The naive choice


Dear Artist,

“Naive” or “primitive art,” according to arts writer Linda Murray, means “untrained artists in a sophisticated society.” According to Murray, it’s “an unspoiled vision consistent with ‘amateur,’ or ‘Sunday’ painter, admired for its connotations of genuineness and purity of artistic impulse, and freedom from the trammels of professionalism, tradition, technique, and formal training.” The implication is that the genuine article is someone who doesn’t know how to paint properly, but does it anyway. As Ian Chilvers says, “In naive work, colours are characteristically bright and non-naturalistic, perspective is non-scientific, and the vision is childlike or literal-minded.”


1939 oil on canvas, 115 x 115 cm
by Henri Matisse (1869-1954)

There are a few questions worth considering: What of those who, in the desire to find a purer vision, adopt naivete as a style? Is naivete a choice? For schooled and academic painters is it possible to unlearn processes? Is this desirable? If naivete is inexperience, is it possible that some art can be contrived to represent the admission of inexperience?

The Czech writer Milan Kundera has given this one some thought: “Inexperience is a quality of the human condition,” he says. “We are born one time only; we can never start a new life equipped with the experience we’ve gained from a previous one. We leave childhood without knowing what youth is; we marry without knowing what it is to be married; and even when we enter old age, we don’t know what it is we’re heading for: The old are innocent children of their old age. In that sense, man’s world is the planet of inexperience.”

Gradually, for most of us, our naivete becomes unravelled. Society, education and the desire to be challenged, conspire to knock it out of us. The march of civilization seems to be one from primitive to evolved. But artists hold keys to rediscovering the roots of the naive psyche. And artists are the ones who have the power, should they wish to exercise it, to show others the way back.


“The cat with red fish”
painting by Henri Matisse

Best regards,


PS: “You study, you learn, but you guard the original naivete. It has to be within you, as desire for drink is within the drunkard or love is within the lover.” (Henri Matisse)

Esoterica: Many capable artists realize that going naive is a viable method of outwitting the cookie cutter. As well as the possibility of unlocking personal and universal truths, the golden badge of individualism is polished. Going naive is not naive.

This letter was originally published as “The naive choice” on July 18, 2004.


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“I want to reach that state of condensation of sensations which constitutes a picture.” (Henri Matisse)



  1. Excellent piece. I am trying to rid myself of all the “rules” I am supposed to follow to enter an art show. They stifle my creativity. Let us all stop following the artshow rules and get back to being creative.

  2. I agree that going naive is not naive. I think while Matisse’s work is characterized as fauvist, not naive, though does have overlap, it is a stylistic choice and it is still apparent that he has much study under his belt to get to the point where he can distill things down again.

    My issue with things like this is that amateurs, and sadly, arts education, misunderstand it as an excuse to feel that learning and teaching art academics is not useful or desirable. I don’t think Matisse necessarily unlearned processes here, I just think it was a foundation that took him in a different direction. I have met many artists unsatisfied with their arts education because it only looked at one part of this equation.

    I think it’s important that anyone interested in practicing art to pursue a solid foundation because once you see things, you unlock doors to take things to the next level, whatever that may be for you.

  3. I’m self-taught since childhood. I went to college for a year but had to support myself and couldn’t afford to continue an arts-based education. But I already didn’t care: See first comment.
    While I can appreciate that there were artists/teachers/authors behind the books I read as a child/adolescent; books on design- color- line- shape- value- kinetics- texture- sewing- embroidery- knotting; those “teachers” didn’t teach me anything- as they were not in the room. I LEARNED on my own what I wanted to know- reading books by fiber artists like Jean Ray Laury and sculptors like Alexander Calder and op artists like Victor Vasarely. But you know what? It was just me re-connecting with information I already had within me- because I’ve been around this block before. And we all have. So I completely disagree with this Milan Kundera statement: “Inexperience is a quality of the human condition. We are born one time only; we can never start a new life equipped with the experience we’ve gained from a previous one.”
    It’s called REMEMBERING- and it is available to anyone willing to dump the belief structure they were handed growing up- and go within.
    I’m a dead-serious working artist. Sunday painters? Hobbyists? Amateurs? Gosh! I wish I cared- but I don’t. I’m way too busy producing.
    Take what you’re doing seriously and change the planetary dynamic that says you have to have a day job. It’s time to grow up- even if you want your work to seem like a kid made it. Then remember all the times you were insulted when some jerk said to you: My kid could do that.

