6 Ways to Release Your Passion

I spoke with Calvin Goodman, the author of Art Marketing Handbook (Gee Tee Bee Publications, Los Angeles, California), just after finishing my blog post about capturing a likeness in portrait painting. He encouraged me to point out that most artists fail to convey their sense of passion for the people whose images they paint. “There are too many stiff copies of photographs,” he said. “The pictures are merely mechanical records of what the camera recorded. They lack a sense of the subject’s emotions or the passion of the artist.”

Calvin and I talked a bit more about what it really means for artists to add their personal, emotional, unique response to a landscape, still life, or portrait. Often it comes through in the individual style of a person’s handling of pastels, oils, watercolors, or drawing materials; but more often it is conveyed by the various choices that artists make about the subjects they choose and the manner in which they engage viewers in explorations of those subjects. Andrew Wyeth expressed his feelings by painting sparse winter landscapes in which pensive figures appear alone, whereas John Singer Sargent captured his response to the Gilded Age with gestured representations of elegantly dressed noblemen. As we look at these artists’ paintings, we feel what must have been in their hearts and minds.

It’s not always easy to say why one artist is able to convey his or her passion and another is not. It’s one of those cases in which you may not be able to define why something happens, but you know it when you see it. However, I think there are ways artists can increase the probability that their drawings and paintings will express their passion. Here are a few suggestions that occurred to me. I’d appreciate it if you would add some of your own.

  1. Paint what you know. This is common advice offered by artists profiled in American Artist. The suggestion is that if you start by drawing or painting a subject about which you have a strong attachment—a treasured object, a member of your family, the view from your window—you are more likely to record what you feel about that subject.
  2. Remember your goals. Many of the instructors featured in Workshop magazine ask students to write down why they’ve decided to paint a particular subject and refer back to that note throughout the drawing or painting process. If, for example, an artist makes a notation about the shimmering light reflected in a crystal bowl, the artist can step back from his or her painting and ask whether or not that shimmering light is still the most prominent element in the picture. If it isn’t, then the artist knows it’s time to make adjustments in the colors, shapes, or values.
  3. Put reference material aside. Drawing magazine often features artists who explore their imagination as they create charcoal, ink, or Conté drawings of animals, people, or imaginary places. They put aside reference photographs, preparatory sketches, and compositional studies and allow their minds and hands to move freely from one mark on the paper to another. In the end, the image becomes a passionate blend of what they know and what they dream.
  4. Keep painting through the challenges. Artists profiled in Watercolor magazine often identify a point in the creative process at which they think everything is going wrong. That’s often because the separate layers of transparent color don’t seem to be working well together until the very last stage of the painting process. The advice these artists often give is to work through the challenges and uncertainties instead of giving up. “Enjoy every part of the process, and don’t worry about realizing a preconceived image in the finished painting,” said one experienced artist. “Even if you wind up destroying the painting, you will have learned something valuable to apply to the next effort.”
  5. Leave some areas mysterious. One of the things I admire about paintings by Richard Schmid, Daniel Gerhartz, Dawn Whitelaw, and Susan Lyon is the areas that are left loosely defined. That is, the space surrounding a tightly rendered face or platter is filled with broad, gestured, bold strokes of paint and exposed areas of the canvas that suggest what might be there. I feel the energy and excitement of the brushwork while I imagine what might be going on in that section of the still life or portrait. That sense of mystery stimulates an emotional response that connects to the passion with which the picture was developed.
  6. Paint the same subject again. One of the best exercises presented in a Workshop magazine article was painting the same subject a second time. The instructor said that once the participants had resolved the procedural aspects of painting a figure or landscape—the drawing, compositional arrangement, color mixtures, etc.—they didn’t have to think as much about those issues and could immerse themselves in the act of painting. It was fascinating to compare the two efforts, and all the artists in the workshop knew their second painting better expressed their feelings for the subject.

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M. Stephen Doherty

About M. Stephen Doherty

I've been interested in art since I was a child,  and I was fortunate to be able to take Saturday art classes at the Cincinnati Art Museum from the time I was 9 years old until I finished high school. I majored in art at Knox College and graduated summa *** laude, Phi Beta Kappa (proving artists can use both sides of their brain!).  I then earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in printmaking from Cornell University; taught art in public schools, a community college, an adult education program, and a college; worked in the marketing department of a company that manufactured screen printing supplies; and was hired to be editor of American Artist in January, 1979.

