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What will your legacy be?

By Kate Orr

John Singer Sargent, "Mrs. George Swinton" detail

Schmidt, Kinstler, Sargent, Waterhouse, Van Gogh, Rockwell, Vermeer, Rosetti, Caravaggio.

These are names that spark images of beauty, brushwork, and brilliance. We all know and love countless artists whose legacies are recognized by museums and art-lovers across the world. Any time we discover new pieces by beloved artists, it feels like finding hidden treasure! We seek to learn by analyzing their brushstrokes, paint application, and design. Seeing their paintings up close never fails to inspire.

What is it that distinguishes these artists from all of the others who were similarly skilled and sensitive? Is it their cultural success? Is it exquisite talent? Is it chance?

Legacy is defined as:

“The long-lasting impact of particular events, actions, etc. that took place in the past, or of a person’s life.”

The artists that are so dearly beloved, even after their passing, are treasured by those whose lives they directly impacted. Through friendships, relationships, mentorships, and books, people who felt valued and moved by these artists told their stories to others and continued to share their art.

Peter Paul Rubens, "Self Portrait," 1623

Sometimes, artists with great legacies were infamous for their dark and tumultuous lives. This is certainly seen throughout history, yet those who are the most beloved are surely people who capture an essence of warmth and empathy in their art. Joy, purity, softness, love, radiance, intelligence, depth… whatever it may be that we see reflected in their paintings, it draws us in emotionally just like a book or a movie.

We are all inspired by different things. This is seen beautifully in groups of artists who painted the same scene. Each painting is painted with different brushstrokes, compositions, and color mixtures. The Face-Off at the Portrait Society Conference demonstrates this exactly. While a group of two to five artists may be studying the same person, they each capture a different quality of their model that stands out or resonates with them.

You may be drawn to illustrate the more commonplace beauty; the simple gems that may be often overlooked. Maybe you are elated by nature, like billowing clouds and majestic trees. Perhaps your eye is caught by jewels, rich fabrics, lovely faces, and brilliant movement. Whatever it is that you decide to paint, draw, or sculpt, it should inspire and excite you! When you begin painting, it is so much more fulfilling and enjoyable when you love what you see.

Anders Zorn, "A Musical Family," 1905

Your life is reflected in your art. We all know this and observe it in our own and others’ work. You can’t help but think of a person’s character when you see their paintings. Their boldness in strength of pigment or mark making. Their gentleness in soft transitions and lifelike eyes. Their focus with endless details. The same is true for you, whether or not you can see it yet.

Naturally, working hard to study and practice is crucial to developing skillful art that will tell the story you want to share. Technique is a tool that you can use to better connect with people who see your art. Misplaced proportions or lack of harmony stands out to people – to non-artists just as well as artists. These are obstacles that become easier over time, so that you can better communicate what inspired you.

Your personal life and your quality of art go hand-in-hand to create the legacy of your dreams. Artists need people. We need people to support our careers. We need people to grow and learn. We need people to continue our legacy when we’re gone.

I’m sure you know artists who are always active and social, just as you know artists who may be living the hermit artist stereotype. You can attend every event you know of, or you can come out of your studio once a year! What matters is how you spend that time. Your attentiveness to others and your encouragement of fellow artists. How do you communicate your disagreements? How do you show your appreciation when others recognize or collect your art?

Kate admires Clausen's "The Girl at the Gate"

Without patrons who recognized their skill and passion, there would be no art passed down to us at all. Wouldn’t that be horrible? No Sargents to study, no statues to admire, and no paintings to move and inspire us!

Your art matters. Find a way to connect with others in a way that feels balanced for you. Accept encouragement and recognition when it comes, and give to others what you appreciate receiving. A positive comment can go a long way, and you never know how much buying a $100 painting could help the artist.

Legacy is a gift to those who are remembered and to those who are positively influenced as a result. It’s not a destination, but a journey. You can build your own legacy through your connection with others, your work ethic, and by creating art that inspires you.


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