Creativity: Landscape and Portrait Painter Tom J. Byrne

In this series of interviews about the creative process, I’ll be talking to artists in all fields to discover the common traits of creativity and what, if anything, is different in each art form. I’d also like to discover what creative practices could be used by people who don’t consider themselves artists (in the traditional sense) and how creative thinking is fundamental to growth and creation in all aspects of life.

Tom J. Byrne began as an artist 30 years ago by working as an assistant in art schools and making art on commission. He developed a following in Ireland and after a number of busy years decided to move to Paris. He stayed there for ten years and though a struggle, managed to study with some fantastic artists, ran two art galleries and met a lot of very interesting people. Finally one of the artists on the Ile Saint Louis convinced him to study in Florence Italy with his master. This is where Tom met John Michael Angel of the Angel Art Academy in Florence, Italy.

Tom chose to focus his diverse artistic interests on landscape, one of the more difficult forms and with a lot to offer in terms of challenge. Landscapes are a celebration of nature’s diverse and complex beauty, and are ever changing and vibrant even in the depths of winter. Tom draws and paints the human figure for pleasure.

What about your craft motivates you and what would you say is your forte? What do you think makes you good at/curious about this forte? Do you admire this aspect in others?

The first is simple, I’m motivated by the fact that I don’t have a choice. Art makes me the person I am and if I stray from that path for too long, my body and mind get out of kilter. I’m passionate about humanity and nature and although my drawings and paintings look quiet realistic I’m very interested in the abstract. My intuitive awareness is expressed when I draw and paint. I can see that in Egon Schiele, Klimpt and many other artists of the past.

When the creative well is dry, how do you fill it? Do you have techniques you return to?

Yes it does happen, especially if you’ve worked very hard. This winter it rained a lot. It had been a very busy year and my batteries were flat. I didn’t paint anything. I explored, read and spent more time with other people. To recharge I experimented with writing, finished one short story and began others. It gave me the opportunity to intensely research things I’m interested in and test concepts.

Writing is a great way to recharge creative batteries and words are powerful things. Their dictionary meaning doesn’t reflect the power they express in the spoken form so I like to be around writers discussing their works. Thankfully that’s possible in Florence.

Singing is also an amazingly creative energy. Again it’s the power of words being expressed and I’m glad to be in a choir here.

Teaching drawing is also extremely inspiring and when I see someone developing their abilities quickly it’s great feedback.

How do you maintain your authentic self/voice? Does the constant comparison on and/or influence of social media help or stifle this?

I maintain my authentic voice by searching for it all the time. It’s very hard because it’s meant to be. You have to leave society to return to it in a relevant way. It’s all about context.

Social media is such a double-edged sword. It’s done a lot of good but people are disconnected by so many points of reference that may or may not, be real, making a sense of place and purpose fragmented and pliable. For some, social digital media is their only point of reference and they aren’t connecting with themselves or things that matter. Most sense this but few can get off the merry go around.

So, in my opinion, social media stifles authenticity but gives you an idea of where the rest of the world is coming from. It gives you a point of reference regarding how people from different cultures might interpret your voice.

When did you know that you had to use/explore your creativity in some way? Were you encouraged and supported by your family? Does your national identity influence you?

Exploring my creativity gave me a way to escape my family. From a very young age it was clear I didn’t fit in but I didn’t know why so I would escape by working hard in the family business, read a lot and was always drawing. I foolishly believed what I was told and couldn’t come to terms with the way people rarely lived up to the standards they set for others. I may have had a screw loose. We had an average, large Irish family and although I was the eldest I think I got lost in the cracks as I was the most independent and healthy child. As I didn’t need a lot of attention I had to learn to be extra independent as the others all had various ailments. That was a double-edged sword for sure. It took me years to realise I needed to let other people help me from time to time and I am still surprised and deeply appreciative of people who give me genuine aid.

Ireland is an incredibly inspiring place and very beautiful. Yes, it has influenced me. There’s something in the air.

