If you’ve ever wondered just how good an artist can be, take a look at some Irwin Greenberg watercolours. Irwin has maintained a steady flow of quality work over a lifetime of teaching the “Old Hat Painting Class” and at the Art Students League in New York. In the July 1995 Artist’s Magazine, he offered some timeless advice and a hundred insights on being an artist. “Succeeding,” says Greenberg, “takes more than technical skill, inspiration or simple forbearance. It incorporates your state of mind, your powers of thought and expression, your self-discipline and your strength of character.”
Many of the hundred insights cover the basic stuff that most of us agree on — “Be your own best critic” ; “No struggle, no progress” ; “Be hungry to learn” ; “Look, really look” ; “Habit is more powerful than will” ; “Spend less than you earn.” Other, more esoteric ideas are honed from a lifetime of personal experience, such as “When you take a break, don’t eat. Instead, drink a glass of water.”
It’s been my observation that seasoned artists can be pretty particular. This doesn’t mean that they provide us with universal laws, but that they can be expected to invent ones that feel like it.
One of Greenberg’s dictums is to keep winnowing out favourite artists and studying their methods. “Find the artists who are on your wavelength, and continuously increase that list,” he says. Greenberg’s starter favourites were Howard Pyle, Vermeer and Rembrandt. Time and again he drew strength and focus from these and other masters. He figured we all need to keep tracking our heroes.
Greenberg has lots to say about teaching. “If you teach, teach the individual. Find out where he or she is having trouble and help at that point.” Teaching was a way for Greenberg to survive as an artist and yet remain true to himself. For many artists of a copacetic mind, teaching keeps one in touch with the real world and real feelings. Still, there have to be those wonderful long days in the studio. “Structure your day,” says Greenberg, “so you have time for painting, reading, exercising and resting.” Balance and common sense come from every Greenberg insight — ideas that can push an artist to thrive.
PS: “You are always the student in a one-person art school. You are also the teacher of that class.” (Irwin Greenberg)
Esoterica: One of the unexpected joys of writing these letters is the stuff that comes in the mail. While I was in Vietnam, there was a buildup of books, discs and other material that readers thought might be of value to us. These insights of Irwin Greenberg, for example, came in the regular mail from the snowy cabin-studio of Ron Solkoski of Otter Lake, Ontario. I’m so glad I was reminded again of Greenberg’s ideas, and refreshed to take a look once more at his work. Thanks, Ron. We were both thinking of Irwin: “Be a brother (or sister) to all struggling painters.”
Irwin Greenberg Watercolours
Words to paint by Irwin Greenberg
1. Paint every day.
2. Paint until you feel physical strain- take a break and then paint some more.
4. When at an impasse, look at the work of masters.
5. Buy the best materials you can afford.
6. Let your enthusiasm show.
7. Find the way to support yourself.
8. Be your own toughest critic.
9. Develop a sense of humor about yourself
10. Develop the habit of work. Start early every day. When you take a break, don’t eat. Instead, drink a glass of water.
11. Don’t settle for yourself at your mediocre level
12. Don’t allow yourself to be crushed by failure. Rembrandt had failures. Success grows from failure.
13. Be a brother (or sister) to all struggling artists.
14. Keep it simple.
15. Know your art equipment and take care of it.
16. Have a set of materials ready wherever you go.
17. Always be on time for work, class and appointments.
18. Meet deadlines. Be better than your word.
19. Find a mate who is really a mate.
20. Don’t be envious of anyone who is more talented than you. Be the best you can be.
21. Prizes are nice, but the real competition is with your performance yesterday.
22. Give yourself room to fail and fight like hell to achieve.
23. Go to sleep thinking about what you’re going to do first thing tomorrow.
24. Analyze the work of great painters. Study how they emphasize and subordinate.
25. Find out the fewest material things you need to live.
26. Remember: Michelangelo was once a helpless baby. Great works are the result of heroic struggle.
27. There are no worthwhile tricks in art; find the answer.
28. Throw yourself into each painting heart and soul.
29. Commit yourself to a life in art.
30. No struggle, no progress.
31. Do rather than don’t.
32. Don’t say “I haven’t the time.” You have as much time everyday as the great masters.
33. Read. Be conversant with the great ideas.
34. No matter what you do for a living, nurture your art.
35. Ask. Be hungry to learn.
36. You are always the student in a one-person art school. You are also the teacher of that class.
37. Find the artists who are on your wavelength and constantly increase that list.
38. Take pride in your work.
39. Take pride in yourself.
40. No one is a better authority on your feelings than you are.
41. When painting, always keep in mind what your picture is about.
42. Be organized.
43. When you’re in trouble, study the lives of those who’ve done great things.
44. “Poor me” is no help at all.
