Every once in a while some experts will have a conference and announce that painting is now dead. They are usually referring to somewhat realistic paintings that depict something or other that a more or less average person can understand.
I’m painting in a place called Treguier in Brittany. About a hundred meters along the quay there’s another man who is also painting. As it’s time for a Pernod I take the opportunity to have a look. He’s working on a big, complex painting with several figures, boats, houses and fields beyond. He’s one of those painters who puts his whole body into his work. He’s grandiose, earnest, and extremely frustrated. I have never seen anyone actually tearing their hair out — but this big French guy is coming pretty close. I know he’s French because he’s swearing in it. As I go back to my 12″ x 16″ I notice another guy with an easel pressed close against a second-story window. He too appears to be labouring in the same field.
Rumors of the death of painting are greatly exaggerated, I’m thinking. It’s like these baguettes around here. The French are not suddenly going to stop baking them. Baguettes are not going to go out of style. Madame is not suddenly going to start carrying something else around on her bicycle.
This painting business will go on for a while yet as well. Because it’s good to do. It’s also because it’s bloody difficult to do. It’s good to be able to get the drawing more or less right. It’s good to develop a decent pattern and design — to have a composition. It’s good to find colours that work well and to get the relationship between light and shade. It’s a good feeling to work on something that talks to you, something to which you can give a new spin. It’s good to honour what you have come to know and still surprise yourself. It’s good to be able to add elements of personal choice — like elegance, refinement, paucity, or exaggeration. It’s good to make something that looks uniquely yours. It’s good to do work that is worth signing and then go and have a drink. It’s good to think about everything you have yet to learn and to think about the next one you may perhaps make. It’s good to be engaged in dignified labour like this.
The man down the quay just kicked over his easel.
PS: “Painting will prevail because its inevitable zones of discomfort, bleeding and pain are sometimes overcome by a high feeling of joy and accomplishment.” (Joe Blodgett)
Esoterica: It’s a balance between pushing the limits of your capability and doing those things that satisfy and keep you at it. Those of us who struggle daily find that some projects are more difficult than others. It’s good to remember that painting the figure defeated Cezanne — he did better when he stuck to his apples.
The following are selected responses to the above and other letters. Thanks for writing.
Amateurs give painting a bad reputation
by Jim Rowe
I think what the experts were referring to is not the act of painting being dead but that the demand for the realistic style is dead. That is probably because it is so popular with amateur painters, especially older retired people, mostly females. But there is a surging interest to learn to paint, and beginners should start with landscapes and still life because they are so easy to see and understand. Most beginners just copy off a photo. It is this surge in interest that is killing the market; people just don’t want to invest in an art style with this kind of reputation.
Plein air painters introduce children to art
by John Adkins, Alabama, USA
As long as the artist can be inspired to work, then painting is not dead. Recently, the Plein Air Artists of Alabama were involved with painting in an old Victorian neighborhood in Decatur, Al. We were asked to paint the neighborhood and Delano Park and to give a percentage of the sales to the Friends of Delano Park. The park is being restored to the beautiful public space that it was in the early 1900’s. The center piece for the park will be the restored rose garden and will be a place for not only the neighborhood to enjoy but also the entire city. As we set up to paint we were told that the Somerville Road Elementary School was going to bring their classes out to watch us paint. We were soon surrounded by bright, eager, inquisitive children who were asking questions and learning about art and color mixing. The comments and questions they posed let me know that painting is far from dead. It is our duty as artists to stimulate the future artists around us. The exposure of the school children to art and real live working artists was priceless. These are children that get very little exposure to any kind of art except what they might see on television. They soaked it up like sponges. They were all dying to try their hand at it. I know that in those 300 or so children, there has to have been born an artist who will keep painting alive and kicking well into the future.
Edit, edit, and edit your painting
by Bill Kerr
I have a painting of a harbour scene form Honfluer, purchased because my watercolour painting of the site got out of control. The painting in question was selected from the work of about 25 artists who were all earnestly painting the harbour when I visited. Twenty-four of these chaps were painting the whole harbour. Rows of houses across the water, complete with laundry hanging, curtains blowing, countless boats, people, everything. Their efforts were staggering. One painter simply captured the customs house, the entry lock and a boat or two. It was a pleasing image. Strangely enough he was not French but an American architect. I don’t know why so many people, who think a picture is worth a thousand words, paint like that. It isn’t uncommon to see reproduced as prints and entitled ‘Grandma’s House’, or some other nostalgic message, a picture wherein every leaf on every tree is painted, though not too imaginatively. I really think if a painting must be compared to writing it should be more like a quotation, or maybe like a sonnet.
