What Does it Mean to be a Master?

Eakins, The Writing Master
The Writing Master, Thomas Eakins
Letters to a Young Painter

Dear S.,

I received your last letter. You asked me what does it mean to be a master? That is a question whose answer is very subtle. We recognize a master as presented in a museum, of course. But what does it mean to be a master now without history filtering the choices. There are characteristics that are easily recognizable in a masterwork such as craftsmanship and skill with drawing and the brush. These are things that one must study diligently how to render what you see correctly will give you the ability to capture your ideas whether they end up being naturalistic or abstract. Studying from life will also build a memory for form and color. And as one develops one’s images, this memory bank will allow the language of form and color to speak to one and reveal layers of meaning that are more subtle and unexpected.

One must put their 10,000 hours in and it is only by working through a practice on a daily basis that one will be prepared for the bigger moments when inspiration lays something significant at your doorstep. Without such preparation for that moment, one will not have the skill to capture the essence of the meaning and emotion being presented. So much of being a master is work, patience, study and more work. There is a necessary obsessiveness to perfection. It drives one to constantly render the image until it feels right. And be prepared for the reward to be insignificant to the labor.

What also makes a master is the pursuit of what is truly human. All great artists make one feel the profundity of the human condition. They express our deepest emotions that remain unspoken, unidentified, but when one witnesses these images and partakes of them, one can say ‘yes, that is true of me.’ They also bring us into relationship with a greater whole, an archetypal correspondence. One not only sees oneself anew, but one’s greater relationship and responsibility to one another.

The most mysterious thing that identifies a master  is something so elusive and hard to grasp- the source of inspiration, the muse. It is an interior conversation, a dialogue between artist and inspired source. And it is the means by which images find the exact form that they are seeking and no other. This is an intuitive trait and cannot be studied or extracted from any source. This is also the trait that is most individual. And the fact that it is so keenly individual should give you hope. Every artist is a unique person with a unique vision of the world and because it is so personal, it will inevitably appear singular. William Blake believed that every artist that is engaged in manifesting his particular vision adds a stone to the city of Golgonooza, the place where all images reside. And this stone is laid by the manifest individuality of an artist. Maybe you will have a chance to lay your own stone upon this structure.

Author: Judith Reeve

For nearly 30 years I've developed my painting practice in the studio, building on what I leaned from my student days at the Lyme Academy of Fine Art. Along with my daily journey creating images which I write about here on this blog, I am also currently writing a book on the color practice of Robert Henri.

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