Never Settle for the First Pass (Principle 6/7)

Many painters quit too soon. I’ve seen so much work that looks like it is just getting started being presented as finished work. Generally, if I can see that texture of the canvas that tells me that the work is painted too thinly and timidly. Why? If one puts some nice paint down and it works one is understandably reluctant to fuss with it. The more you touch it the more you risk messing it up.

Painting does get more difficult as you go. For me, the lay-in is always satisfying, then I get to work and the poor painting goes though an awkward adolescent phase, which can be distressing. I just loose it going from adjusting tone and color to correcting drawing. But once you regain control of things (and you will) you get to the best part; the paint goes on easily and you can pick and choose which parts need your attention. Eventually you end up with an assertive, intensely felt painting.

Some years ago, I went to a very prestigious Madison Avenue gallery to see a show of work by a prominent youngish artist who has his own “academy” in NYC. He is primarily a figurative realist in the ancient tradition of luscious flesh as lots of browns. The gallery dated back to the days of Henry Frick dealing almost exclusively in old masters, so I expected a rare treat. As a student, I went to the show hoping to examine and learn from the techniques of a modern master. It was shocking to find his work thin, so thin that I could easily see pencil lines under the paint outlining the nostrils and lips, etc. I do not recall a single passage where I could not see the texture of the linen. I can say that as far as color, light and dark, and other purely retinal criteria go, he nailed it, but the result was still very unsatisfying. All the work felt flimsy and unsubstantial. How can someone claiming to carry on the great traditions of the past produce such lightweight work?

Modern and Old Master paintings have body, weight and a real physical presence that pushes into the viewer’s space. I think maybe a major problem with people who imitate the work of masters is that they concentrate on the design and not the process. Once they get the look they quit rather than really explore the method. I do, however, understand sometimes there are vital, legitimate reasons for thinly painted work.

Peter Doig, in a recent article, said that he was getting a lot of push-back because his recent work is thinly done. He felt that patrons might suspect they are not getting their money’s worth. An unfortunate lack of understanding on their part, but kudos to him for pressing on. Cezanne is sometimes criticized for his later thinly executed canvases, but he was clearly after something new and unique. Besides, in his early work he showed that he know how to lay on the paint; “The Black Clock,” when seen live, is absolutely startling in its presence.

So I keep at my paintings building a rich luminous surface until until I can’t find any way to improve them. But you never know, someday I may find myself painting another way. You’ve got to stay open to the process.


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