Do Artists Have To Have Cool Life Stories? – A Ramble

Well, at the time of writing, I still seem to be going through a phase of making studies of old out-of-copyright paintings (which will be posted here in early May). Here’s a preview of the one I finished a while after completing the first draft of this article, it’s a study of “Saudade” (1899) by José Ferraz de Almeida Júnior:

This is a reduced-size preview, the full-size painting will be posted here on the 5th May.

Anyway, as I mentioned yesterday, part of the process of making these pictures is doing online research to find public domain source material. This, of course, introduces you to lots of artists that you might never have heard of before and also reminds you of lots of artists that you vaguely remember reading about the last time you did this kind of research.

So, for today, I thought that I’d talk about artists’ life stories and whether artists have to have cool life stories. This is mostly because one of the artists that I vaguely remembered was an Art Nouveau artist called Gerda Wegener. From everything I read about her on Wikipedia, she seemed like a really cool person in all sorts of ways (even if, like many famous historical artists, her life had something of a tragic ending).

However, when I thought about making a study of some of her art, I suddenly remembered that virtually all of it was far too risqué to post here. One of the many things that had made her such a cool person was also a reason why I couldn’t make studies of her art. The only Wegener painting I could find that was “safe for work” is a really good “modern art”-style portrait of Lili Elbe which looks cool, but has the kind of bright low-contrast lighting which I don’t really use in my own art these days.

Then there were other cool artists like Austin Osman Spare and Pamela Colman Smith who both have interesting life stories and cool-looking art, but whose works are still in copyright in both the UK and mainland Europe. Then, of course, there’s the one and only Touko Laaksonen – whose art is unfortunately both still copyrighted and far too risqué to post studies of here.

Yet, on the other hand, there are artists with fairly “boring” or “uncool” life stories who have produced some really cool work.

Oskar Zwintscher (whose art I made a study of recently) seems to have a fairly understated life story (by old artist standards) on his Wikipedia page, and he also sounds like he was a grumpy cynic who didn’t like the new-fangled impressionist art of the time. Then again, given my own cynical views about modern conceptual art, I can hardly criticise him too much for not liking “trendy” art.

Then there are artists like Caravaggio – whose 16th/17th century art contains some of the most awesome lighting found in art from that period of history (seriously, some of his paintings are like heavy metal album covers… from before heavy metal was invented!). Yet, his life story seems to be a somewhat disturbing, depressing and tragic one – since he was also a violent criminal who had to spend the later parts of his life on the run from the authorities after stabbing someone. But, even so, his art is amazing!

I guess that what I’m trying to say here is that the only way to judge an artist is by their works. Yes, it can be interesting to read about artists who have had cool, interesting and/or hedonistic lives. But, this certainly isn’t a mandatory part of being an artist!

At the end of the day, being an artist is about making art. Not only that, it is about making art that you feel is cool (whatever that may be). If you make art that you feel is cool, then there are probably other people out there who will also think that it is cool.

So, yes, some great artists have had boring and/or crappy life stories and some have had amazingly cool ones. Nonetheless, they’re all great artists. Yes, an interesting life story can be fascinating to historians. But, at the end of the day, these people were recognised because they were good artists. The emphasis being on the word “artists” (eg: people who make art).

It’s kind of like the old misconception about drugs and creativity. Yes, some great creative people have taken a lot of drugs – but they produced great works despite this, rather than because of it. In other words, if you’re an inexperienced artist, writer, musician etc… then drugs won’t magically give you the skills that can only be gained through practice, research and/or experience. If anything, it will probably distract you from these important things.

The same is true for being obsessed with the silly idea that being a creative person means having a “cool” life story. Good creative people can have boring lives, or they can have cool ones. It doesn’t matter. The important thing is what they create.

Plus, everyone’s life contains a mixture of “cool” and “dull” elements. Biographies of artists inevitably end up emphasising the “cool” parts and downplaying the “dull” parts.

At the end of the day, a “life story” is just that, a simplified story that is told about the complexity of someone’s life.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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