Painting is Hard

December 29, 2011

I was out painting a while ago and a passerby said “Nice work!”

“Thank you,” I answered.

“It’s relaxing, isn’t it?” he went on. I grunted something noncommital in response but this got me thinking… relaxing? Fulfilling, satisfying, pleasurable, enjoyable, sure, all those things times a thousand, but relaxing? Painting is the hardest activity I know of. I’m constantly amazed by people who say things like “I started painting at 9 in the morning and the next thing I knew it was midnight! I’d painted for 15 hours straight!” I just don’t see it; they must be doing something wrong, they’re not trying hard enough, because after three hours, four hours tops, I am absolutely exhausted and need to take a long break, if not a nap.

My brain is going a mile a minute when I paint landscapes. What is that? Do I want to know what that is? Can I paint it with just one brushstroke? No? Two? Three? Am I sure I can’t paint it with one brushstroke? What shape is it? What form is it (to me “shape” is the two dimensional contour which define a painting element; “form” is its simplified three-dimensional volume)? What color is it? How should I mix that color? Have I already mixed a color that would be a good starting point for this one? What’s it in front of? What’s it behind? How far away is it? Does it cast a shadow? Is it in shadow? How important is it to the composition? OK, I’ve mixed my color and I’m ready to put it down. Which brush do I use? It’s a little stiff, better add a little medium. Not too much… Start here? Or here? How strong an attack? Do I want it to blend into the paint that’s already down or sit on top of it? OK, now what?

And constantly: Oops. Damn. Oops. OK, I can fix that. Oops. Where’s my palette knife, I have to scrape that out. Oops. Wait a minute, maybe I can do this instead. Oops…

And towards the end: Yes! You’re almost there. Yes! Come on, you can do it! Just a few more brushstrokes, don’t give up now! Yes! Damn you’re good (the only thing I’ve ever really agreed with on those “Magic of Oil Painting” shows was when I heard William Alexander say in his German accent “Keeping telling yourself, I am a genius! This is the best thing I have ever painted!”)! Yes! Oh… yes….

Time for a nap.


Know what ticks me off?

December 8, 2011

That iPad commercial where the guy is standing in a beautiful field with a tree and he’s doing a frickin finger painting on his frickin iPad! Hey buddy, you seem to like art and you hauled your ass out to the middle of nowhere to some beauty spot and you chose to capture the scene on an iPad? Why not bring along some paints and an easel next time instead of a $500 chunk of electronics? I mean, I paint landscapes in oils and it’s a pretty expensive proposition but it’s still a hell of a lot cheaper than doing it on an iPad.


I Paint What I See

December 6, 2011

It was my misapprehension that it was Gustave Courbet who first said “I paint what I see.” I was wrong. He actually said something along the lines of “I have never seen an angel. Show me an angel and I will paint one.” The “I paint what I see” line was dreamed up by E.B. White, of Charlotte’s Webh fame, for a poem about Diego Rivera. It’s since entered the general culture and yet, amazingly, no one seems to have snagged it as a web page… until me! Please visit to see more of my paintings and drawings.

So what does painting what I see mean to me, and why is it different from Courbet’s approach, or Rivera’s? Well, Courbet and Rivera were both Realists, a general enough term to cover many, many different approaches to art (Classical Realism, Social Realism, Photorealism, Magic Realism, Surrealism…). Neither actually painted what they saw, not in the sense I mean. They painted what they had seen, or what they wanted to see, or what they thought it was important for other people to see. They painted what they knew things look like.Realism is an art form in which the primary goal is to make a recognizable image. To that end you can work from photographs, or memory, or sketches, or your imagination.

I, on the other hand, am a Representationalist. I paint what I see, only what I see, only while I’m looking at it right there in front of me. If it isn’t there, I don’t paint it. If I want to paint a mountain, I go find a mountain. If I want to paint a portrait, I go find a person. I paint exclusively from life, for the most part plein air (I mostly paint landscapes) and alla prima. Representation is an art form in which the goal is to convey as expressively, honestly, and accurately as possible, the direct visual experience of of reality unmediated by anything except the artist’s skill and sensibility. To me this is the essence of painting. It is the highest purpose of art.

This is my completed 2011 project of oil portraits from life of panhandlers in Harvard Square. Response has been overwhelmingly positive and special thanks go out to Bunker Hill Community College and its gallery director Laura Montgomery for giving me a show on such short notice.

For those who are interested, the background music is the first movement of “Mysterious Mountain” by Alan Hovhannes.


December 4, 2011

I was at figure drawing the other night after work. I started drawing the figure when I was 13–I’m 55 now. There is always something new to learn from drawing the figure and I wouldn’t mind it if I keeled over dead while drawing from the model. However…

I could not help but note that I was the only one standing at the drawing session (beside the model, of course). I got there early, set up a card table (which unfortunately was a little low for my uses) and spread out my stuff: pencils, chalk, crayons, charcoal, watercolors, a big sumi-e brush, kneadable eraser (well-kneaded), toilet paper (much cheaper than and just as good as chamois) a little sketchbook for gesture warm-ups, two big pads, one white, one toned paper, for more finished drawings. I am a firm believer in standing while you draw or paint, or perhaps in not sitting while you do those. Everyone else was scrunched up over their little sketchbooks, or leaning forward on their seats towards their easel. I just don’t see how you can draw like that. Drawing is gestural, it should come from the shoulder, not the wrist. And this got me thinking.

Drawing and painting are expansive, athletic activities. Your whole body should take part in the process.It is not an intimate little act of hesitent, delicate line work, it is a violent, gestural attack on reality. It’s always nice when things go your way but sometimes your best work–the work you actually learn from–is when things go badly, passionately wrong and you need to beat the drawing into submission, regain control by main force and sometimes–many times–actively fail in the attempt. Oh but when things go right, when you pull the drawing or painting back from the brink, what glory there is in that! That is what art is all about.