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The best art advice that I never got

Santanu Borah talks about the fine line that advice on art walks on


Let me tell you a childhood story. I am out with my friend Manoj at Cole Park in Tezpur, Assam. We are at the park to do landscape, armed with papers and watercolours. We decide to paint the lake. As you are aware, it is not very easy to paint water. Very soon a group of older kids gather around us to watch what we are up to. Unfortunately, I am not very good at painting when someone is watching. Unlike Manoj, who is better anyway. Once his sketch is done, he is cruising along like a song, wash after wash. On the other hand, I am labouring away and my painting is looking rubbish. Due to the presence of the little congregation of accidental art lovers around us, I am under pressure to perform. However, everything I am trying to achieve is going south at the speed of light. Frustrated, I let out a whispered scream and crumple my landscape. I get out another paper and try again. But nothing goes right. In fact, the new painting looks even more hideous. I crumple it up in frustration again. This goes on for a while.

After the fifth or sixth round of crumpling up my work, the onlookers are getting restless and even a little bored. They begin to disperse, while some of them stay back to look at Manoj’s painting, which is sitting on the grass to dry. It is wonderful and, rightfully, getting a lot of praise. I give it one final try and fail yet again, leading to another round of crumpling paper. It’s hurting me a lot because handmade paper is not cheap. I can hear “tsk, tsk, tsk” going around the crowd. They are sorry for me. I think they are frustrated too. Eventually, after about 20 minutes they all begin to leave and I catch something someone says clearly: “That blue shirt fellow is good. Nice painting he made. The other guy is at least wasting his time in a good way.”

Today, I am glad that that piece of advice was not given to me directly. It was only carried by the wind into my eardrum. But that was probably the best piece of advice I never got. Art is a great way of wasting your time. In any case we waste our time one way or another. Some become businessman, some teachers, some doctors, and some become thieves. All of us do something in the time we have, so we can wait for death “gainfully”.


In the many years that I have painted, I have wasted a lot of time and things. The more time you waste with art, the better you become. With every act of wastefulness, I have also realised that I have learned a lot. The first lesson is, not practicing is directly proportional to how many papers you will crumple. If you want to waste less paper, draw or sketch or even doodle every day or, at least, every other day. You can doodle at boring meetings or conversations. Believe me, nobody will notice. Most people are looking at their phones anyway.

Also, it is best not to compare yourself with others. If I did not look at Manoj’s work and stayed with my own, I would have had something to show. But this is a tricky situation. In order to do better work, you will have to have a certain standard. Looking at better art, or what you consider to be better art, can motivate you to work more and produce more. Nothing speaks as clearly as a body of work. In short, you must look and then unsee what you saw. I admit it is a contradiction. After you forget what you have seen, you must proceed to do what you do best. Go slow, but do.

Many years later, after I am a grown man and even married, I go to this art show. There is this group of what the artist calls ‘black paintings’. Some of the paintings had some scribbles on it. Since the artist was well known, everyone looked at the pieces with great attention. In one corner the painter was waxing eloquent about why he was making black paintings and why black was the “source” colour. I heard him out. Next to me was an old lady. She had near silver hair and she was dressed in a fashionably dignified way. She also heard the painter out quietly. Actually, all the people in that gallery heard the painter out intently. Lucky painter!

Later, we were sauntering around the gallery, looking at the black paintings. I somehow happened to be next to the lady with the silver hair. She looked at all the paintings with what I would consider a significant degree of interest. After we had moved on to the fifth or sixth painting, she looked at me and said, “He is wasting our time. Black paintings it seems!”.

It then occurred to me that “wasting your time” has different meanings. You can waste your time as an artist, but you have no right to waste the viewer’s time. With that piece of advice not directly given to me, I came back home a little wiser than before.







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