It’s Just Paint, People!

By Barry Howard in Misc > Art Opinion

I look at a lot of art, and the one thing I see quite often among artists who haven’t been painting very long is the tendency to be too timid.

It is, of course, difficult to be bold when you aren’t completely confident in your skills. . . but painting is always a dance between not going far enough and overworking a piece. If you’re not on the line between those two things, you’re not doing it right.

In talking to other artists about this problem, I have learned some things that have been very helpful to me, and one piece of advice stands out in particular. . .

Some years ago I knew a rather crusty old artist I will call Gus, who, for all of his hygienic and sartorial shortcomings, was nevertheless a helluva painter. I learned a lot by just watching him work and it was his advice that stuck in my head and changed the way I looked at things.

Gus was ruthless in his approach to painting—many times I would see an exceptionally beautiful composition come and go through many different phases, some of which were lost forever. It was often painful to watch, but he took it in stride.

I once said something to him about the danger of going too far and losing some beautiful bit of spontaneity, and he replied, “yeah, but then you keep going until you get it back.”

There was no preciousness in his regard for his work at all. He had no formula – it was truly a journey of exploration for him. He would look at me sometimes and say, “It’s just. . . paint!” (He would usually put a colorful expletive between the words “just” and “paint.”)

Gus would say that as long as a painting has a sound composition, it’s never lost. You just keep going until it works! Sure, maybe the values need to be tweaked, or the colors need to be changed, but it’s just paint, and nothing is sacred about it.

That bit of advice comes back to me again and again, and every time it does, it gives me courage to push beyond my fear and timidity. I hope it will do the same for you.

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