Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Some artistic myths eviscerated

I am illustrating tonight's posts with the nudes of Anders Zorn, which I absolutely love. Their very restrained color and play of warm notes against grays is so beautiful.

The images are courtesy of if you have never found them, go check em out! But come back, they are the worlds largest online museums and they have been a continuing help in my creation of this blog, and I am grateful to them. I would also like to give a tip of the hat top the folks over at FASO who have been directing visitors to me, thanks to Clint and Lori, go check them out.

Tonight I would like to tell you about some popular sayings about art with which I disagree. I am not saying you should disagree with these also, but you might be interested in why I do. I would like to examine some ideas that float about our studios unchallenged. Some of which might be doing us more harm than good. Be forewarned these are sacred cows I am about to throw on the grill.

  • Happy accidents, I don't think I want accidents happening in my work, again you might, I don't. In fact I think that

I think this idea really came into prominence during the 40's and 50's when their were so many watercolorists working in what was then called the AWS style. I can't recall any 19th century texts advising the artist towards the accidental. There was a popular style of loose watercolor that at its best in the hands of Andy Wyeth was wonderful, but a whole generation of blotters and razor blade scratching tricksters followed. There were so many of those watercolorists doing rusting farm machinery and barnsiding that a whole "look" ruled many of the galleries and shows for a generation. When that stuff went out of style it took almost all the watercolor market with it. There are very few watercolors in the galleries I frequent. That's really too bad, because watercolor is a wonderful medium and folks like Sargent, Homer and a whole boatload of wily Englishmen like Richard Parkes Bonnington did marvelous things in it.

I want to be as deliberate as I can, I don't want unexpected and unplanned "accidents" happening in my paintings, I want the entire thing to be crafted with intent. If the point of a work of art is self expression , decisions I make are more self expressive than things which happen without my personal intent. I am a somewhat loose painter with visible brushwork and not a super tight "realist" painter, but I want to control what my paintings look like, and not share that control with happenstance. I don't believe I see a lot of accident happening in these Zorn paintings for instance.

  • It takes two artists to make a painting, one to paint it and another to stop him before he ruins it.
My feeling is that you can go on working on a painting as long as you continue to make good decisions. There is a lot of work I see today which is I think "undercooked" particularly plein air work. I often see pieces I wish were more resolved or more carefully made. Richard Schmid has pointed out that loose is how a painting looks and not how it is made. While he is evidently a one shot painter, that which he chooses to resolve is RIGHT. I am not saying all paintings should be tight as a drum or highly detailed, but I do think more paintings today suffer from being blown out in sloppy haste hoping that some magic will make them excellent, rather than carefully and lovingly created by an informed craftsman who spares neither effort or if need be time. Although time spent on a painting will not make it good, I intend that none of my paintings be weak because of lack of effort. I do have control over that, even if my efforts kill this painting, working my way through the problems in it arms me for the next time those problems appear. Many of my paintings are still weak, I admit, but not because I shorted them on time or effort.


  • Originality is the most important thing in a work of art.
Now don't get me wrong, I am not against originality, but I have seen a whole lot of art that had only that. In working so hard to be singular, some artists, particularly in the art schools have avoided learning their craft. Their paintings avoid having all of the things that make great paintings great. Many times in art school, and just after, I heard from other young artists how they didn't want to learn from anyone else, because that would damage their originality. For most of them that was a fatal attitude for their artistic development. I think it is a kind of intellectual laziness. Wouldn't it be better to learn everything you can, absorb ideas and methods like a sponge? Then later when you are making your art, you can choose which ideas will be useful in making each particular painting. Knowing something does not force you to use it. It is very helpful to know how a great artist before you solved a particular problem, even if you intend to use a different solution yourself.

I think painters should not be imitators of other artists, but that does not mean they shouldn't have the same qualities that made those other artists great.


So if I don't like what the painting looks like, how "original" it is means zip to me.

"Amateur paintings are all alike". I can't remember who said that, but there is a lot of truth in that. These artists all have left the same things unlearned, so their work all carries the same faults, poorly handled edges, overmodeled halftones, lack of form, mistaken anatomy, poisonous or discordant color, weak designs and uncertain perspective are some examples of faults many amateurs painting share.

