Happily Negative? I’m Positive!

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…


  1. I don’t know if it’s just my computer, but the link to your website doesn’t work. I’ve been to your website, but just in case someone stumbles upon this – thought you should know.

  2. Thank you, I feel the same way when I am painting –It is good to know that I am not alone or so hard on myself. BEA

  3. Christopher Czarnecki says

    In reading about your teaching, learning, and critiquing process (internal or otherwise) I am reminded of the proverb of Solomon:

    “Whoever rebukes a man will afterward find more favor than he who flatters with his tongue.”

    Brutal honesty … it might not go over so well to those immersed in the cult of self-esteem but I’ve always felt that it was good policy to listen to one’s critics to guard oneself from self-delusion.

  4. Tony Lombardo says

    I’ve decided that sometimes its good to “finish” a painting and move on to another one, knowing that whatever I learned on the previous piece will make the next one better rather than overworking something for way too long (which is what I am prone to do). You mentioned in a workshop that it is “better to be approximately correct than specifically wrong.” That is what I let guide my decision to move on or not.

  5. I enjoyed ready this post, it sums up how I feel with my own learning process. Also I liked the quotes mentioned in the comments. “Overworking is a result of not knowing what to do, but doing something anyway.” That’s a good one!
    My artistic ego doesn’t have a chance to inflate… my wife takes to it like a child with a pin to a balloon! She actually makes me a better artist because of it.

  6. Well this is a surprise…and a great find! No no no…you keep right on being negative…as I am totally positive with delight and relief….someone who really cares to talk about the right stuff…rather than all the silly fluff.
    I have watched your site…and dreamt of participating in your classes…but affording one may never happen. Curious…have you ever offered a scholarship to someone?…Anyways…I keep painting…and saving my money…because I feel it is a worthwhile goal to train and learn from the best. Thanks. JRB

    • Hi James,

      Thanks for the positive feedback. I calls it the way I sees it. I’m sure there are many out there who disagree with much that I have to say, but I’m not writing this bog with them in mind.

      With regards to scholarships, I am a mere employee of the venues where I teach. They are interested in something called a profit. Sorry. I’m looking into ways of getting my teaching out there in a more affordable way. This blog is the first step in that direction. Tell all those you know who you think would be interested in my point of view.

  7. Marcia Gorra-Patek says

    Thank you, Marvin. You are such an inspiring guy! I was just commenting today about how much I have learned from you, as it is the middle of our Plien Aire painting week and many people tend to stop and chat with the painters. Oh yes, did I mention that you teach more than just portraits? Oh yah, the right shape, the right size, in the right place with the right value, and uhm, add some color…. the right color!

  8. It was 20 years ago, and I don’t remember much of your not wanting to hurt my feeling in a crit…but next to Jon Murray’s brutal nut-kickings, your hardest critiques were like sweet kisses. I do appreciate that you were somewhat tough on me. In my career, my own critiques of others were sometimes a reflection, which earned me the unfortunate Seinfeld-inspired nickname of “the muppet nazi”, back in the day.

  9. Noella Richard says

    Good morning, I read your blog with interest, started off seeing myself in how I work my portraits and by the time I got to the end of your blog, I realized you get me!! I’m thinking of printing a copy so I can get my husband to read it, he may understand then how I view and approach everything the same way as I paint…. do you think we’ll be able to stop arguing after this? LOL.
    Thanks for making me see myself in a better light, I’ve been hard on myself for years over it.

    • Glad to have been of service. It’s easy to beat up oneself for being unconventional. We are who we are and we can’t change our true nature. Artists are different. This is sometimes difficult for normal people to accept. We not only have to accept ourselves for who we are, but also the effect we have on others.

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