Artist: Christopher Gallego, "PLatter, 2001, Oil on board, 12 x 15 in., Private Collection, Acton, MA

Artists: don’t ever do another painting.

By Christopher Gallego

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 bigger 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 inspiration and found a video of speaking coach Richard Greene that could change just about anyone’s perspective on giving a speech.

Says Greene:

“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 eager faces. And 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?

Here’s what:

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 royal 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 celminsVija Celmins, Ocean, 2003, graphite

If this sounds odd or difficult – and this next tip will seem like a contradiction – then try listening to an audio book 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 small 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 and wind up creating a solid, uniform wall of color or some noisy, distracting pattern. Or something totally ambiguous.

Completely unnatural-looking because it is in fact unnatural.

We can if we want to, blame the academies where we studied for routinely 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 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 as for 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. (BTW, 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.

My apologies, readers, for the long delay since the last post. Have been in the process of renovating and relocating.

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Why My Art Students Hate Me

I love teaching art. I really do.

And I love my students. But they don’t always love me. In fact, sometimes they hate me.

Not because I’m overly critical;  I actually do my best to be kind and supportive. It’s something else entirely.

Many art teachers give demonstrations for their classes. Anyone who has been to one knows they can be wonderful to watch; the best of them are like great performances. The artist/teacher paints and the students watch as a blank canvas magically comes to life. There’s even a little applause at the end.

One reason I’ve never done a painting demo is that they frighten me to death.

That roomful of eyes watching my every move makes it difficult to concentrate and impossible to do anything great.

Another  reason is that painting is, for me, the most private of activities, so working in front of an audience feels about as natural as sleeping in front of one.

Your art is the biggest impediment to creating your art.

Over time, I arrived at a method that felt comfortable enough to do well and valuable to my students. They don’t passively watch while I paint.

I watch them.

The students perform and I’m the audience, discreetly circling the studio, making mental notes of their work, their body language, movements, focus and attention, even the way they breathe – which they sometimes forget to do.

Giving equal time to the subject that they should be looking at, but usually aren’t, at least not enough.

Which brings me to why I am so disliked.

It’s the maddening habit I have of resolving, with a single brushstroke or comment, a painting problem that they’ve struggled with for an hour. And making it look easy in the process.

No, I don’t claim to be better, smarter or more talented than anyone else.

Just observant, a little lazy, but mostly,
free from the distraction of an unfinished canvas.

Observing while painting is like listening while speaking.

How many great listeners do you know?
I happen to know just one.

Most people would rather speak than listen, as most artists would rather paint than observe. You can’t do both at the same time.

As I mentioned in an interview with Painting Perceptions, at least 50% of my studio time is spent in observation. Observation is like listening with your eyes, but you have to be quiet for a moment (stop working) and just look, the longer the better.

The problems creep in when the art consumes most of our attention.

The moment your gaze moves away from your subject and toward your art, you’re painting from memory. If the memory is a second or two old, that’s fine, but if it’s a minute or more, you’re just making stuff up.

So what’s wrong with visual memory? Nothing, but it’s bland.

The mind loves to smooth things over, straighten things out, making forms more perfect and symmetrical than they are. All of those wonderful little idiosyncrasies, the odd twists and turns that give things their character and visual truth are lost when we rely too much on memory.

What about technique?

Good technique is essential. But while technique impresses, observation connects.

The difference between a great technician and a great eye is in the response, “Your work is beautiful”, vs. “I feel like I’m there!”

An artist’s vision is more like physical health than the ability to ride a bike; maintain it or it will decline, usually before you realize it.

Artist Annette Voreyer Still Life with TomatoesArtist: Annette Voreyer, Tomatoes and Jam Jar, oil on canvas  18 x 24 in.

Those seeing muscles must be worked and stretched constantly to be kept ahead of your technical skills. When the opposite happens and technique takes over, a problem that can haunt mid-career painters especially, vision weakens and the work starts to look artificial.

Creativity as Self-Creation

This advice will sound dry to anyone coming to art as a pathway to self-expression and creativity. It may even be a letdown.  We don’t want medicine but a delicious meal.

But think of creativity as an act of self-creation rather than the production of anything tangible.

Use your imagination to find strange and exciting tools that increase your visual power.

The habit I acquired, as a student, of turning the painting to the wall, putting the brushes down and just looking for as long as I can, has made a world of difference in the work. So has trying to draw hundreds of perfect charcoal lines and circles, freehand on scrap paper, as an exercise in control. I still do both each day.

Logging in countless hours is nowhere as effective as shaking up your routine.

Forget about what everyone else is doing. Forget about the response to your work, whether it will sell and forget about your age if that’s a concern.

Just keep searching, be experimental, and remember, your most important creation is the artist, who creates the art.

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Mid-Career & Middle-Age


Art school in New York. Probably the most exciting experience in my life. In many ways, but first, a heads-up that this post may sound a little self-serving.

