Advice to Painters

“Do not imitate, do not follow others,
you will always be behind them.”

There are three admonitions to offer the beginning painter:

First, always paint from life. Work done on the drafting board from imagination is rarely fine art and is, at best, illustration.

This does not mean that, at times, you might not need to work in the studio. Finishing an almost completed landscape after the leaves have fallen or the light has changed for the season requires working from memory or a photo. I do not wish to reduce nature to a dictator but to stress that judgments of color and form are best made from life.

As you may have discerned from this monograph, the mysteries of the world are closer to the invisible than the visible. A scene rendered in a personal or decorative color scheme is often far from the color of objects under a specific light. These works often fool the untrained eye, which rarely sees the landscape beyond an occasional drive on the Interstate. To quote Vincent Van Gogh, “I seldom work from memory… I work with the natural form and can keep my judgmental feeling apart… I waver less… I draw repeatedly till there is one drawing that is different from the rest… with more feeling… I always refer to nature and do my best not to put in any detail, as the dream quality would then be lost.”

Second, always try to work under conditions of natural light. Have both the subject matter and the canvas or board in full outdoor light or strong light from a window. A work concocted under artificial light will often ring false as it loses the sensation of life. Only under a condition of natural light can a painter see a beauty worth conveying to the viewer, and artistic beauty as opposed to a literary or designer’s rendition.

Third and most important, as you may judge from this text, is to avoid following someone else’s style. This does not mean you might not draw or trace out the design of a master to better understand composition or not listen to artistic wisdom, but that you should not regularly copy or work in the style of another painter. Only by doing your own work will you achieve mastery of technique and fulfill the creative need that brought you to art in the first place. Remember that originality is not when you follow what others do but when you are guided by your own inner spirit. In this way, you keep your soul alive.


Just as great musicians owe their performances to the practice of doing scales an hour every day, so should you as a painter exert the same discipline. Color studies are the preparatory layouts of various colors in nature — simple objects in a particular light. In a sense, they are preliminary drawings, but instead of being primarily of contour and volume, they attempt to grasp the most exact color that best describes each object as seen in that particular light. Also, they permit you to judge your skill at conveying the scene’s overall color and light effect.

They are usually smaller works, often, but not always, designed to be executed in one sitting. Some may refine the “mass” stage, while others may delve into how each mass breaks down into major and minor variations. From these modest studies, a higher order of feeling is often perceived. The painter’s color studies then represent the musician’s scales.


To represent something well is not inconsistent with being harmonious and lyrical. Poetry is not obtained by denying truths of nature. Under a consistent light, color and form will always be in harmony.

Poetry comes from organizing what is material into an aura of spirituality. To show this poetry of true representation, embrace with energy and patience what you see before you.

However you perceive correct depiction, always insist on the plausibility of substance and the clarity of space. Structural ingredients of shapes, dimensions, distances, masses, variations, and edges are prerequisites to poetry. By doing the mundane, you come closer to the profound.


Your work should show a transcendent connection with life. It should carry an undertone of intense emotion, a growing awareness of potency, a sensation of pathos. It should show effort, a struggle to master, perhaps a gentle power or exuberance, a movement forward, a poignancy. Sometimes a work can show a controlled disruption, such as an expanding openness.

Measure this endeavor by asking if it speaks to you. Do you feel its vitality? Does it hold a personal meaning that bursts forth?

Do not be comforted if it is fashionable to others. The approval of current arbiters of taste may spell doom when appetites change. Great art is only for the special few who have insight; great art is for the ages. As a guide, it is imperative that your work speaks first to your vision and second to others.


Too many artists hide behind an aura of professionalism. Satisfying a market becomes worthy, although it often requires setting aside the values that brought one to art. In a sense, it is a battle between two ethics that do not mix: professionalism and painterly freedom. Professionalism comes dangerously close to commercialism, which is often characterized by meeting the popular taste, creating a sameness marked by a lack of daring. A serious painter must not think of satisfying a customer’s needs but must paint with vigor and emotion what he or she truly sees.

At the same time, professionalism does not necessarily mean sycophantic rendering. There is often an earnestness in professionals. As artists, we must not be so unconcerned with those who will judge our work as to arrogantly condemn those who fail to understand.


We will all be students for the rest of our lives. We will constantly experiment, see patterns with new eyes, and find new color mixtures that better express what we wish to say. It is not complexity we seek but more straightforward, more faithful ways to relate color and shape to each other. We should always work to bring out more beauty and emotion in our work.


In summary, your task is to record the actual appearance of a particular lighting condition at a specific time of day. Further, you need to express your emotional feeling about the scene’s beauty and create elegant assemblages of compositional forms expressing the complete harmony of the light.

Your vision, then, must be at the center of artistic technique — not just to record relationships of color and value but to recognize and express what is beautiful, to convey what is seen in a vibrant truth.

This monograph has been a testament to the intimate connection between viewing and making a work. I would argue that only your own experience offers the standard for truth. Enduring the journey takes precedence over all secondhand assertions and rituals of fashion. Stay away from the level of hell wherein dwell art historians.

Comprehension and creation are evidence that a person has become spiritually alive. On a higher level, painting and other art never become fixed but remain spontaneous, charismatic, and open.

The aim of painting is not a refined cerebral exercise — it is life — spirited, vigorous life. Philosophy, then, should be sparing and work, considerable. Notions are nothing; work everything. To believe otherwise is nonsense. Do the work. That is the thing. Like a muscle, making art is strengthened by doing it. To express that inner fineness, you must work at it.

I had the great fortune to study with the master painter and teacher, Henry Hensche. My work diverges from his, but I hope it remains a worthy expression of all he taught me about painting. I hope that my work will always bear testimony to his influence.


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