Learning Art by Doing

TAKEAWAY: In the absence of formal training, a creative can find ways to master their craft through observation, hard work, and creativity.

“The biggest way I’ve learned is going and looking at art. I just stare at a painting, and I get yelled at all the time for being to close to these paintings, but I’ve got to see how these people put this paint down.”

Cape May, New Jersey, realist painter Victor Grasso is by any definition a success. While on my cross-country road trip this summer interviewing creatives, I had the good fortune of meeting Victor at a show of his work at the Soma New Art Gallery in Cape May. The show had only been open for three days, but about half of the paintings had little red circular stickers next to them. I asked Victor what they meant.

“It means those paintings have been bought. We sold a bunch of them at our opening night reception.”

Victor allowed me to take some footage at his show, so you can see some of his art (and those red stickers) in my video interview with him below. Both the professionalism and the creativity of Victor’s art leaps out at you. But Victor has never received formal training as an artist.

He grew up in an artistic family, with many painters and sculptors, and that surely helped him develop his artistic eye. But at eighteen, when many go off to college, Victor went to work full-time painting murals in casinos during the building boom in Atlantic City. By twenty-two he owned his own mural company, and his own art was already being shown in galleries.

“I would paint anything wherever I could to make a living… because I never wanted to have a boss again,” he told me. He’s still his own boss.

Victor’s art captures iconic images of south Jersey, with its wide beaches and open marshes. He is inspired by Andrew Wyeth, who used a realist style to make his “mundane” part of the world inspiring. Of course, Wyeth never painted a woman in a bikini hitchhiking while holding a 6-foot-tall swordfish, like Victor did. (Two bidders fought over the purchase of that painting, “A Road Worth Traveling,” on opening night.)

We talked in the Boiler Room bar at the historic Congress Hall. Unfortunately, the battery in my lavaliere microphone was dead, so the built-in camera mic is picking up Victor and some patrons’ voices bouncing off the stone walls. After that I always carried spare batteries.

Victor is proud of what he’s accomplished, but is the first to admit a tinge of jealousy sometimes when he thinks about the missed opportunity of art school. Are you a creative with formal training in your art? Or are you self-taught? I’d love to hear your story below.

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

6 Responses to “Learning Art by Doing”

  1. I can relate to Victor Grasso getting so close to paintings. When I wrote about art, a very wise editor taught me that in order to understand my subject, I needed to immerse myself in it–which often meant starting at a piece of art for hours. I learned so much about writing from art.

    I’ve got my MFA, and I’m grateful for it because it was two years of focus on writing. But I’m pretty sure I’ve learned more from actually writing than anything else.

  2. Hi Charlotte,

    I think it’s great you have an MFA. I’m envious of my friends who were able to dedicate themselves to that. But of course an MFA student writes and writes and writes, right?

    I’m going to do everything I can to help my daughter fulfill her dream of going to art school, but I encourage her to draw every day. You learn by allowing yourself to be taught and by doing, it seems.

  3. How did I miss this post before? Glad you pointed it out to me. I think that painting murals is (or can be) part of being an artist …. at least the way I intend to do them. They are original works of art, created in collaboration with the client and given my own unique twists. They are originals. I don’t intend to ever do two images the same. In that case, murals are works of art, on league with gallery work, IMHO. The difference is, the longevity of the piece is likely shorter, as people move on and want something new, their only option is to paint over it. They can’t move it or sell it.

    You already know at least a large part of my story, with more to come on my blog, so I won’t re-type it here. 🙂

  4. BTW Victor’s work is great! I can see maybe wanting to attend art school to gain a broader perspective, widen creative possibilities and gain community. But his skill is already there in spades. Not everyone has to go to art school. It was a well-thought out, conscious choice on my part to go. I considered not going. But for me, in the end, going to a *well-considered school* that was an *excellent fit for ME* was a very wise choice indeed.

    • When Charlotte posted that comment above about having an MFA, I was debating whether to pursue one myself, and was thinking I could grow without one. Now I’ve decided to get one, but still don’t believe it is “necessary” to grow as a writer. I just want that path of growth for me. It will be new to me, too, because I was an international relations major as an undergraduate, a multidisciplinary program of government, economics, history and language, so I had no time for literature or writing classes.

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  1. Tweets that mention Learning Art by Doing | The Artist's Road -- Topsy.com - December 8, 2010

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Patrick Ross, Patrick Ross. Patrick Ross said: a successful self-taught #painter who started w/ casino murals — new on Artist's Road http://bit.ly/fVDTgw #creativity […]

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