Being a young artist is exciting.

So is exploring a big city. Discovering the masters, making friends, having a mentor. My classmates and I were literally learning something new every day; the adrenaline often kept me up at night. Today, the sight of a student toting a giant sketchpad brings it back and makes me smile.

Fast-forward thirty years to a completely different lifestyle.

Living in the country, surrounded by nature, working in quiet solitude. I receive just one internet signal, my own. Exciting, in a different way.

Because I’m no longer learning something new every day; I’m learning the same thing on a slightly deeper level each day, which is: 

The creation of art is an internal process.
My personal mantra and the theme for many of these posts.

Think about all that’s going on internally while you’re in the studio. You’re looking at your subject, watching the work in progress, trying to stay calm but alert, keeping your confidence up while being honest with yourself about what is and isn’t working.

And that’s just the first level.

The more complex level (and the part I love most) involves observing your observations, challenging them, while realizing that no one, not even a professional artist, sees the world quite right. We’re continually duped by “helpful illusions” that allow us to navigate our environment but stubbornly work against our attempts to draw or paint a picture.

So the all-important question for a painter then becomes, “Am I seeing this right?”, or “What might be getting between my vision and my subject?”

Maybe it’s your love of a favorite but intimidating masterpiece. Or a grade-school teacher who taught you to color inside the lines. Illusions are inherently crafty in that they don’t reveal themselves. You have to go out of your way to find them.

That visual bias living inside you loves to make mischief, usually at the most inconvenient time. It’s important to know it’s there, embrace it, and then learn the tricks to override it.

My own students like to jump in at this point, “Yes, but how do I do it?” Not with technique, I tell them. I know this because whenever I get stuck I tend to splash some fresh paint onto the canvas, push it around and expect something magical to happen. It doesn’t work.

And then there’s the tendency to overthink. You can’t figure everything out in advance by staring at a blank canvas.

So an over-simplification of this whole process might be: observe, throw some paint on, let it look awkward for a moment (very important), observe again, refine, repeat. A thousand times, and for God’s sake try to have a sense of humor throughout.

No such thoughts came up in my 20’s when I believed that the key to success in everything was to keep trying harder until I got it right.

Which brings me to the great lessons of mid-career and middle age:

Efficiency over effort, consistency over intensity.
The ability to pause, align and connect with the world rather than try and conquer it. Traits that I find every bit as valuable as the wonderful exuberance of youth.

Featured Image: Lake Clara, Richmond Hill, GA, 2014, detail

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“How dare you not love my art.”

By Christopher Gallego


I heard a wonderful analogy on the subject of criticism and gossip which goes something like this:

If you were accused of standing on a busy street corner wearing a ridiculous bird costume and vigorously flapping your wings, would the accusation upset you?

Probably not. Because it’s just too absurd. Unless you actually created such a spectacle as a college fraternity stunt or for a Halloween party, but then so what? And if it was simply a case of mistaken identity, again, so what?

Either way, you wouldn’t get defensive over whether it was you out in public flapping your wings. And while malicious rumors can damage a person’s reputation and peace of mind, most of the negative stuff people toss around is relatively harmless.

So why do we get so upset when we don’t get the praise we want for our art?

Answer: Because a small part of us agrees with people’s judgments when we don’t trust our own. 

I’ve read blog posts by established artists who devote 2,000 words to blasting their critics. Seriously?  These artists are at the top of the pecking order, in blue-chip galleries, with waiting lists for their works that sell well into the six-figures. Completely taken over by the opinion of someone with little or no influence.

By contrast, the great portrait artist Chuck Close (featured above) was once publicly told that his paintings were boring to look at. His response was priceless: “Imagine how boring they are for me to paint” (not a direct quote).

What a perfect way to handle someone who is trying to put you down. Agree with them externally as you disagree internally. Let them wonder whether you’re serious or not. No one can argue with inner conviction and they can’t shake it either.

The big challenge for many of us is the self-criticism. How can we feel confident about our work when we don’t? I can only suggest – and this is for the students – an approach that I use for most painting problems:

Take your mind, and your eyes, off of the work. An occasional glance is enough.

Christopher Gallego Thoughts on Painting Blog-Image Title-Wrapped Painting

Focus all your attention on the subject and connect deeply with it. Realize that the painting is a manifestation of that connection, not a reflection of your talent or potential.

The less time spent dwelling on a work in progress the more emotionally detached you become and the internal and external critics lose their power. The moment you stop thinking of your work as a trial designed to measure your level of talent is the moment you become free of everyone’s opinions…

“But I want to sell my art”
“Professors are grading my stuff”
“I’m past 50 and don’t have time to waste”

So what? Van Gogh sold nothing and studied little. Had he mastered his mental, emotional and resulting physical state as successfully as he mastered painting, he may have lived to see how important he would become.

Featured image: Chuck Close, Self Portrait/Felt Head Stamp, 2012
Oil on paper, 23 3/4 x 20 in.

