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How do you develop an "artistic eye"?

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One thing I've noticed about my work is that I have no eye for that certain something that takes the work up another level. In short, I don't have any sense of art. No eye for combining different things in different ways to create something that's more than just a tool.


I can try to copy someone else's work, but it never occurs to me to do something on my own.


Take the Spanish Notch, for example. Never in a million years would I have thought to do something like that to a knife simply because it's doesn't add to the function but it does add to the labor. When I see it on a knife, I can appreciate the art of it. But when it comes to actually making a knife, where the rubber meets the road, the idea never pops into my mind.


When I look at the works on this forum, I'm always amazed at the pieces, knife or not, and how they can look so amazing. The piece goes from functional to fascinating. But I can't seem to see that on my own.


Oddly enough, I do have some very hard and fast rules about what I won't do. Brass bolsters are right out. Aluminum pommels ala Marble knives - no. Both are simply because I detest the look; they are an affront to what little artistic eye I must have. There are exceptions to the rule, usually involving masterful carving and engraving to diminish the presence of the canvas and focus the attention on the paint on the canvas.


Check out the Cedarlore Forge website for a thousand and one designs, paper and steel, that I would never ever ever have thought up on my own.


So I guess my question is how do you artsy types learn to see the possibilities in a pile of materials? Obviously there is time in the pit learning the trade and practicing with various mediums. But I get the sense that there might just be a genetic component, and I'm lacking it.

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In my honest opinion, there is no genetic predisposition to artistry. It really does come with experience. right now I am focusing on the function of the form more than anything else, but all it takes sometimes is just choosing a wood for a handle that compliments a particular finish or design. I find that the simpler, the better... The rule of K.I.S.S really, I feel, works the best here. That is where the "artistic eye" is developed. Then again, this is the wisest advice of a young fool, so if anyone else has better advice, please take it over mine.

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Artistic is a different part of the brain at work then functional creativity. The latter is logic based, the first emotion. Both require training and knowledge. No one creates from scratch. You need to look at lots of stuff that you like and start recording the styles and shapes. What helps is sketching, lots and lots of sketching. What also helps is recreating something that you really like, but with no other reference then memory. Then compare it to what you based it on. Naturally you need actual practical techniques to make what you intend. And also, create an inspiring environment to be creative in. What helps tremendously is simply hanging out with creative people. And finally, be prepared that you're probably not going to be happy with anything you make for a long time, because what you can will always be many steps behind what you want to achieve :)


Oh, and also an interesting watch, John Cleese on creativity: http://youtu.be/AU5x1Ea7NjQ

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I can relate to this question. I was an English major in college and never really thought about visual art. When I started making knives, I quickly became aware that I was working in a form that was nonverbal and that I had no sense of what made a piece work or not. Fortunately, I soon began working with the artist Murad Sayen who had a wonderful eye. Watching him sketch and work gave me a sense of what I needed to learn. I focused first on line. Jimmy Fikes helped me by point out the perfect blade shapes in a bed of Spring flowers.


Line and form are everywhere, texture, color, dimension, contrast was a world that I now started to see. I found that if I went out with my camera and just photographed whatever caught my eye, I could late look at those images to discover what attracted me. I poured over images of old blades, not so much thinking about the blades as absorbing the lines. Again, if I was attracted to a form, I would study it, draw it, try to make it. Design is a language and as you learn, the world morphs into a whole new dimension. You are training your eye as you learn the other skills.


The creative part comes by working consciously. Learning to see what is there with an objective eye. Look for the flow of the piece, where does the flow stop or break, what is a pleasing transition between materials. Everyone who has ever made a blade deals with the same set of functional problems. Form follows function, but within those constraints there are infinite variations. Peter Johnsson has discover a mathematical and symbolic harmony that lies within the swords of the middle ages. Proportions are exact and express not only proper balance and function, but also express universal or spiritual harmonies.


Sorry, I ramble.

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Personally I get more ideas than my hands could possibly make, but one idea (borrowed from Dave Stephens I believe) is too look at your favorite maker's work (we all have some) and look at their knives, and take note which part you really like on knife A, then look at knife B and maybe that has a better-looking choil design, and when you sit down to draw conjure up in your mind all those little parts of the knife, and try to bring them together.

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a big pad of paper, a sharp pencil, and an eraser. draw a bunch of designs. go back the next day, and evaluate those designs honestly, take what you learn, and draw a bunch more. repeat until you find a style which speaks to you, and is honestly yours. pick a design, trace a dozen copies, and experiment with embellishments, - carving, engraving, filework, checkering, notches, whatever, and notice how the placement, density, etc effects the visual weight an balance of the design. repeat.


when you make a knife, or anything, you are making a decision at every step of the way. all you have to do is train yourself to ask why you are making those decisions, what would happen if you chose differently. this is a lot cheaper and easier to do in paper than in steel...

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Art isn't "built-in" I've been an artist for some 30 years or so. I've worked with pen and ink, charcol, pencil, oils, acrylics, plaster, paper mache, 3D computer art, carving....pretty much anything I've ever taken an intrest in. And here is the one hard and fast rule that I personally have found that stands true over the test of time. Don't think! Art is not rocket science! Art is the physical manifistation of an feeling. There are no true rules to follow other than doing what feels to be the right thing to do! Don't overthink it, just go for it. You may not like the end result, I've thrown away enough pieces to fill a landfill...but in the end, you'll find your muse.

