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 celmins
Vija 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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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.”

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. And how many of us completely trust ourselves?

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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