Advice to Painters

“Do not imitate, do not follow others,
you will always be behind them.”
To the Beginning Painter

There are three admonitions to offer the beginning painter:

First, always paint from life. Work done on the drafting board from imagination is rarely fine art and is at best illustration.

This does not mean that at times you might not need to work in the studio. Finishing an almost completed landscape after the leaves have fallen, or the light has changed for the season, requires working from memory. I do not wish to reduce nature to a dictator, but to stress that judgments of color and form are best made from life.

As you may have discerned from this monograph, the mysteries of the world are closer to the invisible than the visible. A scene rendered in a personal or decorative color scheme is often far from the color of objects under a specific light. These works often fool the untrained eye, which rarely sees the landscape beyond an occasional drive on the Interstate. To quote Vincent Van Gogh, “I seldom work from memory… I work with the natural form and can keep my judgmental feeling apart… I waver less… I draw repeatedly till there is one drawing that is different from the rest… with more feeling… I always refer to nature and do my best not to put in any detail, as the dream quality would then be lost.”

Secondly, always work under conditions of natural light. Have both the subject matter and the canvas or board in full outdoor light or strong light from a window. A work concocted under artificial light will often ring false as it loses the sensation of life. Only under a condition of natural light can a painter see a beauty worth conveying to the viewer, an artistic beauty as opposed to a literary or designer’s beauty.

Third and most important, as you may judge from this text, is to avoid following someone else’s style. This does not mean you might not draw or trace out the design of a master in order to better understand composition, or not listen to artistic wisdom, but that you should not regularly copy or work in the style of another painter. Only by doing your own work will you achieve mastery of technique, as well as fulfill the creative need that brought you to art in the first place. Recognize that originality is not when you are following what others do but when you are guided by your own inner spirit. In this way you keep your soul alive.

Color Studies

Just as great musicians owe their performances to the practice of doing scales an hour everyday, so should you as a painter exert the same discipline. Color studies are the preparatory layouts of various combinations of colors in nature — simple objects in a particular light. In a sense they are preliminary drawings, but instead of being primarily of contour and volume, they attempt to grasp the most exact color that best describes each object as seen in that particular light. Also, they permit you to judge your skill at conveying the overall color and light effect of the scene.

They are usually smaller works, often, but not always, designed to be executed in one sitting. Some may be a refinement of the “mass” stage while others may delve into how each mass breaks down into major and minor variations. From these modest studies a higher order of feeling is often perceived. The painter’s color studies, then, represent the musician’s scales.

Poetic Character

To represent something well is not inconsistent with being harmonious and lyrical. Poetry is not obtained by denying truths of nature. Under a consistent light, color and form will always be in harmony.

Poetry comes from organizing what is material into an aura of spirituality. To show this poetry of true representation embrace with energy and patience what you see before you.

However you perceive correct depiction, always insist on the plausibility of substance and the clarity of space. Structural ingredients of shapes, dimensions, distances, masses, variations and edges are prerequisite to poetry. By doing the mundane you come closer to the profound.

Does Your Work Speak?

Your work should show a transcendent connection with life. It should carry an undertone of intense emotion, a growing awareness of potency, a sensation of pathos. It should show effort, a struggle to master, perhaps a gentle power or exuberance, a movement forward, a poignancy. Sometimes a work can show a controlled disruption, such as an expanding openness.

Measure this endeavor by asking if it speaks to you. Do you feel its vitality? Does it hold a private meaning that bursts forth?

Do not be comforted if it is fashionable to others. The approval of current arbiters of taste may spell doom when appetites change. Great art is only for the special few who have insight; great art is for the ages. As a guide, it is imperative that your work speak first to your vision, and only secondly to others.

Beware of Commercialism

Too many artists hide behind an aura of professionalism. Satisfying a market becomes worthy, despite the fact that it so often requires setting aside the values that brought one to art. In a sense it is a battle between two ethics that do not mix: professionalism and painterly freedom. Professionalism comes dangerously close to commercialism, which is too often characterized by meeting the popular taste, creating a sameness marked by a lack of daring. A serious painter must not think of satisfying the needs of a customer but must paint with vigor and emotion what he or she truly sees.

At the same time, professionalism does not necessarily mean sycophantic rendering. There is often an earnestness in professionals. As artists we must not be so unconcerned with those who will judge our work as to arrogantly condemn those who fail to understand.

Artists are Always Students

We will all be students for the rest of our lives. We will constantly be experimenting, seeing patterns with new eyes, finding new color mixtures that better express what we wish to say. It is not complexity we seek but simpler, more faithful ways to relate color and shape to each other, always with the goal of bringing out more beauty and emotion in our work.

The Task of a Painter

In summary, your task is to record the precise appearance of a particular lighting condition at a certain time of day. Further, you need to express your emotional feeling about the beauty of the scene, and to create elegant assemblages of compositional forms expressing the complete harmony of the light.

Your vision, then, must be at the center of artistic technique –not just to record relationships of color and value but to recognize and express what is beautiful, to convey what is seen in a more vibrant truth.

This monograph has been a testament to the intimate connection between viewing and making a work. I would argue that only your own experience offers the utmost standard for truth. Enduring the journey yourself takes precedence over all secondhand assertions and rituals of fashion. Stay away from the level of hell wherein dwell art historians.

Comprehension and creation are evidence that a person has become spiritually alive. On a higher level, painting, as well as other art, never becomes fixed but remains spontaneous, charismatic and open.

The aim of painting is not a refined cerebral exercise — it is life — spirited, vigorous life. Philosophy, then, should be sparing and work, considerable. Notions are nothing, work everything. To believe otherwise is nonsense. Do the work, that is the thing. Like muscle, making art is strengthened by doing it. To express that inner fineness, you must work at it.

I had the great fortune to study with the master painter and teacher, Henry Hensche. I hope that my work will always bear testimony to his influence. My work diverges from his, but I hope it remains a worthy expression of all he taught me about painting.

Next: Addendum

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