Only Human

Last night, as I began teaching another painting workshop, I wondered again what motivates people to put up hard earned cash and move their bodies across town (sometimes across the country) to take a painting workshop. For the most part, these are not aspiring professionals wanting to hone their skills, but folks with careers in other lines of work. I used to think that painting was just a hobby for them and a group class was a safe bet for some entertainment and relaxation. But now I’m not so sure. I have given it some thought and I believe that there is a deeper, more fundamental motivation that drives us to want to learn to paint.

Artists Sketching in the White Mountains by Winslow Homer

“Artists Sketching in the White Mountains”
by Winslow Homer

We have written before about creativity and the new scientific studies investigating the human impulse to create. It is a fascinating subject precisely because it isn’t well understood, and because in some ways artistic creativity has no practical advantage (that we can see) for our immediate survival. For instance, it takes time and resources to make an object such as an essential tool. To then devote additional time to decorate that tool instead of using it immediately for hunting or preparing food, doesn’t make much sense when food is the priority. In a tribal context, everyone must contribute to the welfare of the whole for the tribe to prosper. So why do we find elaborate and extensive cave paintings made by neolithic hunters from 40,000 years ago? These tribes would have had to support those early artists – feed them – while they took time to make the paintings. Recently, archaeologists have found carved and decorated tools made by our primitive ancestors which are over 300,000 years old. The impulse to express something from within seems to be a very ancient need.

When I think about what motivates my students to be present, I now believe that it is related to that ancient need to create, apart from the other activities in their lives. There is something essential in the act of creation, or in simply learning to create, that answers this need. I can teach them all sorts of useful and necessary techniques which are helpful in the long run. But in the moment, which is all we really have, I try to keep in mind that if I fail to connect to the real reason they are present, then I probably have failed to connect with them at the most universal, fundamental level. It is love of creation that brings us together at these moments, and in that, we are all one big tribe.

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  • Chris

    I think I have a simple answer as to why people create if I can offer it up for consideration.
    If there is a creator, and we are “made in His image,” the Imago Dei as it were, then it follows that we too have this urge to create. It is, as you said, a fundamental and universal attribute that we share as humans that, it seems, reflects that divinity. Also, as you’d noted, this serves no evolutionary paradigm required for survival. But it is one way in which we are bound to each other as well as to testifying to His nature.

    • Sick of Fundamentalists

      Oh, so it’s because your “Sky Daddy” wants us to create? Hitler was an amateur artist…did sky daddy want him to create as well?

      I make the art. I do. Not your god or any others god. I do. I take the blame and I take the credit.

      If your going to attach religion to making art then let me off the bus. Religion is the reason for MOST of worlds suffering NOT it’s enlightenment. (Boko Haram?)

  • Mary Rose

    I believe we are all creative and artists want to solidify their originality or desire to make things, in whatever media [painting is only one form] they practice. I cannot understand that after so many years we are still studying creativity. It exists, and if we are careful and not conformist, we will not lose our human ability to create. I have attended many workshops and have never found a person who was not interested in being an artist and a better artist, and not just “having fun”. I would hope my Instructors do not patronize me or assume, because I am striving, that i am not serious. I work in many areas, photography [which is my business], metalsmithing, enameling, fabric, painting. I work very hard in each of these and i don’t wonder why i do it. It is natural to me and one media works with the others. And I am serious about eah one.

    • You say your an artist huh?

      Yes everyone “Says” they want to be a better artist but when you tell them that it’s not just smearing paint on a canvas for a few days but that it takes careful, deliberate, exhausting work of the course of around a DECADE they look at you like deer in headlights. And mutter…

      “Ten YeArS?”

      “Yes” I say, “ten years, at least”

      Why? Because it’s called a discipline and It cannot be purchased, borrowed or stolen. It defies 4th quarter earnings reports because the more you push to rush through it, it simply shuts down and sleeps like a mountain until you come back with proper reserve and deference. And no…it’s not earned, It’s AbSoRbEd! And once it is you can’t wash it out, your clothes smell of it, your eyes refuse to see anything else innocently ever again.

      Workshops that teach anything other than fundamental basics (parts of the whole) are scams. Nothing but scams.

  • Marilyn

    I recently attended The Crested Butte Plein Air Invitational. I am not an accomplished Plein Air painter, I just love being out in beautiful places with my oils. I love the excitement of setting up and painting one on one in the natural world. It is good physical exercise and a great mental challenge. I love meeting other artists and passers by, who often want to talk about how good it is to get out into the wild. I wish that everyone could have this experience. It is good for every aspect of being human. What better reason to engage in the process!