The Role of an Artist
An Interview with John Crowther
John Crowther has a background in both the visual and performing arts.
In this philosophical and thought-provoking interview he talks about what it means to be an artist, both
in general and for himself personally. — Editor
your website you write, “For me, theatre and painting have been
inextricably linked from early childhood.” Can you elaborate on
It’s more a matter of all the arts being linked.
I define art as the means by which we share with others our unique experience
of life through the metaphors of our chosen medium. By an act of fate,
theatre and painting happen to be the disciplines that I was drawn to,
and the language of which I intuitively understood. It might just as easily
have turned out to be music and poetry, or something else. Still though,
for me painting and theatre have a special affinity. Perhaps it’s
the stepping out of time into another world. Perhaps it’s the sense
What do you think is the purpose of art?
It’s a terrific question. I believe the human
being is genetically designed through evolution to communicate in two
different types of language, the common language of consensus, which consists
of words and sounds and images whose meaning we agree on, and the language
of art, which attempts to give shape to ideas and feelings that are more
profoundly personal and for which we have no established frame of reference.
The language of consensus allows us to pass along information critical
to survival: how to build a fire, which plants are poisonous, where’s
the best hunting. The language of art connects us on a deeply intimate,
intuitive level that is at once spiritual and emotional. It also is necessary
to survival, allowing us to discover the unspoken bonds we all share,
and to seek meaning and solace in an existence that often seems incomprehensible.
The paintings of Giotto tell me more about who we are, where we came from,
and the mystery of existence than all the volumes of history available
Then, what do you think is the purpose of the
The artist, like the scientist, seeks to bring order
to an otherwise seemingly disorderly world. But the artist nowadays is
an endangered species. We’re besieged by so much information, much
of it useless, that little room is left for genuine art, art that does
more than merely distract, but rather illuminates and ennobles by appealing
to our instincts. It’s why being an artist is such an important
separates good art from great art?
Good art succeeds in using a high level of technical
skill to replicate the images and icons established by the language of
consensus. From good art comes the masterpiece, which is literally what
the word says, a piece created by a master. Great art introduces new symbols
and forms and in so doing reinvigorates and enriches the language of consensus.
You teach portrait classes. Tell me about that.
I teach John Howard Sanden’s techniques, which
I’ve found enormously effective, under the umbrella of the Portrait
Clubs of America. John and his wife Elizabeth are committed to encouraging
and supporting portraiture, which some see as a dying art. The exciting
thing about it is the leeway you’re given as a teacher to develop
your classes the way that works best for you and your students.
Did you go to art school?
I was fortunate in that my parents supported my desire
to go into the arts, so I had extensive training at the Museum of Modern
Art and the Art Students League in New York when I was a quite young.
It was mainly about techniques and tricks. They’re important and
valuable, but becoming an artist is so much more than that, and you don’t
learn it in school. It’s about the acquisition of values that comes
from experience, and learning to distinguish for one’s self what
is true and harmonious and what is merely repetitious or derivative.
Did you have a mentor?
I guess the closest to a mentor I had was Thomas
Hart Benton, who was celebrated as one of the original American “regionalists”
and then later was vilified for it by curators and academics as his work
went out of fashion. He was a neighbor of my family on Martha’s
Vineyard. I dated his daughter, and when I was sixteen I cleaned his brushes
and swept the floor in exchange for advice and critiques. Many people
don’t realize that he played an important role in the life of Jackson
Pollock, who studied drawing and classical composition with him for a
long period. But back then the concept of mentor didn’t really exist,
other than Mentor having been Odysseus’s advisor entrusted with
the education of Telemachus.
did you start your art career?
When I was a teenager I’d originally intended
to be an artist. That got me involved in theatre, designing sets, which
in turn steered me toward acting, directing, and writing. By the time
I was in college I was still seriously considering a career in painting,
but that was in the 60’s, when you could forget about having a major
career in art if you weren’t an abstract expressionist. I gave it
a try, but in the end abstraction just didn’t interest me. Frank
Stella was at Princeton when I was, and I remember he used to store some
of his larger canvases in the basement of the little theatre on campus.
Black on black. It meant nothing to me. I stuck with representational
painting while pursuing a parallel career in theatre and film, and have
never regretted it.
What has been the highlight of your acting career
Without question, “FLLW, the Tragedies and
Triumphs of Frank Lloyd Wright,” a one-man show I developed and
have been performing around the country. His was an epic life. The theme
of single-mindedly pursuing one’s vision in the face of tragedy
and obstacles resonates deeply with me, and bringing it to life for audiences
has been enormously satisfying.
has your artwork evolved?
