From the
very moment you made the brave, overconfident, reckless, socially inconvenient decision
to apply at an art academy, I have seen you as a young colleague. I, too,
decided I was going to be an artist when I was 17. A little hesitant at first, I
spent my time around art, but more so on the applied side of things, which
seemed to offer a little more financial stability. But after graduating, I took
the plunge. I turned 60 last year and haven’t regretted my choice for even a
single day. I couldn’t have wished for a more fulfilling life.

Now this is the part where I’d talk about the
downsides – they do exist, but I’ll put it off for a while as you’re already
getting hit over the head with downsides in this day and age.

I was probably
quite headstrong and curious about studying everything I didn’t know yet, very
much at ease with contemplating, reading and observing. Realise that we didn’t
have smartphones or computers, and unless you wrote letters or used a landline
to make phonecalls, you could be out of touch with everyone but the people in
your direct surroundings for months. I recall the oceans of spare time, the
boredom, but also the freedom to pick up whatever captured my fascination. I
had no learning goals or a master plan whatsoever, but I was aware that I knew
very little indeed. Newspapers, literature, poetry, history, philosophy, the
bible, biographies, even encyclopaedias – I read everything I could get my
hands on, often several books at once. Sometimes
I wouldn’t be sure why I even picked up a book after having finished it, at my
wits’ end that I didn’t have the intellectual capacity to comprehend the
writing, let alone to contextualise it.

Having been
trained as an illustrator, I suffered from an abundance of effect-oriented
mannerisms; my drawings were focused on visual niceties, and were disconnected
from the function that drawing should serve. The means to understand a shape, tracing its
outlines, observing the play of light on it. It wasn’t until a lot of time and practice
later that I managed to learn to do boring, investigative drawing with the
purpose of getting a feel for the shape before starting on a painting. These
are drawings that you can’t sell, they’re found in a sketchbook or on a sheet
of paper that you cut templates from.

I often say
I’ve had to learn everything by myself, I tell people I’m a self-taught
painter, forgetting the semiweekly model drawing classes, the practical
training in the graphics room, with a teacher and unsupervised on Fridays (hurray!),
typography, typeface drawing and calligraphy, graphic design and working in the
in-house printshop serving the applied departments, photography, analogue, both
black-and-white and colour. And all this for three years.

My
understanding of art history was limited at the time, I thought I was a real
hot shot doing my graduation thesis on “abstract book illustration”. Limitations
notwithstanding, it introduced me to notions like visual poetry, Paul van
Ostaijen and Guillaume Apollinaire, illustrations by Jean Arp, poetry by
Francis Ponge (“listen carefully and you’ll find almost everything can’t talk”)
and the concept of an artist’s book.

That may
sound pretty clever, but in my studio in a squatted building, above a Turkish
club, I was mostly studying Matisse, Dufy, while also doing material etchings I
printed on a wooden mangle. My paintings generally featured my new girlfriend
and me, naked on a bed (Luxe, Calme et
Volupté
). This new girlfriend and I have stayed together ever since, and
she was the one who pushed me to apply at Jan van Eyck Academy in Maastricht.

My advice
to you, young artist, whether you’re a lad or a girl, is that it’s best to
enter a relationship while the both of you are still developing. That way, you
can grow together, both in your own way, since you do have to give the other
person space. And if you’re lucky, you’ll grow older together, and as long as
you keep living your own life and have friends of your own, you’ll still be
exciting to one another. It’s always handy to be with someone who needs as much
freedom as you, as it’s nothing but trouble when people demand your attention when
you’ve just sat down to read something beautiful, or when you’re delving deeper
into your visual research. Taking on too many responsibilities is also
something to be wary of, especially in the early days of a relationship; decorating
your rented flat with trinkets from a thrift shop is a lot wiser for an artist than
settling down. You may also want to
avoid having children at an early age: spending a lot of time together, travelling,
looking around, exhibiting, creating, and then, if the relationship lasts, having
kids is great too.

Like so
many things in (an artist’s) life, it takes luck. There are limits to the
amount of control you have. When it comes to having kids, being with another
artist is ideal. You can set your own times, allowing you to take studio and
parenting days at will, plus time for yourself (even if that just involves
sleeping or dreaming in your studio) and the intimacy of your newborn love.

