Warren Buffett told his students that public speaking is the most important skill they could learn.
He probably didn’t say that standing up and addressing a group is feared more than death, according to most surveys.
Could there be a greater challenge for an introvert than giving a speech?
If we can master that we can master anything, right?
So the eve of an artist talk, I searched YouTube for some last minute advice and found a video of speaking coach Richard Greene that could change just about anyone’s perspective on giving a speech.
“I don’t want you to ever, ever, give another speech”
“That’s not what great speakers do.”
“Public speaking is nothing more than a conversation, from the heart, about something you’re authentically passionate about… it’s a visceral thing; it’s not intellectual.”
Which makes perfect sense.
Because we’re all passionate about the things we believe in and we all know how to talk.
We talk every day. We do it effortlessly, no preparation, no rehearsal. What could be easier?
Nothing, until we get up in front of an audience and see all those expectant faces. And then the pressure kicks in.
Along with the butterflies, sweaty palms and dry mouth.
Suddenly, we feel we have to be so much more than we are. The consummate authority in our field.
When all we really have to be is authentic and have an experience to share. With the understanding that the audience is on our side. They want the event to go well, otherwise they wouldn’t have shown up.
Keep that in mind for a second and consider just about any element of your painting. How do you make it all more compelling, more convincing? Like the background, for instance. What in the world do you do with it?
Don’t ever do another painting.
Don’t even think of yourself as doing a painting.
Focus instead on creating three things: clarity, atmosphere, and space, as you connect with your subject.
But don’t just connect with your eyes or your mind. Connect with your entire being.
Because you look at the world every day. You look at people, objects, and nature. And you over-analyze them. You don’t think in terms of foreground, background, or composition.
Just stuff in front of, and stuff behind, other stuff.
Some things come into focus and others go out. Forms advance and they recede. The visual world is a beautiful dance of tangible forms and intangible space.
But you need to strike the word painting from your vocabulary.
Lose the P-word.
In fact, see if you can eliminate all language, and with it, all preconceptions from the process of making art.
William Nicholson, The Lustre Bowl with Green Peas
Some examples of why this is a good idea:
If you think Sky, you’ll make it too blue.
If you think Grass, you’ll make it too green.
If you think Shadow, you’ll make it too dark.
If you think Face, you’re begging for trouble.
Words for an artist can be a real pain. Because the (metaphorical) left brain is dominant and a little arrogant.
Like many people you know.
It isn’t good with vision but thinks that it is.
It attaches crude labels based on past experience to much of what you’re seeing in the present, the number one challenge for most student and many professional artists.
Which is why I stress the obliteration of all labels from the things you see and paint.
Don’t attach a name to anything you see. Or to the colors on your palette for that matter. Many of the colors you encounter are so layered and nebulous that naming them just causes trouble.
Vija Celmins, Ocean, 2003, graphite
If this sounds odd or difficult, and this next tip will sound like a contradiction, then try listening to an audiobook or interesting TED talk while working.
Give the left brain a little something to do so that it doesn’t get bored and meddle with your art.
Keep it occupied and let the right brain do its thing. It’s like giving your child or pet a toy to play with while you get down to serious work.
But isn’t that distracting?
Yes, a little. And that’s exactly the point.
A minor distraction in the studio can keep your thinking light and flexible.
Most artists concentrate too hard and get too intense, creating a kind of tunnel vision and mild panic when things don’t go as planned. Which they never do.
If you’re learning something new while working you’ll feel relaxed and energized at the same time. You’ll be more experimental and make fewer assumptions about how things should look.
And you won’t obsess so much. You’ll take your work, and yourself, a lot less seriously.
To the earlier question, What do you do with the background of your painting?
As little as possible. And strike the B-word from your vocabulary too.
If you give the background too much thought and attention you’ll make too much out of it, creating a solid, uniform wall of color or some noisy, distracting pattern. Or something ambiguous.
Unnatural-looking because it is in fact unnatural.
We can, if we want to, blame the academies for draping those brightly-colored fabrics behind the live models we painted, which later became a habit.
But let’s not do that.
Instead, let the background suggest depth as it fades off just enough to allow the focal point to shine.
Ronald Sherr, Susan, Oil on canvas, 12 x 18 in.
Ronald Sherr’s stellar portraiture is a perfect example of varying levels of focus, from high realism to touches of impressionism to near-abstraction, all harmonizing beautifully within the space of a few inches.
Spend 80% of your time developing your focal point, and the rest, just let it rip.
Work the way the eye works. It focuses on small areas at a time. Everything else is seen peripherally. A great way to take one area out of focus is to clarify another.
Great speakers never give speeches
Great actors don’t seem to be acting.
The funniest people aren’t trying to be funny.
And the best painters don’t produce paintings.
The best painters connect passionately with whatever is in front of them (or inside) and their art flows from that passion.
Don’t think of yourself as ever painting a picture. Don’t even think of yourself as an artist.
Think about engaging your subject while creating clarity, atmosphere, and space on canvas or paper. Then let your eyes and your heart tell you what to do.
Christopher Gallego teaches technique, observation, and the mental game of painting to advanced artists. Click here for info about private classes in your home, studio or via Skype & FaceTime.