45. Look for what you can learn from the great painters, not what’s wrong with them.
46. Look. Really look.
47. Overcome errors in observing by exaggerating the opposite.
48. Critics are painters who flunked out.
49. Stay away from put-down artists.
50. If you’re at a lost for what to do next, do a self-portrait.
51. Never say “I can’t.” It closes the door to potential development.
52. Be ingenious. Howard Pyle got his start in illustrating by illustrating his own stories.
53. All doors open to a hard push.
54. If art is hard, it’s because you’re struggling to go beyond what you know you can do.
55. Draw everywhere and all the time. An artist is a sketchbook with a person attached.
56. There is art in any endeavor done well.
57. If you’ve been able to put a personal response into your work, others will feel it and they will be your audience.
58. Money is OK, but it isn’t what life is about.
59. Spend less than you earn.
60. Be modest; be self-critical, but aim for the highest.
61. Don’t hoard your knowledge, share it.
62. Try things against your grain to find out just what your grain really is.
63. Inspiration doesn’t come when you are idle. It comes when you have steeped yourself in work.
64. Habit is more powerful than will. If you get in the habit of painting every day, nothing will keep you from painting.
65. There are three ways to learn art: Study life, people and nature. Study the great painters. Paint.
66. Remember, Rembrandt wasn’t perfect. He had to fight mediocrity.
67. Don’t call yourself an artist. Let others name you that. “Artist” is a title of great weight.
68. Be humble; learn from everybody.
69. Paintings that you work hardest at are the ones you learn the most from, and are often your favorites.
70. Read values relatively. Find the lightest light and compare all other light values to it. Do the same with the darks.
71. Grit and guts are the magic ingredients to your success.
72. Let your picture welcome the viewer.
73. Add new painters to your list of favorites all the time.
74. Study artists who are dealing with the same problems that you’re trying to solve.
75. Have a positive mind-set when showing your work to galleries.
76. Don’t look for gimmicks to give your work style. You might be stuck with them for life. Or, worse yet, you might have to change your “style” every few years.
77. If what you have to say is from your deepest feelings, you’ll find an audience that responds.
78. Try to end a day’s work on a picture knowing how to proceed the next day.
79. Don’t envy others success. Be generous-spirited and congratulate whole-heartedly.
80. Your own standards have to be higher and more scrupulous than those of critics.
81. Pyle said, “Throw your heart into a picture and jump in after it.”
82. Vermeer found a life’s work in the corner of a room.
83. Rembrandt is always clear about what is most important in a picture.
84. If, after study, the work of an artist remains obscure, the fault may not be yours.
85. Critics don’t matter. Who cares about Michelangelo’s critics?
86. Structure your day so you have time for painting, reading, exercising and resting.
87. Aim high, beyond your capacity.
88. Try not to finish too fast.
89. Take the theory of the “last inch” holds that as you approach the end of a painting, you must gather all your resources for the finish.
90. Build your painting solidly, working from big planes to small.
91. See the planes of light as shapes, the planes of shadows as shapes. Squint your eyes and find the big, fluent shapes.
92. Notice how, in a portrait, Rembrandt reduces the modeling of clothes to the essentials, emphasizing the head and the hands.
93. For all his artistic skills, what’s most important about Rembrandt is his deep compassion.
94. To emphasize something means that the other parts of a picture must be muted.
95. When painting outdoors, sit on your hands and look before starting.
96. Composing a picture, do many thumbnails, rejecting the obvious ones.
97. Study how Rembrandt creates flow of tone.
98. If you teach, teach the individual. Find out when he or she is having trouble and help at that point.
99. Painting is a practical art, using real materials — paints, brushes, canvas, paper. Part of the practicality of it is earning a living in art.
100. Finally, don’t be an art snob. Most painters I know teach, do illustrations, or work in an art-related field. Survival is the game.
by Alicia Chimento, New Jersey, USA
Amidst the many thoughts of Greenberg which I found most challenging and inspiring, one of the most instructive for me has always been “No struggle, no progress.” Keeping that thought in mind is what often keeps me painting, despite the times when I think the struggle is not achieving my self-imposed end. In that sense, art does imitate life.
There is something in all of us which keeps us on track, despite hard economic times, problematic relationships, health issues or common day-to-day events which seem to block the way. But the struggle is always worth the end result. Not every issue resolves itself satisfactorily in the present, but, as in a painting which can seem to be at a dead end even after a struggle, letting go of it and coming back at a later time is often the solution. A new way of looking, a greater understanding, often reveals itself in time. One of my most respected art instructors once told me, “Confusion is the step before clarity.”