Photo, bottom: Gallego studio 

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“…Copernicus called, and you are not the center of the universe.”

Teapot, 1997 | Oil on board, 9 x 12 in. | Sold 42 of 42

I’m not sure when my wife and I first heard this line from Frasier, but we love it.

We’ve been using it on each other for years, and while I admit that inside jokes between spouses are funny to no one but themselves, this one has shifted my perspective on career, on life, and led to a number of successes. It’s this shift that I would like to share with readers.

At first, we’d parrot the line when one of us went off on a monologue or interrupted the other with a self-involved remark. Favorite words such as “I” and “me” gradually lost their appeal and were spoken, and welcomed, less by us both.

I began to dislike the sound of them from others as well:

“Come check out MY exhibition”, I would hear from another artist,

” Like MY Facebook page”,

“I am so pleased and honored that MY art has been selected for …”

The most bothersome part being  that it was exactly how I sounded for the first 40 years of life. Correction… I was worse.

Later the change in attitude took a constructive turn. Opportunities to replace the word “I”  with “You” became more obvious and, voila, the career opportunities increased:

“Are any of these pieces of interest to you?”, I would email a collector. “Please get back to me at your convenience.” One gallery director was caught off-guard when I offered to come in and help with the hanging of a group show. Apparently, none of her artists had ever done this.

Gallery receptions can be energizing and fun. And I like when they’re over. Standing in a noisy room filled with art and people seems like such a contradiction to the quiet anonymity of the studio. Taking credit for the work almost feels like a betrayal of it. It’s as if the art and I started out as equal partners and then somehow it’s relegated to second billing at showtime.

I’m not trying to play the nice guy preaching altruism. It’s that I’ve learned how the feeling of being of service to those who appreciate it does more than trump the hollow satisfaction of being in the spotlight. It also leads to better work.

frasier and niles

The ego is like a semi-opaque screen that can interfere with a painter’s vision. By taking attention off oneself and the outcome, an artist can connect more deeply with his or her subject while eliminating most of the anxiety that comes with the setbacks. You just keep your cool and deal with them without the emotion that accompanies “looking bad”. Try to imagine that the work belongs to a good friend and you’re simply lending a hand.

It took years for Frasier’s advice to sink in. Here’s what he didn’t say: don’t look at your work so much. When you take those few steps away from a painting, turn your back on it, focus on something else and clear your thoughts. A quick and easy way to break free of the identification.

Featured Image: Teapot, 1997 by Christopher Gallego
Oil on board, 9 x 12 in. Private Collection

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The Perfect Response to Your Art. And the Worst.

Surf, 2016, oil on board, 9 x 12 in.

Dear fellow painters,”It looks like a photo”, are not my favorite words either.

Not my favorite because of what they suggest – that a precise photographic likeness is a painter’s highest aspiration.

An assumption that subordinates painting to photography.

Five words that completely miss the touch, the heart, and the soul of the painted image.

That is until you listen more deeply.

Think for a moment about how we describe extraordinary people: “She has an encyclopedic mind”, we say of the intellectual, “He’s like a machine”, of the supremely self-disciplined. Two examples of how high achievers and their work are ranked and compared with the inanimate.

As I searched for a third metaphor it hit me: “It looks like a photo”, is just that, a metaphor used to describe a level of visual clarity that does not seem possible for an ordinary human being to create.

The ability painters have to take that same gooey stuff that others use to color their homes, and transform it into something solid and lifelike is, to the non-artist, miraculous.

We may know differently, but to the outside eye, this is magic. For this, the enthusiasm behind a less than perfect phrase, we should be grateful.

But the most honest feedback in usually seen in a person’s body language.

If someone gets within inches of your painting, backs and up moves in again, it’s like a standing ovation.

Or the smile-head-shake combo, which really means “I can’t believe this”.

It’s fun to go undercover in a gallery or open studio event and watch what your work does to people’s movements.

During my time in a studio building filled with avant-garde artists, I felt like a glass-blower in a tech company. These artists were kind and respectful toward traditional painting but didn’t always know how to respond to it.

And what would a 21st-century person say to a glass-blower anyway? I’d probably say something inane and dumb, like, “that’s amazing.” Such a skill is amazing, but that’s all I know and haven’t a clue what else to say about it.

The point is that folks are interested in what you do. They’re impressed. Not just with painters but with the whole vanishing breed that creates the tangible and the beautiful with its hands.

They want to connect with you but mostly, hear what you have to say about your art.

The comments are just an opening. A living breathing painter is so much more accessible, and potentially more interesting, than Rembrandt or Van Gogh.

Featured Image: Surf #2, 2016, oil on board, 9 x 12 in., by Christopher Gallego
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Stop Worrying

Fallen tree, inches from Gallego studio

“Stop Worrying” – two of the most useless words in the English Language.  If we could stop we would. Worry feels awful, no one likes it and everyone agrees it’s a waste of time and energy. Why do we do it?