  4. What of us who have “always” been able to do it well. Without classes I was able to oil paint with extreme ability and won countless awards for “realism” as a young painter . As a very young child, I understood and could reproduce perspective, shading and form on a 2 dimensional surface and color mixing was never thought about. I never had to ask, how do you make green? When you have always been able to do something well, I have always wondered what is the value in that? I honed my techniques as I got older through a desire to express my love of nature and things I found beautiful through a medium that would allow me to hold it and share it. Inspiration grew like a weed. I could not kill it. 50 years later I am still doing a lot of it. Although my eyes are fading, I find it is still there, waiting for me to do more of it. Looking forward the changes that those “older” eyes bring to my work. I doubt it will ever be naive or abstract, just softer…not as much detail perhaps…

    • Hello, Sharon. Checked out your website and I want you to know that I absolutely love your
      paintings. They are beautiful. You are so talented. I went out enPlein air painting yesterday and was a little disappointed at what I accomplished. However, I checked out your enPlein air
      paintings and felt a little better. Yours are what I thought these paintings should be. Not as
      completed as a studio painting, but beautiful nevertheless. I plan to pass your website on to a beginning artist so she can check out your work. You have just inspired me!

      • Thank you so much Ellen! I give workshops and have a newsletter of upcoming trips for artists, perhaps you would like to join us someday! Plein air is difficult in the best of circumstances and I too have ones that may not work as well as others, but it is a fun job to have for sure! Keep painting, and send me your best ones!

  5. Chris Carless on

    Wish I could post a painting. My latest would speak for me very well. I am self taught and have had my share of success and failure. Much left to do.

  6. I had a father-law who loved painting, especially after he retired from other work. His paintings were purely unschooled and naive. I helped him with materials but did my best to NOT teach him anything sophisticated. We love his work that we have in our house. When a trained artist tries to look naive or childlike its easily detectable. It certainly is in the examples here by Matisse. Moving beyond “slick” techniques, or tricks is great for any artist, but trying to completely get rid of any vestige of trained sophistication is probably not possible.

  7. This was so wonderful to read today. I am a self-taught artist and always wondered why the label primitive art made this art in a class by itself. After, it is art and I was highly criticized for the use of non-professional, non-archival mediums used in my early art work. I had to keep a strong upper lip during the dialog in front of other artists, but went home and cried. That artist made me believe that art I had created was inferior and not worth anyone’s time or money to purchase. I have toughened up a bit since then, but those who create “primitive art” probably never worried about the quality of their supplies, they just needed to create. Is their work any less valuable at this date and time? Again, I really loved the words your father used to describe the innocence of our creative spirit. Joan Miron

  8. I write from the perspective of an author who is particularly interested in creating characters for novels set in the art world [especially painters. I think of naivete as the gift of being able to view the world and everything in it with wonder and through the eyes of the child. To me that suggests the individual has been able to ward off society’s onslaughts to make him or her conform with custom. That suggests originality. Matisse thinks that the ability to ward off or resist has to be already embedded in the artist according to his nature or psyche. I think that is very likely. That brings me back to the idea that it is a “gift”. Thanks for the interesting article.

  9. Holly Ulrich on

    When I was in my 3rd year of art school, a painting jury crib claimed my work was naive.. this wasn’t the first time a painting professor had said this. But it was my first studio painting class. This time I was brave and I said to this comment, “Okay, So what exactly do you mean by that??” It was like they couldn’t explain it so they started back-pedalling , taking a closer look and telling me what they did see in the work.
    I like how you manage to explain it here , your Matisse quote and I like J. Bruce Wilcox’s comment too ! It’s not that you don’t have education, or haven’t learned anything along the way. But you just don’t let it stop you in your quest to express your ideas.

