On Growing As a Painter

It’s never too late to be who you might have been.

—George Eliot

Book Cover

Excerpted from: “Beyond Paint: A Guide to Conceptual Painting,” by M Kathryn Massey, OPA, DPS, AA

By now you understand the act of painting is considered, intentional and best undertaken with a concept each time you go to the easel. Many of us were lead to believe that painting is only about such things as self-expression, lucrative portrait commissions, copying exactly what is seen on the model stand, or selling painting after painting in a gallery. These are the goals of some painters; some painters measure their success and self worth by these kinds of benchmarks. It is not my place to argue for or against these personal goals.

This final chapter will speak to maturing as a painter. It won’t address gallery sales, winning show awards, how much of your teacher’s work is seen in your final paintings; or, how accurately you copy the minutiae of a subject. To my way of thinking, these do very little for your growth as a painter.

How do we grow as painters?

gestures fiveFirst, I can say, it’s a solitary path. What do I mean? I mean, we are alone in our work as painters. It’s a private journey, that can’t escape its source from within. The source is who we are. We must be mindful to this fact. It is where we find ourselves at any given time. This is the beginning of our work to grow as painters.

Painting is undertaken in isolation–with thoughts, feelings, memories, impulses, history and present day all contributing to our response in paint. No real work of creativity is achieved in a vacuum. So in that sense, we are not unique. We all have a history that went before us. We can’t escape who we are completely.

And yet, our very growth as a person and painter depends on knowing our limits, our strengths; and perhaps, setting aside much of our subjective interests for the good of the work. This speaks to letting the art come through us as much as by us in its final form.

Are there practical habits that can help us grow?

This may be the best place to begin. What can you do to mature as a painter in a practical sense?
Practice drawing from a live model as often as you can- weekly if possible. Test out your mettle by using charcoal, pen and wash, watercolors or paint. Stretch yourself and challenge yourself to sit in front of the model — find one or two things you want to improve upon in each session. Use the session to practice, to see, to understand what is before you and then, make art from that. Don’t just do what you know. Do more. Try more. Do what you don’t know how to do. This is practicing and stretching yourself. It isn’t enough to do what you know. You must do what you don’t know but want to do.threeposes

Go back and study old drawings and paintings you have worked on. See where you went wrong and note what is still working. The hallmark of Art is that it has the past, present and future all contained within. Therefore, it is outside the context of linear time. Your work can have this feature. This means it will be viewed as vital, compelling and “good” long after you are gone. Note where this is happening in your work and internalize it rather than guess at it when you next go to the easel.

Study the Old Masters. Understand their work, like yours, was created in the context of a culture and time. This doesn’t mean you must be time bound, or culture bound. This means you can’t escape your life and all of its constraints. Learn to lean beyond those constraints to create work that is outside any pinned down moment.

Having said this……

Is it not your goal or purpose to recreate the work of the Old Masters, any one philosophy or school; or, recreate the work of your teacher. These are benchmarks in your progress. To be Original, you must be Authentic, meaning your own. This takes time. Do your own work and not the work of any one teacher or school. If a teacher expects you to paint like them, run!!! They do you a disservice to copy their work no matter how original. They rob you of your own development and exacting voice that is yours alone. Remember, you must develop your own language through paint.

ultrmarineThis means you must hear your own voice through paint and the act of painting. You must, in being authentic, find your own way. Yes, it’s good to walk with a teacher for a while, but eventually, you walk the path alone gathering information old and new.

The act of maturing as a painter is, at times uncomfortable, and like walking a tightrope– without a net. Indeed, it must be so. If you are not discontent at some moment, you are not ready to go on. To grow, you must find moments and periods of real discontentment. These will catapult you to the next moments of discovery. It isn’t easy. It takes time.

Time. Learning to paint is not a linear process. It isn’t done by rote, by memorization of this or that. Each time you are at the easel, you must begin again. Fresh. You are different. You are new. The work will be also. Pay attention to the changes inside. These are what affect change outside. This is what your work becomes. Pay attention to your habits, your thoughts and feelings as you watch the painting unfold. Watch the painting….. It will show you what it needs and want to stretch with you. Let it be so.

pitcherQuestions. These are what make us stronger in our work. It isn’t enough to have an answer. You must be thinking about the next question. Painting is an organic process. You must begin again each time you paint. What worked in one painting may be completely wrong for the next. There is no end to the beginning…….cool, huh?

Sit with painters who are farther along than you are. If you admire there work, try and paint with them. It’s always a grand idea to paint with someone who is a bit beyond where you are. This helps you stretch and grow.

Painting, like dance, singing, or playing an instrument takes practice. You can’t paint once or twice a year in a workshop and expect to become a good painter. It’s just not possible. As with other art disciplines, you must practice over and over to understand yourself and the work. It can’t only be read about. Nor can it be absorbed through only looking at artwork in museums or galleries. It must be practiced and many choices made. Remember: there are no mistakes. Only better choices. You must make some bad choices to get to the better choices. It must be so. It’s difficult work. If you look at your choices as mistakes, your mindset is limited and closed.

Choices mean and have possibilities.

There are some painters who will disagree with this next statement. Paint from life. Is it “wrong” to copy photos? I don’t know if anything is wrong. But, you won’t learn as much by copying photos if you ‘re interested in learning to paint. I would add–painting from life is a richer, more rewarding experience.

teapotAlso a limitation to learning: projecting images such as a portrait onto the wall and tracing it onto a canvas. No one understands this as learning. Can you make money? I suppose. But is it learning? I don’t think it is. You have to do the work and put in the hours to become a confident painter. This is within you and does not live outside you. Know this. Painting comes from within.

This all points to one central idea: painting is bringing forth that which is in you; and, as you develop and sensitize yourself to painting from within, you develop more and more to the person and painter you are meant to be. Painting comes from the inside, the inner world. It does not originate in the outer world. If a critic, teacher or another painter criticizes your direction, only you know in your heart and mind’s eye if you are doing the real work that is yours. You must let these comments roll off your back. They are irrelevant to your sensibilities, your authority and your own unique sense of being a painter. Said another way, the private world, your private world is subject to being criticized publicly. You must believe in yourself and look for no validation about what it is you want to say through the language you develop. When you can do this, you will be working from a place of confidence that the work is your own and your voice is being heard. You are growing as a painter.

A word about being understood by others: throughout history, we know of painters who have used such a private language, that little of the world was able to hear or access that language. This might be said of those who caste off all reference to the past to create art void of any historical reference, context or understanding. Here’s an example, not to pick on Jackson Pollock. He dripped paint on a canvas lying on the floor. House paint. This was his contribution to the world of art; to smash any reference to narrative, time, or history by excluding these features in his work. I find his language so limited it borders on incoherent and babble—for me. Of course, it is only my opinion about surface art of this kind. There are those who would disagree. Pollock’s language and efforts were so private, I am left without any real connection to him or to his work. This is the danger in developing highly subjective language— or creating work that is shocking or offensive. No one may understand the work, or if so offensive to humanity, no one will care.

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