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Understanding art both historical and contemporary is a multi-layered thing. The formal elements of design - line, value, texture, color, form - are what an artist uses to make art. Sometimes it manifests in technically brilliant, masterful works. Other times different aspects - not drawing or painting - elevate a work.

All art is 'representational'. Throughout 40,000+ years humans have represented depictions of things visibly seen and also ideas. Representing ideas has always been at the core of art. Representational work has a built-in narrative that relates images directly to a viewer’s experience: built-in accessibility. Abstraction in its endless degrees all the way to installations generally does not. So it becomes more demanding, either aesthetically or conceptually than some (certainly not all) representational work.

Technique has always been an easy differentiator. A poorly drawn figure was obvious. I think many who dismiss contemporary art seek that clear differentiation. How do you assess a good installation from a bad one?

But even "good" becomes relative; are Egon Schiele's drawings good? If yes, then it's not because he drew as the traditional masters did; it's because the emotional expressive content of his work superseded the academic accuracy of depiction. Content was more important than technique.

Most great artists know how to draw. But more importantly, they know how to SEE. It doesn't matter how well somebody draws if what they draw has no meaning, because the technical aspects of drawing instead of seeing seduce them. I personally think that hand/eye coordination is an asset to any artist. But that's just a starting point. In and of itself, it's not enough.

Of course talent (however one defines it) and practice are necessary components in mastering any skill. However I've chosen my words carefully; those components only nurture skill. Sometimes skill or technical facility in contemporary art is completely irrelevant. When Anselm Kiefer creates one of his masterpieces, is it a legitimate question to ask whether the lead was skillfully applied to the substrate? When he burns the canvas, did he demonstrate his talent?

These questions simply don't apply.

Talent and practice are two starting points. There are many others, and when they are added up to make art, the whole has to transcend the sum of the parts. My point is that a skilled pianist can practice scales all day, but that won't turn him/her into Rachmaninoff. The "perfecting" or "mastering" of technical facility is just something that comes from practice. The 10,000 hours. So what? You'll never paint well enough, draw well enough, to achieve "mastery". Art-making is a process, you never reach the end. If you think you have, then stop.

The last century and a half has been about the content of art. Technical considerations are only relevant in terms of supporting the content. The exploration of an idea can be encompassed in one artwork (Duchamp's Fountain), a series of works (Jasper Johns, numbers or flags), or a never-ending exploration (Chuck Close...). It's the IDEAS that need to evolve; the technique takes care of itself by working.

My analogy for this is carpentry: if you try to drive a 3" nail into a piece of wood with a hammer, the first time you'll hit your finger, bend the nail, or if lucky, succeed with maybe 15 hits. After practicing for hours every day with hundreds of nails for a week, you'll pound the nail in with 5-6 hits, but will leave a hammer mark on the surface of the wood. After a couple of months and tens of thousands of nails later, you'll pound the nail in with 2-3 hits, and leave the wood surface untouched and the nail buried. (then they invented the nail-gun…). That's repetition and practice. However, you still haven't learned to build anything at all. You've only learned to drive a nail into wood. Mastering drawing, painting, line, color, brushwork, and the endless technical practices of art-making is simply learning the letters, the words. You’re learning the alphabet, the dictionary. Now you have to decide what you want to say…

About the Author

George Kozmon

George Kozmon

GEORGE KOZMON, an internationally collected artist, is best known for his monumental architectural paintings, which have been widely exhibited and critically acclaimed throughout the US and abroad. &...