Aphorisms for Artists by Walter Darby Bannard


Henry David Thoreau observed that many books about how to make a living had been written, but few of them had tried to explain why. Many books about how to make art have also been written, but few have shed any light on the nature of art itself. Fewer still have been penned by master practitioners. This is such a book.

In 1923, Margery Reyerson published the collected wisdom of her teacher at the Art Students League, the painter Robert Henri, as The Art Spirit. (It remains in print to this day and continues to inspire.) This book came about in a similar way. I studied under Walter Darby Bannard at the University of Miami, and I edit an archive of his writings. For decades, Darby has watched students suffer, then succeed, then go back to suffering in the process of learning to make art. Most of the time we were struggling through a problem that he had already encountered and solved.

Some of these were technical problems, which Darby could dispel in a minute or two. Others were larger problems concerning what art is for, and what it does—the kind of problems that you are doomed to solve on your own. But here, too, he had many useful insights. Darby loves a good chat, but as befits an astute thinker, much of his best advice was epigrammatic. As a student, it was sometimes infuriating to watch Darby take your artistic problem, made overwrought by your thinking about it in the wrong way, and slice through it like Alexander’s sword through the Gordian Knot. Part of you, the self-important part, wanted to tie the metaphorical bits of cord back together. (Some students succeeded in doing so.) But if you had any sense, you restrained it, and instead made art according to your nature and the nature of your materials. Thus his teaching has continued for over two decades, shaping the creative lives of countless students.

Darby has done us a great service by distilling those years of instruction into this book of aphorisms, which is presented for your edification and assistance. They are not meant to be rigorous as philosophy or sound as theory. In the intellectual context of contemporary art, they are all disputable. (What isn’t?) But again and again they advise you to set aside that context and look at art, yours and others’, as it is. Some of the remarks are specific to painting, but only for the sake of the prose, and because it’s the author’s medium. Substitute another discipline for “painting” and they will still pertain. If you aspire to establish a serious, heartfelt studio practice, regardless of your medium or style, you will recognize them as true.

“What we need is more sense of the wonder of life, and less of the business of making a picture,” said Robert Henri. This little book of words points to things that lie beyond words, as all the great matters do.

— Franklin Einspruch

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