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I don't know if it's a left brain/right brain thing or something like it, but I do think that one can be gifted in the mechanical / engineer-like thinking to the point that it suppresses the artistic side.


I've also seen very artistic folks that struggle with mechanical concepts.


A watercolor artist is not overly concerned with mechanics and a guy that builds hot-rod engines is not too concerned with the artsy stuff.


The metal arts, bladesmithing, blacksmithing, etc., is the quest for the perfect balance of the two... form & function.

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I had this very same problem a few years ago, I didn't really become artistic until I was probably eleven, when I was little I sucked at drawing, I was never good at anything the pertained to art or making anything look good whatsoever. In hindsight I think my problem was I just didn't care enough, I was too lazy to make something that worked just fine look good, I just didn't care if something looked good or anything as long as it worked. I always wanted to be a good artist just because I thought it was cool, but it wasn't until I was about eleven or twelve that I started becoming a pretty big perfectionist and I guess I kind of got this idea that anything that was ugly wasn't perfect, and so I wanted to make everything pretty, and inevitably I got better at making stuff pretty, and I'm still getting better.

Also take Jake's, Caleb's, Brian's, and of course Don's advice, all of them hit the nail right on the head.

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This is an interesting discussion.

My Grandfather was an Art Professor and he had an extensive art collection of some very well know artists.

I grew up looking at excellent art and was fortunate enough to watch master painters work and discuss what "Art" is.

While each generation of visual artists rebels against the previous generation they all share some technical altruism of; Line, Form, Balance, Harmony, and Proportion to name a few principles of design.

That being said Art is a very hard thing to define. As my grandfather told me, the object not only has to be decorative but it must be fresh or unique and posses all of the other qualities I listed above.

I have made a living as a Tattoo "Artist" for 27 years.

I did not make art every day but I designed things for people everyday.

Design contains the principles I listed above.

A good craftsman can make a technically excellent work and it not be art. Good furniture makers may not make a piece of art out of every chair, but they can still make something aesthetically pleasing and very functional.

So to sum up the best I can.

Draw a lot. Copy traditional patterns and then add something to them that is yours, part of your vision. Add one thing at a time.

Train your eye by looking at master works and ask your self "what makes this master work?'

Look at work that you personally appreciate and ask yourself is it master work and if not, what is the difference.

Lastly. This comes from a conversation I had with Sam Salvati the other week.

It was about Transitions and Terminations and how those two things really make or break a piece.

A point is a termination, a guard is both a transition and termination. This is just two examples of many that you find in the form of a knife, sword, axe etc.

I think you can see the level of a makers skill in these two ideas.

If the parts come together in a jarring way then your transitions have betrayed your other principles like line, form, balance etc.

Lastly, know why you do what you do.

If you make a part of a blade, finish it a certain way or make it a certain shape. Even if it only for research or to solve your own creative itch, know why you did it.

Doing that, I think you will be true to yourself and that is a first principle that can't be tarnished.

Edited by JJ Simon
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  • 2 weeks later...

Well said! I seldom draw these days unless I'm starting a project I've not done before, then I draw it on cardboard, and cut it out, after looking at it for a few days (in passing, not all the time!)I'll spot something that needs to change, redo it and carry on, after a week or so I've got it looking and 'feeling' right...only then will I bother to start imagining it in steel...

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In my approach, part of it is to set some constants, so I prefer to start with technical requirements so I know what I have to work with and where I can, should or must elaborate.

Therefore I find it interesting that you mention the spanish notch. I don't know anything about that phenomenon, but I do know that in scandinavia there is another notch.

It most likely started as a necessity by those smiths that forge tang first in such a way that they lose track of their edge side, in a header for instance.

They made a mark on the back, close to the tang transition, and this notch has been elaborated upon with files in a number of ways through the ages.


(If anyone knows of a practical use for this notch I would gladly be enlightened. The only thing I can imagine that it could be used for is to clean birch roots for sewing)

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Don said it: "The creative part comes by working consciously."


There seem to be a few people that have somehow, instinctively been born with an innate sense of the aesthetic, but most artists have to work their butt's off to achieve it. Just like an athlete that trains to develop one aspect of his game, or build up one set of muscles, I think that artists of the latter "earned" talent need to "work consciously" to develop their skill sets.


Time seems to be the simplest ingredient in success. A recent, fairly well-received study that I could link to if pressed, found that it takes around 10,000 hours of practice in almost any given skill (artistic or otherwise) to achieve a high level of mastery. Now give a young Tiger Woods 10,000 hours with a golf club and he becomes who he is today, but force a young Dave Stephens to spend 10,000 hours earnestly striving to become good at golf, well . . . I wouldn't be Tiger, but I'd be a good golf player.


So, talent it important, and it often makes the difference between the merely good and the best, but it isn't required to play. You can "learn" to be "artistic." I suck at pencil drawing. I forced myself to take a few classes on it, and now I can draw something that isn't totally laughable. Am I David Delgardelle? Nope, but I'm working on it.


