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What is your Why? Questions to ask yourself

By Wendy Wagner

I had a recent discussion with a friend who is not an artist. She apologized for her lack of art knowledge but asked me interesting questions that provoked considerable thought. I’ve gotten the generic, “tell me about your work” inquiries, but this was the first time someone leaned in and pressed me further about my why.

She offered to me that there are two components to doing an activity:

  1. The external, which in this case encompasses the materials used, how they are applied, and the technical aspects of what you are doing, which is in this case making a portrait.

  2. The internal: What is the beauty of the soul that I create? What is the deeper feeling that I am trying to communicate?

There might be more questions here than answers, but I wanted to share my thoughts in hopes they might evoke a helpful internal review like they inspired in me.

1. What is your magic? What makes your art “you” as opposed to just being a picture?

This one felt a little tough: It’s hard to see what’s distinctively ‘ours’ in our own work, but easy to notice in others. I admit, I’m not quite sure. Maybe asking an outsider to describe my work would help with perspective on this.

2. What does it feel like when I draw? Or paint?

When standing at the easel, during the process, notice how you feel. Are you mentally present to the process or are you letting your mind wander elsewhere?

3. What is the experience of making art like?

Early on, I might have said it was fun, or satisfying, or maybe even rewarding to make people happy through something I’ve made. But because the experience of creating art evolves, this challenged me to think: What is it like now, at this point in my career? Do I feel the same in the studio as I did even 5 years ago? How have my feelings changed?

4. What is it like to see someone’s beauty that they do not see for themselves?

As artists who focus on portraits, we all know what it is like to study the model in front of us– to feel the energy of the person in the room and capture the essence of the sitter. Each portrait subject has a beauty, and it’s the artist’s goal to paint it.

5. What is it about portraying everyday people on canvas (over other subject matter) that is enticing?

Connection comes to mind. We all know that when you paint a subject you do not enjoy, it shows in the work. I have tried painting the “sellable” subject, but always return to people.

"Why," Oil on Canvas, 16x20"

6. Do I notice myself picking up certain aspects of people and carrying that throughout my work?

Example: some artists are drawn to darkness while others are attracted to whimsey or play. What shows up consistently in the work I create? As I looked at my drawings, melancholy came to mind. Perhaps I went through that phase and projected it on my subjects. Or perhaps I'm just drawn to that aspect of people.

7. Which qualities are learned, and which are innate?

I’d say, the technique and training is learned, but the unexplainable soul of the piece is made by each artist’s unique hand. It just appears.

8. Tell about the beauty in a recent piece.

I loved the pose in my drawing “A Quiet World” so much that I drew it in two mediums (red chalk and charcoal). I was curious to see if the drawing had the same feeling, or if the medium would project a different emotion.

Lastly, she asked what compels me to go to the studio everyday, even when it is hard, or things are not going well? What is the force that keeps an artist to show up consistently?

Many people have a calling- some are healers, some fight for justice, some build homes for others, some fix things…yet I choose to make art. Why?

I was caught off guard with her curiosity. No one had ever asked me such questions before, and it helped me take a deeper dive. For me, it’s the process, whether it’s feeling the charcoal glide across the paper or the brush on smooth linen. I love making something that touches another. Whatever the motivation, I think all artists can relate: A bad day in the studio is a better way to spend time than a good day at any other job!


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