  • Great artists must starve and die in obscurity.
You go starve and die in obscurity, I've got kids to feed. The contempt that young artists and some pedants have for working artists and illustrators who do make a living is misguided and malevolent. Most of the great artist in the museums were very successful in their lifetimes. There are famous exceptions like Van Gogh, who surely chose it, as his brother was an art dealer . But Monet had five full time gardeners on staff and Picasso made a fortune. The newspapers routinely report on another contemporary painter, selling a piece for staggering sums, only to be exceeded quickly by another selling his art for an even greater sum.

You don't have a problem with the Rolling Stones making a living do you? Hows about Mark Twain, Frank Loyd Wright, Kathryn Hepburn or Cole Porter, should they have starved? they didn't, they were well payed, deserved it and made great art just the same.

Well I imagine I have rocked the boat enough for one night , I believe I will swim to shore. See you tomorrow.


Richard J. Luschek II said...

oh, Zorn makes me giddy.

Stape, Most of these myths were presented to me by people with masters degrees when I was in college. I find it hard to believe that they would take my hard earned money and give me bad information- "Myths". To do so would almost be immoral or completely stupid!
Did I mention they have Masters degrees?!

As I have recently written about my own impending death on my blog, I am a big fan of your last myth.

All jokes aside, great post as usual. Though I have to add, there are a lot of realist painters out there that need someone to tell them when to quit working, as they seem to paint till it looks more photographic than a photo. Nice exercise, but it is not art to me.

Billy Guffey said...

I totally agree about the Zorns. Thanks for posting them.

I have found in my newfound art career the ability to tune out some of the myths/truths you clarify in this post. I have no artistic training except what I choose to read, watch and study. And in some way I think that has helped me. I'm not hung up on things/methods/rules that I might have been if I had had a university instructor brow-beating me for years. Not that I'm against learning, but as a middle aged man, I get to choose who to learn from and when. On that note, I'm hoping one of your workshops is in the future at some point. :)

By the way, I bought RGH oils and love them.

willek said...

I have been at Swans Island in Maine painting for a few days (Painted in the blowing rain one day under my show tent. Cold, but dry.) and arrived to see the last 4 or 5 days of postings. All are stupendous. Great demos and the extremely delightful Zorns. Check out his "Opal" at the Worcester Art Museum. It really helps me to know your thought process as you proceed in the demos. For instance, compressing the view. I have been doing that unintentionally, probably not a good thing, and have been trying to correct for it. Got in from the trip and finished unpacking at 10:30. after reading all the posts, blogs, and chasing down the outside references, it is 1:00 a.m.

Ramon said...

sacred cows make delicious burgers :)

Unknown said...

Wow, those Zorns are something else. Thanks for posting.

Yum.. those burgers are good.

Question about process: IN painting in sky color, do you paint right up or into the tree shapes? I have trouble keeping the sky color clean, but I want to paint those silhouetted tree shapes wet into wet for the sake of the edges, but this tends to muddy the sky color.
"rumboon" a good word to say when a "happy accident" occurs. I think my Dentist said this once while drilling. Or it might have been something else.

Bob Carter said...

I thoroughly agree with your points, especially about “happy accidents”. I think the notion that there are such things in good painting is a misunderstanding of the original idea. I take it that the word “accident” was originally meant to describe certain strokes one may lay down that cannot be exactly duplicated, particularly in “loose” painting. For example, laying a trace of white foam on the crest of a wave with a lightly held and fully loaded brush leaves a certain mark, but one that you couldn’t do exactly the same way twice. But that’s no accident. It’s a deliberately made mark that has an intended quality of randomness in its actual form. I wonder if we should borrow a term from music to describe this – the noun “accidental”. An accidental in music is a deliberately sharped or flatted note that is not part of the standard scale of the key signature; i.e., it is not expected within the constraints of the tonality. That bit of foam on the wave is not expected from the logical constraints of the mind and brush. But it effectively and deliberately conveys the reality of the thing being depicted. I guess I’m suggesting that’s a happy accidental. (Not to be confused with Bob Ross’s “happy trees.”)

Robert J. Simone said...

