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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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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