Artists are a particularly worrisome bunch. We worry about everything,”Is my work good enough, will it be seen and appreciated, am I making any progress, will lesser talents get more recognition, can I ever measure up to the great masters?” And so on. With all this junk running through the mind, how can a person get out of bed in the morning let alone create a work of art?

It’s hard to say; somehow we do. But how much more productive and enjoyable would the process be if we could just let all this nonsense go?

One of the most useful bits of advice I’ve received on the subject came many years ago, not from a painting teacher but from a running coach who often said, “Quit worrying about worrying.”

Embracing the irrational fear of failure as a part of human nature won’t free a person completely. But it’s a good start and removes at least one layer of burden.

Also helpful is the reminder, daily in my case, that stressing over one’s work is one of the most unprofessional, amateurish things an artist can do. Harsh self-talk, maybe. But effective as a counter-argument to the subconscious belief that worry-thoughts somehow prevent bad things from happening. They don’t; they only stifle creativity and make us neurotic.

Imagine a world-class athlete, musician or dancer at the top of their game. Better yet, try to visualize such a person while you are at work (a personal favorite mental image is that of a major-league pitcher, pressure on, cool as a cuke). There’s no anxiety or second-guessing in a top performer, just complete presence and conviction, succeed or fail.

Interestingly, most of the things people worry about never actually happen. This has been documented in research studies with students who listed their biggest fears while they were undergrads, and then interviewed again a decade later. Most had no recollection of their earlier fears; fewer could report them ever being realized.

If none of this helps, just decide to silence the inner pessimist once for all by doing the most ambitious, challenging project you’ve ever done. Get in a little over your head. There’s no better way to quash a limiting and senseless fear than by jumping right over it.

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Exhibition Tips for the Newbies, part 2


Every challenge an artist faces, with inspiration, with relationships, with money, can be thought of as a painting challenge.

The more skillful we are at dealing with these things the better it is for our art. And so it is with career.

Artists should work on their career skills early on because they will take time to develop, and update them continually.

If you’re serious about showing your work then don’t wait until you feel your training is completely over. Start small and get into the game as soon as you can.

Which brings me to the next set of tips for those of you getting started:

1. Know Thy Art.
Always be ready with brief meaningful answers to questions about your work.

The questions may seem silly (“Is that oil?”) but they also present a perfect opening to share a bit about your process and yourself.

You’re the best rep you’ll ever have, so give your message some thought and practice and avoid wisecracks, no matter what.

Make their job easy.
People in the business are juggling a bunch of artists and tasks.

So without being a pushover, be accommodating and pleasant to deal with. Answer your own questions if you can; be the consummate professional.

The logic is simple; the easier you are to work with, the greater your chances of being invited back.

Buy a great frame. Or don’t.
Go all out with a gorgeous, museum-quality frame, or leave it off completely.

Not having a frame at all on your work is better than having a cheap one, and there is a beauty and modernity to clean painted edges on unframed canvases, especially the larger ones.

Play Nice.
Don’t ever, ever, spread negative gossip about your fellow artists or art professionals.

It’s human nature to complain, we all do it, and in a strange way it connects us.

But inappropriate in business and it makes you sound whiny and unprofessional.

Unflattering comments actually to stick more to the person making them. If you must, share grievances with your spouse or significant other; that’s what they’re for.

Don’t paint in the 11th hour.
The moment your work is accepted for an exhibition, consider it done…for now.

Trying to “finish” or improve a piece too close to showtime can cause stress and backfire, leaving you with something weaker than you had in the first place.

If your art finds a home during the run of a show, great!

If not, you’ve gained valuable perspective seeing it on the wall and can attack it later, so it’s a win-win.

A delicate and complicated issue that could be the subject of an entire post, but here are two rules of thumb:

See if you can find out what artists of similar experience, age and exhibition histories (your competition) are receiving, not just asking, for their work and price yours accordingly.

Imagine that midpoint between what you would like to get and what a collector would like to pay; both sides should be willing to give a little.

Don’t hold out for the grand slam or settle for the sure thing; let your prices be, well, a little boring.

If you ever hear the words, “you don’t seem like an artist”; celebrate!  It means you look, sound and behave like a pro.

Exhibition Tips, Part 1

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Exhibition Tips for the Newbies, part 1

25 years ago I made one of the best decisions of my life.

It was the decision to have a one-hour chat with an art career coach.

The purpose of the meeting was to learn how a glorified student could get his paintings into the world with no previous exhibitions under his belt.

More than an amazing value at $30, it was a beginning. I thanked this man by phone several years later. He thanked me for thanking him.

I learned that the art business is like any other. When you’re new you get your feet wet, forgetting sales or spotlight. As your resume grows, so do the opportunities. It’s a little like dating. You need to court before the relationship begins.

Over time, the right people get to know your work as you position yourself to approach small galleries and apply for fellowships. But you need to lay the groundwork first.

