Take a Look at Yourself

Are You the Portrait Artist You Aspire to Be?


Bo Diddley sang: Before you accuse me, take a look at yourself. I think this applies perfectly with regards to our goal of achieving artistic fulfillment. Everyone has very real and legitimate excuses. The truth is, in life, you can either have reasons or results! So before you accuse your circumstances, take a good look at yourself.

I get a lot of inquiries from people asking for advice and hints about how to paint better portraits, often stating that painting is the most important thing in their lives. They ask me, “What colors do you use; what mediums do you mix in with your paints; is there a book you can recommend?” It’s obvious they’re hoping to find a spark or a breadcrumb that will magically convert them into the portrait artist they see in their minds eye.

I recently received an email, from my student Renee Finkelstein. In it was an image of her latest painting, the beautiful self portrait I’ve posted here. Renee signed up for my continuing education course, Realistic Figure and Portrait Painting at The School of Visual Arts a year ago. She followed up that class by attending my annual SVA summer workshop. You may recall that I documented her incredible progress in a blog post entitled You Can Get There From Here.

This is what she had to say in her email:

I told you during the summer workshop that I would send along my email address and a testimonial. For some reason I wanted to wait until I’d finished a new painting to send along as well. So here’s what I’ve done since your class, and the testimonial. I will likely be back this Spring if it works out schedule-wise. Thanks for all you do and I look forward to more! May the New Year be joyous and inspiring!

And here is her testimonial:

Before taking Marvin’s classes, I was looking at a journey of several years to develop myself as an artist. Several years, that is, if I had unlimited funds, time and patience to research approaches and palettes to see what worked through a great ordeal of trial and error. Taking Marvin’s class allowed me to skip that whole process. He generously offers students the bounty of his years of hard work and research, shows you all that he has found, and allows you to take it from there. Marvin once believed he would never be able to paint for his life. Having come so far, he truly believes that anyone can do it. That is what makes an exceptional teacher. There are other classes that are cheaper, but if you actually want to learn how to paint a portrait, take Marvin Mattelson’s class.

Realistic Figure And Portrait Painting – Fridays 12-6
Realistic Figure And Portrait Painting – Saturdays 10-4

Until next time…

You Can Get There From Here!

ReneeFinkelstein3Generally, we think of spring as the time of birth and growth. As far as educational institutions go, Fall is when the ball gets rolling. Fortunately, growth and learning are not seasonal, so with that in mind, I’m happy to announce that my continuing education fall classes at the School of Visual Arts in New York City will be starting on Friday and Saturday September 20th and 21st, respectively.

As a teacher it’s always exciting to watch my students evolve. Generally they make great strides, however, everybody develops differently, but it’s always satisfying knowing that I help people keep moving closer towards achieving their goals. Occasionally, when the stars are properly aligned, mind-boggling progress will occur. A case in point are two students, Renee Finkelstein and Zuzanna Kozlowska, both of whom started studying with me this past spring. They had both done well during the semester, so much so that each signed up for my summer workshop. The summer workshop at SVA is 10 eight hour sessions – the approximate equivalent of a full semester of painting classes. The progress that each made during the two weeks of the workshop was quite mind-boggling, superseding their wildest expectations. Above, is the first of the two fantastic portrait paintings that Renee painted of Kyli during the workshop.

Below is the second, from the same workshop:
Compare it to the one she did in the Spring.

How does this happen? I believe that my teaching methodology facilitated both students because my approach to teaching painting is based on aligning one’s mind to the mindset of great painters, not by weighing them down with a set of constraining rules and bylaws, which is time intensive. Rather, my goal is for them to discover their own capabilities while maintaining their own uniqueness. I teach my students how to make choices, not which choices to make. The problem with a regimented approach, is that individualism can be easily crushed. My approach is unique, time tested – I’ve been teaching for 40 years – and highly effective.

Bellow, are Zuzanna’s two paintings. First is her workshop painting of Megan:

Followed by her painting from the Spring semester.

For those interested, my Friday class at the School of Visual Arts is called Realistic Figure and Portrait Painting. It’s 12 sessions from 12 PM to 6 PM starting September 20, 2013. You can register and find more info here. My Saturday class, Classical Portrait Painting, runs from 10 AM to 4 PM. It starts September 21 and runs 12 sessions as well. You can click here to sign up or to learn more. These classes are also available for full college credit at a substantially higher fee, which is why each class is listed twice.