In terms of style I’ve always considered myself
a realist, but for years my work was very painterly, almost impressionistic
leaning toward expressionism. But it was really just a way to disguise
my lack of drawing skills. Not that I couldn’t draw, I just wasn’t
very disciplined about it. As I improved my drawing, my painting began
to tighten up and lose spontaneity in the brushstrokes, so I had to struggle
against that. I like to think that now I’m better at putting down
on paper or canvas the images in my head. In other words, I’m letting
my style be dictated by my skills rather than by my lack of them.
What themes do you pursue in your artwork?
I don’t think I pursue a specific theme so
much as I discover themes running through my work as I look back on it.
More to the point, there are themes that are important to me as a human
being – the quest for justice, the illusory nature of memory, the
importance of our cultural stories and myths, the mystery and glory of
nature, the elevation of the spirit. When I’m doing my job as an
artist honestly, these themes should be reflected in the work.
have cultural or environmental factors have influenced your art?
I was brought up in what I’d call a privileged
environment. My parents ingrained in my brothers and me values of hard
work, honesty, and decency that I hope are reflected in who I am and therefore
in my work. I also had an appreciation for the arts instilled in me from
an early age. My father was the film critic on The New York Times for
many years, and my mother managed a movie theatre before becoming a literary
agent, so a lot of our family friends were highly successful writers,
artists, actors, filmmakers, and so on. I grew up thinking of the arts
as a completely normal occupation, not a rebellion against the establishment.
Living in New York, I was regularly taken to museums, theatre, and films,
all of which were frequently discussed at the dinner table. I first “discovered”
Picasso when I was about 12 and was taken to the Museum of Modern Art.
Nobody had prepared me for him, I just saw his work and got it instantly,
without explanation. I insisted on buying a small reproduction of “Girl
Before a Mirror” that hung in my bedroom for years after that. I
think that living in Europe for 10 years also did a great deal to shape
in Europe did you live, and what were you doing there?
I lived in Rome, which was amazing. The Italians
are very culturally sophisticated, even the poorest farmer and the guy
repairing the plumbing. I went there originally to direct a film, “The
Martlet’s Tale,” starring Katina Paxinou. I met my wife, who
played one of the leads, and wound up staying. I was shooting at Cinecitta
on a sound stage next to the one where Federico Fellini was making “I
Clowns.” There I was, a 30-year old American, running into Fellini
every day in the commissary and having him ask how my film was going.
I would also duck onto his set when our crew was lighting to watch him
work. It was pretty heady stuff. My wife has a farm in Tuscany where I
conduct painting workshops, which I talk about on my website.
are your favorite artists?
Thomas Hart Benton for one, for the way he mastered
classical form and composition, and reshaped it to his own unique and
thoroughly contemporary expressive purpose. To me though, Diego Velazquez
stands at the pinnacle of what art should be, bringing together the chiaroscuro
of Caravaggio and the spontaneous brushwork of Rubens in the perfect marriage
of concept and technique.
Far and away my favorite contemporary artist has to be
Lucian Freud. He’s fearless, a high wire act who's spent his entire
life working without a net.
But my single favorite painting has to be the 17th century "Head
of a Woman" by Flemish artist Michael Sweerts. Totally contemporary
in technique and execution, it embodies the timelessness of the great
masters. This small, simple composition is perfection in every respect,
and the eponymous woman still lives more than three hundred years later.
How do these artists influence your work?
While there are many artists throughout history I
admire, they represent to me the ideal, the mastery of technique serving
a unique vision. I believe that control is essential to freedom of expression,
and that art consists of two aspects, concept and technical skill, that
is, the ability to control the medium so that we can give shape to the
ideas, dreams, and feelings in our heads. The artists I mentioned are
the frontrunners while I’m bringing up the rear, but they show the
rest of us the way.
sort of message do you wish to communicate through your art?
More than anything else, that art is not merely important,
but essential to human existence.
What reaction from a viewer makes you happiest?
I’m not interested in making pretty pictures.
If a viewer experiences an emotion or understands what I’m trying
to convey then I’m satisfied. I try to do work that suggests questions
that are left unanswered. Hopefully a viewer is interested enough to supply
their own answers.
Where do you find inspiration?
By keeping the senses open one is besieged by inspiration.
It’s never enough for me to think that something would make a good
subject for a painting. Before I go to work I have to know what it is
that attracts me, and why I want to paint it. Sometimes I have to do a
series of sketches. Sometimes it’s just an idea I can’t get
out of my head. There usually comes a moment when there’s no longer
a choice. I just know I have to get it down.
