Duesberry How to become a good artist blog image

How to Become A Good Artist: Joellyn Duesberry

If you lined up a hundred successful artists and asked for their best advice on “how to become a good artist,” you’d undoubtedly receive dozens of different answers. 

This question, however, is essential, albeit it, elusive. And it comes in many forms: “how do I get into galleries?” or “how do I get noticed as an artist?” and, of course, “how do I make a living as an artist?” 

For the next few blogs, I’m going to look at what it means to become a good artist, by turning a spotlight on the practices of artists who have achieved major milestones in their careers and how they did it.

how to become a good artist

First up, Joellyn Duesberry (1944-2016), an artist I met in the early 90s when I worked for Carol Siple at her Denver gallery, and got to know Joly quite well when I published her book, Elevated Perspectives, the Paintings of Joellyn Duesberry. Now, working for her family as a consultant helping to catalogue her work, place some things in museums, and sell others privately to collectors, I am learning even more about what she did to constantly propel herself and her art forward.

Competing against yourself

Primarily an oil painter, Joly focused on landscape. She was a “plein air” painter before it had a cool name and she had some great stories about being so immersed in her work that. One of my favorites was the time a bull walked up behind her and started breathing on her back. Annoyed by the interruption and then startled by the reality that a bull could sneak up on her, she carefully backed away, ceding the meadow to the massive beast.

Joly was intense and would have probably been considered ADHD, had that been a diagnosis at the time. Over the years, I think Joly could be her own worst enemy, and yet she was easily one of the hardest working and most driven artist I have ever known. 

Check out Joly’s curriculum vitae to see what I mean: Joellyn Duesberry CV

Suffice it to say, she was a force of nature. She’d fought off cancer three times before finally succumbing at the age of 72. I believe Joly was keenly aware of the ticking clock and simply refused to stop running, cancer be damned.

But that’s not what I want to tell you about Joly or why I think she was successful. She became a good artist because she never stopped challenging herself. The work she was creating at the end of her life was bold and clearly taking her in a deeper level of discovery. Yes, Joly was still pressing herself forward, still exploring, still looking for a new language in painting even as cancer was winning.

The race was always against herself and time. She didn’t resent others for their success; she simply tried harder. 

She could have been resentful; she had to work harder than, for example, her male contemporaries. That’s just the honest truth. All women did and still do. 

How You See Yourself

Joellyn always called herself an autodidact, a self-taught artist. She was referring to the fact that she began painting when she was five years old and taught herself without the influence of teachers until she went to college. She earned a BA from Dartmouth and a MA from Smith, and went on to study at the Art Students League of New York, the National Academy of Design, and the New York Academy.

 

Ghost Ranch Morning, Joellyn Duesberry, monotype

I only bring this up because it always struck me as odd that she called herself an autodidact. Looking back, I believe she did this out of fear. 

Staying In Front of Fear

I’m speculating and could be wrong about this, but I think Joly suffered from nearly debilitating self-doubt. She told me once that her mother had been terribly abusive. I don’t know that Joly ever fully swept those memories out of her psyche. And I wonder if calling herself an autodidact was a shield she held up to protect herself from the fear of what people would say if she called herself an artist, pure and simple. 

Maybe too, this fear was the wellspring of her determination and drive that pushed her through exhaustion and pain. 

I want to be careful here, though, to make this distinction: determination isn’t enough to get your work into museum collections; museums don’t reward the squeaky wheel. Determination might get you noticed, but the quality of your work gets you in. 

Joly did not pursue art for accolades. She worked to become a good artist and then an even better artist. She pursued this goal her whole life, right to the very end.

Listen to Your Mentors

Red Cliffs, NM, Joellyn Duesberry, monotype

In 1986, Joellyn took a workshop with Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993). She notes in her book, Elevated Perspectives, that Diebenkorn instilled three important concepts.

  1. The abstract and the real are indistinguishable in painting.
  2. Her paintings were landscapes that masqueraded as abstracts–or maybe were abstracts that masqueraded as landscape–and that this was her unique expression.
  3. That her pursuit of landscapes as abstract and vise-versa most likely came out of childhood bliss and terror.

And then Diebenkorn suggested she try printmaking, in particular, monotypes, to help her loosen up and better see shapes and patterns.

becoming a good artist Joellyn Duesberry
The Desert Floor in Winter, NM, Joellyn Duesberry, monotype

Explore the Unknown

For nearly 30 years after Diebenkorn’s suggestion, Joellyn booked printmaking sessions with master printer Mark Lunning, at his studio, Open Press, in Denver. According to Mark, Joellyn’s original intent was to use the printmaking process to help resolve her paintings. Over the years, she embraced printmaking for the way it shifted her perception and helped her to see painting and the world differently.  

She was a colorist more than any artist I’ve ever met. She’d book three- to four-day sessions. We’d spend the first day mixing inks and we’d make the most amazing colors. That was one of the things I loved about Joly, her dedication to her work and the process.”

Joellyn Duesberry monotype explore like an artist
Fantasy on Rio Grand, Joellyn Duesberry, monotype

Don't Get Too Comfortable

Dan Sprick told me that when he would paint with Joly she sometimes brought old canvases with paintings she didn’t like and painted over them. This isn’t unusual, reusing an old canvas, but Joly would turn the canvas sideways or upside down, or would just start painting right onto the canvas as it was. 