So here are my first five tips, in no particular order:

 1. Get out of town.
Enter competitions in major cities and diverse locations.

You’re creating your history, so avoid looking like a local artist.

The most obscure show in Miami, New York or Boston will stand out on your resume. I see too many artists exhibiting in their own backyards. The expense of shipping cross country will pay big dividends by giving you the appearance of a national artist.

Tons of competitions can be found online, and most artists over 18 can enter for a modest fee.

2. Hire the best photographer you can afford.
The biggest complaint I hear from galleries about artist submissions is poor image quality.

Fine art photography is a specialty, and it’s tricky, so no DIY unless you’re a pro. The quality of your images speaks volumes about your level of commitment and how much you value your own work.

3. Show your very best work.  Hide the rest.
There’s nothing to gain in showing a weak piece.

Astounding work has staying power; average work will be forgotten. As the actor Steve Martin once said, “Be so good that they can’t ignore you.”

4. Be ready, and be prompt.
If someone reaches out with an inquiry or opportunity, get right back to them with the info requested, as requested.

Give them what they ask for, to the tee and early; they’ll love you for it. I often promise delivery of something within seven days, knowing it will get there in three, remembering the saying, “Under-promise, and over deliver.”

5. Create a killer body of work…
…before committing to a solo show.

You never know when you’ll do a great piece or a not-so-great one. To promise twenty gallery-ready works in advance is a lot of pressure for an emerging artist. Some veterans thrive on the adrenaline of a show date, but you shouldn’t take chances with your career, or your sanity, at this stage.

Someone once said that the business of art is closer to business than it is to art. Think of building your career as your new part-time job and give it the same energy as you do your work!

Exhibition Tips, part 2

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What advice would you give the person you were ten years ago?

cdg st maartin 1991 bw
Caribbean, 1991

A wonderful question to ask, difficult when directed at you.  This came my way during podcast interview.

A decade ago I had, miraculously, everything an artist could hope for.  A big New York City gallery, exhibitions, sales, but the real miracle, unlimited time to work in a killer studio.

And I couldn’t have been more stressed.

Stressed, because I missed the teaching I’d given up in my thirties.  The design work I gave up in my twenties.  The outdoor labor jobs before that.  The friendships with students and co-workers.

To get just a little dramatic, the studio that I loved felt like a prison and  I was the warden. I wouldn’t let myself leave.

I told the podcast host about my favorite painters- Velasquez, Rubens, William Nicholson, and Robert Rauschenberg* successful artists with vocations outside of their art, and contemporary artist-entrepreneurs like Israel Hershberg and Jacob Collins.

The great artist-teachers, past and present, all passionately involved in things that fed them creatively, and still do.

Somehow I had forgotten this while buying into the myth that you were not a “real artist” unless 100% of your income came from the production of art.  I believed this right up until the time it happened for me in the early 2000’s.

Desire for personal success aside, we want to please others, the collectors, the gallery staff and especially the people we are closest to.

Internal and external pressure to sell each piece will quickly put the kibosh on experimentation, causing a painter to play it too safe. Freedom to experiment and make mistakes are absolutely essential to an artist’s growth.

That said, my hat goes off to anyone who paints and exhibits full-time because these guys are a special breed.

These were the thoughts that surfaced as I considered the advice I would give a young artist, younger self-included.

And the advice would simply be this: Have a sideline, whether you need one or not.  15-20 hours a week in another activity will make you more creative, not less.

The teaching has long since returned.  So has the physical labor (just on my own property). The freelance design work is returning. And the painting is more enjoyable than ever.

Technology makes it easy to wear a couple of hats.

I used to believe that hard work and narrow focus were the answers to everything.  I’ve since learned that balance, though difficult for everyone these days, is more powerful.

*Velazquez worked for the court, Nicholson was a graphic designer, Rubens was a diplomat and Rauschenberg, at the height of his career, designed sets and costumes for the stage .
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Get Out of the Art Bubble

You don’t learn to walk by following rules…
You learn by walking and falling down.

 -Richard Branson

I once saw a beautiful painting by an artist I hadn’t known of, depicting a thin layer of dough flattened out on a sheet.

Josephine HalvorsonThe piece was so original and unassuming that it stayed with me for years.   I’d never seen uncooked dough rendered in paint before, though the two substances seem perfectly matched, and I doubt the artist had either before taking it on herself.    The work seemed  to come straight out of personal experience and fondness for the materials.  I just recently learned that it was painted by Brooklyn artist  Josephine Halvorson.

I begin this post with the Branson quote for two reasons.  First to point out that what we learn from artists often leads to following the rules (or trying too hard to break them) more than it does a heartfelt connection with our subject. Second, the quote is an example of wisdom from a high achiever living outside the art bubble which can be applied to the creation of art.

“Which artists have influenced you most?”, is one of the most common questions we get.  

