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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.