Is a Painting Successful if it Looks Good?

Manet - A Bar at the Folies-Bergère

Is a Painting Successful if it Looks Good? If I were standing next to you and you asked me that question I probably would say, “I don’t know, you tell me.”

I seem to see/hear a lot of artists wanting to get it right – get the color right, get the proportions right, get the shapes right, get everything correct and wha-la! a great piece of art has emerged into the world!

But is that what it’s all about? Making the best representation of 3d reality before you as accurate as possible? Of course, I’m talking more about representational work.

I remember being able to draw things pretty accurately (even as a kid) I loved going to my Grandparents huge farm house and just drawing everything. It didn’t really matter what. I drew salt shakers, the house, their cats, a trashcan – anything was game. It’s funny now to think about it. It just didn’t matter. And I tried all sorts of styles and mediums, too. It was just fun and I got a little piece and quiet away from my 3 brothers.

But even back then I sensed it was more than about trying to get the drawing “correct” I mean it once I got decent at it, it was like “so what.” I knew everyone did not have drawing facility like I did, heck kids used to pay me in candy in grade school (I always selected licorice!) to draw stuff for them, but then what?

I recently started to oil paint again and thinking about some of these same questions I had years ago as a kid. For the record, I’ve done all kinds of art work from representational to abstract to printmaking to murals to sculpture and probably many more I’m forgetting.

So I was never locked into one particular “style.” Not right or wrong just was my path of trying to think and discover as much art as possible. Carl Andre was just as interesting to me as Manet or Brice Marden as Peter Paul Rubens.

I went to art school in NYC and lived there for about 6-7 years and just would haunt every museum and show I could. I loved it all! I loved seeing how different artists interpreted the world. It was (and still is) endlessly fascinating to me.

As I begin to pursue painting again it’s been fun just to get used to oil paint again. Just the feel and the beauty of it on canvas. Just to play a bit and make some really bad paintings (that’s a subject for another article!)

As I pursue more representational work I’m finding I was trying to get a lot of stuff right/accurate, which in and of itself is ok but I’m starting to remember what it’s all about for me. It’s not really about getting things super accurate (although that is one kind of art that I enjoy, too) but it’s more about what I can discover about myself when I paint. How can I surprise myself? That’s the fun and adventure for me.

Can I introduce an odd shape? What if I painted that muted background to a bright orange? What if the background wasn’t a wall but a sky? What if you introduced a face hidden in the background? What if you put some little green shoes on an acrobat in the upper left corner (as Manet did wit his famous painting, “A Bar at the Folies-Bergère” – see image above)

I always love looking at Picasso’s and Matisse’s work. Everything is about that discovery. They ended up in a much different place than when they started. As Picasso said, “A picture is not thought out and settled beforehand. While it is being done it changes as one’s thoughts change.”

It’s just a wonder to see. It’s like creativity is just flowing through them. But is not a “rote” creativity. They’re risking and challenging and reacting and creating. That’s what I’m finding is reawakening in me.

If you do find yourself getting too tight or too mechanical just let the process flow. Allow it to morph and change. We don’t really know what’s on the other side until we open that door and take a peak. It takes courage to do that. Just like the book says, “The Courage to Create.”

Have fun, create, take risks, see what happens. Surprise yourself!

Image above:
“A Bar at the Folies-Bergère” 1882
96 cm × 130 cm (37.8 in × 51.2 in)
Édouard Manet
Oil on canvas
Courtauld Gallery, London


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