I love Velasquez.  And Holbein. Sargent, Hammershoi, Edwin Dickenson, Morandi, Richard Diebenkorn, Lopez, Wyeth and a bunch of others.  And I look at their stuff in small doses, knowing that their vision will alter my own whether I want it to or not.

I do this because most people are understandably too busy with career, family, and life to familiarize themselves with the masters, whose work may seem distant from a 21st-century perspective. Too much reverence for art, past or present, creates a pictorial language and style that connects artists mostly to other artists.  Or as I sometimes put it, we’re sharing an inside joke and leaving everyone else out.

Every great thinker says the same thing… Don’t do what the others are doing.  But don’t reinvent the wheel either.  Just five percent different or five percent better says Brian Tracy, is enough to set you apart.

It could be a difference in the work itself or one’s way of getting it out there.  The west coast painter Antrese Wood maintains a beautiful site filled with her paintings, a blog, her Savvy Painter Podcast interviews with career painters, articles, and useful info.  One could easily spend an hour of inspiration there and: surprise!  Her pieces are being snatched up by collectors as she becomes a household name.

I’m not suggesting that one shouldn’t go to museums and seek inspiration from the world’s great talents . Just reminding readers, especially the younger ones, that every old master was once a modern master whose work was a big surprise in its time.

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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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What Kind of Art Sells?

Giorgio Morandi Still Life-Christopher Gallego Blog-What kind of Art Sells?  Giorgio Morandi

 Answer: “Great Art Sells”

This from an art dealer that I met years ago.  And although her words can certainly be argued with, I’ve never forgotten them.

While it’s impossible to define great art, I think she meant that artists typically sell their strongest work and that subject matter is secondary.  Knowingly or not, art collectors respond  to the intangibles such as the artist’s level of inspiration, commitment, and passion for their craft.

Every gallerist  I’ve spoken with says the same thing:

Don’t  paint for the market.
Paint what you love, not what you think will sell.

If you’re showing multiple pieces then don’t expect the stronger works to lift the weaker ones up – expect the opposite; the weaker pieces will pull the rest down.

The 80/20 rule applies: 80% of the work that you do is for artistic growth, experimentation, and development; 20% is for show.

The best part about this is that it leaves the artist with a nice archive of work.  This applies to studio time as well; 80% observation / 20% execution.

I know little about the commercial success of the great Giorgio Morandi’s paintings.  I only know that I saw the one featured above in a small gallery a decade ago and it has stayed with me all this time.  I can see it with eyes closed, and smell the dust on the table.

Making an impression is one thing.  Connecting is something else entirely.  And that’s what this game is all about – connecting.  Briefly taking someone out of their reality with your art and bringing them into your own. It’s a liberating sensation.

If an art enthusiast can recall and describe a specific piece you have done along with the feelings it evoked, rather than having a general impression of you as the artist who does “such and such” then congratulations! You’ve hit a home run.  Hit a few more like that and you’re well on your way.

Here are links to a couple of bloggers with wonderful insights on the subject:

artsy shark |

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on the spirit of play

Christopher Gallego-Blog-Image Title-Picasso  Pablo Picasso

Most of the artists I know can get way too serious.

Though I don’t always practice what I preach, I’m always telling my students to lighten up, with the reminder,”People; It’s just a painting!”…or something along those lines… “You’re not on trial.”  If that doesn’t work  then I’ll belt out a bit of opera in my flat voice just to make them  laugh.

Richard Serra, arguably one of the most serious artists in the business, has stressed the importance of cultivating playfulness in one’s work, and you can see it in his drawings. Rembrandt seems to have had a sense of humor and Dali could be just plain ridiculous. Some of the world’s greatest talents weren’t all work or all play, but a healthy mixture of both.

Salvador Dali

It all comes down to curiosity.  You simply can’t be stressed out and curious at the same time.  Curiosity and creativity go hand in hand.  One leads to the other.

The word creative, to me, doesn’t refer to any finished product, but to the solutions that are born while doing one’s work, and doing it with enthusiasm.  And the answers to whatever challenges one may face in work or in life for that matter will be found only by trying something different.  “What if?”, is a wonderful question to ask throughout the day.  “Let’s give that a try; see what happens.”  And if it succeeds then congratulations, you have a new tool.  If it doesn’t then remember…it’s just a painting.

A quote from R.C. Barker –
“A changed experience can only happen to a changed individual.”

Keep being the same and you’ll get the same.  Put some fun into the process and you will naturally become more experimental.  Then get ready for some serious…no pun intended…growth.

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painting perceptions interview

Christopher Gallego, Small Studio Jar

November 1, 2012 | download pdf 

Larry Groff, Editor, Painting Perceptions
I’d like to thank Christopher Gallego for taking the time to share his thoughts on painting in our recent email interview. Mr. Gallego studied at the National Academy of Design in New York and teaches workshops in New York area. He has shown with OK Harris Works of Art, Hirschl & Adler Modern, Seraphin Gallery, the New Britain Museum of American Art, the Brandywine River Museum, the Cincinnati Art Museum, The Naples Museum of Art, and many others. He is the recipient of fellowships from New York Foundation for the Arts, the Marie Walsh Sharpe Art Foundation, the Pollock Krasner Foundation and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts.