There will also be an open house for Fine Art Continuing Education classes on Thursday, September 5 from 6:30 to 8:30 PM. at the school. I’ll be there if you’d like to come and meet me. The address is 133-141 West 21st Street in room 602C.

Hope to see you there.

Until next time…

On the Quest for Excellence

As we approach the end of 2012, many of us gear up for the inevitable task: a list of resolutions to guide us in the oncoming year. What exactly do we aspire to accomplish in 2013? Lose five pounds, be a better person or perhaps mend some fences? Or do we want something more: to achieve greatness and/or success?

There’s a book by Malcolm Gladwell on that very subject called “Outliers.” It’s an interesting take on the subject. Very entertaining. He basically claims that being in the right place (parents, environment, etc.), plus being given the appropriate opportunity, and lastly, putting in the proper amount of time (10,000 hours) are the key components to becoming a huge success. He makes a good case, citing people like Steve Jobs and the Beatles—plus others—as examples. What he doesn’t seem to take into account, in my opinion, is that many fitting his criteria fall far short, while others, seemingly outside of his archetypes, are able to achieve greatness none the less. Ultimately his book is a cookie cutter explanation which offers few tangible solutions of how to get there from here.

My take on the matter offers a far more practical blueprint. I believe that my criteria, although geared towards the arts, can be adapted to any career choice or endeavor, from athletics to business to science. So please feel free to share this blog post with anyone you think it can help. It’s based on my own life experience and has proved instrumental in helping many of my former students achieve their dreams.

I think that in order to be successful, one needs to be in possession of the following four traits:

Number 1: Talent.
To me, talent is the most overrated of the four. It’s a popular belief that it alone insures success. As a teacher with 40 years experience, I can assure you, this is very not true. Many precociously talented people fall far short. My most talented student ever isn’t currently employed in any creative capacity, and is not even tapping into his great talent as a hobbyist. The myriad of distractions, which life has to offer, has kept him from manifesting his tremendous artistic potential. Conversely, I had another student, with minimally apparent skill, who become a most impressive painter. I’m not saying that talent is meaningless—it’s impossible to succeed if you have none. therefore, in the grand scheme of things, I consider it’s worth in the quest for success to be about 5%.

Number 2: Hard Work.
My aforementioned student, the one with with minimally apparent talent, achieved success because he worked his butt off, bringing in a finished painting each week, while his classmates put most of their energy into making excuses. Similarly, when Bouguereau entered the Academy he was rated last in his class, but thanks to his legendary work ethic, he eventually won the highest honor, the Prix de Rome. He went from last to first. Rarely does anyone achieve great success without working hard. Since hard work is at least twice as important as talent, it gets a rating of 10%.

Number 3: Objectivity
It’s far more important than the previous two, because you need to cast a critical eye inward if you truly want to be great at what you do. If you actually think you don’t need to improve then why aren’t you successful already?

It’s easy to make excuses, but in order to get better you need to determine your weaknesses and turn them into strengths. What exactly is it that you need to work on? Is it your overall design sense (sometimes referred to as picture-making), achieving unity, drawing hands, establishing color harmony or something else? It may be one thing or it may be many. It may not even be seemingly art related, but pretending that a problem doesn’t exist won’t fix it. See, if you think you’re already great, what can you possibly do to get better? When you acknowledge that a problem exists, you give yourself a chance to change it for the better.

Being self critical is very tough. None of us like to be criticized. We tend to get very defensive when told that we are lacking or somehow screwed up. Very few realize that the knowledge and experience responsible for our achievements to date are the very same things keeping us stuck. If you want to fulfill your potential, you need to be ruthless regarding your self analysis and the truths you hold to be self evident.

Objectivity requires not only a look inward, but also a look outward. With regards to the big picture, where exactly do you fit in? What traits allow others to be successful while you fall short? Are they more talented, do they work harder, do they charge less money, are they better at networking, are they less ethical? The list can go on, ad infinitum, but the bottom line is, if you just stand there hoping that things will serendipitously turn around for you, you are powerless?

