The Essence of Painting, the Shape of Things to Come

Edgar Dégas said,” painting is easy for those that do not know how, but very difficult for those that do!” Yes, painting is very complex. I like to tell my students that painting realistically is the second most difficult thing that a human being can learn. The key to true mastery of anything is understanding its essence. So the question is what is the essence of painting?

I would define essence as the most important part or quality. Let’s take tennis, for example. If one were to watch a tennis match one might conclude that the essence of tennis is hitting the ball hard, because all of the really great players seem to do that. But if we look through tennis history we see that the players that hit the ball the hardest weren’t necessarily big winners. Players like Andy Roddick and Roscoe Tanner come to mind. Big hitters that didn’t win consistently. The most successful tennis players succeed not because of how hard they hit the ball, but because they understand tennis strategy. They understand that the essence of winning tennis is to hit the ball over the net and in the court one more time then your opponent.

So, that brings us back to painting. The equivalent of the big forehand or giant serve in tennis is the juicy brush stroke in painting. A lot of people feel that the technical aspect of handling the paint is the mark of a great artist. But no matter how flamboyant the paint handling, if the stroke you put down is not the right place, it doesn’t really matter. Claude Monet said,” paint it just as it looks to you, the exact color and shape, until it gives you your own naïve impression of the scene before you.” Master portrait artist, Joseph Rodefer DeCamp said,” don’t draw eyes, noses and mouths, but put on the splotch of paint the size and shape of the light or shadow, don’t let your mind do the seeing, it tells you too much…

So if you follow their advice and put the right color in the right shape and put it in the right place, you’re well on your way to painting mastery. I want to be as objective as I’m capable of being. When I analyze the works of the great masters, that’s one of the major commonalities that I see, the importance of seeing shapes objectively.

As an example, of what I’m talking about, you can see (above) this detail of an eye in a beautifully painted portrait by artist William Bouguereau. Although we think of Bouguereau as being very detailed in his painting, you can see upon close examination that it’s all shapes of paint juxtaposed with each other, and that’s what creates the illusion of reality. No eyelashes, follicles or other precise detail. Just shapes. Your brain assembles the pieces into a believable reality.

Oh, and in case you were wondering what the most difficult thing that a human being can learn to do is, it’s teach someone to paint the illusion of reality. Until next time…

The Sum of the Parts Has Very Little to Do With Money

How will our paintings be judged in the future? In my opinion the greatest paintings, those that have stood the test of time are sincere efforts where each part holds its own while staying subservient to the whole.

I see far too many poorly painted hands, ill-considered drapery and sloppy backgrounds slap dashed together and no consideration with regards to unity. I love the way that William McGregor Paxton typically achieved this in The Breakfast (see above). Paxton said, “Paint all things in relation to the focus.” He never said, “Don’t give a hoot about anything but the face.” The legendary acting coach, Constantin Stanislavski, famously remarked,”There are no small parts, only small actors.” The same holds true for painting, no small part is unimportant.

For me, the reason behind such a haphazard approach is pretty obvious. It’s a function of quantity over quality. It’s the mindset that the more portraits I paint, the more money I make. As an illustrator, and now as a portrait artist, my philosophy has always been to do my finest work, regardless of what I was being paid. Those who paint with one eye on the clock and one on the canvas will never achieve true mastery. When the meter is running how is it possible to create great paintings?

Back when I was an illustrator, I lived by, what I called the $10,000 rule. I would put $10,000 worth of effort into every painting I created, regardless of what I was being paid. I reasoned that when a potential client had an important commission, they would go to the highest quality artist, and ultimately my efforts paid off.

I’m afraid I can’t buy that the best strategy for a long, satisfying and lucrative career is churning out substandard work. Experience has taught me that the only way to realize my true artistic and earning potential is to put my focus on quality, not quantity. Until next time…