“Begin to submit yourself to the direction of a master for instruction as early as you can; and do not leave the master until you have to.”

This may be the most significant sentence in Cennino Cennini’s Il Libro dell’Arte, but I did not understand the reason until yesterday. The key is to ask, why does Cennini say this?

. . .

The clue came from Tracy Helgeson, who commented:

“I think almost any kind of job that is free-lance, which an artist essentially is, requires a second, more stable income for a good period of time. Unless one is willing or able to live in extreme poverty and upheaval.”

In Cennini’s time, an artist did their non “free-lance” work in another artist’s workshop, as an apprentice. In this workshop, the young artist developed the skills he would need later, while receiving a living wage. When he established himself as a master, he became a “free-lance” as Tracy says, and got his own assistants.

Nowadays, because artists don’t generally collaborate as a team in a workshop, the artist must often get their stable income from a source not directly related to art. The time in the “day job” is time lost from learning how to be an artist. Cennini recommends staying with the master as long as possible, because this gives the opportunity to learn without having to survive as a “free-lance,” which is what is so difficult for artists today. Herein is the significance of what Cennini wrote some six hundred years ago.

Cennini adds, “There are those who pursue [art], because of poverty and domestic need, for profit and enthusiasm for the profession too.” Not quit the situation today, is it? In our time, art can be a cause of, rather than a cure for, poverty.

Tracy Hegelson, Jon Conkey and David Palmer discuss their “day job” experiences in comments to the previous post on art education. The “day job” can provide valuable knowledge, even if it is not the same nature of work as these artists do in their studios. But their comments also confirm the distinction between our time and Cennini’s.

Earlier I compared the education of a scientist to that of an artist. A biologist, for example, will spend four years in graduate school (ages 21-25), then another two to four years as a post-doctoral fellow, before becoming an independent assistant professor. The post-doctoral years are some of the most productive in a scientist’s career: free from coursework, free from the demands of teaching and administration, the post-doctoral fellow focuses on research under the guidance of and in collaboration with a recognized scientist. There is nothing comparable for the artist, as far as I know.