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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