And that's the whole point of this exercise. You never reach the end of this quest. No one, no bladesmith or swordsmith, is out there thinking "Yup, I don't need to learn anything else, or refine my skill/artistry any more. I'm done." Doesn't matter if you're Don Fogg, Peter Johnsson, Jake Powning, or Patrick Barta . . . this road goes on and on. And I'm grateful that it does.


Read the quote in my signature. It's one of my favorite things any human being has said for a reason. The kid that walks up and effortlessly hits the ball out of the park the first time he swings a bat is cool, but there is something beautiful and noble about the kid that sucks at first, but swings and swings and swings and never gives up and then one day . . . *crack* . . .out of the park. I know I'll never be the first kid, but I hope someday to be the second.


Luck in the quest.



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I certainly can't add much to what has already been said other than to emphasize the importance of studying beautiful things. Study the masters in all walks of art. Study nature. Get to the essence of what makes things beautiful.. graceful lines, symmetry (not always), contrasts, proportion. Have a look at D'Arcy Thompson's 'On Growth and Form'.


I agree that drawing really helps. For me.. learning sumi-e has been useful as it really forces you to distill beauty down to a very limited pallet.

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  • 4 weeks later...

A lot of good comments here. I meant to chime in earlier but had a back injury that required notching back to bare essentials for a while(all better now :-).


The way it works for me is:


Developing an artistic eye is the same as any discipline. Some will have more affinity than others but those who will excel at it are those who apply themselves diligently and over a significant period of time. Hard work applied over time will outstrip slacker talent every time. To apply oneself in that way will require passion. It won't be something you would just like to do. It will possess you to some degree to the sacrifice of other things in your life. Again, as in any other field, a neophyte will be blown away by the accomplishments of those who have spent decades applying themselves in this way.


In addition to the ideas above, especially looking at as many varied source materials as possible, I would also like to suggest the importance of developing one's imagination.


As Jeroen suggests, an artistic project(anything more than mechanical technique) requires a kind of dance between rational-linear-verbal and imaginational-feeling-…. Working your imagination is not something dwelled upon much in general, but is essential to artistic output and has to be factored into the process. It's a muscle that will strengthen with use. As Jake suggests, time for the subconscious to work has to be allowed. I've seen this so many times. Nearly on every project. I'll screw myself to the bench initially and reach a point where something indeterminate does not feel right. I am so familiar with this that it is palpable in the gut, either "yes that's it" ,or "no, something's wrong". At this point it is necessary to distance from the work and let the subconscious do its thing. This can be painful as it's not predictable how long it may take, and then exhilarating when the lightbulb goes off. This may happen numerous times in one project.


The biggest impediments for me, as might be expected, are time limits and any imposed expectations of others, real or imagined. Others seem to work well with deadlines.


As an example of my routine for developing idea and design here is a photo of a notebook I keep. It's divided into categories of; 1)objects, 2)motifs and 3)techniques/materials, with rough drawings of ideas sorted into these categories. As you can see it's fairly jammed. I almost always proceed from Object or Motif with technique taking the back-seat. I usually don't have much success trying to develop a design with the idea of focusing on a specific technique. It usually works better for me the other way around with technique at the service of the artistry, developed from focusing on the object or motif.



The way the notebook works is to have a visual reference to trigger a melding of object/motif. If I am moved to make a certain object, I'll scan down through motifs to see if anything jumps out, and similarly if I want to use a certain motif, scanning for objects. Often a meld doesn't gel while I'm sitting there, but later when I'm distracted or relaxing.



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Here's a slide from a talk I gave at Ashokan in 2012. It gives a graphic take on my mode of developing my eye leading to design:



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I've since read somewhere that it is only through pain and torture. ;)


(thanks for the post Jim.. nice to see your process)

Edited by Scott A. Roush
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  • 5 months later...

Well, since I asked the question, I've been on something of a conscious journey to understand art and how I might be able to better incorporate it into what I do.


I decided that "artsy" knives just weren't a good place to start (aim small, miss small), so I decided to make some pendants using a bit of rusty iron I was lucky to acquire. The stuff acts like wrought iron, but came from a 1980's era carport awning structure that got run over instead of parked under. It's the weirdest alloy I've ever worked with and the grain is really nice.


Because the steel is so heavily pitted by nature, I decided to keep that look as much as possible. Sort of an homage to the work of Serge Panchenko. New, but looking like it could have been dug up by an archeologist.



Never in a million years would have thought that I'd be forging rune pendants.


My most recent creation was made just yesterday morning as a gift for my mom, a way of saying thanks on Thanksgiving Day (the turkey was superb!)


Using the weathered iron, I carved the crucifix in and had to forge a new chisel to cut the keyways. Then it was just a matter of hammering in the copper and giving the whole thing some hot wax as a finish. The colored steel is from an interrupted quench and I was quite surprised to see the blood-red trail leading away from the base of the crucifix.




It was a big step for me to make something that wasn't really functional, and an even bigger step to try to think about how to turn the pitted metal into something that capitalized on what nature provided.

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