Review on ‘think like an artist’

Think like an artist, is a book on the artist’s qualities: what trade should you develop to become more (like) an artist?

I picked the book, because I recently am following this millenial trend of reading those so called ‘self help books’, to improve yourself. And it felt appropriate to, not just read any self help book, but to read a book on how to improve your artist’s skills. Skills, according to this book, are / is your attitude towards life, and stuff that needs to be done. The author does not get in detail about your artistical skills.

About the book and author

Will Gompertz has written two books thusfar. This book was his second book. His first book has caught my eye many times, but I never bought or borrowed it. In Dutch, his first book is called (I will translate it literally): that’s something my little sister could do, while the English titel is less creative (I think): What are you looking at. Nevertheless Gompertz was voted one of the world‘s 50 most creative thinkers by New York’s creativity magazine and he had created two art documentaries for the BBC. He also works as director at Tate Galleries and as such organized world’s first performance art festival.

The Dutch translation of this book has clever illustrations by Alex Dobbin. And every chapter is illustrated with two black and grey photo’s and a quote. The books discusses several artworks, which also are pictured in the book. Although,.. the text refers to an inlay with photo’s in color, and I did not see any. That may be, because I borrowed the book from the public library; I don’t know.

The story is devided in 10 chapters and one summary. All of the chapters discuss a quality artists should possess. Every quality is illustrated by the story on one or more artists, Gompertz either interviewed, or just tells vivid stories about. Most of the stories in this book are about (the creation of) artworks, not about the artist’s lifestyle. Even though he manages to point out that the making of an artwork usually requires a certain lifestyle.

‘Short’ summary

Gompertz discusses the lifestyle of different artists. For example:

  • Andy Warhol and Vincent van Gogh; who’s entrepeneurship is an example for being a succesful artist. Because, as an artist; you are compelled to become venturous. You are forced to risk everything in order to make art; simply to make a living.
  • Monet and Manet’s work was seen as a failed attempt in making art. These artists nevertheless continued following their vision. They didn’t believe in failure and eventually succeeded.
  • Of course curiousity is a very good trade for an artist to have. Steve Jobs and Walt Disney are mentioned as being fascinated and inspired by one idea they wanted to develop. Their passion and curiousity gives an artist a purpose in life.
  • Picasso was seen as an excellent thief. He started his artistic carriere copying Goya and El Greco, but as soon as he started stealing ideas: he stole van Gogh’s expressionism, Toulouse-Lautrecs subjects, Degas’ contours and Gauguins color planes.
  • An artist should be skeptical: being critical and acknowledging that you don’t exactly know how your work should be created – but getting it done anyway – is how Piero became one of the first painters who created an 3D effect in his paintings.
  • Luc Tuymans is an artist who knows how a small detail in a painting can become the way into a painting. Eye for adding detail which draws attention to the greater whole, like the pink dot on the lips of Vermeer’s girl with the pearl, is a trade that can make you become a very big artist. Gompertz actually had a very interesting story on this painting though: In 1994 the girl with the pearl was restored. Before the restoration, people were drawn into the painting through the shine on the ‘pearl’, which never was Vermeer‘s intention. By restoring, the restorers found out there was a chip of paint, stuck underneath the earring, it didn’t belong there, so the restorers removed it and the whole entrance to the painting changed.
  • Rembrandt had lost his inspiration after his wife Saskia died. All he needed was a new point of view to create his latest works, which are more unique than the paintings he created in the beginning of his carriere. His new point of view was shaped by his opinion on the sadness of old age.
  • Being brave, like Michelangelo, when he painted the ceiling in the Sixtine Chapel is also recommanded if you want to become a good artist.
  • Duchamp also had a trade, Gompertz thought we should adopt: he often sat in his chair, just watching at the progress of his painting. According to Gompertz: ‘Duchamp’s trick was that he thought more often than he was actually painting’.
  • And: at last, Gompertz is promoting an adaptation of our education. In school we usually learn what to think, but in stead, we should learn how to think, like is being thought in artschool. This also is the idea of an art collective called ‘Art Party’.

I’ve highlighted the 10 trades Gompertz thought an artist should adopt, by marking them bold.

Main intention of the book

As soon as I started reading the book: I did’t believe the book was meant to be a self help book. I picked the book because I thought it was, but I very soon realized that the book mainly just is an analysis on how artists approach life and their work.

I also believe the book was intended to be entertaining: the stories on all of the artists, on which I only cited a few, are definately so. I also believe that Gompertz realized that there were no other existing books yet, which analyzed the artistical trades in a way he did in this book.

Being creative is a 21st century trade: it means that employers in this century desperately are in need of employees who own this quality. Gompertz refers to this fact in his summary, which indicates that this book is written with the intention to highlight creativity, not as a quality in itself, but as an umbrella for different trades. This would make the book to be a ‘must read’ if you want to learn about the 21st century trades. This probably is the main intention of the book.

Does Gompertz gets to the point?

I think Gompertz’s curiousity made him write this book. You can feel Gompertz’s passion for this subject all throughout the book. But I do think Gompertz kinda was drifting on his passion when he wrote this book.

It is a very nice read: it is a fun read, but as I read about Picasso stealing from different other artists, or about Michelangelo’s bravery on painting the ceiling of the Sixtine Chapel, I actually forgot about what quality Gompertz was writing about.

Is this THE book to become a better artist?

No. It is an entertaining story, and it is a fuzzy analysis of the qualities that helped other artists to become master artists. But this analysis won’t help you become a better artist. And, like I said earlier: this book never was meant to be a self help book, even though the title (kinda) refers to that.

So what did I learn? Well: this book made clear that creativity is not a quality on its own; it’s more like an umbrella of trades. You could use this book to get a bit of an idea on how artists think, but if you want to become familiar with these trades, (which make you creative) you need to read more in depth studies.

After you read this book, you know you should develop your entrepeneurship’s qualities, you should learn to steal ideas, you should become brave, and skeptical. If you want to learn how to develop these qualities, you should get yourself another book or teacher, because the lesson on how to think like an artist, ends here.

How many stars?

Yes: let’s rate this book: it’s easy to read. It’s entertaining. For these two qualities, the book would get a four out of five. But for being useful, the book would only get a two out of five. Therefore: I will give it a three out of five.

Should I recommand the book? Yes: by all means; read it. It’s a fun read.

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