Open up any contemporary art magazine today specializing in mostly representational painting and you will find two things. First, there are a lot of artists offering workshops. Second, a lot of the artwork looks similar. Particularly with the plein air scene.
Now, before I alienate my artistic brethren and workshop instructors, I offer this olive branch: workshops and early emulation have their place. Lord knows I'm in no position to offer myself as a fully actualized, authentic artist. The powerful influences of my painting idols ( both past and contemporary) still intrude upon my artistic expression.
In one piece I might begin tight, working out from that center of interest into a looser spiral of near abstraction. Upon completion I smile briefly, pleased with the result. But then I realize the subtle, flawed echo of Richard Schmid. Perhaps I hunker down with a limited palette of Vasari oils and craft a painterly little piece, with tonal colors and close values. Yes, I am well pleased with the result...for a bit. But then, reluctantly, I feel myself in the shadow of Scott Christensen.
A lot of landscape paintings look alike because there's only so many trees, streams, mountains, old trucks, barns, waves and sunsets to paint. They also look alike because everyone is trying to copy their favorite painters. And yet, some artists seem to rise above the mediocrity with truly unique and original work.
We know it when we see it. You turn a page in an art magazine and "bam!" it hits you like a freight train. "Now that's cool," you might blurt out in the book store as patrons stare at you. What possessed Brent Cotton to produce palette knife paintings like that, you might ponder? How on earth did John C. Traynor develop such a splendid, old world look to his work?
If I see one more detailed piece by Dennis Doheny or tree bark by T. Allen Lawson, I might have to burn my pochade box. And don't get me started about Clyde Aspevig or Jeremy Lipking! Don't these artists know that the rest of us have feelings? No wonder we're all running from workshop to workshop, trying to chase down that kernel of wisdom or secret technique that will jettison us into the echelons of Sargent and Sorolla.
So here's the deal. Take those workshops, copy those museum masterpieces until you've reached a level of true proficiency. Then stop all that. Pack up your paint box easel and spend some serious time digesting the world around you. Slow down, even when you think you're wasting time.
Study, think, experiment, and stop trying to ape someone else. Inside you is a unique voice. It has been whispering in your ear for a long time, waiting for you to blossom. There is another voice telling you that you're no good. That voice is in all of us and has denied the world far too many potential masters. Ignore it.
If you reach deep inside yourself and combine your authentic voice with the skills you have honed, you'll be on your way. But beware, they just might start asking you to teach a few workshops.