Some food for thought: Being a polymath artist



  • Some people have been discussing the idea of being a specialist vs a generalist in terms of professional skills. When it comes to art, we are usually referencing the Renaissance artists (unfortunatelly mainly Leonardo da Vinci and Michaelangelo - there are more!) as the model of polymaths that knew a lot about a lot and were still focused on some skills.

    Just read this essay about the idea and would like to share with all here:

    https://www.farnamstreetblog.com/2017/11/generalized-specialist/

    It's a topic that I have been usually using as an advice when people ask whether or not to go to art school and which art school to go. I always say that it's better to go and learn something else - history, science, engineering, or whatever - and learn the technical aspects of art on the side, such that one can incorporate its formal academic knowledge and skills into his/her art. Or the opposite, incorporate his/her artistic skills into his scientific or archaeological research.

    As someone that delves in both areas (Science and Art), and that have seem friends and colleagues in both sides struggle with the future ahead: Are we seeking to specialize so much that we actually "specialize" our career path?

    I have seem friends and colleagues from both sides that have the misconception that they can only be considered a scientist or an artist if they work in a specific place. "I don't work on that animation studio... I am not am artist (even though, every evening after my office job, I am producing more personal artwork than anyone working in that animation studio)"... "I am just teaching high school science, I am not hired as a researcher by that quantum physics lab... I am not a scientist (even though I spend the nights doing research on children psychology and pedagogy and develop my own methods to teach my students how to develop scientific thinking - something that we may not even learn in University)".



  • I have the feeling this has more to do with personal balance and satisfaction than with career choices. I was a research scientist for nearly 17 years before switching careers and getting deeply involved with art and design.
    Does that make me approach art differently? Definitely! Would I recommend it as the ideal path to become an artist? Definitely not!
    It was my path, and I loved every step of it and it makes me unique in some ways I like and in some ways I like less...but it's what I did and every time I took a decision, it was a conscious, deliberate decision. The only advice I can give to anyone is to do what you think and feel is right at every step of your life and to put your whole energy into it - to be, maybe, a "life-phase specialist" and a "whole-life generalist" ;-)
    One of my favorite quotes is from "The Fast and the Furios": "Life is simple: you make choices and you don't look back".

    Of course, people that do many different things and jobs in their life seem more interesting and more rounded...but does that make them more impactful on any given field? I don't think that's the rule.
    The scientist that specializes his whole career on one protein is more likely to bring about a breakthrough than the one who does a little bit of everything. The Renaissance artists were often polymaths - but the Renaissance was a very different time and society, and people like Leonardo da Vinci are exceptions in all ages.
    Maybe the major impact of having a wider set of experiences is that it makes you feel less anxious and more grounded, helps to set priorities and to feel in control - all states of mind that help being creative.



  • Maybe... Our issue is our attachment to categories, tags and stereotypes.



  • I see where you are going with it. Basically that people don't consider themselves and "artist" unless they work as an artist. etc. And I also see that you are saying that interest outside art can enrich the art. Which is true.

    The only thing I would probably disagree with is the part about intentionally studying something else instead of studying art. It is not something I would recommend to someone who wants to become an artist. If a student picked engineering for example, they would spend MOST of their time on learning things associated with engineering. That person would never be able to compete with someone who studied art with the same rigor and time. At art school, I studied art from the moment I got up to the moment I went to sleep. And I did that for four years straight. (Note: I did study lots of other things when doing illustration assignments because I had to understand subject matter in order to do work that made sense for the project. So it's not just "technical" stuff I"m referring to). It would be impossible for the engineering student to study art on the side with that kind of intensity.

    A person can refer to themselves as an artist anytime they want to. It doesn't mean that they have to be making a living at it. Someone could consider themselves a scientist if they work on projects like that, even if they are not a professional scientist. But to consider yourself a pro in either of these things, they involve a different level of investment (In time, energy, and probably money).



  • Thanks @smceccarelli and @Lee-White for sharing your opinions! Yup, agree with you all. But I also want to say that this is not a topic with a single definitive point of view, one that requires "the best answer". Thats why I thought of starting the discussion. And now I am kinda tempted to write some short essay about it.