The ‘Paint every day’ axiom
by Elizabeth Concannon, St. Louis, MO, USA
Every one of Irwin Greenberg’s list is familiar to most of us, I expect, but perhaps the first one covers all of the others. Unless I paint every day, I feel like I lose touch with my painting. Critics, family and “old” lessons all would like to govern our activity and direct our thoughts — but I have found that just going to the studio and starting to paint is the most liberating step one can take every day — and often the most difficult. What a wonderful reminder you shared with us.
Faces real and imagined
by Eve Okumura, Honolulu, HI, USA
I love the 100 rules and will pin them up over my desk and in the studio of my dreams. I love faces and painting them. Sometimes I love it so much that it is hard to start. I do virtually paint faces all day as I am a makeup artist by trade. But that’s not the same as the ones on paper or canvas. In my mind there are a million faces waiting to appear. Do you have to paint “real” faces or can the ones that live in the ether world be just as real? Your letters are a source of joy and questioning. It has been fun watching this enterprise grow and become so rich with information, community and inspiration.
Learning in someone else’s head
by Melissa B. Tubbs, Montgomery, AL, USA
I enjoyed reading Irwin Greenberg’s “Words to Paint By.” I learn the most when I read something like this because you get a real look inside someone’s head. How they think and function. I learn, I am given something to think about that hadn’t occurred to me before and I am reminded about things that I already know but haven’t thought about for a while. I learned long ago that I can always learn something from anyone and everyone, particularly other artists no matter what medium they use. As it has been pointed out, art is a learning process in every area of an artist’s life — not just techniques and skills.
by H P McCormick, London, UK
As a writer, I can attest to the fact that a writer who is admired, particularly by other writers, is one whose opinions and methods command respect. In those marvelous small watercolours Greenberg achieves a haunting psychological penetration that I would imagine is not easy to come by. No wonder he likes Rembrandt. No wonder he has had such a positive effect on so many. His style may be “old hat” but it is so full of good stuff that you just know the man has quality thoughts.
Learning with ‘Greenie’
by Dyan Law, Pipersville, PA, USA
How wonderful to find you giving Irwin Greenberg the recognition he so well deserves. Having studied with “Greenie,” (as he permitted us to call him affectionately) at the ASL in NY, I can honestly say he’s a superb artist, a fine gentleman, and he truly abides by all that he teaches. In class, as soon as our models had broken from their poses, Greenie stood prepared and ready with an open art book. He flipped through color plates relentlessly and spoke adoringly of the artists (especially Rembrandt), nearly pleading with us to appreciate and emulate whom and what he so treasured.
Often we laughed with him and at ourselves; our goals were also his goals. We were all hungry to learn, and he was hungry to teach all he had learned from the great masters of art before him. He also told us to beware of the “put-down painters.” Unfortunately, many of the other accomplished painter/teachers with whom I’ve since studied have put-down their students, taking on a holier-than-thou attitude. Unfortunately, I’ve even seen some drive students out of the room in tears, probably never to pick up a brush again!
I visited Greenie’s class shortly before he retired. He said to me, “Surely you must stay and paint!” I wasn’t prepared to paint, therefore had no supplies. After sitting me down smack in front of the model, he immediately scrambled to find me some brushes, paint and paper. Obediently (and happily) I painted as he beamed with pleasure. Yes, he truly is “a brother to all struggling artists.”
Later, I also became an educator, still “hungry to learn,” promising never to “hoard my knowledge.” Irwin Greenberg proved to me that teaching and creating is a gift given to ourselves and others, along with a strong responsibility and joy to those that follow our guidance and love of art.
There is 1 comment for Learning with ‘Greenie’ by Dyan Law
Photos copied exactly
by Skip Van Lenten
I’m sure you have tackled this question in the past, either through your letters or in your personal artwork, but I came across a web site not too long ago for pencil portraits that had me wondering once again, “What constitutes a work of ART?” The portraits in pencil were so exactly like the photos they were based on that I have the feeling they were traced. To answer my own question, I like to think of art as something that represents an artist’s interpretation of reality, and not a duplication of it, but it seems like a thin line. Most of us strive for accuracy and realism to some degree, at least to the extent that the subject matter is clear, so maybe the answer lies in the technique, rather than the finished product. I’d like to hear your thoughts on that subject.
