Good painting consists of two things and they are both difficult to attain. First, however, I am not talking here about what a good painting is, but rather what good painting is. Technique, subject, color are all choices for the artist to make, but to be good painting it must have a certain quality of “How did she do that?” I think this element of mystery is what draws and holds people, especially other artists. When I stopped going to the National Academy and set up my own studio I eventually had my former instructor over for a visit to see my latest work. It was a strongly composed figure that I had been laboring over for weeks. In about 15 seconds she points to a narrow band of yellowish color along the top of the canvas and says, “That is the best part.” I was confused and a bit crestfallen. All that flesh, all that structure was completely ignored. She went on to explain that it succeeded because she could not figure out how I did it. Of course I couldn’t either, it just happened and that is the point. I think “it” happens when you have acquired sufficient skill though lots of work, but it has to be coupled with a willingness to abandon a level of control and trust that you have the ability to regain control at some point. A good analogy would be a musician or even a downhill skier. They have to work on the very outside edge of what they are capable of – sometimes even going a bit too far.
The other characteristic of good painting applies more to realist work and that is going for the difficult shapes. It was the same instructor, who pointed this out to me as we were strolling through The Frick Museum. Stopping in front of a Titian portrait she pointed out that he chose to paint the most complicated shapes in the clothes, hat and hair of the subject. I think this makes good painting because it works on a subconscious and conscious level. Even realist painting abstracts. A painting can never be its subject, it is a painting, of course. So if you choose to include the more difficult shapes the viewer cannot help but be more engaged because it approximates the way we see. If carried too far, however, it can lead to tedium and dullness. As another instructor once warned me, “If you want to be a bore, tell everything,” (I believe she was quoting Voltaire).
These lessons have helped me immeasurably in my work and have also made looking at art much more enjoyable. When I was fortunate enough to stand in front of Rembrandt’s “Jewish Bride” I was stunned and I knew why.