Painting like parenting
by Anne Martin, Canmore, Alberta, Canada
I spent yesterday painting all day — something I don’t get to do nearly as often as I’d like — but oh, what a feeling! Painting has many similarities to parenting — something I’m still pretty involved with. The joys are many, the rewards cosmic and yet despair and frustration go hand in hand with it. I had a goal to become an artist. I can no longer deny I am one. My latest goal is to travel to paint places you are now and have been to recently. How do you do that? Thanks so much for the letters and keep having fun.
Computer competes with painting
I am not sure if I am angry with you or just frustrated with something which is quite new, fun, big learning curve, and exciting. I love the computer. I got very hooked when your letters started arriving twice a week. I just had to keep running down to that little corner and plugging in. Having a wonderful daughter living in Naussa has forced me into emailing each day and slowly I keep getting pulled towards the computer and less and less to my paints, brushes, and that whole other world that I loved. I say loved because I am quite intimidated by the thought of painting at the moment. I find that by the time I have played on the computer in the morning my energy seems to be gone for painting. It is so much easier to plunk away like right now rather than look at a blank canvas. I find this quite scary since I just spent 5 weeks sailing Lake Superior with my 2 brothers. I am enrolled in two upcoming classes but I am not looking forward to them because of feeling so far out of it all. Help. My art is swimming between the keyboard. Maybe you can suggest a few tips for us struggling computer junkies. I want to be good at both.
Painting is not about rejections or awards
by Nyla Witmore, Boulder, Colorado, USA
One of my artist friends was lamenting the other day about work not selling. He admitted to a big drop in sales that had lasted for 3-4 years, despite painting from his heart and painting what he loved. His work had been in galleries and he enjoyed regular advertising in prominent art magazines. He seemed to be experiencing more rejections and was beginning to reject his own work. Another friend, who spent the first 15 years of her art career with a plethora of rejections, responded: “You know you’re taking the rejections personally when you start having lots of self doubt, or thinking ‘there must be something wrong with me or my art.’ If you’re selling art, then don’t forget it’s a ‘business’ and there’s nothing wrong with you — it’s just business. Don’t take it personally.” We’ve all heard that, haven’t we? We could recite it in our sleep, right? However, it was what she said next that really caught my attention: “And by the same token, if you get a big sale or win a prestigious award — don’t take that personally either!” So, both should keep us humble. We ought not to think overly highly of ourselves or be overly critical either. Her words are still ringing in my ears and I hope the next time I’m faced with a ‘downer’ or an ‘upper’ art experience — I’ll hear them ring again. “Don’t take it personally — it’s really not about you.” That brings me to a possible upcoming topic. What is it about? Fodder for more thoughts and click backs?
Course in abstraction rejuvenates work
It was such a surprise to read about a problem I have experienced. Everything I paint does not satisfy my expectations. I have painted 200 paintings since 1975. Recently, I took an abstract course. It was a new experience for me to put paint on the support without any specific subject matter. It was a challenge, difficult, frustrating, and hard work. We had three 22″ x 30″ sheets of 140 lb. paper to complete in four days. One had to be completed; the other two with the paint etc, which were called ‘starts’ did not have to be finished. On the last day of our course we were given a critique. Much to my surprise, I was told that if I put the painting in a show I would get first prize. Needless to say, it has helped my confidence. My feelings are that art is a mind-consuming pastime that requires determination, and, hard work.
Switching from oil to acrylic
by Jane Fergusson-Storey, Northwest Territories, Canada
My favourite method of painting is with oils on location. However, I’m starting to realize that if I want to paint inside during the winter I might have to switch to acrylic. Also, when I’m traveling, acrylics would be much more convenient. When I’m at my home base during the warmer seasons I can still use oils but it would be good to be more prolific in acrylics. I’ve had a few successes with acrylic paint but it still doesn’t seem to work like oil. I’ve just bought some Golden Acrylics and I’ve also used Winsor and Newton. Your paintings look like oil paintings to me even though I know they’re acrylic. I guess I’m looking for any advice on using acrylics both on location and indoors and I guess I’m curious as to whether you started in oils and what brands of acrylics you like.
(RG note) Acrylics and oils are not the same. But what you lose on the straights you make up for on the corners. I changed over to acrylics from oils for health reasons. I was worried about the toxic materials in oils. I use Golden Acrylics most of the time. It takes time, but many artists get used to using acrylics outdoors. Certainly the fast dry characteristic can be turned into an advantage, while benefits such as glazing become part of the fun.
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2002.
That includes Libby Kyer who wrote, “I draw daily, and it grounds me. Maybe the French painter hadn’t done his homework? Always leads to frustration with me.”