A Note to a Student

Studio Christopher Gallego NY State

The following is an e-mail that I sent to a student just after one of our private classes.  We had discussed whether to push a particular piece a little further and risk losing some of the freshness and spontaneity …

Nobody loves beautiful paint, brushwork, and an expressive touch more than I do. These are the things that make art such a treat to look at.

However… Like details, they shouldn’t be a painting’s primary reason for being.  Art is all about connection – the artist connecting with her subject, and the art connecting with the viewer.  Your first priority is to put the viewer into that space, and into the experience, you’re having. Painting is all about creating the illusion of space.

This is done by turning the forms, making them advance and recede.  Paint quality is that little bonus, something to please and delight the eye.  All of your thinking is rooted in observation.  Look at your subject, as I was taught a long time ago as if your life depended on it.

But… Don’t be a slave to your observations.  Interpret and transform things in ways that will add depth and make the art beautiful. Canvases are flat, so a little over-compensation is needed.  These are judgment calls made by you, but they should be informed judgment calls.

Your brushstrokes will be more assured if you have really seen things, even if you exaggerate or underplay.  The work doesn’t have to go from loose to tight.  You can start loose, tighten up, and then go loose again.

The key to doing great paintings is to simply become a great painter.  I would never rate another artist, but a level 8 painter (on a one to 10 scale) will pretty much do level eight paintings.  We all get lucky sometimes, but generally, we can only do what we can do.

So the goal is to just get better.  How?  By taking small chances…constantly…doing small experiments…constantly…keeping what works and dropping what doesn’t.  Most of your attention should go toward the process, the visual information in front of you and your state of mind while working.  Minimal attention toward the work itself, and don’t waste any energy on the fiction called “finishing”.  Avoid repetition and formulas; they don’t challenge you and where there’s no challenge there’s no growth.

See if you can put some distance between yourself and your art.  Imagine critiquing the work of a friend when you look at your own.  You’ll not only find this liberating, but you’ll have an easier time dealing with the critics, particularly the one inside you.


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