Thomas S. Buecher introduced me to plein air painting and it immediately became a passion of mine because it got me outdoors and allowed me to continue learning when I traveled to judge art shows, attend conventions, give lectures, and interview artists. Over the years I've exhibited my paintings at Bryant Galleries in New Orleans, Trees Place Gallery on Cape Cod, and in a traveling exhibition titled From Sea to Shining Sea.

I've written 10 books on artists and art techniques and contibuted articles to magazines, websites, and exhibition catalogs. Now as I prepare for semi-retirement, I'm trying to hone my painting skills -- especially those related to painting portraits.

I've been very fortunate to have met thousands of talented artists who have enriched my life with their art, their friendship, and their advice. I am grateful to Jerry Hobbs and Susan Meyer who hired me in 1979, to the talented people who worked with me on the magazines, and to the artists and advertisers who supported American Artist, Watercolor, Workshop, and Drawing  magazines and the related websites.

I've also been blessed with a supportive, talented wife, Sara; a daughter, Clare, who works for an insurance agency; a son, Michael, who is a computer enginner in Austin; a son-in-law, Shawn, who can fix and carry anything; a granddaughter, Amanda, who has me wrapped around her finger; and my mother, Dotty, who has advised and encouraged me from the beginning.

13 thoughts on “6 Ways to Release Your Passion

  1. Thank you for this list. I particularly like #4, to keep on going. This has proved true in so many instances for me, that now I accept it as part of the process of working through a painting. Putting the painting where I can get glimpses of it all day seems to help, as I will often see just what needs to be done to get it underway again.

  2. I can relate to number 4 too as I am sure we all can, but they are all good. I would also add if a painting or drawing isn’t working, take a break from it and come back to it later. I used to work on one piece until it was finished, and I suffered from “artist’s block” from time to time. I now have several projects going at once and when I can come back and look at them later I see what the problem areas are and the energy to continue on them. Thanks for the list – very good points.

  3. I often study the paintings of the artists mentioned in #5. I think that their sensitivity to their subject/model is profound. Sometimes, I need to do a contour drawing and a loose watercolor sketch to begin to grasp any gesture, personality of body language, etc. Thanks for the information.

  4. Wonderful information. I will print it out and add it to your “How to sell paintings” blog that I also printed out. I will put these tips in my studio and read them when I am feeling concerned.

    I currently am having trouble with “working out” a painting. As I meet a problem, I think, “Next time I do a still lfie, always remember this problem”. I hope I listen to myself! I believe my passion does show up in my paintings, some of that has to do with color. I think color says so much and it certainly makes me feel so much passion and inspiration.

  5. I agree with all. I also take my paintings out of the studio and place them in another part of the house in different light, where I will walk by day after day and see from a different distance, etc. That’s where I get the AH-Ha spark of what to do to fix a problem.

    Also, don’t be afraid to turn it against the wall and come back another day.


  6. Photograph “copying” is one of the reasons why there is so much mediocre wildlife art out there. Too many artists are too lazy to do the fieldwork and some even paint from photos that they’ve purchased from professional photographers. The result is emotionally flat, boring art with animals that have no life to them.

    In reference to no. 2- Scott Christensen emphasized that a painting can have one idea and everything else, no matter how beautifully painted, must be subordinated to it. Or, as someone else said, “You have to be willing to kill the thing you love”.

  7. Point 3 – Painting from imagination and dreamworld restores some passion! I also find that a good exercise in drawing from reality or a selfportrait challenges me to see more and do better work ( see point 4 – work deliberatelly especially drawing!) Drawing definitely infuences my passion in art and then after this I can paint again!

  8. When one paints realistically it is difficult to let go of ‘subject’, and allow one’s interpretation as the maker to come through. To be brave, and willing to step into the unknown of the outcome of any given piece is true artistry. I can’t help but think of VanGogh. Was the chair in a corner of the room so interesting? or HIS way of painting that chair (sometimes over and again) that keep us coming back to look at his work. For me, I try to get out of my own way..

  9. As Steve Doherty pointed out in a recent blog post, it's quite helpful to depict the same scene twice. I find this is very true in drawing, for several reasons …