Secret Formula

The Secret Formula For Making a Truly Good Painting

Using your chosen medium (or media)arrange a selection of visual elements in a manner that is very interesting and that pleases you.

Simple enough. So why isn’t everyone pumping out all sorts of fabulous paintings? To answer that, we need to look more closely at this seemingly simplistic statement.

First of all, the word MEDIUM: It doesn’t matter what medium you choose, what matters is that you master the technicalities of that medium. The formula is working from the assumption that you have taken the time to master your medium. Everyone knows that red + blue = violet, but if you are attempting to mix cadmium red light with pthalo blue to make a lovely clean violet, you will not be happy with the result. There is no shortcut to mastering the technicalities of your medium……it takes study, determination, and practice, practice, practice.

Next, ARRANGE.  Figure out how and where to place stuff on the “page”…in other words, create a composition. The good news here is that there are no hard and fast rules that dictate how you compose a piece. You do need, however, to do this arranging mindfully, in a way that feels right to you.

VISUAL ELEMENTS are the artist’s ingredients…….line, shape, color, texture, etc. etc. You do, of course, need to have an awareness and understanding of these elements, as well as the skill to manage them.

Now here comes the kicker…..VERY INTERESTING AND THAT PLEASES YOU.  What is interesting?  Too many artists haven’t put in the time to figure out what they really like, what they personally find interesting.  You can make OK art by playing to what you think others might find interesting, but until you can make your decisions based on what moves/excites YOU, you will come out with very few (if any) truly excellent paintings.

Look at the work of others ( galleries, museums, books, magazines) and have a conversation with yourself about what you do and do not like about the work.  Do this a lot. Experiment (play) freely in your studio, and have that same conversation about each experiment. Look critically at your own finished work…..what do you like about it? What do you not like about it? What would you like to change? (And when you find something you would like to change, do it. If necessary, take it out of the frame, remove it from the the mat and glass, and work on it some more.)  It helps to come to accept the fact that your paintings are not sacred objects. You made them and that experience is within you……they can then be changed, amended or trashed without losing or invalidating that original experience.

Make a written list of what pleases/excites you visually. What sorts of shapes, what compositions, what colors,what techniques.  Simplicity, complexity, hyper-realism, figures, references to nature, balance, high contrast, hard edges, fine lines, impressionism, lots of color, monochromism, blah & white, flowers, bones, bugs, rocks….etc, etc.  Then have the confidence to use those preferences as your guidelines, and accept the fact that that is OK.  It doesn’t matter that your friends choose to paint scenes from their gardens (a perfectly valid pursuit)…..if you feel good about painting arrangements of dice and dominoes, do that.

Do a written description of a truly good painting (from your perspective).

Begin a list of your favorite artists, and determine what about the work of each draws you to his/her work. Think about what aspects of the work you would like to incorporate into your own work.

Begin a list of your favorite paintings and be on the look-out to add more to your list. Again, look at these mindfully and figure out why the paintings resonate with you.

see also: Personal Inventory

Once you come to understand (and accept as valid) what pleases you visually, you will begin to make some truly good paintings.


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