    • Maria Carlile on

      While traveling in Zagreb, Croatia recently, ,we visited their National Museum of Naive Art. You can google images for “naive art croatia” and see some wonderful paintings. The Wikipedia article is at I viewed the style by many of the painters as a choice, not necessarily because they were unschooled. The colors were vibrant and the emotions evoked were similarly strong. While not a fan of Grandma Moses, I loved some of the artwork at this museum and the messages conveyed..

  10. I began painting two years ago following Flora Bowley’s intuitive style of painting. Whatever I painted, even if I went for “realism” became whimsical. At first, I was upset that my art was “naive” or whimsical. Within a year, I began to appreciate what I create & accept that as my own natural style. I have taken a few other online classes, however, my art reverts to what flows from that place of whimsy.

  11. I believe my art belongs in this category. I was discouraged as a young adult by my art teacher to continue in my style. Unfortunately I listened and moved away from continuing my art education. Once I returned to my dream to be an artist, I found that my renewed passion for art and love for color was a way to bring joy into the world. The ultimate reward is knowing that my art brought a smile to someone’s face and brightened their day.

  12. Pablo Amaringo a Peruvian shaman who had never any professional training and painted all of his ayahuasca visions could be called Naive, although some say he has no insight in painting and what he is doing is just knitting his colours on canvas.
    A Brazilian friend of mine wanted to paint. She did so in Porto Seguro and soon she had a gallery there who ‘discovered’ her talent as Naive and sold well. Soon she felt the urge to learn proper painting. The gallery told her pleas not to do so as she would lose all he liked about her work. Sh did not heed his advice, and indeed after one year making new works, she lost ‘it’ and he did not want her works anymore. She stopped painting altogether.

    I paint as well and I have had some formal training in art academy between my 9 and 12 years old, and then a 6 year formal training in creative directing, which I hated…at school they did not appreciate my crude work…After 14 years of globe trotting I found myself making artwork which connected with what I made as a 14 year old…the cycle was full…I am an eclectic artist, I realise…

  13. I love to paint in pure colour. I’m attracted to it. In University there was great discussion over my pieces. My professor mentioned to the class; “This is not how you paint.” “You don’t paint in pure colour.” “It’s not how it’s done.”

    Of course I was saddened. “Why not? I said.” “Just because” He said.

    Yet, I look at paintings hung in galleries by painters who are considered famous or on the rise. Some of their works appear to have no dimension, flatness of colour, no technique or “proper” form. Some can’t draw. Some are not appealing. Some have duct tape on them, yet, painting in pure colour is not how it’s done? Of course I can paint and make my full colours from three colours! I choose not too.

    It’s no wonder that our universities and art schools are losing students. Students are baffled. Do this…do that….then they see what art is? That’s art? That’s the right way?

    Art is art. There is no one way to create it. There’s no one way that is right. In the end it’s the eye of the beholder. Your own style and art galleries are only one way into the business of art. Really it’s just a lot of talk around nothing.

    Another thought. When I was in art school I was taught zilch on technique, it was all self-taught. There was criticism but no answers. So in the end, when formal education is mentioned, there is no longer formal education in art. It’s all self-taught now or in many cases it’s paint like the teacher! Maybe in the 20th Century there was formality, but not now.

    I say “enough” of this garbage on dissecting everything to the point that the pleasure of creating is taken out of making art. News flash!!! No one has the answers, no one person is ever going to be right. I even hear people who have never taken even one course or painted one picture….all of a sudden are the “know it alls of what is good and bad art.” It makes me crazy. For instance; a person that has spent a lifetime on becoming a doctor and is in the art of healing people but now an expert on art. Knows everything. There’s a lot of this. When we have come to this point; we really are in trouble.

    It’s time for the artist to take back their power. They are the ones who know. They were born with art in them. And no….not everyone can be an artist, just like not everyone can be a doctor, a nuclear scientist a lawyer. It’s a gift.

    Yours truly,

    Lorna Wood. “I am an artist.”

  14. Venkatarao Rao on

    Sarah, Thanks for posting this well written article it is appropriate today as it was when written in 2004.
    The art has to be free and it s th expression / vision of the artist.. If they want to call it naive let it be., the critics don’t own the art. One should not stifle the vision for the sake of adhering to the rigid rules!!
    I tried to,sure it on Facebook but was informed the content Amy be unavailable or lacked permission.

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