Wetlands and Walkway, Joellyn Duesberry, monotype and collage

When Dan asked her why she did that–didn’t it make her crazy looking at all those old marks?–she said, “It throws me off.” 

To which Dan replied, “Painting is hard enough already.”

 

This was, Dan thinks, Joly’s attempt at deskilling, a 20th-century notion that confronted art as a skilled labor and sought to break from skill in order to build a new set of skills. Think Marcel Duchamp’s ready mades

Ultimately, Dan suggested, this might have been her way to place one foot in abstraction while the other remained squarely in realism. 

Experiment

Monotypes–the printmaking form Diebenkorn suggested Joly try–are essentially paintings done on a surface such as Plexiglass that are transferred onto another surface, usually paper. The artist works with inks and tools called brayers–rollers of various sizes–and other tools that allow them to achieve the right composition, look, and feel. Here’s an article in ARTnews that explains the tools and processes common to this form of printmaking. 

Spontaneity and abstraction are key aspect of monotypes because of the inks and how they dry, and the tools one usually uses in the process of creation.  

Master printmaker Mark Lunning describe Joly’s process to me, in particular how she would bring a painting that was, say, 80% complete but was not working. She would then set to work creating monotypes that played with form, design and color to find solutions. 

Burney Falls, Autumn, Joellyn Duesberry, Oil on linen, 30x40 inches

Work is Play / Play is Work

And so, in the print studio, Joly played. She played with color and inks and papers. She experimented with ghost prints–the second pulls off the plate or the pull of another lighter weight paper laid atop the first run that absorbs the excess ink. Sometimes, Mark said, she came to the studio with old monotypes from previous sessions that she didn’t think worked. She’d cut them up and reassemble them into new works. 

Canyon of Sandstone, NM, Joellyn Duesberry, monotype and collage

I use the word “play” but it was work, of course, and a grand experiment. It was collaboration with another artist. And I think, when I look at Joly’s monotypes, it was joyful.

What does it take to be a good artist? In Joly’s case: fear, mistakes, experimentation, play, camaraderie, skill and the release from trying too hard. 

Ultimately, it requires the greatest amount of faith. 

As for Joly, she embodied all of this. Toward the end of our call, Mark told me how Joly loved the notion of abstraction and talked about it as an objective. And yet, he said, for all her talk she never quite let herself go there.

Maybe in her next life. 

Visit JoellynDuesberry.com to see more of her work. 

Want to learn more about Artists Marketing?

Visit my Let’s Work Together page to see how I work with artists.

If there’s an artist you’d love to learn more about, let me know in the comments below. 

Thanks for reading!

We don’t spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.

Sign up to receive

Art News from Way Out West

Tips & Tricks from an Art World Insider

Special Invites to Arty Events

by

Curator, writer, and strategist for artists and non-profits, Rose Fredrick has spent the last three decades producing exhibitions that have not only raised considerable funds for scholarships and education, but have also launched artists’ careers. Her writing has appeared in numerous publications and her essays and interviews have been used in workshops, college courses, and museum exhibitions. She has won the National Endowment for the Arts grant, Rock West Curator of the Year, Denver’s The Big Read, Best Multicultural Book from the New Mexico/Arizona Book Awards, and was a finalist for the Colorado Book Awards.

10 thoughts on “How to Become A Good Artist: Joellyn Duesberry

  1. Rose, your column presents many important ideas, including the importance of working through fear and listening to your mentors. I look forward to reading more about Joly. Thanks!

  2. She was creatively on fire, and she put it into her work. Also, she was incredibly prolific and took on very challenging compositions.

    You caught a lot of her essence in this newsletter and passed on some of that fire.

    Thank you!

  3. “And yet, he said, for all her talk she never quite let herself go there.

    Maybe in her next life.”

    Reading these last words made me think of “Carpe Diem”. It is time to experience true freedom, self-acceptance and let go of fear. If not now, when? The next lifetime? Thank you Rose!

  4. Loved a class that I had with Joly. Wonderful woman, open about some of her struggles. You captured her with the right flare, Rose. Amie Knox did a terrific documentary on Joly – I’m sure that you know. Among the other things that were so interesting about her is that she had 70+ colors on her palette and painted with 1.5 inch angled brushes – it was an astonishing thing to watch her work! And she would put up enormous canvases out in the field, which blew me away as well. I’m sure that bull was very curious about what she was doing in his domain…

    • I didn’t know you’d taken a workshop from Joly. How wonderful. I think she was so under appreciated in her time. I remember being at a dinner with a group of artists, mostly men, and Joly and Patty Cramer (do you remember Patty?). Anyway, one of the men made the comment that you don’t see many women artists because there aren’t any good ones. That was 1990, but I think there’s still a lot of that kind of thinking out there.

  5. Hi, Rose. What a lovely and spot-on article about Joly and her fierce desire for self-improvement. I did a half-hour documentary on her if you’d like to see it. We followed the creation of one of her large paintings and she was unfailingly open and honest during our process. Hope you are well….amie

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.