Larry Groff
Can you tell us a bit about your background and what lead you to become the type of painter you are today?

Christopher Gallego
First, Larry, thanks very much for this interview. I was born in New York in 1959, a grandson of Spanish and Italian immigrants, and grew up in the nearby suburbs. My father was an energetic painter. He never really attempted to teach or influence me in any way, but quietly hoped that I would pick it up on my own. And the strategy worked beautifully, because I took to painting soon enough and when I did it was completely my choice.

I like to describe my younger self as an introvert who craved attention. And painting was the perfect way to satisfy both personalities. It enabled me to connect with others without actually being there. The visual world always had a hypnotic effect on me and it still does.  So it was only natural that an atmospheric kind of realism would eventually become my language of expression. My studies with the great portrait artist Ronald Sherr left me with an appreciation for the power of sustained observation.

Please tell us about two or three painters who have been your biggest influences and why?

People are often surprised to hear that my favorite painter is Morandi. That’s probably because my paintings don’t look much like his. But I love the idea of Morandi more than the look. Elevating the commonplace to the spiritual without sentiment is for me what painting is all about. I admire Edwin Dickenson very much, and Velasquez has been a lifelong hero, both for the same reason.

This may sound sacrilegious, and perhaps it is, but the truth is that I don’t look at art much anymore. Mostly I like to look at the world, the appearance of things, the light falling on things, whether I’m painting or not. I enjoy looking at the work of my peers, sometimes more than the icons of the past, because of how we share this passion yet see the world in different ways.

I find several of your paintings and drawings evocative of the sensibilities involved with Antonio López García’s work. Any thoughts you can share with us about his work and or influence?

Antonio Lopez has raised the bar on all of us. His work demonstrates that rare combination of power and sensitivity and that any subject can be transformed into art. This helped liberate me from the traditional figure painting I learned in school, and the impact, especially on my earlier work, is clear. But the work of the Spanish Master is often grand, complex and painted with an eye for distance – I’ve moved toward the intimate, the simple, and like to get right on top of things.

How much does working from observation play with your work? Please tell us something about your process in painting. Do you generally build up the painting in a layered, indirect manner or do you work more directly? Any special palette or method of working other painters might find of interest?

Observation is everything. At least 50% of my time in the studio is spent just staring at the subject and not making a stroke. I liken observation to making a bank deposit; the act of painting is the withdrawal. You can’t withdraw without depositing without getting into trouble. I’m full of analogies and metaphors I know, and that’s one of my favorites.

I paint directly and quite freely in the early stages, almost like an abstract artist, and like to really pile the paint on, using a palette knife for most of the work. At some point I’ll turn the corner from near-abstraction to modeling, making corrections along the way. That’s the key; I live with any errors in the drawing while fleshing out the forms, adjusting things here and there.

I use a simple palette of thirteen colors, some opaque, most transparent. I love Old Holland colors and my medium is Turpenoid with stand oil, but use very little of it. The stiffness of this paint is quite compatible with knife work, though it isn’t intended for that. I like when the paint pushes back a bit.

What aspect of the act of painting excites you the most? Why are you a realist and not an abstract painter?

I have a great appreciation for abstraction, but frankly, it just isn’t my language. I’ve tried it a few times, and after a half hour or so of joyful paint slinging am stumped by the feeling of “now what?” I need to have a subject in front of me to spur my thinking. My favorite part of the process is the refinement. Taking a painting that looks OK and pushing it way over the finish line – bringing more depth and nuance into it, manipulating the clarity, splitting hairs with values so to speak. This is the part that takes all of the energy and concentration I have. But I try not to make it laborious.

The game of painting is played on two levels. First there is the artist, making decisions, solving problems, doing the actual work. Then there is the other self that watches the artist at work, monitoring one’s own thoughts and emotions. So if I start to get bored for example, and this can be a problem for me, I’ll pick up the energy any way I can, sometimes by deliberately making a mistake. That usually gets me going. I’m always trying to find that balance of being patient but having a slight edge.

You discuss many important aspects of painting from nature. I was struck by one thing you said; “One of the hardest things for me to witness is an artist laboring over a canvas, struggling to force the work with grim determination and a good deal of sweat. Unfortunately the “no pain, no gain” approach just doesn’t work here, in fact it causes a majority of the problems…” 

Your thoughts here are interesting given that your richly-detailed realist work can take several months to complete. How do you keep paintings fresh and avoid looking overworked? Any thoughts you care to share about trends in contemporary hyper-realism?