Try to stay
close to yourself in your studio and make sure you can empty yourself. That’s
not always an easy task, especially after an exhibition where you didn’t get
any sales, after unkind remarks by gallery people and family members, not
having a gallery at all is no walk in the park either. Broken promises, radio
silence when you’d expected contact, after a rejected grant request or
exhibition proposal. Feeling jealous is counterproductive – it’s just the
reality of working in a field where many (good) colleagues are active, and
limited budgets mean choices have to be made between the good ones. Life is
most pleasant for those who show good sportsmanship, exchange advice and offer
help.

At the risk
of sounding too soft, jealousy is best replaced by competition. I have
interpreted artistic letdowns as a call to action to improve my work even
further, phrase my thoughts even more clearly, communicate even more carefully and
astound my audience with undeniably great work. “Something ‘they’ can’t ignore.”

It’s also
wise to avoid sticking around in bad collaborative situations for too long; if
there are any business partners you’re constantly having angry internal
dialogues with, you should at least tell them what’s on your mind. And if you can’t have a proper conversation,
there’s no saving that working relationship. Ending it is preferable to staying
in a bad one. Sure, you need to be pragmatic, but your inner stability is what
counts. Aside from the lovely people working in galleries, there are also some
who don’t have those people skills. And your identity and productivity as an
artist is of daily essence to you, you have your own best interests at heart, while
a gallery can only divide its attention among the artists it represents. It’s
not an equal relationship, that’s just the way it is.

It’s
important to keep an eye out for small successes, things in your direct
surroundings. Being an artist means you’re in it for the long haul, and you can
expect to discover new aspects of yourself throughout your whole life. You find
yourself making things you could only have dreamt of years before. What has
aided me the most is studying; improving and broadening my technical and
artisanal skills. Being eager to learn about new materials, their properties
and the way they can be used. Taking the time for this allows your brain to
breathe, your thoughts about, say, a new motif can enter a more relaxed train
of thought, and hey presto!, the thing you were trying to force through just
happens of its own accord. For me, this also happens when I copy “the masters”.
Spending more time looking at your predecessors’ works transports you into
their thoughts and the decisions they took as creators, which is very
educational.

Another
recommendation: try to view as much contemporary art as you can. Schedule a day
a month to visit all the galleries you can find in a city, write down your
observations, the things you’ve read, and what stood out. This is the world you
belong to. Don’t stick to the comfort zone of art you like the feel or medium
of, but try to understand the concept behind work that’s less approachable to
you. Choose a different city every once in a while, but be sure to make the
rounds regularly, so you get to know the exhibition policy and artists at various
galleries and other art spaces. When a gallery owner sees you drop by more
often, he or she will understand that you’re interested in what they do. This
can lead to them asking you what you think of a given exhibition. That’s the
beginning of a conversation right there – networking in practice. Even if
you’ll never show any work there yourself, it’s a joy to walk around a major
art fair where you have plenty of contacts; a chat here, a compliment there, maybe
even a retrospective on the days of yore and the exhibiting artist’s new work, and
you’ll have carved out your own place in the art world.

Do not
under any circumstances blithely walk into places showing off your portfolio, nobody’s
got time for that sort of thing. The only outcome will be an awkward situation
and hurt feelings.

Be sure to
contribute to (group) exhibitions whenever you can, you’ll also meet artists on
your monthly gallery tour, discuss each other’s work and arrange plans for new
possibilities. If you have it in you, you can write a blog, analyse or observe
the work of your colleagues that stands out to you, and publishing magazines or
pamphlets can help foster recognition. My magazine Ezel, which is currently Dutch-only, will soon be offered at art
fairs in Shanghai and New York with an English translation, and my expectations
are high. After all, despite the fact that I’m past 60 and have seen plenty of
successes, I’m still incredibly eager to find out what I can achieve in my work.

There’s
much more I want to say, but I think you’ve probably heard enough out of me at
this point, we can always carry on our conversation when we run into each other
in this beautiful field of ours. We’ll travel together for a while, and then
continue on our separate, great adventures.

(this letter was written for Witte rook, Breda and published on their website)

https://witterook.nu/artikelen/advies-aan-de-jonge-kunstenaar-15/