Is "How to Paint" the Right Question?

1 Dec 2014

Ben by Melissa Carroll, 2010, 48 x 60.
When we start making art, we don't start from a position of, "I want to paint like so-and-so," or even "I want to paint well." We should start from a position of, "I have a need to make art." This is an important principle; it gives us the strength to overcome our own bad work, and it illustrates that our first loyalty is to our vision, not a technique.

Study in oil painting techniques and classes on how to oil paint can sometimes obscure the primacy of the vision. We can become convinced that there is a "right" way to make art, and a "wrong" way. Every once in a while, we need to be reminded that there is no right way - the real distinction is between what works for us and what doesn't.

The show "Introducing," at Slag Gallery in New York, up several years ago, is a valuable reminder of the importance of individual vision. "Introducing" showcases figurative work by six young artists with next to nothing in common, except for their ongoing efforts to figure out how to use the visual medium to reflect their own understanding of people and imagery.

Encounters by Fedele Spadafora, pencil
on paper, 2011, 40 x 33.
Melissa Carroll's Ben is an enormously magnified portrait. The face is edged in line, and broken up into irregular regions of distinct color. The style is halfway to a comic book, but the scale and intensity of the portrait act against any trivialization implied in the technique. At her scale, individuality itself becomes abstract, and the face achieves a striking force of generalized pathos.

Aaron Miller's Questions is a nearly monochrome sepia depiction of figures submerged in a simplified landscape. Precise, cool, and quiet, the image does not shout at you or ask you to come to it. Rather, it waits until you stop and look at it, and then it unfolds a sense of melancholy and sorrow.

Adam Miller has several smaller oil painting portraits in the show. His academic technique allows him to subtly express form in a restricted mid-tone range and a limited palette of cool pinks, browns, and grays. He is pushing his imagery by means of subjective distortions, as in his Self-Portrait with a Cold, which seems to curve around the viewer, lending instability and unreliability to the image, mixing menace into the calm.

Bruno Perillo’s paintings are high-contrast black and white renderings of young men and women, vanishing at the edges into negative spaces rendered in gleaming black. His people are frozen in time as memory can seem frozen: they have lost motion and freedom, retaining only what memories retain – the appearances of things, the textures of emotions.

Fedele Spadafora has a group of drawings in the show which combine whimsy and brutality. The figures in each drawing have had their heads replaced by long bright triangles, like overgrown beaks. They are rendered in dense tangles of graphite lines - they look like they could be from an antique children's book. But they are not doing children's book things - they are working at ordinary jobs, socializing, and in one case, executing one another.

Fallen by Jessica Tam, 2010, 60 x 123, oil on two canvases.
Jessica Tam's Fallen is a very large painting - 60"x123" - and comes close to the idiom of Marlene Dumas. A male figure, tremendously foreshortened, looms at the viewer. It consists of large, chaotic brushstrokes, in high contrast, subsuming representation in the sheer energy of the paint itself.

This story has a moral. The moral is that nobody is right. Each of these artists demonstrates a personal vision, and has found a means of expressing that vision in a mode that works for them. The question they asked wasn't, "Is this how we were taught to do it at school?" The question was, "How can I make the picture I want to make?" The question for us, as viewers of the show, is, "Does this make an impact?" I think it does make an impact - and I think it's a good reminder of what our priorities are as artists.


The Affair I by Bruno Perillo, 2010
20 x 16, oil on canvas.
Questions by Aaron Miller, 2009, 18 x 24,
Etching and mixed media on panel.
Self-Portrait with a Cold by
Adam Miller, 2009, 28 x 22, oil on canvas.


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Kisu wrote
on 8 Mar 2011 9:22 AM

Thanks, Daniel, and thanks for bringing us such interesting work.  If I understand you correctly, what we really have to do is two seemingly contradictory things that really aren't at odds:  always look at and study a lot of other artists work, but then put that all aside when we deal with our own.  

on 9 Mar 2011 7:13 AM

A thought provoking article, Daniel. I have often had this very discussion with myself, but in the end, the ideas usually just seem to evolve in my head without my permission!  I think that the various approaches are really interesting, and it is each of our personal compilations of data which create the ultimate product. I have printed this out to read in depth several times. Thank you for this insight!

By the way, the Self Portrait with a Cold is brilliant!!!! What an amazing portrait!  Also Ben, which is so full of emotions.

dmaidman wrote
on 9 Mar 2011 10:39 AM

Kisu - I think that is exactly right. It's like training for acting: practice until your skills are so profound that you can forget them. I'm glad you enjoyed seeing this work!

Sarah - well, I think that's a good thing! If you've got a voice telling you what to do and how to do it, that's kind of what they call inspiration, right? I'm glad you enjoyed the paintings as well. They are really something in person.

on 9 Mar 2011 5:09 PM

Well, I think it is a good thing, but it is the "without my permission" bit that gets me going!!!  Sometimes I have to write on the back of my grocery list or on a tissue. I have a sketchbook in the car, but it never seems to be handy when I need it!

dmaidman wrote
on 9 Mar 2011 8:03 PM

Moleskine makes a very charming line of notebooks which can be kept in the pocket or, uh, I don't know what women have instead of pockets - purses? Tell me you have pockets, Sarah! I hate to think of you pocketsless. Anyhow, I've been carrying a notebook in my pocket since 1991 for precisely the kind of situation you describe.

Not the same notebook, of course. It would be pretty icky by now.