Brush strokes

a newsletter from nicholas pearce


June 2015

What is art, what is good art?

I had a brilliant idea – OK, I thought it was brilliant – for this long overdue issue of BrushStrokes. It involved my iPhone, an app called iTalk, and a quick push of the ‘on’ button just as I started my presentation at Painters’ Lodge during the annual celebration of art called Painters at Painters’.

I was going to push the button, and record the whole thing. Then I’d post the recording online, and provide a link to it.

The presentation was called Let’s Talk: a conversation with the audience about the nature of art and the creative process. I’d been dreaming about doing it since May 2014, the previous year’s Painters event. As the title implies, it wasn’t going to be just me pontificating (although I admit to enjoying that, too). I wanted to ask the audience their thoughts about two questions I’d been pondering ever since taking a course on the philosophy of art at the University of Victoria, back in 2002.

At the first class in September, the prof told us we’d be looking at two questions: What is art, and what is good art. Great, I thought. I’ve been struggling with those questions ever since I stopped being a newspaper illustrator and tried to make the transition to fine art.

So you can imagine my chagrin when, just before Christmas, the professor said, “Of course, you realize there ARE no answers to those two questions.”

Oh, was I cheesed. But eventually I realized what was going on. He was talking about philosophy – the philosophical theories of what art is, looking for answers with no exceptions. If there was an exception, the theory was dumped. (I argued with him that in almost any other branch of science, exceptions to rules are tolerated. He wasn’t buying it, although he did give me a good grade.)

Fast forward a few years, and I was beginning to offer art classes myself. I still had some residual cheesed-off-ed-ness at that class and that prof, and I worried it like a sore tooth.

I wanted to pose the question to my students, because I still thought it was a good question. And then I realized it was a question we all had the answer to, or we wouldn’t be able to do what we do.

In a way, though, my prof was right. There is no one answer to what is art, and what is good art. But every person who is engaged in the process of creating art must answer the question for themselves. So there are many answers – and the people at Painters’ Lodge shared theirs, as I scribbled down key words.

Communication. Engagement. What sells. Breaking through reality. Provocative space. Pleasure. Experiential. A journey. (And, for some strange reason, XXX – which I recall was my shorthand for exciting.)

We went on for over an hour, sharing our perspectives. I learned a lot, and from the feedback I received over the rest of the weekend, so did the audience – artists and aficionados alike.

But at the end, I had one of those “oh, no” moments, and I’m sure you’ve already guessed what it is.

In the excitement of being on stage, I’d forgotten to push the button to record the event.

So if any of you are at Painters at Painters’ next year and are attending my talk, I’d appreciate it if you’d give my memory a jog. I hate making the same mistake twice!

Two of my latest works

After years of painting faces but not really portraits, I’m ready to take on the real thing. This one is me.

I love the composition in Out of the Darkness. It’s X-shaped, focusing the viewer on the very centre of the canvas. It’s a departure from my usual composition; I usually push to the edges of the canvas, and incorporate large, blank spaces in the middle. This one reverses that order. Most people love it, but those who don’t aren’t shy to say so!

Quotes on art

What is art? Well, what did Aristotle say? And Kosinski, and Picasso?

Following are 10 quotes I collected for my Painters’ talk. I love them all (especially the last one). But they’re no substitute for an artist’s own perspective on what his or her art is all about.

The principle of true art is not to portray, but to evoke.

Jerzy Kosinski

The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.


Art is not a handicraft; it is the transmission of feeling the artist has experienced.

Leo Tolstoy

Some painters transform the sun into a yellow spot; others transform a yellow spot into the sun.

Pablo Picasso

Every artist dips his brush in his own soul, and paints his own nature into his pictures.

Henry Ward Beecher

Every good painter paints what he is.

Jackson Pollock

Good art is art that allows you to enter it from a variety of angles and to emerge with a variety of views.

Mary Schmich

In art, the hand can never execute anything higher than the heart can imagine.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.

Cartoonist Scott Adams

Creativity isn’t making things up. Creativity is making things work.

Nicholas Pearce