10 Traits of a Great Artist. Boy, did I have a blast writing this one!