What happens if you ignore your creative impulses, i.e., if you don’t practice for a while?

It’s incredibly unhealthy and I don’t like it at all. After a short while the creativity can’t help coming back and starts bubbling up through the cracks. Usually, it’s expressed in art that could be described as deeply moody and my conversation becomes peppered with double meanings.

The Duomo and Baptistry
How do you keep positive when an idea fails or when you get a bad review? How do you cope with the negative feedback?

Ideas fail all the time and that’s fine. They’re an important part of the process. Some element that needed exploration but didn’t fit in the context of a finished painting will come back to help you later.

I like good feedback. If a person’s eyes light up on seeing my art, that’s real. If another becomes quiet and demands to purchase a painting, that’s genuine and assertive. If a person loses their sense of presence and is completely taken up experiencing the art, that’s wonderful. There are lot’s of different kinds of positive feedback and I’m just as familiar with the negative.

I love to hear criticism from people whose opinion I respect. It’s a wonderful learning opportunity. People who have no skin in the game are sometimes very free with their points of view and I’ve come to realise that that sort of negative feedback is often a reflection of the person giving it. So I watch them carefully, observing their body language and learning where their more flamboyant expressions are coming from.

Have you collaborated with an artist in your field and/or in another art form? Was the experience worthwhile?

I’m always doing that but it generally is more in terms of organising events and exchanging information, advice and bouncing concepts off each other. I love it. There have been a few projects where I worked on the same painting with other artists. Notably, in 2013 I worked on several paintings with Matthew Rose (Paris) and Johanna Halford (Britain) without being in the same place. We each did one element and couriered the work on, to be worked on by the other artist. The paintings were then sent to Canada. I currently collaborate with Trinity Mitchell to promote drawing in Florence. We organise events through the facebook group “Firence Drawing Club”. I also work with Cultural Salon Firenze in their arts program, organising events for people interested in developing their artistic skills in a very liberal environment.

Was it worthwhile? I learned how to work with other creative people and met a lot of people involved in art so yes, it was. Working together is a very healthy thing.

Committing to creative work, given the often-meagre financial rewards, can make it a struggle. What have you done to overcome this? What advice would you have for someone starting out?

Make a fortune first 🙂
That fortune can be a richness of experience, skills, knowledge and friends. Not everything can be measured in financial terms. The greatest resources an artist has are the ones they carry inside themselves. It’s what keeps them creating forever. When someone realizes that value, they’ll want to build up that storehouse as it’s a source that grows by giving the contents away.

Learn to improve your memory and to put things in context. Do all your work in relation to art, even if it’s not making the art itself. I’ve run art galleries, published art books, organised art events, worked in collaboration with various cultural groups and all of those processes have given me resources that I can tap into. Value money for the space it gives you to think unencumbered. Anyone who wants you to invest time into something needs to be paying you or providing resources or knowledge that you can apply to being free to think for yourself. Look after your health, it’s your greatest wealth.

What is the best thing about being a person who uses her/his creative skills? How does it enrich your life and help you in other areas?

In my experience, it gives you an enormous edge. You develop tremendous focus and patience. I’m a visual artist so I make 2d and 3d art. My skills are in seeing things finished in my mind before they exist. Writers, I imagine, see things finished and then sneak up on them with words to give them flesh and meaning.

Creative people find solutions faster, combining intuition and logic and the way they communicate them can be in a variety of contexts depending on the situation they find themselves in.

How do you view the role of the arts in society? The role of the artist? Do you have a “responsibility” as an artist?

With great power comes great responsibility ??
Yes, sometimes I do think that and sometimes it’s scary but when you think about it everyone has a great responsibility because every single person has immense power. Rocking the boat used to be a very valuable part of culture but that was whittled away and really doesn’t exist any more. It’s often only faux rocking the boat as part of a good marketing campaign now.

So yes, we do have responsibility and great power. Especially in an age when people don’t read as much or as deeply as they used to. In an age where people don’t have time to grasp more than an image that speaks a thousand words, the content of that image can have a huge influence.

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