Jacob Lawrence on How to be an Artist
Painter Jacob Lawrence poses in his studio, Seattle, Washington, December 1, 1989. Photo by George Rose/Getty Images.
In 1940, at just 23 years old, Jacob Lawrence began his undisputed masterpiece: “The Migration Series,” a group of epic history paintings that extend over 60 panels. Together, in vivid colors and bold forms, they depict the momentous exodus of more than one million black Americans from the South to Northern cities between 1910 and 1940.
For Lawrence, the subject—like all those he gravitated towards—was both personal and universal, fusing his own experience as a young Segregation-era black man with overarching themes of discrimation, adversity, and resilience. “To me, migration means movement. There was conflict and struggle. But out of the struggle came a kind of power and even beauty,” Lawrence once said of the series. “‘The migrants kept coming’ is a refrain of triumph over adversity. If it rings true for you today, then it must still strike a chord in our American experience.”
Across his oeuvre, Lawrence fearlessly harnessed historical moments where injustice was met with potent resistance. He painted the struggles and triumphs of black freedom fighters like Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and Toussaint L’Ouverture as well as scenes that more generally depicted the plight of minority groups (women, Native Americans); the daily life that coursed through Harlem; and his own battle with depression. “Jake had a radical mind in a sense that he was so far ahead of his time,” artist and scholar David C. Driskell once wrote of Lawrence’s body of work. “He could see beyond the contours of time and history.”
Over the course of his career (he passed away in 2000), Lawrence became one of the first black American artists to be embraced by the white art establishment. His revolutionary paintings and extensive teachings (as a beloved professor at Black Mountain College, Pratt, Skowhegan, and University of Washington) inspired countless artists and activists—and will for generations to come. Below, we look to Lawrence’s interviews and lectures, highlighting the groundbreaking painter’s words of wisdom.
Start with an appreciation of the basics: form, color, and texture
In his late teens and early twenties, while living in the vibrant, creativity-rich neighborhood of Harlem, Lawrence began honing his sense of color and form. There, he filled his time between jobs at a laundromat and a printing plant with extensive art classes. Mentors like Charles Alston at the Harlem Art Workshop, which was tucked into the basement of the public library at West 135th street, introduced him to the building blocks of painting. Lawrence later honed those skills downtown at the American Artists School, studying alongside the likes of Elaine de Kooning and Ad Reinhardt, and while working as a painter on the government’s expansive public art effort, the Works Progress Administration (WPA).
In the process, he established his signature style, which he dubbed “dynamic cubism,” where angular, color-saturated shapes collided like complex jigsaw puzzles, resolving as intricate and indefatigably lively pictorial compositions. “When the subject is strong, simplicity is the only way to treat it,” Lawrence once said of his work, whose charged content was enhanced by its flat, bright forms.
Later, as a professor, he emphasized the importance of rooting an artistic practice—no matter what the final manifestation—in an active investigation of color, form, and composition. While teaching, he explained in a 1968 interview with art historian Carroll Greene, “I try to get the student to appreciate form and shape, line, color, texture and space regardless of what the content may be. The content can be abstract or it can be figurative; figurative or non-figurative.” He continued, “You don’t see a head as a head, but you see it as a form and as a shape. And you can work as realistically as you care to.”
In this way, he suggested, artists are freed from the constraints of imitating reality and more open to developing a unique style: “But if you just see these things for what they are, the chances are you will become more illustrative and you will never develop from this, you know; move out from this. The other way you become much more plastic much more aesthetic in what you’re doing.”
Fuse the personal and universal
Lawrence grew up surrounded by the influx of creativity that emerged from the Harlem Renaissance and, in step, he began his career painting genre scenes of Harlem streetscapes: “I’m interested in everything which goes on around me,” he told Greene. However, inspired by historian Charles Seifert’s lectures exploring pan-African history at the Harlem YMCA, the burgeoning painter shifted his focus. He started depicting scenes that, while pertaining to his life as a black man and the arc of black history, also contained more universally accessible themes of human strife and resistance.