(RG note) Thanks, Skip. There are some artists who seem to be in denial that the art of photography exists. Just between you and me — and don’t let this opinion go too far — exact tracing and copying of photos is a waste of perfectly good paint. But somehow “twisting” — I like to use the word twisting because it seems to me that’s what Andrew Wyeth did — twisting faces and figures through the sensibilities of the painter/draftsman is the route to producing truly interesting super-realist works. But don’t quote me… I’m a guy who thinks highly effective art comes in broader, simpler strokes that all but the poorest, fuzziest cameras can’t produce without Photoshop. On the other hand, all flags may fly. In the meantime, it’s probably best for people to do what they like doing. They will anyway.
There are 5 comments for Photos copied exactly by Skip Van Lenten
Oils under the light
by Cheryl King, Shoreline, WA, USA
I have a question that no one has answered for me yet and it is a question my collectors ask me. What amount of direct sunlight is either good or bad for an oil painting to hang in? I did hear once that some sunlight actually helps keep the paint colors fresh and bright, that darkness dims the colors over time. Is this true or a fallacy?
(RG note) Thanks, Cheryl. Generally speaking, oil paintings using current non-fugitive pigments are not affected by reasonable amounts of direct sunlight. On the other hand, oil paintings stored or exhibited in dark rooms can become darkened due to the natural darkening of linseed oil when used as medium. Light spruces them up again. Other media such as walnut oil are not so prone. If you put a piece of masking tape over an oil for ten years you may notice a darkening underneath when you peel off the tape. You might even notice the effect in just a few days by laying an older painting in direct sunlight with a few coins tossed here and there on the surface. Different pigments and degrees of medium used are affected differently. A lot of the fears about sunlight on oils come from the presence of now discontinued pigments like bitumen that drooled around on surfaces like tarmac does in Egypt. If you are working with odd-ball pigments you need to look at the “Manufacturer’s Permanency Rating” which is often (and should be) published by the manufacturer. To take the reds, for example, pigments called Rose red, Scarlet red, Vermilion (Hue), Rose Carthame, Magenta and others can be suspect.
Nobody gets there alone
by Helena Tiainen, Berkeley, CA, USA
At an early age I realized that even if only a work or two of any given artist moved me emotionally I would feel like those artists were worth paying attention to and worth revisiting. I remember a teacher of mine in college, Carlos Villa, stating that all artists are grasping at ether and trying to give it form. I understood his statement to mean the mainly unseen great and formless spirit of possibility that can be molded into any physical form imagined. I personally am joyfully but sometimes painfully aware that as an artist I give ideas and thoughts a physical form or that physical forms can become realized through me. I have the ability, like any other artist, to create visions of brand new worlds. I have the ability to mold energy. In my life art is the energy that compels me and I feel compelled to express myself through art. I am not sure which comes first, my love for art or my art for love. I am mainly aware of the strong entanglement that I have with anything that I call my reality and my strong desire to dig deeper.
So all of the so-called unsatisfactory art that may happen along the way is necessary for any masterpiece to be born. Those paintings pave the way. Just like all the countless and sometimes “nameless” people who influence anyone who may become known as a mover and a shaker. Nothing and nobody here on this planet gets anywhere on their own. Everything here is a group effort. Everything in life is built on a foundation of some sort. There are those who came before and there will be those who come after. Humanity, like art, progresses in steps. But these steps aren’t linear, they radiate to all directions or dimensions. None of us are totally aware of the ripples we may create and the effect those ripples have on the bigger picture. All we can do is aim to do our best, no matter what.
Justa Summer Knight
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Diane Palomba of Portland, OR, USA who wrote, “I had the great good fortune to study with Irwin Greenberg at the High School of Art & Design in the ’80s. His influence on my life as an art-maker resonates to this day. Under his tutelage I discovered who I was as an artist. I am deeply indebted to his belief in my work and his inspiring example.”
(RG note) Thanks to all who wrote to say that they too were former Greenberg students. Amazing what an influence a dedicated mentor and teacher can have.
And also Don Getz of Salem, OH, USA who wrote, “I agree with your views of Irwin Greenberg 110%!… his paintings are ‘little gems’!… however, I do not see his work publicized as much now, as a few years ago… an artist to truly be admired and respected!”
And also Sally Jackson of Gatineau QC, Canada who wrote, “Many thanks for this — and everything else you do — but particularly a chance to see great watercolour. Loving the medium sometimes feels a little isolating: ‘Real painters choose oil’ (or acrylic). Don’t care. Transparent pigment on glorious white paper — intimidating, often unpredictable, and inspiring. There’s nothing like it!”
Enjoy the past comments below for Irwin Greenberg…