Looking for Art in All the Wrong Places.

Style vs Substance: There Needs to Be Much More Than What Meets the Eye

I’m a very analytical kind of guy. When I was a kid I always took things apart. I wanted to get to the bottom of how they worked, much to the chagrin of my parents. I’m just not content knowing something works, because only by understanding it can I truly own it.

When I began painting, my dissatisfaction with existing teaching modalities emanated from the fact that they seemed anchored in rote methodologies. In a given situation do this, do that, but never do the other. No explanation about why. (As I tell my students, “You can’t explain what you don’t understand.”) So I started looking at the paintings I was attracted to, and tried to figure out what it was that made them so compelling. The search for the common denominator! One strong commonality was a sense of sincerity, an clear connection between artist and subject. We’ve all had that experience of losing ourselves in a situation when we become enthralled. People appreciate the fact that an artist took the time to commemorate their fascination by making a picture of it.

The other night I attended a local theatre to see a series of one-act plays. I was invited by someone involved with the production. Two of the plays really stood out to me. One was actually quite good. The actor made the character he played believable. He transformed himself into another person. I didn’t feel as if I were watching a play, rather, I sat listening to this guy talk. The other performance was painfully difficult to view. The actor was so vested in creating a strong character he lost the point of the play. What was intended to be a dark comedy came across as pointless and confusing.

Afterwards I realized that the dichotomy between the two performances was equally applicable to painting. So many paintings seem to be about style and not about sincere communication. The art that’s most interesting to me is when the artist has something real to say. It doesn’t need a significant concept. It can be the smallest statement imaginable. In the parable of acting, it’s the difference between a performance by Meryl Streep versus one by Jack Nicholson. Jack is always Jack, while Meryl loses herself completely in her role, which makes for a more engaging experience.

I’m interested in artists whose works seek to convey something deeper, and not just the statement: see what I did and look how awesome I am. For that very reason I love the sensitivity of William McGregor Paxton, Ivan Kramskoy and William Bouguereau, and at the same time, I don’t feel much affinity for most of the works by artists I considerself-serving and superficial, like Thomas Eakins and John Singer Sargent. Look at Kramskoy’s Woodsman, above. Although it’s superbly painting It’s about so much more than that.

For me, art becomes special because of a genuine connection between the painter and their subject. Particularly with regards to portrait artists, since that’s my oeuvre. I’m not saying that every single painting by Bouguereau and Paxton are great, and rarely misfire. On the other hand, Sargent and Eakins–who each did do some incredible paintings–did a lot of paintings I find less than appealing.

I don’t think it has to do with loose or tight paint application either. I see this epidemic of superficiality spanning all styles. Maybe it’s a function of living in a world that too often celebrates the superficial and materialistic aspects of life. Ironically Sargent and Eakins are more widely known.

I believe the way the art is taught is a huge contributing factor. Far too much painting today maintains an extremely strong imprint of the teacher or school. When I teach, I go out of my way to leave my inclinations out of the equation, my intention is facilitating the evolution of the student as a unique artist, not a clone of myself. I think it’s important to teach general principles and not specific rules or dogmatic points of view.

Stylistic predilections and contrivances not only limit self-expression they also poison one’s ability to appreciate work that falls outside the confines of imbedded belief system. Judging a painting by the way it looks reminds me of the Johnny Lee song, “Looking for love in all the wrong places.”

Look at Kramskoy’s Woodsman, above. Although it’s superbly painted, it’s about so much more than that.

Until next time…


  1. You have some very good insights in your article, and I agree with most of what you say.. I see a lacking in Realism Today..in that the “soul” of the subject is missing..today there is way too much emphisis on technique.. the real essence of the subject gets “lost”. I think this is the product of the Atliers and art schools of today..and there is a clone effect..in that much of the artists and art look the same. While on the subject of Realists..Id like to address the “politiics ” of Art Contest winners and Galleries af art. As an emerging artist I find there is almost no chance of getting anywhere (no matter if ones art is really good) unless they are an “In Artist ” or from an “In School”(Florence Academy ,Angel Academy ,and such american schools and teachers..have mile long credentials.EtcEtc. ( I have seen AWFUL art win..! ) Realism today also seems to be a Youth oriented clique of artists..Sucessful ,famous Realists are mostly in their 20s and 30s! What are your views on this ? (I think my work is good but I am turned down in all galleries I have applied..even though most of the art in the galleries is not that good visit me at belitawilliamart,com)

    • Hi Belita, thanks for your comments. I think a lot of people see the lack a depth in painting, be it academic or impressionistic. Superficiality seems in vogue. My goal in writing this blog is to hopefully open the eyes of those who don’t understand there may be other options in approach.

      With regards to the politics of the gallery world that’s fodder for many posts. I think it’s Avery complicated issue. As a portrait artist I choose to be independent, but regardless of what path you take, objectivity is a requisite tool. Each artist needs to evaluate their market and take a hard cold look at what they do and how they fit in. Its easy to blame the system but that wont do any good. The only change we can make is to change ourselves. No one said being an artist would be easy.

