Richard Wentworth, as drawn by Phaidon's Creative Director Julia Hasting for AKADAMIE X

Watch Richard Wentworth describe artistic skill

Why does the British sculptor and photographer feel that artists reach their goals by ‘walking backwards’?

Richard Wentworth is familiar with the classroom setting. Wentworth, who has had major solo exhibitions at the Serpentine Gallery and the Venice Biennale, and whose work is in the Tate’s permanent collection, has also taught at Goldsmiths College in London, the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford, and at Britain’s Royal College of Art.

So, perhaps it’s surprising to hear him describe the language career paths – often the obvious next step after higher education – as “not only abhorrent but also ridiculous.”

The sculptor and photographer explains his views in this video, which is a brief précis of the essay he has contributed to our new book, AKADEMIE X, a compendium of choice advice, that encourages readers to think, see and live like an artist.


Caledonian Road, July 2011 by Richard Wentworth
Caledonian Road, July 2011 by Richard Wentworth

In Wentworth's view, artists aren’t well suited to a linear career path; “creative people get there by walking backwards,” he says. What does he mean by this? Well Wentworth describes two specific fields of expertise a good artist develops haphazardly. The first is the ability to be “very vigilant.”

“The world is feeding all of us stuff all the time that we didn’t mean to see,” he explains in this footage, shot near his home in the Kings Cross neighbourhood of London. One should try to “get those little moments,” he says. “You’ve got to do something with those opportunities; they’re fructive,” he goes on, “there’s something in there you can make something of.”

However, don’t feel as if you should stand to attention all the time. In Wentworth’s description, you can be on the verge of sleep and grasp one of these chance occurrences, so long as you’ve developed the right mindset. It’s an enlightening way to think about contemporary art generally, but also Wentworth’s work in particular, which seems to dwell on happenstance and improvisation.

The second knack he outlines is simply “skill”, which sounds a bit broad, until you listen to how he defines skillfulness. In Wentworth’s view, skill is simply a combination of patience and critical thinking. “Skill is giving something the time that it takes to do it,” he says, “while simultaneously being critical. There’s a hell of a lot of that in being a functioning artist.”

Even for those of us never likely to have a work hung on a gallery wall, that combination of patience and watchfulness is worth bearing in mind when trying to improve almost any skillful practice, from baking to bricklaying.


Richard Wentworth


There’s a lot more to take in this clip, including some Wenworth-style images. Watch the whole thing in the frame above.

We hope you've liked this brief lesson; you can watch another one here, featuring fellow AKADAMIE X academian, Shirley Tse and another from Sanford Biggers here; and if you like what you've seen you can order a copy of AKADEMIE X from the people who made it, here.