  • I had an art teacher in secondary school that told the whole class one day that we were never going to be as good as the "masters" of art so we shouldn't even bother to try. I think that was horrible of her to say and there are people who manage to excel in art even today. Perhaps they have more encouragement or help to do so than most, perhaps they are born with a silver brush- who knows.
    Being a polymath is another level I suppose. There are some very intelligent people who manage it.
    I look forward to your essay on the subject. :-)



  • I'm not sure about being a specialized generalist. It may work for some, but I suspect that if your attention is constantly pulled in multiple directions you are more likely to become okay at many things and good at nothing. I am an instructor (in a different field) and I've noticed that students who try to focus on multiple subjects at once do not do as well as those that spend a couple years focused on a single subject.

    However, as far as school is concerned, I've heard similar advice. When I was in High School I had the opportunity to speak with Orson Scott Card about writing professionally. When I told him I wanted to be a writer and receive a degree in creative writing (like he did), he replied that I should instead receive a degree in something like comparative literature, history, or philosophy. He argued that a writer already writes all the time and likely writes well enough, but still needs knowledge in other areas to inform their art and develop a creative bank account. So that's what I did, and it turned out fine, but I think I could have gone into my career further and faster had I stuck with creative writing. I didn't develop the necessary contacts, I didn't receive diverse training, I didn't get constant feedback on my work--I think I needed those things.



  • What about the "time" issue?

    It seems that a lot (but not all) boils down to the fact that we have an education system and a society that requires people to quickly join the work force. Basically, if you don't do well in this system, around the age of 18 you are out of it and looking for some job. Otherwise, around the age of 24 you are out of it and looking for a job. Let's not forget those that at the age of 13 or 15 need to make some income to help the family, or help the working parents take care of the family.

    It makes sense to think that in 4 years of university level studies, no one will be a master of anything, but everyone will want a job right after that. So, you don't want to spend time learning many things and reduce your chance to be good at what you believe that job requires Sometimes, what is a requirement skill for a job is exactly what we are not learning - like, artists don't learn business even tho selling art is a business.

    Maybe we are too focused on the short term rewards/accomplishments. Which is necessary! But hum... if you could spend around 40 years dedicated to other things, lets say you split it in 20 years dedicating to subject A and 20 years to subject B... Yup... someone that is a generalist and yet expert in A and B...

    @Lee-White As for the engineer, I think our view of art can broaden here. Just an example that I want to explore further: every single special effect produced by CGI nowadays is the result of physical simulations, usually derived from Mechanical Engineering Simulations that engineers initially developed to understand the behaviour of fluids (that's how you have your water splashes in movies and even animations), solids and particles. And now they are implementing these in CG software for creating the special effects. Yes, you may say that the engineer is not doing art, he is just coming with some mathematical calculations and implementing them, but he is doing engineering for art.

    Although, my initial thought of the engineer artist was more of someone that doesn't need to be working as an engineer anymore. Maybe he just got a BSc degree in engineering, but he did spend his time studying a lot about Robotic Engineering and other kinds of machine engineering. And it happens that this person studied a bit of art that he can create crazy designs of Mechs. I am sure his art is not as great and polished as many people that dedicated a lot to study art, but I am sure his/her Mechs can be much more interesting and creative and show details and functional parts that other artists don't know how to achieve. He/She wouldn't be hired to be an illustrator, but he/she be a good concept artist for example. This is where the time issue happens: you are not working as an engineering but you are not good enough to make a living income as an artist. Maybe we should all become experts in time management :P

    This is the point where I thought: what if that teenager that loved mech manga wanted so badly to become a mech manga artist that he decided to go to art school to become this artist. He is not gonna learn anything about mechs and mech art in school. He will have to dedicate extra time to do it. So, what if instead, he had decided to do engineering? Yeah, I know you don't learn only about robots in an engineering course - but robotics is becoming a big thing ;) Would he become that creative knowledgeable mech artist? And what if the only reason he never thought about doing engineering is because since he liked manga and drawing, no one has suggested to him that venue, because most of us are still thinking in this single linear path?