Many practitioners of the limited palette site Zorn as an example of what can be done with three colors. What do you think, Stape? Did Zorn really use a palette limited to venetian red, yellow ochre, black and white? I saw three of his paintings at the Met and I am certain he used other colors on at least one of them. Historians also say there were numerous other tubes in his studio. So, I doubt he was a three color purist.

willek said...

I took two printmaking courses at the MFA school some years ago and was encouraged to make happy accidents with the media. I did an etching of a window view one time and was told, by the tenured instructor, to forget about the reality, That could be picked up any time later. To their credit, they did have one drypoint session with a model, but it became clear later that we were to use the model as inspiration only and not try to do anything realistic.

Unknown said...

I love these paintings too, thanks for posting.

Unknown said...

Great pearls of wisdom!

You ideas about finish are definitely helpful to me. Before I read your blog, I had a kind of "paint it and forget it" attitude in which I would create something quickly and not fix errors, then move on to the next thing. You have taught me that it is okay, important even, to take your time and make it right - even when painting alla prima.

I think those who follow Schmid closely (us non-professionals) see his loose look and think that they can create that too by not finishing a painting. They don't know that his decisions are filtered through a lifetime of experience.

Betsy LaMere said...

I love a good BBQ! Great post!

Terry said...

thank you, thank you, thank you. As a relatively new and mostly self taught painter, these "myths" are intimidating, even when my instincts tell me they are wrong. "Happy Accidents" are what happen to me because I don't yet know enough about what I am doing. My goal is to get to where my paintings are filled with decisions, not accidents. And the unfinished plein air paintings that seem to be popular leave me questioning my own taste - but it seems to me that a quick sketch, even if lovely, is not a polished work. On originality: I have lots of great ideas but I don't yet have the skills to realize them - so training and studying the greatest only makes sense - yet I have been cautioned that that will damage my own "voice". Thanks for dispelling this nonsense....

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thank you. Those artists to whom you refer, I call meat cameras.
Don't die, you will be mythed.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I think that it is easier to learn quickly when we are young. But there is a lot to said for the judgement which age installs.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thanks, I wondered where you had gone.

Stapleton Kearns said...

If I had not been an impressionist, I think I could have been a vivisectionist.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I lay therm in thinly, Then I paint the sky, then I paint the trees over the sky wet in wet, and them I touch up the sky and put in the sky holes. It is nit always easy to keep the sky color clean, but it is essential.

Rumboon= Favor done for me years ago by a woman who had been drinking Singapore slings,

Stapleton Kearns said...

An accidental as you define it is a good thing. What I am disparaging is the idea that from lack of control, knowledge or care, excellence will emerge on its own. It is such an absurd idea that it could only have arisen in Academia ;)

Stapleton Kearns said...

I am not an expert on Zorns technique, but I think he used the three colors usually ascrbed to him until recently, however when he needed a blue, he used it! I work sometimes in limited palettes myself, but will decorate a painting in earth colors with something else if it suits my purpose. I sure like those Zorns for their tonality no matter how it was arrived at.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thank you Zorn is so cool. I have posted on him before.


Stapleton Kearns said...

Thanks. Artists whose paint loosely and do it well,are far more deliberate than amateurs who imitate them imagine. They DECIDE how each part of a painting should look.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thank you!

Unknown said...

And, everybody, Stapes blog post is featured in today's newsletter on Fine Art Studio Online, which is pretty cool... goes to a billion or so readers. But WE got it first!

Stapleton Kearns said...

You are welcome. I should point out that I do like loose painting and sketches,when they are done with knowledge and skill. I am objecting to those that are only sloppy posing as facile. When people advise you like that,LOOK AT THEIR WORK! and then ask yourself,is this person doing something I want to do, or admire? If yes, skeptically apply what they say and see where it leads you. If the answer is no, nod affirmatively and make calming noises as you back away, and then find advise from someone who does impress you with their work. That might be in a book.

Unknown said...

PS. I made my own panels today per your method. Since I like my fingers, I'm letting my husband do the final cutting (the guy at the lumber yard cut it into strips, all that's left is to cut those in half)
Did you know that dog hair can magically fly from 20 feet away and land on the wet paint? That is not a happy accident.
"scantli" how those Zorn women are clad.