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  • Writer's pictureDavid Brett

The secret to great authentic art ... it's surprisingly simple

Updated: Jan 6

Red abstract acrylic painting of a tree hanging on an artist's studio wall
New leaf: a painting from my latest collection that includes newspaper cuttings from stories that I have worked on

Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom — Aristotle

You might have come across this philosophical nugget, but phrased differently, in the movie Magnum Force when Clint Eastwood as Inspector Harry Callahan utters the immortal words — after the baddie comes to an unfortunate end — 'a man's gotta know his limitations' .

But how many of us are wise enough to really know ourselves, not just our preferences and likings, or dislikings, not merely our core principles and behaviours, but the essential truth. No ego. Our failings. Our limitations.

Well, truth is the basic feature of good art. Honesty. Authenticity. These are words that make the difference in a creative work; that invest it with something more, that lift it above the simple aesthetic exercise that it might otherwise be.

For that to happen, an artist has got to know why they are doing something in the first place and why they are doing it in a certain way. And, yes, their limitations - but only for the express purpose of pushing against them.

At the route of everything is communication. Whether it be a still-life, abstract, nude or landscape, there is a reason why someone has felt moved enough to choose such a subject and then produce an artwork from it (although sometimes that reason can be hard to fathom).

Even if the purpose is as simple as I like the colour red and so I paint red things, it is still a form of communication of this truth.

Each artist has a unique perspective. A vision shared with none other, whether the aim is just to copy a different artwork. What you see in a painting, for example, is a statement of one person's mediated experience of their world.

Of course, we the viewer will bring our own interpretations and preferences based on a different personal history. Such as, I hate red things and, therefore, red paintings (BTW: I don't).

But the important thing is that something is being said. And beyond the image itself, the mission statement is a vital part of that communication. A picture may tell a 1,000-word story, but, hey, you can't beat someone accompanying that rich meaningful image with 1,000 extra words explaining why they are telling that story.

So it is something of a mystery why some of us, when we create those personal artworks, don't know exactly why we're doing what we're doing.

In the past I've questioned why my art has gone down certain lines, and looked upon it as a world apart from the central path of my life, namely journalism.

Then an epiphany led me to think differently about what I was doing. My art should be about all of my life. If it is to have more meaning, it should cover my central experience — and overlap and interact with the other parts.

Why did it take so long for this to click?

Picking over the bones of who we are, what we have done and what those experiences have made us, I believe makes for richer art.

With that honesty comes vulnerability, because the work is much more connected to us when it goes out there.

And because of that, I believe its appeal is only increased, allowing others to respond to it more favourably. All of this helps to create great authentic art.

So now, in my current collection, I'm collaging onto the canvas newspaper cuttings of stories on which I've worked as a journalist. The articles tell of our times and are a record of the world's recent events, but they also a personal history.

It could be said that headlines are making my art, rather than my art making the headlines.

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