you’re the best teacher
and the best student
you'll ever have.
Ah, art school.
A place that a group of young painters dreamed would spark their creativity and imaginations.
An environment that would encourage self-expression without limits.
The last place anyone expected to find a bunch of stale, outmoded rules.
But there they were, waiting for us. With cobwebs on them.
Many of us chafed at the rigidity of our training. Sure, some things work, some don't, but few things work for everyone all the time.
And when it was over, the impossible happened: the world's worst student fell in love with teaching.
Which, I discovered, isn’t burying students in facts, or knowledge, or "constructive" criticism.
When does criticism ever sound constructive?
True teaching is the transmission of powerful ideas. It comes from the heart more than the intellect. Otherwise, nobody's listening.
The standout instructors, the ones with packed classes and endless waiting lists, didn't just critique. They kept our curiosity up and our adrenaline pumping, even after we struck out on our own.
"Get the hell outta here and start learning", one of them liked to say.
And so with all that in mind, one by one, I've given these "time-honored" artist rules the boot, urging anyone serious about learning painting to do the same:
You have to get it right the first time.
A gallant approach that happens to be total nonsense.
Editing a work of art is an art in itself.
Every art form depends on editing to bring a piece toward finish and then to perfection. So why do painters have to get anything right the first time?
Once mastered, editing is a blast. Because it makes you feel invincible.
Editing a work of art
is an art in itself.
The downside: until you master it, reworking feels like you're losing ground.
You made a mistake.
You screwed up, again. You should have quit when you were ahead.
Maybe you shouldn't be doing this. You don't have much talent after all. Your sister has all the talent. Your parents always loved her more than you. That's because you're unlovable. You knew you'd never amount to anything and now it's official...
OK, clearly spinning out of control here, but this is the kind of madness that can follow a minor setback in your art. I've actually heard such rants in my classes. They frighten me.
Mary Jo O'Gara
Beets Leaning, oil on canvas
Always paint from dark to light
An academy staple that puts technique ahead of both observation and feeling.
And it's just so formulaic. We're creating a work of art here, not baking a Bundt cake.
Start wherever you want, however you want. Don't over-analyze. Get out of your head and dive in.
Learn how to handle gobs of paint. Keep your drawing skills up too. Drawing is the finesse; paint volume is the punch. Yin and yang.
Connect with your subject, hesitate a few seconds, then respond with whatever's appropriate. This will give your work more energy and truth than any technique.
Art has to be seen in the flesh. You can't look at art online.
Actually, you can.
Funny thing though about the words you can’t. Seems every great advance in human history was made by crazy people who ignored them:
You can't cross the Atlantic, you can't build a flying machine, you can't fit a computer in your pocket...
Yes, there are inherent distortions in the digital image or any photographic image.
And yes, first-hand contact with a painted masterpiece housed in an architectural masterpiece is an experience that every artist should have.
But so what?
How is digital harmful?
Why not enjoy the privilege of viewing any masterpiece in the world, free from the crowds, noise, admission fees, aching feet, and grumpy guards that lessen the experience?
Take your iPad outside, pour a glass of wine, and it’s a no-brainer.
You must work super-hard to become a great painter
Must is the overbearing cousin of Can't.
Overwork creates stress. Stress causes anxiety.
Anxiety leads to fear, fear leads to caution, caution leads to paralysis. To the point where your main artistic goal becomes not messing up.
Which is as far from creativity as you can get.
A steady, moderate work routine is far more effective than workaholism. Healthier, too. Those small, frequent breakthroughs really add up, leading to more and more breakthroughs. Marathon sessions invite obsessiveness, fatigue, and depression.
Never use black
Why then, do they make it?
Black mixed with white and a touch of warmth is the ultimate neutralizer. If you know how and when to use it the effects can be gorgeous.
Think of those beautiful silvery neutral tones as a pause or a moment of silence.
Nice, isn't it?
Giving the eye a break is more powerful than saturating it. And that goes for balancing details with empty space, another form of visual silence.
the granddaddy of them all...
Quit while you're ahead
This one has made countless artists paint like they’re inching toward the edge of a cliff.
Remember, your art is a reflection of you. And that includes your skills and your feelings. It’s not like a meal that can be overdone. At least not irreparably if we're talking oils.
Quit while you’re ahead is based on the superstition that a great painting is some fortunate accident that can't be repeated. Or that a few wrong moves will be the death of the piece.
Either way, the approach is disempowering.
It's perfectly OK overwork a piece, so long as you know how to shift into reverse. You can always freshen up a painting with - that's right - fresh paint. Or take any weak elements out of the composition. Which just opens everything up.
There's no perfect moment to quit, so don't agonize over it. Become a whiz instead at moving forward, backward, then forward again, and watch your confidence soar.
Celebrate, 2017, oil on canvas
Muscle memory sucks.
Rules aren't meant to be broken. They're meant to be challenged whenever a better solution arises.
Granted, a simple, easy to grasp method is a great starting point for beginners.
But don't get trapped in a box.
With just a little repetition, the process that serves you now can turn into a stubborn, growth-killing habit.
Muscle memory is funny that way. On the one hand, it can be your best friend in the world. On the other, it can turn on you and reject the introduction of anything new.
Learning a language, for example, is hard. Losing an accent is nearly impossible. Unlearning is infinitely harder than learning so be careful what you learn. And don't get attached to any of it.
Complacency is an evil.
~ Raymond Charles Barker
Forget your failures; paint over them, trash them, use them as serving trays or frisbees.
Or give them to people you don't like, whatever.
Just get them out of your studio, out of your consciousness, and take on new challenges.
Simply put, you're the best teacher and the best student you'll ever have, even if you've had great ones. Have a little fun with both roles. Self-discovery is an amazing process that will expand you, long after your schooling is done.