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…


  1. Oh my goodness!!! What a wonderful read. And the fact that you used Bouguereau – one of my favorite artists – just really brings this together. And the tennis illustration, what an example!!!

    • Thanks John, I’m glad you enjoyed my latest post. I wanted to use Bouguereau as an example because most people think of artists like Sargent and Raeburn when they talk about using shapes, but it’s something that’s applicable to all great painting.

  2. I wanted to be sure and take the time to extend to you my appreciation for your new blog. My goodness, it’s good.

    I have always made it a practice to follow your generous posts on Cynthia’s Stroke of Genius, but your blog? Genius defined.

    I begin every morning by checking in on James Gurney, Sebastian Krüger, Gavin Baker (doesn’t post often), Marina Dieul and now yours goes to the TOP of that list.

    I participated in SOG for a period, years ago, and was proud to receive your attention a couple of times. You always were, and are, a gentleman.

    You’re simply a treasure, Marvin and I thank you again.

    My very best regards,
    Dave Dowbyhuz

    • Thanks David, It’s nice to have you on board and thanks for posting. I enjoyed posting on various forums in the past but always felt hindered by moderators who didn’t quite share my same sensibilities. Not gonna be a problem here though, because I’m free to say whatever I choose, without fear of expulsion or reprisal, unless of course I offend myself.

  3. I love this post, Marvin. And I love that you used Bouguereau to illustrate your point. That eye… I could look at it for hours. PS, on my latest trip to the Portland Art Museum to see the Mark Rothko exhibit, I was happy to discover three Bouguereau paintings that I didn’t know were there!

  4. I’ll look forward to all your future blog posts.
    An old friend from PCA.

  5. What is the first most difficult thing that a human being can learn?


    ps. I am glad you opened a blog. I’m a scanner darkly of your teachings.

    • Some people think my teachings are pretty dark! 😉 The answer is in the last line of my post: The most difficult thing that a human being to do is teach someone else to paint realistically.

  6. Superb blog – thanks, Marvin!!!

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