Lawrence’s first series of history paintings, created in 1937–38, illuminate the life and valor of Haitian freedom fighter Toussaint L’Ouverture. The artist spent countless hours in the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library researching L’Ouverture’s revolutionary activities, later translating them onto 41 arresting canvases that revealed dramatic acts of heroism and battle (canvases filled with careening bodies, blood splatter) alongside quieter moments of contemplation and frustration (the hero cradling his head, staring off into the distance resolutely).
“If at times my productions do not express the conventionally beautiful,” he told curator Ellen Harkins Wheat in an interview, “there is always an effort to express the universal beauty of man’s continuous struggle to lift his social position and to add dimension to his spiritual being.”
While many of his subjects centered around black history, Lawrence chose motifs and moments that he believed resonated with all people. “My themes may deal with the Negro but I would like to think of it as dealing with all people, the struggle of man to always better his condition and to move forward,” he told Greene.
He echoed this sentiment in a 1995 interview with PBS while discussing “The Migration Series”: “I’d like them to experience the beauty of life, the struggle, how people can overcome certain things that could be frustrating or very demeaning,” he explained. “People have the capacity to overcome these obstacles by various means, and this is an example of that…I’m talking about people in general; I’d like it to be a universal statement.”
Resist blindly following trends—practice self-assuredness
As Lawrence’s career progressed, a number of new movements emerged, from Minimalism to Pop Art, filling Madison Avenue galleries and the front-most pages of art magazines. While these developments were groundbreaking, they were also trendy—a notion at which Lawrence bristled. He stayed true to the flat, bold, narrative style he’d developed in the 1930s and ’40s.
During Lawrence’s conversation with Greene, she inquired why the painter resisted the influence of Pop Art. “I guess it’s an assuredness. I have an assuredness of myself,” he explained. “I never protect myself against it.” But this self-assuredness didn’t mean Lawrence was immune to new influences and inspirations; instead, it allowed him to be selective. “If I find something valid in this I surely don’t turn my back on it. If I feel there’s a valid thing in this ism which I think will—if I can take it and it will do something to my work or add another dimension to it I will surely do so. But I’m not going to do that because this has become a fad or has become a projection of Madison Avenue.”
Lawrence often used the term “Madison Avenue” as shorthand for the exclusive, trend-obsessed aspects of the commercial art scene. “If I did this I would become involved in the commercial aspects of what’s hot today, what’s the thing, what’s ‘in’ today, you see, and my value to myself as an artist would be much less,” he continued. Later in the interview, he ramped up this message. Mimicking trend would lead, he believed, to a depletion of true creativity: “This is a vacuum which I think saps the energies of you creatively, saps the energies of the creative artist.”
Be open to learning from your students and younger artists
Jacob Lawrence demonstration at Lincoln School. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Starting around 1946, when Josef Albers tapped Lawrence to teach at the progressive Black Mountain College, teaching became an integral part of Lawrence’s daily life, and a wellspring of inspiration for his personal work. He’d also serve as a professor of painting at Pratt, Skowhegan, and, from the early ’70s until his retirement in the mid-’80s, The University of Washington.
By 1960, Lawrence had achieved artistic fame—in 1956 he was one of 30 artists who represented the U.S. at the Venice Biennale, and in 1960 was featured in a major mid-career retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum—but he continued teaching. He emphasized the impact of his work with students in the interview with Greene: “Teaching has been a very good thing for me in that I think that it’s led me into areas of exploration, areas of thinking which I may not have gone into had I not had the experience of teaching. I think, again, I may have remained in a narrower area. But when you teach, it stimulates, you’re forced to crystallize your own thinking, you’re forced to communicate.”
He continued: “You’re forced to formalize your own theories so that you may communicate them to the students, you see. Which I think in turn you go back to your studio and you think about this again; it doesn’t end there. It doesn’t end in the classroom or in the workshop.”
But he also expressed that a balance—between the classroom and the studio—was integral. “I don’t want to spend more time teaching than painting,” he assured. “I never want to find myself in that situation.”