Portrait Artist or Negative Spin Doctor
I am by nature a very happy person. I love what I do. I have a great family. I have relationships with people I admire and respect, who seem to return the favor. I’m very excited by the way my clients respond to my portraits. Never, in my wildest imagination did I ever think I’d be capable of creating the kind of paintings I do. When I think about where I came from and what I can now do, I have to pinch myself. So you would think that I would be very positive about everything I do, but in the heat of battle, my biggest weapon is being negative.
When I’m painting, what jumps out at me are the areas that don’t work. The more egregious the error the more it screams for my attention. I don’t actively focus on areas that are working, because if something works, there is nothing I can do about it. I guess I could admire it, but it’s hard to pat oneself on the back while trying to paint. (I’ve actually seen that attempted, but the result looked like poop!) What commands my attention? That which is out of whack. So, for positive results, I focus on the negative.
I critique my students the same way–with a slight caveat–because I don’t want to hurt their feelings, I offer a little praise. Praise may make you feel better, but learning to see mistakes will make you paint better. Only by finding out what doesn’t work, what needs fixing, or what’s out of kilter, can you can hope to improve. I don’t care about my own feelings, so I’m as brutal as I need be. And I am very, very brutal. Let it suffice to say, when my internal dialog is in full sync, a longshoremen’s ears would melt, because I’m extremely hard on myself.
My student, Julia, is the same way. During the course of the day, when I come over and I ask her how it’s going she always says, “It sucks!” She focused on what’s not working. Now, most people on earth would cut off their right arm to suck as much as Julia does. LOL. Eventually she acknowledges that the degree of suckiness is subsiding. So I came up with a mantra, “It sucks…it sucks…it sucks less…it sucks less…it’s success!”
I don’t have a set formula: Marvin Mattelson’s Magic Method for Painting Perfection. I follow a basic large-to-small hierarchy, until something bothers me. Once sighted, it must immediately be attended to, with the understanding that as I modify each aspect, I am affecting all the others. Change one thing, it affects everything. I will correct whatever bothers me the most, knowing that, it most likely will need future correction. I then return to my big to small progression. You can see my approach in the above portrait artist workshop demonstration I painted. (You can also see it in greater detail on my website.)
Knowing that everything is in flux eliminates the pressure of being perfect. My stroke-by-stroke goal is simple–make it less wrong. As crazy as it sounds, when I discover my mistakes it makes me happy. It means maybe I just got a bit smarter. I think it’s far more practical to learn to identify and correct mistakes than being perfect. If it looks perfect now, it probably won’t after I apply the next stroke. Perfection is something I move towards. I keep responding to what’s wrong and gradually my painting gets better. When nothing else jumps out at me, I know I’m finished.
This idea of focusing on the negative is not just limited to oil painting. For me that’s pretty much the way I see everything. I appreciate the good but it’s the bad that gets my attention. I have a strong sense of justice and I want to fix what doesn’t work. Obviously, in the world today that would be a huge undertaking, so for the sake of expediency I’ve chosen to focus on representational painting–particularly with regards to portraiture–and it’s teaching. More than enough windmills to tilt at there.
With regards to this blog, you may have noticed, I’ve been pointing out a variety of things that make me just want to shake my head. As a life long teacher, I want to expose all the nonsense encumbering our journey and replace it a greater awareness. There are more than enough folks out there extolling the many virtues of all that I find questionable. That’s not to say I’m immune to heaping the odd platitude where it warranted, but praise alone won’t ever effect change. So I’ll just continue being negative. Of that you can be positive.
Until next time…