The work of some of today’s hyper-realists is nothing short of astounding. My favorite artists however paint more loosely than I do, and I see myself somewhere in between the two. These distinctions don’t matter as much as the approach and the feeling of the work. But I was actually referring to my students in that quote. They work much harder than necessary and I wish they wouldn’t. Trying hard simply doesn’t work. It leads to anxiety which compromises decision-making.

It’s taken quite some time to arrive at the nonchalance of process you refer to. It’s a recent development; it came into being about five years ago. Many of us are taught that great achievements are the result of pain and suffering. I used to struggle like mad with my art, lose sleep over it, lament over “ruining” pieces and so on. Painting became easy the day I decided it should be easy. It was really that simple. This certainly doesn’t mean I feel the work is always successful. But the canvas is merely a reflection of the quality and depth of the observation; it has no reality in itself. This is worth repeating…the canvas is a reflection.

If I’ve grasped something visually, I can get back anything I’ve lost; if I can’t get it back; then I never had it to begin with. Knowing this brings a contentment or rather a trust in the process, and the end result is a look that is fresher and more elegant than would be achieved by trying to force things.

You also talk about the need to paint out carefully worked details if those areas looks fragmented from the whole, calling this “pulling it together”. I’ve also heard it referred to as keeping the painting open and not being precious with the painting. This seems like a more modernist approach to painting – to keep everything open for major changes right up until the last finishing brushstroke.

This seems not unlike the abstract-expressionistic manner of an all-over approach. This seems a painful concept for some painters who fear losing days or weeks of hard-won work. Often you see them take the opposite approach of protecting the fragmented areas and just building up more and more details – further shutting down the painting.

What advice can you offer about seeing the big picture, getting harmony and finding the courage to paint in an open manner?

The tendency to protect is fear-based; I call it “painting defensively”. It’s helpful to remind oneself that if you’ve done something once, you can do it again. Details and masses work in concert – the masses support the details while the details assist in constructing and refining the masses. I prefer to drop a few details in place early on, knowing that they will be lost and found many times over. It’s not necessary to keep the painting open because it always is! Anything can be changed.

We’re so programmed to believe a project should move in sequential steps from start to finish, but painting doesn’t. Moving forward and backward can actually be fun, but the important thing is to keep it moving. Sometimes a mistake will lead to an insight that you wouldn’t have had otherwise, so mistakes shouldn’t be feared. Here’s my recommendation to the aspiring artist: forget about creating a work of art. Don’t get too attached to the outcome; get attached to the process. Turn this into a challenging game that will make you better in the end.

Another statement resonated with me; “I’ve noticed how inexperienced artists tend to darken things, moving down the value scale, strengthening boundaries, creating weight and solidity. Mature artists do the opposite; lightening, moving up the value scale, losing edges, making things look ethereal while maintaining clarity.”

This is very useful advice and is part of what makes good painting so engaging. People can get so hung up on making something look real that they can lose sight of the need to make a good painting. You also went on to state that:

“An awareness of the countless shifts in intensity, color and light light reveal a profound beauty in the most ordinary things. Suddenly, the world seems fresher and more alive.” Would you say that the real subject is the artist’s engagement with the motif not just making the motif look real?

Yes, I completely agree with that. The engagement, or the embrace as I like to call it, is at the heart of the work.

Representation can move in a few directions at once, which include clarity and atmosphere. One doesn’t negate the other, they balance. Too much line and too much detail will make a piece look stiff and motionless. But the tonal changes, and there are hundreds to consider – you can never paint too many of them and the work will just get richer. Sharpening up one area gives me permission to soften another. If the work gets too busy with details it can pulled it together with the method we’re talking about. Oil paint is more transparent, even the whites, than we think, so it would take a very thick layer indeed to completely obscure previous work.

Another consideration is effortlessness. It’s the most beautiful quality any art form can have. What’s the difference between a great dancer and an average one? Ease of execution, fluidity. Laboring over a work will give you just that – a labored look, which can make the viewer feel uncomfortable. It’s not just about satisfying yourself, you have to keep others in mind. You might feel proud about all that hard work you’ve done. But is the piece moving, or just impressive?

In a world threatened by global warming, political and economic chaos, and the never-ending disasters of all kinds; why should painters still care about beauty?

One of the things I like about my job is that I know it is not going to save the world. Because I don’t want that responsibility, it’s too much. Given the things you mention, it’s true that civilization doesn’t really need painters. And it doesn’t need poets, actors, musicians or athletes either. But how dull would life be without them? These people motivate us.

The role of visual artists and all artists, in my view, is to remind people of the extraordinary things they are capable of. I can get inspired for example by watching a master pizza maker tossing and spinning the dough, casually doing something that to me seems so impossible. The joy of doing, of being in the zone with work that you love is unlike any other. The evils of the world can’t simply be eliminated and they can’t be defeated; they have to be replaced by something higher. Art is about more than the creation of beauty; it demonstrates an enthusiasm for life, which is contagious. Spreading some of that enthusiasm around is the artist’s contribution to the world.

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