Being a Painter

I was twelve years old when I saw my first real paintings. I didn’t see them at a museum or an art gallery—I didn’t know those things existed until I was seventeen. I was naïve to art until my parents bought a house and I was exploring the attic. There, past boxes of old books and dusty knick-knacks and behind a rack of clothing, I found large painted canvases in gilded gold frames leaning against a far wall. I saw portraits as tall as me, and landscapes wider than the breadth of my arms. As I studied and felt their painted surfaces, I was awestruck. These weren’t like the decorative vegetable pictures that would soon hang in my mother’s kitchen; these were alive with paint and brushstrokes and the smell of linseed oil and turpentine. When my parents explained to me that someone—an actual person—had painted them, I knew I wanted to be a painter.

I took art classes in high school and fumbled with learning all the mysteries of painting. I lived in Small Town, USA, where good paints and brushes were never a priority in any of our schools. But the dream of painting canvases never died.

Going to college was out of the question until I heard about the GI Bill. So I pulled a six-year stint in the Navy and was fortunate to visit some Italian, French and Spanish art museums. Once again, seeing manmade beauty and magic on canvases mesmerized me and burned brighter the wish to be a painter.

I painted watercolors in sketchbooks until the Navy released me in 1982. By then I was married, so I chose my academic training at a local college. Most of my art teachers there were leftover abstract painters from the 1960’s and ’70’s who stressed personal expression in art—not reality. In other words, don’t paint what you see, but how you feel. I became unhappy with these classes because I didn’t see how this approach could teach me how to paint the realism of landscapes and wildlife—two of my favorite subjects. I wanted to copy nature exactly as I saw it in the photographs I took.  But, as one instructor told me bluntly, “Painting is not photography. Forget about technical tricks and learn to see and express the world around you that is genuine and exciting to you.”

It took a year for his advice to sink in. I saw every painting as a new adventure—a struggle of course—to be expressive as well as showing realism. I learned how to marry abstract expressionism with photo-realism to produce paintings with elements of both, and to use color and design to express mood, all the while keeping the paint looking fresh and dramatic.

But I would be lying if I said every painting was a success. Even now, twenty-some years later, I paint failures … clunkers, as we called them in art classes. “No one ever masters the art of painting,” a teacher told me. “Every day we discover something new that shakes us from our mindset and reminds us that we’ll always be students.”

I am still a student. I have many years of painting behind me, but I still learn new things. It’s the fun of the chase that keeps me going—still learning my craft.

I never fuss over my work like I used to. If a painting is not working, I scrap it for a new one. I see too many artists with their noses against their paintings fussing over their work. If it isn’t working, scrap it. If you’re a fussy artist, learn to step away from the art and stop judging critically with your nose against the work. Stand back and judge your art by the progress you’re making at the moment and keep gauging your progress as you continue with your studies. Yes, I said studies. Never stop being a student. And please don’t try to paint pictures that look the same as your contemporaries. Where’s the originality in that? Be inventive—be creative!

Stay committed to keep learning the craft no matter how hard the struggle. Every artist has gone to the grave still learning his or her craft. We strive for aesthetic progress and perfection—that is human nature, and we will destroy pieces of work if we believe them inferior. In all our paintings, we find mistakes. Mistakes are human nature, too, so don’t be the artist who destroys everything he or she paints. Accept your limitations for the moment, frame your better paintings full of mistakes, and send them off to juried shows. Someone will love your artwork in spite of all its flaws.

Those paintings I found in that attic when I was twelve years old speak as strongly to me now as they did in 1969. I got hooked on painting that began a wonderful ride through the exciting world of being an artist. It’s a ride I refuse to get off of—there’s so much more to be discovered.

Keep on painting and making art.

2 thoughts on “Being a Painter

  1. To think it all started with paintings found in an attic– wonderful. There’s a certain element of mystery and romance there that seems utterly appropriate. Six years in the navy, getting “taught” by leftover abstract painters– quite a saga, sir, and I enjoyed it all. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

    1. Steve Campbell

      Not revealed in that post is the manuscript I found with the paintings. The woman who owned the house previously was also a writer, albeit an unpublished one. After I read her manuscript and all the boxes of books she left behind, I fell in love with reading and writing. Thus, I began composing my Ridgewood stories. It is interesting how a woman I never met or knew influenced so much of my life. Spooky as it may sound, she was a teacher from the grave.

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