Is Portrait Painting More Difficult Than Brain Surgery?

Are You Up for the Challenge of Being a Portrait Artist?

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself! So said Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Obviously, FDR never tried to enroll anyone in a portrait artist workshop. Fear is something that people–particularly those considering whether to reach for their dreams–need to face.

Not that learning to be a portrait artist isn’t a terribly daunting task. Although many–my wife included–would debate the following comparison, I always tell my students, “Portrait painting isn’t brain surgery, it’s much more difficult.” It’s my way of saying that the number of variables a realistic portrait artist must deal with is exceedingly high. Seriously though, I’m not trying to belittle the difficulty faced by those in the field of neurosurgery. To be a brain surgeon, you must be ridiculously smart. Surgeons deal with life and death situations, although to be fair, some portrait artists able to create the illusion of life. Creating life–or the illusion thereof–is pretty awesome.

I truly believe achieving greatness as a portrait artist is one of the most difficult things a human being can attempt. I base this on the fact that–as I see it–very few portrait artists in history have reached that exalted position. (What constitutes greatness in portraiture will offer much fodder for future blog posts.)

But just because something is über challenging, what exactly is there to fear? A lot of people site fear of failure as the reason for refusing to challenge themselves. If you think about it, fearing failure makes no sense. You’re automatically a failure the instant you back away. Even if you fail, you’re no worse off than when you started. I think what people truly fear is success. It’s human survival instinct to want to maintain the status quo–at all cost. Success can potentially overturn the apple cart. How will being successful alter your life? Confronting success takes courage.

I recently spoke with a woman considering my New York Portrait Workshop at the School of Visual Arts. She expressed great trepidation with regards to participating–although she eventually registered. I thought maybe something’s in the air, because a couple of my recent Atlanta students said they were fearful, as well. One of them, Margaret Kaufman, called Binders’ Director of Education, Jacob Gunter, many times, waffling back and forth, unsure if she should attend. Fortunately Jacob was able to assuage her fears and ultimately, she chose to come.

Margaret is very new to painting. She had recently taken a couple of plein air workshops and one on flower painting. Prior to my portrait artist workshop, she had never even attempted to paint a human head. Margaret had the following to say about her experience:

I feel I learned a tremendous amount. You helped me overcome my insecurities and are a dedicated amazing teacher. If you ever need me to speak directly with any insecure potential students I would be pleased to help out. I feel you have helped start me on my journey as a portrait painter and I look forward to working with you and learning from you next summer. It is about the journey – and you have helped me get a great start. I can’t thank you enough.

The awesome portrait at the top of this post is her first ever. She managed to push through her fear and she blew her own mind in the process. It was an honor to witness her growth and I look forward to seeing her fulfill her great potential. Near the end of the workshop, Margaret emailed a picture of her painting to her husband, so he could see the progress she had made. His response, “Did you sign up for Marvin’s next workshop yet?” I thought that was a pretty smart thing to say. After all he is a neurosurgeon.

Until next time…

Reflecting Upon My Reflections

Today’s post marks the two-week anniversary of Brush Aside–time flies when you’re having fun. I thought such a significant event was just cause for some serious self-reflection and a wee bit of celebration, thus the inclusion of the Rene Magritte painting Not To Be Reproduced (Portrait of Edward James). Hip-hip-hooray! Now that the celebration part is officially over, back to reflection. Overall I would classify my initial foray into the blogosphere as a success. I managed to overcome some minor (for coders) technical glitches, I’ve reconnected with a number of old friends and students, made some new friends, and got the ball rolling.

I appreciate all the positive responses, kind words of encouragement and feedback I’ve been getting via e-mail, thru Facebook and from the comments here on the blog. Thank you all. I’m flattered that so many people have voiced interest in what I have to say. So far 99.9% have been positive–well I did receive one span response.

For my blog platform I chose WordPress and not Blogger which is the choice of basically every other art blog in the universe. I chose the Prose Child Theme by Genesis, because I believed their claim that you can  “customize your…blog without knowing the intricacies of stylesheet properties or HTML code,” and that your blog will “scale and adapt appropriately so that it looks proportional and consistent across variety of devices including tablet computers and mobile phones.” As it turns out, getting everything the way I wanted it was a bear. But it does scale well. Ultimately, I had to join site setup kit to receive the technical support I so desperately needed. Going against the grain and choosing the most difficult path–that’s me in a nutshell!

Two blogs in particular inspired me to delve. The first is Underpaintings, created by my friend and former student, Matthew Innis. It’s my first stop when I go online. Matthew’s a great source of info. I can check out all the current shows and auctions I find pertinent and interesting. I enjoy his research into both contemporary and historical artists. Matthew has been very generous in his support of both my painting and teaching efforts. My second source of inspiration is Gurney Journey by Dinotopia author James Gurney. James has a huge following and does a great job covering a wide spectrum of subjects. I was very flattered when he commented positively about Brush Aside. Hats off to both Matthew and James who both do a great job. I see no need to duplicate their efforts.

I plan to discuss issues that no one else either sees or wants to comment on, things that ruffle my feathers. Unless things are brought to light nothing can ever change.

My main purpose is to create a platform where I can present the ideas about painting and teaching that I’ve developed over my 40 year career as a professional artist and educator. A lot of what I want to say goes against the grain of conventional thinking. My goal is to create a contextual shift in the way artists approach their art. I’m looking forward to see where this all leads. Elbert Hubbard said, “The teacher is the one who gets the most out of the lessons, and the true teacher is the learner.”

Please spread the word to anyone you think may be interested. Feel free to comment here, on the blog and share in your thoughts with your fellow readers. I set everything up to make it easy for you to post. You don’t have to register; there are no silly boxes that require psychedelic drugs to decipher. Just hit the comment button and state your opinions, your reactions, your questions or any ideas you have. You’ll be hearing plenty about what I think. I look forward to hearing what you think.

Happy two-week anniversary from the folks who bring you Brush Aside?

Until next time…