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On Patronage: How to Become a Master Artist

All month I’ve been talking about how to get paid for your writing, and this week I’m talking about how things were done in the crude, primitive days of yore — such as, for instance, the astonishing beauty of the masterworks made in the high Renaissance.

That age of high artistry wasn’t an accident. It was the convergence of major social factors, public expectations, a funding method highly foreign to today’s business model, and (perhaps most importantly) a different idea of mastery.

On Craftsmanship and Mastery

Back then, it was standard in all professions to pursue a “master path.” Apprentices studied basics and helped with low-level work, until they were promoted to the rank of Journeyman — at which point they could perform all the major aspects of their craft with little or no oversight. The very best went on to learn the fine points and nuance, to face the biggest challenges and perfect new and superior methods. These paragons of perfect craftsmanship were the Masters.

The end of that path probably matches well with your understanding of master artists like Michelangelo or Leonardo da Vinci. That’s how blacksmiths learned their trade too, though. And barrel-makers, and weavers, and the people who drove oxcarts, and probably dog catchers, for that matter. Today, plumbers and electricians use a nearly identical method both for their training and their accreditation.

Humble Beginnings

And just as in all the other trades, new apprentices in the arts put in lots of tedious hours learning the rules and mechanics of their crafts. They’d often work in the studio of a master, learning not just the basics, but also their teacher’s specific style.

In fact, as apprentices learned to imitate that style, they often ended up creating works in the master’s name — Michelangelo’s apprentices painting scenes that we still know today as authentic Michelangelos, and Caravaggio’s making original Caravaggioes. That should give you a good idea of the rigor of their training, since the master’s reputation was on the line.

It should also give you an idea of the kind of recognition and respect for their unique artistic vision apprentices could look forward to (which is to say, none at all). It worked, though. A system just like that produced Michelangelo and Caravaggio, after all.

Declare Your School (Creative Writing Exercise)

The lovely Kelley, writing at a coffee shopSuch apprentices were said to be studying in the Michelangelo school or the Caravaggio school. Those weren’t places, just artistic styles, but even though a young artist was expected to develop his own style during his Journeyman years, it was understood that the style of his first master left an indelible impression.

Courtney talked Wednesday about playing the part of a master — and insisted vociferously that she’s really not — but if she’s good enough at what she does that some of you are ready to study her style, I’d say she’s there. I’m no more “done” than she is, but I’m ready to call myself a master writer. (I know I’ve got a handful of humble apprentices studying in my school.)

For my part, I dabbled in the Huddleston school (he was my high school Creative Writing teacher), and in Zelazny’s, and Dumas’s, but I studied for real in the Gipson school. She taught me how to create the illusion of realistic dialogue, how to work in scenes, how to write with discipline, and how to advance my craft. Always.

What about you? Who’s teaching you your style (even if it’s by teaching you their own)? Who’s looking over your shoulder as you practice in the basics, and who’s leading you to mastery? Declare your school, and do it proudly.

Then get back to work, building up your own name.

Photo credit Julie V. Photography.

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