  2. I would love to see this painting in person… I could look at it for hours. Thanks so much for your posts, Marvin, they are a lifeline!

  3. Style and substance, you really have to be careful with that. They’re both defined by what it is and what it isn’t. The act of creation binds oneself to with technique, ideas or process. By it’s nature both style and substance require you to create within a structure or rules, it is imperative. Those who declared themselves anarchists against Wall Street’s pursuit wealth are now bound to pursue poverty.

    The main concept: the painting’s depth or beauty is a sentiment held by the viewer – you can know, create and describe a painting without referring to it’s beauty or your connection to it. You can’t however describe beauty or your connection to it without describing the object or painting.

    The artist’s role is two fold :
    1) to create a painting and
    2) to create a legend that prompts a dialogue and expression between the viewer and the painting.
    Now if the viewer’s sentiments become a description of the painting’s beauty or deformity are the sentiments of the viewer not the painting that the artist produced.

    The environment the artist creates for their work(s) to exist then becomes more important than the style and the substance they used to create it.

    • Hi Alan, thanks for your thoughtful reply. To be quite honest I’m not fully comprehending what specific points you’re trying to make. After all isn’t everything defined by what it is and what it isn’t.

      There are certainly truths to adhere to in all walks of life, art included, but rules, as I define them, are preconceived directives that usurp the artist’s ability to make choices. By the way, I consider myself anti-semantic.

      In art, as with any form of communication, there are always two factors in play, the intent of the artist and the mindset of the viewer. The artist can only control the former. I think there is a spiritual aspect to painting that isn’t being considered today. It can be termed subliminal messaging, but whatever you choose to call it, there is an ethereal component to painting that’s not measurable, but clearly exists, none the less.

      At its basest level, all painting is rubbing dirt and berries mixed with oil and rubbing it onto a piece of material.

      Painting is very complex and you can’t tie it into a neat little bow. It’s like the parable of the 5 blind men who try to describe an elephant. Each describes the part he’s feeling with his hands, therefore the description of the trunk differs greatly from that of the tail, leg, ear or body, but they’re all correct.

      I’m here to address different aspects of the painting process and to provoke thinking. Ultimately it’s about what works.

  4. So a painting that communicates sincerity is believable, honest and produces an engaging, deeper experience versus a painting that is dependent on style. By style I understand you to mean a system, manner, methodology or approach and not technique, flair, elegance or pizzazz. Why not go all the way?
    A clear connection between artist and subject? Maybe, but what comes out the end of a brush is our humanity and experience via living, learning and observation.

  5. Thanks, Marvin for this blog. I appreciate your thoughtful words. You inspire me, as always.

  6. Michael Fournier says

    I really do not know what you mean sounds like personal preference to me. I find a lot of Bouguereau’s work very contrived. VERY well painted yes. But the mythological themes and modern interpretations of Classical subjects was hardly ground breaking even in his day. Now I am not saying your wrong but I just do not see what you mean.
    Explain to me how Fumée d’Ambris Gris superficial while L’Amour au Papillon has some deeper meaning? It may have but art critics always try to find deeper meaning in all types of art it does not mean it is so.
    If you are going to compare Sargent’s commissioned portraits with Bouguereau’s Classical subjects that is a but unfair. As Sargent’s goal was to please the client and get paid and that does not often lead to the most profound art in fact many criticize many portrait painters of being a bit formulaic but you can not say that about all of Sargent’s work. I think if you could interview him today even he would admit not all of his work was the most profound.
    Different strokes for different folks.
    And I kind of enjoy a good Jack Nicholson role over Meryl Streep also like I said personal preference.

    • Hi Michael, Thanks for reading my blog and taking the time to comment. Basically what I’m referring to in my post is about intent, whether a painting represents the subject or about the way it’s painted. Sargent was, for the most part, about how he put the paint down, the flamboyance of his brushwork overwhelms the subject matter. This comes into play, not only in his portraits but in the later landscapes as well. Fumée d’Ambris Gris is more the exception and to me demonstrates how misguided he became, in my opinion, a victim, perhaps, of his great technical dexterity. With Bouguereau, on the other hand, it’s the subject, not the style, is front and foremost. There is a modern notion that one, when looking at a painting, should be aware that it’s indeed a painting being looked at. This is referred to as surface tension. Prior to the birth of modern art, the goals of painting were more about creating the illusion of reality. I’m not talking about hidden or deep meaning here, nor profundity.

      All portrait artists, except for the financially independent, have the goal of pleasing ones clients. Cecelia Beaux, who was just as painterly as Sargent, but at the same time was more interested in conveying a true sence of her clients. Sargent, by his own account viewed many of his clients with distain, and that comes through loud and clear on the great majority. The bulk of Bouguereau’s paintings have to do with his idyllic view of French country life, not so much the classical themes. I tend to side with Jacques-Louis David, who said, “In the arts the way in which an idea is rendered, and the manner in which it is expressed, is much more important than the idea itself.” Anyway, that’s how I see it.

  7. Marvin, your article has my wheels turning now…how to incorporate “more” than just the object I choose for the composition. Thank you for this lesson!

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