The Artistic Breakthrough

“I feel that there is nothing more truly artistic than to love people.”
Vincent Van Gogh

The Artistic Breakthrough

The Artistic Breakthrough is a sudden, often shocking, event where you see the world with new eyes. To put a finer point on it, you might hear music with new ears or taste food with a new tongue.

To see your work and the world around you with new eyes is exciting and a moment that is embraced. One has labored hard for a long time and a Breakthrough is a rare thing. It will add depth and understanding to your work and insight into other’s work.

It is a cousin to what the spiritual practitioners call Enlightenment or Sudden Illumination. Artists and the followers of spiritual matters will tell you that to have done it once is not the end; one must continue to work to another and another and another. It is a life journey.

Central to achieving an Artistic Breakthrough is paying attention to what you are doing. The artist is using their technique to craft a work and will keep applying technique to work after work after work. This is what the artist lives for in life.

There can be small Breakthroughs of sudden understanding how things look or work. There can be big ones. The noticed thing is that the artist is also, while making work, hoping for a big one. This requires a relentless honesty about the work itself which will make artists very honest people.

If you meet a liar who says that he is an artist, he is not. He is a poser and, probably, trying to leverage a lucrative career as a con job. He is disgusting.

There is no scale or measuring tape. Personally, I have had three major Breakthroughs in thirty years of work. Moments that I can pin down when all of the prior work that I had done suddenly fell into place like a box of jigsaw puzzle pieces dumped on a table and magically fitting all together. Moments when my eyes are following lines along edges with a clarity. I felt like I could break on through to the other side.

You can’t fool yourself. One can not be at Joe’s Bar waiting for a Breakthrough to be hit upside the head.

Sometimes I think that the artist has only two goals. The first is to transcend technique and the other is the Artistic Breakthrough. This would explain all of the Untitled, ver. 3s and the Blue Periods, more and more work. Maybe one piece might be called a work of Art.

The sudden or shocking element is a piece of the description. Everyone has heard stories of near-death experiences when the person afterwards is completely changed. I don’t recommend that! There is the terrific story of the Initiate who visits his Guru master and asks for the meaning of life; and the Guru punches him in the nose! Clearly, the Guru was trying to shock his follower into enlightenment more than the desire to hurt him. Some cults have a process of shocking their initiates (the Freemasons, as I recall) trying to create the shock and fear of death and even hazing in Fraternities have their roots in trying to induce a shock to achieve sudden understanding. Let us agree that it is better to keep working on the work and let the moments come.

Unlike technique, the Artistic Breakthrough gives a broader understanding. One now can have an “opinion” on works in other fields outside of their own. The visual artist might have interest and insight into music, searching for the same elements of the new understanding; first and foremost is honesty in the work. This is why so many art forms have some common language outside of technique; “being grounded” is one example.

Look for the rare moments of Breakthroughs in your life. The big ones will change the way you see the world and life around you. Each step through a portal will give a clarity and insight that encourages the next step along your journey. Work on your life and live for your work until you can stand still and Love.

The Art of Technique

“To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.”
Mary Oliver

The Art of Technique

One facet of Art Making is Technique. Any task that requires the learning of a skill would be considered Technique. Examples are brush strokes when painting, chords in music, chopping onions with cooking, focusing the camera in photography.

All Technique is ultimately very specific. Ballet dancers practice bending their knees! For an artist, it is not enough to simply bend the knees; technique will take one deeper and deeper into the mechanics — modulating a guitar chord with a whammy bar, for example.

The purpose of practicing Technique is so that when you are working in your craft, or crafting something, that you don’t have to stop the process to focus on how to place your fingers or bend your knees and can really get into the craftsmanship.

Many artists work on their technique every day. Misty Copeland, the premier ballerina for the American Ballet will be at the barre on the morning before a performance. The great actors still take voice lessons every week.

Some artists will comment on their Technique; Sylvia Plath wrote on banishing the apostrophe, Stephen King wants to do away with adverbs and Mark Twain said that if you would insert “damn” every time you wanted to write “very” then you could let your editor delete it for you.

There is a paradox in being an artist in that you must declare yourself an artist before you actually arrive at being an artist. In this, it means that you are simply paying attention.

The difference between a Craftsman and an Artist is that sometimes the Craftsman will think that he had a really good day. The Artist will recognize that something more has happened and will try to really make it work.

The “something more” is when, for a brief time, that artist transcends their Technique. Everything falls into place and for a short time everything is incredibly easy. It is an addictive high that artists keep searching for again and again.

Basketball players get a “hot hand”. For 15 minutes, every shot they take will go in. They will say that the hoop was ten feet wide. This is because they have spent hours and years working on their shooting technique; simple mechanics like back spin, flicking the wrist, follow-through — over and over and over again. The pay off is when those magical moments happen: transcending technique, every shot goes in; even the crazy over the shoulder without looking shot.

We have all experienced it. Some for brief periods, a minute, when everything flows and you can see ten moves ahead. It is a high and we feel great. As an artist, one knows that this is the time to take a risk. You don’t decide to be “risky” in your art making, the transcendent moment is what you are looking for.

There are Great Artists. Fellows way above you and I. Beethoven may have been transcending his technique for years. Einstein got hot for a few years. The Great One’s may have an arc that spans a year or more but it is very rare. You’ll see that the volume of their work, outside of the transcendent period, is mostly just craftsmanship; making work.

When you are paying attention, you can also see when other artists were in the moment. Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath has a chapter that is so different than all of his other writing and yet fits so perfect. Pick up the book and look for Chapter Eight. He could feel it and went off!

In this, the idea can be expanded to think that almost anything can be an art form. Think of that bartender who, in a moment, decided to add salt to the rim of a margarita — I guess you could call it inspiration but I can promise that he wasn’t sitting at his desk waiting; he was working.

To be an Artist, one must work on Technique. Pay attention to what you are doing, don’t let repetition dull you into simple mechanics. Find the depth in the camera, the weight of the knife, the feel of the guitar pick or the strength of a single word in a sentence.

This way, when you are working in your craft, you will recognize those moments and go for it!


Technique is one facet of Art Making. Artists are also looking for Break-Throughs where you see the world in a new light … and so much more.

Imagine, for a moment, the collaborative artist. A choreographer needs dancers to work on the technique of making dances. A teacher needs a classroom and not only has to teach but also pay attention to the technique of teaching! It is a lot to work on but the pay off is sweeter than any other reward in life.

Teacher as Artist is an interesting idea. Congressman as Artist, Tennis Player as Artist and so on.

Listen to the interview with a great basketball player. He will never talk about beating an opponent; it will always be things like “I could feel the floor” or “I needed to get my legs under my body”, technique stuff.


Finally, watch the world around you. There will be people who do repetitive stuff. A few of them will elevate their work to an Artform. A waitress in the coffee shop, find the one who as made work effortless. The cop, the newspaper writer, the car mechanic, the singer in the church choir: appreciate how they have taken Technique to a new level. There are not many, so pay attention!