Why do you find figures to be interesting subject
They reveal us to ourselves. In other people we see
mirror images of our own personas, both in terms of what we fear and what
we aspire to. Through figurative painting – and drama for that matter
– we see how commoners are kings, and kings are commoners. One of
the important qualities of a painter who does figurative work is empathy.
The nude can be especially evocative in its removal of all defenses. It
allows for a wide range of possibilities, beauty, ugliness, self-consciousness,
pride, embarrassment, exhibitionism, freedom of spirit, joy—the
entire spectrum of human experience.
constitutes a captivating pose?
The word “pose” always bothers me, both
as a verb and a noun. It suggests that the flow of the subject’s
life has been interrupted for the artificial act of being painted, or
indeed photographed. What interests me is the challenge of seizing an
instant that reveals something about the life of the subject. It’s
all about relationships. How is the subject relating to the artist? To
the viewer? To an unseen interlocutor? To their surroundings? A good model
is an actor really, experiencing a moment of truth.
What is your favorite medium?
I primarily paint in oil and watercolor, and use
graphite and conté for drawing. For a number of years I worked
in acrylics, but have gone back to oils because I love the range of what
you can do with them, from time-consuming glazing to wet in wet, slapping
paint on the canvas and shoving it around, wiping it off, scraping at
it, allowing the work to emerge. I also love watercolor. The discovery
that it is far more controllable and forgiving than people tend to think
has been a wonderful revelation to me.
How long does it typically take you to complete
a finished work, and how do you know when a piece is done?
I literally have one watercolor that I’ve been
working on for over 20 years, though admittedly that’s excessive.
I’ll probably never finish it to my satisfaction, but it has improved.
I don’t know that a piece is ever really done. There just comes
a time when I know intuitively that I’ve learned whatever it is
I need to know and I move on.
I used to work much faster, and tended to want to get
a work done quickly, but I think that had to do with a lack of confidence.
Now that I know where I’m headed and have a better control of how
to get there I’m more willing to take time. To be a bit more specific,
it depends on the medium and how I’m using it. I can complete a
plein air watercolor to my satisfaction in a couple of hours. On the other
hand I’ve been known to put fifty or sixty hours into a 5x7 inch
are the greatest challenges you face when making your art?
A major challenge, I think, is trying to stay honest,
and not become derivative. Trying to find my own path has been an ongoing
struggle, defining who I am as a human being, exploring how to express
it in my art, and developing the techniques and skills that permit me
to give shape to the images in my head. In the film “The Horse’s
Mouth,” Alec Guinness as the fictional painter Gully Jimson looks
at a huge mural he’s struggled to realize and mutters unhappily,
“it’s not what I had in mind.” That says it all. As
for obstacles, it’s the times when the exploration becomes conflict
and doubt, and threatens to shut the whole process down.
What has been your biggest achievement during
your career as an artist?
Learning to draw hands. I’m not kidding.
Have you any regrets in terms of your art career?
Only that I’ve always tended to be lazy, which
is a result of doubt, conflict, and fear. I think I could have accomplished
much more had I paid less attention to what others think of my work and
focused more on specific goals.
What advice would you give to an aspiring artist?
Know what you want to achieve, and then work toward
it tirelessly. Set specific goals that are attainable, and when you’ve
mastered something don’t repeat yourself, move on to something else.
Think of everything you do in terms of the lessons to be learned. That
way you’ll always judge your work through your own eyes, not the
eyes of others.
are a few of your favorite art books?
I greatly enjoyed Paul Johnson’s weighty Art:
A New History,
though I don’t agree with everything he says. He does a great job
of giving a wide-ranging overview without falling into the misleading
classifications that plague academics and critics. I love Dear
Vincent Van Gogh’s letters to his brother that permit an amazing
look at the life and mental swings of an artist. Michelangelo
and the Pope's Ceiling
is a meticulously researched work that documents practically day to day
the painting of the Sistine Chapel in a way that makes you feel as if
you were there experiencing it. And my favorite, always at my bedside,
: The Technique of Genius,
by Jonathan Brown and Carmen Carrido. It’s a brilliant analysis
of both content and technical means.
How can one acquire your work?
Anyone interested in either originals or prints can
contact me directly through my website.
Do you accept commissions?
I do accept commissions, though I prefer to work
from life rather than photos. It’s not that I’m philosophically
opposed to the use of photographic reference, I just don’t enjoy
Thanks John. I appreciate your taking the time
to share your views with us today.
at a Glance
|Los Angeles, California USA
|The Bird House Gallery in Nyack, New York
John Crowther has published a book
called Out of Order: A Cartoon Odyssey
Everyone appreciates a good laugh, so this book makes a great gift.
Order today from Amazon.com