The mind of a developing painter is always alternating between being smooth and being rough. When the mind is smooth there are no questions, and no places for new information to nest. When the mind is rough its ground is perforated by problems in our painting and becomes unstable; old thought structures can give way and new ideas find footing with us more easily as we ask questions in an attempt to smooth things back out.
We all eventually run into the same problems in painting. The problems are universal, but we each encounter these issues in our own unique order. The point in time at which our mind becomes rough about something will govern the questions we’re asking, which in turn will govern which answers we can even hear. I’m suggesting that for each of us, there is a right time to hear each good piece of painting advice – that’s why we often have to hear something so many times before it “sinks in.” I wanted to share a few pieces of good painting thought that have meant a lot to me in moments when I really needed them; maybe if we’re lucky, they can be of some use to you as well.
“Painting doesn’t reward hard work.”
This one tends to be controversial with painters, depending on when in their development they hear it. Starting off we tend to need the opposite lesson: give care to the painting, give it the time it needs, take reference and do all that you can, and don’t be lazy. Yes, all of that is true – though words like ‘lazy’ are problematic in that they’re easy to misconstrue.
Let’s call laziness “a lack of willingness to do the one and only thing that will achieve your goal.” If you have that type of laziness, you’d better just get over it! Painting will demand that one thing and so much more from you, more than you ever dreamed. Taking the sound advice to care, to use reference, to try as long and as hard as is necessary, is a powerful first step, and generally results in startling good paintings.
Infatuated with the newfound power of process we discover upon taking this step, we can develop a mantra that sounds something like “work, work, work.” And for a time work will do the thing. “I will conquer art through hard work! I believe in process! Here I am hard at work!” This is the mind which is smooth, which cannot agree with the idea that “painting doesn’t reward hard work.”
With time, however, problems show up – no matter how hard we work. Once work-based structures exist in our minds there’s an inbuilt trap: they can become ‘painting’ for you. Painting is now a rigorous process. “The process must be adhered to because it is the only thing that will achieve the proper result!”
In fact, no – these things are more like scaffolding. At first we are so helpless in the face of what we want to build that we truly need the scaffolding. But with time the scaffolding comes to obscure our view of the real thing: what we’re building. We need to recognize that whether we spend 2 or 20 hours on one area of a painting, it doesn’t matter. What matters is whether the area is right. Have you ever worked and worked an area, and all it does is get worse? Yea, me too. A thing can be right no matter how much work has gone into it; sometimes only a few marks will do the thing. Let us try and have the courage not to feel we’re “cheating” when a thing is working sooner than expected; let us not engage in work for work’s sake.
“Light does the same thing to a face as to a pole.”
This is absolutely striking in how insanely “yea, duh” it is. It smashes you in the face with its truthfulness, and I think that’s why I can never forget it. Of course light does the same thing to everything – to a face, to a pole, to that part of the torso I’m noodling! And yet, how many times have I given the face (or any area) so much “special” care as to ruin it? More than I care to admit…
In truth, nothing needs special care. It all just needs correct care. Remember that it’s all just form; it’s all just light. All of it.
“It doesn’t matter if people can see your footsteps or not.”
In the context in which it was spoken (listen here), this had to do with the feeling on part of an artist that only “polished,” or “exhaustively vetted” mark-making could stand up as justified to a viewer. We feel we have to go over and over the marks to get them “just so,” to hide what we’ve been up to from the viewer. Phil is here recanting that position, after experimenting with photographic collage of objects that he felt stood up as justified new forms even when he could clearly see the masking tape holding it all together.
The viewer’s brain is always trying to find a way to make sense of what it’s seeing, but as painters we can have a tough time trusting the viewer, especially since as we create, the only viewer reaction we’re experiencing is our own. As the artist you will always be the toughest person to fool – it may even be impossible. If a roughly-hewn collage can be a justified piece of art, why then do paintings seem to need so much more?
Maybe they don’t. Maybe painting doesn’t reward hard work. Maybe form and light are always there, acting the same, and it’s us as painters that have to struggle and change. Maybe, with the help of other voices, we can remember that.