Tuesday, September 21, 2010


I could not wait to tell you this!  I discovered that field studies, those little on sight paintings you do to gather color notes for a big studio painting--these are a hugh waste of time for an experienced painter.  So is painting from the live model.  Here is what I do.  I copy my digital photograph onto my canvas using grids--then I paint the thing using the info on my flat sceen.  If I need color info--I just go to a copy of a master work by Sargent, Zorn, Sorolla, Levitan or one of their buddies that I have archived over the years in posters, books, or photos I shot at museums.  I then study their color harmonies, and import them into my painting! This really works, and don't tell me that you can't get EVERYTHING you need this way.  One can develop tremendous color knowledge this way.  This boloney that you have to study nature for the truth is dead wrong.  The great masters knew this.  Let me explain.

Chase once said to a student who was complaining: "...if I could only see it (nature), then,  I could paint it..."  Chase wisely replied:  "No!  If you can see what you paint, then you will solve your problems..."  THE TRUTH IS IN THE PAINT--NOT IN OBSERVATION OF NATURE!

Embedded in Chases'  reply is my point.  We are not copying nature.  We are putting what we know about painting on the canvas.  In other words--we are letting nature trigger our painting smarts so that we may display them on canvas.  Do you see the difference?  Experienced painters always use their little tricks, formulas, recipies, methods, templates that they have gathered over the years to explain what they want the viewer to see.  Nature is a POINT OF DEPARTURE--not the "truth"!  The truth is what you know and can put down on your canvas.  Great artists NEVER paint nature.  They instead spill out their experience on canvas to convice us of THEIR reality, to show us their skill, to capture our imagination, to take us on a journey to their goal.

I have always suspected this, but now I am convinced of it.  The reason contemporary artists can't approach the works of 100 years ago is that they spend their careers reinventing the wheel--in looking for little nuances that they think are out there under the open sky or in the arm pit of their studio model.  Sargent did not learn a damn thing after he left Duran. In forty years of work he really never surpassed El Jaleo or his graduation portrait of Duran--he just went about painting this and that using the certainties that he acquuired.  He got everything in Paris by 20 years of age and just went on to become rich and famous by flattering the elite.  The knowledge he needed had been systematized, codified, organized and served to him and his contemporaries on a platter by Duran.  He distingushed himself by his design sense, his ability to edit the form, and by great ideas and selection.  He was just smarter and loved the process more than the rest. Today we are misled by so called master teachers whose can't paint worth a lick and who are not the smartest people on the block.  So--we go from workshop to workshop seeking help knowing all the time that something is missing.

Publishers, galleries, gurus, agents, and wealthy artists exist today for sure--not because they are any good--but because of the proliferation of wealth throughout the culture and the robust economy that feeds the suckers--you and me!  The phrase: "..more bucks that brains.." applies here.  You may want to read Robert Hughs' essay "Art and Money" in his book "Nothing if Not Critical".

O yes painting from life is fun.  It helps some to add new tid bits to their lexicon of color for future use.  But what usually happens is that every difficult problem on the canvas is solved by some formula acquired from the past that is half assed.  Therefore the body of work we produce looks the same--repititions of past "successes".

OK--so what, Hatfield?  What's your point?  The point is what you make it.  If your work sucks--and we all know that it does if we are honest--then shift your paradigm.  Feed on the great legacy of paintings that is available to you.  Relax, think, put two and two together--read Henri, Hawthorne, McCaw, Loomis, Nicholaides--but most of all stare at great work.  Don't give me the "devirative" crap!  Our whole existence is derivative--what do you have that was not given to you by God through all of the means of His grace?

Don't stop painting from life, don't stop going to descent workshops.  But go about it critically.  Don't worship any of the cotemporary masters so-called--just understand that you are watching their tricks and formulas.  Develop your own sense of things based on your own great taste.  If you have no taste then join the club.  But what's to stop you and I from trusting our instincts and using our brains.  The same brains that have made us successful in other life endeavors--parenting, working, sports,  existing, loving in realms other than painting.  Don't go blank when it comes to oil painting--know that all of the answers are out there, or in here--knowledge has never been so available--so go get some.

How do ya like me now?  Who loves ya--Don


  1. The truth is in the paint, and in the artist's reality. I couldn't agree more. I don't paint from life, I used to draw live models, my images come from inside...my reality. I see your points, and can actually feel them. Thanks. I needed some validation for my work, and you put it into words for me.

    PS...Adrian says Hello, and is sorry he missed your call. He's always up early in the am, so besides Susan, he's available for whatever.

  2. hmmmm..Don, you have enlightened us yet again.... I rather suspected this.....,and now I'm going to ask for a refund on that next workshop. I just need the formula to paint well!
    And, speaking of formulas, did you know that Triscuit crackers and Purina Dog Biscuits taste strangely similar? Both made by Ralston Purina company. Coincidence? I think not.

  3. Trusting my instincts... Its a good reminder.

    Great post. Hope you continue to point me in the right direction. Tricks and gimmicks? Is that all this is???

    Deb, that dog biscuit thing is just too disturbing. When exactly did you taste one?

  4. Good one Don! I'll be rereading this alot!

  5. The reason "just painting from life" is not the answer is that our perception of what is out there is so different from what is really there. What enters our consciousness is so processed by our brains that it is far removed from reality. And that processing varies radically as we look at different spots at different times even on the same still life set up. The masters of representational painting have learned how to paint in a way that causes our brains to perceive a beautiful and edifying perception of "reality" when we view their work. These "formulas", or "tricks", or "techniques" are what let them paint their great works and are not to be denegrated with pejorative names. Learning to use these devices and hopefully also finding some new techniques are what the thinking artist does wether he paints from life or from photoshop.

  6. Great post, even if I disagree with a lot of your baited diatribe against painting from nature. Why not look at it as an infinite resource of complexity and change from which to gather ideas and inspiration? Yes, one can get all sorts of useful information by studying how the pantheon of great painters dealt with light and color. They've done the reductive work already for the rest of us. They are a great resource of solutions.

    Nature is a great resource of problems. The solutions are devised by the artist. In that way an artist can learn from nature.
    Nature doesn't teach one how to paint, nature sets before us ever changing light and color, and challenges us to pick our battles. There's enough complexity and detail in nature to ruin any painting.
    We eventually come to learn what it means to choose well.... and it takes awhile to get there.

    I agree it is more challenging to paint entirely from photos than it is from life. The photos aren't telling the whole story, and the artist has to fill in the blanks. I assert you can learn a heck of a lot about 'filling in the blanks' by studying from life... whether it is the figure in the studio, or painting outdoors. If you think you can get there faster by studying the masterworks, and ignoring nature, my bet is the work produced will be inexorably tied to the aesthetic and techniques of others, and have less of your own voice in it. We all borrow, steal, and learn by studying great art, so this is no big revelation or accusation. Don, you're off the hook! Finding one's voice is the lifelong journey we're all on.

    What Monet did in his haystack and cathedral paintings was to liberate color entirely from the object, and show that it was a momentary condition, and that light, weather, time of day, were the dominant elements, as well as the artist's own reductive set of choices when confronted with change. To me that is a pretty timeless message. It isn't about haystacks, or lily pads... it's the transitory nature of light, and an awareness of the cyclical conditions that are inherent to being on this planet. Get your lazy ass out of the studio and try it! You can see the hands of nature's clock moving. Whether any of this is relevant in art or society today is another issue entirely, but it sure is good therapy! Ok, I'm ready for my beer. Happy Sunday.