Aphorisms are a dime a dozen these days, thanks to social media. One is never short of virtually circulated wisdom, and inspirational quotes seem to pop up like road signs as one scrolls down the daily ‘feeds’ online. Yet the sheer abundance of these quotations and pick-me-ups renders them rather unhelpful. The frenzied, unseeing compulsiveness with which we share and distribute them turn them into sloshy, meaningless sayings, and far from being road signs, they become roadkill that we quickly drive past – pathetic and disturbing in equal measure.
So in a climate of such forced and superficial motivation, it is difficult to produce something that is actually inspiring. And I feel that Will Gompertz, with his book Think Like an Artist, is able to achieve just that. The small, handy, 200-page book reads like a pep talk for artists, young and old. Gompertz, who has had an illustrious (and, one supposes, adventurous) career as the BBC’s Arts Editor, explores habits and qualities that he feels define creative types or, rather, those who tap into the latent creativity we all carry and use it to wonderful effect.
The chapters of his book are presented as traits and tendencies that artists have – Artists are Enterprising, Artists are Seriously Curious, Artists Steal – and investigate, through a rich selection of examples, how these tendencies have informed successful creative practices. In keeping with the increasingly indeterminate boundaries between visual art, performance art, filmmaking, design etc., the ‘artists’ surveyed include actors, fashion designers, singers, and film directors. American filmmaker and screenwriter J. J. Abrams, for example, is discussed in the chapter Artists are Sceptics alongside Piero della Francesca, the Italian polymath who ushered in the mathematical triumph of the Renaissance. And David Ogilvy’s commitment to a job that was never his ‘Plan A’ makes up a chapter on the virtues of failing, with cameos by Thomas Edison and The Rolling Stones.
In addition to revisiting some relatively common facts about artists like Andy Warhol (it is widely known that he had a sharp, entrepreneurial sense) and Vincent Van Gogh (his financial straits and dependence on brother Theo form a kind of morbid ABC for anyone wanting to become an artist), Gompertz sheds light on some lesser known aspects of their lives (Van Gogh confiding to Theo that if he weren’t so enamoured of painting, he would make a fine dealer of art), and on the manoeuvres employed by contemporary artists such as Luc Tuymans and Peter Doig – that have not yet become the ubiquitous stuff of legend but are equally enlightening for anyone interested in the artistic process.
In the chapter Artists Think Big Picture and Fine Detail, Gompertz recounts snippets of a conversation with Luc Tuymans, and intersperses them with references to two other influential artists – Johannes Vermeer and Marcel Duchamp – some of whose creative devises were similar to the ones adopted by the Belgian painter. ‘Every painting has a point of entry,’ Tuymans reveals. It can be any ‘small detail that catches your eye and draws you in.’ Gompertz discovers this to be true not only of Tuyman’s own work but of Vermeer’s also, in particular his iconic Girl With a Pearl Earring. In three suspenseful pages, he takes us through the restorative history of the painting, describing how an earlier restoration accidentally resulted in the addition of a flake of white paint to the bottom of her earring, which distracted from the original ‘point of entry’ to the painting: a slight, pink daub on the corner of the girl’s mouth. Finally, after a corrective restoration session in 1994, the criminal white flake was removed and the painting’s most enticing part left unobscured.
Gompertz’s friendly, informal way of writing and the eclectic and exciting range of artists, works, and incidents he visits is highly suited to a generation brought up on Facebook and Instagram, where an article or captioned image about the real reason why Mona Lisa smiles can be followed immediately by Gwyneth Paltrow’s five favourite salads. So, as a review by The Guardian put it, Gompertz is ‘the best teacher you never had’ – one who teaches you important lessons by talking about the things that seize your attention and presenting the people you look up to as people who are just like you; people who, having had their shares of disappointment and rejection, self-doubt and anxiety, decided to win at life.