Turn Weakness into Strength (Principle 7/7)

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The last of my Principles is my favorite because it is the one that can mark a painter as an pure individual. We all have weaknesses which are all to obvious to us (and maybe less so to others). Some are not so obvious. Picasso was so skilled that he was painting extremely polished paintings as a teenager. However, as he became aware of what was happening in art away from his provincial home he realized that he needed to work against his natural abilities to be “in the game” and current with his times, slick work would get him nowhere. Van Gogh and Cezanne had the opposite problem. They worked very hard to develop technical proficiency and they produced world-changing work.

So much for extreme examples. When I was painting some of my early portraits I discovered that even though I could draw well, painting remained much more difficult in spite of years of instruction. The work generally began well enough, but as it progressed things got all out of whack (I lost the drawing, the tones were too dark, colors awful, etc). I am very stubborn and was unwilling to scrape off the botched work, so I kept piling on more and more paint. Weeks turned into months as I kept working. What I found was that when I finally got things under control it looked really good. The layers of paint somehow gave the work a more luminous, presence than thinner work. So in this case I learned to accept that I was not an “efficient” painter and would take a lot longer for me to finish a panel, but the result would be more satisfying.

Another perceived weakness of mine is that about six years ago my life circumstances changed and I could no longer work with live models. Up until then that is all I did – no photographs at all. Since then working mainly from photographs has changed my attitude towards my work and also the way in which I work. I learned to put much less stock in “natural appearances.” With live models I always felt the need to go for a conventional likeness, maybe out of respect for a living person and lack of confidence and/or experience. In any case, a photograph is less real to me. Being a mere image, I feel free to put more imagination into the painting which must transcend the photograph.

I don’t think these changes have radically altered my work. Whatever I paint still retains the good, distinctive qualities that it had did some years ago, but recognizing, embracing and working with my shortcomings and perceived disadvantages has expanded my scope and abilities as a painter.

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