  • There is also the consideration of the age at which you learn something: I am an amateur musician and have also dabbled in drawing all of my life but I am self taught in both because my degrees are in biology and theology. I don’t regret either degree but learning the fine motor control and concepts needed for illustration at a later age is more time consuming and I wish I had had it drilled into me at a younger age when my memory was stickier. I saw this same thing happening with my music — I learned guitar as a child and the chord formations for guitar will never leave my brain no matter how little I practice them but I’ve taught myself mandolin as an adult and the mandolin fingerings require constant refreshing even though I’ve been playing it for seven years now.

    It’s never too late to learn anything and I never intend to stop learning but there’s no question that you’ll learn faster and skills will stay with you longer if you learn it when you are young which means that if a young person interested in art chooses to get schooling in something besides art, at least they should continue to draw and paint and read about art every day on their own to get it down into their brain and bones. I wish I had done that!



  • @diego_biosteam said in Some food for thought: Being a polymath artist:

    This is the point where I thought: what if that teenager that loved mech manga wanted so badly to become a mech manga artist that he decided to go to art school to become this artist. He is not gonna learn anything about mechs and mech art in school. He will have to dedicate extra time to do it. So, what if instead, he had decided to do engineering? Yeah, I know you don't learn only about robots in an engineering course - but robotics is becoming a big thing ;) Would he become that creative knowledgeable mech artist? And what if the only reason he never thought about doing engineering is because since he liked manga and drawing, no one has suggested to him that venue, because most of us are still thinking in this single linear path?

    At a good school, he would learn a lot about mechs and mech art in school. The good schools teach technique for only the first two years, then the second two years is basically self directed. So if someone really loved mech art, they would be directed to study industrial design AND robotics if that is how far they wanted to go. For the art part, they would only need a basic understanding of the robotics part to be able to pull it off as an artist.

    Note: At the worst schools, you are forced to take directed classes the entire time. So then everyone sort of has the same portfolio. It sucks. Independent study is the only way to get really good after the technique phase is finished.



  • I'm currently an engineering student taking up Civil Engineering and I'll be graduating this March 2018. I never really imagined getting into engineering but because of a rebellious streak during my freshman year, I took up engineering as some sort of "screw you" to my mother and to everyone who doubted me. I did very well at the start. I got straight As and I was top of my class. However, as the years dragged on, I slowly lost my interest in my degree. I started skipping my classes. My grades started to drop, I fell into a deep depression and all I wanted was to get away from it all. It was then that I realized that all I wanted to do was art.

    Before college, I always wanted to study Animation but because of my mother's objections, I decided not to. They convinced me that doing art isn't a viable career. Instead, they wanted me to get into Education (not that there's anything wrong with that). However, there was this part of me that thought: "I really don't care! I don't care if I'll be poor! I All I want to do is ART." I guess that's why rebelled and got into engineering.

    So what's my take on this? If I had the chance, would I change any of it? No. Engineering made me realize what I hated and what I really wanted in life. It made me realize that art is the one path for me. Did it help me with my art? No. It enabled me to grow into a more well-rounded person though.

    Would I recommend it to others? No. I highly oppose it. Taking up engineering wasted my time and money, valuable resources I could have put into art school and advance my skills by leagues compared to my current level. If I was able to realize this earlier and stick to my guns, it would've been a whole lot better.

    So for those of you out there who are still on the fence on whether you should focus on your art and maybe go to an art school or take another course, go the art route. You will not regret it.

    However, if you're worried about your financial future if you become an artist, perhaps you'll do better with another degree and by the end of the day, ask yourself if that course is still something you can see yourself growing old doing. Maybe you'll love it and decide to go with it. Or maybe you'll realize that you don't--- just like me. Be warned though, it will not be pretty. I only stuck with engineering because it would be such a waste to quit just a few months before graduation.

    This is just my thoughts. I hope this was helpful.