-By Howard Lyon

What is more important to you, great ideas or killer skills?  I am not saying that it is either/or, or that you shouldn’t aim for both, but asking you to consider that if at the end of your career, if you had to choose, would you rather be known for expressing profound and compelling ideas, or painting with incredible skill and dexterity?

It is hard to imagine a great piece of art without a large measure of both, but I have pieces that I admire more for one than the other and will present some of those later in this post.

While I don’t subscribe to the thought that if someone says it is art that I have to agree, there are pieces that I admire more for the idea than the skill involved in the creation.  The overall quality of a piece of art is also a little slippery to quantify due to the subjective aspects of art.  There is no scale upon which measure the ‘artiness’ of a piece.  So, keep in mind that I will be offering my opinions and asking for feedback to help round out my thoughts.


I would say that “found object” art can be purely ‘idea’ art.  Marcel Duchamp’s “ready-mades” were pieces that Duchamp took and declared were art.  There was not any personal execution of skill involved on the part of Duchamp, other than maybe arrangement, just his attempt to change perception and pose an idea.

I am not particularly fed by Duchamp’s Fountain.  I like my art with a little more skill and less urine stains.

Just today I saw a post about Jeff Koons copying a Dark Horse figure of Popeye, but making it shiny and rebranding it as high art.  He had permission to copy it.  I am sure there was some real expertise involved in getting casting the figurine, though not as much skill as the original sculptor.  He took something that existed and reformulated it.  By the way, he sold it for $28 million dollars…  I wonder how much the original sculptor made?  Here is the story.  I see this as the selling of an idea, not skill.


On the other end of the spectrum, I would place work done solely for beauty’s sake.  Paintings that are purely done as an exhibition of skill, done to such a degree that the patron admires it regardless of what it may or may not be expressing.  It is hard to say that there is no ‘idea’ or ‘concept’ being expressed, but I think it is fair to say that some paintings the idea definitely takes a distant back seat to the execution.

Above is a Godward painting titled “A Grecian Lovely”.  This is not one of my favorite paintings by him but I chose it because I think it is a piece that doesn’t have a big concept behind it, but lives essentially on the merits of how skillfully it is painted.  I am not aware of any great symbolism here, or underlying motif, just a well painted “lovely”.  While I admire this painting, I do find myself wanting a little more from art.
I think that as artists, and especially illustrators, we are inclined to appreciate paintings that exhibit technical skill.  We can appreciate the effort that went into the painting, even if it doesn’t connect to us. I also find that most artists wince a little at the feedback of “this looks like a photograph!”  I enjoy any compliment, my ego loves a good meal, but I think my most successful paintings are those that connect with the viewer through the concept or meaning first and then the technique.
Skills and Ideas

Much of the 20th century was spent beating skill out of the art schools.  In my college experience the illustration students had separate classes from the fine art students.  We both took life drawing but the goals stated were completely different.  The illustration students were trying to learn accuracy and refining observation while the fine art students were all about expressing an idea, drawing inspiration from the model in front of them.  It was even referred to as ‘conceptual figure drawing.’

I was talking just a month ago to one of my professors and he said that he was in a class of one of the other teachers.  This was on the board:

Art should not exhibit:
1. Skill
2. Emotion

I find that rather shocking and disheartening.  The art I love has a lot of at least one of those things, and often a good dose of both!

There has been a resurgence of academic training with great schools like Grand Central Academy and The Florence Academy of Art.  Artists can once again find the rigorous training and similar structure to that which produced so many great artists in the past.  However, the ability to render accurately will not produce a Rubens or Waterhouse alone.

Walking through galleries I see many incredible paintings with a similar theme “figure with fabric”.  I admire them, and they have a valuable place in any artists work, but I hope that we soon see a bigger emphasis on expressing a bigger idea or narrative.

*side note: James Gurney accurately states that “narrative” is not a very good term because a narrative needs a sequence of events.  He suggests that Detective Storytelling is a more descriptive term.  I like it.

That thought is alive and well in the illustration world.  It is what we are asked to do with most commissions.  It is expected that illustrators have skill but also be able to express concepts.  It is why I am proud to call myself an illustrator.  If you read about the Prix de Rome contests held in the French Academy, you will see that the winner was expected to express both a clear and impactful idea but also paint with exceptional skill.  It was a brutal process, putting students through a series of exercises intended to extract the very most out of each entrant.

I was talking about this last week with Peter Mohrbacher and Samuel Flegal on their webcast One Fantastic Week.  Pete and Sam had some good thoughts.  You can watch the video here: One Fantastic Week, episode 25. If you want to skip to the part where we talk about this subject, jump to the 48 minute mark.

Starting out

For me, a moving and powerful painting exhibiting skill and technique.
The Captive Slave by John Philip Simpson

As a student, I think it is important to focus on skill.  I am going to call on William Bouguereau to back me up.  Here is a quote:

“Theory has no place in an artist’s basic education. It is the eye and the hand that should be exercised during the impressionable years of youth. It is always possible to later acquire the accessory knowledge involved in the production of a work of art, but never — and I want to stress that point — never can the will, perseverance, and tenacity of a mature man make up for insufficient practice. And can there be such anguish compared to that felt by the artist who sees the realization of his dream compromised by weak execution?”

I agree, but I think that at some point in a students education, we need to learn how to inject ideas in our work.  Without it, I think a piece can be artistic fast food, quickly consumed without lasting intellectual nutrition.

Moving forward

Detail of The Captive Slave
image courtesy of Juan J. Ramirez

So why did I write this post?  I feel like my primary focus has been developing my skills thus far.  Each morning I wake up, I ask myself “what am I going to do today to improve.”  I currently preparing work for a gallery show.  I am still in the sketch stage, working out ideas.  There is no commission, no brief, just my ideas.  Ideas ideas… This topic has been at the forefront for me lately.  Do I want to aim solely for beauty, trying to sell on technical merit, or tell a story or inspire with some grand thought?

I don’t have a definitive answer to my initial question of skills vs. ideas.  I don’t know that there needs to be an answer, but I think that asking yourself, what do I want others to get out of my work, is a very valuable question that only you can answer.