If you can muster the strength to be self critical you can begin to move forward. What’s the worst that can happen? Maybe you discover that you’re not willing to do what’s necessary. That can be a very good thing. Get out of the game and find another better suited for your unique set of talents and abilities, and put all your energy into that.

To me objectivity is much more important than the previous two traits because no matter how talented and hard working you are, if you don’t focus your energy appropriately, you’re going nowhere. With that in mind, I rate objectivity at 33%, approximately twice the importance of the other two.

Now if you’re keeping score, the previous three when added up total 49%. So obviously we still need to account for an additional 51%, or what I consider to be the most important factor in achieving one’s goals. But as important as it is, without talent, hard work and objectivity, it alone falls far short of 100%.

Number 4: Perseverance
The most critical aspect of achieving greatness is never giving up! It is pretty obvious, when you surrender, you’re out of the game. Interestingly, most people cite fear of failure as the reason they give up. That’s pretty ridiculous, if you think about it, because once you’ve given up, failure is all but guaranteed. Personally, I believe fear of success is the main reason people pack it in. Being successful means giving up your comfort level, your reasonableness and your excuses, because once you succeed you need to keep working even harder to keep succeeding. It never gets easier. Life is an incline. Either you are moving forward or you’re sliding back.

So if you truly aspire to become all you can be, this blueprint can come in very handy. Take a look at where you are now and begin the journey, one resolution at a time.

I wish all of you, my readers, great success and a happy, healthy and successful new year!

Until next time…

Presidential Art Quotes I’m Electing to Share

The above small article ran in the New York Times Magazine this past Sunday, September 15. It was a sidebar to an article about education. Obviously Ike understood the importance of art, since he had taxpayers foot the bill for a White House Staffer to prepare his materials. I’m assuming he didn’t wash out his brushes either. I say, money well spent. However, It got me to thinking. What have some of our other nation’s leaders said on the subject of the arts? So I did a Google search, and this is what I came up with–in chronological order.

George Washington:

The Arts and Sciences, essential to the prosperity of the State and to the ornament of human life, have a primary claim to the encouragement of every lover of his country and mankind.

John Q.Adams:

I must study politics and war, that my sons may study mathematics and philosophy…in order to give their children the right to study painting, poetry, music and architecture.

Abraham Lincoln:

I presume, sir, in painting your beautiful portrait, you took your idea of me from my principles, and not from my person.

Franklin D. Roosevelt:

Every time an artist dies, part of the vision of mankind passes with him.

Happiness lies in the joy of achievement and the thrill of creative effort.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy:

I see little of more importance to the future of our country and of civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist. If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him.

Aeschylus and Plato are remembered today long after the triumphs of Imperial Athens are gone. Dante outlived the ambitions of thirteenth century Florence. Goethe stands serenely above the politics of Germany, and I am certain that after the dust of centuries has passed over cities, we too will be remembered not for victories or defeats in battle or in politics, but for our contribution to the human spirit.

There is a connection, hard to explain logically but easy to feel, between achievement in public life and progress in the arts. The age of Pericles was also the age of Phidias. The age of Lorenzo de Medici was also the age of Leonardo da Vinci. The age Elizabeth also the age of Shakespeare. And the New Frontier for which I campaign in public life, can also be a New Frontier for American art

The life of the arts, far from being an interruption, a distraction, in the life of the nation, is very close to the center of a nation’s purpose- and is a test of the quality of a nation’s civilization.

We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth.

Lyndon B. Johnson:

Art is a nation’s most precious heritage. For it is in our works of art that we reveal to ourselves and to others the inner vision which guides us as a nation. And where there is no vision, the people perish.

Gerald Ford:

Music education opens doors that help children pass from school into the world around them – a world of work, culture, intellectual activity, and human involvement. The future of our nation depends on providing our children with a complete education that includes music.

Bill Clinton:

Music is about communication, creativity, and cooperation, and by studying music in schools, students have the opportunity to build on these skills, enrich their lives, and experience the world from a new perspective.

Barack Obama:

In addition to giving our children the science and math skills they need to compete in the new global context, we should also encourage the ability to think creatively that comes from a meaningful arts education.

The future belongs to young people with an education and the imagination to create.

Until next time…

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…