On Being Humble

I started the above painting yesterday, and though it is not finished yet, I thought I would do a post about it to show a bit of my painting process, which often is more about thinking about the painting and the subject, rather than the actual application of paint.  The idea for this painting came about the other day when a friend of mine was telling me about a musician friend of his, an Israeli jazz electric guitarist, who was feeling discouraged.  This made me think yet again about the battle artists must fight alone.  You must believe in your technical abilities and artistic mission and strive always to take the right path, but something will come along periodically that questions your very existence.  When one decides to become an artist, they make this choice with the understanding that it actually serves no purpose other than to put on canvas what you observe, think, and feel.  The world will go on without you and despite you, as W.H. Auden voiced so well with Musee des Beaux Arts:


About suffering they were never wrong,

The Old Masters; how well, they understood

Its human position; how it takes place

While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;

How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting

For the miraculous birth, there always must be

Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating

On a pond at the edge of the wood:

They never forgot

That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course

Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot

Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse

Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away

Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may

Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,

But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone

As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green

Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen

Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,

had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

–W.H. Auden, 1940


Of course, we wish as painters that our labor and love would not go to naught, but this brings me to another point I wanted to share.  I believe that there are a lot of artists out there who paint in a classical, realistic, or impressionist way in terms of style and then they try to throw themselves into each painting with impressive strokes and impastos or through photographic realism to show off their talents.  I am starting to dislike this even more as I continually look at art, for I believe that the beauty of nature should take the limelight, and the artist should simply be trying to paint the subject in the best possible way.  The artists that I most appreciate and respect are those that strive to be humble and sincere, and I aim to follow their example.  Though artists try to throw a noose around beauty and “capture” it on the canvas, they must constantly keep their eyes open to everything, for some pretty striking things could appear in a dark corner.  Some artists might think they have developed a trademark style or stroke that can become popular, but in my opinion, it should be the subject which dictates how it should be painted.  Sometimes, I question gobs of impasto on something as smooth as skin or onions, or spending years on a painting to include every single reflection or wrinkle that they see in a photograph.   Sure, it takes skill to pull it off, but there should be an underlying humble and sincere reason for painting the subject.  Just as figurative painters might question the validity of drip paintings and installations, they must also question the validity of their own painting if they truly want to contribute as figurative artists.  An unpleasant and difficult thought I know, but this is the battle of the artist.


6 thoughts on “On Being Humble

  1. Amen. There is no “one” execution for every painting. Each painting has its own life, legacy and story to tell, through the heart of the painter.

  2. I agree with you when you say here …”for I believe that the beauty of nature should take the limelight, and the artist should simply be trying to paint the subject in the best possible way.”

    That is partly why I cringe when I see artist sites, DVD, workshops etc – put so much emphasis on how to paint landscapes, seascapes, trees, portraits etc. Good Painting shows new ways of seeing. All too often people are just teaching formulas and this “10 easy steps on how to paint…” dogma often stands in the way of really seeing nature and responding to it in a personal way – to find their own expression of nature’s beauty – in the limitless forms it can take.

  3. …Good Painting shows new ways of seeing…to find their own expression of nature’s beauty.

    So very well said, Larry. And much more succinctly than I, thank you! I think we share some very similar thoughts, and this was my way of almost ranting about some of the things that make me cringe as well. I understand of course that many artists view their trade as a job, and therefore the income factor becomes pretty important. This can have a negative and stifling influence on what they paint (bright landscapes sell, for example, so I better paint more of those) and what they do to earn money when that doesn’t work. Less care is given to the actual essence of the painting, a reason for its existence, other than to simply be bought.

    I had a long talk with Israel Hershberg a couple weeks ago, with a long visit in his studio, even meeting practically his entire family. We talked shop, Stuart Shils, Greg Nick, Ken Kewley, Edwin Dickenson, Shalom Flash, the subject of being humble, the state of art today…it was a wonderful conversation for me. He suggested that arts education today is in an even poorer state than when he was studying, despite the growing numbers of ateliers, and he was particularly worried about each atelier’s “dogmatic” approach about what is the proper or only way to paint.

  4. Jean, I share your sentiment thoroughly! A good painting is also a story, of how a person was moved to paint something with their best, most honest efforts. Sadly, there are also some paintings out there which don’t go much further than the title page.

  5. Cool that you know and talk with Israel Hershberg – an awesome painter and I am sure a wealth of inspiration and knowledge. I was surprised to see Shalom Flash on your list, I knew him when he studied at Mass Art with George Nick (my teacher as well) for his graduate program. Shalom and I also painted together briefly when I was in grad school at BU. I never got to know him real well but was a very nice guy and a great painter.

    You are making wonderful paintings over there,your purple puddle is remarkable. I will look forward to seeing more.

    I agree with what you say about many painters getting too caught up with making what will sell and with ateliers getting so dogmatic about proper technique that the art lacks poetry or vision. But there are still many painters out there making amazing stuff – hopefully they will carry on the tradition of passing it on to future generations of painters. but they may need to consider new venues outside of the usual college programs. But who knows where it will all go.

  6. Larry, I will be seeing Shalom next week, so I will send your regards if you wish. I too believe that there are many incredibly gifted painters out there making terrific contributions, as well as passing it on. Israel is doing just that with his art and school. I am going to meet with him next week again and will do a post about it.

Leave a Reply to Rebecca Harp Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s